The best substitute…

A stroll around the narrow streets and canals of Amsterdam is a wonderful lesson in civil liberties. Tolerance is a way of life, reflecting the centuries of easy-going Dutch men and women who accepted the arrival of the Jewish people, fleeing the horrors of Iberia, over five hundred years ago. The India Road tells of the Spanish maniac Torquemada, and of how the persecuted Jews fled to Portugal from Cadiz in the summer of 1492, forcing Columbus to sail from Palos in his misguided journey to Cipango.

Only five years later the new king of Portugal, Dom Manuel, made the same mistake, besotted in his love for his niece by marriage, Isabel of Castille. And into diaspora fled the sephardis, families with names like Mesquita, Espinoza… they escaped to the Ghetto of Venice, but mainly to the squares of Antwerp and Amsterdam, and later to the dreamlands of the Indies of Columbus, the wealth and freedom of the island of Manhattan.

Amsterdam offers you beauty, culture, sex, drugs, rain, flowers, diamonds, and aims bicycles at you from every direction. The airport is a marvel of Dutch practicality, with no terminals, no rent-a-car shuttles, a built-in train station, and a comfortable environment. It’s the only airport in the world that I actually like, although in the departure area of Qingdao airport you can marvel at the sounds of a live string quartet. Schiphol is a major hub, an amazing achievement for a city of three quarters of a million souls, and it puts all other airports in Europe and America to shame. Holland is theoretically underwater, and the fact that it’s inhabited at all is a tribute to local ingenuity. If the Dutch lived in Portugal, it would be the California of Europe, and if the Portuguese inhabited the Netherlands we’d  all have drowned years ago.

Of course not everything is roses (or tulips): the pragmatism extends to food, which serves merely for ensuring that essential nutritional groups are supplied. Good it ain’t. A US friend of mine, who dispenses scathing prose and exclamation marks like a man possessed, wrote me:

“Of course the food is lousy! It’s northern Europe! Potatoes and beets! Peet and mold soufflé!”

I think he meant peat, but  he’s right. There is a theory, substantiated by wine lists and culinary analysis, that civilization ends at the northern limit of the Roman Empire, a line that goes roughly through the city of Liège in Belgium. What is most remarkable about the Netherlands is the fact that it sells so much stuff that it doesn’t make or even like. And surely Jewish entrepreneurs have accounted for much of that through the ages. Fish is rarely eaten, but there is a large and enthusiastic fishery, including herring (delicious when you can find it), and oysters and mussels, which are grown in Zeeland and sold on to the French and the Belgians. When confronted with mussels on an Amsterdam menu, I’m told they are not in season – oh phooey! Just pop down the road to Chez Leon in Brussels, and you’ll see whole pots of them storming out the kitchen, steamed in garlic, in wine, with celery… And I do mean pop! Someone once told me that the reason the Dutch and Belgians don’t mark distances on freeway signs is so other people don’t find out how small the country is.

The bulbs, the dope, the diamonds, it all comes from outside, and transits through this little square rescued from submersion. The freedom attracts hordes of young people, mesmerized by the dancing fireflies of coffee houses, sex shops and girls in windows, fast food and fast life. Amsterdam is the permissive grandparent, casting a forgiving eye on irrelevant sins, not the yoke of the stern father, scolding and forbidding. In a roadside stall, a piece of Delft pottery bears a simple message: the best substitute for brains is silence!

There are a few good towns in the world, and this is one of ’em.


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