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To celebrate Litro #113: Double Dutch, we held a Dutch-themed short story competition. Rebecca Cordingly was the winner.
I am the only person I know who has never been to Amsterdam.
“I don’t want to smoke marijuana,” I say on arrival as if it is an obligatory practice. Angus, a friend from university, blinks at my misguided impression of the Dutch city in which he now lives. My visions – streets of sprawling students pulling “whities” outside coffee shops whilst bunking off school trips to Anne Frank’s house – could not be more erroneous.
“Bikes have right of way here,” he yells, having plonked me on one of the ghastly contraptions. Mine appears to have been made for a man who is six foot tall, so I stand on my tip toes, my head growing hot with anxiety. I wonder if it is really true that one never forgets how to ride a bike even if the last time I rode one was so long ago it doesn’t even feature in my memory. Angus rides off gaily into the traffic in front of us, telling me, “Pay no attention to cars, they have to mind you!”
It soon becomes clear that Amsterdammers are not surprised by moronic tourist-cyclists with no road-sense or coordination. They roll their eyes mildly as I crash in and out of tram routes like an inept skier on a black run. In a city where everyone bikes and nothing surprises, there is a shrug of weary acceptance towards the gaping, wide-eyed Brit. To brake on a Dutch bike, I learn that one must peddle backwards – a skill that proves useful for stopping but not so great for setting off again. I find I can’t unstick my pedals. This is eventually solved by a kamikaze launch technique, which means that I just narrowly avoid killing anything and anyone in my path.
It is a bustling, sunny Saturday in May and the city is far more beautiful and less intimidating than my preconceived notions had allowed me to imagine. Amsterdam has the elegance of Paris but the laid-back quality of a less conceited European city.
We have been cycling for ten minutes when Angus suggests a ‘Dutch lunch.’
“I don’t want a roll-mop,” I say, eyeing the road-side stall he is approaching.
“You’re not having a roll-mop.”
Raw herring, the National dish, is served to me by a business-like (though not unfriendly) woman of robust build. It comes in a white roll with raw onions and gherkins and looks like an unrolled up roll-mop. The ‘nieuwe’ herring comes in from the beginning of May when a festival heralds the arrival of the shoals. It is extremely popular apparently.
Unfortunately my eyes can’t get my stomach to ignore the concept that Angus is trying to get me to eat a slimy, cold, grey, uncooked eel-like thing that smells of raw onions. Angus finishes his, shrugs and eats mine, wandering off through an impromptu flower and flea market. I am told that if I attempt to speak Dutch, I will be spoken to in English.”It’s pointless trying,” he says. “Your Dutch will never match their English.” All the same, I attempt a “Dank-oo” when handed my purchase in the All Year Round Christmas Shop, enjoying the warping of my own language to fit another. The woman serving smiles and says, ‘Thanks.’
“Look up all the time or you’ll miss everything.”
Back on our bikes this is true but hazardous advice so I ignore it and keep my eye-level horizontal. Continental-style cafés adorn street corners with tasteful outside seats of woven wicker.
“Cafes,” Angus explains, “are different to coffee shops.”
I nod meaningfully, peering into establishments where you can buy a joint over the counter. Occasionally I catch a blast of the scent as we go past but generally the city air has a soft, clear smell, with sporadic wafts of toasted sugar emanating from the stands selling caramelised nuts.
In the museum district I wander in awe through the Van Gogh Museum drop-jawed at how close I stand to his legendary masterpieces. The exhibition is extensive and the story of a life unfolds before my eyes, colouring in in vivid colour a plot I know only the outline of. We emerge hours later, the texture of passionate brushstrokes in oil quietening my mind.
The queues are too great to visit Anne Frank’s house today but the surrounding area is exquisite. Trees line canals and pretty pavements run down either side. Straight rows of houses face each other across the canal. Four to six storeys high the houses are tall and narrow, pressed together like dominos in a pack. Angus informs me that the long windows of these houses hark back to a Calvinist past where the house – like the soul – was to have nothing to hide.
We stop for more refreshment, this time with some food that doesn’t scare me. From my café seat on the riverbank with a glass of Rosé in one hand and some strong ‘auld’ cheese in the other I can at last look up to observe the roof-tops. Each one is different. Like pinnacles in a crown some are triangular, some flame-shaped, but all look one-dimensional as if each slim house were sporting an elaborate headdress.
Redeeming my poor show at lunch I choose a typically Dutch supper of ham, new potatoes, butter and white asparagus – a simple dish that makes me happy. Which is a good thing because we are about to set off for our final destination – the one I am most apprehensive about.
“Don’t be such a wuss,” Angus says, paying the bill and standing decisively. “You can’t come to Amsterdam and not see the Red Light District.”
It is surprisingly underwhelming. Girls in luminous bikinis, many of them chatting into their mobiles, stand in shop windows looking bored – snaking into life with a curve of the hips and a widening of their eyes only when a punter peers in. Gormless groups of English stags goad each other like teenagers and run away, giggling.
“He’ll come back later, ” Angus remarks of a young man whose shyness doesn’t quite cover his evident curiosity, “when he’s had enough to drink.”
Pubs on every corner are full of tourists drinking in what might appropriately be called ‘Dutch Courage’. Many of the shop windows are empty already, their contents bought or borrowed for the hour.
We head back to our bikes away from the bustle of the night, quietened but lacking the sense of horror I had imagined I would feel. There is an air of laidback unshockability to this city, a sense of dignity and self-possession that welcomes without needing to try too hard to impress. Much like, perhaps, the Dutch themselves.