Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A is for Amsterdam

“I’m in Amsterdam!” I said walking a busy thoroughfare in that city.
“Yes!” my Dutch friend said beside me rolling a suitcase.
“Look at the buildings!”
“Yes.”
“I’ve never seen anything like them!”
“Yes…”
“I feel like I’m on Sesame Street!”
“Ye—?”

Doing anything for the first time is exciting, liberating and perhaps a tad bit frightening. And visiting a foreign country for the first time is all this and more because it is often done in a language you don’t know, in a time zone you need to adjust to and with food you’ve never seen, not to mention wouldn’t put near your mouth. Yes, Scotland’s Haggis, I’m talking about you.

Luckily I was not in the land of the Scots but in Amsterdam, the economic and cultural capital city of the country of The Netherlands. I’d come from the U.S. to visit my Dutch friend Benny, and since this was his hometown, he took it upon himself to show me around. Benny was tall, thin and on this day wearing a faux red fur jacket that looked like he was being hugged by Sesame Street’s Elmo muppet. 

“800 years ago,” Benny said in a loud tour-guide voice. “The city was built on a dam of the Amstel River, which is why it became ‘Amsterdam’. Get it?” I did. Looking around, the dam explained all the water and canals that surrounded and crisscrossed the city. To me, a city inundated by so much water seemed foreign and charming. It also made me want to call FEMA. 

Together we visited the sights: The Van Gogh Museum, The Anne Frank House, the Royal Palace on Dam Square, the Rijksmuseum, the Red-Light District and the coffee shops that sold cannabis. Benny knew all the good places.

What I found more interesting was the architecture of the city’s houses. In the central part of Amsterdam hundreds of homes—some 400 years old—were built of a dark red or brown brick with decorative—but very narrow—facades. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It made me think all Dutch people were 7 feet tall and 3 inches wide.

Benny explained that the houses were so narrow because the home builders—the wealthy merchants—wanted to live in Amsterdam’s most prestigious locations on the chicest canals, therefore to accommodate as many people as possible, home facades were limited in their width by a tax. Although the houses were allowed to extend their length as far back as the Stone Age. The depth of Amsterdam’s houses is one reason Anne Frank and her family could live in hiding during World War II in the back part of a house—far from the canals and streets. Fascinating.

While these unusual homes were intriguing in their differences from buildings I’d seen elsewhere, I also had the feeling I’d seen these houses before. Walking along the facades of all those Amsterdam houses gave me a comfortable feeling, as if I’d ben there before. As if I were with Sesame Street’s Elmo. And I didn’t mean Benny in his jacket. Unusual houses that were familiar: it was an odd dichotomy. But then traveling can be odd. And things are odd until they are understood. Wearing a Sesame Street Elmo jacket is never odd.

Then it hit me—actually I tripped over it—the stoop! In case your language is not up to speed on 17th century architectural features, a stoop consists of the stone steps found outside a house or building that lead to a platform that stops at the front door. Stoops were built for old Amsterdam homes, which put the entrance to the home several feet above the canal levels, thus preventing the houses from being flooded. Some houses also had a second entrance beside the stoop which was accessed by descending several steps to a lower level. In these older homes this basement area was where the kitchen and pantry were located. Today they’re rented out as separate apartments to people like Benny.

Except for their smaller size, these Amsterdam stoops looked just like stoops in so many of New York City’s Brownstone apartments. Then it hit me—metaphorically—I remembered how Dutch settlers had founded New York. Indeed, before New York City was New York City, it was called New Amsterdam after the Dutch’s most important city—and for some 25 years NAC it was part of New Netherland in present-day Manhattan. In the 1620s the Dutch created a settlement at the southern tip of the island and built a wall along the sea, which is today’s Wall Street. The Dutch came to America with their stoops in tow.

Now over 400 years later most buildings in New York City have stoops, including the one at 123 Sesame Street where Maria, Bob and Big Bird hang out. Ah, Amsterdam it has its share of foreign things:—the Sex Museum?!—and familiar things—stoops. Now I know what made me think of Sesame Street: the stoops of Amsterdam. That and Benny’s red Elmo jacket.