Friday, 12 February 2016

Amsterdam, City of Sin

About to board the Eurostar for Paris, then Amsterdam

Some tourists think….

John Green in the novel The Fault in Our Stars writes “Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”

City of Sin or City of Surprises?

Back in June 2015 we took the Eurostar and Thalys trains to Amsterdam to stay in an AirBnB apartment. I have been to Amsterdam once before with friends, an occasion that made me appreciate how unseedy the city is. If it is a City of Sin, the sins are not only connected to sex and drugs. The first stock exchange opened in Amsterdam in the early 17th Century and in the 1630s a run on tulips created the first economic bubble and crash – facts that run counter to Amsterdam’s Bohemian reputation. The historic buildings, the picturesque canals and the fascinating museums all sit side by side with the red light district and the marijuana cafes to create an intriguing place catering for all tastes. It is a place of contradictions and surprises.

Freedom for Bikes....

The hundreds – yes, hundreds – of bikes and cyclists are a sight to behold, particularly when you see the swagger and style of the riding. I saw people writing, reading, making phone calls, texting and eating breakfast when cycling along. At first I was 100% sure I would see a regular collision but, no, the freewheeling citizens of Amsterdam – all shapes, ages and types – have made cycling an everyday functional activity. A means of getting from Canal A to Canal B. From Home to Work.

“People are truly good at heart….”

One home that broke my heart and left me aching with both anxiety and hope was the Anne Frank house and annexe. On both occasions I have visited I have not been fully prepared for the house’s impact, despite a basic knowledge of what happened between 1942 and 1945 to the Frank family and friends. The specific sights, smells and sensations conjured by the sensitively-preserved memorial on Prinsengracht are intimidating, astonishing and inspiring in equal measure. I found it an intense experience in such a beautiful city.

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” (Anne Frank)

Along the Canals, Behind the Doors....?

The 165 canals in Amsterdam produce a labyrinth of trade and tourism and ambling along canal pathways is both relaxing and thought-provoking. How did people from the past achieve these feats of building and engineering? The higgledy-piggledy houses rearing up at the side of the canals seem to contain elaborately glamorous lives – probably no more glamorous than the houses in any other major city, but somehow the canals and unusually shaped facades lend an air of ambiguous chic. Is that a glimpse of a Thin White Duke or a Youthful Gentleman Prostitute? A Stylish Duchess emerging from that canal-side door, or a Profitable Courtesan? A Plain-clothes Detective or a Sly Murderer? Or simply Dutch families going about their Mundane Business? Or the Allard-Johnsons being tourists?