A Gentleman and His Canal
On Amsterdam's Waterways, Going With The Flow of History, Art and Maybe Love

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Why not finish your book in my villa in Tuscany?" my British friend Annabelle said to me over cocktails in her London flat. Beside us, her Oxford friends traded quiet ironies in the queen's English. "We hate to board it up for fall," she continued, "and would love to house a writer." As I drained my gin and tonic down to its ice, I had to admit to myself that being a freelance has perks. Sure, there's no health insurance or 401(k). But one can occasionally benefit from such European aristocratic traditions as the sharing of second homes, off-season, with starving artists.

"It's in an Italian architecture magazine this month," Annabelle continued, as if the phrase "villa in Tuscany" lacked persuasive punch.

Tuscany was tempting, but I had an even more appealing option: a historic canal house in Amsterdam.

My Dutch friend, Jacques, had just offered me a room in his four-bedroom house "in Amsterdam." I wasn't so tactless as to ask: "So, which canal are you on?" But I imagined a handsome chap like Jacques on the Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal) or Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal) or even the city's first canal, the famous Herengracht, the Gentleman's Canal.

So I turned down Tuscany and headed to Amsterdam, thinking along the way how pleasant it would be if we could choose our own epoch. No one consulted me about being born into the age of global warming, weapons of mass destruction and product placement. If I could choose -- and travel indulges just this sort of escape-artistry -- Amsterdam's 17th-century Golden Age wouldn't be a bad option. I closed my eyes and imagined the view of the Gentleman's Canal from my classicist mansion, a de Hooch or Vermeer painting springing to life outside the window.

Alas, a single glance at Jacques's digs undermined my century-switching fantasy. He lived in a condo in an Amsterdam suburb called Almere. The 1970s functionality of the place screamed Munch, not Vermeer. And since Jacques had just moved in to the unfurnished place, I was relegated to a thin foam mattress on the floor.

What's more, I felt compelled to have Jacques's meals prepared when he returned from the office, leaving little time for the 1 1/2 -hour sojourn to the canals (inconveniently, by foot, bus, train and foot again). I did manage to make it in one day but took a wrong turn en route to the Gentleman's Canal and ended up lost in the alleys of De Wallen, the city's red-light district, amid male and female prostitutes, sex shops and museums dedicated to cannabis and carnality.

"Do you want to watch two people having sex?" a gruff Dutchman asked me in front of a peep-show entrance.

Okay, so I was curious. And it was only two euros. But I suppose I feel the same way about making love as I do about tennis: much better to play than to watch. "I have to get back to Almere," I told the man, gloomily, "to put Jacques's pot roast in the oven."

During dinner (unfortunately, in front of the TV), Jacques translated the evening news. Amsterdam, he said, is positioned for efficient insertion into the 21st-century Flat World, the level playing field promised by globalization. As he listed the enormous corporations headquartered in Amsterdam (Heineken International, the ING financial services company, Delta Lloyd Group, Philips), the 17th-century Golden Age seemed to vanish entirely. I'd traded Tuscany for this?

To escape the television and Jacques's smoking, I took an after-dinner walk through an Almere park that sprang from AutoCAD, the architectural software, with its concrete paths and monoculture of pines spaced precisely 30 feet apart. I was so awash in regret that I hardly noticed a car racing into the middle of the park, right toward me.

I spun around just as one of the ugliest men I've ever seen leapt out of the car and pointed at me, shouting a guttural word that could only translate as "Yooou!"

Two younger men and a 20-something woman jumped out as well. She pointed at me and exclaimed that -- yes! -- I'd done it. The three men charged.

I fled. After a quarter-mile, one of them tackled me. The others caught up and began kicking me in the ribs and skull. Protecting myself with my arms as best I could, I shouted: "I'm American!" Oops, wrong thing to say. The blows rained down even harder. Just as the lights and sirens arrived, I fainted.

I woke up later in a hospital bed, calming figures of authority leaning over me, a kind of Fisher-Price set come to life: doctor, nurse, policeman.

"They claim they mistook you for a thief," the doctor said.

"But they're in jail now," the policeman added, "and under Dutch law those drug addicts will have to pay you."

"How much?" I managed to eke out, mentally scanning my bruised body; amazingly, nothing was broken.

"Seven . . . " he started to say.

Well, go on, I thought. Seven thousand? Seventeen thousand? By gosh, I was feeling so much better.

"Seven hundred euros."

This anticlimactic sum reminded me of the scene in "Austin Powers" where Dr. Evil holds the world hostage for just $1 million. Still, the day's thuggery had a silver lining. Those 700 euros were my ticket to the Gentleman's Canal.

* * *

I used the little windfall and Craigslist to rent an apartment in a registered 17th-century canal house for a week. My Amsterdam address: 10 Herengracht.

Nearly as I'd dreamt it, my light-drenched living room's four slightly wavy glass windows overlooked the canal. Around the Golden Bend sat the homes of the city's historically richest residents, such as the De Neufville family at Herengracht 475, with its splendid facades, and Herengracht 466, designed by the well-known baroque architect Philips Vingboons.

An architect acquaintance (I'd met her a year before, in La Paz, Bolivia), the 30-year-old Mymza, came for a visit. Half Dutch and half Bolivian, Mymza is not only physically striking but also in possession of a charming blend of northern European exactness and Latin spontaneity.

When I opened the door, she exclaimed in Spanish, "¿Dios mio, que te pasó?" (My God, what happened to you?), as she gingerly caressed the bruise on my jaw. Then, looking past me, she added in English, "And how did you score something on the Gentleman's Canal?"

As I explained the connection between the bruise and the flat, she gawked over the splendor of it all. We sipped tea on my rear patio-deck, enjoying a hidden angle into Amsterdam's canal zone. The backs of the canal houses face into one another, so we spied into the lives of my well-heeled neighbors, their stuccoed ceilings and courtyard gardening. Finally, Mymza said: "I have a surprise for you."

It couldn't have been a better one: an old-fashioned black bike. Amsterdam has long been awash in bicycle culture, but with today's eco-consciousness, it boasts more than a half-million bikes, and ubiquitous racks and bike lanes.

As the days passed in the canal zone, my life increasingly resembled a 17th-century fairy tale. Mymza and I biked together alongside the girdle of concentric canals, ringing our handlebar bells just for the crisp sound of it. She'd often reach up to touch overhanging tree leaves as we passed by, a periodic connection with nature in the city. We'd stop, and she'd point out canal-house gable distinctions or indicate double-wide mansions with coach houses.

We biked to the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt one day and to the Stedelijk for Mondrian the next. Then we visited the city's most popular museum, the Van Gogh, designed by Gerrit Rietveld. "Look how van Gogh employs light," Mymza said in front of his famous sunflowers, which exploded in yellow, practically jumping off their canvas. The Van Gogh Museum is arranged chronologically, tracing the painter's tragic life, and we watched the skies darken in one of his last works, "Wheat Field With Crows," which conveys a bleak loneliness, perhaps a suicide note put to canvas. Van Gogh took his own life at age 37.

Each morning, I watched the light on the canal through the windows, and one day I felt inspired to paint it. I purchased oil paints and tried -- okay, I failed miserably -- to capture the water's milky gleam.

One evening Mymza, who dabbles in photography, looked at my attempts at painting and insisted we try something. Grabbing cameras and a bottle of cabernet, we made for the canal below. From a Herengracht dock, we took a hundred photos of the leap of moon- and street-lamp-light on the water. Art, it seemed, was so much more than form and color; it had to do with understanding light and its transitions.

I felt a transition in me: The line between tourist and I-live-here was starting to blur. I had a gorgeous apartment, albeit for only a week, a beat-up Dutch bike and even a favorite local hangout, a dimly lit cafe that I found so much more appealing than the crowded ones on Leidseplein. And while there was dope on the cafe menu, neither Mymza nor I would partake. Marijuana is overkill in a city so afloat in sensory experience: luxuriating over spicy Indonesian cuisine in canal-side bistros, the sound of October leaves crunching under my bike wheels. And then there's the friendly nature of the locals, best captured by the Dutch word "gezellig."

Gezellig could be translated as "cozy." I'd slipped out of the 21st century since I'd left dreadful Almere and cozied into an earlier era, one that I didn't really wish to leave.

Astride my bike in front of the canal house the next day, I lingered to chat with two of my Herengracht neighbors, a distinguished mid-50s couple, before biking alone out of the network of canals to the harbor. A strong, chilly wind blew in from the North Sea, and it seemed it might rain. I thought of Joseph Conrad's description of Amsterdam as seen from a boat in his 1906 "Mirror of the Sea." I gazed into the mirror of the sea, noticing the way it refracted the ash-gray sky, and I tried to view the light as Vermeer might have.

On my final night in the canal house, I held a dinner party. Jacques made it in from the distant condos of Almere. Another architect friend named Belle also showed up, along with some acquaintances of Mymza's.

At the end of the evening people were extending invitations. Wait a minute, I thought. I'm just passing through, right?

Mymza came up behind me and threaded her arms around my waist. She'd invited me to stay a while longer. In her flat.

Jacques's eyes met mine, and he laughed, a very gezellig guffaw, and I knew why: In a week he'd watched me go from pauper in Almere to Golden Age prince in Amsterdam. I'd slaved in Jacques's kitchen and suffered blows, but in the end stumbled into money, muse and maybe even love. "My friend," he said, the Gentleman's Canal glazed with sparking lamplight below, "you've been Amsterdamed."

William Powers is author, most recently, of "Whispering in the Giant's Ear: A Frontline Chronicle From Bolivia's War on Globalization" (Bloomsbury/Macmillan). He last wrote for Travel about the hot springs of New Mexico.

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