Postcards from Amsterdam: ask not for whom the tram tolls?

Holland is flat. Everyone knows that Holland is flat. But you have to go there to appreciate just how flat it is.

All the way between Antwerp and Amsterdam via Rotterdam, its as though someone has ironed the landscape. You could play billiards on it, if it wasn’t so wet. Many of the fields are covered in greenhouses; completely solidly; acre sized greenhouses that add to the impression that you are not in a landscape but a simplified two dimensional version of one. It must make a lot of planning much simpler to not have to consider inclines.

The only bumpy bits of ground are dykes and dams. Even the houses are low. Single storey with dormer roofs, so they look like they are squatting on the ground and ducking to avoid being blown away.

Alongside the fields are irrigation and drainage canals. These are also on a level. No need for locks; there are no waterfalls or any sense that anything is not under control. As 25% of the Netherlands is below the current sea level, this is just as well. It makes the country acutely aware of the rapid increase in the sea level rise that is now baked in by climate change.

Like Bangladesh, Holland is one of the most threatened mainland countries. The urgency of the situation is partly counterbalanced by the technological and engineering self confidence that comes from having been reclaiming land from the sea for over 2,000 years. All the same, the level of rainfall gives the impression that the sea is trying to take it back by aerial assault and the scale of the rise now coming is well beyond anything experienced in that period.

Holland is also extraordinarily neat, a tolerance of urban graffiti tags notwithstanding. The contrast with Belgium – which, outside Brussels, looks like a part of France frozen in about 1953 and neglected ever since, presenting itself as the Benelux down at heel twin, at least alongside the Eurostar route – hits you in the face as soon as you cross the frontier in either direction.

Photo: PA

This is the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. Unlike the buildings around it, which have a handsome, distinctive elegance, this is a neo classical imperial brute, with such heavy black bars on the windows that S and I thought it might be a prison. No accident that Donald Trump, when President, decreed that all new official government buildings should be constructed in this kind of neo classical imperial style. Rome casts a long shadow in the imagination of insecure powers seeking the timeless legitimacy conferred by Doric columns. In the middle of the roof at the apex of the pediment is a statue of a muscular Atlas holding up the world; flanked by a pair of lesser figures embodying law and force. In this way, those with wealth and power, whose existence is held up and sustained by the genuinely Atlas like labours of millions, present themselves to the world as if it is them that’s doing the supporting. Its long past time we shrugged them off.

Pushing off from the lights. Photo: SLAW

Bikes are everywhere. People often ride them with a distinctive and very dignified posture; leaning to the rear with very straight backs. And all sorts of people. Tall, grey haired elderly men cycling alongside each other holding a conversation, couples giving each other rides with extension seats on the back, families with the children in a cargo bike style bucket at the front – holds up to three – sometimes with a cover as you can see above, or perched on a crossbar seat or baby seat behind. Mums with kids alongside.

Bike stands at every station. Photo: SLAW

There are bike stands everywhere, bristling along the pavements outside apartment blocks like iron hedges, and bike lanes, clearly demarcated on every road; which are organised as follows: pavement, bike lane, pavement, car lane, trams, car lane, pavement, bike lane, pavement. Standardised. Rational.

Heavy wheeled black electric bikes – known as “fat bikes” – whizz along in the bike lanes too, but the push bikes don’t hang about either. They come not single spies but in battalions. And fast. A critical mass that eclipses the car. What we need everywhere.

No one feels the need to wear lycra (or helmets). There is strength, and normality, in numbers. No one is intimidated by the rain. They just put on sou’westers and ponchos – sometimes not even that – and keep cycling. Bike on through the storm. Bike on through the rain. And you’ll never bike alone.

People prioritise practicality over aesthetics; there were more old fashioned chain guards than I have seen for years and lots of people attach plastic crates – of the sort that you might store beer or milk bottles in – between the handlebars on a frame over the front wheel to carry things in.

No one bats an eyelid if a cyclist rides their bike into a metro station. Railway stations have bike grooves running down stairs for cyclists to have an easier ascent or descent as you can see below.

Young lad gets his bike down the steps without bumps at Zaanse Schans station. Photo: SLAW

The trams are wonderful. Regular, frequent, reliably knitting the city together. The entrance doors are in the middle, exits at the front and back. Immediately inside the entrance doors are enclosed information booths with helpful tourist and transport guides sitting in them to help anyone who might need it.

There are still cars, but motorists are generally outnumbered by cyclists and people using the trams. The deep almost atavistic clang of the tram bell is like a tocsin for car based cities.

The number 12 tram coming into the stop at Concertgebouw in the rain. Photo: SLAW

Names for bands inspired by Amsterdam or that sound better in Dutch: Electric Bendybus. Soul Patch. Schnitzelhaus. Toeslag. Stroopwaffel. Sloterdijk.

Yorkshire tea? Photo PA

The Dutch for full fat milk is Volle Melk and for half fat milk its Half Volle Melk: so literally half full milk. No matter how much you’ve drunk, its always half full.

The Dutch for public urination is Wildplassen, which has a slightly adventurous tone to it; as well as being a bit onomatopoeic. It is, of course, Verboden (and there are street signs saying so). Certainly more so than in London on a Saturday night. Stag dos please take note.

Near the tram stop by Concertgebouw is a little evangelical kiosk, with bibles and tracts, emblazoned with the legend God Zoekt jou; which seems to imply that He/She zeukt you whether you liked it or not. I’m not sure I do.

Photo: PA. Trees at Keukenhof with a decidedly Middle Earth sort of feel

Tulips in Amsterdam. There will be a generational watershed at this point between people who will now have Max Bygraves in their head for the rest of the day, and those that don’t.

Keukenhof (literal translation, kitchen court) is a vast Park about twenty minutes south west of the city that has a spectacular flower display every Spring; mostly tulips. Most flower displays – or greenery in general – are reviving, and induce states of contemplation and reflection that give us a break from everyday pressures, reducing stress as we walk through a Park. When I used to develop migraines at school I would walk home through Hampstead Heath; and the immersion in greenness would usually soothe the worst of it by the time I’d got to Golders Green. A point all urban planners should keep in mind, given the pressure from developers to squeeze in just one more lucrative unit.

The display at Keukenhof is contemplative to an almost hallucinogenic degree. I’d expected to spend an hour or so looking around before getting restless, but we spent the whole day and felt a bit regretful at having to leave. The sheer scale of the planted beds, and the artful juxtaposition of colours and shapes – and the more subtle assault of the aromas – overwhelms the senses into a different sort of consciousness. Who needs drugs when you have a sea of tulips?

When you look long into the floral display…

A small parade of stilt walkers wafting silky wings, floaty trousers and drifty music steps, smiling beneficently down from giraffe height as they pass. A toddler with her eyes wide and mouth agape totters after them with entranced steps, completely awestruck. Pied Piper moment.

The floral display also looks into you. Photos: SLAW

The attached tulip museums inform that tulips originated in central Asia, were named after the turbans worn in the region and the Ottoman Empire, were the subject of one of the first stock exchange bubbles (tulip mania) in the 1630s with, at one point, a single bulb being priced at the equivalent of 67,000 Euros; and that Holland now produces 75% of global bulb supply (but not at 67,000 Euros a pop).

Raskolnikov in the butty shop. There are lots of shops doing sandwiches of an adventurous sort right across the city. Sitting waiting for our order, I glance across at the other customer. A small young man sitting under a personal black cloud, with closed off eyes and a pale complexion, faded sandy mustache, dressed in a black hoody, with the hood pulled up across a black beanie hat, over a black t shirt with a machine pistol logo which, as poses go, is rather menacing, and trousers made for a giant, but cut down to “fit”, jagged and flappy at the bottoms, rent around the pockets, cigarette pack in one, bottle of water peeping out of the other, and exuding an air of misery and menace; until his sandwich is delivered, at which point he smiles and his existential gloom seems to lift into the heavens.

The historic windmills at Zaanse Schans stretch along the east bank of the river Zaans. Only two of them are on their original site. All the others were moved here, along with a number of traditional wooden houses, to make a tourist theme park that would also preserve them. As such it is a reconstruction of the past by concentrating it in one area, rather than an authentic preservation of the area itself.

Inside the windmills of your mind…Photo: SLAW

The windmills are a very impressive piece of early modern technology. The sails, wooden frames with canvas stretched over, rotate at a rapid rate, turning a big wooden gear cog inside that, in turn, concentrates a massive force to rotate millstones or vertical crushers to pound pigment, grind corn, split logs. There is nothing smooth about this, though the synchronisation of the gear wheels is brilliantly thought out, and the forces involved are overt, heavy, dusty; and the whole mill shakes as a crusher hammers down. The rapidity with which timber could be turned into planks gave Holland an advantage in shipbuilding that underpinned its early seventeenth century naval prowess. As this was at the same time as the eighty years war of independence against the Spanish Empire; perhaps Cervantes was making a geopolitical comment about the relative modernity of the embattled powers when he wrote about Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Built of wood and/or with thatched upper structures, they were very vulnerable to fire and at least two of them had to be rebuilt after burning down in the nineteenth century.

Water logged logs with windmills on the Zaans. Photo: SLAW

In the wooden structures alongside are a set of museums with large shops attached, which are best seen in between coach parties. There are a lot of these and, as the museums are small, tend to jam solid when they are in. The clog museum shows a range of clogs that vary from elegant “Sunday Clogs” – with carefully painted scenes on them – through to betrothal clogs, that an aspiring suitor would hand carve and decorate for his intended – on to industrial clogs, which had a 3cm thick front end that dyke workers could use as a fulcrum when levering up basalt blocks and other heavy weights. The cheese museum is basically a shop run by the Henry Willig company – which makes cheese and chocolate, but not at the same time thankfully – with a short film in the reception area to show how cheese is made. The nice thing about this is that they have stands with people looking Disneyesque in traditional bonnets and clogs – I’m tempted to say that this is a bit “cheesy” – who let you try little slivers of different types of cheese. Dutch cheese – basically Edam – was considered exotic when I was growing up in the 1960s. As a result of being exposed to it at an impressionable age I have retained a prejudice that it smells and tastes of feet and and has the texture and “mouth feel” of rubber. It was good to have this dispelled with some strong but subtle varieties; the characteristically blunt Dutch designations of “young cheese” and “old cheese” notwithstanding. “Glorious goat” is pretty good.

By the Double Headed Phoenix café/bar – which specialises in making their own liqueurs, and gives you a shot of one of them in a tiny glass with squirty cream on top if you ever have a coffee – is the toilet. As most of the visitors are coach parties of a certain age, the queue is a long one. I am standing in a long line behind about half the population of Taiwan when we are suddenly disturbed by a furious woman from New Zealand, venting her frustration that the turnstile both costs and doesn’t work, and that the woman giving helpful advice has put her nose out of joint because she’s telling her what to do- “you have to pay to get in and it doesn’t work, then she says you have to stand on a spot, and it still doesn’t work. I’ll just hold it. I can’t wait to get out of this country!” Hopefully she will have found a toilet she can get into before then. The angriest I’ve seen anyone for days. It all seemed a bit over the top. The woman she seems to have been taking exception to was a young black cleaner; who went out of her way to explain how to get through when I had the same problem with a good deal of grace and charm. Which wasn’t her job, but she did it anyway. I wonder how much of the NZ woman’s angst was bound up in resentment at having to take instruction from a black cleaner? Hopefully not, but, if so, it illustrates that racists are never happy.

The Anne Frank House leaves you emotionally numb. Even when you know what happened. Especially when you’ve read the book. The original building, the warehouse owned by Otto Frank with the secret annexe at the back, is encased in a newer structure. The queue is long and quiet and let in in time slots booked long in advance. Everyone gets a hand set with recorded information that works when you point it at stations on the tour. There are a lot of people going round. Not a lot of conversation. This is not a place to make light of, but no one seems to be ghoulish either. Each station hammers home the story we already know with details we didn’t; and everyone walks through the warehouse, up the steep narrow stairways and into the tiny rooms that 8 people hid from the Nazis in for just over two years – kept alive by a tight group of close friends on the outside – with increasingly grim expressions. They were discovered and arrested in August 1944, just two months after D Day had given them hope, but 9 months before Amsterdam itself was finally liberated on May 5th 1945. By this time, everyone in both families was dead, except for Otto Frank, who managed to survive Auschwitz long enough for the Red Army to get to . His wife and daughters died in Auschwitz or Belsen. Anne was 15.

Anne’s diary, a thoughtful, deeply felt, sharply observed, articulate and witty account of growing up in almost impossible conditions with a threat of imminent arrest, degradation and death constantly in the background, is a deeply humane document that stands as a rebuke and witness to everything the Nazis did and what they stood for. As a narrative about individual people it engages readers empathy in a sustained way that statistics, or photos don’t. We tend to make the former abstract and flinch away at the latter. Primo Levi’s books of memoires about Auschwitz have a similar impact.

This is a spare summary. Hyperbole isn’t necessary. The facts speak for themselves. At a time that the far right is reasserting itself across the Global North, racist narratives are the daily bread of the tabloids and peddled by Ministers at the despatch box, the Great Replacement Theory gets aired at Nat-Con conferences on both sides of the Atlantic, and far right demonstrators in Israel call for “death to Arabs” and “may your villages burn!”; we have to assert implacably that “never again” applies to everyone.

I was also left with a greater sense of admiration for Otto Frank, who made sure his daughter’s diary was published and the house opened as a museum. Frank’s concern when the diary was first making an impact in the late sixties and early seventies to emphasise the human side of it and downplay the politics was something I didn’t think was right as a zealous young activist at the time. While the story only made sense in the context of the Nazis racist exterminism, perhaps what he was trying to do in pushing them to the margins of the story of his daughter’s life was to at least keep her memory safe from being defined solely by the people that murdered her. But, the interaction of the personal and the political has meant that they are now more in her shadow than she in theirs.

A spare, controlled, thoughtful and incredibly resilient man, who looked after the diary while she was writing it without ever reading it because he’d promised her he wouldn’t, his wistful remark after doing so that, however close the relationship, no parent fully understands their child, shows what a good father he was. I get the impression that, having lived through the worst that humanity could do, he spent the rest of his life looking for the decency in people and, because he was looking for it, by and large he found it.

Photo: PA

With thanks to my daughter, seen here sheltering from the mother of all thunderstorms in the café at the American Book Centre, without whose creative imagination, formidable organising skills and zest for life this trip would not have happened.