'This excellent series of urban anthologies weaves together fiction and non-fiction. An intimate portrait of one of Europe's most distinctive cities.' -- The Guardian
'An eclectic and erudite portrait of a city often caricatured for its coffee and knocking shops' -- Time Out
'All of a sudden the traditional travel guide seems a little dull ... a more soulful guide' --The Good Web Guide Lonely Planet
'It makes for some delightful discoveries - even for those of us who think we know this city well' -- Time Out Amsterdam
'An enlightening experience ... explores the city through a series of excerpts by great writers, rather than the usual collection of maps and reviews' -- KLM Holland Herald
'The latest instalment in the frankly rather brilliant city-pick series of alternative literary travel guides'
-- Translated Fiction
Nothing about Amsterdam is linear, nothing is black and white. Amsterdam is a kaleidoscope of earth, water and sky, of cloud, glass and brick. Many of the streets you see and down which you trundle by bike or tram were once water. Much of the water you see was once part of the city's system of low-friction roads. A topsy-turvy world.
Perhaps it is that unpredictability, running contrary to what one might expect of a city so endowed with tradition, history and culture that makes Amsterdam attractive to outsiders, to nonconformists and adventurers like Chet Baker, who died here in 1988, plummeting from his hotel window like a wayward angel. People are drawn to this city because it allows you -- for better or for worse ¯ to be yourself. Or, as Alain de Botton says: `What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.'
That magnetic attraction on outsiders is nothing new: one of Amsterdam's most famous citizens, philosopher Baruch Spinoza, was the son of Sephardic refugees; Rembrandt van Rijn -- in many ways the city's international figurehead ¯ was a provincial boy who found acclaim in what was later seen as the cradle of soft-drug liberalism, the place where anything goes ...
Amsterdam is all of that and, in keeping with its non-linear nature, none of that as well. To set the record straight, for example, prostitution in the Netherlands is seen as just another variation on freelance work, and therefore taxable and regulated. The possession and sale of marijuana and its derivatives, on the other hand (hilariously portrayed in Tommy Wieringa's Joe Speedboat), are not legal here: they are `allowed', within limits. Distinctions of little interest to the visitor, but all the more to politicians exercising a peculiarly Dutch brand of domestic Realpolitik.
For, paradoxically enough, if Amsterdam is wild and giddy, that wildness and giddiness are made possible by virtue of Dutch sobriety and pragmatism. Gambling, prostitution and the use of controlled substances, along with the official hours for beating the dust out of carpets in housing-association tracts and the location of official `doggy toilets', are regulated here - if not always by law, then certainly by ordinance and decree. This playground to the world is padded against falls by an intricate safety net of regulations and social covenants. In Holland - the birthplace, after all, of Western laissez-faire - your right to do as you please is boundless... until it runs up against the sacred boundary of my right to do as I please. The Dutch often speak of themselves, with a hint of perverse pride, as `Calvinists'. And they are right, in that they are staunchly tolerant as a rule, almost overbearingly so at times, and have little regard for anyone who is not. And they do, really, eat mayonnaise on their French Fries.
I am often struck by two recurring motifs about this `multi-city'. The first is expressed in phrases like "I had a Dutch friend..." or "...a Dutch friend of mine, who..." The whole world, it seems, has a Dutch friend. For the Dutch may be Calvinists, but they are inquisitive, worldly-wise Calvinists at that, with a flair for languages and an admiration for travellers. And they have the tendency to recognize a good thing when they see it.
The second recurrent theme is what we might call the "Amsterdam epiphany": you are staring out the window, you are crossing a bridge, you are cycling through traffic, when the heavens open. Amsterdam suddenly feels as right as your favourite pair of old slippers, as heartbreakingly beautiful as that lover you once tossed aside during an eclipse of reason. You wonder whether you will ever have the heart to leave this place. This same epiphany has dawned through the long years on the likes of writers like Charles de Montesqieu, Dubravka Ugresic, Alain de Botton, Simona Luff, Chris Ewan and many, many more.
Fortunately, I am no exception. Thirty years ago, not long after I moved to Amsterdam, I was riding my bicycle one blustery February afternoon along the Singel canal, not far from the city's central train station. Suddenly, the sun broke through the towering cumulus clouds and the houses along the far side were bathed in a light that seemed to etch sharp lines around each brick, every notch in every gable, that threw fat black shadows between the crazily teetering house fronts. Dutch light, I realized, this was the famously oblique Dutch light. As a university student I had loved German Expressionist cinema, and here, in an instant, I remembered why, and saw where Robert Wiene could have gained his inspiration for the weirdly skewed architecture of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, why Werner Herzog had later chosen a Dutch mediaeval cityscape for his 1979 remake of Nosferatu. It was the unbending light made immortal by Ruysdael and his fellow Dutch masters, throwing into relief an old city going into its eighth century of sinking back, with raucous good grace, into the morass from whence it came.
Giddy Amsterdam, staid Amsterdam. Empress, fishwife, lady of the night. Hero, artist, traitor, beggar. Visionary, Calvinist and clown. It is that timeless humanity of which this city sings. Sam Garrett is a prize-winning literary translator and writer