Discovering Amsterdam

by Rob Tiller

Last week I went to Amsterdam for the Free Software Foundation–Europe legal conference, and got in a bit of sightseeing as well. Sally and I stayed in the Krasnapolsky, a large, older hotel within walking distance of the railroad station, museums and several interesting neighborhoods.

Amsterdam is lovely city. Its row houses, streets, and canals are an ensemble that suggests a real community, with shared values and history. It seems well-organized and clean. But very lively! We’d heard that there were more bikes than cars, which is true, but hadn’t realized that heavy bike traffic can be hazardous to pedestrians. We had some close calls, and I eventually began to start at tinkling bicycle bells as though they were blaring car horns.

We found the Dutch to be polite and helpful, though reserved with strangers. Almost no one asked us where we were from, which was nice, in a way. They seemed lively and affectionate with their friends. Everyone we dealt with spoke English at least adequately, and many were absolutely colloquial. Sally noted that from our street level few, there was little interest in fashionable dressing, with most dressed in a casual, comfortable way. There were fewer overweight people — perhaps because of all the bicycling.

We were particularly eager to see the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. The VG was quite crowded, but the collection of VVG’s art was spectacular. There were also great impressionist works by Monet, Pissaro, and others, which put VVG in context. I also enjoyed an exhibit of fin de siècle print making, which had some of the great work of Toulouse-Lautrec, one of my great favorites.

The Rijksmuseum is undergoing renovations, but fortunately there was a substantial exhibition of its masterpieces from the 17th Century. The high point for me was Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. I’d seen it three years ago as part of a traveling exhibit in New York, and was overjoyed to see it again. She’s so quiet, entirely in her own dreamlike world. Yet she and the scene are somehow full and complete.

I also especially loved this still life by Willem Claesz Hedda. The realism of detail is astonishing. Looking hard at such paintings makes you wonder what you might see if you looked at everyday objects harder.

There were several great Rembrandts. Also, I was particularly moved by this portrait of a young Rembrandt by Jan Lievens, with whom he shared a studio early in his career. A youth with a bright future!

We enjoyed walking by the canals and squares, through the old Nine Streets district, the theatre district, and the Jordaan shopping area. We also had fun visiting the famous red light district. I’d imagined it would be at least a bit seamy and sinister, but not really. Yes, there were prostitutes in bikinis displayed in windows (some quite beautiful), porno theaters, and shops of sex paraphernalia, but also many cafes, bars, and restaurants. There were large crowds of cheerful people promenading. We had some delicious Thai food.