Amsterdam exists where no city should. Over centuries, Dutch engineers have dried out marshy land, built a series of canals and dikes, and developed architectural innovations to enable construction in the area. Today’s tour guide tells us that a full 60% of the Netherlands sits on land reclaimed from swamps and marshes. The most important company in the country is the water company, he said, and they are paid accordingly.
We did a seven hour tour through the city today. That sounded daunting, like some sort of endurance test, but the guide offered numerous stops and various breaks to keep things relaxed. We saw a few churches, a synagogue, a half-dozen canals, and a coffeeshop called the Dampkring.
While we did not enter the coffeeshop–and please note that this is the local term for “place to buy and consume weed and hash”–we did see Harry, the Happiest Cat in the World, who lives there and is, by our guide’s account, “very chill.” Harry is a very old cat, so old that no one knows his real age. The guide noted that the medical benefits of marijuana could be the reason.
It’s a misconception that drugs are legal here. Soft drugs–weed and hash–are “tolerated,” meaning that you can smoke them in certain places and no one will bother you, but they are not legal. Sort of like jaywalking, which is a crime that no police officer will ever ticket you for. “Hard drugs,” like heroin or cocaine, pose far graver societal consequences and are therefore not given the same exemptions. Also, hard drugs, unlike their softer counterparts, cause cats to do terrible things. Give your cat PCP if you don’t believe me.
We finished our tour at the Anne Frank House, which has been converted to a museum. It presents the Holocaust in microcosm, on a very personal level. I have not read Diary of a Young Girl, but I am obviously familiar with its general outlines. It was haunting to walk through the annex where her family (and others) hid for so long.
Prior to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the Jewish community had gotten along fairly well in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, Dutch Jews were removed and exterminated at much higher rates than in neighboring countries, because the Dutch royal family fled to England, leaving a power vacuum eagerly filled by the Nazis. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz six months before liberation, which did not come soon enough. Only her father survived.
Even in a city of tolerance and openness, there are reminders of the foul bitterness that divides people. This can be found anywhere, if you’re looking for it, of course, but the juxtaposition with the modern city, where a majority are non-Dutch natives, is stark. The city seems to have the right idea, though, preserving symbols of the past’s shortcomings as a guide for creating a better future. Here’s hoping it works.