Last summer was about a lot of things, but one thing I made sure to do was take lots of photos of the dozen or so European churches I was able to visit. And now that it’s once again the Season of Lent, I am so happy I get to share those photos with you.
For today, the First Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of the Noorderkerk. (Noorderkerk is Dutch for “northern church”). This church was built in the early 1620s in the Jordaan neighbourhood, right on the Prinsengracht, the outermost canal of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt. The Jordaan was growing fast at the time, and its residents were in need of another place of worship.
The Noorderkerk was purpose-built as a Protestant church (unlike older church buildings throughout the Netherlands that were originally Catholic, but were transformed into Protestant churches after the Reformation.) As such, its shape looks quite different from the traditional long nave of a Catholic church. It was instead built in the shape of the Greek cross, with four naves of equal length, and a small tower at the centre. The idea was that the building was centred around the pulpit, a type of church design that eventually become quite common throughout Calvinist Holland.
I have a lot of affection for the Noorderkerk as it was only a ten-minute walk from where I was living, and I passed it regularly, often daily, on my walks around Amsterdam. To my regret, I didn’t have a chance to see it on the inside — the church is still in use as a congregation and the hours it is open to the public are limited. But though it might look like a quiet, sleepy church, there was always a lot going on outside. On the square surrounding the church are the twice-weekly markets: a flea market on Mondays and a food market on Saturdays. There is nothing like a weekly market to give a church square a sense of being the heart of the neighbourhood.
Which to my mind is kinda cool.
I had lunch last month with a couple of friends who were in town for the holidays. One of them grew up not far from where I was living last summer, and naturally our conversation turned to my summer in Amsterdam. We had a very nice discussion about the differences between the Netherlands and North America. Our topics? The weather, table service, and, erm, the bike culture.
I looked out the window for a moment, thinking about what else I had noticed about life in Amsterdam, and then turned back to face my Dutch-born friend.
“You know what the Dutch do really well?” I said. “Trains.” I then marvelled aloud that I was able to travel by train from Amsterdam to another town for lunch, to yet a different town for dinner, and still be back in Amsterdam by midnight.
Yes, the Dutch have an excellent and comprehensive train system. What do I mean by “comprehensive”? I mean there are 3000 kilometres of railway in a country that is scarcely 400 kilometres from one end to the other. Along that rail network are nearly 400 train stations. That’s right: 400. Few Dutch towns are without a train station.
That kind of rail network isn’t possible in a country like Canada, of course, thanks to the fact that we “have too much geography.” I know that. Yet I still couldn’t help but wonder the other week, as I schlepped by Greyhound from Calgary to Red Deer to Edmonton, how much more pleasant my journey would have been by high-speed train.
Discovering the Netherlands by train was one of the highlights of my summer and I had lots of fun photographing the dozen or so Dutch trains stations I travelled through.
I don’t have a photo of the station I used most often (that would be Amsterdam Centraal) because the building was enshrouded in scaffolding all summer long. But here’s a look at the imposing entrance to Rotterdam Centraal, a station that was rebuilt only five years ago and, like Amsterdam, is one of the country’s busiest rail stations.
Den Haag Centraal is another of the country’s busiest stations. Note the Mondrian windows at the top right.
This is Leiden Centraal, another spectacularly designed station.
Most of Holland’s train stations date back to the nineteenth century, however, like this one in Kampen. It’s one of Holland’s smallest train stations. Only one train stops here, a small two-car train that does the ten-minute journey between Kampen and Zwolle three times an hour.
This is the entrance hall to the Maastricht station. See those ticket machines? There’s one for each national rail service: Belgium, Germany, and Holland. How efficient (and multinational) is that?
And this photo is from one of my favourite stations: Haarlem. Haarlem is on the Amsterdam–Rotterdam route, the oldest railway line in the country. The current building was built in the Art Nouveau style between 1906 and 1908 and is a national heritage site.
The sign above this doorway reads “Waiting Room First Class.”
I was especially intrigued by this plaque in Delfts Blauw tile on one of the walls in the Haarlem station. It’s from 1939 and commemorates 100 years of Dutch rail service. Train buffs know that the 1840s were the tech boom of the nineteenth century — railway lines were being laid down all over the place. In Canada, too.
I don’t know how many kilometres of rail travel I did last summer, but I do know this: it is such a civilized way to travel and I loved it.
So here’s another cool feature about the Low Countries that I want to share with you.
Those would be the Begijnhofs. Until the eighteenth century, most cities and large towns throughout Holland, Belgium, and northern France had a least one begijnhof. The Beguines (the French word for begijnhof is béguinage) were lay religious orders of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These women were not nuns, and the communities they lived in were not convents. They did not take vows of poverty — some of them had servants. They did not marry while they lived in community, but were free to leave at any time. They supported themselves by teaching or by working as labourers. And they lived in houses surrounded by a walled courtyard (hof is Dutch for “court”). The gates were locked at night, and the community usually included a church and sometimes an infirmary.
One of the reasons these communities came about was simply due to the demographics in Europe at that time: there were more women than men. But also, living in community like this offered these women freedom and independence and choice in how they lived — basic rights that today we all take for granted.
I was introduced to the Amsterdam Begijnhof a long time ago by my Dutch cousin. Amsterdam is full of hofjes, most of which are private, but this one — one of the city’s oldest, dating back to the fourteenth century — is open to the public.
The Begijnhof was allowed to continue to exist as a Catholic institution during Calvinist rule because the homes were private property. The Beguines lost their chapel, however, and today it is the English Reformed Church. Later, they built a “hidden church.” (For the period of time when Catholic churches were banned in Protestant Amsterdam, Catholics built their churches behind the façades of regular houses. From the outside, they look like ordinary houses, but on the inside, they look just like a church.)
One curious fact about the Begijnhof: it is at medieval street level, which is about a metre below the rest of the city. What I also find particularly curious is how its entrance backs onto the Kalverstraat, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. The last Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof continues to be occupied by about 100 women.
It was my familiarity with the Amsterdam Begijnhof that led me to explore the ones in Belgium. The Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard) is located next to Brugge’s Minnewater. Dating back to the mid-thirteenth century, it is one of the best-preserved begijnhofs in the country. You enter it through this gate.
It contains a church and about 30 white painted houses.
For the last 90 years, it has been the residence of a community of Benedictine nuns.
The Oude Begijnhof in Gent, also built during the mid-thirteenth century, is no longer walled. During the French Revolution, the city acquired property rights to the Begijnhof and then, in the eighteenth century, it wanted to take it over to use as housing for labourers. The Beguines moved to a new purpose-built begijnhof in the suburbs. The houses in the original begijnhof became worn and run-down, but were eventually restored in the twentieth century.
None of the original medieval houses are still standing in any of the begijnhofs throughout Belgium and Holland, although the layout of the communities remains essentially the same. Wooden houses were rebuilt in brick or stone from the sixteenth century onward. An exception is the single wooden house in the Amsterdam Begijnhof (the oldest wooden house in the centre of Amsterdam and one of only two still standing).
What I find fascinating about the begijnhofs is the witness they bear to a long tradition of women living independently in times when few were permitted to do so. As communities, they developed an architectural style of their own, which fortunately has been preserved.
And for the tourist overwhelmed by the chaos of central Amsterdam or on a whistle-stop tour of Belgium, they are a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of a tourist-overrun city.
OK, trick question. Look at this photo and tell me where it was taken.
Nope, not France.
Not Belgium either.
This cup of coffee was my way of saying good-bye to the Netherlands (within an hour of drinking it, I was on my way to Belgium by train), although ironically it looks less like a Dutch cup of coffee than any I had all last summer. And that’s because I was in Maastricht.
When it came time to say good-bye to my German friends, I headed west, and decided to break my journey, so to speak, in Maastricht. I wanted to spend one last night in Holland. And I had just enough time for a long, exploratory walk in the late summer evening, and a whirlwind tour the next morning of three churches, two of which are still in use, and one which has been converted into the most beautiful bookstore I have ever seen.
Maastricht has a distinct look that sets it apart from the rest of the Netherlands. It is next door to Aachen, in that same tiny little corner of Europe where three countries come together. This part of Holland has been occupied by the Romans, the Spanish, the Prussians, the Austrians, and the French. The last time the French were here, a little general by the name of Napoleon was in control of the region.
I knew even before I arrived in Maastricht that 24 hours would not do the city justice, but I stopped in anyways. Next time, I will be sure to stay long enough for a proper visit.
Oh, and a bit of trivia that you might find interesting, given all the speculation about the future of the European Union: it was 25 years ago this year that the Maastricht Treaty was signed (in Maastricht, of course) by 12 European nations to indicate their intent to create an economic and monetary union.
I started off my summer in Amsterdam by hanging out with my nieces for a couple of weeks. If you are ever jaded about travel (and I’m not, but, I dunno, some of you might be … ), go travelling with a couple of teenagers. It lets you look at a foreign country with fresh eyes. I felt privileged to be able to introduce those two to Europe and I am pretty sure they went home with the travel bug firmly planted.
My own travel bug was also firmly planted on a trip to Europe while a teenager. Coincidentally, I ended my summer in Amsterdam with a day trip to where it all began.
That would be Kampen.
Kampen is a small city in the province of Overijssel, about 90 minutes from Amsterdam by train. Overijssel means “over the IJssel” — the IJssel being the river that runs beside Kampen. Because of that river, and its proximity to the Zuiderzee, Kampen became an important trading town and it joined the Hanseatic League (a loose union of towns that controlled the maritime trade of Northern Europe during the Middle Ages).
Which means Kampen is just one more well-preserved medieval Dutch town.
Well, not exactly. Kampen is more than that. It’s where I first learned how to live in a foreign country.
Kampen is not quite as pretty as Leiden or Delft — it doesn’t have as many cute canals and bridges that those other cities have. What it does have are three poorten, which is Dutch for “gates.” They are what’s left of the city’s walls.
Kampen also has a bunch of churches. The Bovenkerk stands out because of its height (boven means “above”) and it makes for a pretty picture from across the IJssel River. Below is the view you have when you arrive in Kampen by train.
Once you cross the IJssel, you are immediately immersed in the historic centre of Kampen. This is the stadhuis or town hall.
And this is Oudestraat (Old Street), the main shopping street. When we lived in Kampen, cars and delivery trucks were still allowed to drive up and down Oudestraat. Total chaos, it was.
The tower at the end of Oudestraat is the Nieuwe Toren (New Tower). If you look closely, you see a cow hanging from the tower. (Not real, I assure you.) The story goes that the fine people of Kampen wanted to get rid of the grass growing on the roof of the tower. Someone had the bright idea of putting a cow up there (to eat the grass), but she died on the way up. They hang a replica every summer to remind themselves of how clever they were.
And yes, that is probably the weirdest story I can tell you about any place I have ever lived.
About those city gates. Facing the IJssel River is the Koornmaarktpoort. It is the oldest of the three gates.
This is the Cellebroederspoort.
And this is the Broederspoort.
Here it is from the other side.
On the one side of the Cellebroederspoort and the Broederspoort is a rather large and lush park, full of geese and ducks and rather large trees. I have always thought that the Netherlands made such an impression on my first visit not so much because it was a foreign country (though there was that, too), but because I had grown up on the North American prairies where large, leafy trees are few and far between.
We kids spent a lot of time in that park, if I am remembering correctly. Our mornings were spent studying, our books spread across the dining room table with the French doors wide open to the garden behind the house. But in the afternoons, we were free. We had our bikes and we had that park and we had an entire town to explore. We also went to the weekly market with our mother, and on drives through the Dutch countryside with both of our parents.
I am sure my memories are romanticizing the experience. I do remember feeling homesick for Canada, and I am sure we drove our mother around the bend, not going off to school every morning. But even so, I feel blessed that our family had that time together.
There is a lot to be said for visiting the European capitals when you go to that continent for the first time — and I’m so glad my nieces had their chance this summer. But I also know they found the traffic and the people (and the bikes!!) a little overwhelming. And so, there is also a lot to be said for exploring a small, Dutch medieval town on your own when you’re just a kid, as an introduction to Europe.
On your own on a bike.
And then there are the canal houses.
Google “unique European architecture” and Amsterdam is sure to be on the list. That’s because of its unique canal houses.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are narrow, they are tall, and they are deep. Although the place where I stayed in Amsterdam is a modern house by Dutch standards (a mere 125 years old) and doesn’t face a canal, it too was built in the Dutch canal house style. And let me tell you: you don’t appreciate how narrow, tall, and deep these houses are until you’ve climbed a narrow, vertigo-inducing staircase all the way up to the fifth floor.
A typical canal house is only six metres wide. The reason why they are so narrow? It’s because canal houses were taxed on their width. The city governors needed money to pay for the massive canal expansion of the seventeenth century (when most of the canal houses were built), and knew they could raise the money by taxing the most desirable properties, which the canal houses were.
The Dutch are notoriously thrifty, shall we say, and anything they can do to save a cent, they will do. So they built narrow houses.
Many canal houses were multi-functional: they served as both family home and warehouse for the merchants who lived in them. The first storey was where the company’s office was located (at front) and where the family lived (at back). The upper storeys were the warehouse. At the top of each house was a beam with a hook. When the merchant needed to haul his trade goods into the warehouse, he attached a pulley and rope to the hook. Those same hooks are still used today when moving furniture or during renovations when building materials need to be brought into a house.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are still in use as family homes, but also as restaurants, hotels, museums, and offices. I lost count of how many times I walked past a canal house, its doors open wide to the street so I could look right in on an open-concept office, with rows of white computer-laden tables or groups of people gathered around a long meeting table. The offices all looked like remarkably relaxed work environments.
Although the canal houses follow a pretty similar cookie-cutter style from one to the next, where they do differ is in the style of their gables.
There’s the step gable.
And there is the spout gable. It looks like an inverted funnel, and indicated that the canal house was a warehouse rather than a residence.
The neck gables allowed for the most individualization. The corners created by the 90-degree angle of the facade were filled in with ornate decoration that reflected the Baroque style of the time.
Sometimes the neck gables were built in identical pairs.
But often you see a row of canal houses with each gable different from the next. In this photo, from left to right, is a neck gable, a spout gable, and a bell gable. The bell gables are called that because the shape of the top of the gable resembles a church bell.
Here is a row of mostly bell gables. Note how the houses are tilted. Amsterdam’s canal houses are built on top of wooden piles that were pounded into the swampy peat bog until solid sand was reached. But as the land shifts through the centuries, so too do the houses. This particular row is known as the Dancing Houses.
Here’s another thing I learned last summer. Marvelling at the Amsterdam canal houses is a whole lot more fun when you have a house builder along with you. My brother would shake his head, chuckle, and say, “There are no straight lines.” I don’t know if he was unsettled by the lack of straight lines, or merely fascinated, but after he left, for the rest of the summer, I walked around the city looking for straight lines.
I didn’t find many.
Today’s reminder of Amsterdam came from an umbrella I saw someone carrying: it was bright red with the three white Xs on black of the Amsterdam flag running along four of its ribs. Funnily enough, as much rain as there was in Amsterdam this past summer, I never once saw one of those umbrellas over there.
But I did here, in Vancouver’s West End.
And yes, that means our rainy season has officially started. To keep myself cheerful during these dark and dreary months, I’m going to finish off the series of posts about my summer travels that I haven’t gotten around to writing.
Staring with this one about Amsterdam’s canals.
Amsterdam has a lot of canals. A lot. And a lot of bridges. Far more canals and bridges than Venice, which is why some people call Amsterdam “Venice of the North.” But Amsterdam looks nothing like Venice. And when an Italian-American friend of mine once asked me what people did with their bikes in Amsterdam, I looked at her, puzzled.
“What do you mean ‘do with them’? They ride them, of course.”
“But how do you ride a bike in a city with so many canals?”
Oh, right. She’s Italian. She’s thinking of Venice. I told her how Amsterdam’s canals are all lined with streets — one on each side — and the streets had plenty of room for bikes. That’s also when I told her about my first-ever visit to Venice.
It was a holiday weekend in three countries (Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria) and the youth hostel was completely full. The guy at the check-in counter told my friend and me that our best option was to try the convent down the street. He gave us precise directions: exit the hostel, turn left, and walk three bridges down.
“Do we walk over the bridges or beside them?” I asked in all seriousness. He looked at me like I was an idiot and asked, dryly, “If you don’t walk over the bridge, how will you cross the canal?”
Smart-ass, I thought, but as soon as my friend and I headed down the street, I saw what he meant. In Venice, there are no streets beside the canals and there is no way to get across a canal except by — you guessed it — walking over a bridge.
In Amsterdam, it’s entirely possible to walk the length of a canal without crossing it once. Where it intersects with another canal, you have the option of making a sharp turn left or right to start walking alongside that other canal. And at each one of those intersections, the bridges (there some 1500 of them in Amsterdam) go both over a canal while also going beside the other, intersecting, canal.
Last summer, I decided to get to know Amsterdam’s canals better and the best way to do that is to walk them. Off I went: down the Prinsengracht one day, back home along the Keizergracht, and then the next morning all the way along the Herengracht and back along the Singel.
The Singel is Amsterdam’s innermost canal, built way back in the Middle Ages and initially the city’s moat. In the seventeenth century, the city planners decided to add three more concentric canals parallel to the Singel. This expansion made Amsterdam four times larger than it was before and was desperately needed — by the end of the seventeenth century, the city’s population was four times greater than it had been when they first began building the new canals. (This was the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands was the world’s maritime power and Amsterdam one of the world’s largest cities.)
The new canals all ended at the Amstel River, and were designed for both defense and transport and, yes, to manage all that water. (Remember, Amsterdam is below sea level.) The entire area became known as the Grachtengordel (canal belt) and was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2010.
The first canal past the Singel is the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal). It’s named after the men who governed Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, many of whom lived along the Herengracht. One stretch, called the Golden Bend, was developed a little later than the rest of the canal, and its mansions were built on double-wide lots. Many of these are now consulates, banks, or museums.
The next canal is the Keizergracht (Emperor’s Canal). It’s the widest of the three canals and was named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.
And finally, there’s the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), named after the Prince of Orange. It is Amsterdam’s longest canal and is the dividing line between the Grachtengordel and the Jordaan.
These three major canals are connected to each other by dozens of smaller canals. The Leidsegracht is the widest of these and used to be the main transportation connection between Amsterdam and Leiden (hence its name). The Reguliersgracht (regulator’s canal) is probably the most photographed canal in all of Amsterdam. It is also where, if you are at water level, you can look through seven bridges at one time — a fact you learn when you take your canal boat tour. And the Brouwersgracht (brewer’s canal) way down at the other end of the Grachtengordel is where a lot of breweries were located (hence its name).
Eventually, my Italian-American friend spent a weekend in Amsterdam with me and saw for herself how different Amsterdam’s canals are from Venice’s. And shortly after our arrival in Amsterdam last July, I told my nieces the story of how I expected Venice’s canals to be just like Amsterdam’s. My youngest niece has since told me, now that she has seen Amsterdam’s canals, that she wants to go to Venice to see for herself how the Italian canals compare.
That’s what it’s all about folks: cross-cultural awareness and understanding.
About those bikes: just because the streets alongside the canals are wide enough to bike on doesn’t mean that bikes don’t end up in the canal. It’s been said that Amsterdam’s canals are one-third mud, one-third water, and one-third bikes and that more than 15,000 bikes are pulled out of the canals every year.
This past weekend, I had dinner with a friend who wanted to know all about my summer in Amsterdam. I admitted that I was a wee bit homesick for the place. When he asked for details about my home exchange, I told him that the best thing about it was its location right next door to the Jordaan.
Developed in the seventeenth century, the Jordaan was originally a working-class district of artisans and builders. Some say its name comes from jardin, the French word for “garden.” I would believe it, as so many of the canals are flower-laden, although it is more likely those flowers are a recent phenomenon. My favourite was the Bloemgracht and I made a point of walking along it every chance I had.
By the nineteenth century, the Jordaan was overcrowded and could no longer sustain the 80,000 people living there. (By comparison, its population today is a much more reasonable 20,000.) The houses were little more than tenements. Running water and a sewage system were not installed until the 1930s. Prior to that, the canals were — well, you can imagine. After World War II, there was talk of demolishing the dilapidated houses and replacing them with modern flats, but, thanks to the many protests, that never happened.
The area gentrified and today is home to young families, artists, and students, as well as many of the original residents. Cafés and bars and restaurants dot the streets, along with trendy shops and four weekly street markets: a flea market at the Noordermarkt on Mondays, a textile market along the Westerstraat, also on Mondays, and food markets at the Noordermarkt and along the Lindengracht on Saturdays.
And then there are the churches. The Noorderkerk was the church for the working class and the Westerkerk, technically across the canal from the Jordaan, was the church for the upper classes. (It is also the church where Rembrandt is buried. He moved to the Jordaan after his bankruptcy.)
The bells of the Westerkerk are the only church bells in Amsterdam to ring 24/7, which is done at the specific request of the Jordaan’s residents. Amsterdam’s most famous resident, Anne Frank, wrote in her diary about the comfort the bells gave her and how she and her family told time by them until the Nazis hauled them away to be melted down.
It was those same bells that taunted me on one of my first nights in Amsterdam — thanks to them I knew I was still wide awake at 4 a.m. But by then I was already in love with the view of the Westerkerk from the streets of the Jordaan.
The other night, after I said goodbye to my friend and began the short walk home, I came across two people enthralled by a skunk sniffing around in the grass. The couple told me that they have never seen a skunk before, not even in a zoo. I could tell from their accent they were not from Vancouver and so, due to my recent resolution to be friendlier with the tourists, I stopped to explain that it’s “skunk season” in Vancouver — the time of year when baby skunks leave their mothers and go off on their own — and that is why you see so many of them.
“Really?” they said. “You see them every night?”
“Well, no,” I said. “But often enough.” I asked them where they were from.
“Holland,” they said.
“Oh!” I replied. “I just spent the summer in Amsterdam.” They asked me how I liked it (they were from Amsterdam) and I told them I loved it. We chatted about Holland for a bit, and then, after warning them not to get too close to the skunk, I said good night.
As I am still settling back into my life here in Vancouver (and let’s be honest: it takes a while when you’ve been a way for a while), I thought it was a happy accident that a skunk drew me into conversation with a Dutch couple only minutes after I left my friend, with whom I’d been regaling with stories about my summer in Amsterdam.
And about how lovely the Jordaan is.
As I settle back into life in Vancouver once again, I am also reflecting on the summer I’ve had. For those of you who are wondering, I won’t keep you in suspense: I eventually did reach what I call the fourth and final phase of adjustment to living in another country and culture.
It happened on my last Saturday in Amsterdam. Taking advantage of the gloriously warm, sunny weather, I was enjoying a long walk through the city’s centre. My mind was preoccupied with everything I had to do before leaving Amsterdam (a not insubstantial list). At the same time, I was feeling slightly sentimental about the sights and sounds around me, knowing it might be a long time before I would once again walk along this canal or across that bridge or hear the ding of a tram.
As I made my way past a tour group outside the Oude Kerk that was blocking my way, the guide’s voice caught my attention. She was holding up a laminated map of the Netherlands and explaining how much of the country lies below sea level.
And that was the moment when it hit me: I was actually going to miss the place. This overrun-with-tourists, charming-to-the-point-of-kitschy, historical-but-oh-so-modern city had completely captured my heart in a way I did not expect it to. And in acknowledging that, I knew I was — finally — feeling completely at home in a city that was not my home.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that I came to this realization on the same day I learned the mystery of Amsterdam’s traffic rules. I’d been puzzling over them all summer long.
There are no yield or stop signs in the centre of Amsterdam and no cyclist slows down — ever — at intersections. And so, within a day or two or my arrival in Amsterdam, I had learned that the bike is king. Pedestrians may walk on the road (indeed you often have to because your path is blocked by the many bikes parked haphazardly on the sidewalks), but as you walk, you always, always keep an ear tuned for the ding-ding of a bicycle bell — which is not a toy in Amsterdam. If you don’t immediately jump out of the way, the inevitable “pas op!” (watch out!) is hollered by the cyclist bearing down on you. At intersections, even when you have the green light, you make like an owl and spin your head 360 degrees to check for bikes. Because the bikes are everywhere.
All of which makes walking in the centre of Amsterdam rather stressful. You can’t not pay attention.
But even knowing all that, I could not figure out how the cyclists did not ride into each other. Finally, on my last weekend in Amsterdam, the mystery was revealed to me.
Yield to the right.
Suddenly everything fell into place. So, so simple. But then, the Dutch are masters at simple.
Some other, not insignificant, observations from my summer in Amsterdam:
- There are two Amsterdams: one for the tourists and one for the Amsterdammers. You’ll have a much better time if you try to avoid the first as much as possible.
- The Dutch know how to have an awful lot of fun with minimal fuss. There’s an important lesson here: keep it simple. (See above.)
- Travelling by train is by far the most civilized way to get around.
- There is far too much water in the Netherlands, but the Dutch — out of necessity — have been so creative at finding ways to live with it, beside it, and on it, they hardly seem to notice.
- Amsterdam is a twenty-first century city in a sixteenth-century setting and the only reason that is possible is because, unlike Canadians, the Dutch aren’t compelled to pull down any building older than, oh, 50 years.
I also learned not to bat an eye at the massive amounts of alcohol consumed in the streets during festivals such as Amsterdam Pride or the Prinsengracht Concert, at male cleaners in women’s public bathrooms while in use by the women, or at people setting a table on their front stoep, complete with cloth napkins and long-stemmed wine glasses, to enjoy their dinner on a warm summer’s evening.
One lesson I wrestled with all summer long was coming to an understanding of the Dutch notion of tolerance, which they call gedogen. I finally clued in that gedogen is nowhere close to Canada’s notion of tolerance. (We like to define it as acceptance of or openness to diversity.) In the Netherlands, something might be illegal (say, smoking weed), but if it doesn’t bother anyone, the law is not enforced. That’s gedogen. It has nothing to do with acceptance; rather, it is all about pragmatism, which is a personality trait all Dutch people possess. (And pragmatism, I should think, is fundamental to living easily and comfortably in one of the most densely populated countries in the world.)
My most important lesson of my Amsterdam summer came to me from the girl in the phone shop, however. I had popped in to find out why my mobile phone had stopped receiving data, and she went totally out of her way to walk me to the grocery store down the street where she said I could buy a new SIM card for a few euros less than what she was selling them for. To make conversation as we walked back to the phone shop, I asked whether she gets a lot of dumb questions from tourists.
“Well, yes,” she said in that way the Dutch have of not mincing their words. “But I always am happy to help because when I am somewhere on holiday (she pronounced it hol-LEE-day), I always hope that someone will help me.”
Gulp. I realized I could do far better in being a kinder host to the tourists who overwhelm my Vancouver neighbourhood every summer.
It would be a shame if I spent a summer in another country and did not come home a little poorer and a little wiser. So I am happy to say that was not the case for me this summer. And as I looked through my collection of photos, trying to decide which one to include with this post, a wave of homesickness for Amsterdam came over me.
It was the best feeling.