Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part IX: Amsterdam

For a few days, I became more of a tourist, rather than someone visiting "the old country."

We spent three days in Amsterdam which, like Copenhagen, is one of Europe's "old cities."

Like Copenhagen, the streets of Amsterdam are teeming with life at all hours-- "the city" is very compact; hundreds of thousands of people live and work within a few square miles. The most common form of transportation is by bicycle, or you walk-- many of the old cobblestone streets are simply inaccessible to cars... and cars are relatively impractical, anyway, since parking is expensive and in extremely short supply.

We stayed in an apartment (rather than a hotel) in an old house on the Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam's old canals, dating back to when the Amstel river was originally "tamed." Ancient houses line the canal; more people live in houseboats on the canal.

In the mornings I'd sit with my coffee by the windows overlooking the canal, and I became very aware that we were no longer in Scandinavia, but in Central Europe. The clue? At 9:00am, the city streets were quiet and virtually deserted. In Copenhagen, the streets would already be filled with people, going about life. In part, this is due to the fact that central Amsterdam has relatively

It seems that the further north you go, the "earlier" things are.

When I was a little kid, in Denmark, we'd go to school and lunch break started at 11:45. At home, dinner was promptly at 6:00pm, as it it was for most Danish families.

Many years later (as a teenager), we lived in the south of Spain-- one of Europe's southernmost places. At school, we had lunch break from 1:30 to almost 3:00; and it was not unusual for dinner to arrive at the table at 9:30pm, or even later.

Amsterdam fits somewhere in the middle... although-- to be objective-- it is much like many other larger cities here in Europe, in that it truly never goes completely to sleep.

Amsterdam is far more of an international melting pot than most European cities-- perhaps with the exception of London. As a center of European shipping for hundreds of years, people of all nationalities arrived here, even if just using the city as a jump-off point to other parts of Europe. Today, Amsterdam airport serves that purpose for many, with flights from all corners of the globe, connecting to different parts of Europe. In the old city center, it's not unusual that you'll be addressed in English before Dutch, and quite a few people working there probably know less Dutch (if any, at all) than their native tongues.

Part of what makes Amsterdam so livable and friendly to visitors is that pretty much all industry and commerce has moved out of the old center of the city-- the remaining businesses are mostly those that directly serve local residents and tourists. Thus, there is not a throng of commuters competing for space, and only occupying the city center during daytime hours.

In addition to canals and some excellent museums, Amsterdam also has really excellent food. The city is especially known for its Indonesian food; a result of past Dutch colonization of-- and trade with-- South East Asia. But there are many other kinds of excellent food; Argentinian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese and much more.

Of course, no mention of Amsterdam would be complete without a few words about its world famous drug culture. The bottom line is that it's "no big deal" except to visitors. Adriaan-- our "host" from the apartment rental company-- said that about 25% of the 4 million-odd visitors to Amsterdam each year "come to smoke." Which is fairly readily done, at any one of the city's 100s of Coffeeshops. And that's an important piece of "linguistics" for the first time visitor to be aware of... a café is where you go for coffee; a coffeshop is where you go for herb.

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