On Saturday I went to Amsterdam. I had fond memories of the city from the last time when I was here and I wanted to go see some sights which I did not get around to the last time. So when the other conference attendees shuffled off to the day’s sessions after another fantastic breakfast, I slipped off to the bus stop.
After more-or-less retracing my steps for getting to the hotel, I managed to wind up at Amsterdam Centraal. Stepping out of the train station into the bustling city was a sharp contrast from the peaceful countryside which I had just come from. Standing in the middle of all those people rushing by, I had a sense of freedom: on my own, I could go at my own pace and where I wanted. The city lay ahead waiting to be explore. No, more than waited: it beckoned the travel to enter and be engulfed.
My first stop was the Rijksmuseum, almost on the other side of the town. Previously I was not very interested in it, but I was convinced to go look at the treasures inside. And, like the name indicates, it does hold treasures: treasures bought and hoarded as a small affiliation of provinces grew into a might empire: not so much by military might or terror as by acumen, daring and shrewdness. The Dutch bought, bartered and traded their way into the history books. And such is evidenced by the Rijksmuseum, which chronicles the history of the Dutch Republic. Silverware, china, richly decorated dressers and intricate doll houses (with genuine miniature silverware and everything made to perfect proportion) were just some of the examples of the standard of living the wealthy elite enjoyed. One thing which really impressed me was a wooden cradle, probably of eastern origin, which was crafted with great skill and which incorporated ivory. You then move on to the paintings. First a few which depicted the Dutch dominance in their colonies. Then the paintings of the masters started. Not being an art expert, I was greatly impressed with the work of Rembrandt, but also some of the others. A prospering society is one in which art flourishes, and this was evidenced in the paintings. Not only the fact that they existed, but also their subject matter: it was not cheap to commission a painting, but the elite could not resist in indulging. So each of the paintings has some history associated with it: a wealthy merchant, a nobleman, an ambassador. The exhibition climaxes with The Nightwatch, which truly is a massive, and impressive, painting. Whether you are an art lover or not, it is difficult to leave the Rijksmuseum and not be touched or moved in some way by what you have seen.
I spent a little more time in the Rijksmuseum than I had planned, but it was good time. I had a few places that I wanted to visit, so I set out to go and find them. At this point I started to get a bit lost and frustrated. It was getting late and I still had only been to one place. Eventually I got on the track again, in the process stumbling upon and visiting a cathedral. I was actually on my way to Begijnhof: an old sanctuary reserved for young women who lived like nuns, but did not take their vows. They were allowed to stay there in exchange for helping the poor and infirm in the community. The picture which had been painted to me about Begijnhof was one of a calm and serene retreat. But when I found it, it was by the line of people wanting to go in. There was not even a line at the Rijksmuseum, which is much more famous! Inside were dozens of people milling about, seemingly aimlessly. It was like they did not know what they were there to see or to find. Granted, I did not know what it would be like inside myself, but was at least anticipating some calm. I followed some people and slipped into the chapel. Inside were nearly as many people milling about as outside, all ignoring the “For Prayer Only” sign. I was upset by this, until I glanced into the next room where a man was manning what was basically a souvenir shop. Slightly disgruntled, I left.
The next part of my journey took me past some nice buildings. I managed to find the Royal Palace, which was fairly impressive, but closed to the public that day. Across the street from it was Nieuwe Kerk, which, as far as I could tell, only sported a gift shop. I then managed to find Oude Kerk, which was hosting a photography exhibiting which I did not have the time to visit.
And there was the Red Light District. The previous time when I was in Amsterdam I did not have a desire to see it. But this time I was urged (again) to go have a look. Not to satisfy some lustful curiosity, but for the sake of experience in this infamous part of Amsterdam. I wanted to look in the faces of the prostitutes and see what was there: what was the motivation to sell your body in shop windows like pieces of meat.
The first thing which struck me was the women who where there: not the prostitutes, the tourists. They were gathered in front of the Condomerie, laughing and giggling. They were also elsewhere and at one point it seemed like there were more women there than men. What were they there to see? Did they secretly want to have a gander at what a life which they did not choose (even if they easily could) would have been like?
Late Saturday afternoons in the Red Light District are either very slow for business, or very good, as many windows were drawn closed. Those windows which were open held women which were less provocatively dressed than I thought: nothings worse than any magazine stand one would walk past in the shops. Perhaps things are more risqué at night. The women honestly reminded me of mannequins. They could honestly have been automatons, looping actions of winking and pursing their lips. And I hoped that they could have been dolls instead of women dressed like dolls. But what betrayed them as human, was their quick eye and intuition. If they caught you looking at them, they beaconed for you; invited you. Despite my original observation of the number of women wandering the Red Light District, I found myself at one point wandering down a very narrow street, with windows on both sides, that was completely filled by men. They might well have only been there for a “look”, but their fat grins betrayed that their interest in the Red Light District was different from that of the curious women. As for the prostitutes, there was little I could learn. They very good at selling themselves, hiding any pain or shame (if there is any). But two may have slipped a bit: perhaps the rings around the eyes were not make-up, but a reason for going on…
The Red Light District did not seem to be a very large area (or else I missed most of it). I was surprised to soon find myself in the Amsterdam Chinatown, which was a fresh change of scenery. But signs indicating that “children should be accompanied” still marked the dark alleyways which led back into the Red Light District. Disgruntled, I headed back to the train station to go back to the hotel. On my way I heard the bells of the Oude Kerk ringing merrily. I looked up at the structure which cast its shadow impotently on the Red Light District and walked away sullen and somber. Amidst the contrasts which I had seen that day, I was reminded of when Jeremy Clarkson described the Dutch in the series “Meeting the Neighbours” as definable. I headed to the train station with more confusion than with which I went. On my way I stopped for a beer at a little bar. It did not have drunken youths cheering some sort of sports event, but had friendly and quiet elderly patrons. On a chair was a lazy ginger cat, and I felt at home. After my brief stop, I took the train and the busses back to the hotel, where I quickly passed out from exhaustion.
The day before, I spoke to a man from America who said that he had been enough in Amsterdam and did not want to go there anymore. I understand that now, as Amsterdam only has so many major tourist attractions which it markets. Once you have seen them, what remains of this small city? Once you have spent your money in it and had your pleasure in it, what is there to go back to? But I shall not take a view which is too dim. Every city has two sides: that which is marketed, and that what is real. What are the hundreds of little cafes, nearly hidden below street level, like? What is life like in those buildings which line the streets and which a tourist simply thinks of as ambiance? Suddenly a whole new world appears, one of more substance than the thin veneer painted for the tourists. I hope to one day return and learn more about the real Amsterdam. But for now, there are other places which need to be perused.