Live and Let Live in Amsterdam

It’s a surprise to no one when I say that cities have personalities. We describe our vacation spots as sleepy, charming, vibrant, or go farther and say that an entire city reminds us of a frat boy: boundlessly enthusiastic, smelling of cologne, and consistently drinking us under the table. (Sounds like Vegas to me!)

What surprised me, however, was that despite its reputation as a party city (let’s just say it: hookers and pot), Amsterdam reminded me of a kindly grandfather.

If you’re lucky enough to know your grandparents as an adult, as I have, you find out that they’re not just the sweet folks who slip you a five-spot on your birthday and take you to petting zoos. That’s part of them, sure, and an important part, but if you know them as an adult, you actually listen to their stories. You linger in their homes after big family dinners, and what you realize is this: they’ve seen more of the world than you have, they’ve lived through major moments in history and were changed by them, they’ve got a style all their own, and, yes, they can absolutely drink you under the table. They have, after all, had lots of practice.

In a city known for its liberal policies hookers and pot, I confess I was expecting more of that hard-partying, whoop-it-up, frat boy vibe. And at one time, I’m sure the city was that way. But now, wizened up by years of practice and decades of history, the coffee shops are full of casual smokers playing Uno, lacing their weed with tobacco to keep from getting too high. The Red Light District is run by dues-paying union members who approach their jobs like small-business owners. No one but the tourists find it strange. No one but the tourists are out of control. Grandpa Amsterdam has seen it all before and now feels like having a relaxing day of low-level activity, maybe a visit to one of the world-class museums, and he’ll probably end the day with a beer and a nap. “Do what you want,” the city seems to say, “but I’m going on a walk.”

That’s the charm of Amsterdam, after all. Ogle at the vices on display or jump in with both feet, but then join Grampsterdam on a tour of his city. Listen to his stories, learn a bit more about history, and bask in these sunny days you have. For us, that meant walking along the canals and buying more frites, wandering wide-eyed through the Van Gogh Museum, and standing slack-jawed and awed in Anne Frank’s bedroom. It meant seeing where Otto Frank tracked the Allies’ progress with pins on a map, running a finger along the lines marking Anne’s height–she wasn’t much shorter than I am–and craning our necks to see the place where she got her first kiss.

It was there, in front of the blacked-out windows, that it occurred to Matt and me just how constrained her life in Amsterdam was compared to how freely people live there now. The contrast is striking, perhaps obvious, but tracking the difference of 60 years felt like clarity.

I think that’s what I mean when I say that Amsterdam reminds me of someone’s grandfather–the city has perspective and wisdom, and is careful about which battles it chooses to fight. Why worry about whether or not folks are drinking a beer in a park? Don’t you remember the Nazis? That was a real problem. Just let the hookers do what they want.

Worse things have happened.