Written in late 1986 for TWA Ambassador. Little did I suspect then that by the time it appeared, early the following year, my mother would’ve been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor; I shut down my apartment in Amsterdam and moved back to the United States to look after her.
Nobody but the Dutch—or the many foreigners who have moved there—think of Amsterdam as the most cosmopolitan city in Europe. But after a year of living, and writing, in "the open city", I feel there is a convincing argument to be made. Shaped by the vulnerability of a small country continually overrun by foreigners, and the richness of a trading empire that fell gradually over three centuries, Amsterdammers were forced to adapt; and a city is, finally, its people. Smallness made them careful, hospitable, conversant; the world empire gave them balance, imagination, and a love of cash. The result today, if one follows Auden’s definition of civilization as "diversity attained and unity retained", is a splendid city, the most civilized I know.
I live in it as a stranger. A year ago, tired of New York and knowing I was ready for Europe but not wishing to take on another crashing capital like London or Paris, I chose little Amsterdam. My high-windowed apartment, full of the wet light that the Dutch landscapists made famous, looks out on a canal of swans and ducks and puffing tugs. It is inspiring and relaxing to live by water, a reminder of the sea and the world waiting out there; and this harmonic relation, a truce between land and water, has shaped the city’s philosophy.
It is an incredibly easy place for a newcomer, at least an American: inexpensive, even after a fallen dollar. Everybody speaks English, usually very well; the tourist season is only two months long and easily avoidable. Culture actually seems to matter, not as an expression of "high society" as in New York but as a daily, affordable pleasure—the Van Gogh Museum is full of businessmen with sandwiches during lunch hour. The trains, like everything else, run on time. There’s only one department store, but it is excellent. Not far away stretches probably the largest outdoor market in Europe. The city has no traffic problem; two out of three Amsterdammers use bicycles. I can leave my apartment, within the central necklace of five major canals, and check my bags at the airport ten minutes later—during rush hour. This, surely, constitutes civilization.
It is famous for Indonesian restaurants, a remnant of empire, but unsung for its variety, not equaled in Europe. Hard-to-finds like Mexican and Brazilian are numerous. The red light district is safe and self-contained; most of the women are self-employed. It is the smallest of the great cities, a place built to human scale: the flourishing London of Shakespeare’s day rather than some unchecked monstrosity of ours. Its people were very brave in the war and remain modest about it. The tenacity with which Jews (like Anne Frank) were hidden by Gentiles is well-known. Equally symbolic of the city’s sense of the commonwealth of humanity, and less celebrated, was a general strike of the entire city in February, 1941, when the Nazis began rounding up Jews. It was the only time the population of an occupied city went on strike, and the Germans had to declare a siege to break it.
Best of all for a writer, Amsterdam is an extremely good place to concentrate in, to listen to one’s inner echoes. This is partly because the Dutch are such good listeners themselves—Amsterdam is a city devoted to dialogue—and also because its watery calm seems to keep the place on an even keel. I am not the first foreigner to find the place an ideal work-spot. Spinoza, writing in Latin in the early 17th century, noted that "in this city second to none, men of every nation and every sect live together in the utmost harmony; and all they bother to find out, before trusting their goods to anyone, is whether he is rich or poor and whether he is honest or a fraud."
His emphasis on money, of course, is apt. The Dutch are commonly portrayed as merciless bargainers and frugal in the extreme. The Japanese had a saying that "where a Dutchman has passed, even the grass does not grow anymore." Bartens, a Calvinist poet contemporary to Spinoza, called the city "the whore. . . bought with anybody’s money / She is concerned with profit alone, profit alone! Profit alone!" Naturally, it was Amsterdammers who invented the stock exchange and the concept of the downward auction, in which the bid starts high and drops—so the first offered price is the last.
This reputation for financial shrewdness was earned in Amsterdam’s so-called Golden Age, the 17th century—the time of Rembrandt, and the playwright Vondel, and the expansion of the East India Company and West India Company to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Japan, South Africa, the Arabian Gulf, the Caribbean, Brazil, and New Amsterdam—later New York, traded to the British in 1673 for Surinam.
The "skinflint" stereotype misses the point, though. An Amsterdammer may be tight with money as regards himself—sometimes I feel I’m living in a cut-rate town, so earnestly is money being saved rather than squandered—but rarely cut-rate with other people. If a friend brings over wine it will be much better than he would buy for himself, and one has the same sense with most gifts. Amsterdam’s generosity toward artists—miles of paintings purchased by the government to subsidize young would-bes—is famous. But Amsterdam’s charity toward the old and the poor is more exemplary. Since the Golden Age there have been little villages for the elderly scattered throughout the metropolis, with interior greens and churches and houses; there are still seventy-five such hofjes. And it is a city unafraid to experiment. Some years ago an idea was tried to make thousands of all-white bicycles available that anybody could use and leave for the next person. It didn’t work (the first batch got promptly stolen, probably by some of the city’s addicts), but what other city would imagine such a provision?
One of Amsterdam’s peculiarities is that it’s not so very different for the visitor than the resident. A stranger immediately realizes he’ll never learn his way around the labyrinth of canals on foot or by tram, but only by bicycle. He notices the modesty of the individual houses, which bare their souls not via the well-lit windows looking into similar living-rooms but by the gables on top, every one different. Most of all, he sees the life of the café. If he walks around long after midnight, he catches on to the verve of the brown cafés and the night bars—strange sawdust-floored and nicotine-stained establishments that may open from one in the morning until three two nights a week, serve only beer and Dutch gin, and be instantly packed to the rafters with a discursive crowd of strangers who all act as if they know each other intimately, and have stayed up only for the sake of quick drinks and slow talk.
This sense of continual conversation—not "high talk" (Paris) or "clever talk" (London) so much as "good talk"—is the window on Amsterdam’s soul. The Dutch have a general word for it, gezellig, that can mean nearly anything you want—a word of approval to convey the sense of something being cozy and open at the same time, familiar and welcoming to strangers, most of all a sense of feeling at home even when you’re not at home. Thus a little lace what-not over a lamp may give the feeling of gezellig, but so, I suppose, may a bar of beery men yelling at a televised soccer game. Gezellig as an ideal produces a city that seems dedicated to clearheadedness and sociability, and that is a comfortable faith.
This openness to other people, other causes, other faiths, brought Amsterdam historically the fruit of other countries’ exiles. (The city’s twin mottos, represented by a statue on the dowdy Royal Palace on the Dam Square, are Trade and Peace.) The Dutch are predominantly Calvinist, and that creed’s tolerance made ousted Antwerp Jews, for example, feel welcome near the end of the 16th century; they brought with them the cutter’s trade, and since then Amsterdam has been the diamond capital of the world. More important, a visitor sees around him the true inheritance of empire, the mixed strains from all corners of what was once the Dutch world. In Amsterdam they’ve been absorbed, these Pernambucoans and Javanese, these Surinamers and Cape of Good Hopers.
In manners the Amsterdammers, who can be as class-conscious as any descendants of merchantmen, make a stranger feel welcome in a paradoxical way. They are more open at first than, say, the British, but careful to measure a distance. To drop in unannounced for coffee in the afternoon or evening and expect to be welcomed is normal—an unexpected Latin streak in the Dutch. To be invited over for dinner is a much more important occasion, though it would seem to imply a less familiar relation. To be a guest at dinner comes later in a friendship, I’d judge, than in the USA or most other European countries: the home is viewed as a private pocket of serenity and the dining table as a kind of inner sanctum. (There’s a local maxim that an Amsterdam girl will sleep with you before she invites you over for dinner.)
Outside the home, outside their country, they’re among the world’s great travelers, and the fact that so many come back to Amsterdam gives it a canny eye. The adventurous spirit of empire, that demands imagination as well as organization and greed, has been handed down, and the Dutch are pragmatic, fearless wanderers. That I’ve run across them in some of the most remote places in the world, on their slow way back to the cafés of the Leidseplein, has helped me understand the city better. Traipsing about with knapsacks and tents, speaking several languages easily, counting the pennies, curious, untiring, always somewhat unconvinced. . . for the Amsterdammer’s sense of coexistence, a marvelous welcome back home, manifests itself as skepticism abroad.
This love of travel for its own sake, so different from the American ideal—which is travel in search of something just like home, Indiana plus coconut palms—has cluttered some streets with dozens of cut-rate travel agencies. (It’s probably cheaper to fly to Asia from Amsterdam than from anywhere else in Europe.) An Amsterdammer thinks nothing of uprooting; my landlord and his girlfriend are planning to travel around the States for a year in a mobile home, in mid-life and mid-profession. In Amsterdam this isn’t unusual, and that kind of enthusiasm for flexible travel abroad makes for an open city at home.
I wonder sometimes if what attracts me so much about Amsterdam is really just a genius these people have for modesty. Modesty has kept them fascinated with the world at large, has made the city a haven for every outcast creed and people of Europe in times of bigotry; it has made the city enormously savvy in business, and open-handed and efficient in public affairs; it has even made the city, in a physical sense, last.
For one of the first things a visitor notices is how consistently and miraculously Amsterdam looks like it’s supposed to—so well-preserved it has a kind of fairy-tale beauty, a sureness in its own reflection in those canals. If this is a result of Dutch frugality it is a lesson well worth copying. The whole city is built on an estimated five million timber piles, still holding up after three hundred years. And part of Amsterdam’s attraction lies in being graspably similar to portraits from that time; Rembrandt would have little trouble finding his way around today. The vision of that town plan of 1609, calling for the creation of twice as many canals as in Venice and allowing for simple movement anywhere by cart, boat, or foot, was remarkable. It all still works because it was well-made in the first place, and because even in those expansive days an Amsterdammer was not a show-off in his choice of house. Modesty begets good sense and good workmanship, and this has kept Amsterdam intact.
This quality, a kind of directed smallness, is probably hereditary by now. (Anybody who’s gotten involved in a political discussion in Amsterdam will come away convinced these are the least modest people in the world.) One of the places I go to feel gezellig, to feel at home and not at home, is the great café of the Hotel American —where the Dutch spy and phony Javanese danseuse Mata Hari had her wedding party. It is actually part of a grand hotel (built in 1880) but mostly frequented by Amsterdammers, right on the Leidseplein. After the theater or ballet performances just next door, the artists may come in for a nightcap and it will be hard to get a table. But in the late afternoon, with the usual cloud-bottled light filtering through the stained-glass windows and turning the art-nouveau lampshades amber, all is peace and gezellig within. The newspapers of a dozen European capitals are laid out for the café’s patrons, voices are low; there a young girl is wondering what to write on a postcard, here an overcoated man is pushing his hair furiously back from his forehead and scribbling away at a novel. You can overhear conversations in five languages. The coffee is hot and extremely strong, a brew from somewhere far-off and tropical and once Dutch that makes the present recede. Now it is raining; a waiter turns up the lamps. Somebody you know, or will soon know, comes in. This is Amsterdam.