Tuesday, November 13, 2012


“There is no such thing as Dutch cuisine.” 
So pronounced Francois, the proprietor of Posthoorn B&B in Amsterdam.  Hours later I mentioned his remark to Marianne, a delightful food historian I met by chance in the historic pub across the street.  She sighed with exasperation: “He’s French: what do you expect?” 

From Marianne I had recommendations for several Dutch restaurants, while Francois carefully steered me toward Italian, French, and Asian eateries in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam, where I am staying.  I asked Francois why he chose to raise his family here, given his Gallic disdain for various aspects of Dutch culture, ranging from the cyclists (“madmen!”), the food (“barbaric”), and the weather (“grim”).  He nevertheless declared that he “wouldn’t live anywhere else,” extolling the laid-back lifestyle, the village-like atmosphere, the friendliness, and overall quality of life.  “Here,” Francois explained, “you can raise children in a way more normale than in Paris or London.  There is not the same pressure or competition.  Everyone is happier.”  But he added darkly, “the Dutch cannot make a decent loaf of bread.”

Francois’ observation about Dutch contentment is everywhere evident.  People smile, they greet one another while cycling, they chat easily, even with strangers like me.  The Dutch are fond of America and feel especially proprietary about New York.  Marianne said the Dutch rarely watch continental films or television shows, preferring American pop culture in all forms.  Reruns of Seinfeld are wildly popular, as are those of Sex and the City.  At the moment, the country seems to be as fixated on Homeland as we are, and they follow Mad Men obsessively.  The bartender at the pub hummed the iconic James Bond theme song in anticipation of seeing Skyfall later tonight.  American rock and roll still dominates the airwaves.  As I’ve wandered the city and entered various establishments, I am greeted warmly and peppered with questions: where do I live; what is my profession; why am I in Amsterdam?  Perhaps if it were the height of tourist season, I would not be enjoying this friendliness, but in mid-November visitors have thinned out and the locals want to chat over coffee or a beer.

Amsterdam is one of the few cities where I’ve disembarked from the plane and felt instantly at ease.  For one thing, everything works well, but the efficiency is relaxed, not the aggressive perfection one sometimes encounters in Northern European countries.  Take customs procedures: there is no embarkation form to complete; no separation of EU passport holders from non-EU citizens; no questioning by customs officers keen on a bit of payback for our excessive Homeland Security procedures.  You simply get off the plane and walk through the airport, passing attractive shops and restaurants (or stopping to have a coffee) before exiting customs, which took all of 30 seconds.  Indeed, so nondescript is the customs area that I walked by the first time until I realized I was beginning to enter a different terminal.  No one noticed; no one yelled at me.  It was the complete antithesis of the terrifying atmosphere at Dulles Airport, where creepy films blare non-stop from flat screen televisions and officials herd people through the labyrinthine process.

By 8.00 a.m., I was at the Posthoorn, sleepy and jet-lagged after a miserable flight on an old Boeing that should have been retired years ago.  My seat mate said it was part of the Continental fleet United acquired as part of the merger, and I suppose they’re determined to use the planes as long as possible.  So I was all the more pleased to find myself, after twelve hours of driving and flying, in this lovely, friendly city, where things work well and life seems quite manageable.  I spent most of the day just walking; I also took an hour canal ride to see the city from the water.  Periodically I would stop for a coffee or hot chocolate—the damp wind coming off the water is raw—but mainly I looked and listened and smelled. 

I lucked upon the well-known flea market held every Monday in the Jordaan district.  It runs for blocks and has every imaginable item for sale: clothing, food, cosmetics, household items, bric-a-brac.  I noticed bolts of fabric everywhere, ranging from woolens to lace, and I realized some women here still make their clothing, a lost art in the States. 

Like all first-time visitors to Amsterdam, I was startled by the cyclists, who far outnumber motorists.  800,000 people live in the city, but there are 1.6 million bicycles.  While the Dutch are very proud of weaning people from driving, there do worry about the “bicycle problem.”  They are everywhere, and I mean everywhere: chained to gates, railings, posts, and trees, and even suspended from canal bridges.  Old rusting velos scattered throughout the city exist in a state of bicycle purgatory, neither enjoying ascension to regular ridership nor suffering the descent to a waste fill.  No one quite knows what to do with these “orphan bicycles,” as they are called.  The government keeps adding more parking spaces at the train stations, but they can’t keep up: the Dutch have become bicycle fetishists. 

I asked Marianne about bicycling, and she explained that most people have at least two: the traditional omafiets  (“grandma’s bike”) and a peppier touring bike.  The first, a heavy lugged beast manufactured out of steel, provides everyday transportation.  The cyclist rides in the “sit up and beg” position, which provides comfort but, more importantly, a greater field of vision to see oncoming traffic.  The touring bike is used for long weekend excursions outside the city: one can’t really do a 25-mile ride on a 50-pound behemoth.  Most people Marianne knows speak longingly of a third bicycle, but they do not have sheds, yards, or basements to house these increasing acquisitions.  Thus the orphans on the street proliferate.

It is not only the sheer density of Dutch cyclists that amazes, but their insouciance in the face of conditions that would fell most nationalities.  People bike in rain, wind, snow, and ice.  They bike while eating breakfast; drinking coffee; smoking cigarettes, and talking or texting on cell phones.  I saw one terrifying cyclist manage three out of the four activities simultaneously.  Weirdly, cyclists pose more threat to each other than they experience from drivers, who seem cowed by their numbers and meekly crawl alongside or behind.  People also cart an astonishing amount of stuff on their bicycles, including other people.  Mothers and fathers bicycle with one or two children; they carry boxes and groceries; they pack musical instruments and sporting gear; they lug panniers stuffed to bursting.  No one wears a helmet, not even babies or young children, and somehow they all manage.  And while the bikes clearly need to be heavy workhorses to accommodate this extra weight, the riders do not: all that cycling and hauling makes for a sleekly fit populace.  You simply don’t see overweight children, teenagers, or middle-aged people.  Children are expected to cycle independently to their destination by the age of eight.  I was told it used to be six, and the Dutch are now blaming themselves for being overly protective.  Then again, this is a culture where families walk unconcerned through the red light district and light drugs are acceptable commodities.  So far, I find it refreshingly frank.  

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