Completely by chance, quite by accident, the city of Amsterdam has become connected in my mind with an image drastically different from its history and its reputation. From its early history, Amsterdam has prospered, has welcomed international trade and visitors, has been a sanctuary for religious outcasts of other cities; it has been a haven of tolerance, capitalism, even libertine behavior. Prostitution and marijuana use have long flourished there.
I’ve been to Amsterdam twice, once on New Year’s Eve 1981-turning-1982 and again on a completely unrelated trip twenty five years later. Both times, any mention of my going to Amsterdam was met with a wink and a nod…prompting me to explain that my trips were completely legitimate sightseeing trips.
Of course, there was the sightseeing: central Amsterdam is a series of concentric parabolic canals that encircle “the Dam,” the center of the city where the Royal Palace looms. The city is view-after-view of picturesque bridges, tree lined streets, and bicyclists everywhere. Buildings are shockingly narrow, built on “invented” land (recovered from marshland centuries ago) and crested often with a block-and-tackle to allow furniture to be lifted in and out through the front windows. At the north end of the city stands the cavernous Centraal Train Station, a beautiful Renaissance Revival building from the 1880s; at the opposite end of the city is the magnificent Rijksmuseum, housing several paintings by Vermeer and more than 20 paintings by Rembrandt, including “The Night Watch” and “The Syndics.” Further to the south is the Van Gogh Museum…for me, the reason to visit Amsterdam.
But my impressions of the city were formed by serendipity: I repeatedly met with new understandings of women…not of a woman, but of the complex idea of women. On my first trip there, I traveled with a friend who was a “girl”—not a girlfriend, but a longtime friend who didn’t want to travel alone. We toured the city, saw all the sights, and toasted the New Year in the hotel bar, where many international travelers found themselves because the New Year is a family holiday in the Netherlands…most shops, restaurants, and bars were closed! We drank with a newly-wed couple from Malta, a petroleum-industry man from Scotland, and a very drunk Frenchman…as well as with every other customer because the bar was jammed and everyone was holiday-festive. Even while it was happening, I knew that I was having a different experience of the city than I would have had alone.
Twenty-five years later I returned to Amsterdam with a coworker for a whirlwind two days. We started our trip with dinner at Moeder’s, a restaurant in the Oud West section of the city. The restaurant is dedicated to the memory of the owner’s mother and focuses on celebrating all mothers; bring your mother on her birthday and she gets a free dessert and is regaled with a birthday song from all the diners. Bring a photograph of your mother, and they’ll hang it: the walls are covered with thousands of smiling moms. We had each brought a picture of our mothers, and the owner made an “event” of accepting them from us…he returned to our table with a bottle of Dutch gin and poured three glasses to toast our mothers! To this day, I wonder where the pictures hang.
The next morning, we toured the Anne Frank House…we are both fathers of daughters, so the impact of this place—partially a memorial from a father to his daughter—was multiplied. Despite the epic poignancy and tragedy of Anne’s story, the museum is understated; it presents the facts and the reality of how she lived and what she endured for two years and allows the story to speak for itself. Her diary has been labeled a “testament to the indestructible nature of the human spirit,” and the House reinforces that label: the original diary pages, her movie-star pictures still hanging on the walls…a sense of this young girl’s spirit remains to be felt throughout the rooms.
The night before we left, we wandered the city and, like so many tourists, walked through the infamous Red Light District. It was a huge mistake. For all the nobility and sanctity of women that I’d already experienced and celebrated, this neighborhood undercut it all. Women of all ages, barely dressed in lingerie, sat in storefronts or stood in doorframes, beckoning to passersby, offering themselves for hire. The district was overrun with gawkers and I regretted being there, regretted being seen as a gawker or worse.
Thus my experience of Amsterdam has much to recommend it: history and architecture and art and exceptional moments. But, like all modern cities, it also has some things to avoid, some things to correct.