We’re back from Amsterdam

John Cale’s 1971 album Vintage Violence includes a sweet little sleeper of a song called “Amsterdam.” In it, the singer’s lover has just returned from a trip there, and “it seems the journey did her well.” Her face has softened; if it’s lost its touch, it’s also lost its telltale signs of loneliness. Maybe this is because while there she fell in love with “men who knew the way to treat a lady.” Even so, the singer’s realized that “I love her still / And I need her company still more.” So he asks her at the end of each verse to “come down, come down, come down.”

It’s a wistful song, about a return that isn’t quite a return. The repeated call to “come down, come down” suggests that she’s not back after all (is he using “Amsterdam” as a euphemism for legalized weed?); it’s odd that though she’s lost her signs of loneliness — and in spite of the fact that the trip has clearly done her some good — she’s still not completely back in the singer’s life. She may be well, but her loneliness seems to have transfered to the singer, as if her return has sent him spiraling into some sort of traveling limbo.

Walking the streets of Amsterdam most of last weekend, it was hard for me not to hum the John Cale song, which began to feel like a parable for tourists like us. It was clear the journey was doing me well, for one thing. A trip to Amsterdam can’t help but do you well. So well that it’s hard to come home to your busy American urban life.

The last time we were there, four years ago, Stephanie and I had such a fun time that we vowed our return trip would include friends. I was making the trip this fall to speak at a conference in Leiden in the latter part of the week, and we were lucky enough to persuade our friends Jason, Nicole, and Dave to come along for a few days’ vacation beginning the weekend before.

We rented an apartment in the Jordaan, on the Prinsengracht, overlooking the canal on the front side and harboring a cute little bellybutton of a garden out back. For four days we wandered stone-paved streets, soaked up Dutch masters (painters, not cigars: Rembrandt’s 400th birthday posters were everywhere we turned), and ate our morning broodjes in a series of brown bars — charming little Old Country places with checkerboard tiles on the floors and the same mustard shade on the walls, not paint so much as the tar stain of hundreds upon thousands of cigarettes over the decades.

In our favorite one of these, where I had a lovely breakfast one morning of smoked salmon and horseradish on brown bread with cucumbers and the largest caper berry I’ve ever seen, a dog stood watch at the top of the stairs that led to a balcony. If you look closely you can see him poking his head between the bars on the banister:

 love those yellow walls

Our days were filled with shopping,

two of these heads are not like the others


on our way to see the rembrandts

and other things that Amsterdam tourists do, like taking rides in large yellow wooden shoes

don't ask what it smelled like in there

or generally looking like you’ve been cut-and-pasted into a music video.

jason sees a penny

With the exception of the yellow wooden shoe, then, we did pretty much what the five of us — sometimes in the company of others — have spent several Saturdays doing over the last year or so, including eating oysters, relishing delicious meals in progressively finer restaurants,

 dinner, party of 5

and proving the old Dutch temperance proverb: “Alcohol destroys the fruits of labor.”

alcohol destroys the fruits of labor, she said

In fact, the oddest thing about our four days together in Amsterdam was how much it all seemed like home. Without meaning to, the five of us kept up a constant habit of pinning down the neighborhoods we walked through by identifying them with New York equivalents. The Jordaan was a bit like Soho or Tribeca; the Rembrandtplein was like St. Mark’s Place; the Old Centre and the Red Light District reminded us of the old Times Square. One night we went to see Sparklehorse play in a club that was clearly Amsterdam’s version of Bowery Ballroom. We even found the Upper East Side, a street we called Oldmoneystraat:

 old dutch money

Maybe this little tic stemmed from the fact that Amsterdam’s crazy street plan and semicircular canal patterns reminded us of the shape of our own neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Compare:



You can see why the Dutch laid things out in New Amsterdam the way they did — including digging canals that have long since been filled up:

will the real amsterdam please stand up?

But more than anything topographical, I think what resonated with us were the brown bars themselves, the kinds of places where you can sit down to breakfast around 11, have a fine cup of coffee or two (there are no takeaway cups and, thank God, no Starbucks). Before you pay your check and leave, someone’s already switched over to a small beer:

  little sips

If you liked a place enough, you might come back on your way home for a night cap:

night cap

Of course with all the other analogies we drew between Manhattan and Amsterdam, we had to keep up the quest for the spiritual sibling of our own Fresh Salt. And we did find it — again and again, in brown bar after brown bar, though a couple clearly stood out as our favorites. Our ideal places had age, character, kindly locals, and plenty of space for a group our size, inside or out. They were the places a family might show up on a Saturday morning to play board games with the kids or where people drop by to say hello to the bartender while they’re out walking the dog.

So why leave home, if home has clearly become the measuring stick by which all other experience is to be judged?

For one, Amsterdam tops New York when it comes to cultivating patience and a leisurely pace, whether or not you’re on vacation. Whereas we have one Fresh Salt in our neighborhood, each neighborhood in Amsterdam seemed to have a well-established, friendly brown bar on every corner, each with its own colorful cast of regulars. They’d park their many bikes, pull up chairs, swap stories, read papers, buy one another beers. We’d pull up chairs, buy ourselves a round or two, and converse an afternoon away. In fact, I’d say we did more conversing than anything else:


dave recoils in horror. who among his friends hasn't seen this look a thousand times?

the body language of love

The service is slower than Americans are used to, and occasionally it will seem like a bartender or waiter is consciously ignoring you, though they’re simply finishing other tasks before they get to your turn. But the upside is you’re with friends! Talk! Take your time! Relax!

“Let’s go get a beer,” we’d say, and over the course of four days that phrase took on an almost metaphysical character. “We’re on our way to get a beer” came to mean “We’re consciously seeking out the pleasure of good company and a comfortable environment for conversation.” And the beer! Even the Heineken and Amstel were delicious, probably because they were unpasteurized, but by the end of the day we generally favored De Koning, which runs a pretty penny back in the States.

Before long we’d figured out how to multiply our opportunities to reach this state of beer-soaked Nirvana, as in: “Let’s stop for a beer on our way to get a beer.” Forgive us! They were short! They only cost a couple euro apiece!

Come down, come down, indeed, John Cale. Could there be a better mantra by which to regulate a pleasant life than “We’re on our way to get a beer”?

31 responses to “We’re back from Amsterdam”

  1. Lane says:

    It’s talk like this, and photos, and one’s own memories that make one wonder, why am I am American?

  2. Lane says:

    But then I realized I’m about to go work my shift at the oldest food coop in America and walk the streets of my little neighborhood which bears a strking resemblance to BeNeLux.

    I guess I’ll stick around.

  3. Scott Godfrey says:

    Black ‘n’ White, you’re such a pleasant sort. From the limited time I’ve known you, I’ve noticed your uncanny skill of zeroing in on the essential goodness of places, people, or whatever. I recommend a shot at writing some travel books, “The Black and White Guide.” Think about it.

    And thanks for putting such a great song in my head.

  4. Tim Wager says:

    Welcome back to Bryan and Dave! Glad you’re back and glad you had such a good time. Amsterdam is indeed a lovely city. I’ve only been there as a sullen teen, with family. I remember thinking, “Oh, if only I were 4 or 5 years older, I’d really have a great time here!” Someday soon I hope to return. Seeing and hearing about such delights it does make one wonder why more American cities and neighborhoods can’t be as hospitable. I mean, shouldn’t all civilizations be so, well, civilized?

    And as for that John Cale song, it’s one of my faves. I urge you to seek out Alejandro Escovedo’s beautiful cover of it, on his Bourbonitis Blues.

  5. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this lovely post all day… My first-ever trip to Europe began and ended in Amsterdam. I spent almost the entire trip with my father, making good time (i.e., driving 8-10 hours a day in a tiny rental car, just me and him) all across Europe (mostly touring the countryside), an infantilizing experience not unlike all the “camping” trips I used to take with my dad, since he dictated the entire trip (he also paid for it, so who am I to complain?). Anyway, I say all this because, toward the end of this whirlwind trip, my dad went home a few days earlier than I did, leaving me alone in Amsterdam for three blissful days, which left me feeling not only like an adult once again, but also like I belonged in the City.

    Your post brings up so many nice memories… and makes me wish I had been there with you. Thanks, bw.

  6. hey thanks, all you nice people. let’s go get a beer, what do you say?

    i talked to several people today about how hard it is coming back and more than one says that amsterdam more than anyplace else they know makes people come home and start plotting how to move there. i’ve heard the same about copenhagen and oslo. anyone able to compare?

  7. Lisa Parrish says:

    I’m in San Francisco right now and am ready to move here. And I believe Lane said he and Adriana had the same experience last time they were here. Really, from fabulous hiking through nearby redwoods, to the spectacular views of the bay from every hill, to the wacky vibe of the Castro and Haight… Washington seems like a giant metropolis of gray suits and cynical politics from this distance. It smells so nice out here, there’s working wi-fi everywhere, people eat healthy food. What’s not to like? Besides the insane cost of real estate, I mean?

  8. Lane says:

    Copenhagen and Olso are nice but no, way BIG NO way are they anything like A Dam. Way too far north and cold. The Danes are much more beautiful than the Dutch but with the exception of Christiania Copenhagen is rather dull. Olso is nice, but again cool, even in the summer. Much too controlled. Nothing like that . . . Dutch . . . live and let live thing.

    Ah yes San Fransisco, we did momentarily leave our hearts there. But we found them again riding in a strech limo down Park Avenue. Adriana and I were sprawled out in the back being returned to our home after a lovely party in North Westchester. Adriana looked out the window and said “yeah San Fransisco’s nice, but really, it’s just a small town. This is IT! This is the big time.”


  9. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Bryan, welcome home. I really enjoyed your post, it confirmed Amsterdam’s lock on the top spot for places that Adriean and I have not yet visited but have to get to soon.

    A huge practical question not unrelated to the comment above: did you travel with the kids? I didn’t get that feeling, do you think it would be silly to try and soak up Amsterdam’s evident charms with small, active children or is this the place where we call in all of our grandparent babysitting credit in at once and just go as a couple?

    The answer seems clear to me but I know a friend who took his son and had a good time and it sounds like many of you have been there a lot so how about a travel pointer or two for super dad out here?

  10. Lisa Tremain says:

    LIsa P., while your in San Fransisco, if you’re a shopper, be sure to hit the best used clothing store I’ve yet encountered (and I’ve looked in NY too): Thrift Town on Mission and 17th. If you get Steph and Scott started on the coolness of SF (and it is *way* cool), you might never hear the end of it.

    Bryan and gang, missed your presence here each day. We could feel you were a little farther away than normal. I haven’t been to Amsterdam (somehow missed it on my few Europe travels; I think I was generally further South and East), but have seriously plotted– with Autumn– expatriation to Prague.

  11. Scott says:

    Actually LP, the Clothes Contact (if it’s still there) on Valencia at 16th is pretty darn good, clothes by the pound. Used to be 6$ per.

  12. Stephanie Wells says:

    I’m with allayall to some degree–Copenhagen is cool, Oslo is cooler, but Amsterdam beats them both . . . but as LIsa T warned you I would say, NOTHING beats san francisco. She warned that I shouldn’t get started so I shan’t, and I do adore NY and London and Barcelona and Paris and Berlin and Prague, but my god, when the HELL can I move home to san francisco already??!!!!

    and I know it’s much much more “forced” and less legit than Thrift Town and Clothes Contact, but half my wardrobe is from the Wasteland on Haight St. (though those other two have also served me well, sartorially speaking).

  13. Stephanie Wells says:

    but about wanting to move somewhere, though I have my SF dreams, I have to say that any time I leave the country it makes me want to cry to get on that plane back to the US, even if it’s going straight to SFO. SF is amazing but it’s still . . . American, though less so than maybe any other city in the country except New Orleans.

  14. Ruben Mancillas says:

    a slight corrective

    Praha is great but I have a soft spot for Wien.

    Hoping to meet up with some East Coasters in New York City (for truce talks) this winter.

    Never been to Barcelona but we had such an issue with London that we almost left for Amsterdam on our first night despite having paid for the week’s hotel. It got better though.

    Any thoughts on Morocco? From what I’ve heard Babel isn’t exactly a product of their tourism board.

    Bracing for the inevitable Beck-like backlash but truer words were never spoke…if only San Francisco was half as great as its onetime resident/boosters claim.

    That leaves the LBC in the top spot, baby!

    Adriean just peeked over my shoulder and noted that “people are going to think you’re completely dissing it.” Have I been caught bomb throwing again? No, I love San Francisco (I do hate the Giants though) but do think it finds itself only the tiniest bit too precious, don’t you think? Like some some Scientologist musicians perhaps?

    I will admit, however, to wondering “What Would San Francisco Do?” in countless social situations.

  15. WW says:

    what, o what, Ruben, was your issue with London?

  16. Tim Wager says:

    And preferring Vienna over Prague (sorry, but I must resist falling victim to your linguistic correctness when it comes to city spellings)? The anal-retentiveness (wait, does “anal-retentive” have a hyphen here?) of the former is just stifling! Fer chrissakes, how o how could any self-respecting (hyphen, definitely a hyphen there) libertarian such as you prefer the state control and nostalgia for empire of Vienna over the sweaty Kafka-esque paranoid understanding of big gubmint inherent in post-communist Prague? *Plus* the Viennese won’t even exhibit the best of the Egon Schieles they have, for fear of inciting someone to think slightly dirty thoughts. It took the Czechs to establish a museum for him, though he spent very little time there.

  17. James says:

    Thirded – Copenhagen has its points, but is cold. A’dam is the best walking city in Europe. I have a soft spot for Dublin, and Brussels (and for smaller places, Valenciennes, in France), but yeah – Amsterdam is a vacation in every sense.

    Loved the photos, Bryan.

  18. lisa tremain says:

    cities…shmitties…give me northern new mexico and camping anytime.

  19. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Wendy and Tim, I’m just relieved the cult members haven’t started in on me yet.

    I speak, of course, of former SF residents who now bemoan their loss.

    Vertigo is the best though.

    Wendy, London-like I said, it got better but it just didn’t stay “open” late enough for us. We pulled the dumb traveler move of getting off the plane in the afternoon, looking around, and then going back to the room to rest before our big night out. I’ve read that the rules have since changed but my image of a pub driven city ran smack into the reality that bars actually close at a time when Adriean and I might first be walking down 2nd St. in the Shore for a late dinner and drink.

    “Hurry up please, it’s time” indeed!

    So London took the blame for our poor plannning-having dinner for the 2nd night in a row in the train station-one of the only places still open for any kind of food was Burger King if I remember, will sour you on a city.

    London also suffered in comparison to the tantalizingly close Amsterdam, our second choice for said vacation. Munching on that chicken sandwich we knew that the night life in Amsterdam wouldn’t have so rudely shut us out like that. It also had that kind of nostalgia, if not state control, that Tim referred to in regards to Vienna-we were there when the Queen Mother died and it all felt a bit V for Vendetta for my taste.

    Tim, I loved Prague but Vienna was just as furtive and paranoid in my opinion to maintain appropriate levels of interest and intrigue. You ever been through the Westbanhof at all hours of the morning? I’m a big Third Man guy and I could see nefarious types scurrying in all kinds of corners-you should have seen the scalper who whispered to us from the alley and sold us our (great) seats for Parsifal . I am aware of the waltz-like rep the place may have (and somewhat deserve) but the Prater, Freud’s office, and gallons of Czechvar washed all of these pretensions away. The place is still DARK at its soul-move The Piano Teacher up your queue if you dare to see what I mean.

    Nobody can touch Kafka’s hometown for the atmospheric architeture and spooky vibe but the visual arts are far superior in Vienna-not just the justly famous locals but the Velasquez paintings, to name just one example, were jaw droppers.

    You’re just touchy because they wouldn’t show you the Schieles.

    I still feel dirty.

  20. Stephanie Wells says:

    Ruben, you kook. Is the rotation of West Coast Weds too limiting for you, too many of us trading spots for you to get enough air time, so you gotta get your yayas out in the comments box? I said I wouldn’t preach about my heaven, and I didn’t really, did I? But does it take even half a viewing of Vertigo to know I’m right? You’re so lucky we’re still friends, with fightin’ words like that.

    I gotta go with Tim: Vienna is WAY too imposing and imperious. Salzburg is much realer (saltier) if you’re staying in Austria (or sorry, Mr. NPR, is that Osterreich to you?), but Prague is the real deal.

    and finally, the reason I am (somewhat) anti- the LBC is exactly the reason you are anti-London: it all closes so damn early!

  21. Stephanie Wells says:

    p.s. as for your earlier question: marrakesh is great, but fez really puts the rock in morocco

  22. Beck says:

    For what it’s worth, I prefer Vienna too.

  23. MB says:

    I’m a fan of Amsterdam, too. One of the most striking things I remember about the city is its relative quiet–compared to other European cities, and especially to cities in the US. With such a tightly compacted population and so much pedestrian and bicycle traffic, you would think there would be lots of noise, but people talk in quiet voices and privacy and personal space are respected. In fact, one of my most profound memories is of arriiving in Amsterdam and coming out of the train station on a foggy, rainy morning. The city-scape was almost hushed. People whizzed by on bikes, and you could hear the streetcars before they emerged from the fog, but overall it was quiet. Still.

    I spent my own wonderful (and sad) days there doing research at the Anne Frank House on Pinsengracht 263–just down the street from where you stayed. I picked up a loose cobblestone from the street in front of the Secret Annex and brought it home with me to Boston. I still have it now in Omaha–which is a long ways away from Boston and an even longer way from Amsterdam.

    I’m a big lurker and and even greater fan of TGW. Smart people, interesting ideas. Has kept me company on some long nights at work.

  24. Lisa Parrish says:

    Welcome, MB! Glad to have you among us.

    Re: Amsterdam. Looking at the map above calls to mind my favorite city, St. Petersburg. Same essential layout, canals radiating outward from a city center on the river. If you haven’t been, put it on your list. It is magical.

  25. Dave says:

    Yeah, the first day in Amsterdam I kept thinking, Wow, this place is laid out so much like St. Petersburg. Then I remembered Peter the Great’s expedition to Amsterdam and how he modeled his city, and the Russian flag, on what he encountered on his travels. Amsterdam strikes me as much more intimate than Petersburg and also less grand.

  26. re: 24 — i had assumed MB was MB as in margo, darling, but i had missed the part about “lurker.” i know a couple other people with initials MB and am wondering now if the new MB is one of them …

    now i have to go back and read those two comments all over again …

    welcome, new MB.

  27. Slade says:

    I’m late reading the post…
    Your trip sounds dreamy and perfect.

    And yes, how about that beer?

  28. Robyn says:

    It’s refreshing to read about your pleasant trip to Amsterdam after having listened to my housemate recount her trip to Amsterdam last weekend that involved a “brownie” overdose and lots and lots and lots of puking. She still hasn’t fully recovered.

    That shoe looks like fun.

  29. Woodstock says:

    Don’t eat the brown brownies.

  30. MarleyFan says:

    I’ve heard about two friend sitting on a roof, when the mother of one of the friends looked up and said “how’d you get up there”? The son said “mom, we had to come down to get this high”. Sounds like you had great Trip…

  31. […] None of these explanations satisfied me. Maybe I was just tired, coming down from a long, fun-filled weekend in Amsterdam with friends. Maybe it was the early morning hour. […]