Today, I went to Amsterdam. I do this now and then as I teach courses for the university there, but because these are mostly online, my visits are fairly sporadic.
I like Amsterdam very much. I don't have any desire to live there, but it's very beautiful and has an atmosphere that's uniquely its own. It is particularly lovely along the grachten and my walk to the university takes me along these peaceful, inner city canals. As I stroll, I can see the houseboats and 'woonarken', which are actually floating houses rather than boats. They're all a bit shabby, but you can bet they cost a fortune if you want to buy one. Especially there.
The houses that line the canals are also lovely. Tall, narrow and elegant, I've often mused how pleasant it might be to have a room or apartment in one of them. But in fact, that's not really true. These beautiful town houses that were built aeons ago are uncomfortable and hopelessly impractical. I do actually know this because I lived in one. Not in Amsterdam, but in Rotterdam, and I still suffer the effects to this day.
The reality is that every floor has impossibly high ceilings and beautiful, tall, gracious windows. Aesthetically, they are unbeatable - the last thing in dignity and class. Practically, though, this means trouble, For instance, let's take the stairs. They are unbelievably steep. They are also very narrow so as to fit in with the equally narrow buildings, and the treads are totally lethal: tiny, slippery and spiralling at the same time. Worst of all, there's an awful lot of them because of...well, yes, you've guessed it...those very high ceilings. The result is that almost everyone who lives in them has had bruised or broken ribs at some time or another as a consequence of having normal sized feet that do not fit onto said tiny treads. And even one of the five flights is a long way to fall. As I said, I am still suffering.
Then let's go back to those high ceilings. In my mind's eye, I see summer days with the long beautifully proportioned windows open and filmy curtains floating lazily on the breeze. But what about the winter? There is central heating for sure, but where does all that heat go? I suppose if you can levitate and hover in an uncertain state somewhere close to the picture rails, you might just manage to stay warm, but otherwise, life becomes some kind of constant battle of wits with the thermostat.
And then there are the mosquitos. I don't know who it was who told me that mozzies don't like heights, but they lied.
Dutch mosquitos are acrobatic high fliers and even if you cram yourself into the 'zolder' up between the eaves of the building, they'll seek you out in their lust for your blood. This is of course due to the canals, which while beautifully calm to look upon, do not actually move adequately. They lack flow, in fact, and are thus perfect breeding grounds for positive legions of the flying, biting, stinging, whining, chewing, blood-sucking kamikazi beasts.
The other ludicrous thing about these houses is that the washing machine 'aansluiting' (connection) is almost always in the attic. Sorry, I meant the 'zolder.' Now we all know how heavy a standard washing machine is. I've just looked it up and I see that the average weight is around seventy kilos. That's a lot of kit to be carrying up five of these flights of unbelievably narrow, slippery stairs. Of course, it's true that you can always hoist them up from outside. There's generally a hoisting hook at the top of the facade of these old houses for just this purpose. But then you still need to to organise cranes and traffic cops and a meeting with the council just to be able to watch your washing machine floating skywards until it reaches the attic window. At this point, you still need some hired heavies to arrest it in mid flight and haul it through the gap left by the window that you've had to remove because the machine is too big to fit through it. Are you beginning to get the idea that there's just a teensy bit of cost involved in all this?
Lastly, if this hasn't already been enough, there is the inevitable battle of the bikes. Now everyone in Amsterdam knows that if you leave your bike outside for any length of time, it will definitely be stolen. There's no way of avoiding this - unless you put your bike inside the front door at the bottom of the stairs, that is. The snag here is that because the hallway is just not long enough for a standard omafiets, the front wheel has to sit at an angle. But then, the hallway, like the stairs, is very narrow.
I will finish this tale by leaving you with a thought. Someone is coming down the stairs with a baby buggy. Your bike is at the bottom with its front wheel blocking off most of the bottom step. There's no way back and no way forwards. Now tell me if you would like to live in one of these tall, narrow, gracious and elegant houses.
I thought not.