Two sides of Amsterdam

So, they’ll ask me, did you like Amsterdam? The simple answer would be yes and no. Those wise enough to realise they risk thirty minutes of their life that they will never get back will leave it at that; for those who naively enquire further I offer the following by way of explanation, before your eyes glaze over and you’re seized with the urge to chew your own arm off as a means of escape.

There is a lot I didn’t care for in Amsterdam. To qualify that somewhat, there is a lot of human behaviour I find distasteful and plenty of people come to Amsterdam to indulge therein. Firstly, let’s do the drug thing-well you know what I mean. Admittedly I come at the subject with an agenda, having worked for years with people who struggled with, and died young from, drug problems. I freely admit that a heroin addiction is very different from puffing on cannabis but I’m uneasy around lots of people looking smug and trying to be cool because you can smoke cannabis here. If your idea of fun is hanging out in dingy smoke filled rooms then – well, that’s your thing. Personally I hate the smell of the stuff and it pervades every part of the city. I accept many people want to change their perception of life and good luck to you; please be safe and I’ll keep well out of your way if I can.

Also pervading much of the city was litter; I thought Glasgow was dirty (it is) but first thing in the morning here the evidence of the night before with take away food cartons and bottles, many broken, is an unedifying sight.

Apart from drugs of course, Amsterdam is famous for the red light district. More about that in a moment (if there’s anyone still reading it’s really not that titillating) but I had a red light problem of a different sort that exemplifies another thing I noticed here; the Dutch don’t like you not liking them. We went into the Oude Kerk, which was holding an art instillation. This consisted of applying red cellophane to all the windows. If you have another five minutes of your life you don’t need it’s on their website. Basically the whole church is red and dark and you can see nothing of the architecture. The information sheet is printed in red so completely illegible. When I went to give feedback (having paid 10€ each I felt entitled to) several other people were making the same point. The girl on duty was totally disinterested and apparently the information sheet was designed to be illegible inside…….She gave us the email address to put our viewpoint across; as yet no reply.

It was literally across the steeet from the church that I saw the first ‘window’. At first glance I thought someone was cleaning it until I realised you don’t tend to do your windows in basque and stockings. It’s actually hard to know where to look but there were rows of windows, most occupied (it was 11am). Gangs of guys prowled around, one dressed as a giant penis; I call that ‘typecasting’. I heard one group asking a prostitute her fees so they could pay for their mate who was on his stag do. How sweet of them….

The whole atmosphere in this area was unsettling and  somehow saddening. It wasn’t interesting or culturally informative just another indictment of the baser aspects of human behaviour. Apparently the city has invested a lot in upgrading the area, which makes me really happy to never have been here before.

Of course, not all of Amsterdam lowers the spirits in this way. There are some beautiful areas, in particular the canal ring, which has some lovely bars and cafes at which to enjoy a drink. We best saw this area from the water on an evening dinner cruise, blessed by a wonderful sunny evening and the pleasant company of a young American couple at the adjacent table. The food was surprisingly good in Amsterdam; the Indonesian meal we had one night surpassed anything we had in Singapore or Bali on our recent trip.

The cultural centre of Amsterdam is home to the Van Gogh museum, Rijksmuseum and Concertgebouw. I’ve previously described how much I enjoyed the Van Gogh museum; I was less impressed by the Rijksmuseum. Probably this reflects my limited knowledge of and, to be honest, interest in Dutch art. Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ is magnificent and a wonderful example of how to display a painting to its glorification. I also loved the three Vermeers, in particular ‘The Milkmaid’ but these are small works and the crowds made it difficult to view them. As for the rest of the works, still life never excites me and I prefer the landscapes of the Glasgow Boys.

I was glad to get a ticket to the Concertgebouw; the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was sold out but the Dutch Philharmonic was a decent consolation prize, especially when the program is bookended by Rachmaninov pieces. It’s a beautiful venue with lovely bar areas and excellent acoustics too.

So, that’s Amsterdam, a real curate’s egg of a place. I’m glad I’ve been and I’ll remember parts of it with affection, but I don’t think I’ll be back. When I need my city breaks, as I do, with some sophistication and culture there are much more suitable contenders. And I can inhale safely there….

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