04 January 2009

Amsterdam sans souci

With the songs of the same name by Guster and Peter Bjorn & John ringing in my ears, Ben and I set off for Amsterdam ridiculously early on the day after my last class before break.

The train plowed through Belgium quicker than the Germans (too soon? I don’t think so) and made stops at all of the Netherlands’ major cities – which are surprisingly close together even for the tiny speck of a country that is Holland – before finding its terminus and our destination at Amsterdam’s Central Station.

Once we had located our adorable, canal-side hotel, one member of our party took an epic nap while the other explored the nearby Museum Quarter and the adorable Prince William Canal, noting interesting restaurants and attractions along the way. For dinner, we tried out the nearby Pancake Corner where I ate a “pizza pancake,” and Ben tapped his England nostalgia for some fish and chips.

We ended our night at the Van Gogh Museum which is open in nocturne Friday nights, complete with DJ. The atmosphere was fun, and the art was great. The large collection of Van Goghs was laid out chronologically, and detailed texts – always translated in perfect English – gave context and insight into Van Gogh’s troubled psyche.

The next day was full of walking – a common theme of our vacation(s) – and colonialism. We walked “Farther Afield” as our guidebook put it to the Tropenmuseum. Formerly a testament to the colonial glory of the Netherlands (yes, the tiny country was a colonial power, controlling the massive Indonesia for hundreds of years), the “Tropical Museum” now hopes to offer ethnographic “stories” from across the world. It was a bit like the Musée Quai Branly but much more anthropological. And although the cartoon Indian with an accent fit for Apu clearly crossed the line of good taste and cultural sensitivity, the museum was well-done and held the attention of two self-proclaimed po-co enthusiasts. Plus, an exhibition on the influence of Vodou in Haiti was enlightening and surprising.

After learning that the National Maritime Museum was closed for renovation – along with half of Amsterdam – we strolled about the harbor and back to the Leidseplein, the bustling plaza located near our hotel. We chose a British sports bar for dinner. This helped to cement Ben’s theory that Amsterdam is really just an extension of the UK. He says that Amsterdam was the most like Great Britain of any city he’s been to (outside of GB, of course).

The omnipresence of English and Dutch’s tonal familiarity helped to add to this Anglophonic atmosphere, but for me, the most important factor was le style de vie of the Dutch. They seemed so laid back, so breezy, so…happy. After living in Paris for four months, it was a shock to see Europeans who looked and acted carefree. They smiled and laughed as they passed, leisurely riding their bicycles. They weren’t overly concerned with their outfits, and they weren’t threatened by the English language the way the French are. They were visibly happy, something so rare chez les Français. It was a welcome break from my French surroundings.

Our third day in Amsterdam was filled with more museums. Having purchased a money-saving “museumkaart,” we had free access to all the state-run museums; tapping our frugal Dutch heritage, we profited. Although Amsterdam’s equivalent to the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum (“state museum”) was limited due to renovations, it offered a very manageable selection of the Dutch masters, including a sizeable Rembrandt collection and a number of Vermeers.

We tried to stop in at the Filmmuseum, but after a confusing exchange with the friendly cashier, eventually learned that they didn’t have an exposition showing.

The foam (fotografiemuseum Amsterdam) proved interesting, however, and we finished our night there before heading to the Pancake Bakery. Suggested by our guidebook, the intimate eatery offered over 50 varieties of traditional Dutch pancakes. Ben’s cinnamon-apple and my cheese pancakes were excellent, and the friendly service reminded me how different from Paris Amsterdam really was.

On our final day in the city, we finally embarked into the panic-attack inducing, tourist-filled areas of Amsterdam. Until this point, we’d mostly mingled amongst natives on the outskirts of town, but we decided we should see the city center before we departed. We dropped our bags off at Central Station and walked down Damrak. We found them alright; tourists swarmed the street like screaming teenagers at an ’N Sync concert circa 1999. Souvenir shops, fast food and tacky museums abounded. I found it hard to see the allure of this people-filled destination. I much preferred the quiet canals and local parks we had spent our first three days exploring. But the crowd-think mentality apparently rules among tourists. The good thing is this collective thinking makes them easy enough to avoid: simply hop on a side street or take the next road over and life will be nearly tourist-free.

After fighting off the crowds, we saw an intriguing contemporary art exhibit in the “New Church” – another Pont Neuf situation considering the church dates from the 15th century. Since Amsterdam’s contemporary art museum was closed for renovations – shocker – select pieces were on display within the church. The theme of spirituality united the exhibit, making the randomness of contemporary art more palatable. As always with the Dutch, the text accompanying the art was extensive and informative, this time presented in a take-home booklet.

We spent the afternoon in the amusing Amsterdam Historical Museum and passed by the “Old Church,” a 13th-century wonder located squarely in the Red Light District, just before closing.

We caught our bus to Prague later that night without a hitch.

We’d seen so much in Amsterdam that it felt like time to move on, but I was still sad to leave that laid-back Amsterdam style and those glorious canals behind.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Bahhhh Red Light District.... "MOVE". SO GOOD.

I was never one for others' links in their blogs, but yours are all sorts of variations of combinations of delightful and informative.

Also, I'm glad to see that you got to see so much, and I'm very grateful for all of your gorgeous pictures.