Friday, October 26, 2012

Further musings on Amsterdam

Herengracht, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

These are of course only mental snapshots; I don't think you really know any place until you have been there for six months or so. Still, one can't help gathering impressions.

I continue to be impressed with this city. It almost overcomes my distaste for cities in general. The famous Dutch fondness for the neat and orderly seems alive and well, and although those are hardly the most important virtues -- maybe not virtues at all if pushed to extremes -- they do cushion some of the sharpness when too many people in an overpopulated planet converge.

In fact Amsterdam would be even more enjoyable without a lot of its visitors. And I don't mean Ugly Americans -- the Yanks (judging their nationality from accents) are by and large well behaved. No, the lager louts from the U.K. and Russia constitute a lot of the undesirables.

But the locals seem easygoing and content. I would think that's hard when your home city is endlessly inundated with dozens of nationalities who can't speak your own language. (I don't know Dutch, but even offering a thank you in the local lingo -- dank u wel -- seems always to draw a smile.)

The streets and, especially, the major intersections belong equally to pedestrians, cars, bicyclists, and lethal-looking trams. You'd think it would be a recipe for anarchy and confrontation. Yet everything flows with balletic grace.

I'm almost tempted to take seriously the idea that a workable society can exist without religious urges, of which Amsterdamers have precious few. The Protestant churches have been refashioned for museums and other secular duties. Amsterdam is where churches are closed on Sunday.

It seems not so much enmity to spiritual life as indifference: not worth weighing. The Western world's modern gods are here in abundance -- sex, consumerism, entertainment. Who could ask for anything more?

But they're sleepwalking into a trap. Like Europeans (and not a few Americans), they assume everyone else shares their values. When they wake up, too late, they will understand that (for instance) the Turks and Africans don't.

Case in point: today we visited the Begijnhof, a cluster of houses around a courtyard that has existed since the Middle Ages as residences for Beguines, women with a religious vocation who are not quite nuns. (Typically for Dutch tolerance, there is a Catholic chapel and a Scottish Presbyterian church.) The oldest house, dating from the 15th century although "much restored," in the guidebooks' usual phrase, is now some kind of library or study hall open to the public.

When we went in, there was a black man seated at the reception desk, who offered us no reception -- didn't look up from his newspaper. Well, no big deal, I've seen surly caretakers of all racial persuasions. But, take my word for this, there were four or five Africans including one with the complete dreadlock get-up and all looking like they were at a reggae concert. Which in a sense they were, one playing reggae music on his MP3.

No doubt the Catholics are reaching out to their African brothers by turning an obsolete sanctuary over to them.

The Dutch, except for Geert Wilders and his party, are doing something similar vis-a-vis Muslims. In so doing they risk their indigenous culture, still admirable in so many ways, still alive a little longer.



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Stogie said...

I spent a week in Amsterdam in 2007, five years ago this month. It is a quaintly European city, lovely in its architecture and canals. I remember there was a shop there with its windows filled with giant cheeses.

If you can, visit Anne Frank's house, and see where her family hit from the Nazis until a Nazi sympathizer turned them in.

Rick Darby said...


Christine went to the Anne Frank house while I was at the conference. She said there was such a long line she couldn't abide it.

While honoring poor Mevrouw Frank, I'd rather spend my remaining two days visiting Haarlem (planned for tomorrow) and, on Sunday, a second visit to the Allard Pierson, one of the finest archaeological museums outside Rome, Naples, or Athens -- and a hell of a lot more accessible and sparsely attended than any of those.