The main canals ring the center of the city like a mandala, the humpbacked bridges the spokes of a great wheel. Cocky little mallards share the reflective water with quiet barges. In middle of a workday, in the center of the town, the canals are as still as a temple. Church bells toll clearly. The tall, narrow houses seem to be meditating on the beauty.
Freedom is probably what attracts many people to live in this city. It is a place where there is organization without regimentation. The Dutch have a word for that atmosphere and feeling of the city – gezelligheid, which loosely translated, means, ‘coziness.’ It is a very bourgeois city, with all of the virtues of bourgeoisie: respect and love of knowledge, order, safety, cleanliness.
The old city doesn’t change, but rather, it transforms the newcomers. Gezelligheid can be translated as “coziness,” but it is something more. Look at a Dutch painting, especially the work of Vermeer, and go beyond the initial pleasure of appreciating light, color, and other painterly concerns. See the scenes, the stories in the art. A girl pouring milk into a bowl, a garden party for two, and old woman sweeping her doorstep in a little street--they tell you that the Dutch revere life, even (perhaps especially) at its simplest. Peace is more than a word or a concept; it is a way of life achieved through tolerance, respect and guaranteed privacy.
The red light district, that tangle of tiny streets, is located near the Dam, what the Dutch call the walletjes (the wharves). During the day it could be a safe, clean neighborhood where you could buy groceries, get a good meal, talk to a cheerful cop, or see homes of families. The women in their odd aquarium windows right off the little streets, seemed to be like everyone else. At night, you’d have to be careful of muggers. Taking photos of the girls in the windows is not a good idea. You will have to deal with the pimp for this action.
Marijuana and hashish are sold openly in many coffeehouses. Somebody who wants to get high can go to a nice café, smoke a little and be happy. Usually, you can tell if a place is selling by a marijuana symbol on the window or a sign outside the shop. The police are not concerned with cannabis. They are ruthless against heroin and cocaine. They have seen the “crack” problem lessen since “grass” was legalized.
One of the Amsterdam’s ancient streets is Zeedijk, which literally means “sea dike.” It is a tiny fourteenth-century street that meanders from Nieumarket to Prins Hendrikkade, and is one of the streets wherein you’d have to take extra caution when visiting. The police used to allow heroin dealing on the Zeedijk, hoping to control narcotics by limiting it to one area. But it didn’t work, and in the spring of 1985 the police shut it down. The city has purchased its buildings and restored it to house stores, bars and residential establishments for legitimate merchants. But the junkies are still there, blade thin, walking quickly when they’re trying to score, or sleepwalking when high. Up to now, this place is still under close surveillance of the cops.
Bicycles are important in Amsterdam. It is, in fact, a bike-friendly city. They have a separate bicycle route, so it’s safe to move from town to town without worrying about accidents with a car. You will see bikes fastened everywhere. It’s delightful to see and hear the morning and evening rush hour swarm of wheels.
Student culture in Amsterdam is different than in America. The city is like a university. Being a student is a profession, and a respected one. The notion of being a student really has little to do with attending classes or taking tests. Here, a young person comes to the city, is associated with a university in some way, lives in a neighborhood of like-minded people, and studies. That means reading, going to galleries, listening to music, and most of all, spending hours everyday talking with people. In this way, the whole city is a classroom. The whole city is a culture you study.
Amsterdam’s friendly culture makes any tourist feel welcome. It is like a world village. You enjoy the freedom, the beauty, and the unique appeal that can make any visitor fall in love with its culture. In Amsterdam, no one is considered foreign. It is a good, fair place.