Born in Amsterdam fills me with pride every time I get back to my home town. I realized this first in Paris where I studied in 1964 and heard Jacques Brel singing, for the first time, “Dans le Port d’Amsterdam”, in the famous Olympia Hall. A song about sailors eating, drinking, burping, and having fun with Amsterdam’s fabulous women of pleasure that today draw even schoolgirls from Japan under tight escort to their splendid vitrines. Perhaps to tell them what they should not be doing, or what their boyfriends/husbands pilots and sailors might be doing when landing in Amsterdam Port or Schiphol.Extending to a roaring climax, the song tore my heart apart. But was that Amsterdam? I had more romantic visions.
The River Amstel in fog, as painted by my nephew, Dutch painter, Michiel Kranendonk
or a sunlit bridge over an Amsterdam canal on a quiet Sunday morning, also painted by Michiel,
or the first visit to Amsterdam by Queen Elisabeth in 1958 that I pictured with a prehistoric camera.
after which I dropped by a dear school friend, who lived in a turret of a canal house along Prinsen Gracht (Princes’ Canal). I remember dropping a bag full of fried rice out of his window because what he served me was inedible and it fell on the head of an innocent person strolling along the canal on his evening walk. We checked and miraculously he survived, even though with a headache.
Not long thereafter I attended the Matheus Passion at the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam’s famous Concert Hall) with my mother and we walked along the Rijksmuseum ( in the back of the picture) and Jan Luikenstraat 2 where I was born. A moment I won’t forget.
It was said that Jacques Brel did not like Amsterdam. As he was from Belgium, the other “lowland”south of the Dutch border, this didn’t surprise me. It must have been in-born jealousy, as Antwerp – a port city I like very much by the way – could never match Amsterdam port city despite all its efforts. But I loved Jacques Brel’s songs.
Amsterdam is ubiquitous in the World. In Paris there is Rue d’Amsterdam, linking it with Gare St. Lazar, and the best French cheese shop (Androuet) in town.
New York was New Amsterdam, as everyone knows. The Dutch were there first.
And there are 16 towns in the USA with the name of Amsterdam. If we had not lost one of those many sea battles with the Perfidious Albion, New York would still have been New Amsterdam. Wall Street would have been Dijk Straat or “Dike Street” and Yankee would have been “Jan Kees”. Both British Guyana and Dutch Suriname in Caribbean South America were once Dutch colonies. Both have a town named New Amsterdam. In New Amsterdam in Guyana, which the Dutch got in return for New York (what a deal!) before the British stole it back again, I have never seen so many mosquitoes in my life. I had to shave myself dancing to avoid being bitten by swarms of these bloodsucking insects. New Amsterdam in Suriname wasn’t much better.
No, there is nothing more comforting than my old Amsterdam. Jules B. Barber, an American author, writes in his “Amsterdam” of 1975: “Amsterdam is a charming, dynamic, hustling, tolerant, greedy, seedy, beautiful, enlightened, socially oriented politically eruptive, warm, welcoming, “gezellig” (cozy), schizophrenic kind of place. It’s eternally young at heart despite its 700 years.” That’s all true. From Google images under “Amsterdam in Paris” I borrow a few pics that represent the sense of the city.
This is Amsterdam.
Central Station at night as I pictured it from Hotel Victoria across the station.
A city of eternal youth, especially if you are over 70. Yet it is also the only place in the world where I was robbed three times of my travel bags. Multiculturalism has its charms and dissonants. Oh well, we “Amsterdammers” are “tolerant” (they say).
Next week when I am in Holland, Born in Amsterdam II.
When I visit ruins, I get the feeling that when you have seen one, you have seen them all: pieces of columns, crumbling walls, broken stones and wounded faces. The eerie realization of civilizations gone. But when I entered the archeological site of Baalbek in Lebanon, about two hours from Beirut close to the Syrian border, I was blown away. How could those Romans carve such huge stones from a quarry about a small mile away and transport them over uneven terrain to this site to build their temples? And lift them one by one upon each other to construct their towering columns? What equipment did they use? Even today’s big cranes would have trouble carrying that out with the perfection the Romans did. Just take a look:
Temple of Jupiter
Nobody could give me a good answer and subsequent research only delivered theories. Romans used slaves as workers but they had remarkable engineers who operated giant wheels and lifting equipment (as can be seen from the holes in the stones that served as grips) to get their stones in place, but much remains a mystery. And much is still standing tall despite continuous
wars and even a heavy earthquake in 1795.
It is often said that the Roman Empire crumbled due to declining morals, corruption and infighting. As a political system perhaps. However, when you stare at this power and glamorous art, its civilization is still very much alive. It bloomed on through medieval times and produced the best builders, composers, painters and musicians, furniture and car designers we enjoy today. I stood in awe of what they were able to achieve two thousand years ago and before. Sure, we have built cathedrals and temples, too and when you travel in India, Persians, Mongolians and Indians achieved similar miracles as well around the same time, without knowing that we were building, too. As a development economist assisting Middle-Eastern countries in the several millennia old Levant, you wonder where it all got stuck. Differing religions? Internal strife? Looking back rather than looking forward? Tribal differences? Too many invaders (Phoenicians, Persians, Romans) and whoever followed after that? It is not a matter of intelligence. Men and women are very smart and many are well-educated. Surrounded by the Roman might, I felt quite humble, unable to arrive at a judgement.
Temple of Bacchus
How would I lift those tons of stone two thousand years ago?
Back in the real world of Beirut, West and Middle-East are meshed together in a web of contrasting and conflicting spheres. I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend it, but you eat there very well from multiple cultural recipes that make your mouth water and forget all the unrest.
Lebanon is a beautiful country held together by impenetrable differences and regional meddling and that seems to have been that way for thousands of years. I felt uneasy in Beirut and much more at ease in Amman.
The famous 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia, came back to mind when I approached the desert Wadi Rum in Jordan, where much of the film was shot. “Vast, echoing and God-like”, he would have said. I had negotiated with my taxi driver to take me there on the way to the airport at Aqaba, traveling from Petra. Wadi Rum is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a wonderful desert of silence and sandstone mountains rising up from the dust in a mellow orange color.
Unfortunately, a sandstorm was brewing and we had to turn around and flee the area with great speed. The land around us already began to look like dust was flying everywhere.
Speeding to Aqaba airport had its amusing intermezzo: Cars on the parallel double highway going in the opposite direction (Jordan has excellent roads) were flashing their lights. Cops were checking on speeders. What else to do if you are fleeing a sandstorm and must catch the airplane before it gets grounded? And yes, there he was, black clad, handsome like Omar Sherif, huddling on his knees along the highway, a minuscule figure in the boundless landscape, targeting his radar gun at us. My driver slowed down just in time, we thought. He wanted to speed up again once he had passed the officer, but then we noticed the police car a bit farther down, waiting to chase after us to give us a ticket. I was able to talk my way out of it, saying I needed to catch a plane before the storm would hit us, for an “important international meeting in Amman”. The driver crossed himself (he was a Christian), feeling lucky. At the time of Lawrence of Arabia, they rode camels and horses here.
It was very windy at Aqaba airport. As soon as we had checked in, the pilot of Royal Jordanian left hastily in a very steep climb, as the Wadi Rum was right in the middle of the flight path to Amman.
After a week of hard work in Amman, reviewing the status of World Bank financed projects, a colleague and I went to visit As-Salt, a charming old town in a mountainous area, about one and a half hour drive. It could have been Northern Italy or the French Provence. Its historic sites had just been renovated in a World Bank financed project.
We mounted 200 solid carved steps to get an oversight view of the town. Stray cats had made their home on some of the landings. The view was spectacular, but climbing that high had seriously taxed our blathers. What to do? Jordan towns are not very liberal with public restrooms and Amman was at least one hour away. A most grueling situation.
Sunset was approaching but luckily we found our driver down at the town center and he pointed to a public place for ladies and gens hidden behind the market: built with the World Bank money. Good grief, what a relief!
It’s behind the clock somewhere. If there was ever a World Bank project that I found useful, it was this one.
On the road to Petra from the Dead Sea, with the shocked French lady still in my mind, I passed through Jordan’s rocky and scarce arable land. Olive trees spotted the deep valleys. We stopped at a scenic overview near Shobak to take pictures. To get the desired background, I stood so close to a ravine that my friends yelled “John, don’t, you’ll fall!” It surely looked like that on the picture:
Arriving in Petra, I quickly checked into the Moewenpick Hotel and walked to the prehistoric Petra site. On the dusty access road, a stunningly beautiful black Arabian horse said “hello” to me. As I am from a family of horseback riders and breeders, I patted the horse and a voice said, “I’m Mike”. A Bedouin boy, wearing a large black cape and red-check keffiyeh came from behind it. It was he who’d had spoken for the horse. Ahmed was his name. His English was minimal and I don’t know Arabic, but he understood my instant silly desire to ride Mike and we agreed on a price in Jordanian Dinars.
Before seeing Petra, I wanted to mount the rocky mountains and see it from above to have some oversight. Climbing the rocks would not be easy, but Ahmed said Mike did that all the time, so I shouldn’t have any problems. This, I should not have done. Midway uphill, the saddle began to shift because the horse’s girth underneath his belly wasn’t tightened enough. With my weight leaning left, Mike could not keep his balance while climbing the rocks and fell on his side, with me lying half under him. Doing this on a 45 degree angle, with hard rocks poking in my left and heavy Mike scurrying his legs in the air on my right, was not an ideal position. Ahmed had stumbled up the hill behind us and reached Mike to help him back on his hoofs. I also struggled back up, dusted off my pants, thinking hard about how to mount a horse on a 45 degree angle. I helped Ahmed fix the girth, looked for a big rock to stand on, and pulled Mike uphill to the rock, and climbed on it to get back in the saddle. I’m still not sure how, but we made it to the top. From there I had a splendid view of the conglomerate of rocks with holes carved into it, where the inhabitants, the Nabateans, used to live.
A women dressed in black garb offered me a welcome warm tea cooked on a stove in a hole in the rocks where she lived with her family. I could not take her picture as “her husband would kill her if I did.”
As I had lost time with the horse ride, it became clear I could not see Petra that same day. We took Mike down the hill, and I galloped to the exit – like the Bedouin riders did – eyed after in awe by tourists – with Ahmed hollering loudly behind me, jumped off and gave Mike a big pat on the neck. I had to get my suitcase out of the car before my friends drove off to Aqaba at the Red Sea where they had a retreat and I was not needed. I barely made it, as the car was about to leave.
The next day I visited Petra starting early in the morning. It was one of the most inspiring historical sites I have ever seen. The Nabatean society, which inhabited this area between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. must have been a class by themselves. They excavated their buildings, temples, tombs and living quarters from the rocks that remained their natural protection and obtained water from sources through elaborate supply systems that are still in tact today.
This space is too limited to show many pictures but a small selection follows.
Next time: driving ahead of a sand storm.