Masters of the Art of Living
Text Ilona Marx Photos Andi Zimmermann Illustration Roman Klonek
Although the invention of the spoked wheel took place in the Bronze Age, 4,000 years before the first houses were built in the historical centre of Amsterdam, the inhabitants of this Dutch metropolis have really made the most of this amazing invention. Even the ground view of the centre, with its wheel-shaped Grachten belt and the numerous canals like spokes, remind one of this groundbreaking invention. But it’s much easier to take in the 600,000 two-wheelers that are estimated to be in use here, and which define the image of the city and its general attitude to life.
For one thing bikes are the most practical means of transport – the topography of the city would impose mayhem if cars were the dominant form – but the cobbled streets following the canals make everything look so neat and tranquil that even the daily ride to work has the air of a holiday bike ride about it. No wonder that the locals here are so relaxed, something that’s sadly missing from the lives of most other big-city dwellers.
In most districts of Amsterdam you don’t even need to make decisions you’d face in any other normal town: would you rather live in the inner city, in the suburbs or in the country? That’s a question that you hardly need to ask. Amsterdam offers the pros of all these choices: peace and quiet, idyllic tranquillity, combined with a wide range of, and easy access to, cultural venues, restaurants and shops. Amsterdam would be the perfect place to live – if only there would be more of it! The city is built on a swampy quagmire of peat and clay that goes down 12 metres under sea level. The reason for such an arduous reclaiming of land is obvious – the cost of it. Flats, whether to buy or to rent, are very difficult to come by and very expensive. Thus the admiring visitor and a large percentage of the city’s inhabitants can only dream of living in one of the charming, crooked houses with their ornately decorated gables that look so top heavy that they could topple over into the Grachten at any time.
But Amsterdam wouldn’t be what it is, if its inhabitants didn’t have qualities that balance out certain inadequacies in the infrastructure. The Dutch are a people who’ve mastered the art of living, they are bohemian improvisers, and just as they created one of the most beautiful northern European cities in a place that doesn’t even have the most basic requirements for building one, they also have the life-skills to deal with a whole host of other problems with admirable ease. If you can’t live on a Gracht then you can at least spend the evenings cruising along one in your small boat. Nothing can top a summer evening with friends and a few bottles of Amstel on board. Gezelligheid’, the cosy companionship with friends, is number one on the list of favourite things to do in this city of around 760,000 inhabitants.
The resident Amsterdamer is known for his tolerance, a trait that may have its roots in the pluralism of Dutch society. Just as the city rests on a foundation of peat, the social structure also rests on foundations that have created a solid framework for everything else. Politics, the economy and religion are relatively autonomous from one another and the consequence of this is that there is an unrivalled liberality in dealing positively with problematic issues that elsewhere would be taboo.
Where else can you smoke a joint openly on the street? Where else can gay men and women get married, or do the police place recruitment ads in leading gay magazines? And where else can you watch TV programmes entitled ‘How to have good sex’, giving you useful tips?
The open nature of the Dutch, especially the residents of Amsterdam, is palpable. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for the many unusual store concepts to be found in this traditional trading nation. The city of nooks and crannies is bursting with ideas; ideas that on first sight appear ascircuitous as the architecture itself. We’ve picked the cream of the crop for you to delight in.