Art & Design
Years ago over a family dinner, my dear uncle went on a drunken rant about how Amsterdam was literally, “hell on earth.” What kind of civilized society, he asked the table, would accept homosexuality, allow drug use and legalize prostitution? We all responded in the way Japanese people do to awkward situations: silence, with no eye contact.
I was doing my best not to get emotional, although my uncle had no idea at the time that he was verbally attacking me. I had only recently come out to my parents then, and certainly not to my relatives. My parents’ strong disapproval was a fresh wound, and my uncle was rubbing salt in it. A cousin unknowingly came to my rescue, and the conversation shifted onto other things.
Since that night, I always wondered what Amsterdam was really like. Pieces of information came via friends who had visited (“Oh my god, the coffeehouses!”), but I knew I had to see it for myself. So we planned the tail end of our Germany tour so we could easily get to Amsterdam.
We decided to avoid the party scene and focus on getting some culture at the two big museums there: the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. We bought tickets in advance as recommended by everyone, since both museums just reopened after being closed for years and everyone in Europe seemed to be converging on them at the same time.
The Rijksmuseum was nicely renovated. N said it was almost unrecognizeable from the last time she was there. Apparently, the Dutch want this museum to be the “Louvre of the Netherlands”. We have been completely spoiled by New York City museums, which are generally empty or at least large enough to be manageable. Dealing with the crowd at the Rijksmuseum was a bit much, especially being jostled around by the very recognizable clusters of loud Spaniards and Italians.
Despite the people, the museum is nice. They have an extensive collection of Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer and other Dutch artists, as well as a very cool section on model boats (which were made to plan for the actual boats themselves), a large collection of flintlock pistols and old rifles and a few rooms of Delft ceramics. It is definitely a manageable museum to do in one day, and the beautifully renovated building is packed to the brim with art.
The Van Gogh Museum makes it into one of my favorite museums in the world. It does an amazing job of showing how the artist taught himself, and how he evolved over the course of his shirt career as an artist. It seems like the more famous museums around the world have managed to snatch up Van Gogh’s more iconic paintings, but this museum is a must for any artist.
I found Amsterdam to be a bit like New York, and to get away from the crowds, N and I took a 30-minute train ride to neighboring Haarlem where we rented bikes for the day.
The Dutch are born knowing how to ride a bike, and they show off this skill by maneuvering through crowds of people and cars while talking on the phone, texting, breast feeding babies and juggling knives. Everyone owns a Dutch bike, which is the bicycle equivalent of a Hummer, and can probably flatten you into the asphalt if you accidentally step into the bike lane without looking both ways. Oh and these bike lanes are everywhere. On the Dutch road, bikes rule.
Haarlem is a quaint little city, and I had the best Norwegian herring there at a small stand by the side of the road. N had a delicious fried fish sandwich called a kibberling, which was so good I had to get one for myself.
With our hunger temporarily sated, we biked on quiet bike lanes to the sea on the western coast of the Netherlands. It was a hot day out and the Dutch were out in full force on the beach. We turned back and biked through the sand dunes in Zuid-Kennemerland National Park for a while, savoring the serenity of it all.
Of course, no hot summer day is complete without good ice cream, so we stopped by an ice cream truck run by a friendly lady, who chatted us up about traveling.
That night, we took a walk to the Red Light District to see what the scene was like. It was a lot of red mood lighting, hot girls in skimpy outfits and tacky black light. Stag parties were loudly and drunkenly urging each other on, and I found the whole scene to be a little sad to say the least. But I wasn’t there to judge these people.
I would like to report back to my uncle that Amsterdam is just fine with its gay gays, chill potheads and sultry whores. I’d like to tell him that while the cyclists ride like the devil is on their heels, and the unnecessarily-steep stairwells are out to kill you, there is absolutely no breakdown of society here. If this is hell, then sign me up for a decent afterlife of friendly locals, wonderful canals, beautiful architecture and al fresco dining in small cobble-stone alleyways.
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