Someday we’ll see the Noortenlicht in Amsterdam

As though snatching an entire country from the jaws of water wasn’t enough, the Dutch have also perfected the art of talking on their mobile with two children and six grocery bags hoisted on a bike, while navigating the tourist-packed streets of Amsterdam. We arrived in Amsterdam on November 22nd, on a speedy train from Paris, just in time to catch increasingly fevered holiday preparations and a steady influx of tourists, attracted by the city’s wintery charms

Canals and bikes; bikes and canals - Amsterdam is both old Europe and very modern Europe at the same time

Canals and bikes; bikes and canals – Amsterdam is both old Europe and very modern Europe at the same time

No other city in Europe feels as civilized and as crazy, at the same time. Utterly bipolar, dear old Amsterdam. On one end of the spectrum you have the delightful cafes that offer fluffy pastries and strong coffee, filled with polite, long-limbed blond people; the cobblestone streets, winding along canals and criss-crossing the city; the numerous design shops; the restaurants offering scrumptious fare, from the typical Dutch to Brazilian and Thai; the clean, fast, silent trams; paper tulips everywhere, and typical blue-on-white porcelain piled up in shop windows, conveying a sense of domesticity and building up expectations for great tea. (The tea is mediocre)

the waffles do live up to the expectations

the waffles do live up to the expectations

On the other hand: the city looks as though a bike taiphoon swept through it. Bikes are piled up everywhere, on three levels of storage near the train station, chained to bridges, street lights, leaning on walls, some rusting away, seemingly forgotten by owners.

Of the 1 million bikes in Amsterdam, about 25,000 end up un canals each year and 100,000 are stolen!

Of the 1 million bikes in Amsterdam, about 25,000 end up un canals each year and 100,000 are stolen!

Also, the Red Light District, which creeps up on you, especially if, like me, you fail to notice that shops and restaurants start to bear increasingly inappropriate names as you approach it: “the Kamasutra” Indian restaurant, the “Amore” pizzeria, and, eventually, the  “Quartier Putaine” brasserie. Of course, the so-called “coffeeshops”, where no coffee is consumed, and whose patrons amble out in slow-motion looking mightily red-eyed. A city ordinance makes it illegal to smoke tobacco in Amsterdam’s coffeshops…

Unfortunately you're not allowed to take photos of the juiciest bits in the Red Light District; but then again WordPress would probably give us an X-rating if we posted those, so here's a nice view of a canal

Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos of the juiciest bits in the Red Light District; but then again WordPress would probably give us an X-rating if we posted those, so here’s a nice view of a canal

Since we visited at the end of November, we also had a chance to inspect some Dutch holiday traditions: caramel waffles, mulled wine, Christmas markets and a whiff of racial controversy. Let me explain: In Holland, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas, aka Santa’s Dutch grandfather) is accompanied on his gift-giving voyage by Zwarte Piet, a blackface sort-of-elf dressed in colorful Renaissance attire, or rather by a few Zwarte Piets, some six to eight of them, to David Sedaris’ comical puzzlement.

Dutch Santa and his helpers

Dutch Santa and his helpers

I highly recommend reading his entire essay, but here’s a good paragraph to sum it up: “The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid 1950s, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends.” Or as a Slate article from 2011 put it: ‘In In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Elves. He Has Slaves.”   Apparently David Sedaris was not the only one who found it disconcerting: the UN is now taking an active interest in sorting out this particular Christmas story.As for us, after thoroughly exploring the winding streets and canals of the city we took a friend’s advice and checked out NDSM pier – a free ferry ride away and a testimony of Dutch ingenuity. NDSM-werf looks a little like a Blade Runner set and is a city-sponsored art community called Kinetisch Noord that has taken over a derelict shipyard. MTV thought the area was so cutting-edge that it revamped one of the old industrial buildings and made it its European headquarters.

NDSM is full of really cool urban/industrial art from reclaimed materials

NDSM is full of really cool urban/industrial art from reclaimed materials

As it happens NDSM is home to now one of our favorite cafes in the world: Noortenlicht Cafe, a Dutch Frankenstein of cafes cobbled together from scrapyard materials, with huggli from the folk and the recycled, welded exhaust looking wood-burning stove as well as a claim to fame as an ideal venue to observe, in winter, the very lights that gave it its name. One day we’ll come back and watch the celestial spectacle from a beat-up couch with a ginger tea steaming in a mug from this place. One day …IMG_20131124_133658P1060263

After days of walking the cold cobblestones and stuffing our faces with delicious Dutch baked goods (spiced cookies, apple strudels, waffles, etc), a requisite visit to the Tulip museum and the Rembrandt reproduction gallery, where all of Rembrandt’s paintings are organized chronologically making for a fascinating narrative of his evolution as an artist, we took our leave of Old Amsterdam with all its goods and bads and headed back to France where we rested for a day before boarding the plane for our first Asian destination: Hanoi, Vietnam.