Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Amazing Amsterdam

Schiphol airport was a very pleasant change from the airport in St. Petersburg. Everyone spoke English. We easily found an internet cafe (since we had forgotten where we were sleeping), and a shuttle to the hotel.

We came to Amsterdam since it was the transfer point for our flight to South America. We stayed a little longer than planned in order to meet up with Chuck Brook and Margot Paris who were traveling around Europe with their kids. Lucky kids!

Unfortunately, since KLM didn't fly on the 3rd of August, we missed the city's notorious Gay Pride parade. I had hoped to see its outrageous 'floats' which are just that-floats on the canals. But I did manage to catch an open air concert on Sunday afternoon, and the sight of tens of thousands of stylish men sporting shaved heads or very short hair prompted me to do the same the next day. At 'Scissors' I found just the man for the cut!

Unfortunately Sally brought a cold with her from Russia. Over the next few days it got progressively worse, and this sadly curtailed many of our activities. But we managed to do a bit.

This was my third trip to Amsterdam. I first came in 1969 with my Manchester flat mate Eli Harari. My main hangouts were the antique market and Paradiso, a converted church where people smoked marijuana and listened to music. We toured around Holland in a tiny NSU Prince 30. By the end of our trip, we had to economize. I vividly remember Eli going up to a hot dog vendor to inquire what it would cost to buy just the bun. He reasoned that after adding the sauces and pickles, it didn't taste that much different without the meat. Shortly thereafter, Eli left for Graduate School at Princeton, and later formed a start-up company making and selling flash storage. Today, SanDisk is the premier company in its field. Whenever we are together, I like to remind him and his friends that now he can afford both the hot dog and the bun!

Sally and I were here in 1976, but we had both forgotten what an amazing city it is. This time we stayed at the Jolly Hotel Carlton in a very central location, next to the floating flower market. To re-orient ourselves, we purchased two day passes on the hop-on-hop-off canal boats. We managed to figure out where all the stops were just as the tickets expired.

One of the Netherlands’s admirable features is its history of social tolerance. This is what attracted the 17th century Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Today, there are very liberal attitudes towards homosexuality, prostitution and soft drugs. The latter are sold in 'coffee shops' spread throughout the city. According to the guidebooks, they are not openly advertised. You must ask for a menu. Like Vancouver, most marijuana is locally grown and can be considerably stronger than what we smoked 40 years ago.

While the drugs may not be freely on display, the prostitutes are. In the Red Light District, just steps from where the Brook family was staying, you could look into the windows of buildings marked by red light bulbs to see what was for sale. I could swear that some of the ladies were the same ones I saw in the windows in 1969. But as the official Visitors Guide says ‘If you visit one of the women, we would like to remind you, they are not always women.’

While we couldn't help notice the coffee shops, prostitutes, and preponderance of sex shops, the city's real attractions were the centuries old buildings lining the canals, the houseboats, the absence of cars, and the proliferation of bicycles. Everybody rides bicycles; young and old; in jeans and suits; with and without parcels. Surprisingly, few people wear helmets, and this prompted me to wonder whether we need to reconsider our helmet law since I am convinced it deters many people from riding a bike in Vancouver. Admittedly, Amsterdamers are not racing along on 15 gear mountain bikes with dropped handlebars. They ride sensible 1 or 3 gear upright bikes around the city in specially marked lanes with priority over pedestrians and cars. If you don't ride a bike, you walk or take a modern bus or tram. I was pleased to see a Ballard fuel cell bus around town. I also noticed a few very small electric cars and tuk-tuks. They will soon be more common in Canada. Mark my words!

Amsterdam is also distinctive for its many museums. We tried to visit the Anne Frank House but there was a couple of hours wait. Sally did get to see the Van Gogh Museum, and I visited the extensive Jewish Historical Museum, ARCAM, the Architectural Centre, and other galleries around town. I also managed to have my photo taken in one of Rembrandt’s works (which is about to be dismantled). But we have been to a lot of museums over the past few months, and most of the time I was happy to walk around and admire the impressive and coordinated streetscapesFor a change, we decided to leave Amsterdam for a day trip to the coast, Haarlem and Leiden. The latter is a historic university town, with interesting walks mapped around the city centre. Haarlem is quite different than its namesake in New York. It is a very charming 13th century town, and much of it could be seen during a 50 minute boat cruise. I regretted that we didn't have time to take in a presentation on wind power inside the only remaining windmill in town. Holland is now generating a significant amount of energy from wind. We too should be doing more in this regard.

On our last night we did meet up with the Brooks as planned. It had been more than 7 months since we had seen anyone from Vancouver, and we tried our best not to bore them with all our tales. Of course they too have been just as busy traveling and doing interesting things. Harry had just returned from a trip to Nepal, and Zoƫ was very much into dance. We decided not to talk too much about Vancouver development issues since there will be plenty of time for that in the coming months.

After last minute photos in front of a graffiti covered wall, we said our goodbyes and returned to our hotel to prepare for an early morning flight to South America.. We had had a good few days in Holland. The food was excellent; everyone spoke English, it was easy to get around, and the buildings and canals were amazing. We expect it to be quite different in Sao Paulo, our next destination.

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