Netherlands – How We Saw Amsterdam

But Holland, North and South, is not all ideal, and with so many illusory joys there is plenty of lasting disenchantment. Broek in Waterland, for instance. De Amicis made it such a subject for jest and caricature, that I had a great desire to see for myself and enjoy the fun he has so generously provided.

On our arrival at Amsterdam, James found a letter from the Captain telling him he would be with us on the afternoon of the following day, and a cablegram from Ben Hardon which announced that young man’s intention to be with us a day after the arrival of the next Rotterdam steamer. I made no comments when James read these communications, for the reason that I was revolving certain matters of importance’ in my mind: I wanted to be alone for a part of a day to think certain things over — by “things” I mean, in this case, not boats but “girls.” At least, I call Cousin Lou a girl although she is forty if she is a day. I must add, not to be what James calls “woman-mean,” that she doesn’t look over thirty-two; Lois, her niece, is twenty, and James’ second cousin. They, too, had announced their intention of spending several weeks with me, having caught my enthusiasm and accepted an invitation I had given them in the winter when I did feel a little lonely at times, James was so absorbed in his work. I had not as yet imparted this news to James; but I had given several strong hints, hoping and expecting he would ask me to unfold my “tale.” But he didn’t!

I wanted, moreover, to see Broek in Waterland; and I wanted to go there alone, for I had a woman’s sneaking joy in the fact that if I were alone I might find some bargains in old brass and silver in a small place remote from vitiating city Abrahams. As James can’t abide bargains of any kind, I knew I should have no peace of mind if he were with me; so I told him I wanted to verify some of De Amicis’ statements, now that a generation had passed since they were made, and would take the time while he was attending to some special business of his own.

“By all means, go and verify the statements,” he said, with what seemed to me such unnecessary earnestness that I could but wonder if he, too, had something up his sleeve. There was a queer, now-what-are-you-up-to look in his gray-blue eyes that made me feel rather mean after all.

“Don’t get yourself lost in Waterland, and be back in time for the Captain at four,” he said, as he put me on the ferry for the steamtram, “for I want to get out of this hole by tomorrow morning.”

This hole! Amsterdam, the Northern Venice; Amsterdam, the Queen City of the North; Amsterdam, this hole! I knew something had gone wrong, and felt sure it was the environment rubbing him the wrong way after that perfect Yesterday. Nor could I blame him.

Amsterdam is unkempt, dirty, crowded, rushing, unsightly in spots, smelly, commercial in spirit and mercantile to the very mud of its canals. The elbowing crowds in Kalver Street, the go-as-you-please-life of Warmoes Street, the barren Dam, and Damrak robbed of all picturesqueness since its filling-in, the poor new Bourse, a cross between an American railway station and an Italian warehouse, all disenchant one. Its old churches, seen near at hand, are as lacking in dignity as a moth-eaten buffalo robe, an appearance which the brick walls have gained through time and neglect. The old Weigh House, or St. Anthony’s. Gate, is stranded high and dry in the midst of much city rubbish. This is owing to the filling-in of the canal that faced it — a process which is going on in all the principal cities and towns of the Netherlands. It is destined within a few years to rob them of their individuality. The clang and rush of electrics and automobiles, the great deserts of approach to the museums, the lovely Vondel Park backed by docks and the general dumping grounds for the filthy contents of the dredge that, apparently and of necessity, works day and night—all this destroys illusion. The stench from these last is comparable to that of the mud flats in the old Back Bay lagoon in Boston when the tide was out, and the Milldam an incubator for cholera germs.

I do not exaggerate: viewed from its streets one sees little or nothing of the Amsterdam that painters have loved. It is far from attractive. I might say it is repulsive, as its own people confess, and confirm their opinion by action, for they flee from the city whenever possible. The well-known saying, that the merchants of Amster-dam and Rotterdam make their fortunes in those cities to spend them in The Hague has become an axiomatic truth.

I have said “viewed from its streets” Amsterdam is not attractive; but I know that its fascinating charm can be greater than that of any other city, not excepting Venice itself; only it is the result of a different point of view. There is only one way in which to see Amsterdam as the queen city of the North, as the inspiration of poet-painters, and that way we took on the Captain’s arrival and my return from Broek in Waterland to which I have been too long in coming — but the steam-tram was slow.

The country was deadly uninteresting, and I agreed with an Englishman, who ventured the remark to another of his nationality in the tram, that Holland is very flat! Decidedly so in Waterland. I found Broek across the steamtram tracks — a small village with a bridge, a tiny haven near the old-new church which, like many another of its contemporaries, has been through the fiery furnace as well as half drowned by floods. There is nothing distinctive about the place. I saw one cat, three men and two women while I was there, and, of these, all but the cat were in their homes.

I am an ardent admirer of Noord-Holland, a pamphlet-book I could wish every American intending to travel in Holland might possess. It is written in English by a Dutchman, and Mark Twain and Artemus Ward combined would fail to bring as many tears of mirth to my eyes as that innocent book has unintentionally succeeded in bringing. I have wept over the intense literary and patriotic earnestness that has produced for a result-ant so much mirth-provoking and rib-tickling English expression of Dutch sentiment.

In hunting about this church to verify one of Noord-Holland’s remarkable statements, I came across a stained window to see which was worth the tiresome steam-tram journey thither. It is like a pink-tipped daisy flowering in spring, the background is so pure a white, the tracery of pink and red so fresh and fair and delicate. It produced the effect of something blossoming white, yet radiant, in the dark church.

I visited a farmhouse, domicile, stable, cheese-factory all under one roof. The front hall led into the cow stalls. Evidently there had been no spring cleaning, for the proverbial Dutch cleanliness was wanting. Not a cow’s tail even was tied up. Another image-breaker! But the many Holstein calves were splendid specimens of calfhood, and the noble Holstein mothers worthy of their offspring.

But of the Broek that De Amicis described, not a vestige remains. The coloring throughout the village is neutrally quiet; indeed, in all the Netherlands I saw but one house the lower half of which was painted blue, and only three trees. This had evidently been done for some protection against ravaging worm or insect, as we whitewash ours. The Broek gardens were anything but grotesque, and the people must have been industriously quiet, or taking their ease as a leisure folk, for I saw nothing of them. Possibly a house near the entrance to the village is that to which De Amicis devotes more than one of his charming pages. It is a curiosity shop whose contents — I strongly suspect — are renewed yearly to meet the demands of tourist trade. I know of one insignificant American fly who, attracted by the charming exterior, hastened to accept the kindly invitation pressed upon her by a knowing Dutch spider. He made his opportune and amiable appearance as the said American fly had alighted with longing at his gate.

Somehow I persuaded myself that this special invitation was a flattering tribute to my feminine American personality, but I was quickly undeceived. I found that unnumbered thousands, from Napoleon the Great backwards to Peter the Great, and forward to all the Greats of the present generation, had received the same.

An iconoclastic place this Broek in Waterland proved to be! However, I was given the freedom of the house and for an hour revelled — doubtless Peter the Great, Napoleon and Co. had done the same — in the charming old Dutch rooms and their countless treasures. When I took my leave of it and Broek, I was loaded down with brass that I was assured was the “real antique”: a coffee-pot with heater some two hundred years old,-two Dutch lamps — of such unworthy name, I name them not! — contemporary I judge with the generation succeeding Metsu and Dou, and a flower-pot that might have passed through the siege of Leyden. I compared these treasures with the old turf-pot I had purchased at the auction in The Hague, and that seemed hopelessly new in comparison. I fairly gloated over the number of centuries, about eight as I calculated, I was carrying back to Amsterdam and James. My pride of possessor swelled to reprehensible dimensions at the joyful prospect of displaying them to his astonished eyes. Not a sign was wanting to assure me that my antiques were veritable antiquities.

“Stick to the water if you want to see Holland at its best, and Amsterdam above all,” were the Captain’s first words after our greetings were over as we sat in the restaurant of Polish name on Warmoes Straat, lingering over our coffee. “I can show you something so fine that you will search long before you find its equal, that is, if you will give me the pleasure,” he said with that winning straightforwardness which captivated James and me from our first meeting with him.

We gave him that pleasure with such alacrity that he half suspected the truth: we were tired of Amsterdam. While he and James were off to the Prins Hendrik Quay, where I promised to meet them in an hour and a half, I went up to the Ryks Museum for the sake of having one more look at Rembrandt’s Stone Bridge. If I never see it again I shall carry with me to the end the effect of that expression of translated light that is diffused over the small canvas and transfuses every object on it. It is the wondrous light of a new birth — whether of a storm-cloud, or of a new day, I do not know. But I have seen it before in nature, and I know that it is as wholly real as it is ideal. I know, moreover, that I realized something of its glory during the hours in which, from a large motor boat, we, for the first time, really saw Amsterdams Amsterdam just at sunset, when the trans-fusing haze lends to the perspective of the canals the illusion of realized ideals.

Amsterdam in form is like the half of a spider’s web. The concentric rings of its great canals are connected at right angles with countless smaller canals. Hence at every angle of the broken curve there is afforded, from the water, vistas that are always beautiful and picturesque and, in some instances, grand.

We entered the broad curving reaches of the Heeren Gracht, this Canal of the Nobles tells the character of its houses two hundred years ago. Along the whole way the early spring foliage traced its tender freshness in delicate line and stipple against the blackened façades of the seemingly never-ending rows of houses. We came at last into the water-boulevard of the Inner Amstel, and passed out through its black flood gates into the magnificent blue expanse of the Outer Amstel. On and on we sped, beneath arches of ever-lengthening stone bridges, till the sun sank in a flaming irruption of orange mist that, mounting suddenly almost to the horizon, burnished for a few minutes the waters of the Amstel to bronze and intensified every touch of green in dyke and tree and river craft. It faded as suddenly, leaving the great water way flowing cool, dark, blue towards the east and the full rising moon.

We brought about then, and slowly, very slowly, that the illusion might be ours to the end, we made our way back into the inner waters of the Amstel. As the moon rose higher and the daylight began to fade, the façades of the warehouses darkened perceptibly, and the white bands about windows and doors showed like a ghostly handwriting along the walls of the narrowing roadstead. As its beams touched the darkening waters into brilliancy we passed from the great curve of the Amstel Within, from which one may see the city’s towers and steeples rise by twos and threes against the sky, to the black narrow way of the Zwanenburgwal. We sailed on in silence beneath its dismal arches where the sound of traffic was not heard, and only the chug-chug of the motor and the splash of dripping water made themselves audible. We passed coal barges blacker than our surroundings, passed floating junk shops — kofs laden with old iron and other city waste. We sailed on past crooked lanes of canals wholly shadowed by the coming night and the leaning gables of the old houses, and so on into the Jews’ quarters and remembrance of The Miller’s Son. Here it was that we found certain painted moods of Rembrandt van Ryn. It was here we found the key to some of his marvellous light, and the shadow that, in Rembrandt’s art, is the metamorphosis of light. At last we were seeing something of Rembrandt’s Amsterdam: the Water Ghetto that grew noisy as the dusk deepened and became harsh with cries and calls.

We left it for the broad, silvered pathway of the Oude Schans. On our left the Tower of Montalban, be-loved of artists, stood out against the pale night, trans-figured by the moonlight into a thing of beauty as it is always a thing of grace. On, still on, we sailed to the open harbor where the forest of masts showed like a spider’s web against the clear west, and the ancient Tower of Tears reminded us that this was no scenic setting arranged for a traveller’s esthetic enjoyment, but a real world-stage whereon generation after generation has played its part in the Tragedy of Life, and human prayers, human tears, human hearts and human heartaches have followed those that go down to the sea in ships.

Afterwards we entered the city again to explore the water way of the Oude Zÿds Voorburgwal and pass beneath the shadows of the Oude Kerk. We crossed the brilliant Rokin, the narrow strait of the Groeneburgwal, and took in the whole length of the Kloviniersburgwal from which one has a lovely view of the steeple of the Zuider Kerk, or South Church, part Moorish, part Italian, part Dutch, part Spanish; and just there we heard the play of its good-night chimes.

So we saw Amsterdam. So it should always be seen; for only so can one realize its full charm.