Rainy day in Amsterdam. I’m holed up in Caffe Oslo drinking a fresh mint tea and having a breather. It’s been wonderful. So amazing in fact that I almost don’t want to write about it, in case word gets out that Amsterdam is the greatest city in Europe and it gets inundated with cool hunters. I have just come here from Dalston. I don’t need more cool hunters. Then I remembered that I don’t have a huge amount of influence over what is considered cool so I’ve decided that it’s probably safe to mention it.
I’m staying in a suburb which Time Out describes as “an unremarkable residential area” - as in, the cafe in which I am currently sitting is “plonked canal-side in an unremarkable residential area” - to which I say: hold on there a moment, Time Out. What kind of unremarkable residential area has A CANAL? In fact my unremarkable residential area is nestled between two wide, beautiful canals, a warren of quiet residential streets with barely a car to be found, birds singing in the tall trees flanking the - OK, let’s be fair - unremarkable, though pleasant, apartment buildings. I am also tickled by the fact that to find my street you follow the canal until you reach the coffee shop selling cannabis and then turn right. It’s the only time I’ve known where to turn off just from the smell.
On my second day here I bought a bicycle. It is a thing of battered beauty, comfortable of saddle, high of handlebar, devoid of gears, British Racing Green, weighs an imperial tonne. You can’t be an Amsterdammer without a bike. It might actually be a bylaw. Here are the unofficial rules of the road: cars give way to everybody, trams give way to pedestrians, pedestrians give way to cyclists, cyclists mow down everything in their path and can only be felled by getting their wheels stuck in the tramlines. It’s like a transportation version of paper scissors stone. Due to the cycle paths which line every street, people cycle with total insouciance, chatting to passing friends, resting their arms on the handlebars to write text messages, routing through their bags looking for a snack, hauling shopping, dogs and children in wooden boxes fixed to the front of the bike. I saw someone wearing a cycle helmet once, I can only assume he was lost.
Cycling took a bit of getting used to. I impressed myself by getting stopped by the police before I had even finished buying my bicycle. The bike shop owner had told me to take it out on a test ride so I pulled away from the front of the shop along the pavement, whereupon two police officers emerged from a shop a block away and gave me a look which I can only describe as, “I know we come from a city where drugs and prostitutes are not only legal and tourist attractions, but come ON.” I hastily explained that I am a complete idiot and also new in town and also would never ever cycle on the pavement again, and they waived the 55 Euro fine.
Later that day, I got stuck at a junction, confused by the back peddle brakes. I infinitely prefer back peddle breaks as they are far more intuitive and easier to control than the hand variety, but if you are not careful they leave your peddles in an inconvenient position for setting off again. There were hordes of other cyclists behind me and I became more and more stressed trying to pull away, when I heard a woman say, “It’s OK, don’t worry, take your time,” AND SHE WASN’T EVEN BEING SARCASTIC. Toto, we’re not in London any more. (Though according to David Sedaris if you fuck up on your bicycle you’re more likely to hear someone yelling “CANCER SLUT” so it may be that I just got lucky or else I can’t detect a sarcastic tone of voice if the bearer is Dutch.)
It’s only a ten minute cycle ride from my flat to the outermost of the canals which form concentric rings around the city centre. (Twenty minutes if you include five minutes of faffing around with bike locks at either end.) Central Amsterdam is beautiful. Tall, narrow, elegant if often a tad listing seventeenth century houses, each one different from the one crammed in beside it, teeter over streets of tiny little bars, restaurants and boutiques, making the city a dream for exploration. While the main shopping streets and squares can get overcrowded, you can always turn off along one of the lovely canals where mysteriously the tourists don’t seem to go. Outside the centre, effortlessly cool neighbourhoods like the Oud West and Oud Zuid offer a seemingly endless selection of inviting pavement cafes on near-pedestrian streets, inhabited by equally effortlessly cool Amsterdammers. The locals manage to be down-to-earth and unpretentious AND dressed in perfect understated chic AT THE SAME TIME, which is surely against nature. The only person I wanted to hand a one way ticket to Dalston (#nodisrespecttodalston) was a blond hipster with a distressed-look skateboard and a gigantic quiff, but he was in De Pijp, and De Pijp is the hipster area, so you can avoid it and him and all the other hipsters if you like.
This is rather like the Red Light District, which is where all the prostitutes and sex shows are, and which you can also avoid if you wish. I went there yesterday just because I thought I should. It’s the kind of place that makes you forget sex is a nice thing you might enjoy, and makes it seem like sex is a really unpleasant fairground ride which hasn’t had any maintenance work done to it since the 1980s. Most of the prostitutes had taken the day off for Easter, but there were a lot of live sex shows advertised, which I feel would be an etiquette minefield. Is it acceptable put a towel down before you sit? Are you supposed to applaud, and when? I don’t want to be like the person who claps between the movements of a symphony. Fortunately, I also don’t want to go to a live sex show, so I shouldn’t run into too much trouble. I lasted about five minutes in the Red Light District (I lasted longer in De Pijp.) But the useful thing about it is that it is a repository for everything gross and tacky in Amsterdam, leaving the rest of the city free to be as lovely as it is.
I’ve got three months here and I am looking forward to every single day of them, including the rainy ones, which I have no doubt will be many. There is so much to do, and all within an easy cycle ride (if you have mastered the brakes). I haven’t even set foot in a single museum yet, and I’ve been to Hema, the budget homewares store, three times. There’s a bar in a windmill I want to go to, and a restaurant on a ferry, and a lot of tulips to see, and more Van Goghs than you can shake a stick at. If all else fails, there is this cafe, plonked in my unremarkable area. I rather like it here. I think I’m going to have another cup of tea.