I have heard a lot about the most famous city in the Netherlands over the years. Who hasn’t?
Pot is legal here, and there are hordes of shops just outside of Central Station where you can get a contact high just from walking down the street. There’s the red light district where scantily clad women stand in their windows and invite their potential customers with a wink or a wave.
Those things are here. It’s true. But, if you come to Amsterdam just to get high or get laid, you’re really missing out on a magical city–a place that exists beyond the tourists and voyeurs.
When I arrived downtown on Friday evening and walked out of Central Station, I looked out on what seemed like chaos. People were everywhere, roving the streets in packs, moving from bar to bar, looking at all the strange sites.
I knew that I was not going to partake of the pipe so to speak. It’s not that I’m opposed to legalized marijuana. In fact, I’m kind of hoping America legalizes across the board. Think of tax revenue! I’m just being smart and safe, and I didn’t think I would really experience Amsterdam as a place if I was stumbling in a haze along the canals.
But I did enter the alleys along the main road, and soon I found something that I fell in love with the first time I came to Europe when I was 14 years old. I found a shop that sold crepes.
So, I bought a crepe with Nutella to go and continued to roam. I laughed to myself when I caught some people looking at me–a wild-haired man mowing down on a crepe with a plastic fork staring about him with wide eyes.
As I moved away from the Central Station area, Amsterdam became calmer. There still people walking or riding their bikes about and there were restaurants and bars all over, but it was more residential as well. I was entering an area that was not about pomp and show. It was about living.
The canals at night are simply glorious. With the street lights along the edges and the occasional Christmas lights that are strung across, the black water shimmers with a romantic glow. I saw a lot of couples wandering along the canals, holding hands, high on each other.
I talked to my first person outside of a restaurant called Seasons. Sandra was offering the passersby a taste of pea soup. She said she was from Estonia, and she said that she liked living in Amsterdam. I told her about the blog, and she told me she would check it out.
I know that Sandra was working, but her friendliness was very real. As I continued on, I was excited to see who else I might meet and what else I would discover.
Oh, and by the way, the pea soup was really quite good.
Peas are actually on a lot of the menus here. But, if there is a food for which the Dutch are known, it’s cheese.
So, when I saw the Cheese Museum, I had to go in.
There I met Masha. Masha was born in Russia, but she was raised in the Netherlands. She left and then returned and has been living in Amsterdam for the past 6 years. And Masha loves her job and knows an amazing amount about cheese.
The cheese that is produced here is gouda, a favorite of mine before arriving.
Masha walked me throughout the shop giving me tastes of different cheeses and talking to me about how the cheese is produced.
She told me that “old Amsterdam cheese isn’t really that old.” It’s only aged 6 months. Truly old cheeses are aged at least for 12 months.
She let me try one of the 12 month old cheeses that she called “the special one.”
“The cows had linseeds included in their diets. It increases the creaminess of the cheese,” she said.
The explained that the Dutch like to eat their cheese with mustard, which is why there was so many different kinds of mustard for sale in the shop. She showed me gouda that was aged for 25 weeks in an old bunker from World War II and another that was aged in a cave in France for two years.
She let me try a gouda infused with cumin, which was the first spice that the Dutch used in their cheeses. It was really pretty amazing.
Then Masha took me downstairs to the museum itself and showed me the old process for making gouda as well as the current one.
I was thrilled with the experience not just because I like gouda but because I didn’t know I was going to find it.
Later, when I decided to eat at Il Panorama, I ordered a pint of Amstel and a cheese platter. I wasn’t able to finish the platter because it’s really meant to be shared, but I felt like I was eating a bit like the Dutch.
On Saturday, I ate at Bistro Bij ons and had the “English breakfast in Dutch Style.” There was no gouda in that, but there were peas, along with bacon, sausage, a fried egg, onions, and fried potato.
I remember Dimitri from the plane ride over from Glasgow saying that “there were loads of places to eat,” and he was right. You could literally eat dinner at a different place for a month, and I don’t think you would begin to scratch the surface.
The other thing Dimitri told me was that the train system in Amsterdam was amazing. He was right. I loved figuring it out, which wasn’t too difficult. It’s quite user friendly. Plus, the people who working for the transit system are incredibly helpful.
In fact, I was on the tram heading back to Central Station on Saturday when I made another discovery–Hairsalonnadir.
I mentioned that I was looking a bit shaggy, so, when I saw the universal barber sign, I hopped off the train.
The fellow who cut my hair is named Anas, and he did a bang up job.
He told me a bit about himself while he worked. He’s from Damascus, Syria, and he’s been cutting hair for 13 years. He came to Germany initially to live with his brother. He moved to Amsterdam a year ago, and he loves it.
“The people in Amsterdam are the nicest people in Europe,” he said.
I told him that I was sorry for all of the pain and suffering that had occurred in his home country. He thanked me. And then he said he was sorry for what America was going through right now too–clearly referring to the election.
When Anas finished my hair, he told me to write on the wall to show that I had been to the shop. It’s a cool feature of Hairsalonnadir. There’s also a motorcycle up on one wall. I left my message, the same one I left in the Tyvoan bothy book back in Scotland, and headed back to Central Station.
Anas described Amsterdam as “very liberal place.” In my personal journal, I wrote that I thought that “the people of Amsterdam just accept life as it is.” When I think about how at the center of the red light district is a church or remember all of the kids being carried by their parents on bicycles, when I recall the cobbler shops (I tried to interview one but he said he was too busy) or the Disneyland line outside of the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, when I remember about the lines and lines of shops that seem to go on block after block or the street sweepers who washed away the reminisce of Friday night to give Saturday night a fresh start, when I consider the street protest against corruption in the Romanian government in one moment and then a group of young people performing a flash dance in the train station in another, when I think about all of the homes that I passed with window shades up and people just existing like they were on display or the wisps of smoke coming from boat houses docked on the sides of the canals, I feel like I’m getting closer to essence of Amsterdam, but I know that there is so much more.
It’s truly an amazing place.
Until my next post, keep looking to the heavens and seeking your own star.