Thursday, April 16, 2009

Amsterdam opens possibilities of what a city can be

Amsterdam opened possibilities for me of what a city can be.
Light on the land.
Clean, green and open, des
pite the dense population.
Gorgeously cosmopolitan diversity of people.
Easy, comfortable, cheap public
transport everywhere.
Rich history and
culture alongside dynamic creativity and newness.

I stayed with Jenn and Rob, newly-met friends of friends, in Olympiade, a vast and tidy neighbourhood of closely packed four- and five-storey brick apartment houses built up around large green open courtyards in the 1920's in the Oud Zuid quarter of Amsterdam all laced with park-like canals populated by a dazzling variety of ducks, geese and other waterbirds. Jenn and Rob are connected to the Jewish Spiritual Renewal movement in Amsterdam and Rabbi Goldie Milgram connected me to someone who connected to them. Jenn is from New York, Rob from Cape Town. Jenn is a playwrite and dramatist and both are very involved with the arts and a studio. They've been in Amsterdam for years and years and raised both their now-adult sons there. Many of Jenn's plays are about the Dutch Jewish community and how they are still slowly, slowly dealing with the massive trauma of betrayal during the Holocaust.

Jenn and Rob's apartment is small -- tiny, in fact, by our Canadian and American standards. They have no car, only a little Vespa. They graciously fit their lives into a modest space, a few hundred square feet with perhaps four other households all above them in the same footprint. Right out their groundfloor front window is a quiet sidewalk, a lovely bricked road and stretch of green green grass and then a beautifully calming canal with small row boats, punts and motorized dinghies tied up along its edge. There are more boats than cars -- and hundreds and hundreds of bicycles. And out the back is a lovely garden space with a table and chairs. It was there that we had dinner before Jenn took me on a lovely evening tour of some of her favourite places in old Amsterdam.

We took one of the quiet little trams that run through the streets and then walked through narrow brick lanes lined with old shops and apartments to the wide-open Museumplein, a grassy plaza where people were wrapping up their lingering picnic dinners to head home for the evening. Three museums are on the plaza, one being the Rijksmuseum, a very ornate old building where young people were hanging our and climbing all over a very new sculpture of the letters spelling out "I AMSTERDAM". We walked on past the Royal Palace, a rather modest affair that looks more like an old hotel, where a big traveling carnival was in full swing right across the street. I loved seeing the ferris wheel and flashing lights right in the plaza of the queen's front yard -- that's the kind of queen I'd like, one who invites everyone to come over and play at her house.

Jenn took me also to the old Jewish section of town, where tens of thousands of Jews lived for centuries from the time of Spinoza and even before, having come in great numbers in the late 1400's after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The Jewish Quarter now is empty of Jews. The old synagogues remain and are magnificent. One is still in use but most have been turned into museums. Amsterdam and Holland as a whole turned in their Jewish neighbours to the Nazis with great orderliness and cooperation. The Netherlands had one of the highest rates of annihilation of Jews of any country occupied by the Nazis and the community still has not recovered either numerically or emotionally. Jenn says that the old Jewish quarter was not re-occupied by Jewish people because it is so horribly haunted by the deep unhealed trauma of being murderously betrayed by once-friends and neighbours.