Shopping in Amsterdam has to be a favorite pastime because in most places we found street vendors and traffic free squares where temporary businesses open shop under tents. Cuypmarkt a place like a white elephant sale and Waterlooplein flea market are popular with the residents. In the prices of anything, cafes, restaurants, beauty shops, and even taxies, (BTW) taxes and a standard 15% service charge are included. Still the waiters expected tips, even a small one, when they waited on us. I don’t blame them at all, since Amsterdam is not a cheap city to live in, especially if you keep losing your goods to pickpockets.
If you are in a hurry and want to grab a bite in Amsterdam, there are Febo stores, a Dutch type of McDonalds, so to speak. They have a self-service where you put in the money and get fries, burgers, sandwiches, or whatever. Here we got fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup. This was, surely, a new one for me.
A favorite fast food for the Dutch are the croquettes, deep fried mashed potatoes and gravy, tasty enough but I wouldn’t go for it again.
Amsterdam is full of pavement cafes, despite its sudden rains. As soon as the sun comes out, tables and chairs appear as if from nowhere and are filled with people in a few minutes. There are also bars that serve beer, wine, and simple snacks any time of the day.
Beer is the usual Dutch drink since Heineken and Amstel are situated here. It is usually served with a huge frothy head in small iced or wet glasses with handles. Most of the Dutch dishes “Neerlands Dis” are made with meat, cheese and vegetables. Sausages, ham pea soup, bisque soups, herring are some favorite Dutch tastes.
Once we went in a restaurant with a hawker, a person in front of a restaurant hired to invite and actually goad passers-by inside. The food was awful. No wonder, if they needed a hawker the food had to be bad. Stupid us!
The best place we ate was the Cafe Van Gogh with excellent sandwiches and goat cheese salads. For me, Amsterdam was not the best place for eating, although they had quite a variety of fish prepared in different ways that I enjoyed. In general even their light snacks are not light for they usually are tostjes–grilled cheese and ham sandwiches–or doughnuts and pancakes.
On the streets of old Amsterdam all the way into suburbs, we were quite taken with ice-cream vendors, who were mostly Italians. Most sell their very fresh ice-cream in vending carts with umbrellas or awnings on top of them, as the outlets of nearby ice-cream factories. One funny vendor made his sales in Dutch but cursed in Italian. When I understood and laughed, he offered me extra ice-cream.
Amsterdam houses are different in the way that they have been preserved for at least two to five centuries. Some have paintings on them, some have coat of arms that can be of wood. The houses are usually built from dark red bricks and their large windows are white and the doors are different colors. Most doorways are detailed and old warehouses have wooden hatches. The façades of the houses are pretty narrow. They were built like that on purpose because in the olden times the owners had to pay taxes according to their houses’ widths facing the street. Courtyards called hofjes hide between the houses and are usually filled with flowers to the brim.
In the old part of Amsterdam, there are numerous colorful plaques set in the walls of the buildings as advertisements and some of them display some beautiful artwork in scenes and figures. We were told that most have the family name of the inhabitants or original owners of the buildings. For example, as advertisement, a baker had a fresco-like representation of an oven with a person feeding the fire and a few other figures around him with the words “de gloyende oven” meaning “the glowing oven” written in the bottom of the frame. These plaques also sometimes show the year when the building was completed.
One place I didn’t (couldn’t) enter was the Anne Frank House in the middle of Amsterdam. First there were too long lines in front of it, second I was afraid I’d cry and make everyone miserable. The house is a regular (I think) four story house with three windows at each floor after the first floor, an attic room window, and a red-tiled roof, one could pass on the street and not even take notice. Close to the house, a statue of Anne Frank stands. We heard later that the museum was renovated again a few years after we were there.
My husband went inside the Anne Frank House with my cousin’s husband while my cousin and I waited for them outside. When they came out, my husband said it was too crowded inside but he got to see a piece of her diary on display. He also said he was glad I didn’t go in, for the annex was tragic.
Afterwards we went to the Dam Square to feed the pigeons and disperse some of the sadness we felt. Dam square is a cobbled square with pigeons and out of work people selling pigeon feed.
There was a man there who said he was a school teacher by day and he was selling pigeon feed after hours. Actually, his eight year old daughter was selling the grains and doing everything else. He just sat there watching her. I don’t know the rules in Netherlands about making the youngsters work, but this young one -for better or worse- was doing all the work. My cousin said the man was probably a refugee or an immigrant and his being a teacher was probably not true.
There are many immigrants from other third world countries in Amsterdam. Some of them, like most of the pizza store owners, work very hard; others are here because of the so-called freedom and the lax laws this country offers.
Some of the immigrants are vendors of some thing or other and start their work with stalls in open markets on market days. Many citizens of Amsterdam do their food shopping in these markets because the prices are a bit lower and the produce is fresher. Lots of used or antique books also are on sale in these markets.
One thing positive about Amsterdam is its public transportation. A person living in this city might never need to own a car. They have a circle tram line that connects to all of the touristic sights and if a five day ticket is bought, the sightseeing tour becomes very cheap. Also the trams are a sight to watch with their unusual shapes and colors. My favorite way of transportation was the “Museum Boat,” a shuttle service that went to all the museums and other attractions. Also the canal cruises provide wonderful experiences for people who like to be on water and watch the antique buildings on the sides of the canals.
Once, my cousins took us to a casino by a canal after making us dress up (since the casino was considered a high class place), I think it was called the Holland Casino. Of course, we were urged to gamble but I never do and my husband hates to lose any money unnecessarily, so we waited for our hosts to lose all their money inside and join us by the cafe near the canal. I think we had more fun watching the canal traffic than they did losing money inside.
Canals have houseboats on them where some people live and work. Some of those houseboats serve as tourist inns and hostels. They told us that sometimes in winter the canals freeze and the people cross them on ice skates.
Like most cities, Amsterdam is overcrowded and housing is a major problem. In the recent decades, the city built modern apartment houses with multiple units wherever empty space was found. It is now possible to see huge apartment buildings among centuries old houses and this bothers many Amsterdam dwellers who are bound to tradition.
The city’s largest park is Vondelpark and it used to be where the hippies of the seventies hung out. Still it has its share of bohemian free spirits frequenting it. Also, it is very close to the museum of modern art, but we didn’t go to that museum. Those who went said they didn’t like it as much as the Van Gogh Museum. We went to the Rembrandt House and the Historical Museum just before leaving Amsterdam.
Rembrandt House is the place where Rembrandt lived for 20 years, until he went bankrupt and had to vacate the house. The reason for the bankruptcy was that he painted “The Night Watch” on commission and the people who ordered it didn’t like the results. Night Watch now hangs in the Rijk Museum. Here, lots of Rembrandt memorabilia are on display as well as his etchings and artwork.
I was surprised to see a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in this city. It seems, wherever we go there is a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. In Amsterdam it occupied a major corner of the most famous Dam square to where important streets and avenues open.
Dam square is usually crowded not only with pigeons but also with business people, street artists, ice-cream vendors, preachers, musicians, shoppers, and tourists. The Royal Palace dominates the square where they told me that the Queen is often present for official receptions.
Next to the palace is the gothic Nieuwe Kierk (New Church), except it is not so new, since it is from the fourteenth century and it has a tower that people never got around to completing. It made me feel good that there were more efficient procrastinators in the world than those I have come to know. I don’t know what is with these churches. In several different cities of different countries and continents, we came across a few incomplete antique churches.
The best thing about Amsterdam, when we visited it, was being with family members and being taken care of in a rather tricky city. They showed us whatever they could show us and what we were willing to see and were wonderful hosts. Since then, they have moved to other places and like us when we said good-bye to Amsterdam that summer, they too have said, “Tot ziens!” to a unique city they loved to complain about.