April 19, 2009 § Leave a Comment
I revisited Amsterdam this past week and spent Easter Weekend, along with countless Spaniards, Italians and Germans, in the early spring sun. Last time I was in Amsterdam was in June of 2008 and I went alone for a conference. This time I went with my wife and we lived in a delicious and charming apartment in the Oud West, on Douwess Dekkerstraat, owned by the artist Patty Schilder.
From our balcony, looking out over the Buurtcentrum De Havelaar, we gazed at the Baarsjesweg Canal, especially beautiful in the evening when the sun sets and the large barges slowly make their way up and down after a long day’s work. Two blocks away, in the early morning, the farmers market gathers steam. Here, the true ethnic diversity of the Oud West comes alive–Middle Eastern women in their hejabs argue prices with their favorite vendors, breads and cheeses abound, fish and meats, too. The color and smells and sounds are soothing, seductive. There is no excuse here for not eating right. The food is fresh, beautiful. The difficulty is in buying only what you need, something the Dutch are very good at doing, it seems.
The difference between this trip and my last one is the bicycle. The only real way to experience this culture is on the bike. Though a modern tool, the bike is the heart of Amsterdam. Many consider Amsterdam “the biking capital of Europe.” Amsterdam bikers have the right of way, not pedestrians. The flow and energy of this city is dependent upon how well the biking moves the energy along. The Dutch are great bikers, they weave in and out of crowds, move effortlessly through traffic, grinning or smiling and never (apparently) frustrated. This is Amsterdam. I’ve seen youngsters txting and biking, talking on cells, with passengers, children, sometimes two, one in the rear, the other up front. Much of Amsterdam’s life happens on the bike.
We rented our bikes from Bike City. The added bonus being that the only hint that this is a rental is written in small, elegant print on the black carry bag on the handlebars: Bike City. Otherwise, the bikes were like all others. Most rental bikes are loud reds or yellows and have huge insignias. Would you want to call attention to yourself like that? We didn’t. We found the best bikes to rent are the 3 speeds with hand brakes. They’re comfortable and sturdy. Our first trek took us through the city, to the ferry landing behind Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station, and up through the farmland of the north country all they way to Slot Ilpenstein. We biked through pasture land, in and out of canals. Sheep nearby. The famous Frisian horses, too. And we managed a glimpse of some drafts.
From that day on, we rode everywhere, including another “out of the city” day trip to Haarlem, a municipality and a city in the Netherlands, and also the capital of the province of North Holland, the northern half of Holland. The bicycle lends for a particular order to things, a graciousness and decorum we like to call civilized or civilization. It’s interesting because if one examines the history of the Netherlands, we see that this living has come at great human cost. Many fell to the strength and power of the mighty Dutch will. The rise of the Dutch Empire is extensive and dramatic. Out of this, comes Amsterdam, an important port city and center of commerce. What we see in Amsterdam today is a result of this history so as we ride through the city and sit comfortably in cafes adjoining canals, we have to weigh the awesome power that began somewhere around the 1540s and that conquered so much. To the victor belongs the spoils is quite evident in Amsterdam. These spoils are Amsterdam’s gift to humanity. But these spoils also bare an awesome responsibility that Amsterdam’s inhabitants are trying to understand. The story is complex.
Perhaps this is why we can describe Amsterdam as an incredibly important human experiment that’s ongoing. And just maybe, this is why the moral structure of this great little city is experimenting with an unbound secularism founded on an unprecedented egalitarianism, which, in turn, depends upon freedoms of expression and a tolerance for difference. But this is the idealized version, the romantic view. It’s not surprising, then, that when the world is exhausted by the constant chimes of terror, from the Netherlands explodes the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. It’s also the place where Theo Van Gogh, the great-grandson of Theo van Gogh, the brother of painter Vincent van Gogh, was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim extremist, after van Gogh, with collaboration from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, released the Anti-Islam film Submission.
Amsterdam is not without controversy. It is an extraordinary diverse place; however, diversity brings contention, even among the most enlightened. When differences are thrust together, the potential for an explosion is always present. Before 1965, the Netherlands were totally a monoculture–all white Dutch and no threats. This changed with a very liberal immigration policy. Effectively, the society is now segregated. On the streets, we can see the diversity, but where it counts–schools, neighborhoods, business and so on, we don’t see it. There is resentment that what Dutch culture was is no longer–this is true. The monoculture safety net has been taken away. Now the struggle is different, particularly on religious grounds where the Christian and the Muslim, along with the Jew, have to live side-by-side in a society that is increasingly secular. What is Amsterdam turning into? What is it becoming?
I wonder whether Amsterdam today is the “new” Al Andaluz? It has the makings. Why not, why can it not be the “new” place where the three central religions, Christians, Muslims and Jews, live in relative peace and harmony? Only now we are called upon to protect the Muslim, not the other way around as it was when the Muslim protected the ahl al-dhimma (the people under protection). Maybe the tides have turned, though the challenges and the conflicts are as they were in the period between 711 and 1492. What we don’t want is the devastation and the destruction brought about by the Christian King in 1492–in the name of God and love! Al Andaluz was a beacon of learning, and the city of Córdoba became one of the leading cultural and economic centers in both the Mediterranean basin and the Islamic world. Why can this not be the fate of the Netherlands, Amsterdam leading the way?
The Amsterdam I see today is in transition, in flux, pained by both its past and its future. But it’s how it negotiates its day-to-day where the mystery and awe exist. The seeds of tolerance are there–a young Muslim woman on a bike or a Vespa waiting for a light to change and waiting next to her is a tall Dutch blond, also on her bike, and they look at one another and smile. This is the new Amsterdam.
So perhaps the Dutch are such great bikers because they have been learning to negotiate obstacles all along. Whether by conquering territories for their wealth during the time of the Burghers or changing from a monoculture to an ethnically diverse culture, they have been challenging boundaries–national, ethnic and tribal, as well as economic and educational. Amsterdam could be the first small city that will evolve–or not–according to how well it enables those who reside in the margins of life to exist without threat; where once there was a singular uninterrupted culture, as is evident in the architecture and the museums, now there are only threads that are struggling to keep humanity together. And holding these threads are exiles. Amsterdam is a perfect example of a city of exiles, of histories that come from colonization, and newer ones that come along because they have been following the great human migration for survival, for subsistence.
The Amsterdam of tomorrow will be built on the shoulders of mindfulness and tolerance. And if successful, Amsterdam, as Al Andaluz before it, will hold a noble place in the continuum of great histories that have given humanity, even if for a moment, a ray of hope that we can live together and relish in our differences.
July 24, 2008 § 12 Comments
I arrived to a picture perfect Amsterdam—cloudy and misty, a cool breeze. This gave a mythical quality to the juxtaposition of dark green canals and the colorful homes—whites and beiges and a black with purple—along their edges, some seemingly growing right out of the water. The homes are erected tightly side-by-side. Some homes lean a bit forward (it was learned that it was easier to hoist furniture this way), others sideways enough to notice. All homes, from their rooftops, dangle pulleys attached to very ornate arms that are beefy enough to sustain the weight of furnishings raised into apartments. Going inside with furniture and up narrow stairs or in one and two person elevators just can’t cut it. Furnishings must go into a home through the very large windows. The houses are very narrow; this is because at one point, homeowners were taxed according to width.
By 2PM (14:00 hrs) of my first day, the sun was out and the breeze only occasional. There always seems to be a breeze here, sometimes gusting into a strong wind that can last several minutes. The leaves rustle violently. The canals kick up a bit. Most people ware some sort of jacket because in the shade it can get cool—and every café has plenty of shade.
The sun magnified the multitudes on the streets; it was like a spot light. Droves and droves of people form all over the place. Enumerable languages everywhere: all the European languages, but a lot of Spanish and Italian; Arabic, Turkish, Greek and so on; likewise multitudes from Asia and South Asia. The restaurants reflect this. For every language there is a restaurant. I counted 5 Argentinean restaurants, though I didn’t try any because, well, I’ve eaten the food there. Why compromise? Amsterdam is an amalgamation of cultures and systems and beliefs.
Amsterdam is a peculiar, pleasant human experiment—old world and new, the citizens appear to have found a soothing aesthetic. It’s a laid back approach to labor; it’s not laid back in the sense of an Argentinean “piola,” don’t worry, tomorrow it’ll be better. No, this a particular soft energy applied to the comings and goings of life. There is constant movement in Amsterdam. It’s visible in the walking, bicycling and traming (electric trams).
The main roads have a lane for the tram, which requires tracks since they run on overhead electricity (the lines web the city). Next to the tram lane, on either side, are the auto lanes and the bike lanes, which sometimes come into the sidewalk as well on one side so as to not interfere with walkers and strollers (that’s me). It’s all rhythmic, ruled by understanding, tolerance and patience—the bell of the tram announcing it’s near so that walkers and bikers get out of the way; the constantly ringing bells of the bikers weaving in-between walkers; the low purr of the walkers and café dwellers.
The Amsterdam biker is quite experienced. They flow through crowds effortlessly on variations of English racers ringing their bells—watch out. Never hostility uttered at anyone. The Amsterdam biker is apparently negotiating a deeper melody. Some bikes have a front extension that looks like a small dingy. This is for kids and groceries. No one wares a helmet. It all works.
Along some streets and in the plazas, they’ve gone one up on the French: in front of the first line of tables in many cafés they’ve taken to placing chairs, side-by-side and facing out theatre-like and, well, the whole world is your stage. Sometimes this row of chairs is along the back against the wall of the café. This is very interesting and I think a sign of Amsterdam’s pleasantness; that is, Amsterdam’s allure, beyond its architectural, historical and artistic beauty and magnetism, is in its understanding that the human condition is very complex and that this complexity requires an open admission that in order to even approximate harmony, tolerance for our needs and desires, as bizarre as these may be sometimes, needs to be accommodated. Amsterdam is accommodating. The underlying ethos is to not make waves.
This is evident in the energy on the streets, first—the way machine and humanity and environment interact in soft ways. It then extends to extremes—from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, the orthodox to the most liberal, even if this is on the borderlines of the bizarre. Amsterdam is a very interesting human experiment that has grown and evolved along these canals.
Can society, small as it is here, tolerate extreme needs and differences? Can displaced persons from all over the world, some from places marked by war and devastation, come together and simply live together and in this form manifest something for tomorrow?
The Politie (police), many very young, patrol the streets on bicycles. They’re dressed casually—a white shirt with insignias, dark blue combat pants and boots, radios and guns (some don’t have guns). They work on containing the excitement in certain areas, as in the Red Light District, and weave in and out of the center of the flow of the crowds looking for any sign of potential eruption that would require defusing. This is very uncommon, though; most of the time their presence is enough and people go on about their merry business.
There are the boisterous men, young and old. These international and diverse bans walk throughout the city but are most evident in the Red Light District. These bans span cultures; some are intermixed, diverse. Most are working class kids looking for kicks. The most annoying are the English and the Americans. Boy can they drink, particularly the Brits. It’s not enough to drink for them—you have to we wobbling down the street yelling and screaming. The American youths follow a close second to this. These groups don’t raise any problems; they’re contained within their own worlds. If anything the harm they might do is to themselves. But even this gesturing is understood and not threatening, seen as yet another group—the immature, testosterone confused man needing to obtain some sort of image to conceal vulnerabilities.
A lot is tolerated here—and maybe this is something to learn from. While church bells mark the hour to God, men stroll before bikini-clad women standing provocatively in small booths, as if mannequins on 5th Avenue in New York. The booth is strange, it’s both a calling forth, an advertisement, and a complex gesture towards the womb since it too represents a type of protection. The women open their glass doors slightly and whisper to men and strike their deals. Some booths, the more daring, sport 2 women. It’s a bizarre and very strange world. In-between this very open admission that the oldest profession is alive and well—and supported by Mastercard and Visa, state healthcare and inspectors, and government—are cafés, beautiful homes, fantastic shops, bookstore and restaurants. The blend is incredible. You have to ponder it a bit and take it in it’s so grave.
The coffee shops are the smoking places where marihuana, Ti, and hashish are available in various forms, including brownies; it can be bought and used in the café or taken out on the street or you can light up at a café on a canal.** There are stores, too, that specialize in seeds and mushrooms (psilocybin). All these places are full and occupied by various types—all above the age of 18: old timers, young, in-between, middle aged groups, women alone, men alone, all cultures are evident in the cafés. Starting the day with a double espresso and Big Bubba’s Cheese brings a whole new meaning to ‘starting the day.’
Naturally, this kind of openness brings in “the other,” the hard drugs—coke and heroine sold, in whispers, by Africans on the street. This is totally illegal, of course. But we know from experience that once one form—alcohol and pot—are tolerated, even sanctified, then “the other” will creep in. Perhaps this is a challenge: if you’re going to go this far, why not go all the way? What else will that bring from the narrative of unintended consequences?
The atmosphere in the Red Light District is interesting. Families, kids, young and old travel the streets; however, “the man” is obviously the dominant force. The essence of this area is male. This is obvious to anyone walking across a canal bridge and on its edge is a urinal, sometimes two. These urinals are open to the world; that is, they are porta-lets with only small holes to satiate men’s immediate need. On any given occasion you see several men, one per open toilet, pushed in so that digital video cameras don’t end up catching a glimpse of their one unique problem in life and cast it to the world via Google. (This is a culture under constant surveillance, cameras everywhere; this is something I’ve seen everywhere I’ve been—everyone is being photographed and filmed by the state.) Nothing like a good pee out in the open among the crowds after that double espresso.
For women, there is no such comfort.
I love Amsterdam. I believe it has to be and that we have to try and understand what this means to us. I love the city’s energy and tolerance. But it’s a stark reminder of how complex and perverse we humans are. The entire world is here. What really comes through is that humanity really lives in one very old system. On one end of the spectrum, the state apparatuses and the ideological apparatuses; then gentrification, the push for humanism and environmentalism, a good life with just enough “things” coupled to an aesthetic that is earthy. And on the other end, the need of some to work out insecurities, vulnerabilities and confusions in more edgy forms. Very often, the two worlds synthesize, are side-by-side. An old system laid bare and supported quite well by business and government. It’s a vertical system without seeming to be so, a fascinating slight of hand.
But in-between the canal boats slowly making their way, people jubilant, and in-between the shadows that are always available to us in such extremes, even when gracefully melded together as they are here, are the children. These are the kids that are being towed by parents—everywhere; and the young alone on the streets. You wonder what they see; you wonder what it is we’re saying to them about how they are to live. And then, for me, the most challenging image is how young some of these young girls in their booths are—younger then my college age daughter. How is it that some can only find the oldest profession as a way through life? I was left with that thought. It hangs heavy.
In all, I believe in the Amsterdam experience that may find you listening to church bells while staring at a Jamie Lynn Cyberskin Vibrating Doll. There is quite a lot to learn from this experiment in humanity. Maybe al Andalus was something like this—tolerance alongside broad accommodations made to differences, yet beyond the surface structure of liberty and equality, there is a highly structured, vertical society—the rich and the poor, and everything in-between; the ideological class and the state class; labor; artists. And all this supported by the globalization of money that enables but a few to control both ends of this same equation. This is the oldest system: comoflouage the hierarchy with tolerance for the many vicissitudes that will undoubtedly arise. It’s a good means of control.
July 21, 2008 § 2 Comments
Early in the morning and fifty or so kilometers from Paris, the green fields roll gently in the early morning mist. The sun rises slowly to the east. It’s as if I’m watching a French film, its deliberate meditative pace, through the lozenge window of my tiny black Renault Twingo. In the middle of the green fields, stucco and tile farmhouses interrupt the eye, draw it in and make you wonder about the length of time these places have been here. You feel the age of the land, its harmony.
Then the outskirts of Paris ease in—first a neighborhood of mid sized buildings, then corporations that dot the suburbs, big buildings. Until suddenly there it is, the sign “Paris-Centre”. The traffic slows and narrows, though still in 6 lanes. A tunnel—and Paris rises beyond it, the Siene running along the highway urging you on.
It was a long way to get here—literally and metaphorically. The day and night before I crossed southern Sweden, a half of Denmark, and a major part of Germany—Hambourg, Hannover, Douseldorf to, finally, Luxemberg where I saw my first grape vines and I smiled because I knew France was near.
I began the day by leaving Lund at 7AM and got to about 100kilometers of Paris by midnight or so. The key to my apartment was being held in a café (very French) and I tried frantically to call on my cell but I was doing something wrong and couldn’t get through. I knew they’d be closed by the time I entered France—besides, I didn’t want to tackle streets and things in the dark without the guarantee of a bed to lay my head. So I did what I would have done 30 or years ago—I’m glad I recalled—I slept in a truck stop in my car. I slept through the night and awakened a bit stiff at 5AM, washed up, drank a double espresso and began the journey into Paris.
I don’t know, maybe I’m overly romantic, but when I saw “Paris-Centre,” I got emotional. Perhaps it was simply that I was working really hard to erase all images I have of Paris, all of which come from literature and film, and of course, my family, mostly my mother.
The emotions escalated when I realized that the entry to Paris, the way I came in, is almost identical to the entrance to Buenos Aires. Even the first signs of the city immediately catapulted me to Buenos Aires. I was in two places at once—a very Borgesian experience; or to put it in the tradition of contemporary French philosophy: since I’m here, I was always who I am, always being the other I find now. I have always been here, though I was seeing it for the very first time. I was seeing myself in this light for the first time. This implies that psychologically I had been ready for this experience and that all my experiences leading to this moment had prepared me for my first visit to Paris. I was always already in Paris.
I hugged the Seine and drove ever so slowly. The pay off for sleeping in the car was coming into a city yet to awaken—this awakened me. I drove carefully, deliberately, my eyes on the classic beauty, the barges, the old buildings, the narrow streets—and the street signs and my map. That’s how I did it. I’d go so far, stop and look at my map; memorize routes and street names, calculating how much time I’d travel to get to my next stop. Then do this again.
Within ten minutes of being in the city, I found the Restaurant Retirement, which held my keys. Unbelievably, they were cleaning and I had to wait only five minutes for the keys, held by the manager. She gave me an envelop with my name on it and I opened it. In it, the keys and the address—no directions. Very French! This, too, made me feel as if I was in Argentina—same minimalist approach to everything, letting one fend for himself. Argentina and France share a similar aesthetic in that the native wants the tourist to interpret signs, thus moving him or her towards becoming a visitor, one who is not there to merely look at sites, but rather, one who is there to be affected by the place, its people and history.
I got some directions, but I knew, between their French-English and my English-French, that I wasn’t being told the entire story. Back to the map. Immediately I found the street on the map, but I had to go through a series of circles, “DO NOT ENTER” circumlocutions until, a half hour later, I found the place.
I lived on Rue Mouffetard,a street in the Ve arrondissement, near the Sorbonne. It is a quiet, narrow little area; it’s very neighborly, a real community, which is what I like. I was on the first floor of a beautiful building with a wonderful interior garden—something you read about or find in French movies. Outside, next door, a Creperie, of course; and down the block, about 50 meters, a small grocery store from which I purchased eggs, juice and, yes, bread and wine. And right in front of the little grocery store, a wonderful circle, all cobblestone, lined with cafes. Right around me are streets such as Diderot, Pascal, Descartes.
When I arrived at my studio apartment, obtained through Parissimo, specializing in short term rentals, the city was barely awakening. I could hear the voices outside from my opened French balcony windows. I could also hear the birds and the pigeons. It was overcast and cool, so good for walking. Numerous church bells sang, calling. And I felt very, very lucky. Very fortunate, indeed.
Other Images from France: