We’ve just enjoyed a short break to Amsterdam, that happy-go-lucky bastion of tolerance located bang in the middle of Western Europe. Have you been? Let me set the scene. It’s been a glorious, warm summer across northern Europe, and although it was cooler last week, the sun still shone, warming the soul, a constant light breeze freshened the skin and bright blue skies dazzled the eyes. It was a beautiful week to be out and about on the streets of Amsterdam. Before I continue, let me add to the scene. Press play below, and then read on…
We strolled for mile upon mile, down meandering alleys, along leafy avenues and beside glittering canals. The city is criss-crossed with canals. It’s hard to walk for five minutes without finding yourself strolling over a small hump of a bridge, often bedecked with baskets of pansies and other colourful flowers. The canals are a very visible reminder that this is a country where water once reigned supreme. Huge stretches once belonged to the sea, including the entirety of Amsterdam’s Schipol airport.
In the daytime, under bright sunlight, the clear water in the canals reflect the tall buildings that line up along the banks. In the evening, the same structures can be seen as silhouettes stretching across water which sparkles and glistens with greater intensity as the sun lowers itself closer to the horizon. The buildings of Amsterdam are unique, and yet unmistakeably Dutch. Unique as in one building is never quite the same as the one next to it. Tall and thin, each building is lined up against the next. Are they blocks with individual external decor? Or just individual buildings built against each other? I cannot say.
Water can play tricks on perspective. The buildings often look to be leaning at impossible angles when you look at their reflections in the canals. But this is no trick. As you look away from the canal and up at them, you see that many of them actually do lean at impossible angles. It’s almost like being back in Mexico City. Except, of course, you’d see no reflections in the green waters of Xochimilco.
We walked past many coffee shops. Smoking inside bars and restaurants has been banned, as it has in many places across the world. But the coffee shops have an exemption. So long as you don’t smoke tobacco. I understand that few people enter such premises to smoke tobacco. And many prefer to smoke outside anyway. The pungent waft of burning cannabis will fill your nostrils regularly as you walk around. But no one seems to mind. I think it’s quite a pleasant smell.
Whilst the aroma of tolerated drug use fills the air, the breeze is also busy carrying the sounds of ringing bells. The deep, solid sound of a tram bell as the carriages approach you. And the light high pitched ringing of bicycle bells as riders alert you that they are coming through. The city is full of pedal bikes and scooters. No one seems to own a fancy bicycle. Just a standard city bike. Comfortable and cheap.
The city is flat, so gears aren’t terribly necessary. And they do get knocked about a bit on cycle stands, so it’s best not to invest in expensive, extravagant paint jobs. Cyclicts have their own paths, but at every junction there’s a confusing mish-mash of tram, cyclist and pedestrian lanes. Add in stoned pedestrians to the mix and it’s a wonder of the world that there are not too many accidents. There’s the potential for a fatal crash at every corner.
You’ll also hear the noise of a myraid of languages. This is a 21st century Babylon. But a Babylon where man defeated god. There may be a multitude of tongues, and as garbled a collection of ethnic origins, but they seemed to have learned them all. Not once, even outside the touristy areas, did we find someone who couldn’t speak English. They regularly, and seamlessly, switched to Spanish for the benefit of Mrs P. This insane ability to pick up different languages is perhaps just as well. Dutch, like its close cousin German, is a harsh language. I understand not a word of it. They might, for all I know, be amicably chatting about a church fund raising event for orphaned children in Africa. But it always somehow sounds like they are planning an armed invasion of some poor country, detailing a gory genocide and sharing tips on how best to disembowel someone.
Once upon a time, the Dutch were inclined to build empires and challenge the traditional naval powers of Europe. The wealth gained in those years is still evident. Indeed, for a fleeting moment of history, the Dutch were the dominant maritime power of Europe, having the temerity and tenacity to beat the English fleet on the high seas not once, not even twice, but thrice. They even had the cheek to sneak up the Thames and run off with a prized English war ship, the rear of which is still on show at the Rijksmuseum.
This didn’t last though. The English became the British and set about proving a pair of well worn sayings true. The first, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. King William of Orange and his English bride were invited to assume the British throne and an alliance was made. We adopted the Dutch take on capitalism and set up a stock exchange. You did know that, essentially, the whole point of a stock exchange is to enable the government to fund military excursions overseas, right? It served us well. The second saying? The British lose every battle. Except the last one*. Suffice it to say that the dutch didn’t come out of the Fourth Anglo Dutch War very well. We ceased joining them and simply took what they had. Including what was then New Amsterdam.
Mrs P and I continued our walk, away from the Rijksmuseum. We hit the centre and wandered into the Red Light District. You’ll actually find windows with that familiar red glow across all parts of the city. Why red? They make the ladies look more attractive. I must confess that many of them looked perfect girlfriend material. Of course, there were some that were not so attractive, and the red hues did nothing much for them. Mostly, they look bored, chatting on mobiles and smoking cigarettes. Sometimes you’ll see a window with the curtains closed. Occasionally you’ll see a door open and a gentleman walk outside, eyes to the ground, looking more than a little ashamed of himself. Everyone of them did look the type that might need the services of one of the working girls.
It is, they say, the oldest profession. Why hide it? The Dutch don’t. It’s legalised, regulated and taxed. No one seems to mind. Some rows of windows are next to posh wine bars. One evening, we saw a wedding party disembark from cars to get some photos with a canal as the backdrop. From our angle, the lovely lady in shimmering white was cast against the red windows of a row of brothels. They hadn’t noticed, I’m sure. They are just a normal part of the street scene. Like a McDonalds perhaps. In fact, just like a McDonalds, but with the golden arches turned upside down, and perhaps just a slightly darker, seedier shade of red.
Electronic music seems to be popular in Amsterdam. We heard the familiar deep bass line booming from cars and apartments. That’s not our scene though. We went to a jazz club instead and enjoyed a live band. You did press play, back at the beginning of this post, didn’t you? That’s the band we went to see, recorded on my phone. Jazz is a mysterious sound. I’m technically ignorant, as far as music is concerned. But to me, jazz sounds just a little bit random. Often out of tune. Missing notes all over the place. Informed members of the audience applaud mid song for no apparent reason.
It shouldn’t work. It just shouldn’t. And yet it does. Jazz is intelligent music. If jazz were a conversation, it would be like chatting to a friend with more degrees and Phd’s than you can shake a stick at. You nod and pretend to understand, marveling that so much knowledge fits in such a tiny space as the human brain. If jazz were a food, it would be Mexican mole, with an intoxicating blend of chili and chocolate. If jazz were a city it would be Amsterdam. Neither should work. Or even exist. Yet they thrive. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated places on earth. And this is despite having such an open gay scene, a permissive attitude to drugs and prostitution, a lethal concoction of bikes and trams and a violent sea that is knocking on the gates of the city.
I suspect much of this is due to a good education. A tolerant outlook. And a willingness to compromise. It may also help that they don’t spend months and years and millions of euros bitching about ‘official languages’ and worrying about the total denigration of society if biblical morals aren’t upheld. Amsterdam is a city which takes your prejudices, your notions of right and wrong, your moral ideals, your sense of logic and chews them up. And then spits them out, right in your face. I love Amsterdam.
*Actually, this saying in normally applied to the British army, not navy. But it serves its purpose here.