Trekking Through Amsterdam

Where in the world can an opera house have the bronze sculpture of a violinist sinking into the floor? Not a clue? Well, a clog is a hint. I mean the wooden clogs people wear; not that they do anymore. The answer is of course Amsterdam. I suspect the violinist was sinking because the city is below water level. There is a water column in the city hall showing how far under the water the city would be if they hadn't built the dikes and canals and hadn't taken other measures. Yet, water makes this city.

Amsterdam consists of 90 islands connected by more than a 1000 bridges. Alongside with water come the greenery and a myriad of flowers. Don't think tulips only but all the flowers, due to the rather mild climate though somewhat unpredictable. At the time I was there the whole country was going crazy over sunflowers.

The flowers were everywhere, in markets, in parks, and around the elegantly gabled houses leaning over the water as if to catch their own glimpses. Buildings, hundreds of years old, have been beautifully restored and preserved in Amsterdam. Their lean and narrow structures lean at odd angles against each other, making their view even more picturesque. Inside, they have low ceilings and steep winding staircases.

Westelijke Elianden (Western Islands), a part of Amsterdam, has the most wondrous waterside views with some inimitable façades of buildings, wooden bridges, canals, marinas, boats that take you on trips along the canals and water taxis. Our trip to Amsterdam was simple. We got on the plane in Kennedy and got off in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. As a city, however, Amsterdam is everything but simple.

Having two cousins living there also helped us greatly. Today, I want to walk about in Amsterdam again, in memories though it may be, because I feel I'll be peeking into a Pandora's box again, for the picturesque Amsterdam shocks, arouses interest, and in unexpected ways, opens one's eyes. With Amsterdam, we broke with our routine of staying away from museums to visit several of them. I loved the Van Gogh Museum, maybe because I have a special bias toward crazy painters. Having opened to public view during the seventies, the museum is rather new.

It has hundreds of Van Goghs, several Lautrecs, a few Gauguins, Monets, and also Van Gogh's collection of Japanese prints. Exquisite is the word here for those prints. The Rijksmuseum was the spectacular one. Rembrandt's Night Watch was its star painting with a throne room of its own; although, I felt many of the other Rembrandts in the museum carried a higher artistic quality. The other Dutch Masters, Hals, Steen, Ruysdael, Vermeer were also magnificent. I can't possibly recall all the painters represented because the museum is so vast.

If I go there again, I'm putting aside three full days for this museum only. The reason Rijksmuseum---its Gothic façade, two towers, and those entrance doors---seems familiar to a New Yorker is because it resembles the Grand Central Station. The reason is both places were designed by the same architect, Cuypers, during the nineteenth century. Maybe because of that, most of the exhibits in the museum are from the nineteenth century, although every age from medieval to modern times is represented to some extent. Paintings and drawings aside, the most amusing was the doll house collections.

Despite reminding me of Ibsen's "Nora, a Doll's House," this collection became a treat. Especially, a seventeenth century doll-house with every minute detail was a delight to watch. It made a grown woman resort to little girl dreams. After the dollhouses, the scales of model ships enchanted us. They dated from the seventeenth century when Netherlands was a naval force in the world, and this collection made the grown man walking around with me turn into a little boy.

Very close to the Rijksmuseum, is the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, a proud street showing off the city's antique trade. Walking along this street right after coming out of the Rijksmuseum felt like I had entered yet another museum. Actually, some pieces were just as much if not more interesting than those of the museum pieces. The problem was, we weren't allowed in the shops.

Their ritual required ringing the door bell and then getting the guided tour, only if we were interested in a purchase. Nevertheless, we had some fun peeking through the windows. Rain always caught us somewhere in Amsterdam and it came down abruptly, but rain was not the only wet stuff that took us by surprise. My first shock came when I saw the public urinals in the streets where men used them in open view. Can you believe it! There are, however, in existence public toilets called WC or toiletten. There is a person who sits at the entrance of a WC near a table that has a saucer or a cup collecting entry fees.

There's no set amount for this and a few coins will do. Once, I put a nickel among the other coins by mistake instead of their currency and I got really bad looks. Since I don't know Dutch well but just some broken German, I used all the German words I knew to say, "Sorry, I made a mistake," which wasn't much help at all. The bathrooms in some of the houses are poles apart from what we call a bathroom. The toilet is separate from the bath and in a very small room with very poor ventilation.

They also have a strange toilet design with a platform to hold the waste to be clearly seen and examined before flushing it away. All of these things make the WCs stink, I'm sorry to say. People in Amsterdam have a different understanding of things compared to the rest of us, such as a very wide acceptance of some drugs and paid sex. Two other museums in Amsterdam felt odd to me. One is the Museum of Cannabis and Hemp; the other, the Sex Museum. We entered neither, but according to my cousin they house some historical details of thousands of years about their individual subjects.

The drugs are officially illegal but they are not illegal if people carry a certain small amount on them for personal use or smoke the stuff in coffee shops. Yes, you read it right. Coffee shops are for smoking dope, but they are also for coffee and some space-cakes with questionable ingredients.

Some people claim to have gotten high from just eating those cakes. For that reason alone, I hesitated to eat or drink anything on the street. It was a good thing a couple of family members were nearby and someone accompanied us while we went sightseeing. What I also came to learn in time was that the green triangle sign in front of the coffee shops means that they serve both weed and liquor inside. Everything is taxed in Netherlands, even the prostitution industry in Amsterdam where prostitution is legal.

Yes, prostitution is considered an industry. The prostitutes undergo regular medical checkups and pay taxes. The red light street of the city with scantily clad ladies is called Walletjes. It is okay to stroll down this street but not okay to take photos. I heard that some people, by taking photos, got in trouble with the police for "causing disruption to the working class." Is Amsterdam a safe city? There are two opposing sides of thought to this issue.

To us, it wasn't unsafe because we had its residents taking us to where we needed to go and alerted us to possible dangers, but I can see how it can be a dangerous place for other tourists who go there expecting the best. Even with the tolerant attitude to drugs and sex, there are still pushers of both things on the streets. Amsterdam residents claim that most of the crime comes from outside. They may be right, but surely Amsterdam provides fertile ground for such behavior to take root. In Amsterdam, in contrast to other wild cities, I don't think any person is in danger of losing his life or getting raped; however, there's a very good chance that most anyone, if he is not careful, can lose his goods, money, or papers, for this is a city where pickpockets--zakkenrollers--abound and flourish. There are even signs in strategic places warning against pickpockets.

"Let op zakkenrollers!" the sign meaning "Beware of Pickpockets" is sometimes written in several languages. Some of the goods and luggage are stolen at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport or on the train and in subway stations. My husband never put his wallet, money, or credit cards in his back pockets; I wore a light safari jacket with four front zippered pockets just for the sake of being safe and carried my purse next to my body to the front of me with one hand placed on it.

There are many people on bikes and sometimes a speeding bike can serve as a pick-and-go vehicle, depriving an unsuspecting victim of his bag or other belongings. Most of the time, thieves work in groups of three or four and create a commotion; then they make use of the distraction to run away with whatever they can. Once, we were in the train and a man was sitting with his laptop on his knees opposite us. Several people talking loudly stood in front of us and all exited suddenly at the stop.

They had made it out with the man's laptop. I didn't even notice what had happened. Being on guard all the time is the best advice to keep in mind when visiting Amsterdam.

They say straying out of the center of the city (centruum) and going out alone after dark or too early in the morning to iffy places may invite thieves, muggings and such. Though the Amsterdam police are very strict in keeping the public harmony by not tolerating vandalism, noise, or any other visible public nuisance, it is said that they are slow looking after individual complaints. Yet, the law-abiding residents of Amsterdam are wonderful people, and if approached with politeness, they are truly good Samaritans.

To continue. .

By: Joy Cagil

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