The canals of Amsterdam

May last year, I was roaming around Europe. How impossible that seems today! If this pandemic had happened then, I would have been highly stressed today, cancelling tickets and probably crying! What strange times we live in, and how important it is to keep appreciating what you do have and have done.

To start again, last year I was in Amsterdam for a very short visit. I’d taken the train from Bonn, with a detour to Louvain-La-Neuve. I still remember not understanding the train system in Belgium and waiting for hours for a train that never came at a windy platform in Ottignes. You can read about what I did at LLN here.

I loved Amsterdam from the moment the train started entering the Dutch countryside. I was staying at a women-only hostel which was a lot of fun and I had already drawn up an itinerary. Compared to the earlier two cities, Amsterdam was a breath of multi-ethnic fresh air, more people, more chaos and more smiles too. This was a city that knew met lot of different people, and knew that the best way to survive is to try and live together. Probably my best memory is also of big-built young men, Ajax fans, crowding into the metro after a game, and how they sang, beating their big nordic feet in time, and probably holding up the metro at a station or two.

Some of the houses have darker windows- these are the houses that lost people to the Great Plague. Current residents are required to keep the windows a darker shade of glass.

What does the person from a southern climate and developing world see? Firstly I saw that the photographs I took came out crisper. Like there was no dust anywhere and the light was sharper. At the same time, that sun that looks so bright? Don’t be fooled by it. Throughout my stay at Amsterdam (and most of other places until blessed Athens) I was sniffling at the cold wind. This was like Darjeeling, minus the grime and with well…more prosperous people. Of-course it took a museum trip for me to realise just how the Dutch became so prosperous as they sailed out from their small country and extracted resources from distant colonies. Note to self: the rich are rich because they have, or currently do, extracted more resources than their fair-share. That is a fact of life that we must all remember before we berate our poor selves 🙂

One of the starkest observations for me was to see how everywhere in Europe, the emphasis is on preservation and a transition to the modern, rather than the immediate bull-dozing and concretisation that characterises so much of Indian “growth”. If you don’t believe me, and can feel your (nationalistic?!) bristles rising…then I will humbly point you to how Bangalore/Bengaluru now looks like a countless Indian cities. Or sample my little town of Darjeeling and Gangtok, losing their charm everyday as the locals scramble over each other (literally) to build “hotels”. Nothing from the past deserves a second chance, it’s like watching the final descent of a once noble house. The good times have passed, and now the decadent descendants cannot wait to sell every last family jewel, or failing which, every rusty door-knob.

The Asiatic in us strives to great resplendent glory, and then we tear it all down before the day is over. The next morning it is like we were never there.

Mostly what I loved about Amsterdam was a welcome straight-forwardness and lack of, what we in India call “emotional atyachaar”.

Everything is OK, said many of my guides, as long as you don’t kill someone against their will and as long as you pay your taxes.

My Sandeman guide said this as he walked us through the red-light district, and the boat-ride pilot from Those Dam Boat Guys said that too. He then pointed at the Museum of Sex at the mouth of the River Amstel and told us how school kids were encouraged to visit the place. After all, why would you not want the children to learn more about how they were created?!

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