“Why are you going to Amsterdam alone huh?” a colleague winked conspiratorially at me, “weed or women…”
I laughed out loud, “I’ll let you know when I get back, the ticket was cheap though.”
She was referring to the infamous parts of Amsterdam thought to be home to promiscuity and overt liberalism – since smoking marijuana and prostitution are tolerated in the city. I choose locations to visit based on the price of tickets and hotels for a weekend getaway. Amsterdam, to my surprise, was one of the cheapest places to spend a weekend that particular period.
It did not seem right at first glance, but it makes perfect sense on hindsight. The city is famous or infamous for being a great tourist getaway, an international air hub in Schiphol airport making access and flights to the city extremely easy. There might be great demand but there was also a lot of supply.
My trip to Amsterdam began as with every trip to Amsterdam, a curiosity to visit a supremely liberal people and ended with an appreciation of a very practical people.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, so named because it rose from where a dam was put on the river Amstel. The choice of capital was perhaps a very good elaboration on what the country is. Netherlands means the low lying lands (nether as in low positioned) and it is. More than 25 % of the country is below sea level (above water because of amazing dam systems), 21 % of the population lives below sea level and 50 % of the country is barely 1 metre above sea level. Much of the city was therefore drained of water before being built.
The city was originally a fishing village in the 12th century and remained a sleepy town and a relatively insignificant European state for a long time until the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. This period of brillance arrived not through some well thought out scheme but was the case of making a virtue out of a problem. The lowland provinces were originally part of the Holy Roman Empire and subsequently changed hands from the French Burgundian family, the Austrian Habsburgs and the the Spanish Empire. Trouble emerged in the 1568 as the Spanish Empire tried to tighten its grip on the low land provinces. A conflation of factors served to anger the people in the lands – rising taxes, persecution of non-Catholic protestants, centralisation of power that was once devolved in these provinces. With this came the Eighty Year War of the people led by William of Orange and the establishment of the Dutch Republic.
From the onset, the Dutch Republic had its work cut out. Trade with Spanish colonies and outpost, which were located all over the world, was impossible. Trade with the other major power, the Catholic Portugal was also impossible. In order to survive the Dutch, who did not have a king needed to find a way to raise their own money and engage in trade. They did this through establishing a stock market, for people to buy a portion in a company. By basically engaging in the world’s first stock market, this small trading company was able to purchase goods and then in turn gave people a share of the profits based on how much they put into the company.
This flash of brilliance saw the Dutch create what was, and is still unsurpassed, the richest multinational in the world (the Dutch East India Company), establish colonies from Suriname to South Africa and India to Indonesia.
It was this period that money flooded into Amsterdam and the culture in the city thrived with a artists and painters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt building their reputations. These reputations came because commissions from rich people started to become more and more common with the new found riches that many were coming into. Everyone now had money to enjoy the finer things in life. Rembrandt, who had begun his career painting the anatomical society dissecting dead convicts soon became a much sought after painter.
Many of their works and those of later Dutch artists such as Vincent van Gogh hang proudly at the Rijksmusuem.
The richer a place becomes, the more people move to it. Faced with a shortage of space the Dutch instituted tax based on the width of a building, leading to the stereotypical impression of a Dutch building that is narrow but high and deep. So as to help them move items into their now narrow houses, every building is equipped with a hook and pulley system that is still in use today.
Riches tend to make people do silly things, just as the Dutch created the world’s first multinational and invested in it through the world’s first stock market, they also created the world’s first ever stock market crash, or Tulip fever. For some reason the Dutch fell in love with Tulips and people started to value a Tulip at ridiculous prices, driving the price of a Tulip higher and higher, until someone realised that if you wanted more Tulips you just need to to grow them, precipitating a massive crash in the value of Tulips overnight.
The passion for tulips still exists today.
Being dredged from water has its pros and cons. For one the land is swampy and the soil is soft, so all the buildings had to be built with very deep foundations and some houses occasionally begin to tilt to one side. On the other hand, this natural state of affairs led to the development of a series of man made canals across the city creating one of the most beautiful European cityscapes I’ve seen and visually, therefore, a higher quality of life.
While it is all nice and fun to describe the core of Amsterdam as being individualism and freedom, that was not the impression I got. Short getaways are a bad way to become an expert on anything, but short getaways are all I have to form an impression, and the impression of Amsterdam that I got was a city that was extremely practical.
Take for example the hook example that I mentioned above. Besides that, there are the other two items that Amsterdam is well known for. Prostitution is constantly thought off as one of the oldest professions in the world and despite all that layers of morality that are plied onto prostitutes due to religion, the Dutch have had a complicated relationship with the trade that goes back centuries. In fact right from the 14th century the city of Amsterdam noted that “Because whores are necessary in big cities and especially in cities of commerce such as ours – indeed it is far better to have these women than not to have them – and also because the holy church tolerates whores on good grounds, for these reasons the court and sheriff of Amsterdam shall not entirely forbid the keeping of brothels.” Similar with drugs may be seen morally degenrate behaviour in some countries but criminalising such an activity only drives in underground and encourages people to try it for the fun of breaking the rules. Decriminalising soft drugs allows the police to go after hard drugs and allows also more control and support for people who might need them. More on these in later posts.
I think this is the capital of practical. Join me as I explore Amsterdam over the coming days and decide if you agree.