The art of walking the streets (Amsterdam)

Walking the streets of Amsterdam, if attempted without the simple intention of getting from point A to point B, is either dead boring or lively and inspiring. And, “mind the pot”, weed has nothing to do with the excitement you may or may not feel. First, you don’t need any weed to feel high in Amsterdam, and second, it will make you potty, ultimately.

Close your eyes on a Sunday morning standing in the centre of a European capital and listen to the sounds around you. All you would hear are car horns, bus engines, “got some change”, and a chorus of camera shutters. I take no responsibility for the not-so-distant possibility that you’ve been pick-pocketed while doing the exercise. In Amsterdam, you’d be listening to water splashes, gull mews, and the soft rumble of a motor boat. Yes, just one boat. Amsterdam, on a Sunday morning, is a place for meditation on thoughts you’d be proud of thinking, and proud of sharing. While sharing, you may want to omit those few thoughts that flashed through you mind when a cyclist was ringing his stupid bell and you were swerving to get out of his way.

Yes, cyclists. Even great minds get fixated on them. Terry Pratchett once said that his dream vacation was immunity from prosecution, a trip to Amsterdam, and a baseball bat. Don’t be so cruel. A side push can do the job just as well, especially if you have had enough physics at school to make the vector point towards a nearby tree.

Bicycles! Everyone takes a picture like this. It is a typical Dutch still life. A Dutch painter of the 17th century would attempt to do a still life that makes the seer aware someone has been in the picture, by the table shown there with all the meat, fish, and a peeled lemon, just a moment ago and is coming back any minute.  That was done so that all the meat, fish and fruit would remain fresh in the viewer’s mind. This still life by Cornelis de Heem is a perfect example.

Bicycles left chained to the railing also imply they are not abandoned, and their owners are likely to come back for pick-up. You may wonder why people chain their bicycles if everyone got one. Well, the answer is the decreasing popularity of drugs. Smoking weed is what parents used to do, so it is not fashionable, it is what “old people” do. In Amsterdam, if you are young and want to be naughty, you find an unchained bicycle and throw it in the canal.

This bicycle dumping mania is so widespread that special barges are employed to clean the canals. You are sure to see one or two cruising around and picking up bicycle skeletons from the canal bottom:

If throwing bicycles in the canals is the weed of today, the effect of stronger drugs is mimicked by dropping something bigger. That something is usually a small car which takes two strong men or four university students to lift and dump. Spot the potential victim here:

My favourite Amsterdam bicycle story comes from the Red Lights district. Imagine a group of tourists from China standing in front of the window featuring a bikini-clad girl inside. The tourists, standing about five metres away from the window, are in a deep and animated discussion pointing their fingers in the general direction of the girl. You can’t guess what they are actually saying, but you can read exclamation marks at the end of their speeches. The girl is smiling, but in a cautious way: A thousand Euro may be a nice lump sum, but not if it is earned twenty times in fifties. Finally, one of the tourists braves the five metres to the window. The girl assumes one of the more seductive poses, but the Chinese guy does not even glance at her. It was the new bicycle chained under her window they all were interested in. He loudly reads off the brand of the bike and the crowd moves off. I blame the ban on taking pictures in this district for not being able to immortalise the best visual explanation of “WTF” that has ever existed, and could be seen in the face of the abandoned girl.  

I can’t really explain how such a district can exist in a Calvinist society. You won’t see a lot of window curtains or blinds in Amsterdam. At night, you may find yourself staring at what you believed to be a 24h shop window only to discover a family settling down for dinner in their very private kitchen. If you are a good Christian, you have nothing to hide, and thus you have no need in curtains. What is even more surprising is that religion and prostitution peacefully coexist together topographically. This is the biggest city’s cathedral, and the building on the right is one of the first brothels bordering the area:

This brothel is called the Chocolate Factory, because it employs black girls. Racist? Exploitative? No one seems to give a second thought. Perhaps, no lightning has struck the brothel yet because whoever is responsible for hurling down retribution bolts is unsure about their precision radius.

Despite an occasional red curtain, Amsterdam is one of the most romantic places in Europe.  Its bridges are holding the banks of canals, as people are holding hands of each other, and people stand on the bridges holding hands and their cameras, bathed in the golden autumn light:

It is important to NOT look very attentively at the water surface, for a random plastic bottle can ruin the moment.

Besides romantic couples, single people you meet are likely to be kind, busy, and mostly women. Some will show you the mastery of relaxed bike riding while talking over a phone:

Most would be just cycling past you, perhaps thinking over their shopping list for the weekend:

And some will even be rowing by:

As your gaze follows the boat speeding away, you lock up onto the parking eccentricity of most drivers.

One can be a master enough to park the car the way its tires are within a millimetre of the abyss. But when they get out of their cars, do they drop down to the boats parked conveniently below?

I could understand that kind of parking if all the drivers lived in one of these big boats:

But, obviously, this can’t be afforded by everyone, for the approximate price of such a barge is about Euro 200K, plus you need to have a special license to live on a boat. New licenses are not issued any more, so you have to buy the existing one. Is it worth it? Well, yes, if you don’t get sea-sick, there’s some spare E200K in your pocket, and the lullaby of water splashing the sides of your home does not seem a crazy idea, go for it! There is a variety of creative superstructures making some barges look like pacifist interpretations of air-carriers:

Oh, it does seem a bit crazy? Take a flat in the buildings lining up one of the more shady canals:

What’s great about these houses is not their layout or design. It’s the view you get sitting on the windowsill. Or reclining on it. Some of them are a metre wide. You can sit on it, facing your “significant other”, drinking wine and listening to street musicians. Just remember, when it gets so romantically hot you lose control, that window curtains are not there.

Oh, and one last thing. Amsterdam is very child-friendly. The moment a child feels he or she might be getting lost, army and med corps rush to the scene to help. Not joking, see for yourself:

Oh. Sorry. Dear ladies, even though I wrote about meeting “mostly women”, the male jewels you can meet do warrant a trip to Amsterdam, if you are in want of one.

I can’t be a good judge of men and male beauty, but I am sure he’s quite adequate to his dog, and the dog is just amazing. Plus the locals, it seems, are not interested (wink-wink):


  1. I always love reading your blogs. They are just so interesting. I know you probably hear that all time. ” First, you don’t need any weed to feel high in Amsterdam….” So very true, sir. I enjoyed my time there immensely. Cheers.

    1. Thank you! ) On feeling high there: two Russian guys decided to have a relaxing weekend in Amsterdam. For starters, they decided to smoke some weed. One was laughing like mad. And the other had a panic attack and went into hiding. So the former spent the weekend laughing and searching for the latter, who was crying and hiding. Both came back green-faced, exhausted and hating Amsterdam. The girlfriend of the former said then, “Idiocy and drugs, while incompatible, are often combined”. And then she changed status to a former girlfriend )

      PS Hearing I am interesting from a writer of your talent is always a shot of adrenaline and whatever substance is responsible for motivation to keep writing! ) Thank you, really )

  2. Here’s the deal about the cyclist. There is a designated bike lane, and just as you would not casually stroll into a lane of traffic you don’t casually cross a bike lane without looking in both directions. They use their bell to warn you. The cyclist rule in Amsterdam and I for one am happy to see the car take second place. We lived in Amsterdam, and everyone rides a bike. Even my son-in-law who was a CEO of a major company. I loved seeing the creative additions that families made to their bikes to carry their children. The amount of bikes stolen yearly in Amsterdam is enormous, and most of those end up in the canals. We loved living in Amsterdam, and I especially loved strolling in our very up scale neighborhood and viewing through un-curtained windows vignettes of Dutch life. V.

    1. I have nothing against bikes. Really. It took me just three run-downs to get used to bike lanes, and I’ve learned a lot of new Dutch words in the process 😉

      1. I know what you mean. When we were first functioning in Amsterdam we were like deer caught in the headlights. The first Dutch words I learned was how to order a Heineken. I needed it! V.

  3. What a nice coincidence – this Saturday (or Sunday?.) I was sorting my pics from there I took this autumn) Love Amsterdam. But still miss Haarlem more I think)
    Re bicycles in channels my friend from there told me ‘they are 3m deep, 1m for water, 1m for silt and one for bicycles’ ))

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