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

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - CRUISE SEASON PREVIEW -

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.

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