An Anonymous American in Amsterdam

For those who read my original itinerary in Europe, posted here in June, I should first explain why I ended up in Amsterdam instead of Florence and Rome. There are several reasons, one geographic, another economic, and a third intuitive. The geographic has to do with my being unable to switch my flight back to the States out of Rome instead of London. I decided to save time and money by staying closer to my port of departure. I can’t be entirely sure what I won’t see in Italy, but after a few days here in Amsterdam, I feel I made the right choice by coming north to Hell instead of going south to Heaven.

The first observation I’ve made probably holds true of every city, but especially this one: you cannot live here. You can definitely find, for a price, a bed to sleep in (and, for a price, someone to sleep with). There are plenty of places to chill, drink, toke, and trip. But you can’t stay anywhere too long before the air gets stale. The whole city is for passing through, for window shopping. Sure, people will also stop and buy, but its over before they know it and then its on to the next thing a little lighter in the pocket and heavy in the soul.

The red light district centers around the oldest church in Amsterdam, Oude Kerk, originally built in 1306, and steadily renovated ever since. Across the narrow cobbled alley running along its back wall are a dozen glass doors leading up a red carpet stairway or through a red curtain. At dusk, women of every age, shape, and color take up temporary residence. Until the Reformation of 1578, priests would sell writs of indulgence to sailors and prostitutes who wanted to be absolved of sin. Nowadays you just buy a beer at the cafe.

Amsterdam is perhaps the first city to support a global economy. Its 17th century golden age saw the birth of the first stock exchange and central bank. Money still rules this city. It can buy you almost anything, legally.

It is about as international as they come. I’ve never heard so many languages at once. English (at least in the more tourist-oriented places) is the bridge language, the common denominator. Street performers speak it. All the cafe and coffeeshop people speak it. Most of the signs are written in it.

That’s it for now, time to find some pancakes.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Leslie says:

    “…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; for thine is the Kindom and the Power and the Glory forever and ever.”

    Whoa to Amsterdam!

  2. thomasmatus says:

    Good travel post! Humorously and seriously, I promise you prayers that one day you will indeed get to heaven!

    See the museums in ‘Dam – the Low Countries had their own Renaissance just after Florence. Why not try to hop the border and visit Belgium? I‘ve spent a couple of weeks in Brugge (also spelled Bruges, but better pronounce it BROO-heh, so as not to ruffle Flemish feathers). It is a city of canals, like Amsterdam, with a magical main square. They have a wow museum, with a Michelangelo masterpiece akin to Rome‘s Pieta‘ and many other glories of art. And next visit the Convent of the Beguines (these were lay nuns of Renaissance times) – maybe you could see them as a Catholic anticipation of the Shakers.

    Keep on the safe side of red curtains, avoid smokes, and meditate every evening on the sights you see. And happy return Stateside!

  3. Bart says:

    Just read your Blog and decided to leave you a message and see that Mom the “Holly Roller” left you one too. Zack got and iPhone 4 and hopefully he will take care of this one. I felt that he using it as a significant part of his life and as such a “need” as opposed to a “want” Amy was able to pay for it as we are in no position. Yours is waiting with a surprise attached to it. You will just have to wait to see. Let me know your flight stuff.

    Love & Kisses

    Dad

  4. Leland BeBee says:

    Matt:

    I spent a limited time in Amsterdam among many crossings of Europe on multiple trips. “A limited time,” partly for the exact observations you have made. That was before the legalization of drugs, but well-after the legaliation of prostitution (at least in this life. ha.) As I look back on that City in my first visit, I recall bunking in a room with a US Serviceman, whom I had met on the train, and who had gotten really cheap rates in a small hotel that catered to servicemen. I couldn’t afford, even then, in 1964, to eat in a restaurant — only from street vendors. I walked the canals some, wandered to probably unsavory parts of the City by accident, and, of course, had to walk through the redlight district — yes, a strange place with those huge picture windows displaying the “wares” of the night. The serviceman I was temporarily rooming with couldn’t wait to join his myriad off-duty cohort in a lusty drinking and shopping spree. I was overwhelmed by the manicured, well-coiffed, sometimes even artful displays — honestly, they didn’t tempt me — the whole thing was, yes, like a visit to one of Dante’s rings of Hell — however alluring to the multitudes, it was tawdry and craven to me. My Mom was horrified when she first learned I’d gone there, when I showed her the slides I’d taken of some of the windows — I think I convinced her I had resisted any temptation. My Dad, like most other males I have known who knew of this or other such places, teased me for awhile about it— he definitely knew I’d maintained my physical and spiritual distance, but having been a young man once, he also knew that I had to slake my curiosity.

    In Amsterdam, I did also go to the Anne Frank House — I suppose that may have been on your list, anyway. Her story was huge in my time, and every American I knew who went to Europe in the 60’s and 70’s went there, if they went to Amsterdam.

    Otherwise, I agree that the best thing with what time you have left is for you to get out of the City — the idea of going to Bruges is a wonderful one. I stayed for a time with the family of a retired Belgian industrialist in a suburb of Brussels. We travelled to every part of Brussels. He was French, his wife Flemish, and each of his children had married someone of another European nationality. Bruges was his wife’s favorite, and probably, looking back, became mine as well. Then, you could consider going where the Dutch like to go to get away, and where the Germans head, as well — the Dutch Province of Zeeland — you’d have to inquire ahead on accomodations, and I don’t know what transit now goes there. But it is a charming area — sunny beaches, small villages, larger tourist enclaves, rivers, marshes, countryside — a melange.

    As for food, if you can find it cheaply enough somewhere, try a rijsttafel (RIJSTTAFEL) — a Dutch adaptation of an Indonesian presentation of as many as 100 different foods of every description, arrayed in a traditional fashion and served all at once. It may be the one import from the Dutch Colonial period that is truly a stellar treat. For you to eat it may mean that it is a splurge, so shop around a little or go with what a reliable guide book (e.g., Amsterdam on $X/day) recommends. I doulbt you’ll get to take any leftovers home, but you can probably sit for a great evening meal for many hours savoring the flavor array and eating every morsel (then you could just fast the next day! I did that a few times at your age….you’ll live!)

    As a last note, I hope any of the trip financial concerns you have had do not presage a negative impact on your graduate studies. Will your finances permit you to continue your studies in San Francisco, or will you need to regroup? Will you need to work while you are in school next year? You are a consummate scholar, so I truly pray you will not need to disrupt the flow of your studies.

    Always and always,

    Leland

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