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.