As a non-biker I now approach my account of my visit to Amsterdam, Holland in the early ’80s with a tinge of inadequacy after reading Jason Haber’s lively depiction of life on the bike in contemporary Washington, D.C. (CommonSense2, July ’08). What he knows about bicycles is amazing to me. Beyond the pale of doubt what I relate about bicycles in the bicycle capital of the western world one way of describing Amsterdam is admittedly skimpy since I reduce them to simply one of the most noticeable factors of this engaging metropolis behind the Delft.
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In about an hour Katy and I will be landing in Amsterdam in a big DC-10, and we will certainly be a pair of very sleepy-eyed Americans entering Holland. Our prearranged meeting at 4 p.m. with Gary, a former student of mine and friend of Katy’s, in a cafe in downtown Amsterdam will have to be cancelled because of our overwhelming fatigue. My own weariness reminds me of Delmore Schwartz’s poem “The Heavy Bear That goes With Me.” No matter how far you travel, that frail and fragile body which houses your thoughts goes with you and sets very stringent boundaries beyond which your physical aspirations cannot trespass. Where you go it goes like a Siamese twin from which no known surgery this side of consciousness can sever you. It is the leash that keeps pulling you back on track. Derailments are rare and then only temporary.
Our plane landed here at about 11 a.m., but by the time we retrieved our backpacks and were bused to the railroad station, arranged for our hotel at a tourist-aid center across from the station, and arrived at our hotel by way of a tram we were directed to take, it was 1 p.m. The hotel is a clean, neatly painted four-story building in a row of similar buildings facing a canal. Our room is the attic. It is small, no more than six by twelve feet, and contains a washbasin, table, one wicker chair, one wooden chair, and two iron cots. The toilet is one flight down the narrow carpeted stairs and the shower is across the hall. It is called Hotel de Harmonie, which hopefully will turn out to be a prophecy of the kind of relationship Katy and I will be able to maintain throughout our sojourn.
There are no windmills or tulips yet, but a quaint architecture that transposes the beholder into a storybook atmosphere enters the mind’s eye. This is a city where bricks predominate. No concrete pavements. On the canal streets you walk on nothing but red bricks, the sidewalks being separated from the streets by a low curb and endless rows of iron guard posts. As you peer from side to side and down every block, you see only red brick walls and red or orange tile roofs. The car traffic is relatively light (by New York and Philadelphia standards) and the cars themselves small economy-size gassers, mostly European or Japanese makes.
Did I say the traffic is relatively light? Yes, but I was referring to the four-wheel species of conveyance. Of the two-wheel variety there is an astonishing abundance. This includes mostly bicycles, even though there are also motorcycles and motor scooters aplenty. The attractive architecture and the 160 canals with their occasional barge-houseboats are indicative of an intriguing historical past. And despite the casualness of the crowds in the Leidsplein and the shopping thoroughfares, the pace of life in Amsterdam is fast. This is apparent in the movement of traffic, the bikes and cars almost seeming to compete with each other for space on the narrow streets. For people like ourselves, who are unaccustomed to the hectic movement of vehicles on what is virtually a dual-purpose street and sidewalk, it is all so fantastic and, I might add, a little dangerous when you are not used to it. The pedestrian must always have a sense of what is behind him as bikes and cars often come hurtling along over the same brick thoroughfare on which he is walking. I suggested to Katy that I ought to have a rear-view mirror attached to my glasses. I kept turning my head every few minutes and yet there were times when I failed to detect an approaching vehicle and Katy had to grab my arm and pull me aside just in the nick of time. Less frequently I had to do the same to her. It has become a sort of mutual dependency when we are walking the streets of this city.
Whenever Katy gets together with her friends I always feel edgy because it usually entails a bout of heavy drinking and smoking, with a touch of drugs occasionally. And even here in Amsterdam, some six thousand miles from Pennsylvania, I have not been able to escape this anxiety. Gary, having heard from mutual friends that we were coming to Amsterdam, telephoned us in Pennsylvania and asked us to meet him in the Leidsplein (the central plaza and common meeting place in the city) the next day at 4 p.m.
But when we disembarked from our plane, as I have already stated, we were so weary that all we wanted to do was locate a hotel room and go right to sleep. This we did, and though Katy set the alarm for 3:30 when it buzzed she turned it off and rolled over. I, of course, because of my 80 percent deafness, didn’t even hear it. Consequently, it was nearly six when we awakened. We decided to walk down to the square anyway, hoping that Gary would still be there or would return to look for us. We sat at a table in the large crowded plaza for an hour or so, sipping drinks without any sign of Gary; consequently we decided to look for the building where he was living (he gave us the address over the long-distance telephone).
After walking around in circles for another hour, we encountered a woman who ran a bar on the corner of the street where he lived. She directed us to the address. When Katy rang the bell there was no response. The woman, who was still standing across the street, motioned to us to look up at the second-story window. There were Gary and his friends Kevin and Heidi. They came down immediately and welcomed us with open arms. We sat around the apartment for awhile, drinking beer. Everyone except me took turns puffing at the hashish pipe being passed around. As though we were characters in The Sun Also Rises, Kevin suddenly suggested we go to the bar on the corner. My natural antipathy to bars made me want to excuse us, saying we were tired and didn’t relish the thought of getting up too late the next day. But Katy, of course, was all for the suggestion and I kept silent.
The bar was pleasant enough as bars go. We sat in a corner beneath a large TV which was showing A Bridge Too Far, an American World War II film that takes place in Holland. Because of the noise in the bar it was difficult for me to hear what my companions were saying; therefore I resigned myself to watching the Dutch-captioned TV movie (which, by the way, I had already seen) trying to figure out what the Dutch words meant. In order to appear sociable, I consented to drink one glass of beer. Katy, in the meantime, who was sitting across from me next to Gary, and who had already imbibed two or three bottles plus a number of inhalations of hashish, was doing her usual best to out-comsume her friends.
Occasionally I tried to engage Kevin, since he was sitting next to me, in a conversation but for the most part I could not hear what he was saying above the noise. As Katy drank more and more and began petting Gary I realized she had passed the limit of her alcoholic capacity, to say nothing of my own impatience over the possibility of wasting my time for God knows how many hours in a bar that was not very different from the usual taproom in the States. I was staring like a zombie at my companions as they soared higher and higher into the realm of inebriation; finally I had to drag a boisterous Katy through the darkened unfamiliar streets of Amsterdam and then up four flights of narrow stairs to our attic room.
Facing this stark reality of my predicament I suddenly blew my top when she pulled out our passport wallet and offered to pay for the next round of beers. I rose to my feet, reached over the table and pulled the wallet from her hands and in the process pulled out a few strands of red hair (as she later informed me) and shouted at her and her companions that she had had enough and that we were going back to our hotel, adding that I didn’t intend to let her sleep all the next day as she usually does after one of her drinking bouts. Gary handed me back the ten-guilder note she had given him. Katy then burst into tears and looked at me with hatred in her eyes, as if to say I had one helluva nerve trying to spoil her evening with her friends. Kevin and Heidi got up to leave. Gary had another beer, of which Katy took a few sips defiantly, and then walked us part of the way back, arranging to meet us the next day at four in the Leidsplein.
Gary took us on a tour of the red-light district, where in house after house partially clothed girls sit in comfortably cushioned chairs behind curtained picture windows advertising themselves to passing males. Sometimes they seemed so still they could have easily been mistaken for manikins. We went back there on our own after midnight today but were less impressed with what we saw, mainly perhaps because of the late hour and the sleazy appearance of some of the girls as well as the bleary-eyed male hangers-on loitering about the streets.
Yesterday morning we visited the new (1973) Van Gogh Museum and saw a number of his paintings I had never seen before, even as copies. A few of the more famous ones in the original were there also. I stood staring at the sunflower painting for at least five minutes trying to compare it with my memory of the copy I have hanging on the wall of the front bedroom at home. I decided the richness of the coloring is lost in the reproduction. The more abstract paintings, as well as those which echo the Impressionists, gain much when viewed from a distance of ten or fifteen feet. Katy bought a few postcard reproductions which she particularly liked such as a version of a Japanese print showing several people hurrying across a bridge in teeming rain.
We planned to also take in the Rijksmuseum, which is the major gallery in the city and where a number of the most priceless Rembrandts are hanging, but Katy protested that she could not stand looking at so many paintings in one day. Instead we walked to the nearest bank to cash a couple of traveler’s checks for guilders, then decided on a sightseeing tour of the canals and harbor in a glass-top ferry-like boat. After a pleasant gander at the canal system from the water and a rather cursory impression of the harbor, we returned to terra firma and walked along the narrow street lined on both sides with an infinite array of shops.
We also paid our respects to St. Nicholas, probably the largest and most impressive Gothic-style church in Amsterdam, built some four hundred years ago. I noticed a couple of dogs playing inside its vast stony interior whose cold bareness produces a striking awareness of Dutch Protestantism in its essence. As our time in this old mercantile city, where my paternal grandmother was born, accumulates I am becoming increasingly astonished by the beautiful architecture, which one sees everywhere. Together with the thoroughfares of grey water it gives this cosmopolitan metropolis a characteristic uniqueness among the cities of the world, one which it no doubt has held for a half a dozen centuries. The average height of the buildings is from four to five stories. There is one sixteen-story trade or harbor authority building on the waterfront, but this is the tallest structure in the city.
The woodwork is usually black and almost always appears to have been freshly painted. The brickwork is cleanly pointed and never is a stuccoed wall seen. The doors are especially beautiful, black and shiny, often Dutch doors, the top half opening after you have made your presence known by the use of a polished brass knocker. The city is filled with countless little narrow tributary streets that are always tempting. They too are lined with the quaint brick walls of buildings abutting each other. There are no detached houses in Amsterdam, or at least none that I have seen as yet. Of course this does not hold true of the rural stretch of flat land between the airport and the city. The public buildings, including even the main post office, look like palaces. I wonder if the people who live here are conscious of how fortunate they are in their daily rounds to be engulfed by such a festival of visual beauty.
Amsterdam is four feet below sea level and gives the impression to the newly arrived visitor that every other wide street has a canal running down its center. Seagulls are a familiar sight on some of them. There are mallards too and last evening we saw three swans alighting on the surface of the canal which runs past our hotel. These canals were probably avenues of a more abundant commerce in the past, but today they seem to be serving mainly as streets for barges with housing superstructures to park on.
Never can there be a lapse of consciousness when crossing the street in this city. Cars, bikes, cycles, and motorbikes come whizzing along at hectic speeds or speeds that seem hectic to one who is simply standing still or walking slowly. I have noticed that when a car and a bike are in competition for a space on the street the former always gives way to the latter. It must be out of habit, a custom deeply ingrained in the subconscious mind.
Our train is sitting in Central Station and I am sitting in one of its coaches writing. In ten minutes we will be on our way to Paris. We certainly enjoyed our Amsterdam experience despite my fulminations on the first evening. Last night we went for a wine-and-cheese cruise of the canals and harbor after which we satisfied our libidinal curiosity by witnessing a live show in the red-light district. Katy had a headache through the morning and into the afternoon, consequently I walked out to the Rijksmuseum alone for a two-hour eye-feast of delight. Here were Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals on their home grounds. The main attraction was Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch,” a very large painting occupying its own special place in the museum. After I returned to the hotel we both walked to the other side of the city to visit Rembrandt’s haus, built in 1609. We were too late to go inside. It is a beautiful brick mansion located in the city’s Jewish quarter. He lived in it for about twenty years.
Our train route took us through Harleem, The Hague, Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Brussels. We finally saw a number of windmills, lots and lots of cows (mostly Holsteins), vegetable gardens galore, and green flat land, marshy in some places and streaked with drainage ditches. The train was modern, clean, comfortable and very fast, so fast in fact that I often felt frustrated at not being able to read the names of the towns we passed on the signs in the stations. Rotterdam, probably because it was heavily bombed in the beginning of World War II by the Luftwaffe, appeared to have more modern buildings than any other Dutch city. Northern Holland is as flat as a pool table and at this time of the year, at least, is as green as the cloth that usually covers one. I believe our few days in Amsterdam were enough for a strong emotional attachment to the city to begin seeping into our hearts, mainly because we were almost continually walking its streets and staring at its buildings and people, the pedestrians as well as the bike riders, who never ceased even into the early hours of the morning, wheeling past us. Therefore we felt a melancholic sense of reluctance at having to leave the country for France yesterday morning.