August 15, 2011:
Magical, magical, magical. I fell in love with Amsterdam nearly immediately. Exiting the central station and moving out into the sun was no more unusual than any other such exits, except that the sun was shining and we’ve been trudging through thick raindrops since we arrived. This alone made the departure special. We had planned to take a boat ride around the canals, but after a snack, I wasn’t so interested in sitting in a plastic, encased tube, which is how the canal boats are, so we headed off towards Dam Square with the intent to catch a boat ride later.
We wandered down a busy thoroughfare that was much too touristy, but fun in a campy way. Marijuana smoke drifted in and out of the crowd, and Milla wrinkled her nose and smiled at this. We smell marijuana when we visit the Last Thursday festival in Portland, but it’s not legal. We also passed a sex museum. Milla found this quite salacious, marijuana smoking and sex shops right out in the open, which of course gave her another giggle.
Dam Square was crowded and full of life. A Scot danced and played, then asked for tips. Around the square various persons stood attired in an array of costumes that must have been hotter than hell. One was a knight, covered in shiny, green stones, with a brilliant, diamond encrusted shield. Every few moments he shifted slightly to his left, then again, then again, until he circled and faced us. As he turned away I could see beneath his helmet. The skin there was red and sweaty. He must have been roasting there in the sun wearing such a heavy costume. Nearby Poseidon posed with a family of three. He allowed one of the sons to hold his pearly blue, shell covered staff. Darth Vader stood alone to one side. No one seemed much interested in him; modern gods pale in comparison to Poseidon and knights. I can only imagine the level of sweltering under his black cape and hood.
As we passed through the square and crowds, pushing Isabel in her stroller along the bumpy cobblestones, I felt a gradual welling of desire for this place in my chest. I wanted to get past the tourism and into the very old city. I did not so much mind the crowds, but had no desire for McDonald’s and other hideous modern entrapments. Come, I said to Milla. Let’s head off this way. We took a narrow road away from the square and moved along until we came to a quiet street along a canal.
As in Delft, a small town we visited a couple of days ago, cars parked right along the canal. There were no fences or other obstructions between them and the water. Surely parking must be a stressful affair, even when one is used to doing it. Later on our boat tour, we heard that an average of one car per week falls into a canal. Yikes!
We rambled along and came to a busier street with another, larger canal running through it and decided then to take a boat tour. We stood and purchased our tickets, and proceeded down onto the wooden boardwalk to wait our turn on a bench. The sun was really warm and I commented to Milla that I would take being warm any day over the rain. Isabel peeked over the edge of the boardwalk into the water, turning to tell me about the sloshing water and ducks. Hoo? she asked, pointing into the depths below.
We sat for ten minutes before a boat came to pick us up. The best part about getting to such a tour before the boat arrives is that you are near the front when it boards, which affords you the opportunity to choose the best seats. The boat was long and narrow, an aisle running between booths of vinyl benches with tables between. The entire thing was encased in a plastic windows. Two sets of the windows were open on top, and at the very front and the very back, windows were open on either side as well. We chose a booth at the very back next to an open window, and for the rest of the ride, i was so grateful for this choice and opportunity. The boat groaned, its engine grinding and smelly as the contraption turned to begin its journey, turning and snaking along the wider canal.
Moments later the boat turned down a smaller channel and as the sun shined upon us, the breeze gently pulling at our hair, with Milla smiling and Isabel giggling, I fell completely and utterly in love with Amsterdam. The boat ride was completely enchanting. We passed crooked, skinny houses, built on uneven piles driven into the sticky muck that is the city’s base. Our guide recited in four languages the story of early taxation based on a building’s width. He pointed out overhead the wenches attached to gables and used to swing furniture through open windows because the doors are too narrow to admit anything of consequence. We heard stories of ancient merchants and mariners, and cars falling in channels, and the cost to build small fences, and as the boat moved along, I thought, I would love to live in this place.
As we floated along, my 22 month old daughter waved at everyone. We passed groups of young men hanging out on the edge of the canal. Isabel waved and they all broke into bright smiles. We passed two old people snuggling together on a bench. Isabel waved and waved, and they smiled and waved vigorously in return. We slid beneath a stone bridge. A handsome, dark skinned man ambled along its side. Isabel waved at him and his smile was so genuine and lovely, my heart nearly broke at its beauty. My sweet child was making many people happy, if only for a moment. Her wave is flat-handed, like a royal waving to her subjects.
After 45 minutes, the boat moved out of the canal and into the broad channel near the central station. It passed a bicycle parking garage filled with thousands of bicycles, and the central train station. As we rounded the corner into the main channel, we looked up up up at the bow of a giant cruise ship. We thought we were going to hit it, it was that close! At the last moment, our boat curved round the ship and made its way further down the channel. It then turned back into the canal and back to where we began.
I loved Amsterdam. Then entire time we floated through the beautiful canals, I was in complete bliss. After our ride we wandered until we came across the Waterstones Bookstore. More bliss. Four stories of books, which for me is like putting a drunk in a bar, I’m such a book addict. I could never give up paper and covers in favor of some electronic reading device. There is so much more to the experience than the reading of the words. Milla and Isabel settled into the children’s section and I was able to have some free moments wandering by myself, which was heavenly.
After making a few purchases (of course), we left Waterstones and discovered two more bookstores, the American Bookstore and a small local shop. All were in Spull Square, a delightful place full of trees, birds, sun, and visitors. Dogs romped. Birds chirped and ate crumbs. Groups congregated. The sun shone. We sat for a while on a bench eating our purchases from the AH grocery. This was a fine discovery, minus the vomit on the stairs out front–ewww! We were able to purchase lunch meat, cheese, bread, and fruit. We ate these in Spull Square until a yellow jacket decided to chase us away. Milla screamed and some locals laughed at her. It was kind of funny. We then waited for Anne at a coffee shop and drank decaf Americanos. Isabel played and nursed. Once Anne arrived, we caught a train to the theater where we watched her fiance in an opera. It was all wonderful fun.
Good: Trains are fast. Weather is lovely. Buildings are charming and crooked. There are hooks from the tops of the buildings with which to swing furniture in through the windows of narrow old houses.
Not so good: Vomit in front of the grocery store and the smell.
Sublime: Isabel waving at people on the shore and their smiles and waves in return. She took them by surprise, this tiny person waving at them from a boat.
Isabel in front of a canal in Amsterdam.