Amsterdam, Venice of the North

We were excited for our visit to Amsterdam. We’ve both been here before, separately, about a decade ago. I remember finding it to be really beautiful and surprisingly clean; Isabel said the same. When I was looking to book a place to stay, hotels offered zero economical alternatives. I shifted my focus to Airbnb, which wasn’t much better. A quick Google search showed me that Amsterdam was “one of Europe’s most expensive cities to visit, especially during the summer.” When you’ve been traveling for six months, it really doesn’t matter when you’re trying to go, at some point you’re going to hit tourist season somewhere. Pricing aside, we were really looking forward to this stop.

We boarded a quick 2-1/2 hour train ride from Brussels. We left Amsterdam Central station and fought our way through crowds and bikes along the narrow streets towards our Airbnb. The listing mentioned that it was “centrally located … all attractions are nearby … not suitable for sensitive ones.” That last bit didn’t really register with me until we got there and realized we were in the heart of the infamous Red Light District. We met our host Miro, in his fashion studio next door. He demonstrated how to lock and unlock all the doors (of which there were many) and showed us to our room (up two very narrow flights of stairs, with steep and shallow steps). We were in the heart of the oldest part of the city. The apartment was a bit grungy (we definitely weren’t in Brussels anymore), but it felt authentic. The art on the wall was a bit … well, you figure it out:

Two large windows over the couch provided great views (and sounds) from the crowded streets below. Having arrived on a Friday night at the beginning of summer, the streets were packed, mostly consisting of of stag and hen parties. After dinner, we spent time wandering the streets, looking in all the windows. The area looked and felt different from how I remembered it; Isabel agreed. Last time, it seemed more flowing and picturesque; not as crowded or grimy. I remember older couples and families with kids walking the streets, it was totally normal. This time, it was like everyone was on Spring Break.

Is it because it’s late? Is it because it’s a weekend? Are we too old?

First off, it’s called the Red Light District because there are actual red lights hanging above the door-and window-frames of the ladies of the night. Surprisingly, only half the windows were occupied; the rest advertised room rates. It was entertaining walking around, comparing the women’s outfits, tactics, and faces. “I gotta say Hi to all my ladies,” Isabel would say. Hordes of people, all ages and genders, were doing the same. We saw pedestrians become clients, always blown away that it was actually occurring. Unbelievable that something normally so taboo is out in the open and on display here. In all honesty, the two main drags were filthy – public urinals every couple of blocks, drunk tourists, lots of oogling groups loitering by the windows. It wasn’t the businesses that were gross, it was the clientele. Once we felt as though we had seen enough (and after getting randomly yelled at by an older local man walking his dog), we retired for the night. (Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed in the area, which is heavily patrolled by “Hosts,” so we have no photos of the action.)

The next day we did some wandering outside of our neighborhood. Luckily, one block the opposite direction provides a quiet walk along a canal. We trekked out to Vondelpark and strolled the stunning grounds of Amsterdam’s premier park, constantly dodging bikes even though we were nowhere near the bike lanes (this was to become a theme over the next few days). We paused to watch two men play a game of giant lawn chess, as we tried to recall the rules from our childhood.

We grabbed an early dinner that night at Ter Marsch & Co, a highly-rated burger bar. We sat in a swanky booth under some beautifully floral wallpaper that just so happened to match my shirt. The food was pretty good and they were filling tables every minute. The host who showed us to our table resembled Ving Rhames, and upon hearing my accent said “Ah, an East Coaster.” Turns out, he was from New York! I apologized for my Long Island-ness when he revealed he grew up in Washington Heights – that’s real New York. (In Brussels, we had dinner one night at a restaurant named Manhattn’s. Written on the wall behind Isabel’s head was the line There is a New Yorker in every city.) #smallworld

When we got up to leave, I said “goodbye and thanks for having us” to Ving Rhames. He told me that they had just reopened that day after monthlong renovations and that we were among the first people to walk in. (OMG we’re like super trendy!) He also told me that I had food crumbs in my beard. (Okay, so I’m not that cool.)

On our way out we noticed a movie theater across the street, and popped our heads in to see what was playing. Luckily for us, they were screening John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum in English (not that there was much dialogue). A few days earlier, Isabel was on the phone with her father who had just seen it. When she asked if he enjoyed it, he responded, “Take the masterful martial arts of Hong Kong, mix it with the poetic violence of Korean cinema, and lower the number of words Keanu Reeves says. Put it together, and that’s John Wick.” We looked at each other and asked, “So it was awesome?!” “Yes, it was awesome!” Keanu Reeves became our evening’s entertainment, and it did not disappoint! We grabbed a nightcap afterward at a bar to discuss the film, one of our new favorite traditions.

The next morning, we decided to act like we were back in San Francisco and waited on a long line for a popular brunch spot, Omelegg. Apparently waiting in line is a difficult concept for some to grasp, because the amount of people who tried to barge in and snag a table or demand their names be put down on nonexistent lists was shocking. Despite this, the line actually moved fast for such a small space and eventually we were seated. They crammed as many tiny wooden tables as they could into one cozy room, and served up some bomb food (Mom, bomb means good now). I enjoyed my gorgonzola + bacon omelette with a nutella croissant, and Isabel created her own, with a side of beans, her new favorite accompaniment.

There are a number of museums in Amsterdam that I consider to be among my favorites, but I’ll call out just two – the Van Gogh Museum and the Rembrandt House Museum. I won’t lecture you on why you’re missing out on life by not visiting, but in a nutshell it comes down to excellent curating. Art can be fabulous on its own, but it’s so much better with context. Duchamp’s Fountain makes no sense as a standalone piece but with some background context, it’s a whole new piece!

While searching for new alternative museums to check out, my mother more than once suggested that we visit the purse museum. Um, ok…the purse museum…got it. “Even your father liked it,” she added. Now I’m sold.

I kid you not, the Museum of Bags and Purses is fantastic! I’m not into fashion, I rarely carry a purse (I’m a backpack kid), and I couldn’t care less about bags. But this collection was more than just purses, it illustrated a detailed history behind the purse, bag, pocketbook, wallet, etc. The collection itself is quite unique – not just modern fashion bags but also men’s bags, purse accessories, and bags dating back to the 1700s and earlier! Some highlights:

  • The term “handbag” actually derives from the small bags that men used to carry in their hands (hence the name).
  • Women used to collect fancy metal clasps that held their purses. These clasps were expensive and so became something daughters would inherit from their mothers. The bag would be replaced based on the fashion of the day.
  • “Women of the castle” wore large rings attached to their waists. Attached to the rings were essential tools for running a castle – keys, various tools, sewing kit, and more. This was one of a few preludes to the purse.
  • Once trains became a more common form of travel, the leather bag was introduced. It was durable and sturdy (perfect for a traveler), yet remained fashionable.
  • A smoking jacket is a jacket that a man wore to protect his clothes from the smell of smoke when he went out.

It was amazing to learn how bags changed based on societal, political, and fashionable shifts of the time. The collection was detailed, fascinating, and focused a lot on the design and utility of bags. I definitely recommend a visit if you go to Amsterdam. Thanks Mom!

We then walked along the canals towards De Negen Straatjes, the 9 Streets, a small area of picturesque streets with quirky shops and wonderful eateries. We window-shopped, looking at all the trendy clothes and nicknacks we can no longer afford (sigh). This felt like Amsterdam’s response to SF’s Hayes Valley. When we passed the aptly named PANCAKES we suddenly realized that sharing a pannenkoek is exactly what the doctor ordered! Pannenkoeken are Dutch pancakes, larger and thinner than we’re used to back in the States, but thicker than a crêpe. There was one awkward interaction when our waiter briskly taught us that bringing our own water bottle into a food or drink establishment was NOT ALLOWED. Point taken, guy. But he did give us this tiny wooden clog keychain along with the bill, so all was right in the world. On our way home, we walked through a massive block party/street fest we had no idea was going on. They had bands playing on four different stages, food stalls, beer gardens, and the streets were filled with people of all ages enjoying the sunshine.

The last day there, I joined a walking tour to get a sense of the city’s history. I was surprised to find it so invigorating and inspiring. So as not to delve into a full-fledged history lesson—because that’s what Wikipedia, Google, and history books are for—here are some of the highlights:

  • Amsterdam actually rests below sea level, two meters below to be precise. Those windmills that are commonly associated with the Netherlands were originally used to pump out water from the swamps, explaining why so much of the land is so fertile.
  • Due to its canals Amsterdam was a city of merchants, which along with great wealth also brought in an abundance of sailors, who sought out alcohol and women. In a move to protect the city’s “good girls,” prostitution was then legalized. The church (the famous Oude Kerk) promoted this exchange behind the scenes, then profited via collecting indulgences from the sailors for the sins which they’ve committed.
  • Compared to much of Europe, Amsterdam is a relatively young powerhouse, not reaching its Golden Age until the 16th and 17th centuries. The city sent their Jews into the heart of the Portuguese Empire to steal maps, to follow their route to Asia to obtain valuable spices. Remember the Dutch East India Company from middle school Social Studies? At its height, it was worth an estimated 7.8 trillion dollars in today’s money.
  • When Henry Hudson sailed off to discover a Northern route to Asia but instead landed on the island of Manhattan, he named the land New Amsterdam. Though later sold to the British and renamed New York, many important NYC names today have Dutch roots: Harlem, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Canal Street, Bleecker, Broadway, even the word “Yankee” derives from the Dutch Janke (blech).
  • The sale and consumption of “marihuana” in “coffeeshops” is actually illegal for tourists, although tolerated. Its legality stems from the city focusing their fight on harder drugs (the Chinese brought in opium, which turned into heroine, and the 1960’s in general brought cocaine), so marijuana is tolerated as a compromise. They’re called coffeeshops for discretion. Amsterdam’s legal and societal MO has long since been: “Be discreet, and don’t disturb.”
  • With the Red Light District providing legal employment, there are many regulations regarding sex workers, including registering with one of the four major agencies as well as passing medicals for both physical and mental checks (ensuring they’re working of their own volition). Shifts may last no more than 10 hours per day, and a window costs between €80-€200 depending on the location. They control the door lock from inside and also have a panic button. Each session lasts an average of six minutes, and the ladies host around 15 clients per shift.
  • Homes and buildings stand along the canals via long wooden poles driven deep into earth’s sand layers below. A typical house uses 10 poles, and there are approximately 11 million of these poles keeping Amsterdam afloat!

Another item on my to-do list for this adventure was to see a concert abroad. I attend a lot of shows back home and it’s a favorite pastime of mine, especially because I used to go a lot with my sister and her husband (I miss you two terribly!). They were just telling my on the phone how they saw Kevin Morby again, and I got super jelly, so I hopped on the interwebs to seek out a show of my own. Low and behold – Kevin Morby! In Amsterdam! At the famed Paradiso! (The Paradiso is a converted church building, that the hippies took over in the late 60s and turned into a music venue/cafe. Its original stained glass windows has welcomed acts such as the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Prince.) He put on a great show as expected, and it was especially nice because his live sound is slightly different from his studio sound. He was also incredibly nice and humble, a breath of fresh air in an artist.

Finally the morning came when it was time to pack up and go. As we walked to the train station with our bags, a beer delivery truck came speeding down the street, and I yelled “look out!” as the truck’s mirror narrowly missed slamming Isabel in the head. The truck skidded to a halt, and roared into reverse to pull up alongside us. The driver berated me in a language I couldn’t understand as he vehemently pointed his cigarette-holding-finger at me. Luckily, this all happened in front of two construction workers who engaged with the driver on our behalf (again, couldn’t understand a word what was going on). When they pointed at Isabel and explained that she almost got hit, the truck finally drove off, with the passenger apologizing on behalf of his buddy. I turned to the construction worker who simply smiled and said, “Welcome to Amsterdam.”

I must say, that sendoff was really the cherry on top of my time in Amsterdam. I had a couple similar interactions with locals that left me scratching my head. As much as I wanted to, overall I just did not have a great time here. I was happy we were leaving, which really bothered me. Isabel says it must have a lot to do with the locals being fed up with all the tourists, and I don’t doubt her assessment is right on the money. Ten years ago I found Amsterdam to be clean, beautiful and friendly. Granted we were staying near the Red Light District, but this time around it felt dirty, overrun, and antagonistic, which makes me sad because I was really looking forward to coming back here. Maybe after seeing the canals of Venice, the rowhouses of Brussels, and the cobblestone plazas of just about everywhere else in Europe, the novelty of Amsterdam wore off. Every place on this trip can’t be perfect, it’s just not possible. I just wasn’t expecting Amsterdam to disappoint me so.

Next time we’ll avoid the weekend, and we’ll for sure stay in another neighborhood. Or even better, we’ll visit other parts of the Netherlands.

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