- The canal came together with others, and at some point they were on the river Amstel, which took them into the place, just short of its collision with the river Ij, where it had long ago been dammed up by the beaver-like Dutchmen. Then (as Jack the veteran reader of fortifications could see), as stealable objects, lootable churches, and rapable women had accumulated around this Amstel-Dam, those who had the most to lose had created Lines of Circumvallation. To the north, the broad Ij—more an arm of the sea than a proper river—served as a kind of moat. But on the landward side they’d thrown up walls, surrounding Amstel-Dam in a U, the prongs of the U touching the Ij to either side of where the Amstel joined it, and the bend at the bottom of the U crossing the Amstel upstream of the Dam. The dirt for the walls had to come from somewhere. Lacking hills, they’d taken it from excavations, which conveniently filled with ground-water to become moats. But to the avid Dutch there was no moat that could not be put to work as a canal. As the land inside each U had filled up with buildings, newly arrived strivers had put up buildings outside the walls, making it necessary to create new, larger Us encompassing the old. The city was like a tree, as long as it lived surrounding its core with new growth. Outer layers were big, the canals widely spaced, but in the middle of town they were only a stone’s throw apart, so that Jack and Eliza were always crossing over cleverly counter-weighted drawbridges. As they did so they stared up and down the canals, carpeted with low boats that could skim underneath the bridges, and (on the Amstel, and some larger canals) creaking sloops with collapsible masts. Even the small boats could carry enormous loads below the water-line. The canals and the boats explained, then, why it was possible to move about in Amsterdam at all: the torrent of cargo that clogged roads in the countryside was here transferred to boats, and the streets, for the most part, opened to people.
Quicksilver provided orientation to our long weekend getaway.
The driver taking us from Schiphol Airport to the hotel declined my request to teach us Dutch on the way, but at least helped me learn to pronounce our hotel name. When I had called to request early check-in, the front desk confirmed the location as “the one that starts with O.” The driver took on “Oostenburgergrach” one piece at a time.
Oosten was simple, contrasting with the west location names on the other end of the city map. I asked if burger meant “people,” thinking of The Burghers of Calais. Close enough. “And gracht?” I asked, delicately. “Gracht,” he corrected, recruiting parts of the lower throat that I would excuse myself from the dinner table before exercising, “means canal.”
Dutch seems approachable to the English speaker, seeing signs for De Oude Kerk and De Nieuwe Kerk and Centraal station. But how to pronounce that body of water, strangely capitalized on maps as Ĳ? Wikipedia calls the letters a digraph, and it often appears as a ligature. I noted an IJwit beer in the hotel vending machine. Soon, I would order one in a restaurant by the proven method of pointing at the menu and mumbling, but I don’t remember how the server pronounced it.
At another restaurant, a friendly server encouraged me to take a “paper note” from the bowl by the door. I had seen them around town, but wary of the American practice of offering dog treats to customers with pets, I had not sampled any. With endless patience, the server explained that the pepernoten are a kind of spiced (pepper) cookie (nut) traditionally served during the winter holidays.
- Long rows of five-story houses fronted on canals. A few ancient timber structures still stood in the middle of town, but almost all of the buildings were brick, trimmed with white and painted over with tar. Jack marvelled like a yokel at the sight of barn doors on the fifth story of a building, opening out onto a sheer drop to a canal. A single timber projected into space above to serve as a cargo hoist. Unlike those Leipziger houses, with storage only in the attic, these were for nothing but.
Hijsbalken, the hoisting beams, are still visible in some neighborhoods.
- The Damrak came up hard against the side of the city’s new weigh-house, which was a pleasant enough building almost completely obscured by a perpetual swarm of boats. On the ground floor, all of its sides were open—it was made on stilts like a Vagabond-shack in the woods—and looking in, Jack could see its whole volume filled with scales of differing sizes, and racks and stacks of copper and brass cylinders engraved with wild snarls of cursive writing: weights for all the measures employed in different Dutch Provinces and the countries of the world. It was, he could see, the third weigh-house to be put up here and still not big enough to weigh and mark all of the goods coming in on those boats. Sloops coming in duelled for narrow water-lanes with canal-barges taking the weighed and stamped goods off to the city’s warehouses, and every few minutes a small heavy cart clattered away across the Damplatz, laden with coins the ships’ captains had used to pay duty, and made a sprint for the Exchange Bank, scattering wigged, ribboned, and turbaned deal-makers out of its path. The Exchange Bank was the same thing as the Town Hall, and a stone’s throw from there was the Stock Exchange—a rectangular courtyard environed by colonnades, like the ones in Leipzig but bigger and brighter.
We passed by one of these weighing houses, the site of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, now converted into a restaurant, In de Waag.
I also arranged our wandering to pass by the planned installation site of a 3D-printed bridge, accidentally dragging the kid through the red light district.
The bridge project is in the industrial/arts NDSM neighborhood across the IJ, but we didn’t get a chance to take the ferry over.
Day 2 was spent on a train journey to The Hague, where we visited the Escher museum. Most of the images were familiar, but the displays of working materials and sculptures were cool.
I remembered when I traveled alone on a shoestring budget, unable to afford train fares or museum ticket prices, and just wandered aimlessly or hung out in book shops. This time I could manage the tickets, but had a hard-to-impress kid to show around, trying to point out the development in the artist’s style.
Circle Limit IV, 1960
And one for mk (left: black and white chalk on grey paper, right: wood engraving)
We walked about ten miles each day, never bored, and rarely hunting long for a cozy spot to stop and warm up with a coffee or snack. Day 3 included a stop at Micropia, suggested by Hubski-NL. This was fun for the whole family, with interactive microscopes, tardigrade models, a window into the live laboratory where museum samples are nurtured, and a wall of poop.
Sadly, cubic wombat poop was not represented.
- Vincent: But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just — it’s just there it’s a little different.
Travel websites promote the monuments, museums, and activities, but I enjoy the stimulation of being in a place where everything is a little different.
Bicycles are the conspicuous characteristic of Amsterdam. It’s really ridiculous how every possible place to stow a bicycle is occupied, and this includes the large parking facilities located near every point of interest. Here is a three-level garage practically on the train platform.
The bikes look ruggedly practical, mostly upright and with a step-through (“ladies”) frame. Riders appear to be regular people, rarely wearing a helmet, sometimes carrying a passenger. Both cars and bicycles often yield to pedestrians, something that takes more getting used to than the complicated crossings, which invariably have sections designated for cars, bikes, and walkers.
Police and trash cans were hard to find, yet we felt perfectly secure on the clean streets.
The War on Cash was evident. Payment cards are now necessary to pay on board a tram, and the hotel vending machine was card-only. We were stymied at the microbe museum when the credit card reader required a PIN, which our card lacks, until the clerk suggested that we could in fact pay in cash.
The bathroom is, perhaps owing to delicate sensibilities, one of the few places in which globalization has not produced a monotonous uniformity. I remain mystified at the European custom of installing showers without doors, so the floor and toilet become wet and slippery.
On the other hand, the common pattern of providing a washroom ahead of the toilet rooms (which are segregated by sex) is great. This seems a practical way to keep the dirty business separated from cleaning up. Micropia should have this figured out, but they used Airblade hand dryers. “From a hygiene viewpoint, paper towels are superior to electric air dryers.” (Though this is a contested topic.) The Escher museum, naturally, provided an infinite loop of towel.