I know the trope. Go to Amsterdam, get baked, sleep with a Ukranian prostitute. It’s so pervasive that that’s all that anyone seems to think about Amsterdam. Just the mention and you get the squinty nod of wishful collusion. But honestly the weed is better in Seattle. And I have no interest in supporting Russian human trafficking. There’s so much more to the city. And I was determined to walk every goddamn inch of it. And discover the traditional food of Amsterdam.
First off, I like the Dutch. They’re intelligent and honest, direct, but a bit goofy too. Practical. But no one seems to take things too seriously. Liberal and eco-conscious (at least in city center). Very friendly and the focus generally seems to be on having a good beer in a cozy place with friends and eating tasty snacks. I can get behind this. Oh, and they’re tall. So though everything is narrow I never bump my head on doorways or have to stoop to see in mirrors. I really think I could be happy here.
To talk about the city, a little geography is helpful. The city center starts as a fat “V” section of town on the Amstel river containing a variety of neighborhoods (e.g. the Spui, the Dam, De Wallen, etc). Around this section are a series of concentric canals creating three thin rings of land, followed by a thicker ring. Collectively this is the old part of town or Old Centre. The rest of the city fans out from there. I chose a room in the dead center of Old Centre and spent the majority of my time exploring the neighborhoods there.
The City Center is the oldest part of town and contains medieval structures like the Oude Kerk (old church), the shopping district down Kalverstraat, the redlight district in De Wallen, the Royal Palace at Dam square, and a lively neighborhood of bars and restaurants called the Spui. Predominately populated by bikes and pedestrians, some of the oldest bars and tasting houses can be found here.
If you happen to be on the canal at noon near Olde Kerk the church bell carollin plays Fantasia para un Gentilhombre by Joaquín Rodrigo via an automatic mechanism built in 1619. This guy motors out on his little painted boat and plays along both cranking a Dutch organ grinder and playing several horns. The carolllin strikes 4 times an hour including the 1/4 hour: Toccata by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, 1/2 hour: Üsküdar’a Gideriken, and the 3/4 hour: Menuet by Jef van Hoof.
And of course the weed and the prostitutes and all that are also here for sure. Amsterdam celebrates its vices. And in the usual casual style even those elements have retained their old world charm. Weed is purchased in special cafes called “Coffeeshops” (which usually also sell coffee). These shops are generally small and casual and have a cozy friendly vibe. And to me, that’s what makes things a bit special. The social element to consumption. Grab a table, roll a joint, buy an espresso and a banana milkshake (oh yes, the brilliance of marijuana and milkshakes). These places generally have the chill of a US coffee shop but the hipster-free feeling of a darkwood dive bar. If only Seattle could be so cool.
A note on prostitution: I support legalized prostitution and the rights of sex workers. I think a legitimized industry could be used to dismantle human trafficking and secure basic labor rights. I have no moral quandaries per say. But I have heard the city has been struggling with the Russian mob who have taken over many of the previously independent De Wallen windows. I did not get a chance to ask a prostitute myself but from the windows I walked by nearly all of them were occupied by Russian/Eastern European women. It’s a difficult issue. I would like to get a local perspective on the subject. Even if I were single, it’s not my thing. But hey, you be you.
Walking the canal rings
In comparison to the narrow and winding medieval streets of Old Centre the canal rings open up into lovely tree lined spaces. Old wooden boats sputter by quirky residentials. To the west on the fourth ring a larger neighborhood, the Jordaan, a former working class neighborhood that still maintains a variety of classic jenever bars and traditional eateries. I wish I’d had more time to spend there.
After strolling through so much beauty at the edge of the Jordaan, you arrive at the Westerkerk church on a picturesque stretch of canal. It looks just like any other magical street in the area. Except this is the block where Anne Frank spent the last few years of her life hiding in an attic from the Nazis. And I’m made aware of the suffering these streets must have seen. Hers only one story of millions. Hidden in other now beautiful places. And how beautiful things must have been up until then. It’s the same with all ancient cities. The deep history stretching back unimaginable. The high water mark of opulence returned again to base. Over and over again.
Being from the US I can’t fully grasp this. Seattle was incorporated in 1869, nearly 600 years after Amsterdam, and my hometown of Huntington WV in 1871.
The Canta LX
Ok, so I’m obsessed with tiny vehicles. I love the comically small (by US standards) cars and trucks that I find abroad. And I’m constantly snapping pics. So I was delighted to discover this gem parked everywhere in the bike dominated streets of Olde Centre.
The Canta LX. Produced in Holland. It’s classified as a mobility assistance device (like an electric wheelchair) not as a car. Which means you can drive them on bike lanes and park them anywhere a bike can be parked. Which means pretty much anywhere. They have a top speed of 45 mph and provide the same basic luxuries as a car including an air conditioner. And you don’t need a driver’s license to drive one. I fucking love them. Major hardon.