As much as Americans may fawn over Paris, the European city of choice for most young Britons today is about 300 miles to the north-east, on the Dutch coast. First settled in the twelfth century, not too far from Oxford’s foundation, Amsterdam today is home to about two and a half million people, making it the Netherlands’ most populous city. From van Gogh to Spinoza, it was and is home to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and artists. It is also a particularly beautiful city – between its many canals lie townhouses of every shape and size, which glow in the sun in an array of colours in the evening light.
Of course, such thoughts don’t always cross the minds of the 4.63 million international visitors each year. To some, Amsterdam’s brilliance is in its permissiveness; its red-light district, De Wallen, is unusually close to the city centre, and of course the abundant cannabis-dispensing coffee shops recreate the nervous excitement of purchasing your first legal pint. Never mind the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum and the Stedelijk Museum – a selfie with the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign on Museumplein with a good level of sunshine and the perfect sunglasses – is all but guaranteed to get you a hundred likes on Facebook.
I came to Amsterdam neither to explore the city’s museums or to get my ‘I Amsterdam’ selfie, but by a happy accident. Holland is famously flat, and perfect for cycling in search of a break after a long and tiring Hilary term. My parents couldn’t book me onto their flights, so whilst they flew by British Airways, I enjoyed the EasyJet service from London Luton to Amsterdam. Miraculously, though one would suspect almost entirely according to plan, the flight was scheduled to arrive in the city three hours early.
Three hours seems like a lot of time. It certainly is when your hand is in near spasm after a nasty collection, or when you’re queuing to see a gang of politicians, all at varying stages of being washed-up, at the Union. To explore a city, however, three hours is remarkably brief. For the ordinary traveller, a good forty-five minutes is wasted clearing immigration, collecting your bag, and buying a train ticket to the city. Aware of the ticking clock, I planned ahead: no time would be wasted on baggage, for I had only a backpack and time spent clearing immigration would be minimal (with an ePassport in my hand).
I therefore stepped out of Amsterdam Central station having lost just around twenty minutes to the black abyss of the airport and rapid transit. Stepping into the street came a brush with death, or more realistically minor injury; a tram chugged past just moments after I crossed the road. Danger would not kill the mood, however; the sun shined benevolently as if to harken in the rest of the day. It was rapidly approaching lunchtime, but random wandering could not wait for the appetites and desires of those unwilling to pay £6.50 for the EasyJet meal deal.
If you travel by train or bus, the first impression you always get of a city is the road outside the train station or bus stop. Leaving Amsterdam Central onto a road mysteriously called Damrak, the impression I gained was one of wonder. People talk of the globalised fusion between east and west with stars in their eyes – it never ceases to amaze some that they can order the exact same Starbucks in London as in Calcutta. Amsterdam, though very much a city of the West, has the same feeling in the air.
Though the standard features of the Western or the well globalised city are plain to see – the Starbucks, the City-Sightseeing bus, and of course the McDonald’s – there is a strange sense of it all being out of place. Amongst the historic canals and the thousands of bicycles – more, in fact, than there are residents of Amsterdam – the facets of everyday modern life seem strange.
Determined to make the most of my three hours in the city, I walked down the Damrak until I hit a beautiful old church. I cannot quite remember where it is, or I would have found out its name. Sitting outside were families, both tourists and natives, sipping espressos and eating waffles, with the red-light districts ‘Sex Museum’ jutting round the corner. Opposite the street was one of the city’s many coffee shops, with the aroma of cannabis drifting over to the seats and tables outside the church.
Aware that I was now well into my second hour of Amsterdam, I considered my options carefully. The museums were far too away and without a laptop and with only a particularly tiring novel to hand (Infinite Jest, I wish you luck), I had few options but to wander. By now the sun had taken tentative steps to hiding in the clouds. As much as I did not wish to live the stereotype of the young, uncultured teenager in Amsterdam, I saw a sign ‘Bulldog Coffee Shop’ and like a moth to a fly, I wandered in.
After spending not three but five hours in Amsterdam, I caught a train to meet my parents at our hotel.