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Amsterdam: some impressions
Travel-blogging from the perfect liberal city.
One of my little dreams was always to be one of those bloggers who takes a three-day trip to a new city and draws sweeping conclusions about society and politics and culture from walking around and seeing some tourists and eating in a couple of cafes. And now that dream has finally been realized!
Ha. I kid. But since I was only in Amsterdam for three days (to see friends), I tried to look around and pay as much attention as I could, and perhaps formulate a few thoughts.
If you run in educated liberal America circles (as I do), you find that Amsterdam is the one of the cities that everyone tells you to visit. Its only real competition in this regard is Tokyo, hence this tweet:
And indeed, for a number of reasons, Amsterdam felt to me like the perfect liberal city — the kind of gestalt ideal that American liberals have vaguely in mind when imagining the various changes they’d like to make to our society. To be honest, I can’t say it’s a bad vision at all.
Physically, Amsterdam looks a lot like other North European cities. Everything is very square — square buildings, square windows, square designs everywhere. Whenever I go to North Europe my first impression is that of being overwhelmed by squareness. Amsterdam puts a few more artistic, almost French decorations on the squares, though — some arched lintels, little geometric arrangements of different-colored bricks, and so on. The facades of buildings are more ornate and less flat than those in Norway, Switzerland, or Germany. This is true of both the modernist glass-and-steel buildings and the traditional brick-and-wood ones, reducing the visual clash between the two. The weather in Amsterdam is mild and drizzly, like a more temperate Seattle, which can create a general feeling of mystery and unreality.
The center of Amsterdam, and where I stayed, is an “Old Centre” shaped like a semicircle crisscrossed with canals and rivers. This area is full of small winding brick roads, traditional architecture, old buildings like churches, palaces, and museums, and so on. It’s also full of tourists. There’s a riot of languages spoken on the street, and everyone seems to be exploring the place with a few friends. Of course this means the area is also full of businesses that cater to tourists and short-term expats — cute little cafes, cheese shops, street markets, and the country’s famous marijuana “coffeeshops”. A friend asked me to take a picture of the famous rubber duck store, so I did:
I’m always wary of drawing conclusions about a place based on areas with a lot of tourists. Travelers are off of work, they’re cheerful and energetic and open, and they’re from all over the place. Central Amsterdam is especially like this, since the city center contains relatively few offices — just retail, entertainment, and housing. Therefore I suspect that some Americans visit cities like Amsterdam and conclude that nobody in Europe has a job, Europeans are all super friendly, and Europe is wildly diverse — things that might be directionally true, but are wildly exaggerated by the presence of tourists. For this reason, I hesitate to draw broad conclusions about the Netherlands or its culture and society from my time there.
But tourists are only one of the reasons Amsterdam is diverse — 50% of the city is of immigrant origin. In fact, I’m pretty sure I still don’t know what an ethnically Dutch person typically looks like; in a country famed for being the tallest on Earth, I found myself, at a modest 180 cm, taller than most of the people around me.
Amsterdam seems to disprove, at a stroke, the right-wing notion that diversity leads to social isolation and conflict. Crime is incredibly low in Amsterdam — there are only about 12 murders a year, compared to around 30 in a typical year in similarly-sized Portland, or 40 in Denver. Nor is it merely gun control; violent crime of all types is similarly rare. I walked through the seediest areas of the city and never once heard raised voices or saw anyone who looked even slightly dangerous. And unlike Paris, where the streets are full of heavily armed police, Amsterdam seems to have almost no cops — in fact, I think I didn’t see a single one.
Why is Amsterdam so safe, despite having a famous drug culture and practically no cops? Residents sometimes credit the Netherlands’ lenient approach toward minor crimes, as well as the decriminalization of marijuana and prostitution. Other proposed explanations include Dutch society’s famous tolerance, the country’s generous welfare state and low poverty rate, or simply that the place is just so darn nice. I’d say that this is a mystery, but one that deserves further investigation. Most of all, it speaks to the power and potential of culture to determine broad social outcomes, even in a place filled with immigrants and travelers.
The thing most people tell me they love about Amsterdam, however, isn’t anything I’ve mentioned heretofore. It’s the city’s urban design.
Outside the Old Centre, Amsterdam looks a lot like any developed-country city — a grid plan of streets made for. In fact, I was surprised by the number of cars in the city, even in the Old Centre — as you can see in the photo above, the street by the cute little canal is lined with parking spots. There were plenty of broad thoroughfares filled with fast-driving autos, right in the middle of the city. In fact, the stereotype of the Netherlands as a place where no one drives hasn’t been true for decades; most Dutch households own cars, and driving is now the most common mode of transit. The city’s train network is fine — the subway is basically an afterthought, and most of the trains are above-ground trams — but nothing to really write home about.
The most unique thing about Amsterdam’s urban design — and the thing that dazzles American urbanists — is the way the city is built for bicycles. The city’s masses of cyclists don’t have to share their space with cars; there are red bike paths and convenient bike parking spots absolutely everywhere.
What’s interesting is that this reliance on bicycles can feel like it relegates pedestrians to second or third class. Supposedly, Amsterdam has separate spaces for cyclists and people on foot, but in practice this is often not the case:
Several times I found a number of sidewalks blocked by construction, with no safe path around, forcing me to either turn back or walk in a bike path or car lane. Nor did cyclists always keep to their assigned spaces or follow traffic rules.
What this means in practice is that as a pedestrian, you always have to be on constant lookout for cyclists. Unlike in some other biking towns (for example, Osaka), cyclists will not ring the bell or even slow down when they zoom up silently behind you; they simply expect you to see them and get out of the way. I deftly avoided getting hit, but if I stayed in Amsterdam long enough I’m sure I would eventually get clipped or clobbered; I witnessed a number of tourists have close calls. Statistically, such accidents are not uncommon, and have increased in recent years.
This is an interesting role reversal from the U.S. In America, cyclists share their space with cars, riding in unprotected bike lanes or simply in the road. This means they are in perpetual terror of being killed by cars. This terror often comes to define cyclists’ experience of daily life — my parents would often come home and complain bitterly about the cars that nearly ran them down, and walking through San Francisco I frequently see cyclists shrieking in rage at passing drivers. In Amsterdam, its the cyclists who are brash and entitled, and the pedestrians who must live carefully.
In fact, the fight for space between cyclists and pedestrians has become a sore spot in the city’s politics. Here is a Guardian article about how cyclists are enraged at the city’s efforts to make the city more pedestrian-friendly. Some excerpts:
“Amsterdam is still a cyclists’ paradise but it is getting more and more difficult to move through the centre,” said…a spokesperson for the Amsterdam branch of the cyclists’ union. “It starts with the proclamation of a pedestrian zone and before you know it, cycling is discouraged with kerbs and then fences. The centre becomes the domain of pedestrians.”…
The “stress” caused by overcrowding and fast-moving bikes was said to have moved local residents and entrepreneurs to demand action. “The cyclist’s behaviour is the most important point in this issue,” a report…noted.
What this shows is how hard it is to design a city that works smoothly for walking, driving, and cycling. Amsterdam certainly has the upper hand over America’s sprawling car-centric cities like Houston or Los Angeles, but compared to pedestrian-and-car cities like Tokyo or New York City, the advantage is less clear.
Anyway, those are my main impressions of Amsterdam. Here are a few additional notes:
The key to eating in Amsterdam, I discovered, is to avoid all the food that would be good in America (ethnic food like Vietnamese or Middle Eastern) and to eat all the stuff that would be cheap and crappy in America — ham sandwiches, tomato soup, etc. What we think of as “American food” is mostly cheap crappy knockoffs of North European food; go to North Europe, and you suddenly find that when you make a ham sandwich with high-quality ingredients, it tastes amazing.
Like many people, my favorite area in Amsterdam is the Jordaan. The street markets really liven things up, even if I didn’t find much I wanted to buy there. I do recommend the fried cod. There are a lot of really nice cafes and art galleries and shops in this neighborhood. I did not get a chance to visit Anne Frank’s house.
Everyone in Amsterdam speaks English, but the locals definitely speak it as a second language. Their reactions at having a tourist come up and start chattering at them in English range from mild embarrassment to sighing resignation. This is one reason I’m always a little uncomfortable traveling in countries where I don’t speak the local language; I always feel like I’m imposing, even if the locals are good sports about it.
Amsterdam has art everywhere; I’m not sure how much of this is due to people just liking art, and how much is due to the fact that tourists come to the country expecting to see art. The legendary Dutch artistic sensibility is real, and hard to put into words. It’s clean and calm where Japanese art is intricate and chaotic.
I didn’t get a chance to observe much of Amsterdam’s politics. My vague impression is that it seems to mostly conform to the kind of staid, Obama-era mainstream liberalism that America has kicked against in recent years. Along with the inevitable signs proclaiming solidarity with Ukraine, and a protest supporting the Hazaras in Afghanistan, I saw a number of signs like the following:
For some reason, people in Amsterdam seem to be obsessed with the cartoon rabbit Miffy. Everywhere I looked in the city’s shops and windows, it seemed like I saw Miffy staring back at me:
Anyway, my stay in Amsterdam was too short, and I hope to be back sometime. In the meantime, I just arrived in Taipei, after cutting out the Singapore leg of my journey (Sorry, Singapore friends! 2 days was just too short, so I went straight to Taipei, and planned a longer Singapore trip for early next year!). So expect another travel-blogging post in a week or so.