Amsterdam – study in paradox

by Frank Muller

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We had the blessing some years ago to travel with a dearly loved couple who share the same passion for adventure and friendship. There is just something special about people who seek consciously to expand their influences outside the normal boundaries of exploration yet also cling tightly to their local home and community.

There are two types of travelers I have encountered when travelling to distant shores. One is the group that seeks to learn and appreciate the vast variety of cultures, cuisines, geographies, and histories of the world. These people are not seeking to escape but rather to learn and experience. These experiences are nostalgic, but they do not in general lead to escapism. Rather, they tend to deepen the bonds of our home communities and the lives we live there.

The other group wanders the distant lands but are often lost in a dreamy escapism. If only we could sit on this beach and watch the sunset forever. If only we could sit starting at the Tuscan sun as it warms the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence. If only, if only, if only…… This is the paradox of travel. One can go and be found, another can go and get lost.

This paradox draws me to Amsterdam. One is struck almost immediately upon visiting this great city that it is in fact imminently livable and local. The people truly live in this city. They bike, drink coffee, grow up and thrive in this city. Yes, Amsterdam is flowing with tourists, yet the locals seem almost insensitive about their wide-eyed wanderings.

This city feels and acts lived in and loved. The residents of Amsterdam value their property and parks. The homes are well maintained and beyond that strive for a sense of beauty within its place. They are trying to be different but still blended in with the unity and diversity of the city.

The colors mirroring off of the canals set beneath a sky of blue is an optical illusion that demands one to stop and simply absorb. Like a masterpiece hanging on a museum wall Amsterdam needs to be slowly and patiently observed in order to understand the beauty she strives for and her people.

However, there is another Amsterdam that is sullied just beneath this mirage of beauty and innocence. It is this image of sexuality and licentiousness, the fragrance of coffee shops selling far more than just coffee, the lingering memory of a port city given way to slave trading and colonial exploitation. Here, the bankers of the Dutch world created an economic empire built off of the backs of indentured people and playing one country off of another for advantage using gold as the leverage.

It is a place where Catholic parishes once dominated the landscape. Then the ruinous architecture of the Protestant rejection of beauty clashed with a town that was and still tries to be something that aspires to a nobler expression of human works.

At the surface of this great paradox lies an illusion and beneath that surface lies a tragedy. Here we see why we can love this place, and we can also see in the same place the worst that we can be; disguised by a beauty to the eye.

Make no mistake, one should go to Amsterdam and absorb her atmosphere and sights. Further, one should read and study about Amsterdam and peer into the foundations of that city built on the water. This is the great joy of travel and none of these musings are meant to denigrate the people of Amsterdam for it seems to me they are even more intimately aware of this paradox than I and that is why they choose to live there.

May Peace be with us all.

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