Amsterdam

We stayed out at Hoofdweg. The neighborhood wasn’t very interesting, but it did have quick transit via Tram 13 from Mercatorsplein to the Dam and Centraal.

We also stayed only a short time and surely missed some wonderful things but, from all we can tell, Amsterdam really isn’t our kind of town. We had breakfast at Dam Square, just because it was convenient, did some shopping for clothes and lovely Dutch cigars at Leidseplein and surrounding areas, took shelter from the rain and enjoyed a dinner of home-style Indian food at Rembrandtsplein, and finally went back for fresh mint tea to Leidseplein. All of the above are probably 70/30 tourists to locals, but then show us something in Amsterdam that isn’t. These cities in Europe lack any fresh ground.

Sadly, the place is like Dublin and Paris in the plethora of souvenir shops and mall brand stores from H&M to D&G, or just clearly tourist-oriented amenities cramming every conceivably interesting place. People should say of these places that they are already spent for being new paths to trod. There’s little unfamiliar about them except some kitch. Little, but not nothing. It’s not that we really need virgin soil, it’s that we don’t travel for yet another American mall experience.

Amsterdam is also the twenty something mecca, and we don’t really identify with the boys out to smoke dope and one up each other on which hookers they banged in a European “Vegas”, or the girls out to get high and get laid as much as they can away from the prying eyes and judgments of Daddy and a lot of their social strata at home. And anyone who thinks these aren’t exactly what’s going is daft and gullible. Yeah, yeah, not your kids, right? It’s not a moral judgment, we just find that sort of thing tedious and distracting, like Spring break parties in Vegas.

One thing it also produced is that if you ask directions in Amsterdam, odds are better than even you’ll get brain addled incoherence. A lot of people are just dumber from all those “coffee shops” but, again, that seems to be mostly twenty somethings having their secret sense orgy in the Netherlands.

When I travel alone, it’s for all kinds of things off the beaten track – deserted islands, dark forests, odd countrysides – but as a family we travel for cities, and we do want the actual beat of the city, not a city whoring itself out from a gazillion store windows, and we don’t mean the red light district. I’m not knocking all of Holland, any more than I would all of Ireland or France, but Amsterdam, as a city, is not a likely return destination for us, unlike Berlin and London.

OK, so a few good things: nice pancakes (I grew up with these – they’re topped with powdered sugar instead of syrup). The fresh mint tea might be available elsewhere, but it was readily offered in Amsterdam, and we loved it. Not some wussy bundle of leaves, but large stalks of them served in a glass of hot water. Press that stuff hard with a spoon to release the oils, and it’s really nice. Even at coffee shops in the States that pride themselves in healthy and esoteric options, they still often throw some dried up old teabags at you, full of powdery crap. Apparently having bulk tea or fresh ingredients is too burdensome. As usual’ I liked the old world architecture, the general quality of available goods – not the least of which includes fine Dutch cigars, which are smaller and more durably wrapped than Cubans, as well as less demanding of moisture, and of course as always we loved the efficiency of public transportation.

That raises another issue – the cyclists. In its effort to favor human powered transport, something with which I generally agree, they have allowed the drivers of any kind of two wheel vehicle to become a continual danger to pedestrians, which is backward and stupid. Vespas and even cars drive on the sidewalk, as do bicyclists, and while the bike lanes and sidewalks are immediately adjacent, sometimes they overlap, leaving a chaos of dodging oncoming vehicles. You learn quickly in Europe not to walk in bike lanes; it’s the first rule of walking. In Berlin, for instance, you have more to fear from stepping into the lane with bikes approaching from behind than from stepping in front of a tram or car. In Amsterdam, though, a woman struck a giant plastic ice cream cone, missing us by inches on the crosswalk, because she couldn’t be bothered to do it correctly, we were nearly run down by a carload of teenagers dodging a tram at the last moment, and cars and scooters taking to the sidewalks made us leap out of the way even in residential areas. Frankly, adding in the dope and the tourists, it’s too much.

This is the thing: the myth of the great historic cities of Europe is a fiction from the past, just like the idea of the diversity of America. When you travel around the US, with the exception of a couple of cities like NYC and Portland, you’ll likely see their Walmart, their Dennys, their Aldo shoes, etc. You could visit and never have to touch, and maybe not even be able to find, anything sufficiently distinctive to justify the trip. Go to Waikiki and the Dennys will just have plastic palm trees.

Paris is overrated and, as the world’s number one tourist destination, is essentially ruined, unless you really *like* souvenir t-shirts and miniature Eiffel Tower key-chains, overpriced fat-heavy foot with surly waiters (who could blame them?), and crowds dotted with screaming kids, endless photos of the same things, ice cream treats on every street corner (to keep the tourists sucking and pacified), and gaudy facades of every imaginable semblance of something that once might actually have been real.

Amsterdam is no different. Berlin may become that way, given that it depends utterly on tourism and on corporate retailers that market to up and coming affluent twenty somethings, like everywhere. Or maybe it’ll become more like London, with enough stuff holding out that it retains some actual character and charm despite the hordes. London is more like NYC in this regard – resilient – though you wouldn’t know it if you only visit Hyde Park, London Bridge, and Liverpool Street. Berlin still has the radical mix of unique environments stemming from its recent torn past, though it is transitioning. There may be wonderful areas of Amsterdam, and our brief visit isn’t enough to be sure, but it comes off as essentially ruined. Paris is ruined, because while there are great neighborhoods, the ones of legend are all effectively shopping malls.

Dublin is ruined, because the entire center and heart of the city is a glitzy, sham, Lucky Charms kind of shopping area, complete with bullsh*t pubs selling you authentic crap. Like Church’s Chicken and payday loan places mark the boundaries of a ghetto it the US, don’t forget the ice cream. If you want to see the crap, follow the strollers and ice cream cones. It’s a bit like the hundred signs in London proclaiming that each establishment serves the best Fish and Chips in that city. In this way, Amsterdam is ruined too, like a worn out hooker – the flower is not only off, it’s virtually impossible to remember.

I realize, of course, that I am offending two parties with my posts on Europe.

1. There are the yuppie types who want to proclaim that “oh yes, you must go to Paris. The Latin Quarter is so wonderful, and we had wine in Monmarte…” But these people are just perpetuating the myth, because they don’t want to admit that it isn’t a transcendent experience. Or else, they’re already off to the next thing, and it was pristine when ‘we’ were there, but the new place where “it” is happening, saying “oh you’ve got to go’ you’ve got to go” to the friends they think will never go. Look, if you’ve never spent time living and breathing in other cultures, then go anywhere, if you can. The poor can’t do this easily, so let’s not pretend. But especially if you’re from the US, with our insular attitudes and geographic and cultural isolation, if you can find a way to spend significant time elsewhere, it’s just unhealthy given the dominant cultural attitudes, to stick to one culture. But if you have done, then I say places like Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam are like hanging out in the Mall of America and thinking that is Minnesota. Did you know there used to be direct flights from Paris to the airport nearest Mall of America? They went in droves. And your feet never had to touch ground; a bus would pick passengers up at the airport, take them to the hotel adjacent the mall, and take them back again when they were ready to leave. They never saw anything corporate America didn’t want them to see. It reminds me of Billy Graham getting the guided tour of China. I had to go see these places, and I did touch ground in them, some more than others, but I’m not interested in going back to the mall-like ones.

2. There are also the stereotypical rednecks who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere beyond US soil, for all the reasons we needn’t recount here, but who might be happy to hear that not everywhere is all it’s cracked up to be. But far from siding with them, I do think there’s tremendous value in spending time in foreign lands that you can’t replicate from getting a Winnebago and following the mythical but no longer existent “road” from Kerouak or some folk song. Those Winnebagos always seem to end up at Dennys and Walmart or trying to eek a transcendent experience out of some vista and mythology of the ‘land’, for lack of any other direction. No, I don’t think it’s the same thing to travel Route 66 or visit California, as nice as those might be if you like it.

There seems to be another prevalent attitude about travel, and you just about have to travel to find it. These cities are replete with Americans who, lacking a cultural home of their own, have decided it’s *their* Paris or Berlin or whatever. But you can tell it really isn’t because, while most local people aren’t fond of the stereotypical tourist type, they are generally quite welcoming of foreigners. “Tourist” actually has two meanings, one matter of fact and referring to anyone traveling through or on a short stay, including cultural explorers and people who are generally there to enjoy a place for what it is, and the other negative and referring to those who buy “I Love Dublin” t-shirts and wear them everywhere ‘disguised’ as a local, while complaining about most things and ditching merchants who sell real stuff in real places for the safe, well-lit pathways through the souvenir malls. A lot of Americans on longer stays, or even on short ones, tend to lump these all together, look down their noses at anyone who speaks American English and even snub conversation with them. It’s *mine*!

We tend to be cautious about talking to Americans too, of course, unless we’ve observed their behavior for a while, because so many of us tend to make utter asses of ourselves when traveling, and we don’t want to find ourselves sitting in a group or at a table with people talking loudly about what’s wrong with everything here. ‘Where’s the air conditioning, why are the toilets small’, etc. How embarrassing. The classic example is, “I haven’t seen my waiter in five minutes!” In the US that’s a complaint, but in Europe it’s a compliment and means the waiter is doing his job. Europeans don’t need the waiter continually, manage to eat on their own, don’t need a glass kept continually full, and would rather enjoy conversation with the meal than a constantly intrusive, “you need anything else, can I get you some pie?” We were joking with one waiter about the phrase, “it’ll be reflected in the tip,” because European waiters don’t really depend on tips. Ten percent is courteous, if a ten percent tip surcharge isn’t already included in the bill, but it’s not required. Waiters are paid a living wage instead of the American $2.13/hr plus tips under minimum wage exemptions.

And we’re also not interested in hanging out in expat ghettos, which seem to exist in most countries and are usually notorious cesspools, like Itaewon in Korea. That isn’t Korea; it’s a sex, booze, and fast food mall for clueless soldiers on a break. But we aren’t going to plant our flag and proclaim a country ours and off limits to newcomers. We were newcomers, and we’ll keep being newcomers somewhere. It just pays to be cautious and resist attempts to funnel us, as visitors, down too many prepared tracks and to too many designated areas. We’re not that kind of tourist.

OK, so the post isn’t much about Amsterdam. We were there a short time, and we didn’t really experience much, one could argue, except a lot of the Temple Bar in Dublin experience, only with more dope options, sex options, and kids instead of families, as well as the deadly two wheelers. We didn’t go to the Jordaan or the Jewish Quarter but, really, is anyone going to tell me that these well lit runways for tourists are going to hold any wiles and mysteries that the Monmarte and Latin Quarter in Paris lacked? Or will the word “authentic” be stamped everywhere like the phrase “healthy breakfast” on sugar cereal boxes? It’s like saying of your girlfriend “she’s actually quite intelligent”; if you have to say it, it isn’t true.