Spring in Amsterdam brings the tulips. Big luscious tulips that illuminate the city and breathes life into a community that has just awakened from a winter soon long forgotten. This is the city that Joy and I discovered as we paraded around town on our first day after our arrival. The smell of marijuana permeated the air and as I looked around I saw a city that seemed exceptionally at peace with itself. All of the things that many of us seem to suffer from, guilt and shame, prejudice and discontent, angst and ambition -- they all appeared to be noticeable absent from this fraternal twin of Venice, Italy. Amsterdam seems to be to be a little ray of light in the world that very slyly says, with a mischievous wink, "this is me. This is who I am. Take me or leave me," and then confidently passes you a joint in a hash bar and lets you know everything is going to be alright.
But there is so much more to this city then its somewhat apocryphal reputation as a drug and sex den for a much more modest world to escape to when no one is looking. Amsterdam is the city that housed a very frightened Anne Frank during World War II, where Rembrandt changed the world of art with numerous strokes of his paint brush while he was living here and the people of Amsterdam make the most delectable and rich cheeses the world has ever known.
Amsterdam is a city that prides itself on the absolute manifest destiny of its bicyclists and has taken the art of biking to a level that few cities in the world could lay claim to. Bicyclists have the right of way here under every circumstance and they are not afraid to take it. If a car hits a bicyclist the car is responsible no matter who was at fault. If you find yourself walking the only warning that you will receive to get out of the way of an oncoming bicycle is a faintly heard "ching ching" of the rider's bell as they go screaming past. The number of bicyclists that flood the city streets each moment of every day takes on an eeriness of Hitchcock's The Birds. On almost every inch of every street a bike adorns the road accompanied by an attitude that says, "Move. Don't move. Either way, I am coming through." 60,000 citizens are the victims of bike theft every year and they don't take this lightly because bikes are the central form of transport here and when you take a person's bike you take their ability to traverse this amazing city. Bikes are king here.
Amsterdam is diverse. Amsterdam is elegantly laid back and visceral all at the same time. This is why Joy and I find ourselves in an exceptionally happy mood today. This truly has already become the trip of a lifetime. We decided early in the morning that we would walk down and ask the concierge his advice on what we should do today and we said, "Whatever he suggests, we will do. Today, the universe will guide us."
This is my absolute favorite way to travel. Make no plans and be guided by a force much larger than myself. I have discovered that when I truly let go the most magical things happen.
Joy and I walked down to the lobby around 9 a.m. and bee lined to our concierge, Daniel, and asked him for his advice on where to go. Without missing a beat he asked, "Did you just get here?" When we told him we did he immediately pulled out a map and suggested we buy a day pass for canal boats that stop at various points around the city. For 25 euros apiece we had hop on/hop off privileges that could take us anywhere this vampire city had to offer. We had our transport for the day.
We embarked on a day that took us from the Diamond Factory, Amsterdam, to sample various kinds of cheese at shops dedicated purely to almost revival-like reverence for... cheese. The Dutch people are almost as proud of their cheese as they are about the various strands of marijuana that they sell and the bikes that fill their streets.
From there we walked through several city streets people watching while occasionally stopping into chocolate stores that looked right out of the movie Chocolat. One particular store was a Willie Wonka fantasy come true. Mounds of exquisite chocolate were placed out behind glass tempting anyone who entered this sacred haven. The woman who not only owned the shop AND made every piece of chocolate sold in the store stood watching her creations with a slightly suspicious eye on anyone who entered in the hopes of scoring some of this amazing chocolate.
Joy and I bought a dozen pieces and the chocolate artist looked pained each time we selected a piece to buy, as if she were giving up one of her children for adoption with each morsel that was placed inside a perfectly elegant box. Joy and I promised the artist that we would take the very best care of the chocolate and then we exited out into the 46-degree air.
The characters you see in Amsterdam rival any place in the world. Everyone seems to dress only for themselves and because of this the uniqueness of human kind shines forth through the apparel of the citizens. Men with scarves ride bikes while trying desperately to balance their hat on their head. This city is viscerally alive yet placidly going about its business and Joy and I are just riding the wave like a beginning level surfer while being led perfectly through this gem of a city.
Around mid-afternoon Joy and I walked across the bridge to the other side of the canal when we encountered a beautiful loving soul named Cami who was sitting on the bridge playing her accordion to little attention and absolutely no fanfare. As we approached Cami to the melodious sounds of her accordion we stopped to place one euro in the cup that rested by her feet. We said hello to Cami and exchanged names and then we asked her how she ended up in Amsterdam.
She told us she came to Amsterdam to play accordion to make a little money for her family. She had a son named Joseph and a daughter named Sarah back home in Romania and what little money she made she sent back home.
"I don't make very much money," she told us. "People just walk by me. They are probably busy and have some place to be."
We finished our talk and then Joy and I got back on our way. Three steps into the walk Joy stopped and said, "Wait. How many euros in coins do you have in your pocket?" I knew exactly what Joy was saying; let's make her day a little bit brighter and show her that there are people out there who care. Let's give her the hope that might be alluding her at this moment.
I immediately turned and walked back to Cami as Joy skipped along beside me and I reached into my pocket and I gave her a little more than 10 euros. Her face immediately lit up.
"Thank you so much!" Cami beamed.
Joy and Cami and I then resumed our conversation. We talked. We laughed. We shared a genuine moment where we connected if only for a second.
"I guess I'll see you around soon," Cami said.
"Thank you, Cami. I hope you get back to those kids soon," I responded to her. And then, Joy, Cami and I said what will most likely be our last goodbye, or shall we say, 'until next time" as Cami said upon our departure.
As Joy and I walked I began thinking. Cami sits there everyday just hoping that someone "sees" her and maybe reaches down and lends her a helping hand and on most days, the greatest majority of us just walk by her. We move by her so quickly that we don't even take notice of her. How do I know that? Because I almost did. Sure, I stopped and gave her a euro and a hello but did I really look into her heart and "see" her? No, I didn't. That is, not until Joy convinced me to turn around and give her something way more valuable than money. I gave her my time. I gave her my attention. I gave her what it is that we all long for, we desire, we require of those that we love the most, I gave her my attention.
Amsterdam is a city in a rush but yet is in no hurry at all. She is a city, that like most people, are sorely misunderstood. Amsterdam simply wants to express herself as she sees fit in that moment without the need for judgment from the outside. Isn't this what we all wish for, to be accepted to express ourselves in all of our uniqueness?
This is Amsterdam in all her glory. Undeniably authentic. "This is me. This is who I am. Take me or leave me." Amsterdam could teach us all a thing or two about living the life we say we want to live.