Monday, October 16, 2006

Amsterdam, Part III: A Cozy Life

When we arrived in Amsterdam on Thursday, it was very late. By the time we’d walked from Centraal Station to our hotel and dropped off our bags, it was almost midnight. The streets of Amsterdam were quiet, but we set off with our map, intending to find a café where we could welcome ourselves to the city with a beer and some food. It’s disorienting to arrive in a new city at night, with no idea what sections or streets we should seek out or avoid; my three-year-old memories of a charming, lively Amsterdam didn’t mesh with the eerie, dangerous-seeming streets around us. We bought some food at a snack stall—a hamburger and Vlaamese frites—and went back to our hotel.

But the days that followed were, happily, more charming and fun than those first few hours seemed to promise. We went to the Rijksmuseum, which is mostly closed for renovations but has its most famous works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others on view in one section. We took a canal tour by boat and floated under bridges and past canal houses. We walked for miles, exploring the Jordaan neighborhood and the canal belt. And everywhere, we dodged bicycles—everyone rides a bicycle in Amsterdam—and spied in Amsterdammers’ huge, uncurtained windows, where the lives taking place inside seemed immensely charming and happy.

Besides the canal house windows, we got two additional inside looks at Amsterdam. We went to the Van Loon museum, which is a 17th-century canal house that’s been restored to its original style. A strange little video, narrated by the eighty-plus-year-old Van Loon heir, introduced us to the museum; then we were free to wander around by ourselves. The house was gigantic, with twenty-foot ceilings, intricate moldings, wide wooden-planked floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows gazing out onto a canal. There were hidden doors leading to the guestroom, which an ancestor once used to visit his mistress, and fake doors that had been installed to keep the “symmetry” of a room intact. There were also some immensely powerful allergens in the house, and I could barely see for all my sneezing and horrifically itchy eyes. But that’s neither here nor there.

Our second inside look at Amsterdam was at the houseboat museum. There are over 2000 houseboats in use in Amsterdam, lining the canals. Some are truly boats, while others look like floating ranch houses. We toured a boatlike house that had been occupied until 1997. It was surprisingly large, and quite cozy; apparently the first thought most people have when they visit is I want to live on a houseboat! and the brochure stated plainly that no houseboat mooring spots were available in Amsterdam, and even if a houseboat goes up for sale, it’s nearly as expensive as buying an apartment anyway. Nonetheless, there were a few “houseboat for sale” photos in the museum. The houseboat, though cozy, was also ever-so-slightly swaying, so I’m afraid living on a houseboat isn’t really an option for my seasickness-prone self.

But the cozy fall weather, the almost complete absence of tourists, and the general charm of Amsterdam made us think it could be a viable place to live, if the opportunity arose. It’s the kind of city that feels instantly like home (as long as you don’t arrive in the middle of the night). I read in a guidebook that this cozy comfortableness is called gezelligheid, a Dutch word that has no exact English translation. Our few days in Amsterdam were undoubtedly gezellig.

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