Nothing about Amsterdam is linear, nothing is black and white. Amsterdam is a kaleidoscope of earth, water and sky, of cloud, glass and brick. Many of the streets you see and down which you trundle by bike or tram were once water. Much of the water you see was once part of the city’s system of low-friction roads. A topsy-turvy world.
Perhaps it is that unpredictability, running contrary to what one might expect of a city so endowed with tradition, history and culture that makes Amsterdam attractive to outsiders, to nonconformists and adventurers. Estimates have it that some 25% of the population of the high-rent ring of central canals consists of expats — the lost boys and girls of our age. At many medium-sized local elementary schools, the parents may easily represent more than three dozen nationalities: Amsterdam itself is official home to more than 170.
And within even a single nationality, these new Amsterdammers may range from the successful New York entrepreneur and his chain of hip muffin-and-espresso shops to the toothless and musically blessed jazzman Chet Baker, who died here in 1988 after plummeting from his hotel window like a wayward angel: people are drawn to this city because it allows you — for better or for worse ― to be yourself. Or, as Alain de Botton says elsewhere in this volume: ‘What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.’
That magnetic attraction on outsiders is nothing new: one of Amsterdam’s most famous citizens, philosopher Baruch Spinoza, was (as Ian Buruma notes here) the son of Sephardic refugees; Rembrandt van Rijn — in many ways the city’s international figurehead ― was a provincial boy who found acclaim in the big city. More recently, director Quentin Tarantino lived and worked here for a time, as did rock star Dave Matthews, who busked for pennies not far from the house where René Descartes lived in the early 17th century. At the end of her life, the ‘high priestess of soul’, Nina Simone, took refuge along these same canals and performed in local clubs.
Amsterdam is, and has been for almost eight hundred years, a playground to the world. That wild and giddy place you and perhaps even your parents talked about running away to, the breathtaking labyrinth Geoff Dyer has portrayed so well in ‘Hotel Oblivion’, the city where, as gangster Vincent Vega in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction noted, people eat mayonnaise on their French fries and drink beer in movie theatres, where everything forbidden or outré at home has suddenly become legal and normal, the place John and Yoko chose to hold their first ‘Bed-In’, the home of the notorious and aptly named ‘Banana Bar’, the cradle of soft-drug liberalism, the place where anything goes …
Amsterdam is all of that and, in keeping with its non-linear nature, none of that as well. To set the record straight, for example, prostitution in the Netherlands is seen as just another variation on freelance work, and therefore taxable and regulated. The possession and sale of marijuana and its derivatives, on the other hand (hilariously portrayed in the excerpt from Tommy Wieringa’s Joe Speedboat), are not legal here: they are ‘allowed’, within limits. Distinctions of little interest to the visitor, but all the more to politicians exercising a peculiarly Dutch brand of domestic Realpolitik.
For, paradoxically enough, if Amsterdam is wild and giddy, that wildness and giddiness are made possible by virtue of Dutch sobriety and pragmatism. Gambling, prostitution and the use of controlled substances, along with the official hours for beating the dust out of carpets in housing-association tracts and the location of official ‘doggy toilets’, are regulated here — if not always by law, then certainly by ordinance and decree. This playground to the world is padded against falls by an intricate safety net of regulations and social covenants. In Holland ― the birthplace, after all, of Western laissez-faire ― your right to do as you please is boundless… until it runs up against the sacred boundary of my right to do as I please. The Dutch often speak of themselves, with a hint of perverse pride, as ‘Calvinists’. And they are right, in that they are staunchly tolerant as a rule, almost overbearingly so at times, and have little regard for anyone who is not. And they do, really, eat mayonnaise on their French Fries.
Melancholic urban scenery
Beyond the romantic canals and bridges, the city itself has many faces. Amsterdam North, for example, on the far bank of the IJ, is only five minutes by water from downtown; in soul and being it is as antithetical to the nonchalant flair of Real Amsterdam as the Land of the Ants is to the Land of the Grasshoppers. Take the free ferry behind the central train station on a windy workaday morning with a tang of salt in the air and you may find yourself back in the staid Holland of the 1950s ― with crowds of office workers clutching their bag lunches in one hand, the handlebars of their bike in the other, with madly wheeling gulls and some of the most beautifully melancholic urban scenery in all of northern Europe. Travel by tram to the ‘Southern Axis’ at the edge of town, however, and you will see some of the strangest of what post-modern architecture has to offer ― including a bank building in the form of a shoe (the Dutch call it ‘The Skate’).
Hopefully, as you read on in this anthology and find out more about this multi-city, you will be struck as I was by two recurring motifs. The first is expressed in phrases like “I had a Dutch friend…” or “…a Dutch friend of mine, who…” The whole world, it seems, has a Dutch friend. For the Dutch may be Calvinists, but they are inquisitive, worldly-wise Calvinists at that, with a flair for languages and an admiration for travellers. And they have the tendency to recognize a good thing when they see it.
The second recurrent theme is what we might call the “Amsterdam epiphany”: you are staring out the window, you are crossing a bridge, you are cycling through traffic, when the heavens open. Amsterdam suddenly feels as right as your favourite pair of old slippers, as heartbreakingly beautiful as that lover you once tossed aside during an eclipse of reason. You wonder whether you will ever have the heart to leave this place. As the writing in this volume proves, this same epiphany has dawned through the long years on the likes of Charles de Montesqieu, Dubravka Ugresic, Alain de Botton, Simona Luff, Chris Ewan and many, many more.
Fortunately, I am no exception. Thirty years ago, not long after I moved to Amsterdam, I was riding my bicycle one blustery February afternoon along the Singel canal, not far from the city’s central train station. Suddenly, the sun broke through the towering cumulus clouds and the houses along the far side were bathed in a light that seemed to etch sharp lines around each brick, every notch in every gable, that threw fat black shadows between the crazily teetering house fronts. Dutch light, I realized, this was the famously oblique Dutch light. As a university student I had loved German Expressionist cinema, and here, in an instant, I remembered why, and saw where Robert Wiene could have gained his inspiration for the weirdly skewed architecture of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, why Werner Herzog had later chosen a Dutch mediaeval cityscape for his 1979 remake of Nosferatu. It was the unbending light made immortal by Ruysdael and his fellow Dutch masters, throwing into relief an old city going into its eighth century of sinking back, with raucous good grace, into the morass from whence it came.
As aboard all sinking ships, of course, gaiety in Amsterdam goes hand-in-hand with a remarkable, almost heroic empathy, as you will see in Simon Carmiggelt’s matchless anecdote about the Nazi beer belly. It is that same dry-eyed, ironic bent that gave birth in Holland to the centuries-old tradition of the stadskroniek, which expresses itself in vignettes of city life so precise as to seem written on the head of a pin. In addition to Carmiggelt’s musings on café encounters, the world of Dutch letters has been graced by other chroniclers, more recently among them the late Martin Bril, who wisely followed Admiral Michiel de Ruyter’s maxim that ‘in Amsterdam, a gentleman goes by foot’. Before his untimely death, Bril’s pavement-pounding resulted in a series of columns, some of which are found here, that not only nail down the peculiarities of the Dutch capital, but at the same time underscore its universality and, therefore, its timeless humanity.
Giddy Amsterdam, staid Amsterdam. Empress, fishwife, lady of the night. Hero, artist, traitor, beggar. Visionary, Calvinist and clown. It is that timeless humanity of which this anthology sings.
Sam Garrett, a prize-winning literary translator and writer, has been living in Amsterdam since the early 1980s. This is his introduction to city-pick Amsterdam, featuring over 60 writers on the city.