Exchange Diaries: From Paris To Amsterdam

By David Kong (Comm ‘ 14)

Amsterdam is the Venice of the north. Built on marshland, it resembles a concert hall of sorts. Streets alternate with canals shaped in semi-circles with the train station, Amsterdam Centraal at its centre. It’s one of the few cities that is so magnificently beautiful that the same things look afresh with each visit.

After a titillating evening with Beethoven (who is German, but has a name that fits the Dutch standard) I took a straight shot tram to the Red Light district. The result was an excellent juxtaposition between different expositions aimed at satisfying the same human desire for distraction. The Red Light district, where prostitutes sell themselves behind windows like they do in Les Misérables, is an unfettered market for illicit activities. It employs dynamic pricing too, such as increasing prices during peak hours. The district is a must-see. But go when it’s busy; otherwise it can quickly become sketchy.

Museums are numerous and range vastly in quality but little in price. The best ones are: Anne Frank House, the eerie hiding place for some eight Dutch Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands; Van Gogh Museum, which illustrates Van Gogh’s life through his noteworthy paintings; The Amsterdam Historic Museum, which tells the history of the Netherlands from its mercantile beginnings to the golden ages to its place as a ‘free-city’ today. Unfortunately, these all cost dearly, even for students.

While visiting European nations, I make the intent to experience the food of their former colonies. London has excellent Indian food and the apparently the Dutch have the best Indonesian food in the world. In Amsterdam, the most notable is Temple Doeloe. It serves spicy food and charges for water, a vicious cycle for the wallet but deliciously satisfying. A lamb chop is covered in a potent and course sauce that is delectably sweet. This is followed with six tapas-style dishes in butter-bowls. Each of the meats- the chicken, beef and lamb- were interesting in their own way and did not fall into the Asian trap of redundancy. The vegetables were a bit soggy but were a decent complement to the main attraction.

For breakfast, consider Pannenkoekenhuis "Upstairs", a Dutch take on crepes. Up a creaky, steep and narrow staircase, a 10-seater pancake house serves proper crepes that are a bit plump but still worth a visit (if only for the scenery). I struck up a conversation with an elderly Jewish Australian on the topic of whether education should be private or public. But beware, like most things in Amsterdam, this place opens only at noon. Another late starter is Frens Haringhandel, which serves raw haring under a bed of onions and pickles, a traditional Dutch delight.

Amsterdam also has some excellent beer spots. Café Gollem is a dingy affair with much character; `t Arendsnest serves only Dutch beers and is knowledgeable about its selection; Brouwerij t'IJ is beside one of the few remaining windmills, and Café Hoppe is a comfortable bar near Spui station with a limited but good beer selection. Most do some sort of sausage and cheese that pairs well with the beer.

Cross-cultural dissemination is ripe in this international city. References to Paris come often, from bridges made in the image of the Alexander III bridge or the science museum by the same architect as the Pompidou centre. Brussels sprouts and Belgian beer are everywhere, like at Gebr. Hartering. This secluded restaurant was a homey affair run by one chef and a waiter half-serving as a plating chef. To start was a colourful fan of vegetables on a fine liver pâté. Veal followed with kale; some steamy, some crispy.

Amsterdam chooses to be fresh when other cities cling to the past. The Netherlands was the first country to legalize gay marriage and only recently have other countries and states caught on. It has a refreshingly liberal view on what others might consider unthinkable, but does it in a considerate way. It legalizes soft drugs but sets up harsh penalties for harder ones. It seems to be the way other developed countries like Canada are going as well. Even with these gusts of modernity, the city does not lose its historical charm and its intrinsically kind populace. All this makes Amsterdam an essential city of Europe.

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