19 January 2007

Tulips, Red Lights, and Wooden Shoes

I arrived in Amsterdam before the sun, and traveled from the station to my hostel with the city darkened under the night sky. From the tram I could only see lights blurring off into the distance and the occasional glow of street lights reflected from the canals we rode over. These impaired views grew my curiosity, and tested my patience as I knew I would have to wait on the sun to rise to fully appreciate the city’s watery vistas.

Amsterdam sits at the eastern base of a peninsula of the Netherlands, and fronts a large bay from the sea, called the Ijeelsmeer. A large shipping canal connects the city with the North Sea This city is the political and cultural capital of the Netherlands. The five main canals were designed as concentric half circles in the city center, the other imaginary half of the circles would lie in the bay. Like spokes on a wheel, smaller canals radiate toward the center half circle. Most of the canals have a one-way street on both sides, although often it’s more of a lane for residents to park their car. This set up creates an initially confusing environment for visitors. Without landmarks, the next canal begins to look like the last one. In at least one case with me it really was the last one. The only natural body of water in the city other than the bay is the Amstel River. The city grew up around a dam on the river, hence the name, Amsterdam. The modern city spreads out to the West and South of the historic center, and one finds fewer canals in the new neighborhoods. However, one mustn’t journey far before reaching the countryside.

The countries golden age lasted primarily during the 1600s, after the end of a long war fought for sovereignty from Spain. With independence, the Dutch were able to create a new republic and a large trading empire. The Dutch West and East India Trading Companies started colonies in the Carribean and in Indonesia, respectively. New York City was even founded by the Dutch; the original name was New Amsterdam. Amsterdam, as the capital, prospered from the growing wealth. Merchants and businessmen built stately mansions along the canals. Today, the country is notoriously famous for its liberalness. It is also the densest populated country in Europe, at 16 million people on 41,000 square miles.

After checking into my hostel and storing my pack I headed out to explore the city that was then beginning to wake up. My hostel is pictured below.

I soon realized I would have to wait longer for museums and stores to open, so I decided to seek refuge from the sporadic drizzles inside Café Americain, a short walk from my hostel. The café is found in the large canal-corned hotel pictured below, which was founded in 1880. The interior of the café, reportedly one of the favorites of the local café scene, displays splendid examples of Art Deco style, with stained glass lamps and wall murals. Mata Hari even held her wedding reception here. I ordered a cup of coffee but was served much more than a simple cup of joe. Along with the coffee mug on my tin platter came four sugar cubes (two natural and two bleached), two raisin-sized chocolate nougats, a shot glass of water, another of cream, and a small chocolate bar complete with the cafe’s logo. From here on I knew this establishment was a few steps above a Starbuck’s. Finally around
9 o’clock the sun appeared, and I left the café to view some fine art by Rembrandt and van Gogh, both from the Netherlands.

South of the city center lies the museum quarter, a number of the largest museums in the city surrounding a large grassy park void of any canals. I first visited the Rijksmuseum, which you see pictured at the top of the post. Unfortunately, the museum was undergoing renovations and only a limited amount of the collection was on display. However, the most famous of the paintings remained viewable to the public, such as works from Vermeer and Rimbrandt. The museum’s centerpiece is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, but I honestly didn’t recognize it. Next, I visited the
Van Gogh Museum. Here I recognized many pieces, like van Gogh’s sunflower and self-portrait paintings.

After the museum I grabbed a quick lunch at the diner pictured below. At one point the room was filled shoulder with locals placing orders. The English-speaking couple next to me told me it was a popular place. I placed an order for bitterballs, an item which I had read was typical Dutch food. The white-jacketed server brought me a plate of eight fried balls, each roughly the size of a ping-pong. My questioning look caused the woman of that couple to laugh. I asked here what they were made from and she told me I wouldn’t want to know, but to try them with mustard. The insides of the golden brown spheres were gray and had the consistency of mashed potatoes, with small pink pieces of meat mixed in. The taste was alright; nonetheless I left the dinner understanding why I had never heard of Dutch cuisine before.

From there I attempted to walk straight to the Anne Frank House, but I found many distractions along the way.

I came across the Flower Market five minutes after leaving the diner. The 200 year-old and year-round operation consists of floating barges on one of the five main canals. Unfortunately, I presume that today’s market exists more for the tourists. Alongside the stands of flowers and bulbs, merchants stocked shelves of Amsterdam souvenirs. Even I gave in and bought a thing or two. No matter the kitsch, I was still surprised to even see cut tulips for sell in January. Although I’m sure the available numbers and varieties increase in the Spring, when actual fields instead of greenhouses can produce the flowers.

One of my favorite qualities of Amsterdam is its bike friendly attitude. Europeans use bikes more often as a functional mean of transportation than Americans, but those in Amsterdam take it to extremes. Forget about looking both ways when you cross the street, the bike lanes are more hectic. Everywhere I went in Amsterdam I saw bikes locked to poles or railings; the alternative to locking it is donating it to the “public” collection. Most cities have litter problems with aluminum cans and paper products, Amsterdam’s is with bicycles. I saw many decrepit and rusting bikes still chained to street lights. To give you a visual idea of the seriousness taken towards bikes in Amsterdam, here’s a photo of the bike-only parking garage at the train station.

I continued on my way to the Anne Frank House, pausing along the way to take photos. My one regret from visiting Amsterdam is that I didn’t break out my camera enough. Most of the time I was too busy enjoying the sights while I was in the moment to think of taking pictures. However, here are some of my favorites from those I did snap.

Property owners built their homes and offices so tall and narrow due to the high taxes. In order to save room, owners even constructed stair cases very narrow and extremely steep. Rather than carrying furniture in an out on the stairs, residents use poles extruding from the gables and rope to move heavy items. A pulley at the end of the pole facilitates with the hoisting. Look at the gables of the houses to find the hoisting poles.

Eventually, I arrived at the Anne Frank House. It was in the attic of this typical canal house that Anne, her family, and a few other friends of her father hid during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. After two years, someone turned in the hideaways. The Nazis brought all to concentration camps, but only Anne’s father survived.

Anne’s famous diary has been translated into over sixty languages. In middle school I read the script for the play, and watched the movie.

The building and its corner neighbor now house a museum about the incident. A walk through the museum gives one insight into Anne’s life for those two years. The swinging bookcase that hid the entrance to the attic remains, as do the photographs that Anne pasted to the wall of the room she shared with one of her father’s friends. Her room was the size of a standard bathroom. The museum staff leaves the attic windows covered as they would have been during Anne’s stay, creating a darkened setting. As I walked on the creaking floor I realized how difficult it must have been to keep quiet during the day in order to prevent someone downstairs from hearing noise and becoming suspicious. Below is the house from the outside, it’s the one to the left of the building into where the line of people enters. Photography from the inside was forbidden.

I find it ironic that this rather nondescript canal house was the setting for a story that captivated the world’s attention.

I wandered around the city as the day faded away. Before an actual meal I snacked on what looked like a local favorite, french fries served with mayonnaise in a paper cone. The mayonnaise combination tasted surprisingly good.

A little after 10 o’clock I entered the Red Light District, a neighborhood that needs no introduction. The photo below shows the decorative red light lamps found on the borders of the District. Known as De Walletjes to the Dutch, the periphery of this quarter contains stores hawking cheap souvenirs and fast food cafes. In order to see the infamous “attractions” one must journey to the center of the quarter to an otherwise fairly average canal. Along this waterway ones finds the greatest concentration of bordellos in the district, along with peep shows, live-sex theaters, erotic museums, and adult gift shops. And of course, there are the prostitutes.

These women of the evening (actually they work during the day as well) advertise their wares and goods in canal-fronting windows illuminated by, but what else, a red light. Today the lights are fluorescent, and shine more for decorative purposes than the historical one, which was to inform passers-by that the women were available. Most of the prostitutes appear in the windows wearing only their lingerie, but others wear bikinis. A few conservative ones, if there is such a thing, wear jeans and a tight t-shirt. They appear to have free reign on how they want to present themselves; however, none expose themselves completely, although some wore rather skimpy underwear. A few women danced to music playing in their rooms, but most simply stand and smile seductively at onlookers. Many even sit in chairs reading books or sending text messages on their cell phones, looking up from time to time to see if that figure standing in front of their window is a potential customer or only a gawking tourist. A couple even looked unhappy. In order to grab my attention, the women often tapped on the glass as I walked by, and followed that up with a friendly smile and a come here motion. In one instance a prostitute even opened her door a crack and greeted me, “Hey sexy.” Needless to say, I kept walking.

To put it simply, I felt like I was window-shopping for sex. Another way to imagine it is as a combination of Disneyworld and Playboy, cheap and tasteless sin dished out in a theme park atmosphere. Indeed, there were whole families walking together down the canal for the experience. At one point I passed a preteen girl with her family as she pointed to a prostitute and yelled out, “Ooh, there’s another one over there!” With such nonchalant prostitutes checking their nails and standing half-naked in a festive setting like the Red Light District, I found it difficult to remember what was actually occurring along the canal. It’s all too easy for a visitor to feel, if only for a fleeting instant, that it’s only in good fun. I believe the prostitutes and their bosses aim to create that exact feeling. After all, they are part of businesses out to make money. Therefore, the more the bordellos can make visitors forget their inhibitions and hesitations, the more money the bordellos gain.

One last bit of information, the prostitutes are regulated, registered, and taxed. Furthermore, since 1984 a union has represented these working women.

I took some pictures of the District, but only a few. I had heard before that if the women see you taking their picture they will send out their henchmen to take your camera. I didn’t want to risk it so I tried to be quick about it. The first one looks down the canal, without any views inside the windows. I took the last one of a bordello across the canal. It’s blurry, but one can see the figures standing in the windows. I left the District soon after taking that one. I walked away feeling the need for a cleansing shower, and while humming a certain song:

Roxanne, you don’t have to put on your red light.
Those days are over.
You don’t have to sell your body to the night.
Roxanne . . .

The next day I woke up early and checked out of the hostel after taking advantage of their breakfast buffet. I stored my pack at the train station, and then hoped on a cruise boat for a one hour tour on the canals. Pictured below is the boat on which I rode.

The cruise offered a beautiful perspective from which to view the city. The recorded narration in four languages epitomized Amsterdam’s status as an international city. Below are some of the pictures I made from the water’s level. The city has preserved many of the historic canal houses with in the city center, but one occasionally sees newer buildings along the waterways.

After the cruise I decided I couldn’t pass up the chance to experience the city like a local, on bike. I rode along the canals for a little time, while wondering how often someone accidentally rides off into one. Before long the prospect of seeing the Dutch countryside became too strong to resist.

I used the map the bike store gave me to find my way out to the rural land north of the city. First I had to use a ferry to cross the bay. Once across I was able to ride to the area known as the Waterland, that is after half an hour or so of first going in circles. My map also gave some good background information on the land.

About 1,000 years ago settlements appeared in the Waterland and the settlers began the process of reclaiming land from the sea. They drained the water away with canals and, starting in the 17th century, windmills. When the peat ground surface dried out it shrunk, which caused the ground to sink. Thus dykes became a necessity in the battle with the sea. A dam out on the Ijsselmeer now controls the water level alongside the dykes, so breaks in the dykes and devastating floods are a thing of the past. Waterland lies 15 feet below sea level, and continues sink.

Breaking out of the urban area rewarded me with views of quaint villages and the Dutch countryside. I eventually found a trail on top of a dyke and rode along with the Ijsselmeer bay to my right and the flat grassy green expanse to my left.

As I stopped in one village to check the map I heard a click-clack sound behind me. I turned around to discover the source of the sound and couldn’t believe my eyes. An elderly woman had dismounted her bike and was now walking it. The click-clack came from her wooden shoes as they impacted the paved road. I had no idea that the wooden shoes were still used. She said hi to me and click-clacked along. I wanted to ask if her I could take her picture, but she soon remounted her bike and rode away. However, I was able to steal one shot when her back was to me, but the wooden shoes are difficult to discern.

Here are some more photographs from Waterland. Before this ride I had never seen flocks of swans before, only one or two at a time. The second photo is of the road as goes over a small canal and turns in front of the blue house. I eventually did see an old style windmill, but the sun was so low on the horizon I thought a photo would be pointless.

As I turned back toward Amsterdam a fierce wind attacked me head on, and I grew to understand the usefulness of windmills out in this country. I struggled on my three speed bike to peddle back to the store before its closing. At some points the wind blew with such intensity that I considered dismounting and running with bike. The trip out took me around an hour, but the return demanded at twice that much. I rolled up to the bike store with ten minutes to spare.

With a painfully empty stomach I searched for a restaurant at which to eat diner. My visit to the information center the day before provided me with a tip on Moeder’s. This restaurant on the edge of the trendy Jordaan District serves up typical Dutch cuisine. My meal consisted of a sausage, meatball, bacon, and mixture of mashed potatoes and cabbage. It appeared that Dutch cuisine was similar to German, heavy portion of meat without a bit of green on the plate.

I had a couple hours left before I needed to be at the train station, so I walked around the Jordaan District and enjoyed the scenery of the canals reflecting the neighborhood’s lights. I stopped in Café ‘t Smalle, one of the so called Amsterdam brown cafes. One of my sources says the name comes from either the smoke-stained interiors or the typical wood paneling. I spent my last hour or so in the city sipping away at a glass of Heineken beer, the brewery is in town, and slowly strolling back to the train station.

One of my biggest surprises with Amsterdam was the amount of English spoken by the locals. It appeared that everyone, from the bar tenders to the convenience store clerks, knows English in Amsterdam. At first I asked people in Dutch, “Do you speak English?” It didn’t take long for me to realize how unnecessary the question was.

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the similarity between Dutch and German. More than once I was able to understand the gist of a sign written in Dutch because of my German studies. In one café the bartender asked me a question in Dutch. I was able to understand one keyword in the sentence and answered her question with the German word, but in an attempted Dutch pronunciation. This is what I understood her to say, “oojes keish gooken taste?” Apparently I assumed and answered correctly.

I boarded my bus at around 11 o’clock that night and met up with Mareike the next moring in Hannover. We spent the full day Saturday taking the slow but cheap trains back to Eichstaett.

It was a fast paced week, but I journeyed far and saw many sights. For the most part, Amsterdam was the most beautiful city for the week, although once can easily find the seedy areas of town or litter in the canals . Perhaps the week was too fast though. Even with my exploring speed I feel like I could have stayed in Amsterdam for another two days, and there are times when I felt the need to slow down and take it. In the end, I learned some good traveling lessons that I will be putting to practical use in a matter of weeks.

In twenty days or so the semester break will begin, and I will set out on my great European odyssey. Expect to hear more word on that in the days to come.

As for the immediate future, tomorrow I travel with the International Association to Garmisch, a town in the Bavarian Alps. With any luck, there might actually be some snow.


mc said...

Nicholas, thanks for the completely detailed description of Amsterdam. With each post I feel a need to get out and explore the world. Did you have any damage in Eichstaett with the current storm they talked about in Northern Europe? Do you have snow? It sounded like it hit north of your area but they did say there was damage in Germany. I think the last report said over 40 people died.

Make sure you savor those 20 days of class time left before your semester ends! Take care!

Anonymous said...

Nicholas, What a great read as usual. Sounds like you had a great time. Now that picture of French fries and mayonnaise combo didn't look to appealing. While mom and I where off looking for a "Doner" that one afternoon, I saw them selling a fish sandwich like you had in the market at Munich.
Just got in the mail this week "German Life" magazine, one of the main articles was on Munich. So was interesting reading and seeing pictues of places we visited.
You will have to give us your itenerary for your next journey.
ps du hast vas ganz tolles in dir drin

Nick O. said...

Dad: Aw, you just have to try the french fries.

Mom: The storm hit Eichstaett but I had no idea it was so big. It didn't seem that bad to me, coming from a land where thunderstorms exist. It was only a bunch of rain and wind. Their 'extreme' weather is nothing like ours in America. And no, there's still no snow.