An endlessly entertaining portrait of the city of Amsterdam and the ideas that make it unique, by the author of the acclaimed Island at the Center of the World
Tourists know Amsterdam as a picturesque city of low-slung brick houses lining tidy canals; student travelers know it for its legal brothels and hash bars; art lovers know it for Rembrandt's glorious portraits.
But the deeper history of Amsterdam, what makes it one of the most fascinating places on earth, is bound up in its unique geography-the constant battle of its citizens to keep the sea at bay and the democratic philosophy that this enduring struggle fostered. Amsterdam is the font of liberalism, in both its senses. Tolerance for free thinking and free love make it a place where, in the words of one of its mayors, "craziness is a value." But the city also fostered the deeper meaning of liberalism, one that profoundly influenced America: political and economic freedom. Amsterdam was home not only to religious dissidents and radical thinkers but to the world's first great global corporation.
In this effortlessly erudite account, Russell Shorto traces the idiosyncratic evolution of Amsterdam, showing how such disparate elements as herring anatomy, naked Anabaptists parading through the streets, and an intimate gathering in a sixteenth-century wine-tasting room had a profound effect on Dutch-and world-history. Weaving in his own experiences of his adopted home, Shorto provides an ever-surprising, intellectually engaging story of Amsterdam from the building of its first canals in the 1300s, through its brutal struggle for independence, its golden age as a vast empire, to its complex present in which its cherished ideals of liberalism are under siege.
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RUSSELL SHORTO is the bestselling author of Descartes' Bones and The Island at the Center of the World and is a contributing writer at the The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Amsterdam.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Bicycle Trip
A day in Amsterdam begins with me leaving my apartment with my toddler son in my arms, strapping him into his seat between the handlebars of my bicycle, working his blocky little sneakered feet into the footpads, then setting off through the quiet, generally breezy streets of our neighborhood, which is called Oud Zuid: Old South. You could look at the work of any Dutch master for an idea of the morning light we cycle through. There is a white cleanness to it, a rinsed quality. It's a sober light, without, for example, any of the orange particulate glow you get from the Mediterranean sun. The houses of the neighborhood are three- or four-story brick buildings, all constructed in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when what was then a vigorously working-class city, one that still smelled of herring and roasting coffee beans, expanded rapidly around its central core of canals.
We cycle past street-level apartments, some of which, following a Dutch tradition that I like to think has to do with an ingrained commitment to openness, feature a central uncurtained window that puts the living room on public display, as if the family who lives there thinks its life is worthy of a museum. For a while I didn't understand why, when we reach the part of the route that has us riding alongside a canal, my son would break out in a series of high screeches. Then I realized Anthony was imitating the gulls that squeal as they do their crazy arcs and dives above the water.
We pass a few businesses. The bakery is usually scenting the morning air with cinnamon as we ride by. The display windows of the corner bicycle shop exhibit sturdy, gleaming new models, lately in an array of pastel tones, by Gazelle and Batavus, factories that have been turning out Dutch bicycles for a century. An open door to the right of the windows leads down to the basement, and the repair shop, whose interior I know too well. The grooves in the concrete at both sides of the stairway leading below are meant for bicycle tires.
Once in a while I will vary the route and turn down along the Hobbemakade, where on our right is a slightly forlorn-looking stretch of canal, with weeds growing up through the quayside where rickety houseboats are moored, and on the left are the remnants of one of the smallest and least noticeable of the city's several red light districts. De Wallen--Amsterdam's central red light district--is a sort of alternate-universe Disneyland, noisy and with a certain ragged cheer, visited not only by drunken male tourists but also by couples strolling arm in arm and even families. Here, by contrast, there are only three or four of the display windows that the city's licensed prostitutes sit in to exhibit themselves, in the midst of what is otherwise a residential street. I never get how customers would know to find them. Nevertheless, even in the morning there is often at least one woman on duty, wearing a swimsuit, sitting on a stool, smoking, or listlessly punching the keys of a cell phone. Sometimes she will wave at Anthony and give him a little smile. The other window might be empty save for a stool with a towel folded on the seat that is crumpled in a way that looks like it has been sat on. Such details--the crumpled towel, the bored look of the woman facing a long day of staring into the street, punctuated by short intervals of sex with strangers--bring the city's infamous tolerance of vice out of the realms of sensationalism and idealism and into the realm of the deeply mundane. As with any other place, living here for a time causes the exotic to collapse under the weight of ordinariness. Two doors down is another storefront business, an advertising agency whose name--Strangelove--you might think is intended as a wry commentary on the neighbors, but I would bet not. I'll bet they don't even notice.
Amsterdam School is the name given to the style of architecture that was pioneered in my neighborhood as it was coming into being. The style has a formal aesthetic, which has its technical descriptors and philosophical (socialist) underpinnings, but to me it simply embodies a reasonably pleasant combination of whimsy and stolidness. Brick (what could be more stolid?) is the medium, yet there is an infinity of playful variations: rounded turretlike corners, embedded deco-ish sculptures that seem to mock the hardness of the material (a girl surrounded by rabbits, a baby holding up a doorway), block-long apartment buildings that could have had an ocean liner as their inspiration, or a wedding cake.
The neighborhood is no more than five minutes by bike from the canal belt and the storied seventeenth-century heart of Amsterdam, but when developers were laying it out a hundred years ago they must have felt a need to connect the new area to the city's history. If Rembrandt visited the immediate area around my home he might feel some familiarity, for even though this was swamp and fields in his time the streets bear the names of many of the artists whom he groomed in his workshop or competed with for commissions: Frans van Mieris, who wrought exquisite small portraits of the wealthy class; Nicolaas Maes, who often painted ordinary people at prayer and at meals and gave the same loving attention to a glistening loaf of bread or an earthen pitcher on a table as he did to the faces of his subjects; Philips Wouwerman, who specialized in hunting scenes and was known to paint a mean horse.
At the time my neighborhood came into being, all of those were figures of the grand past, so that the names Nicolaas Maesstraat and Frans van Mierisstraat instantly gave the new neighborhood some of the luster of Amsterdam's age of glory, when it was--briefly and improbably--the greatest city in the world. To this day the houses on those streets have dignified presence. But as you go farther away from the center, as we do on our morning trip, the houses get plainer. It seems the city fathers of a century ago did not want to dilute the grandeur of the golden age by spreading its names too far. On the other hand, in 1905, right at the time that the more distant part of the neighborhood was being laid out, the nearby Stedelijk Museum, the city's modern art museum, mounted the first exhibition in the country devoted to Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch artist had died only fifteen years before; his home country had done its best to ignore him, but it was now obvious that they would have to pay attention. Yet at the same time, his name didn't carry bourgeois heft--and who knew if those thick swirls of bright color would withstand the test of time? As a result of what I imagine were considerations such as these, Vincent van Goghstraat--the only street in the area whose name is instantly, globally recognizable today--is among the humblest: a single block of monotone dwellings.
That street also signals the end of our little journey. As Anthony and I pass it, I hop off the bicycle, unstrap him, and set him on the sidewalk. While I ring the doorbell, he opens the mailbox flap, which is on his level, and hollers into it. The door is opened by a Moroccan woman in her thirties, wearing a head scarf, floor-length robe, and sandals. She has a kind face and smiles at Anthony as she tells him he's grown over the weekend: "Nou, wat een grote jongen ben je!" He plays a game, trying to scramble up the stairs to the next floor instead of going into her apartment. Iman and her husband have lived in Amsterdam for ten years. They have two young daughters. Her husband drives a city bus; she is a licensed gastouder: literally, "guest parent," what in the United States would be called a day care provider. Her four-year-old, Marwa, emerges from behind her, with a tangle of curls and big deep eyes, and says hello over and over, very loudly. Then she tells me Anthony is ugly. Then she gives him a hug and hauls him into the apartment.
Iman and I chat for a few minutes. Some weeks before she asked if Anthony's mother and I would sign an immigration document in support of her sister, who wanted to come to Amsterdam to visit. I was confused at first: I thought one was required to get such statements of support for people who intended to emigrate, not who merely wanted to visit family. I subsequently learned that it was now necessary in the Netherlands for people from certain countries (read poor countries--or, to be more precise, Muslim countries) to file extensive applications, including having residents vouch for them, even if all they wanted to do was see the canals and tulips. We signed the form. Then a few weeks later Iman said her sister's application had been denied. The reason given: she was "onbetrouwbaar"-untrustworthy. When Iman asked, through an immigration lawyer, for clarification, she was told that because of "ties" in the country it was feared that her sister might stay in the Netherlands. Iman was confused by this. She and her husband were legal residents of the Netherlands. They paid taxes. The family spoke Dutch at home. They were, as they say, playing by the rules. Yet their legal residence itself was deemed a reason for untrustworthiness. Much later, the decision was reversed, and Iman's sister was allowed to visit, but such is a conundrum of our era: a city famed historically for championing the notion of tolerance now seemed to be charting odd new frontiers of intolerance.
Once a week, after I've left Anthony in Iman's care, I don't return directly home but spend the morning exploring another, quite different frontier of intolerance. Taking another route, I pull up at a corner of the Beethovenstraat (now having reentered the tonier part of the district, whose precincts are suited to grand names--nearby are Rubenstraat and Bachstraat), peruse the street corner florist's kiosk, buy a bunch of variegated tulips or mauve roses, and ring a doorbell a few steps away. Upstairs, I am met by an elderly woman with short steel-gray hair, a sharply angled jawline, and darting, birdlike eyes. Her name is Frieda Menco. We exchange the standard Dutch greeting of three kisses, I hand the flowers to her, she protests mildly that I shouldn't have, then we enter her apartment. The living and dining rooms are wide, very bright, and sparsely filled with modernist furniture. A spread is laid out on the coffee table: cookies, chocolate, a pot of coffee and two cups, a jug of water, a vase of flowers.
We sit. I turn on my recorder. We exchange small talk. Then she turns her face toward the watery sunlight pouring in through the windows and says, "Now, where was I?"
Someone outside is shouting--no, a lot of people, confused voices. The train lurches suddenly; the packed bodies sway; people scream. Frieda is sixteen and for two days and nights has sat scrunched on the lap of a middle-aged man whom she doesn't know. The cattle car is so crammed with people that the atmosphere would seem to be one of horror, but instead the press of inexorable power brings on a wave of colossal deadness. The air is clotted with the reek of their waste--a barrel in the corner has been the communal open toilet. It sits perversely high, so in order to relieve herself she not only has to endure the public nature of a private act but must balance herself on its rim and try not to knock it over. There are no windows in the car, and when the door is slid shut there is no virtually no light; the air is dark and stifling as death. Occasionally she catches a glimpse of her parents where they sit wedged on the other side of the car--their eyes frightened but still holding the hard, almost uncrushable nugget of hope in them. She is their only child.
Finally, she is outside, standing on the ground. More shouts--real chaos in the distance. And there--a gallows, a human body, hanging, swaying in space. People over there are running now, screaming. Here, they are being jostled into lines. Now some are pushing into them--they are Jews like them but who know the routine, everyone wearing blue-and-white-striped prison uniforms--whispering hard into their faces: If you have anything of value, give it to me, because they will take it from you. Some of the newcomers hand over their jewelry; she gives nothing because she has nothing. They are formed into four lines: two of women and girls, two of men and boys. She and her mother are in one line, to the far right, then comes the other female line--though she doesn't know it yet, this second line, holding people who were quickly deemed not fit for work, is headed directly into the gas chamber--and she spots her father in the third line. Soldiers and dogs keep people in place: those uniforms, the Stahlhelm, the helmet with its infamously and menacingly scooped curve. But no, these things didn't register that way yet, didn't have the heavy meaning they would take on.
A grim geometry problem is on display, taunting her to find a solution: as the people lurch forward, the space between where her father stands in his line and where she and her mother are in their line grows wider.
Then, improbably, out of character, she sees her father seem to calculate, reach a rash decision. He has lunged--he is moving across that open space, obliterating that vacuum, passing through the second line of women that stands between his line and hers, defying the gray-uniformed soldiers with their helmets and guns. He is here, breathing, his face--a soft, round, gentle face--close to her. His is an artistic soul, bent by necessity toward commerce. Joel Brommet is a professional window dresser, who also gives correspondence courses in graphic design. Frieda is his joy. She helps him with his work, cranks the mimeograph machine that occupies a corner of their Amsterdam living room, running off the inky-smelling sheets, each with a carefully typed lesson, each beginning, "Worthy student," folds the packets, and stuffs them into brown envelopes to be sent to towns and villages around the country, to young people who hope to escape farming or fishing for a life with a touch more glamour. She would sometimes make trips with her father to stores to observe his latest work. He showed her how he crafted every detail of a window display: the price tags, the signs ("Speciale prijs! 13 ct."), mannequins posed just so. Frieda's earliest memory is of him. She is maybe three years old, happy and sleepy in her bed in their comfortable middle-class apartment. "Will you catch the moon for me, and put it on the cupboard?" She still remembers that cupboard and what a nice ornament she thought the silver disc of the moon would make sitting on top. He answers: "If you sleep like a sweet little girl, I'll fetch a long ladder and get the moon for you."
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