Sunday, July 29, 2007

Putting the Blue Clouds and Green Fairy behind us

Amsterdam has been another surprise of the trip. It truly is a beautiful city; a sort of Prague dropped on top of Venice, with Seattle and Boston influence (although, strictly speaking, the influence of course goes the other direction).

As is our habit we caught a bike tour first thing in the morning. Fortunately, the reigning champion of bike tours, Mike's Bikes, operates an Amsterdam branch. We made haste to join them and partook of the sheer joy that is biking in Amsterdam. The old city has just over 300,000 people and even more bikes. Many people don't own cars and many more haven't bought petrol in so long they don't know the price of it. The effect on the interior of the city is dramatic. Many roads are de-facto pedestrian routes that grudgingly part to allow cars through. Bike lanes abound and the canals make cars routes maddeningly circuitous while bikes can sail across old town in minutes. We soaked up, as always, a great deal of the history of the country, and learned a lot about how its past makes it the way it is today: The historically religiously open country that was rolled over by inquisitive Spanish Catholics, kicked them out and swung back to social liberalism, got rich on trade while the rest of the world squabbled over religous wars and imperialism, got rolled by fascists in the Second World war and responded with a defiant swell of tolerance and progressive social ideas once the Nazis were routed. Most of the famous (or infamous) social policies of the Netherlands amount to a constructive "piss-off" to the departing Nazi ideals. (Not just the well-known legalized cannabis and prostitution, but also women's suffarage, gay rights, and broad social support systems like a universal guarantee of housing.)

In our short stay here we had to brutally prioritize our sightseeing agenda, and after the bike tour the Anne Frank house was the natural next stop. It's kind of a pity that so much of European history is overshadowed by the relatively brief but recent events of the second world war. On the other hand, the wealth of records and the unimaginable horror at the heart of the war make it a very accessible, very compelling cautionary tale. The Anne Frank house and attached museum did their best to tap into this, though in a somewhat more storybook way (take the kids here when they're 10, wait till they're at least 13 for a concentration camp.). To me, the part that was the most truly interesting was an interactive exhibit set up near the exit of the museum. Called "Free2Choose" it showcased situations that called for a personal value judgement as to the limits of free speech, tolerance, liberties, and laws. It presented brief synopses of real-world events or controversies (like flag burning, head scarves for French school girls, holocaust denial, etc.) and asked the audience to vote using buttons placed around the room. It was quite interesting to see the groups reaction rendered in real time and compared to the average of all previous groups who had seen the presentation. The underlying theme of the exhibit was clearly emphasizing that tolerance and knowledge are the only true security against terror and tyranny; a good lesson for any age.

After paying our respects to Anne and her family we headed back to Zeedijk street, the main drag in the old part of town. Zeedijk is known for many things, including its ubiquitous roving bands of young anglo males, part of the rising tradition of holding stag party weekends in Amsterdam for British bachelors. It's also home to a confusion of Asian restaurants, Chinese, Japanse, Thai, the aromas of which mercifully cover the everpresent BO smell of pot smoke. We found a Thai restaurant (The Thai Bird) and had a pretty decent, if slightly overpriced meal. And no Thai Iced Tea, darn it!

No visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a stroll down Oudezjids Achterburgwal, a street that needs no introduction nor, in fact, any city-installed lighting. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, a monument to innovation and human ingenuity, Luzern has its wounded lion, a reminder of sacrifice and resistance to tyranny. And Amsterdam has Oudezjids Achterburgwal, the red light district, a testament to the spirit of live-and-let-live tolerance that has helped the Netherlands endure and thrive over the centuries despite the turmoil that engulfed the rest of Europe. Legalized since the 1980's, prostitution in Amsterdam is a strange blend of the profane and the mundane. Prostitues rent window space (and the accompanying rooms) for a set rate, and accept clients as they wish. Their "offices" have to meet hygiene standards, likewise themselves. The whole thing is legislated, regulated, inspected, and, naturally, taxed. Unlike the seedy image one pictures when thinking of the sterotypical red light district, Oudezjids Achterburgwal is surprisingly family-friendly. The window displays are, for the most part, nothing you wouldn't see in a Victoria's Secret store window (except the mannequins may wink suggestively at you) and the sidewalk traffic doesn't look too different from the average crowd emerging from a PG-13 movie. A large portion of the passers-by are, predictably, 25-40 something males, but women, teens, and grey-haired couples round out the mix. Life goes on, unfazed, on the streets on both sides of the district and the Dutch are happy to let tourist dollars come flowing in long after the novelty has worn off.

Leaving Oudezjids Achterburgwal bound for home we also decided to poke our heads into one of the many coffeeshops that abound in the area. They're pretty informal joints (no pun intended), most of them nothing more than a small, low room with comfortable chairs, dim lighting, and a bartender more likely to philosophically explain the paradox of a "victimless crime" than to separate drunken brawlers. More than a little self-conscious (I'll admit!) I strolled among the tables, just taking in the atmosphere (once again, no pun intended) and seeing what the culture was. It was, surprisingly, a little more akward going into the coffeehouse than it was walking down the street of the redlight district. Perhaps it's that going inside is an deliberate act, with less psychological deniabilty. I borrowed a menu from a serene girl in the corner and browsed the neatly laminated sheet which looked for all the world like the inventory of a drug bust. I figured since I was there, and feeling akward already, I might as well ask the girl at the bar to explain to me what I was looking at. The menu was divided up into different styles and strenghts of cannabis, and she explained why some patrons would prefer one versus another. Listening to her I began to see why the Dutch believe they have achieved civilization while much of the rest of the world are still locked into the self-imposed contortortions of moral and legal paradoxes.

Amsterdam has truly been one of the surprises of the trip. While the depth of history and culture alone are enough to keep you fascinated, the city is quaint and beautiful to boot. As much as we'd like to stay longer the end of our journey is rapidly approaching and we have, as they say, miles to go before we sleep. After touring the Van Gogh museum tomorrow morning we'll be making our way to Saint Malo tomorrow afternoon. Saint Malo (say it like the French; /San Mal-oh/) is a lovely ancient village on the rocky coast North coast of France, the historical home of fisherman and the secret base of the dashing French corsairs. The weather report for St. Malo is high of 68, low of 48, partly cloudy with showers--just like our Northern California coast. From St. Malo there we'll be daytripping to Mont St. Michel, that amazing monkery in an island castle you've no doubt seen in pictures. With only 6 days remaining of our trip we're both realizing that it has come to pass exactly as we knew it would: this trip has flown by. Much as both of us would gladly head back out if some eccentric millionaire offered us the means, at this point we're both warming to the idea of trading our worn backpacks for familiar beds and seeing old friends and family again.


warbler5 said...

Well........I certainly hope you took some pictures in Amsterdam! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Say pictures since 7/24. You guys are slipping! Perhaps poor internet time. Hope the trip to St Malo was good, It looks beautiful! See you in eight days! Love, Mom