A Gentleman and His Canal
On Amsterdam's Waterways, Going With The Flow of History, Art and Maybe Love
Sunday, January 25, 2009; Page P01
"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!"