Wednesday, April 06, 2005


I'm still mulling over my trip to the States and my return, but I also wanted to write about the city I left from and returned to.

At least until those new direct flights I mentioned come on line you can't fly to the States directly from Berlin, so it's much cheaper to fly out of a place that does have direct flights. like Amsterdam. Plus, I had friends I wanted to see on each end of the trip there, and I could afford the train ticket. Train travel is wonderfully relaxing, and I needed to relax.

There was a point at which I thought I was going to move to Amsterdam: my friend Alex had discovered that a major newspaper there was going to launch an English-language magazine and needed an entire staff. This was perfectly suited to what I knew how to do, so I hotly pursued it. A good job in a city I'd come to like sounded pretty good, although in the end, both this project and another that cropped up simultaneously with it turned out to be chimeras.

But after this latest trip there, I somehow feel I dodged a bullet. I still like the place, and I'll happily visit when the opportunity and means coincide, but I don't think I'd like to live there. And since I know it's a place a lot of Americans fantasize about moving, maybe I should explain that a little better.

Part of it is the stairs. If you've ever been to a house in Amsterdam, or even some hotels, you know what I'm talking about: they're incredibly narrow, making it impossible to really stand on the step with any authority, and they're pitched at an incredible angle. Me, I've got acrophobia, and I've stood at the top of a couple of Dutch staircases and felt that cold sweat coming on. Not everywhere in Holland: mostly Amsterdam. The reason, Alex informs me, is that taxes on houses were levied based on how wide the house was, so you wouldn't want to have too fat a house or you'd be paying too much to the government. I'd also conjecture that the lots aren't too deep, either, since otherwise the stairs could be pitched more liberally. It's a little thing, maybe, but it sure was odd seeing my friend Mike climbing the stairs in his place like a ladder, stretching out his arms and pulling himself up by his hands as much as he was using his feet. But he got up and down fast.

That seems like a little thing, but big things are made up of little things. There's a parsimony about Dutch culture that I'm not comfortable with, and it goes way back, as Simon Schama proves so entertainingly in his book The Embarrassment of Riches, a lovely account of how the Dutch Calvinist religious beliefs started conflicting with their day-to-day life once the nation became one of the biggest mercantile powers on earth. Things have changed since the 16th Century, of course, but some of the basic issues remain. It seems perfectly logical to me that they'd make their staircases dangerously steep to save a bit of money -- and that they'd levy a tax that made it seem necessary.

Of course, you don't see that walking around. And I did a bunch of walking. For my return, I'd gone and given myself a treat -- two nights in a five-star hotel via Priceline for $88 a night. Unfortunately, I'd checked not only the button for "Central and Museum District" but also "South," so I wound up at the Holiday Inn by the RAI convention center, way south. A few minutes with a map showed me that I was theoretically only 45 minutes' walk from the central section I knew well, and after 12 hours on various airplanes and my refreshing jet-lag nap I was ready to take that walk, especially since at the end of it was the Spui and the fabulous Kantijl en de Tiger, a great Indonesian restaurant (most of the time: there seem to be two chefs, one better than the other, and I lucked out this time). So off I went, finding Beethovenstraat easily enough, and started the hike.

One reason I don't own a bike (another thing that'd get me funny looks if I lived in Amsterdam) is that I really do enjoy seeing things at a walker's pace, from a walker's perspective, without having to worry about traffic all the time. I look in shop windows, peek in apartment windows out of the corner of my eye, and let myself free-associate about what I'm seeing. And as I made my way up Beethovenstraat, something came to me: I was surrounded by the less picturesque Amsterdam, the part of town where people might actually live -- where I, for instance, would almost certainly have wound up if I'd gotten a job there. Out of nowhere, I got a strange feeling: these apartments were small. They had to be: there were a lot of them. Now, I knew, intellectually, that Holland is the most densely populated country in Europe by a long shot, but all of a sudden I had that made visible. My apartment here in Berlin is small, too, but I get the feeling that it'd be larger than average in Amsterdam.

But even fantasizing enough money for something bigger, the density is something that's going to be with you every time you leave the house. It's one of the good things about Berlin: because until recently they couldn't build much higher than five stories, and because the place is sprawled out like Los Angeles, it's a big, populous city, but it's just not as dense. It's broken up by the largest per-square-mile ratio of green-space of any European city. I've never felt jammed in here. And I have in Amsterdam, and in Paris, too, for that matter. It's not exactly oppressive, but it is annoying, and that could escalate.

Offsetting that, of course, are a lot of positive things about Amsterdam. It's genuinely multi-cultural: on the way from the Holiday Inn I saw posters for the upcoming Zimbabwean election, since, presumably, expat Zimbabweans were going to cast absentee ballots just as I had back in November. (I also saw a lot of posters slapped up here and there with a picture of a stern-looking Middle Eastern man and the caption JIHAD IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT, which I thought was pretty good). The Dutch are, to a point, tolerant (although the impulses that made Pim Fortuyn a star bubble beneath the surface, just like they do all over Europe), and this is something I appreciate. The people are by and large friendly, and I have to say that the women seem happier than Berlin women, who always strike me as looking like they're voluntarily reporting to their own execution. And there's a whimsy to Dutch culture that I think Americans notice, certainly an unknown quality in Germany, where the same impulse tends to come out either as kitsch or scatology.

But...could I live there? I don't think so. My Dutch friends hate it when I say this, but, in the end, it's another Germanic culture, if we divide Western Europe up into Germanic and Latin cultures, which makes sense to me (Belgium, for instance, is right on the border of the two). There's a Protestant rectitude, a certain amount of uptightness that no quantity of semi-legal pot from a coffeehouse is going to relax, underlying the vibe in Amsterdam, and for the moment I've had enough of that. And there's also the little problem of having to learn Dutch -- not just as a courtesy, which is why I'd do it in the first place, but in order to get a residence permit now you have to be able to speak it, and I'm just not interested in learning yet another language, one that very few people in this world speak. And yes, I know they all speak English there. It's the mandatory aspect that gets my goat.

Nope: like San Francisco and Paris -- but deeply unlike them as they are unlike each other -- Amsterdam's the proverbial nice place to visit that I wouldn't want to live in. And next time I'll know how to game Priceline better, too.

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