Between flights I lock my bag somewhere in depths of Schiphol Airport and take a yellow and blue train to the centre. The outlines of thousands of passengers are worn into the fabric of the seats, leaving a faded silhouette in the centre of each one. The train is well used and unglamorous, but seems to work to everyone’s satisfaction. I’ve changed planes here many times before, but never made it outside, beyond the concourse, the duty free shops and the sense that you should be queuing somewhere.
As I get off the train I think seeing the river might be nice, but the waterfront next to Amsterdam Centraal station is all function and no fun, squashed between the road and the water it’s either a ferry ramp or under construction. I barely avoid being run over by rushing bicycles before walking around the station and heading south into the canals and old streets, some of which are frighteningly narrow. With cars parked on the railing-less canal edge there is just enough room for another car to squeeze past, if you step aside and find refuge amongst the locked bikes.
It’s not quite midday as I pass through the red light district, which looks sad and uncomfortable in the daylight, knowing that its wrinkles and battered signs look much better lit by neon gas than the sun. A few cafes are open and mostly full of tourists slumped back, half asleep or laughing loudly, the air sweet with weed smoke and filled with happy, inane chatter in many languages.
Dam square, the centre of Amsterdam, is today partly a building site and mostly a temporary beach volleyball arena. The palace looks drab and very grey, squashed in behind the scaffold seating and bright signs of the arena. I carry on west and into the canal district. The shops and cafes become more expensive and a little more serious. Every railing is festooned with bikes, to the point where some must be structural, many are certainly so rusty they can’t move anymore.
It’s warm and slightly overcast, so most of the cafes have tables set up outside. I stop for lunch at the Spanjer van Twist, sitting behind a bridge and next to the canal on Leliegracht street. Somewhere beyond sight a street band plays something up tempo on guitar, trumpet and accordion. Low, open topped or glass-roofed, boats chug by along the canal, their engines creating low background rumbles that echo up the streets. Almost all have the Amsterdam city flag flying behind them, red with a black stripe running across the middle filled with three white Xs.
I order a beer, feeling self-consciously grown up; first for drinking by myself and second for drinking in the middle of the day. While I shouldn’t have to justify this to anyone, let alone me, I assure myself that I’m on holiday and this is therefore perfectly acceptable. Still, I carefully eye the other guests in case they’re judging me to be an outrageous drunk. On the bridge there is a swift turnover of people with big lenses taking pictures down the the length of the canal. I try to eat my lunch as neatly as I can, not wanting to be immortalised in high-resolution on someone’s holiday photo with half a sandwich sticking out of my mouth.
After lunch I wander on into the trendy district of Jeanette, made up of small houses and cobbled streets. There are no pavements here, so house doors and living room windows look straight out into the street. It’s easy to see into people’s rooms, many stylishly put on show. It’s often not clear what’s a designer furniture shop and what’s someone’s home; or maybe it’s a shopfront selling a room concept. Most of the buildings are small and traditional, but some have modern additions tacked on, like a grey steel and glass balcony sticking out abruptly from the red bricks. These additions always make an expensive and smart impression, but you feel they’ve missed the point.
I stop to buy a packet of my favourite dutch treat, stroopwafels, from a small baker. Unable to resist I sit down by a canal on a small pontoon where a few others are sat drinking coffee and eat a few of the thin, chewy cinnamony waffles. Hanging my feet over the side, but not low enough to dip into the murky green water, I watch some pedalos slowly careering by; a teenage girl loudly complains that her craft only steers left, before she slowly and apologetically rams a parked canal boat head on.
Before I come to any profound conclusions from this relaxed scene I realise that it’s time for me to go and catch my next flight. Now I return to the Amsterdam I know, a place of yellow signs, harrying announcements and the bright crystalline displays of duty free spirits.