in Travel/Experience

Impressions of Amsterdam



I just got back from a week in Amsterdam visiting my brother, who is studying abroad there. (and has an excellent blog documenting his travels!) I almost wasn’t going to write a whole post in favor of throwing a few details in the Weekly Review, but there’s plenty I learned worth sharing. I guess I was biased because most Americans already know Amsterdam from Eurotrips.

A Jovial yet Pragmatic People

From the Uber drivers to the tour guides and all our friends in between, the Dutch are always slightly joking or playfully questioning your statements. It seems to be ingrained in their culture to not takes things so seriously, and make light of any situation. That’s always been a Breier family value as well, so I like it.

You can see this carefree yet grounded thinking reflected in their national history. Our friendly bike tour guide told us that the Dutch way of making a decision is to always look at the economical consequences. Weigh the pros and cons of each option, and take the one that makes the most sense. And if that option happens to misalign with the personal values, then they’ll pragmatically take it anyways, and try to figure out a way to stay true to themselves while keeping everyone happy.

For example, there was an instance long ago when the Dutch king was facing internal and external pressure due to being officially Catholic. So he issued a proclamation which announced that everyone, himself included, was now Protestant. Officially, Protestantism is the legal religion, but behind the scenes, they still tolerated everything. Everyone’s happy!

How did that work? Non-Protestants would worship in hidden churches like the Red Hat, which pretended to manufacture hats in the front but had a huge church in back. Even if somebody reported them, the law was that a church was only a church when there’s people in it, and the police would only make house calls on weekdays. Then they can feasibly say “Yeah, it looks like a church, but there’s no one here”, with zero persecution.

Pretty crazy, but eminently reasonable, no? It’s the Dutch version of ‘looking the other way’, which translates to ‘peering through the fingers’, as if you’re covering your eyes but still seeing. Except that it’s codified into the nation psyche, making the Netherlands a haven for dissenters of all kinds, even up today with the legal drugs and prostitution.  (Speaking of prostitution, The Amsterdam Diaries is a surprisingly well-written collection of anecdotes from a British gentleman who treats his Amsterdam pilgrimages as a refined hobby.

The Dutch World Power

This pragmatic Dutch operation treated them well in the 17th century, when the invention of wind powered sawmills allowed them to built ships faster than anybody else and become a world power in the Dutch Golden Age. Yes, I know, you usually think of Spain or England when talking about colonial powers, but there is a story to this succession. Roughly, it goes like this:

Portugal discovers far-flung colonial opportunities first due to the plentiful forests providing wood for ships, and the nation’s exploratory nature. Then Spain follows, using their greater forests and resources to seize as much from the Portuguese as possible. Then the windy Dutch countryside gets filled with wind powered sawmills, which let them build ships faster than anybody else, and they were able to steal Spain’s thunder. Then comes the Industrial Revolution, which allowed Britain, filled with standardized water-powered sawmill opportunities and a much larger population, to take over the world proper.

Yet there was a time when the sun never set on the Dutch Empire, too – New York was originally named New Amsterdam and many of its names (like Brooklyn), are Anglicized versions of the original Dutch versions (like Breuckelen). How did all my history classes miss that?!

Contemporary Amsterdam

The modern city is a great place to visit, obviously, thanks to the friendly people, vibrant history, pervasive public transit, and unique recreation opportunities. Apparently even the locals are getting tired of how crowded everything is, however – the downtown area is filled with tourists all the time, which makes it difficult for the locals to live their life around them. Unlike other international hubs lik eParis or London, Amsterdam is really quite small. Expansion opportunities for the city are few, since the canals take up a lot of space, and the whole area is watery, which means houses have to be built on top of forty foot poles pounded into the ground.

That’s why everything is so cramped – it has to be, and also people were taxed on the width of their house, which explains all the narrow mansions and preposterously thin stairs. Look at all the houses and notice the hook jutting out from the top roof – its for attaching a rope to in order to haul furniture to the upper floors and through a removable window, since they won’t fit in the stairwell.

Touristically speaking, the family covered most of the bases – a trip out to Volendam’s windmills and clog making factory (super commercial, but interesting to see), a trip to the tulips at Keukenhof (basically a “theme park without rides”, as my father put it), a day trip to Rotterdam, and a canal cruise as well as the aforementioned bike tour.

We also took a walk through the infamous red light district, which was a fascinating look at a ‘vice’ rendered ‘safe’. All the girls have their own clean warm windows, everything is very clean, and the atmosphere is almost calmer than the bustling city center. It’s definitely worth a stop there for any traveler, just for the spectacle if nothing else. (I had missed it on my prior Eurotrip here five years ago because both of my teenage male fellow travelers somehow were not interested!!!)