In the Stadt Amsterdam
When I was in college, I worked in as a news aide at the Seattle Times – in my case, a somewhat glorified term for office bitch. I’m not complaining. It was a good job and a fun experience. I just don’t want you to have the impression I did anything vaguely editorial – my role was setting up meetings, collating copies and, by and large, delivering mail.
Which was cool, because naughty as it was, I occasionally got to sneak a peek at the letters. Especially the barrage of cover letters accompanying internship applications. Most of this were standard, “I would be so excited to be a part of your organization” type stuff, with subsequent content that ranged from pandering to professional to occasionally inspiring. But I remember one that dripped with condescension; in the second graf, it read, “Unlike my fellow students, who spent their summers backpacking in Europe, I was putting in my hours at the Podunk Weekly Shitrag investigating important blah blah blah…”
I resolved, after reading that, to go and backpack through Europe, which I did in the spring of my 21st year. It was a good time. I saw plenty of the continent, always following one important rule: avoid Amsterdam.
The Dutch capital seemed to magnetize the worst douchebags in every hostel across France, Germany and Ireland. It was always the same types; either frat boys bellowing about how high they were gonna get, or sleazy eels who were practically rubbing their palms in excitement over the prospect of prostitutes. Neither of these demographics were the types I particularly like to hang out with.
In the years since, I’ve come to regret my decision. Amsterdam, I’ve heard from anyone who’s been there, is beautiful, cosmopolitan, clean and cultured. So on my couchsurfing expedition, I decided to give it a whirl.
When I stepped out of Amsterdam’s central train station, I had the immediate, very edifying sense of lightness that accompanies arrival to a place I know I am going to like from the get go. In front of me was a flat plain rung round with gorgeous old fairy tale buildings. At ground level, the Old World gave way to modern: a flashy tram system ran tourists to various destinations. Water felt integrated into the fabric of the urban experience. Canals formed a skein of transport paths and natural barriers, flowing seamlessly into the movement, commerce and general daily life of the Amsterdamer.
My host would be Famke, a student finishing her Master’s degree in environmental science in a small town two hours south of, as she called it, ‘the Dam.’ She had told me to meet her in Dam Square, a 10 minute walk from the station. It was raining and cold and generally miserable, so I ducked my head against the elements and pressed down into the city.
The way to Dam Square was not particularly inspiring. Betting booths, banks, fast food chains and the usual luxury-goods skin of H&M-Armani-Zara stores lined an obvious tourist trap corridor. But all of the above were housed in gorgeous old buildings that suggested a unique sense of place, and character, was close by, waiting behind the next small canal.
It didn’t take long to arrive in Dam Square, a handsome, immense plaza that would have been far more enjoyable in fair weather. As it was, the day was rainy, cold and vicious; I ducked out of the elements under the National Monument, a medium-sized memorial dedicated to the Dutch victims of World War 2.
Like many things Dutch, the National Monument is understated yet effective. It doesn’t pierce the sky nor absorb the entirety of focus on Dam Square. It is, rather, a quiet commemoration by a largely quiet people – assuming they’ve been keeping off the Heineken – done tastefully and well.
Famke arrived not long after I did. We hugged and she promised to show me at least one museum before night hit, which would be soon in the northern European winter. The fairly obvious choice was the Van Gogh museum. I don’t want to wax rhapsodic about seeing all of the originals of the man’s famous work; needless to say, the stuff is impressive. But I was more taken with the collection of pencil sketches and notes that were the kickstart to Van Gogh’s creative process, each rough draft and commentary taking up a small display case next to some of his more famous paintings.
We left as evening began to set it. Famke suggested wandering aimlessly, which struck me as perfect. Because Amsterdam is a) supremely handsome and b) laid out in an irregular pattern thanks to its many canals, it’s a great town for sauntering, in the original, French sense of the word – sans terre, without Earth, without any real destination. Every turn netted us a glimpse of some quaint, heart-achingly lovely vista of canal-front townhouses or houseboats, although Famke assured me the price for this antique quaintness was well into the millions of Euros.
We avoided the freezing rain with a few of the bracing dark beers made for those times when you need to avoid freezing rain, and then, slightly drunk, stopped off for what Famke called Dutch fast food. In this case, a frikandel, a grayish, soggy-looking, very processed sausage that, like all foods made for post-alcohol consumption, was delicious when deep-fried, topped with chopped onions and accompanied by a greasy box of French Fries mit mayo.
“You know,” I said, mouth full of French Fries, “we seem to be doing this backward.”
“How do you mean?” asked Famke.
“Well, I thought, when in Amsterdam, we were supposed to do…er…other stuff that gets us hungry first, and then eat.”
She caught my meaning and laughed. We left the North African frites shop owner obsessing over an Egypt-Algeria soccer game and headed into a coffee shop. Both of us actually ordered coffee – no, seriously; Famke, like most Dutch, only smokes in moderation and I was happy with post-food coffee – and spent a pleasant evening watching tourists get stoned out of their gourds. As one joker stumbled past, Famke reached into her bag and produced a large hunk of good Dutch cheese.
“For you,” she said, smiling.
There are many ways to my heart, and good cheese is often at the forefront of all of those means. I smiled, in the warmth and comfort of that coffee shop, a friend and hunk of cheese by my side, and reflected on the Dutch concept of ‘gezellig.’ Roughly translated, the word means ‘cozy,’ but it can also suggest nostalgia, the warmth you get when you walk in from the cold, and the comfort of old jeans versus new shoes. Famke’s little gift of cheese imparted all of the above feelings, and I thou-
-I don’t remember what I thought, because the next minute, a stoned Albanian fell out of his chair. I smiled at him, sort of smiled at the world, as happy as a stoner if not, in fact, stoned, and started shaving off hunks of cheese in the heart of Amsterdam.
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