Tuesday, March 20, 2012

To live in Amsterdam

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.


June's World said...

I was fortunate to visit Amsterdam just once. But would be back so many times over. (if I could) I loved the city. The Acrchitecture, the history. The Bicycles!!!
Really enjoyed it.
So wonderful for you, you get to enjoy it so frequently. And through your post I get to re-live the memory.


June's World said...

ps: I think I would like to live in one of those elegant houses. granted the obstacles would be quite an annoyance. I get caught up in History, the thought of what happened there, the stories that could be told, my mind wonders with it all. I love old Victorian houses from the 1800's aswell.
I stayed at The Grand, have you seen? It was an amazing place, the history of the monestary turned hotel. (another place where my mind wondered).

Fran said...

I too love Amsterdam and have visited many times over the years. However you have just killed all my illusions of living in one of those beautiful canal side houses lol !! Best then to stick to a barge with all it's faults!

Invader_Stu said...

You are not kidding about the stairs.

The first house I ever stayed in had a spiral staircase which was so steep it was more like a spiral ladder. Plus it was on the fourth floor. Thank god I was only their for three months.

Anne-Marie said...

There is the romantic illusion of beauty when you visit any foreign city, and you think, wow, I would love to live here. And then there is reality, and for each city, reality is a different slap in the face. In Paris, it took me many trips to notice that there are very few big green parks like there are here and in London, where you can run and play and just sit and read. That would kill me, in the long run. In London, like in San Francisco, the constant damp weather would destroy what is left of my knees and hips, and kill me in a different way. And now, Amsterdam, I must also cross you off my list. ;)

I guess that's why sometimes being a tourist keeps you beautifully blind.

Stevie said...

Oh what a lovely scene you have painted! I might have to borrow the image one day... perhaps, with your permission of course, dearest Vally P will need to make an appearance in the first book I want to write.
Darling darling Val... I have to much to tell you.
ps I have internet at HOME finally! and high speed to boot!

VallyP said...

Thank you all! i will reply to all your comments later today. Till then, enjoy the spring cos it's finakky arrived!!

bookworm said...

I love Amsterdam, too. It's a fantastic town. Do you sail with your boat from Rotterdam to Amsterdam?

String said...

Lovely description Val, I had no idea, but having been in more than a few narrow houses in the UK with tiny stairs, high ceilings and the lot, I understand perfectly.

VallyP said...

Oops, sorry about the typo in my last comment. I typed it on my phone and often get the wrong buttons.

Thanks to Grace, Fran, Stu and Anne Marie for your earlier comments. I know that Stu has lived in one of these houses too, so we share a common experience there...okay not all that common but common to us :) Grace, I'm glad it brought back memories!

Fran and Anne Marie, I'm so sorry to have shattered your illusions! In fact, as long as you know what to expect, these houses are still lovely places to live and it's no worse really than living on a boat!

Stefan, sadly it's too far to go there by boat just for a day's teaching, but that's a nice idea, hey?

And String, yes, some English houses have similar features although I'd challenge them to have quite such death traps for stairs as they have here :)

David Hampton said...

I considered trying the houseboat route - there was a good rental available when I first moved here. I'm not sure how the smells and the mosquitoes would be, though. The steep stairs with high treads are always a challenge for everyday living in a classical Dutch house, I end up treating them like gangways and swinging down the railings.

Dale said...

Where there is water, there are mosquitos! I know they can handle a hefty elevation, as I have been chased through the odd creek bottom while mountain biking away up here in the Canadian Rockies.
I would love to visit Amsterdam! However, if I were to travel to The Netherlands, Rotterdam would be first on my list.
If I were given the chance, I might even consider living in one of those tall, elegant homes.
Of course, scouting my route beforehand, would have to become part of my daily routine. Along with balancing on my toes and giving my thighs and behind a good workout.
I often wonder what it would be like to drive only a few miles down the road and be in a different world...

BilgeRat said...

Great description of Amsterdam housing, and you know, it is at least similar to Venice. Not uncommon to see a refrigerator or a kitchen module hanging by rope in thin air, headed for the top floor.

Lorraine and I have both wondered many times why bug screens are not used much over on your side, can you add any insight to this?

VallyP said...

Dale, thanks! We would just love it if you came to visit, and yes, it's pretty special to be able to be in another country in just an hour or so :)

VallyP said...

Oops, Tom, I missed your comment here. Thanks for coming by! I can imagine Venice must be quite similar..yes! About the screens, well some people have them, but they aren't very pretty really, so I suppose that's why they aren't used much. In a country where we tend to leave windows open to the world, screens like that would probably cut out more light than most folk would want, but in all honesty, I don't really know :)