Amsterdam was the second stop on our European summer vacation, and the operative word here is summer. I’d last been in Amsterdam about thirty-five years ago, during the Christmas holidays. My memories of the city were almost entirely of snow, ice, gray skies, and bitter winds that made the bitter temperatures even harder to bear. No windmills silhouetted against blue skies amidst endless rows of burgeoning tulips for me. (It wasn’t all bad: seeking refuge from the weather on Christmas afternoon, we chanced upon the Hard Rock Cafe—a space the size of an enlarged broom closet—where we spent the afternoon drinking beer and watching the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense on the Cafe’s VCR.)
But this time I was eager to enjoy the spring days amidst the canals and twisting streets. And although blue skies didn’t always grace ourvisit (in fact, the only rain we encountered in the entire trip fell midway during our time in Amsterdam), it was a lovely time of the year to wander through the city.
Our hotel, the Wiechmann, was situated on one of the major central-city canals, the Prinsengracht, just a few blocks away from the Westerkerk and the Anne Frank House. Prinsengracht is lined with houseboats, a broad waterway occasionally filled with tourist boats and, on Friday evening, small skiffs packed with revelers consuming picnic suppers and beer. The Museumplein was in walking distance, and so were a number of tram lines; after the first day we availed ourselves of the excellent trams and saved feet and backs for the long hours spent examining artworks ranging from Vermeer through Van Gogh to Jeff Wall.
Indeed, we probably spent a greater percentage of our time in museums here than anywhere else on our trip. We devoted the better part of a day each to the Rijkmuseum, to the newly renovated Stedelijk, and to the ultimately disappointing Van Gogh Museum. But we also spent a fair amount of time just idling. The Wiechmann was a very pleasant establishment, with a homey lobby, long flights of spiral stairs up to our room, and views over rooftop gardens where birds sang all morning. After breakfast in the sun-drenched corner dining room where we could watch the city rouse itself to the day’s business and gawk at bicyclists dodging cars as they hurtled over the bridge across the canal, we’d repair to our quarters, do a bit of laundry, read, listen to the birds sing, and at least once, doze off while mapping out the day’s itinerary.
Along with looking at art, looking at people became an important element of our visit. The best experience in this regard was the afternoon we whiled away (I won’t say wasted) in the Vondelpark, a large former swampland that lies just west of the museum quarter. It is such a seductive spot that I doubt we saw a tenth of its extent; we were only too happy to sit beneath the statue of Joost van der Vondel, near the shore of a small pond, and watch dogs fetch sticks and students get high. An enterprising native wandered from one small group of twenty-somethings to another with a large canvas bag full of cold beer that he hawked to those parched throats basking in the warmest sun of the year to date on the eve of the extended Whitsun holiday. Younger kids cycled past with inflatable orange crowns perched on their heads or slung from the handlebars. We lost track of time ourselves, and eventually wandered off towards the far side of the park, crossing small bridges lying under paths cloistered by dense overhanging trees, emerging into a warren of small residential streets before locating a tramline that would carry us back towards our hotel.
We’d done a good bit of research into restaurants in Amsterdam as well, but as in Paris, the lure of the neighborhood caused us to abandon about half of our plans in favor of small cafes or interesting looking if tiny (everything in Amsterdam is narrow) upscale bistros. In the cafes the food was hardly exotic—lamb stew or chicken satay—but it was plentiful and well prepared, and the atmosphere was as entertaining as any tourist attraction. At the Cafe het Molenpad, we were greeted by a rangy barman named Tom who gave us the distinct impression we had made his day simply by showing up, despite the fact that the place was quite busy. At the Cafe de Doffer, half a block up Runstraat from the Prinsengracht, a private party kept half the establishment hopping, while all around us the polyglot representatives of Amsterdam’s youth chattered away about their jobs, their origins, and their next stop in an uncharted exploration of their youth, and the world. Listening to English as spoken in Amsterdam was a surprising experience. Gone are the plummy British accents I associated with European English from thirty-five years ago. They have given way completely to flat American, learned from listening to television shows imported from Hollywood and subtitled in Dutch.
The spring weather offered us just exactly what I wanted this time: to lift my head up and see and smell Amsterdam, to pause on a bridge over a canal, to sit on a park bench or idle along a path overhung with trees. And to be surrounded by people intent on the same pleasures, released from the grip of winter. On our final night in the city, we took the tram almost all the way to the Central Station, and then struck out across the canal to the Seasons restaurant for a fine meal. On our way back we saw all those picnickers on boats in the canal that I mentioned earlier, our first intimation that this was the start of a holiday weekend that the Amsterdammers would enjoy no matter what. (On the way to the airport the next day, the taxi driver pointed to a long line of cars backed up on the highway that heads to the beach.)
On our way back, we also passed through the Red Light district, which now shares its quarters with the gay and lesbian population. I have to admit I found the sight of the girls in their large picture windows a fair bit more disconcerting this time than I did thirty-five years ago. I’m not sure why that would be so (am I getting more conservative as I grow older? less prurient? sadder?). But the best explanation I can come up with is that it was just somehow jarring to see a young woman standing in the window in her fancy green underwear and heavy makeup, weight shifted to one leg, elbow jutting out, totally engrossed in scrolling through messages on her phone and texting away as she posed. The exotic has indeed been rendered mundane in Amsterdam. I might even say the thrill is gone. But I don’t know what I’m talking about, so I won’t.
A few blocks away from home, we came across this scene on a corner near the Spui. Friday night in Amsterdam, a long weekend ahead. Have another drink. Life is good. Enjoy it.
Next time I’ll begin my explorations of the delights we discovered in Amsterdam’s museums. They were many, and a perfect counterpoint to the pleasure of the city’s streets I’ve tried to sketch this time around.