We're here on an overcast, cool day, unseasonably cold but still laid back as only Amsterdam can be: some guy flinging his leg over his windowsill to have a smoke, leaning just far enough out so that one little push would send him crashing to the pavement but he's cool--he pulls back just in time. Guys in feathers, guys in rubber, a guy in a pink tutu, great tits, and White Rock fairy wings just ahead of us at the hotel registration desk. My eight-year-old advised me as we strolled the streets surrounded by uninhibited merrymakers, "Mommy, I don't feel quite safe here," and I reassured her that she was with us and once we got to the lovely little Portuguese restaurant near the Central train station, she enjoyed her meal very much. We'd been standing on a corner so long trying to find something in the Lonely Planet Guide that we just gave up and decided to walk along one of those skinny, windy, twisty streets with bright round little beer ads above every restaurant sign. And it all worked out. We spent the afternoon at NEMO, the science and technology museum, being thrilled by bubbles, trick mirrors, chain reactions, the sound of DNA (animals, including spiders, sound harmonious. HIV sounds dissonant). There's no music of the spheres in disease, I guess. It was indeed a curious experience hearing the sound of DNA--worth the price of admission, as was the slanted roof garden which overlooks much of the city. It's a friendly city and the language is curious and gutteral--not like English, not like German, but more or less understandable to one who speaks both.
Two of my children thought it might be fun to play their musical instruments and make a little money, so we set them up in front of a long line that we misconstrued as a wait for one of the ferries. It turned out to be a wait for the Anne Frank house. As my oldest remarks, "Good thing I wasn't playing the German national anthem." My youngest was told folks were complaining, and that proved a good opportunity to explain that her cheerful rendition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was not appropriate for the very sad story of Anne Frank, which we told her. But P.S. both kids made more than I make in an hour.
The longer we're in Amsterdam, the more I think of the place as ancestor to a better New York. Amsterdam is New York with a middle class, New York un-invaded by the ultra wealthy. Amsterdam has cute little boutiques and gorgeously designed crafts at reasonable prices. It has museums. Outside the Zuidas district--"financial mile"--it's pretty much free of skyscrapers, and the red brick traditional, Cuypers-influenced school of architecture brings the Upper West Side to mind. Plus there's more than an echo of The Strand in Amsterdam's American Book Center (http://www.abc.nl/) whose friendly staff and lively selections made me homesick--not as many miles of books, but service with a smile, even though the honest, friendly Dutchman at the front did not ask to see ID when I offered my passport as proof of age in order to get a discount. "No, I believe you," he said, imagining I would be pleased. I briefly re-considered Botox treatments, but realized that the amount I had just invested in books was equal to the cost of a single Botox treatment. We took a tour of the Royal Palace and another of the Rijksmuseum, where among the Rembrandts and the Caravaggios and the Mannerists I sought images of William of Orange, since family legend has it that my ancestors, mercenary soldiers of the same, were granted lands in Pennsylvania after some war . . . now which one was it, because at last count there were more than nine Williams of Orange. The Dutch Royal family re-numbered them, starting with the first, the second, etc. in the 19th century, because, my fourteen-year-old says, William the twenty-fourth sounds less cool than William the Fourth, and William the Two Hundred and Fiftieth sounds severely un-cool. He has a point. In any case my relatives are said to have landed in Pennsylvania sometime in the seventeeth century, where, had they remained, my family might have become Philadelphia Main Line--but oh, now, those tough soldiers marched on to the Carolinas, where we evolved into Southern Gothic. Another story.
We toured the Royal Palace and a question that had been on my mind --why do the Dutch Royals look so much happier than the English Royals--got an answer: the Dutch have a tradition of abdication. Queen Beatrix handed over the Queenship to her son Willem, just as her mother Wilhelmina had abdicated in favor of her. Whereas Elizabeth just goes on forever. The English, Shaw observed, think they are being moral when they are only uncomfortable.
Amsterdam is a delight--I highly recommend it, especially for anyone who misses New York