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Life in a great city


by Johnny Lucas

While living in Amsterdam I found something new to love about the city every day. Amsterdam is no longer my home and I miss it, every day.

WesterkirkWhen I lived there I would lie in bed in the morning, half awake, and plan my first walk of the day: out the door, down "our" canal with the sun in my face, through the alley with houses leaning overhead, past the fountain pen shop, past the corner window in which the fat hooker usually sits, past the greengrocer and the dance studio, through the lane by the proevenzaal (literally the wine-tasting room - nobody goes there to drink, just to taste). What's on display in the ancient Nieuwekerk? Which bakery shall I hit for hot croissants and where will there be new posters for gallery shows and concerts? Circle around the Koepelkerk (the domed Lutheran church now a part of a modern hotel - but you can't tell from the outside) and back up our canal with the sun at my back. Then I would happily get out of bed and make these thoughts become real, always discovering new things along the way.

our streetLife was pretty good in Amsterdam and I know that it still is. I never owned a stereo there, it was cheaper and easier to go to four or five concerts a week. I saw more art than I knew existed, and I developed a respect for the beauty of the man-made environment that I never could have found in Canada. I go back to Amsterdam whenever I get the chance, it takes only a few minutes to slip into the old ways. "My" part of Amsterdam doesn't change very quickly.

My part is the centre of Amsterdam, it looks not so different from the days when Rembrandt was the new painter in town. The city is built on land which in Canada would be considered uninhabitable. 1,000 years ago it was a salt marsh at the mouth of the Amstel River. Add a dam, some trading, a millennium and you've got a rich city with an empire, architecture and art.

Everything you see in Amsterdam except the golden sunlight and the silver mists that roll in from the North Sea is man-made. The city is the thoughts made real of a long continuum of other Amsterdammers who also loved this place. Every new generation is grateful for and honours the work of its predecessors. If you're not comfortable with the past looking over your shoulder you can't love Amsterdam.

skatingIt's not just the distant past of the Golden Age when the good burgers of Amsterdam first had that happy conjunction of money and taste for which we remember them; it's also the past of living memory. I lived just a few blocks from Anne Frank's house. It was two canals over, one lane and one canal up, I walked past it most days. Anne's place seemed to me so like the house I lived in that I could never bring myself to tour it. 50 years in Amsterdam is nothing! People were deported to their deaths from "my" part of town that long ago.

At the end of that war people in Holland were eating tulip bulbs to survive. In present days they eat very well indeed. Crispy salads and much better January tomatoes than we ever get in Canada are at every street corner, as are armloads of flowers.

How can you not love a country that has open air markets, in February, of peonies, lilacs, rhododendrons, and, of course, tulips? They're all affordable, and are lined up row upon row on barges along the canal across from the tower of the old mint, near the fabulous art nouveau cinema, one canal over from the diamond merchants and the Egyptology museum. bridge of light

In that art nouveau cinema I once struck up a conversation with a group of Dutch people, just slightly younger than myself. When my nationality came out one of them said "Oh you're Canadian, you liberated us." Neither of us was alive at time he was speaking of, but he meant it so personally that I still feel chills when I think about it these years later.

Other than that, being an expatriate in Amsterdam is no big deal. Newcomers like me rub shoulders with people who look exactly like the guardsmen Rembrandt and Hals memorialized centuries ago. Amsterdam cheerfully took in the Huguenots, the Pilgrim Fathers and anybody else who could behave themselves moderately well; it still does.

On a Christmas day in Amsterdam a boat load of tourists floated by in front of our house. We waved, they waved, they took pictures and we posed proudly as "typical Amsterdammers." We weren't deceiving them.


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Publication history

Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 11, 1997