The D&O Diary is on assignment in Europe this week. The first stop on the Continental itinerary was Amsterdam.I had never been to Amsterdam before, but I have traveled to Northern Europe quite a bit, so when I packed I made sure to load up on sweatshirts and a fleece. And an umbrella. As it turned out, I could have used some shorts and a tee shirt. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, with temperatures in the upper 70s and not a cloud in the sky. I don’t know what Amsterdam is like the rest of the year, but in early October it is spectacular.
Here’s the single most important thing about Amsterdam -- bicycles rule. Bicycles outnumber people. Bicycles are the prevailing physical force and predominant spirit. The bicyclists ride without regard for public order or their personal safety. The Dutch bicyclists seem to think that a bike ride is a good time to catch up with their friends, as almost every cyclist is talking on their cell phone. Or texting, using both hands. The prize-winning multitasking bicyclist I saw was a young mother, riding along with her kid straddling the back fender, talking on her cell phone and smoking. And wearing sun glasses. At night.
I saw a one-legged policeman riding a bike. I saw a guy cruising along on his Schwinn, with a beagle draped across his shoulders, its ears and tongue flapping in the breeze. I saw another woman, who apparently had never thought of wearing her dog, who was pedaling along with her terrier trotting, well, doggedly, along beside her. She was talking on her cell phone of course. (Her dog must have left his cell phone at home.) I also saw a very large black man riding a bike wearing only an orange wig and what looked like women’s panties. He lacked only a beagle to complete his ensemble.
It turns out, there actually is a dam in Amsterdam. Or there was, on the Amstel River. Now it is just a big public square adjacent to the Royal Palace, full of street musicians and American college kids on their semester abroad, learning about Dutch culture by smoking pot. (Legally! What a novelty!). Informed sources advise that the town originally was called Aemstelerdam, and somehow it became Amsterdam rather than Amsteldam.
It also turns out that in Amsterdam, the natives speak Dutch, which sort of sounds like German and English being spoken simultaneously. I don’t speak Dutch, but Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch, so I tried to a few words of my best Berlitz German. I got a look as if I were from Mars. (No, Cleveland actually). The funniest thing I heard was when some young Dutch toughs tried to Talk American: “Yo, Joe, you bin kommen from da hoood?” (accompanied by gang member hand signs, performed with a Dutch accent).
I understand there are many fine museums in Amsterdam. I didn’t visit any of them. The weather was so glorious that I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon inVondelpark, which is sort of like Central Park but without the roads or the surrounding tall buildings. While I was in the park, I was exposed to something so unexpected that I will remember it even after I am dead. I was walking along admiring the fall foliage, when I was distracted by a young woman bending over and apparently looking for something on the ground. Though I was in Amsterdam, I immediately thought of the childhood rhyme, “I see England, I see France” – except she wasn’t wearing any underpants. I spontaneously blurted something improbably ascribing divine qualities to excrement. I wonder whether the guy with the wig misappropriated her panties?
(I wanted to insert a joke here about a “Dutch treat” but I couldn’t quite work it out. You get the point.)
On a warm fall evening, Amsterdam is a rocking place. Party Central is Leidseplein, which is an open area ringed with bars and cafes and full of American college kids learning about Dutch culture by studying the dynamic relationship between numbers of euros and liters of beer. (Turns out, they are directly proportionate, as is the case with dollars and ounces.) The kids were also texting, perhaps to their parents (“Please send money,” which translated from the vernacular means “Beer is expensive here.”) There was one street musician there who did a fantastic impression of Joe Cocker. While the faux Joe was singing, a man in a cow suit walked up and started dancing along to the music. He also performed a fairly impressive moonwalk.
A Moonwalking Man Cow – that was pretty special, but what happened next was truly awesome. Nine guys gathered in a semicircle and starting singing “Country Road,” a capella. When they reached the part about “West Virginia, Mountain Mama,” several hundred people gathered in the square spontaneously joined in. It was so cool it gave me goosebumps.
The most distinctive feature of Amsterdam is its canals. The canals form a semicircle around the center city, and are lined with classic seventeenth century houses with their ornate four-story facades. The Canal District represents the distilled essence of civilized urban living. On a beautiful fall day, walking along the canals is a calm, peaceful, even sublime experience.
I found myself contemplating the vast Dutch trade armadas that gathered the wealth that built all of those beautiful houses. It is pretty amazing that a country about as big as Massachusetts became a global power for a time. But while the Dutch were clever enough to build an empire, they were not strong enough to keep it. So what is left now are a whole bunch on Indonesian restaurants and a museum city of beautiful houses. Sort of like Venice. Or when you come right down to it, sort of like Madrid. Or Paris. Or London, for that matter. Or, when you come right down to it, Rome. Or for that matter, Egypt.
There are innumerable cross streets spanning the canals on gently curving bridges. At many of the corners where the cross streets and the canals meet there are cafes and coffee shops. If I could drop one moment in amber and have it with me always to warm my spirits when the January winds howl, it would be 4 o’clock on Saturday at a sidewalk café overlooking the Princengracht (Princes’ Canal). A nearby church rang the hour by chiming out the first few bars of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. It might have been the glass of Grolsch I was enjoying at that moment, but the warm sunlit glow – and the gentle voices of all of those cute Dutch people speaking German and English at the same time (perhaps discussing their underwear, or lack thereof) – will be something I will treasure for a long time.
On Sunday, I decided it was time to step off the sidelines and jump into the fray. I went out and rented a bicycle. Within the first minutes, I realized what an idiot I had been walking around the city the prior day. The only way to see Amsterdam is on a bicycle (sort of like the only way to see Los Angeles is in a car.) The other thing I quickly figured out is that Amsterdam is basically flat, so once you get rolling, you can just cruise, as long as you watch out for crazed people on motor scooters. After just a short time, I had an urge to make a cell phone call. Clearly I had tapped into the essential zeitgeist.
I biked along for more than six hours. I rode out in the suburbs. I pedaled along the Amstel River. I went out to the waterfront and rode along the docklands. What I found there was as deeply disturbing as the Canal District was uplifting. Over the past several years, developers have invested hundreds of millions of euros building a new residential area along the shipping canal. The area, called Oosterdokseiland, is as ugly and sterile and empty and dispiriting of a place as I have ever seen. Row upon row upon row of featureless, dead buildings. I have been in livelier cemeteries. The area is the exact urban opposite of the Canal District. I can understand the Dutch people wanting to move beyond their past, but how could they have completely forgotten everything they learned, especially when the best of it is so close at hand? Understand, this isn’t some urban renewal project for people with nowhere else to go, this is a very high end residential real estate development. I decided that the thousands of poor souls condemned by unforgivably poor judgment to live there are like the prisoners on Alcatraz, so close to paradise that you can see it and hear it, but living in hell just the same, with no one to blame but themselves.
Fortunately for me, I could just turn around and head back to the warm, human, vibrant center of a real city – a city that is what a city was meant to be. After I returned my bike, I was thirsty and hungry, so I sat right down at the restaurant next to the bike shop. I had a plate of gnocchi in olive oil and a glass of wine. While I was eating, there was a sort of family reunion going on at the next tables. There was one group of six young men in their late 20s. At the next table, were several older men and women, obviously the parents of the men. Running between the tables were a bunch of little blond kids, flittering around like a flock of birds. It was obvious everyone knew and loved everyone else. (I have no idea where the children’s mothers were, but it didn’t seem to matter.) I thought to myself, this is what cities are for, for people to come together and to celebrate a warm sunny fall afternoon with a bottle of wine in the kindly glow of the brotherhood of man.
Amsterdam, I hereby apply for honorary citizenship. If I go back, I hope to see more of that attractive young woman in the park. Wait a minute, I already did. All the more reason to hurry back.
Disclaimer: For those readers whose only thoughts about Amsterdam are that pot and prostitution are legal there, let me just say that I did not visit the red light district or go in a smoke shop. Mrs. D&O Diary would staple my private parts to the back fence if I so much as thought of doing either of those things.
The Dutch, these are my people.
The Amstel River, still only 90 calories
The classic Amsterdam bicycle (rental version)
The essence of Amsterdam, bicycles and canals