Backpacking-through-Europe Part III: Amsterdam

Sent Wednesday, March 25, 2009 9:36 PM

I’m looking forward to experiencing Amsterdam, a city known for its extremely relaxed, live-and-let-live lifestyle. I read an opinion in an Amsterdam travel guidebook that my friend, Rob, loaned me that claimed that New York City’s own laissez-faire attitude is a holdover from the Dutch, who settled Manhattan (after swindling it from the native Lenape community!) and created “New Amsterdam”…interesting!  Amongst the hustle-and-bustle of NYC today, I forget about “New Amsterdam”; but it lives just under the radar…all the Dutch street names and neighborhoods (once separate villages) in the city, which stubbornly survived both British rule and American independence.  New York City used to be a canal city, even!  Yep, Canal Street used to be a REAL canal running east-west across Manhattan.  Imagine how awesome it would be today, had it remained a viable waterway!  Leave it to New Yorkers to pollute it and be forced to fill in the putrid, disease-causing mess.  And leave it to my peeps (the Chinese) to swoop in and revive that ol’ Dutch spirit of mercantilism, this time as a successful (if illegal) business venture in fake Guccis, “Louies” and Coach…”Good price…you like?”

After stops in the renowned Belgian and Dutch cities of Antwerpen, Delft, Rotterdam and den Haag (The Hague), my train pulls into the beautiful Amsterdam Centraal station.  Amsterdam is in the middle of an extensive, citywide renovation project; and most of the grand, historical buildings, including the rail station and the beautiful Rijksmuseum, are well on their way to emerging from their tarp cocoons.  Already, glittering brick-and-gold wings (East Wing, West Wing) are beginning to unfurl from under cover.  I can’t wait to return to see the transformation!

I catch a tram to my hostel, located right on Amsterdam’s version of Central Park, Vondelpark (People’s Park).  (Big plus for me, as my body is jonesing for some yoga and jogging!)  I’m in easy walking distance of the canals; and my camera and I are eager to make their acquaintance! The combination of the unique canals (called “gracht” here), the beautiful, gingerbread facades of the canal houses, the bridges and houseboats, make this an extremely photogenic city.  Surprisingly, the canals are a little dirty, the houseboats decrepit and rotting; and the parking of automobiles all along the sides of the canals begin to eat away at the Amsterdam charm.  But, it’s wonderful nonetheless.  I imagine the charm factor explodes once the trees have leafed out fully and all the window boxes are spilling over with multihued blossoms!

Amsterdam is a cycling city, no doubt about it.  When you step out of the rail station, the sight of the bike-park, thousands of sparkling, entangled handlebars arranged in row upon row upon row, is amazing and almost intimidating…an immense, overwhelming army of giant, steel-and-rubber insects, poised to launch their attack on the city.  And, they do attack, albeit individually.

Here, more than any city I’ve ever been (except Delhi, that is, where I actually got hit by a motorcycle-taxi), you REALLY have to watch out for yourself as a pedestrian. The streets beneath your feet are a spaghetti-strewn system of tram tracks; and the trams seem to appear out of nowhere like freakin’ ghost trams, headed right toward you. Between the trams, the automobiles and the bicycles, it’s easy to feel like a sitting duck, a pinball in the arcade. Thankfully, the streets are clearly marked with bicycle versus pedestrian paths. However, the cyclists will angrily ring their bells at you if you step into THEIR path; but they won’t hesitate at all to ride in yours. In Amsterdam, bicycles RULE…best to just accept it…and watch your ass!

My first day, I walked all the way down, then up, Prinsengracht. On the way, I passed several of the city’s famous “smoking coffee houses”, where you can buy a joint to go along with your coffee! It was odd to smell that oh-so-familiar, pungent smell wafting through the air and see tables of people openly sharing long drags, laughing and conversing amongst clouds of hazy, heavy, hunger-inducing smoke. “Coffee-house”…yeah, right…they undoubtedly sell less coffee than marijuana, and even more snack-foods when the “munchies” inevitably kick in!

A solution to the citywide munchies is to pop into one of the many Febo automat bars.  The once-common “automats”, a wall of glass-and-metal boxes filled with hot snacks (and precursors to today’s vending machines), are very popular in Amsterdam.  Drop in your coins; lift the glass door; retrieve your fresh or recently-prepared snack; scarf it down; repeat; repeat; repeat!  It’s great to see the older generations happen upon one of these snack bars…the thrill on their faces as they wax nostalgic, flooded with remembrances of their youth.  All smiles and giggles are they, giddily selecting hamburgers, cheeseburgers, or local faves, “kaassoufflé”, “kroketten” and “frikandellen” (fried cheese, meat croquettes and sausage-like meat sticks, respectively). One of life’s greatest pleasures is seeing our elders suddenly drunken and drenched by the Fountain of Youth! LOVE it!

Continuing my city exploration, I turn down a little side-lane into the famed red-light-district, expecting the cheesy-tacky-pornshop atmosphere like that in Brussels. I couldn’t have been more mistaken! Nestled discreetly in narrow, cobblestone lanes are the beautiful and charming canal houses.  Fancy, old gas lanterns, refitted with a red lightbulb, indicate a house of pleasure. Walk closer; and you’ll encounter beautiful windows, framed in beautiful draperies and soft, cherry-red light.  Amongst beautiful antique furniture and accent candlelighting will lounge the “merchandise”, in tight-fitting corsets of satin and lace.  It’s all a carefully-crafted atmosphere of luxurious, Old World, high-class pleasure. Pretty amazing, actually. Unfortunately, as in Brussels, most of the women don’t quite fit the aura. (Why is it that the ladies-of-the-night everywhere seem to be the least desirable women around? Johns, are you hearing me? Haha!) The ladies all invite me in as I pass…little do they know that what REALLY interests me are their intricately-carved, antique settees and heavily-embroidered, brocade window dressings!

Over the next 2 days, I spend my hours split between the canals, the sidewalk cafes and the world-class Amsterdam museums. I first attend the thought-provoking Anne Frank Huis. We’ve all heard the story about the house in which the Frank family, along with several other Amsterdam Jews, hid in the attic for several years before their hiding place was betrayed, resulting in their interment and deaths in the Nazi concentration camps.  I found the museum less powerful than I thought it would be, mostly due to the fact that Otto Frank, Anne’s father (and the only one who survived the camps), stipulated that the house would remain completely empty of furnishings and mementos. For me, not seeing the families’ surroundings (other than bare walls and floors) eliminated the small “connection” I might have been able to make with their experience there. Instead, I walked away having been happy to step into history for an hour or so, but not nearly as moved as I had been by the Jewish portraits in Brussels. Several excerpts from Anne’s diary are imprinted on the walls; and these did give me a sense of who Anne was, how deeply sensitive and intelligent she was, how wise she was for her age. I did come away from the experience amazed at the loss of her, at who she would have risen to become, had she not been stolen from humanity.

The Van Gogh Museum is a must-see.  Seeing the changes in his painting style as his life progressed (influenced by the places and people he came into contact with) and as his health REgressed is so interesting! Having been born Dutch and raised in the area, his early work is dark and muted in the typical Dutch painting style of the time.  As he moves to Paris and comes into contact with the painters of the up-and-coming Impressionist movement, Vincent’s work becomes colorful and Impressionist, as well. When he moves to Arles in the south of France, his work explodes with colorful images of the Arles countryside – the work we most recognize and treasure (those pricey sunflowers and irises!). Upon the advancement of his epilepsy and resulting commitment to an asylum, his work reflects his disappointment and sadness. (However, after seeing the full scope of his work at this museum, these last years of his work are my favorites!)

His relationship to Theo, his brother, is touching:  If it weren’t for Theo, an art dealer in Paris, and Theo’s wife Jo, we would never know Vincent’s work the way we do today. One of my favorites is the painting he painted to celebrate the birth of Theo’s son, painted during his illness and the year he committed suicide, 1890.  It’s a beautiful depiction of an almond branch, blooming in pink and white, against a vivid, turquoise ground. To me, it shows his ability to peel through the layers of desperation to tap into that loving, hopeful spirit within.

My favorite museum was the grand Rijksmuseum.  Known for its collection of Rembrandts, which were wonderful, I learned more about the power and innovation of the 16th-century Dutch (they ruled the world!) than I had known before. The scope of their influence remains intact, worldwide, today.  What an amazing culture!

Through years of studying art history, I have to say that I never really understood the appeal of Rembrandt and the Dutch Masters’ paintings.  Having really only seen them printed in art books and on postcards, though I appreciated their mastery of interpreting the nature of light in paint, I just couldn’t appreciate the colors: brown-on-brown, drab-on-drab, blah-blah-blah.  Thankfully, again, I’m mistaken.  Rembrandt van Rijn’s MASTERPIECES are much more colorful than I ever thought, with vivid blues, aquas, pinks and reds accenting the muted palette, drawing your attention to specific details in the painting.  So realistic is the effect of the light and coloring that you expect their bosoms to rise on an inhalation or their eyes to blink, causing a tear to drop from the edge of a watery, lower lid.  The extraordinarily simple and effective, single dot of white paint in the tear brings the entire work to life. With my background in textiles, I think I’m most impressed by Rembrandt’s execution of fabrics, particularly the detail in the delicate lace of the aristocratic neck ruffs and the way he paints transparent fabrics, revealing a hint of skin underneath.  I’ve been converted!

In addition, the Rijksmuseum exposed me to another painter of the time, Frans Hals, whose style I like even better than that of Rembrandt.  Hals has a looser, more rhythmic style of painting, a departure from the soft, photorealism in vogue at the time.  The faces in Hals’ paintings are realistic; but he leaves the brushstrokes visible and strong in the subjects’ clothing, simply suggesting the color, texture and movement of the fabric, rather than spelling it out for you. Unfortunately, an old and reoccurring story repeats itself here: Painter’s progressive style brings notoriety.  Notoriety brings biggest, most important commission of painter’s career.  Painter’s progressive style and project benefactors’ aesthetic sensibility (or lack of!) come into bitter conflict. Benefactors try to strong-arm painter to “tone it down”, royally pissing artist off.  (Can you say, “Michelangelo”? “Diego Rivera”? “World Trade Center Memorial”?)  Frans Hals abandons the commission, rather than change his style; and another painter finishes the work.  (When will the people with the money ever learn to deal with the money and let the artist deal with the art?!)  Interestingly, I learned that another famous painter of the period was a woman, Judith Leysetr, which was extremely rare for the time.  A woman making a living for herself painting portraits of wealthy Dutch merchant families?!  Oh, yeah…it was AMSTERDAM! You GO, Girl!

My last day in Amsterdam and more, leisurely canal-strolling, watching the reflected buildings wiggle in the water.  I stop to sit down, the lone customer, at a vast cafe outside de Waag…a beautiful, imposing structure that originally served as one of the protective gates to the city…to have a beer (surprise!) and call my sister, Malia, who, along with other family members and friends, has been checking on me periodically via email and text messages.  (My brother, Kawika, has even been tracking my progress on Google Earth, pinpointing my exact location from the few cel-phone-pix I’ve sent to family members from each city…mostly my big head in front of local, iconic buildings! Wow!)  A grey and cloudy morning, the sun suddenly bursts through; and in minutes, the empty, outdoor tables are suddenly packed solid. This is when I got my best taste of Amsterdam…from the people.

A fairly even mix of tourists from around the world and locals on a long, midday break, the beer started flowing; and the conversation began to rumble. Before I knew it, the Bulgarian tourist at the table to my left, the two local Amsterdammers at the table to my right and I had pushed our 3 tables together, began chatting as if we were old friends, and started regularly plunking down Euro coins to buy each other rounds of beer.  (Actually, the 2 guys from Amsterdam, Tim and Theis, and I were the only ones drinking.  Nikola, the Bulgarian gent, prefered puffing on the biggest, Cheech-and-Chong joint I’ve ever seen, which he purchased from the “coffee house” for a mere 3 Euros.) Nikola didn’t speak English well; but because he’s lived in Nantes, France for the past 15 years, his French is practically native.  Tim and Theis both speak Dutch and English, but neither French nor Bulgarian.  So, I became hasty interpreter, speaking French with Nikola as best as I could and translating to English for the Dutch boys.  It was really nice speaking French again, though the words often got stuck in my throat like a hairball…KACKHH…KAAAACHHH…AACHKK!  But, when the words DID flow, they felt so good swirling around my tongue, like a sweet, warm sip of Grand Marnier…Mmmmmmmm…

We shared stories about where we come from, our families, our professions, the sad state of the economy and politics. They are completely under New York City’s spell, having practically “grown up” in The Big Apple on TV and in the movies (just as Americans in all 50 states have done).  For them, New York City is the ultimate place to visit; and they find it amusing, yet flattering, that I love Europe so much and can’t seem to stop returning to the Continent.  I’ve gotten this same reaction throughout this trip…someone asks where I live; and when I tell them I’m from New York, you would have thought I had said, “Why, I come from The Great Land of Oz!”; and they’re ready to drop what they’re doing and follow me to Manhattan, to find that “something”, that “je ne sais quoi”.  And when I think about it, I guess that’s why I, like many other non-native New Yorkers, am there, too.

But on this day, I’ve found the exact spot on Earth I want to be (can you find me, Kawika?) – amongst new friends, laughing and rediscovering that commonality we thought we lost.  Yeah, I’m lovin’ being in this chair, at this cafe, in the sunshine…a New Amsterdammer in Old Amsterdam.

One response to “Backpacking-through-Europe Part III: Amsterdam

  1. Excellent write-up!
    The cafe’s filling up in the sun is so very true- it seems like everyone just leaves work and enjoys the little sunshine Amsterdam receives, after all, who knows when it will be back again!

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