I’ve just come back from Amsterdam, my new favorite city. Sometimes it’s disappointing to visit a place for the first time too late in life, when you’ve already heard a lot about it and seen a lot of other people’s pictures of it. (I might be especially prone to this by virtue of having edited travel guide books about a lot of places I’d never been to). When I saw Prague for the first time a few years ago, all I really thought was yeah, that’s what I was expecting. Well, that and “the Old Town must have been really great twenty years ago, before it was coated in a layer of H&M billboards and stag party vomit.”
But this didn’t happen in Amsterdam. Its charm and beauty came as a total revelation to me. Walking from the train station to the apartment the night I arrived, past the lights of canal bridges and houseboats, I couldn’t believe how quiet the city center was. The near-total absence of car traffic, thanks to the canals, made such a startling difference in the atmosphere of the central districts, and made me wish for a future when cars were banned from all city centers. The city also felt suffused with good design. It wasn’t just that the old buildings and bridges were pretty; the maximum design potential – both functional and aesthetic –seemed to have been squeezed out of every little bit of indoor and outdoor space. I kept passing street-level windows without curtains, and couldn’t help voyeuristically peering into these apartments and houseboats; they were all so gorgeously designed. (I felt better when I later read that uncurtained ground floor windows are a Dutch habit, intended to display the carefully designed interior to all passersby).
I was there with my sister and her boyfriend, and we had good travelers’ luck in a lot of ways. The sun shone the whole time, which we were told rarely happens there. We happened to stay in the Jordaan, a neighborhood I’ve seen compared to Prenzlauer Berg and Greenwich Village, but found much more charming than either. And the food — either we had the best travelers’ luck ever, or Amsterdam is an amazing city for food. As clueless tourists without a word of Dutch, mostly selecting restaurants by criteria like “my feet hurt and I’m hungry, hey that place there doesn’t look very expensive”, we had much better food than I get on average eating out as a well-informed old expat in Berlin. The strawberry cheesecake ice cream and blood orange sorbet at IJscuypje, the chorizo jalapeno mini lamb burger at Burgermeester, the salmon and guacamole pancake at Pancakes! — it was all so tasty, even the Indonesian Rijsttafel at Sampurna at the hyper-touristy flower market was good.
Even though it was August, the height of tourist season, the city seemed able to gracefully absorb the tourists; local life appeared to be continuing around us unperturbed. Tourism is a fraught issue in Berlin these days, with ever more anti-tourist graffiti and a lot of anxiety about tourists “ruining” places, so I was surprised to see what a laid-back attitude to our obviously touristy presence people seemed to take in the Jordaan, the aforementioned beautiful district where we were staying. We went to lots of bars and cafes where the clientele was a mix of tourists and neighborhood locals, the latter seeming not the least bit fazed by the former.
So it was completely comfortable to be a tourist there, but I still envied the people who actually lived in Amsterdam. Specifically, I envied them their boats. The canals were full of people just cruising around all day on their own boats. These were not, for the most part, fancy rich person boats; all sorts of Amsterdam folks were just hanging out on the canals in the summer weather. There were groups of friends, couples, whole families and their dogs; teenagers sunbathing in neon-colored bathing suits; retirees eating lunch at folding tables with checkered tablecloths.
While I have little interest in boating as an activity conducted on open bodies of water, daily life carried out on waterways has always looked terribly appealing. As a child I was fascinated by pictures of disastrous flooding, the news photos that showed people on dinghies navigating streets of muddy water between the upper floors of flooded houses. But that looks so fun, I would think. As an adult I understand that natural disasters are not fun, but living in an Amsterdam houseboat with a little boat parked outside for traveling the canals looks incredibly fun.
When I got back to Berlin and stepped out of the U-Bahn at the corner of Mehringdamm and Gneisenaustrasse, the traffic noise seemed far more wretched than usual. I briefly wished for all the loud streets to be not just blocked to cars but dug up entirely and turned into waterways, lined with houseboats, boated in summer and ice skated in winter.