When I came across some Korean travellers one day in front of Amsterdam Central Station, they bluntly asked me how they could manage to look around the city of canals in half a day. It is quite natural that tourists with a tight schedule and budget are inclined to spend less than a full day in Amsterdam. Compared with other big cities in Europe such as London, Paris, Rome and Berlin; Amsterdam has a population of far less than one million. In half an hour's drive, you can reach the city boundary.
I advised them to take the city tour which includes a one-hour canal cruise, organized by travel agents. But I added that they might need more hours or even more days to experience real Amsterdam.
After several months' stay in Amsterdam, I concluded that it was full of things exotic and special, rarely experienced in other European cities. I do not mean only the Rijksmuseum, Concertgebouw, Dam Square, Anne Frankhuis, Vondel Park, the crowds on bikes and the variety of gabled houses alongside canals.
It was indeed a surprise when I asked an Amsterdammer directions, he stopped another passer-by to identify the way to get there. You never meet such a warm-hearted welcome to a foreigner (with a different skin color) in other large cities. This is, namely, "Dutch hospitality."
The English have done an unfairness to the Dutch in their dictionaries. You can find such words as "Dutch courage," "Dutch consolation'" "Dutch treat," "Dutch Uncle," even "get in Dutch" (misspelling of "ditch?") in your English dictionary. Of course, some have a historic background. But to a large extent, I imagine, it is a result of the English jealousy, presumably since the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. In the late 18th century, British sea supremacy confined their rival to a small land, part of which is below sea level.
Fortunately, however, it does not take long for a foreigner to correct his prejudiced knowledge on things "Dutch." In my view, it needs no less than a couple of days.
Unexpectedly Rough Dutch Women
What will most impress a foreigner from the other side of the globe is a Dutch woman riding a bicycle, even in the rain. As I saw it, male tourist might be ready to answer the frequently-raised question - "What do you think of the women of this country?" - by saying they are kind, smart beautiful but, occasionally, unexpectedly rough." Dutch women have been notably successful in fighting for equal rights and opportunities in this male-dominant society. However, it is sad to see that the divorce rate is on the increase nowadays.
On the other hand, Dutch men seemed to me as wish-washy as they are tall. Most of them, young and old, have mustaches. (From the Oriental point of view, mustachioed men are trying to show that they are stubborn and sexually strong.)
Taking into account the gentle, sometimes naive, character of the Dutch, it is hard to imagine that Dutch police have been troubled with spectators' violence in football stadiums. In order to avoid serious violence among enthusiastic soccer fans, the authorities concerned have made every effort to keep rival supporter apart from each other.
When you are strolling about in the suburbs of Amsterdam you can easily see a striking contrast - inside and outside - in Dutch houses. Through a large window with small lace curtains, you can see beautifully arranged furniture and a variety of lamps, with a number of plants as well as vases of colorful flowers.
One step outdoors, especially beyond the reach of the automated sweeping machines, there is litter of papers, cans and animal droppings. After a gust of wind, all the bushes beside the streets usually bear fruit of garbage. Furthermore, you cannot proceed an inch without looking at graffiti on once clean and tidy walls. They are colorful scribblings of words or illustrations within the arm's reach. Even the metro tunnel is not free from the scrawling.
Aesthetic Sense in Street Graffiti
One day I saw some writings on the wall near the IJ Tunnel - N with Olympic marked five circles. It must have been written by someone opposed to Amsterdam's campaign to host 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Finally, with painstaking effort, I came to appreciate the aesthetic sense in the wayward graffiti. I thought it might be a unique grass-root culture existing only in Holland.
It also take a while to get accustomed to the Dutch climate. Nothing could be less predictable than the Dutch weather year round. Summer days can be either rainy and chilly or hot and dry under the quickly changing skies.
For a foreigner who wants to understand Amsterdam, there are more things, mostly intangible, to be experienced than the generally recommended sights to see. That's the reason why a half-day tourist can never recognize the real "Dutch," as I tried to tell my countrymen that day.
Looking at an aerial picture of the time-honored port town, I suppose that Amsterdam really does have it. ("Amsterdam has it!" is the catch phrase of the city.) In terms of museums, the capital city accommodates all types ranging from fine art museums, diamond museums, sex museums to even a hashish museum.
Certainly, Amsterdam also shares those headaches plaguing today's major cities - a severe housing shortage, increasing crimes and violence, drug problem, etc. As a travel guide puts it, Amsterdam will take all in its stride and find solutions, reasonable and equitable, like it always has. I believe that's true.
- Source: Thoughts of the Times, The Korea Times, June 26, 1987.
The writer studied the European Integration at the University of Amsterdam (ICEI) under the fellowship of the Dutch government during 1986-87.