Sunday, August 7, 2011

First impressions of Amsterdam

First through third impressions, actually. We've managed to spend 2 of 4 weekend days in Amsterdam, plus a quick trip Friday night for dinner in a greenhouse at Restaurant De Kas (a topic for another time, perhaps). Our visits have mostly focused on good walks and great beers, but in that short time I've been surprised by how different the city center is from what I expected.

My notions of Amsterdam were fairly vague, but I suppose the notorious elements of drug use and sex for money predisposed me to the idea that it would be an actively seedy place. I pictured something dingy, perpetually unclean. Exciting, to be sure, so long as you avoid touching things and steer clear of anything drippy and moist. Like New York, a livelihood that somehow derives from the energy of overcoming constant noise, trash, and commotion.

And Amsterdam probably has these things, I just haven't seen them yet. I'm here in August, so what I have seen is hours of beautiful sunshine, and so many picturesque canal homes that it borders on absurdity. Which I'm more than willing to accept as real life.

I'm hardly the first traveler to enjoy being surrounded by water, but I can't overemphasize how wonderful it feels to walk along tree-lined canals. New York is still my favorite city, but the soundscape of Manhattan tends towards rumbling buses, screeching taxi brakes, and always some sort of chaos in the near distance. Walking through central Amsterdam in the summer, even if you choose a route that seeks out red-lit windows and lingers near red-eyed drug tourists in their stench and fog, you will wind up on a street with the gentle rustling of leaves and subtle lapping of water. Bicycles are by far the most common traffic, so even aggressive "honking" just means tinkling of a small bell.

To a local, Amsterdam may indeed be seedy, but from my perspective most US cities couldn't hide those elements if they tried. Which is okay. My favorite part of Richmond hasn't lived up to the promise of its elegant buildings for decades, and this potential equals opportunity for designers and small business owners to contribute to the new personality of an old city. Nisha and I will just have to figure out over the next year whether it makes more sense for us to go to a place we can hope to create into what we want, or to be somewhere we can love for what it already is.

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