Pedestrian Hell in Amsterdam (10/31/03)

Last updated 12/20/03                                                                                                                                

Random thought of the day (RTOTD): I like bananas, they have a peel.

Tiny narrow steps and other embarassing ways to die in Dam

My first thought on arriving in Amsterdam was that the Dutch must really love tiny, narrow things. Many buildings (especially houses) seem like they are on a diet, and could easily be the next posterchild for Calvin Klein. In addition, these narrow buildings come adorned with matching teeny-tiny narrow stairs. I think these stairs would be perfect sized for little kids, or maybe for hobbits -- actually scratch that, hobbits had pretty big feet -- maybe they would've been a perfect addition to ancient China, where girls had their feet bound as children to ensure perfect doll-like little feet. Yes, these stairs would've been welcome in any Chinese household. But when you've got feet as big as mine (I wear either 10.5 or 11 on the US shoe scale -- they actually have different measurement numbers across the world, in case you didn't know), the only way to get down these kid sized stairs is walking sideways, which gets old real fast. Oh but the fun doesn't stop there; not only are the stairs narrow, but they come in very large sets, making the whole staircase apparatus pretty steep and also providing ample opportunity for a nice long trip in case you miss a step and fall. Try climbing these stairs with a 40lb backpack sometime -- from experience I can tell you that it sure isn't as much fun as it sounds. You could always take the lift (elevator in US speak), but these are about as useful as A1 Steak Sauce in India. I think Europeans design elevators to inflict maximal emotional trauma to all the hapless claustrophobes who can't take the stairs for some reason. Or maybe the elevators aren't really meant to be used? In any case, Daria and I could barely  fit in the lift while wearing our travelpacks, and we had to put our noses to the back wall to do that. After an experience where we ended up going up 3 floors instead of down one like we needed to (the elevator didn't have any sign saying whether it was going up or down, it just said "lift kommen", which I guess means "just get in and pray that this thing takes you where you need to go" in Dutch, I decided that ordinary Dutch people probably never use these things -- they must be some sort of practical joke on us tourists. See commentary to photographs of Amsterdam facades for an economic explanation of this apparent Dutch deathwish expressed in brick and mortar.

Yes, they ARE trying to kill you -- thoughts on homicidal cars, trams and bicycles

There were times during our walks in Amsterdam that I was reminded of those ominous lyrics by Kurt Kobain: "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after you". Being a pedestrian in the city, you often get a suspicious feeling that perhaps the trams, cars and cyclists are all conspiring to bring an abrupt, albeit painful, end to your life. I think I've figured out how the mess of trams, buses, cars and cyclists peacefully coexist: it's at the expense of us poor pedestrians!  After all, even the cyclists have their own special lane, and seem to have better designed and thought-out paths than the hapless pedestrian tourist wandering the streets of this bewildering city. We're lucky to ever even have a sidewalk in this town, and most such "sidewalks" are never raised, or separated from the street traffic and tram tracks in any way. Oh yeah, and a BIG thanks to all those people who decide to park their scooters, motorcycles and bicycles on the already-narrow sidewalks, making them virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, the sidewalks often pass through roads with cars coming at you from your side, but since they aren't raised, you have no way of knowing that you're entering a road. In addition, such roads never have any traffic lights or crosswalks, so unless you're on your toes, you could take a step into the road and have cars honking at you, or cyclists ringing their silly little bells before trying to run you down. It's a rough world out there... the scariest part for me was the existence of many streets, like Leidsestraat, which have tram lines running straight through the middle of the street, just a few feet away from yours truly; one wrong step, or a little stumble, and you could find yourself underneath the Number 5 tram, which will happily proceed on its merry way to the Central Station. The best part is that no one cares about any crosswalk signs (I think they're just road decorations throughout much of Europe), so if you want to cross the road you need a little bit of courage and a lot of luck to just step out into the street and hope that people will stop for you. Or you could always wait an hour till the traffic stops. The choice is yours.

So Why would you EVER go there?

As Spike Lee said in that Nike commercial with Michael Jordan: "It's gotta be the shoes!" If you've

Those Dutch shoes are sooo darn cute!


                    Canals and bridges

Amsterdam has plenty of canals... and some of them offer you a place to go to if nature calls, at least if you're a guy... Canals are, as one would expect, often intersected by bridges, lots of bridges, so many that there is even a place known as "the Bridge of 15 Bridges" because that's the number you can supposedly see from that point (we counted only 8 when standing there, but maybe the Dutch eye sees farther). Nearly all bridges can be opened to allow the passage of boats, and the hours of opening/closing the bridges are not fixed, like they are in some other cities of much water (St.Petersburg opens all its bridges over Neva river, in rapid succession, shortly after midnight and puts them back together around 4am, so you can get caught on an island overnight if you aren't careful). In Amsterdam bridges are manned and opened as needed. We observed the opening event on a small bridge which stopped bike traffic across for a good 10 minutes, after which time the operator announced that the bridge got broken and will not be put together again for some time, and would everyone please take a detour via a different bridge -- choose any one, there's such a whole lot.

One other cool thing about all the canals is that they have plenty of houseboats on them. It's pretty cool to walk through the actual downtown sections and see houseboats moored on embankments. They even have a Houseboat Museum which promises to show you "a snugly furnished, traditional Amsterdam houseboat".

                     Architectural quirks of Amsterdam

The architecture in Amsterdam is quite interesting (and somewhat dangerous).  Due to historic zoning regulations, old houses were generally built quite narrow and tall. The reason behind the zoning regulation and the relevant tax law is unclear, but the consequences are economically sound: because Dutch homeowners historically had to pay property tax based on either land footprint of the house, or the width of the facade (not clear which of the two, but definitely not total living space), they built high and narrow. A typical house in Amsterdam is 2-3 windows wide yet 4 stories tall, facing a canal, and decorated with a lovely triangular topper, for the reasons yet to be explained.

The staircases in these buildings tend to be navy-style small (as in narrow and with short steps) and steep to take up little space. If your house is one-room-wide already (but has 3 or 4 such rooms stacked on top of each other), you cannot really afford to take up half of that space with a royally expansive, wheelchair-accessible staircase, now can you? Economics made Dutch houses look like they've been squished from both sides, and economics endowed them with break-a-neck staircases. It's hard enough for a person to make it up these stairs with luggage, much less furniture. Elevators were a later addition, and keeping in the tradition of tight spaces, they are certainly not adequate for moving anything wider than a lean person. Consequently, they've got these hooks at the top of buildings, and all windows are easily removable to allow furniture hoisted using these hooks to be moved into the appropriate room through the window. This is how Amsterdam got its lovely skyline of triangular toppers, installed not for their cuteness value but for the sheer utility of having a place on top of the house where to attach the hook with pulleys.

To ensure survival of glass windows and paint on the facade during such an uplifting event as bringing a piano into a 4th-floor apartment, most houses lean forward at a barely perceptible angle; you really only notice it when an adjacent facade does NOT lean, so you can see the difference, like in the pictures above. By the way, most buildings in the city are indeed adjacent. The Dutch do not believe in leaving open space between houses, probably due to the aforementioned property laws, hence any building can only be entered from its facade side, which will inevitably face a canal. At least they reconciled themselves to the concept of traffic-accessible streets along embankments, so people can walk/bike/drive in front of those canal-facing houses instead of relying exclusively on boat transportation, like in Venice.

Neat, huh? Actually the tiny stairs sound a lot cooler than they really are... it gets old having to walk sideways up or down the stairs all the time.


        Some famous sights around Amsterdam.

Van Gogh Museum

The pictures do not include Van Gogh Museum because its building is rather bland on the outside, and photography is prohibited inside, but the place certainly deserves a few words as one of the "famous sights". It houses over 200 paintings by Van Gogh, including his early "Potato eaters" and late-term landscapes of "Wheatfield with <something>" series. This collection opened our eyes to the fact that we love Van Gogh, mostly for his technique of making select objects in the painting seem alive and 3-D, literally jumping out at you off the canvas (Puneet's obsession), and the choice of bright, saturated colors (Daria's darling). We also discovered a lot about the painter's life, including details that I could even do without, like the incident of Vincent's cutting off his own earlobe during a fit of mental illness, or his suicide. The commentary on certain art works was most helpful, and I now have some idea of how Van Gogh does or does not fit into the impressionist art movement. Still, when we get back home, we'll be adding that art history book or two to our library -- just to have more of a clue. By the way, the most amusing item in the exhibition, in its "learn more on your own" section, was a book about Van Gogh's life and work, written for very young audience (pre- and primary school, I imagine) from the viewpoint of Vincent's brother Theo. The book faithfully attempted to explain everything, not to the exclusion of the sad episode with the ear, and I applaud its courage but reserve my own judgement as to when to introduce little kids to Van Gogh. Myself, it took 25 years to come to appreciate his art... but maybe it's different if you start trying early.


       Some sights you probably won't find in tourist books. Amsterdam is full of tons of wacky stuff, all you gotta do is look.


     Dam Entertainment

Amsterdam has a very strong cannabis culture. It is legal to consume cannabis products (weed, hash) in the privacy of your home or in specifically designated smoking bars known as "coffee shops" (if you simply want coffee, you go to a "cafe" instead). It is also legal to possess up to 5 grams of grass on your person. Posession of a larger amount of marijuana (yet another name for cannabis), or of harder drugs, or marijuana use in public places, will land you in trouble just like in any other country -- hefty fine or jail sentence, depending on the severity of offense. So no, Amsterdam is not the drug addict's heaven, but certainly a nice vacation spot for anyone who regards cannabis as a recreational drug on par with alcohol.

We wandered by Cannabis College on our trip to the red-light district (out of respect for privacy, no pictures of that area). This place actively encourages photography and has a very helpful staff that's willing to answer any and all cannabis-related questions you may have. Did you know that the lights used to grow the plants indoors uses the same amount of electricity as a washing machine -- and they need to be run for half the day (12 hours)? Did you know that marijuana drug (i.e. the part of the plant that contains THC, the chemical that affects the brain in a manner pleasing to humans) comes only from female plants, and when you first plant the seed, you don't know if it's male or female (50/50 chance), so in a few weeks you weed out the male plants?

Leidseplein is the best nightlife spot in all of Amsterdam: the square itself houses a number of pubs, a coffee shop ("The Bulldog" with its police-state theme is the oldest such establishment in town), a comedy show theater ("Boom Chicago", an improvisation-based stand-up comedian act with a cast of five, in English, highly recommended by such esteemed reviewers as the Mehras), a drama theater, two grand cafes (Parisian-style large cafe/bar/restaurant establishments with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and plush decor, may be somewhat reminiscent of a U.S. Denny's or IHOP, not to be confused with "brown cafes" of Amsterdam which are small, dark, intimate, pub-like places), and all around the square is more of the same plus tons of restaurants. If you come to Dam to party and stay in Leidseplein area, you need never leave it until your departure, because everything you need (including laundry facilities and Internet access) can be found right here in the space of 5 blocks.

A word on the red-light district: yes, it exists, and the girls do sit in the first-floor shop windows. However, a visitor who comes to the area for a free show will be disappointed, because the ladies are wearing more clothes than you would see on a public beach. We cannot testify to the quality of paid services for the lack of such experience, or want thereof; we only know that the services are safe and legal, since entertainment guides to Amsterdam include a section on rules of behavior in the red-light district, composed by the city police.