Doe gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg.
(Just act normally, that's crazy enough.)
- Dutch saying
The first thing one notices about Amsterdam is what, according to folklore, a Brazilian had told his daughter who had moved to the city – "You should not stay here, the sky is too low." And remarkably so – the land throughout the city is extremely flat, shedding some light on the interesting topography of about one-third of Netherlands. It's said that the God created Heaven and Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. The reference is to the ingenuity of the Dutch in hydraulic engineering, leading to what is often termed as 'living on land that has been snatched from the sea'. Majority of the country lives on marshy land, sometimes even below the mean sea level, protected from the sea by elaborately planned dunes and dykes constructed ages ago. After the Middle Ages, the country saw the advent of wind mills – an invention from the Islamic world. These windmills were used to drain out excess water from low-lying areas which were protected by the dykes, and to keep them dry. Several windmills were often linked together in parallel for deriving more power – some of these are still seen at Kinderdijk (near Rotterdam) – a visual treat for window seat passengers in the flights landing at Schiphol. Since the nineteenth century, the windmills have gradually been replaced by pumps, but the basic principle remains the same.
Amsterdam is built on a marshy meadowland surrounded by lakes and riddled by waterways and canals that were mostly constructed in the 17th century. My host at Amsterdam is Ramón Ster, a thorough-bred media professional who is the most hospitable person I have ever met. Ramon's apartment is one of the typical Dutch dwellings that take pride upon the idea conveyed by a local saying – Over Smaak valt niet te twisten, meaning "there's no accounting for taste." Like other apartments in the neighbourhood, this house is also full of bric-à-brac, has minimal, but solid oak furniture, and numerous lights. Roaming around in the city, one can notice the Dutch characteristic of having living room windows and doors made of glass facing the roads – showcasing the lives and tastes of their inhabitants. We are living in an area called the Oud-West, which Ramón says is about 4.5 meters below sea level – protected by schutsluis, or water-locks made as part of the Delta Project.
Spending some time in the city, one quickly gets attuned to the Dutch way of life marked by clear agreements and firm commitments. The Dutch are perfect with time management – the accuracy of trains and buses to the second is surprising at first, but as a book on Dutch culture in Ramón's library says, firm commitments have become second nature in a country where decision-making is always a compromise between equal partners and where you have to be able to rely on each other if the water level rises too high. Apparently, the reference is to the fundamental tenet of cooperation which evolved this society into fighting the gigantic forces of nature together.
My days in Amsterdam are limited, and Ramón gives me a 15 minute crash-course on the parks, museums, food places, and cycling areas that can be explored. Cycling is a way of life in the city, and all streets have earmarked cycle tracks replete with dedicated signalling systems for two-wheeler traffic. I take some time adjusting to Ramón's guest bicycle with its pedal brakes, but quickly realize that there is no better way to be in Amsterdam than being on two wheels. Ramón does pass on a word of caution though – it's tough to find vacant bicycle parking posts in prominent areas, and not parking in designated spots might lead to them being stolen; the statistics of stolen bikes in Amsterdam is staggering.
Armed with a bicycle, I spend a day visiting the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. The Van Gogh Museum has the world's greatest collection of Van Gogh's masterpieces, including the Sunflower and the Bedroom, and presents a great story of the painter's short, ten year career in arts. It also has a section on paints and tools used by artists over the ages, and an intriguing section on modern technologies being used to analyze works of art from two centuries ago. The Stedelijk is dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design, and also houses the Beanery – a three-dimensional collage created by Edward Kienholz in which visitors can enter. My favorite museum ends up being the Rijks Museum that I visit the next day. Re-opened last year after 10 years of renovation, it showcases 800 years of Dutch culture, as well as the works of Rembrandt – including his masterpieces the Night Watch, and the Milkmaid. On one of the days, I also visit the Anne Frank House – a poignant reminder of the two years spent by the Frank family in hiding where the diaries of Anne Frank were written before the Nazis raided the house.
Apart from its museums, Amserdam has some great areas to walk around, such as the Vondelpark and the Westerdoks, or the Veemkade – a pleasant street by the river IJ. In addition to a number of squares and market places where locals and tourists hang out for food and drinks, Amsterdam also boasts of the infamous Red Light District, a set of prominent streets in the heart of the city where sex, sleaze, and drugs flow uninhibited, and are almost celebrated. Prostitution is legal here, and so is cannabis – a feature which probably attracts numerous tourists from all over the world for indulgence. Walking around the district, one can witness scantily clad women standing behind the typical Dutch house windows, looking for their next visitors. Ramón tells me about the trafficking issue as well – similar to any other prostitution market in the world, this market also has a number of women forced into the flesh trade, and it's extremely difficult for the authorities to differentiate between women who are willingly into the trade and the ones who have been trafficked and threateningly silenced. The market itself is lively with the cheerful bars and coffee shops where a pure weed joint can be ordered for about €8, enough to knock one out for hours. The area is, contrary to intuition, not male dominated at all, and women stroll around in the evenings in equal numbers, roaming through the lively streets and indulging in the intoxication on offer. Damark Street even has a sex museum, replete with the history of this oldest act of mankind, artifacts and objects with erotic engravings excavated from various historic sites, and a history of pornographic literature and cinema.
However, the best parts of Amsterdam lie away from the hustle-bustle and the sleaze that take the largest mindshare when thinking about this city. Walking on the peaceful streets by the canal, Prinsengracht being my favorite, could be more enlivening to the soul than anything else. Amsterdam is the place that inspired numerous artists and creative minds, and understanding them requires understanding the Dutch way of life – of constant, friendly social interaction or the 'gezelligheid,' something that can be taken as a souvenir back home.
Amsterdam is a city of beauty and art, simplicity and taste, love and life, and is concluded best by another Dutch poem I located in Ramón's library -
"I wish my life to be grand and dramatic
But not today. I think I'll wait a while."