Dreaming of Amsterdam

Republished from the Drysdale & Co. blog, Beyond the Shop Window from 10/07/2010

(the world cup is long over and beloved Netherlands came soooo close, but my love of the city remains and they are still my fave football team!)

Some people love New York. Some love Paris. I love Amsterdam.
With all of the cheering I have been doing for The Netherlands as they were winning their way into their first World Cup final in over 30 years this Sunday I have really been pining for my favourite place. So, since I can’t be there at this time, I’ll just have to blog about it instead.

I didn’t know that the first time I went there on a bit of a last minute whim that I was about to fall in love…that’s how love is sometimes, it sneaks up on you. After only being there a few hours I suddenly felt completely comfortable, like I was home. Which is a really odd thing to feel in a place where you’ve never been, have no family connections and where most people are speaking a different language. Of course, most of them also speak perfect English too, so you never really feel that disconnected. Plus, thanks to my nation’s efforts in World War II most Dutch have a special fondness for Canada. If they mistake you as being from somewhere else you just have to say “I’m Canadian” and they almost instantly become just a little bit warmer towards you.

One of the best texts I have found that explains life in this great city is How not to get hit by a bike, and other stuff they forgot to tell you about Amsterdam by S.G. Collins. I laughed when I came across it because the title is so true. The one thing I always tell people about Amsterdam is that something is always coming at you – people, bikes, cars, motorcycles, trams – sometimes all at once, on what you though was just a narrow stone pedestrian walkway but hey, turns out it’s a street – beep, beep. Just be careful where you jump aside to safety because you just might end up in a canal if you’re not paying attention!

Perhaps one of the other reasons Amsterdam feels so comfortable to me is that it is very multicultural. The population is around a million people but there are about that number of visitors to the city every month. As a Torontonian I am very used to being around a vast range of cultures and Amsterdam, in this sense, feels just like home.

Of course, one of the most widely known aspects of The Netherlands is their relaxed policies on what are considered to be social taboos in most other places in the world – like soft drugs, prostitution and euthanasia. This is what many people know about when you bring this city up. Yes, it’s true, that is an aspect of the place but if you think that’s what it’s all about, you are really missing the point. I really like the Lonely Planet’s video review of the city and the authour’s take on the Red Light District. (sadly, this video was taken down from YouTube 🙁 …)
Like she says of the girls in their red lit windows “seeing it once is enough””. I did find it quite interesting though that Amsterdammers don’t avoid this area in the normal course of moving around the city. I’ve seen families with children passing through on their way to where ever, barely even taking note of what was around them. They just seem to take it all in stride and don’t seem to feel that it’s a blight on the city in any way. It is amusing though to note the difference in the Red Light District when the weekend arrives. On a Wednesday afternoon it’s as calm and quiet as anywhere else, but by late Friday afternoon you see many groups of guys, many of them Brits, arriving in large numbers filling the streets, pubs, and coffee shops with noise and activity. By night time it’s a full on party atmosphere. There are so many British pubs in Amsterdam and at first you wonder why, until you see the Friday night invasion – The British are coming! The British are coming!

As I mentioned, there is always a bike coming at you and that’s because it is such a bike friendly city. Where we have car parking lots, they have bike parking lots.

Bike Parking outside De Bijenkorf

And it is common to see an entire family out for a weekend excursion, mom & dad riding and kids in the attached carts in front or back.

The city is mostly flat and very compact so biking is a popular choice. I think it’s one of the reasons the city feels so at ease to me. There are cars of course but nothing like the volume of cars we see everyday here outside our front door here on Danforth. There is just much less roar of auto traffic and the air feels clearer because of it, not to mention less road rage..and parking cops.

And then, of course, there is my favourite part of any city – the shopping! Amsterdam is perhaps not renowned as a shopping mecca but there are tons of great little winkels (shops), especially in “De Negen Straatjes” (The Nine Streets) an area in the neighbourhood of Jordaan filled with hip boutiques, antique shops, cafes and galleries. I particularly enjoy Beadies, a cozy little shop with beads and jewellery findings as well as handmade jewellery pieces. You won’t find much in the way of a typical North American style shopping mall but The Magna Plaza is the closest thing, housed inside a beautiful 19th century neo-gothic building. Yes, the building in the background of this picture is a shopping mall and it is spectacular inside!

The main shopping spot, especially for tourists is the Kalverstraat and Nieuwendijk, a long stretch of street that is like a giant outdoor shopping mall, Kalverstraat on one side of Dam Square, Nieuwendijk on the other.

Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) in Dam Square

If I recall correctly there are at least four H&M stores on this stretch, as well as many other international chains and some more regional companies like C&A which is popular across Europe. No matter what the weather or what time of day this particular stretch is always packed with shoppers. Just getting across from one side to a store on the other can be a real challenge.


Kalverstraat

Another main centre for hanging out is the Leidseplein and on Leidsestraat is another of my favourite spots, Cora Kemperman, a Dutch clothing designer with stores in The Netherlands and Belgium. Her peices are comfy and affordable and the stores are merchandised by colour, which is always a method I love so I can head straight for the purple section first!

There are also many outdoor markets, the Waterloopleinmarkt, the Albert Cuypmarkt market are great for bargain hunters.

Albert Cuypmarkt

But ultimately the part that I love the most about Amsterdam is that part that can’t be shown or described, only experienced – the energy of the city. It’s busy and bustling in some areas, yet you never seem to be more than a couple of blocks away from a peaceful, relaxing canal side spot. Despite its party atmosphere, especailly in the Red Light District, it is very clean and relatively safe. The Dutch are known to be hardworking and pragmatic, yet also have a high value on personal “me” time and individual freedoms. They are open minded and self assured and you can feel it in the air.

This post is just scratching the surface. I may have to do a Part II. I didn’t even get to the museums, the parks, the Artis zoo, the canal boat tours…for a small city there is really so much to see and do. There are lots of stores that declare that they are inspired by Paris or London but in a way my store is inspired by Amsterdam, mostly in the way we try to present a relaxed, causal atmosphere and eclectic mix merchandise. Naturally I am drawn to any pieces that come across my desk that have a Dutch touch – windmill earrings, defltware inspired jewellery, bicycle imagery – because it reminds of where I wish I was, and leaves me wondering when I will get there next.

Paul & I in Amsterdam, 2007

If you’ve been by the store on a Netherlands World Cup game day lately you may have seen me in my Oranje Voetbal jersey too, not to mention all my tweets lately! So because of my adoration of the people, the culture and atmosphere in their beautiful country I am unabashedly cheering for the Netherlands in the World Cup final this weekend. Nothing against Spain at all. I am very happy that they also finally have a shot at the big prize. I have yet to visit Spain and anxiously await my chance to see Barcelona and all it’s amazing archtiecture. It’s just that the Dutch and their fabulous city of Amsterdam stole my heart first and that’s where my allegiance will remain on Sunday afternoon…and always!

Hup Holland Hup!