Posted on May 04 2015
One of the first things noticeable in Amsterdam, upon exiting the massive train station, is the quiet, which only deepens its impression on you the more steps you take from the jumble, as only 200m from the station, upon taking a path along the row houses of the Jordan, you are encompassed by a blanket of stillness and rapture, broken only by the odd bicycle, whooshing by, or the odd -- and, ill-welcomed, it must be said -- Vespa scooter. Other than a few stirring breezes, you are alone to admire the manicured stilt houses, the juniper trees, the Disneylandesque canals, the very way man has cobbled together a lifestyle bordering on the fantastic.
Here we have a city, frozen in a way, from the 17th century, when trade and wealth brought an extraordinary mix of merchants, royalty, and new found bourgeois, to create the most civilized place on earth -- which, in my opinion, remains so.
For here, starting with the row houses, constructed in the mud higedly-pigedly, laying unabashedly brick to brick, was the birth of true "neighbourism," the codified set of rules and behaviors that make city dwelling, well, so civilized. And quiet, goes a long way towards that cause.
Just the effort to lesson noise requires thinking of another, moving gently in the wood-floored flat above, or dragging purchases up the narrow staircase that borders all lodgers.
Silence is reflected in the shops and their "crazy" closing and opening hours -- which were few on our 3 day stay -- for instance, cafes open from 12 noon, rather than the more common 11 am, or closed by six pm, despite the huge availability of foreign purses and a spot on grand central avenue...
And quiet must be the guiding principle for keeping the bicycle. It is no small feat to maintain respect with a freezing piece of metal in the cold and rain, when a wind-screened scooter with heated grips is easily affordable to everyone in 700,000 Euro homes.
The bicycle remains a symbol of Dutch humility, that despite the expensive hand-crafted aluminum ones with 18 gears and disc brakes, the overriding theme is an austere, large-wheeled craft of utter utility -- some with milk baskets in the front; others with chairs and platforms for children, saddle-bags and attached wagons. This is simple transport to avoid long walks, nothing more. And ride them they do, in biting winds, and bitter rain, on cold nights, and early foggy mornings. With a cellphone in one hand, two children sitting or hanging off the frame, groceries and fresh flowers in the basket or draped over handlebars.
I never tired of admiring the bicycles as they swooshed by, up the humps in the road across bridges, intersecting the incongruous cars at big crossings, and dashing between pedestrians brave enough to leave the security of the protected sidewalk and cross the street.
To protect the bicycle from obsolescence, as it must have appeared remarkably old-fashioned with the appearance of the motorcycle and combustion engines, the Amsterdamer seems to take pride in making the bicycle the PREFERRED form of transport, and proud of their stand against noise and pollution.
Taxis are almost exclusively on-call only, with unremarkable 'taxi waiting point' stands marked by a small round sign, and then these vehicles start at nearly 10 Euro to discourage short rides, their meters inching up only after 5 km have been driven, a huge contrast to taxis anywhere else, where a mere cough pushes the fare up.
Buses are few downtown. Instead, the center is kept quiet by a succession of trams which run silently on electric cables overhead, and pass like clockwork every ten minutes.
You do not find Dutch people shouting, even though the strange language offers plenty of throat-clearing guttural vowels. Instead, the high-pitched voices of the Italians, the loud voices of the French, pierce the air as noise pollution, an unwelcome voice and culture of the less neighborly. No one screams into cellphones, although no 3G is to be found, and few merchants accept credit cards, despite the dearth of ATMs.
Communication is only a short bicycle ride away, or a brisk walk to the corner cafe. Civilization requires communication between its citizens, and an agreement on behavior. If everyone shouts, you only get noise, something the Frenchman on the cell-phone would not appreciate; I think of the contrasting Thai or Japanese talking so softly into their units, a cupped hand covering the mouthpiece to further mask the noise.
The city is quite remarkably in many other ways: the coffee shops where the purchase and smoking of marijuana is acceptable; the flushed-nightly canals, the cobbled together stately homes, of differing heights as the technology of pile driving into the soft mud beneath took hold; the preference to support small, family-owned merchant stores despite greater costs; the pride in cash is king, and the clink of Euros on a counter; the friendliness of the people, despite meeting visitors again and again; their comfort in other languages since they subtitle foreign language moving-pictures rather than dub it; cleanliness of the city, the whirling bristles of the city cleaner more prevalent than the police in their florescent yellow jackets; the many fresh markets that pop up on various days, so that farm fresh produce, cheese and bread, are no more than a stroll away for many citizens.
We can learn from the Dutch, and, considering that resources are getting scarcer every day in this world of nearly 8 billion, we better...