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Amsterdam, Amongst Others


A man called Samuel Johnson once said, ‘The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.’ I think to truly understand this statement, one has had to had a taste of the truth of it.

Education is a priceless gift. When one knows how to read, a whole world is opened to them and places that were only names before become pictures in the imagination. But one can only experience so much of a place through seeing pictures and reading about it. Even first-hand accounts only add a few more details to the picture in one’s mind. There is something about being immersed into a place that does something to a person that thousands of visual and word pictures can never do. The Himalayas can be described to me, shown to me in photographs, but this can in no ways replace the depth of feeling that would undoubtedly sweep over me if I stood among the rocky crags of those same majesties. Something in feeling the cold, shallow air chilling my face, and being overwhelmed by the immensity of the landscape around me is lost when I just gaze at a photograph or read an article or book.

There are also different levels of experiencing a place that was once just a name. As tourists, we often miss out in tasting the real flavour of a culture. When one settles in for a while, learns to interact in the language, shares a meal in someone’s home, a depth that would otherwise be lacking is achieved. Coming into such a place is usually accompanied by a mixture of frustration and delight; but, as so aptly put by Samuel Johnson, the imagination is tempered by reality and one can only come away from that experience being the richer for it.

I have had the privilege of setting foot in thirteen separate countries. Some, like Canada, Mexico, Italy, the US, India, and Scotland, I have been able to dig my toes in for a while and get a feel of the place, the culture, the language. Others have only tantalized me with either a few short days, or even hours. Such was the case with my latest acquaintance: Amsterdam.

View from Cafe window

On our way back from our November trip to the States, we had a 10 hour layover in Amsterdam, so decided to whet our appetites with a quick train trip into the city. After waiting close to 45 minutes in a line, we were finally through immigration and free to explore. The train we boarded was like a solid metal hulk of a caterpillar, two stories high and winding its way through the dark underground and then through the industrial landscape between the airport and central station. 

Being pregnant, of course my first thought at getting off at the crowded station was to find the toilet. No problem there, but I needed 20 Euro cents to get in and I didn’t have it. So I bore up, held my bladder, and we stepped into the frigid air outside the station. The pavement in its wet state was like a mirror for the sun, blinding us with its brilliance. After a few blocks lined with small cafés, restaurants, and tourist shops, I slipped into the ever-present familiarity of a McDonalds, hoping to relieve myself there. After following the signs and climbing two flights of stairs with Aria, I was dismayed to see a woman sitting outside the toilets, collecting Euro coins. She must have been moved by the desperate look on this pregnant mother’s face and waved me in. Everything brightened after that:-). We ate lunch in a small café down a cobbled alley. We enjoyed our repast on the ground floor by a window where I watched pockets of people come and go. There was also an upper floor accessed by the steepest, circular stair I’ve ever experienced. When standing on it, one could lean forward and almost take a bite out of the step opposite their face. With our bellies full, we meandered our way along, traversing many small, curved bridges that spanned the canal system interlacing its way through the city.

There were three specific things that stood out to me about Amsterdam: the river boats, the bicycles, and the colours.

1)Docked along the edge of every canal were river boats, some of them occupied, some seeming like they had been there for an age long as their solid masts were far too tall to pass under any of the rather low bridges. One large one which had a particularly tall mast had smoke coming from its flue and an abundance of green potted plants creeping about its deck. I imagined that it must be quite lovely to be rocked by the river’s lullaby, though perhaps a bit chilly at times.

2)I have never seen such an abundance of bicycles as I saw in Amsterdam. Some of the bridges were flanked by an arsenal of parked bicycles, some locked, some not. There were bicycle lanes alongside the lanes for cars and as a pedestrian, you had to keep your eyes open for both. The sight of the vast variety of styles made me miss my last two bikes: Appley Dapply and Strawberry Shortcake. They were both town bikes with baskets and I saw many like them in this city.

3) Europe is known for sporting the more traditional colours of grey and black. This was evident in Amsterdam as well, but splashes of vibrant colours stood out against these dark palettes. I delighted to see bright moss green and vivacious purples bedecking both men and women. And though I saw a handful of small girls, not one was in pink. The children too reflected the diversity of the rainbow’s colours.

In the Vegetarian Cafe

After wandering about in the cold for far too long, we popped into a vegetarian coffee shop filled with warm light, mirrors, and plants. We indulged in some delicious cake and hot drinks while the girls argued over who got to hold the knit rag doll that had been occupying the café’s high chair. John struck up a conversation with the tall, slender man working in the shop, getting a taste of the sentiments of the more alternative youth’s point of view in a place like Amsterdam. This particular man was a squatter who lived with radical ideals concerning society and environmental issues.

It was just a glimmer into a culture foreign to our own, but it had a part in giving us that tempering of reality as opposed to lofty imaginings.Oh, what wonderful cream pie



2 Responses to “Amsterdam, Amongst Others”

  1. Jessica
    January 13th, 2009 08:32

    wow, i loved this! and how true the quote at the beginning of this delightful entry. i guess i’ll need to make a visit to amersterdam someday, hopefully soon.

  2. Beth Goff
    January 15th, 2009 20:46


    Kiera’s expressions are something else in these photos. I enjoyed Amsterdam too and I would agree with you on the 3 things that particularly stood out to you….funny how some places are still the same so many years later.

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