The first time I visited Amsterdam, I thought 1. the weather is shit 2. the people are mean 3. what is there to do if you don’t get high? I’ve since met a ton of people who do not share this sentiment, and in fact find Amsterdam an amazing city. Whenever you dislike something that is critically acclaimed, perhaps you owe yourself a reassessment. It’s been eight years, but here we go. Hello AMS.
Last time I visited Amsterdam, it was a short day trip from Rotterdam where I was visiting friends. The one I was staying with showed me around somewhat apologetically, asserting “The Netherlands is just a pretty boring country overall.” We walked by a lot of coffeeshops but neither one of us get high so they might as well have been textbook stores. Then she dutifully led me to the Red Light District, where the combination of my childish curiousity and the lack of adult sensibility resulted in foolish photo snapping of prostitutes behind the glass stalls which almost got us killed by the nearly naked lady-man who flung her/himself out of the stall in full blown rage. Wait, no, almost got ME killed, because my friend fled so swiftly that long after the incident I still questioned the depth of our friendship. This time, I stayed with the same friend again, who now lives in Amsterdam, married with a child, who again unassuringly said, “I have no idea what there is to do in Amsterdam. It’s just that I never go out.” That’s when I knew that I must take matters into my own hands. We did baby things at home together most of the time, and I went into town on my own for a full day.
Amsterdam is more beautiful than I remembered it. The charming old houses, like awkward slouchy teenagers growing at different speed, lean on one another with a flair of drama. It rained on and off, but the level of wetness was bearable. I was able to walk at my own speed this time.
The weather is just terrible. It’s so terrible that people develop a meek, abused person reflex to not even very nice days “It looks…pretty nice out today, actually, I mean it’s just windy and drizzling, which is not bad at all.”
The thing with countries like the Netherlands, which I failed to appreciate before but I appreciate now, is that due to its lack of local food culture, ethnic food is big. Surinamese and Turkish food can be easily spotted and are delicious. I also had a very good bowl of pork broth ramen at Ramen Ya (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 236).
Most tourists don’t go into libraries, which makes them the ideal place to rest your feet, hide from the elements, and people watch. The Bibliotheek Amsterdam (Oosterdokskade 143) is perhaps one of the nicest public libraries I’ve ever been to. It is 7 stories, modern, equipped with a cafeteria, extensive collections of books, cd’s, movies, cushy seats in quiet corners, work stations, and a piano in the lobby “for skilled pianists only.” I assumed that I was skilled enough to not draw complaints, so I played a few songs before heading out into the “pretty nice by Dutch standard” weather.
I have to admit that the Sinterklaas parade with blackface Zwarte Piet makes me a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe Americans are tightasses, but maybe Europeans just don’t have to answer to…powerful minorities? (Are there black politicians in the Netherlands? What do they say about blackface?) I read that Zwarte Piet characters wear blackface because 1. he is a moor from Spain 2. he is dirty from the soot of the chimney. Number 1 would be racist (making fun of by exaggerating features of a certain group). Number 2 makes no sense considering the big red lips and curly hair. I am not saying they need to get rid of the character, but maybe they can update the look a bit.
The Netherlands is an obviously advanced country. Coming from Southern Europe, it is particularly evident that things work well in Amsterdam, order is more or less in place, everyone can speak English, cops probably can’t just kick your ass without repercussions, and public transportation is efficient. It costs an arm and a leg, but according to my local source, many people have a transport card paid for by their work. The city is very bike-friendly, if not to a fault. Bikes also are more dominant than pedestrians or cars. I almost got ran over by a biking dad with two kids in the attached wooden cubby in front and it was considered my fault as he clearly conveyed with his silent drive-by stare.
Southern Europeans have persianas, a (often plastic) shutter that keeps the sunlight out in the heat of the summer. In Amsterdam, I suppose it’s due to the scarcity of sunlight, they have the anti-persiana tradition of giant walls of glass which seem to say that every sliver of sunlight counts. People who live on the ground floor have walls of glass which allow any pedestrian to see what they are having for dinner, what vitamins they’re taking, or what books they’re reading to their children in the living room. Sometimes your eyes meet theirs as they are chopping onions in the kitchen. Do I smile or do I quickly walk by with my head hung in shame? Am I a creepy voyeur for looking into a transparent house?
It was a pleasant trip. I prefer places with warm weather but you have to judge a place based on its limitations. It has a charm that is uniquely its own. The only true failure that I experienced from this trip is that I bought a bag of stale stroopwafels.