When I first went to Amsterdam in the 1980s, I expected the Netherlands and its people to be very different from the world I knew – London.
I remember sitting outside a bar, looking at the world go by and watching people. I looked at people’s faces and how they looked at and interacted with each other. I saw people trying to fit in, wanting to be liked, lacking confidence, showing confidence, being shy, flirting, excited, bored and animated. I saw the normal range of emotions. The first thought that struck me as I looked around was how they were just like people I knew: that the people in Amsterdam were no different, fundamentally, from the people in London. I was surprised. They had the same fears and hopes. As an idealistic young man, this gave me great hope that the world would eventually be more compassionate, fairer and better for everyone. Of course, with Trump, Brexit and all the other divisions visible every day on social media, this better world seems a long way away.
But I remind myself that, for instance, being a vegetarian then was difficult and being a vegan, which I soon became, was hopeless. Vegetarians were just regarded as cranky whereas other groups were persecuted. Yet, here we are nearly 35 years later and every restaurant has a vegetarian option. Sometimes it takes half a lifetime, or even many lifetimes, for things to get better.
In one of the photos, you’ll see me as I young man. I spent ages tracking down this vegetarian restaurant. One of the staff translated the menu for me and when my starter arrived, it was so big, I thought they’d forgotten the starter and served the main course. I was too embarrassed to ask for clarification. I was pretty full up when the main course did arrive! After eating, there was a Gandalf-like figure with flowing white hair and beard who came to talk to me. I remember listening to him with awe, more mesmerised by his look than the history he told me of the restaurant and why it resembled the inside of a ship.
This very same warmth and hospitality, I saw again in Amsterdam. I was taking a photo in Jordaan, a renovated district, when this man on a balcony, unprompted, gave me a brief history of the church I was looking at.
Amsterdan is still a beautiful city, full of character. The trams move around unimpeded. The bikes go at a sedate pace; I saw no racing bikes. The car, tram and bike move in harmony – each one accepting the other two – or so it appeared.
The Red Light District is more developed. I still find it shocking seeing women parading themselves in shop windows, like inanimate objects available for sale. There are now official tourist signs in case you can’t find it. But even during my first trip, coach parties visited the area. Now coach parties queue to see live sex shows too.
Of course, the centre of Amsterdam is probably now inhabited by the wealthy. But this is true of many European cities. It’s charm remains and is one of the best places to just walk around and admire the architecture, art and culture. And you can still visit a coffee shop or two 😉