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Reporting from Amsterdam: Impressions

Amsterdam is a beautiful city whose canals and bridges are the outward signs of the engineering feat that created it. We are told it sits on millions of wooden pilings dating from the seventeenth century. The city was essentially created by a network of canals to the west and south of the historic old town and the medieval port that encircled the old town, accompanied by the repositioning inland of the city’s fortified boundaries: “This was a long-term programme that involved extending the city by draining the swampland, using a system of canals in concentric arcs and filling in the intermediate spaces.” I didn’t know that but undoubtedly should have.

The city is also the home of the original liberal project, separating religion from the state in the interest of individual rights. I have probably garbled his point, but it is one that Steven Smith makes in Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity. Professor Smith identifies Amsterdam with liberalism.

In Amsterdam we see the devolution of liberalism and individual rights into license and decadence. Prostitution is legal (and a source of tax revenue). The celebrated Red Light District is just off Dam Square, the center of Amsterdam. When we asked for directions to a location that would take us on a walk through the area, our informant joked: “Say hello to the girls.”

Marijuana is not explicitly legal, but it is tolerated as if it is. We see natives rolling their own joints at restaurants and coffee shops. Law enforcement authorities are notable by their absence.

We arrived in Amsterdam just in time for Amsterdam Gay Pride 2013. It continues for a few more days. The celebration seems superfluous. Is Amsterdam the European San Francisco, or vice versa?

Amsterdam seems to me both cleaner and more pleasant than San Francisco. We haven’t seen a beggar. The Dutch ethos somehow still prevails to maintain public order.

We are overwhelmed by the bicycles and scooters that careen through the paths adjacent to the city streets. It seems to me that they place pedestrians at substantial risk of injury. In Amsterdam I have seen for the first time the (frequent) sight of bicylists talking on cell phones.

The bicycles are clunky urban models. Has China offloaded its supply of bikes to the Netherlands? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it has.

We have found the native Dutch to be uniformly friendly. They remind me of Minnesotans. We want to blend in, but we are routinely greeted in English. I ask, how do you know I’m American? They just smile.

We have not come across any Dutch citizen who does not speak something close to perfect English. A (Dutch, as it turned out) food vendor outside the Rijkmusuem spoke perfect English with a New York accent. I asked him if he was from New York. He responded with a smile, “I get asked that a lot.” From our experience so far I would say that the average Dutch citizen speaks better English than his American counterpart.

There is so much to see here. The city is manageable on foot and public transportation. Working our (long, long) way from Dam Square to the Museumplein on foot, we came across a hotel plaque: “Chet Baker died here.” We happened on to Rembrandtplein with its tribute to Rembrandt and (surprise!) its depiction of Night Watch in statues.

At Museumplein we found the Rijkmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedeljik Museum as well as Amsterdam’s magnificent Concertgebouw. Faithful readers may recall that Ella Fitzgerald played the Concertgebouw in 1958 with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic show. Art! History!

I SHOULD HAVE STUCK WITH MY “IMPRESSION” THAT POT IS LEGAL HERE: It seems to be so, although there may be a wrinkle or two to the proposition. I regret the error in the all important “news you can use” category.

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