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.
Why I am writing?
To join a masterful Great-Uncle, Joseph M.W. van der Poorten-Schwartz (1858-1915), a Dutchman who wrote bestsellers in the English language one hundred years ago, most of them under the pseudonym “Maarten Maartens.”
His 20 odd books are all stored in the Library of Congress (see picture below) and were widely read in the USA, England and Germany.
Even though born in Amsterdam, Joseph wrote in English because he spent his early youth in London where his father, Carl August Ferdinand Schwartz – my great-grandfather – was appointed reverend of the Free Church of Scotland. English became Joseph’s second language.
Maarten Maartens’s novels were popular in the USA and England because they dealt with “the psychological and moral questions of conscience…as at the time there was a growing tendency to devote attention to the psychological problem play and novel” (quoted from Hendrik Breuls in his Doctoral Thesis “Author in Double Exile, The Literary Appreciation of Maarten Maartens” – 1985, later completed as his 2005 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Dresden, Germany, entitled “A comparative Evaluation of Selected Prose by Maarten Maartens”). Maarten Maartens is especially known for his sharp characterizations and caricatures of certain professions.
Hendrik Breuls starts his 1985 thesis with one of many worthy Maarten Maartens quotes, which are as good a perception of the needed writing skill as we find in today’s essays on good writing: “If you want to be heard by your own generation” (and that is his, one hundred years ago) “never say in three words what you can say in six, and if you want to be listened to by all future generations, never say in six words what you can say in three.”
Uncle Joe made tons of money from his books and built a huge mansion for himself, his wife and one daughter in a wooded area near Utrecht, not far from Amsterdam, baptized “De Zonheuvel” (The Sunny Hill). A nephew of mine, Michiel Kranendonk, a currently renowned Dutch painter in Holland whose mother is Marie Kranendonk-Schwartz, created a mural painting of the “Maarten Maartens House” in the hall (see partial picture below). At the back of the house featured a meticulously maintained “French Garden” with remembrances of the Chateau “Versailles”. The house is currently a Foundation and occupied by the Institute “Slotemaker de Bruine Institute” (SBI).
In 2015, Maarten Maartens’ one hundred year anniversary will be remembered to revive interest in the works of this forgotten prolific author.
More on this – and on painter Michiel Kranendonk – in a future Blog.