Conflicted city with a duel personality
The contrary nature of the Dutch capital only serves to encourage the visitor to delve deeper, writes Kari Gislason
BY COINCIDENCE, I flew to Amsterdam a week after I’d read Ian McKewan’s novel of the same name. Amsterdam is a modern take on the theme of duelling and, in many ways, he couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate place for his title. This is a city that duels with itself.
I flew in at dawn, traditionally the moment to test your abilities at 10 paces. The countryside below was dark but blocks of orange light pulsed in the fields.
Greenhouses,’’ said the man next to me. From 30,000 feet, they looked like signals from an alien planet, or perhaps like Victorian gas lanterns lighting a wooded path.
We cut through low clouds and a blue dawn emerged. It was very cold and began to rain lightly. On the bus into town, you felt that the city wasn’t just asleep but pretty suspicious of the idea of ever getting up. But it was Saturday, after all. And if Amsterdam was sleeping in, it was only befitting the lingering winter.
My own reason for coming was to join a river cruise. I checked in and dropped my bags. A butler helped me unpack. Really. I think I could have asked him to present my card to a rival. But instead I dressed for rain and took a stroll from the docks into town. The most direct route took me first into the red light district, de Wallen. It was nine in the morning, still very grey, but the fluorescent bulbs were already on. Or they’d been on all night, like in the greenhouses.
I exchanged eye contact with a young woman in a white G-string. She looked straight at me, but behind the invitation was such distance that I couldn’t help but wonder where she’d rather be for the coming spring. My guess was, as far from Amsterdam as possible.
Seeing that I wasn’t a customer, she returned her gaze to the cigarette between her fingers. The atmosphere was damp and closed but perhaps after lunch the sun would come out, and men younger than me, with less of a sense of their own mortality, would be fighting for her affections. I rather hoped so. There was a break in the clouds. Ahead of me, pale sunlight illuminated a dozen anoraks: a tour group on yellow bikes that had been given matching rain wear. They presented an odd contrast to the local riders, without exception dressed in sombre brown and black.
The group dismounted to cross a bridge and cut a swath through the pedestrian traffic drifting into de Dam, the town square that widens your perspective of central Amsterdam and lifts you out of the alley-like beauty of the canals. A spring fun fair blocked the view of the Royal Palace: a ferris wheel and, high above a caravan park of brightly lit stalls, a spinning chair ride called Around the World.
It was true. From up there you saw the whole world: legions of bikers; blue and white trams bringing in shoppers; the New Church; the brothels; the line-up of wet tourists outside Madame Tussaud’s; a solitary travel writer trying to figure it all out, to understand where the simulations ended and reality began. I was trying too hard, I knew it. The duels at the heart of the city were old, archetypal ones, and it didn’t take a genius to see that they were painted in bright orange lights, as well. This was a port city, pure and simple, containing the whole world and all its conflicts. And, like a good book, Amsterdam dared you not to enjoy it.
I enjoyed it. As the day warmed, the locals poured in. And the English bucks’ and hens’ parties suddenly appeared, too. A barge ferried a dozen young men in 16th-century costume. They called out to a hen’s night of ballerinas in tiaras, offering tulips.
Another apparatus called a bicycle bar’’ did what the name suggested: instead of resting its feet against a foot rail, the group pedalled. It was an appropriate form of madness, for more so than the narrow streets, the canals, the sloping houses, or even the English, Amsterdam is held together by bicycles. Wherever I turned they were chained to canal railings, lampposts and street signs.
A giant yellow clog-boat was being dragged through another of the canals. Really. I followed it towards the shops, to fulfil a promise I’d made my kids.
I found a table at Cauboy, a decent grill that for some reason had decided not to spell its name properly. The street outside was becoming more hazardous: the tall Dutch on their tall-framed bikes took other peoples’ lives in their hands. Several tried to kill me, but I was too slow to utter a challenge.
After my burger I made it to one of the markets, dominated of course by fridge magnets, key rings, plastic cannabis leaves and tulips. I bought my children the clog key rings they’d asked for. This was my only matter of honour. Flowers were everywhere, and to me they were still the final and very graceful emblems of this town. Maybe it was only right that it took night lights to keep up with demand. Maybe they were ever such a little bit fake. It was all a bit of a contradiction.
The writer was a guest of Scenic Tours.