Over the last 18 months, we’ve obviously not had as many opportunities to travel. We had rescheduled our trips multiple times, sent cancellation emails and made lots of heartbreaking decisions about where to go and when. And so it was that with a hastily assembled trip to the Netherlands, we found ourselves once again in the Venice of the North: Amsterdam.
We’ve been to Amsterdam many times – visited in the summer for music festivals, in the winter for a chance to cool off from the Houston heat. We stopped on our way from visiting Antwerp and traveled to Paris via Amsterdam. And every time we go, there is a strange comfort in arriving in the city; perhaps because we have visited many times before, or perhaps because Amsterdam itself is oddly comforting.
It’s a casual place, not many high heels or designer dresses and handbags to be seen. Most of the locals are on bikes. Bikes, bikes, bikes everywhere! Bikes about to run you down in the street, bikes on the sidewalk, bikes being pulled out of the canals covered in muck. If you’re visiting, I would not advise riding a bike, as you’re more likely to end up in the canal than at your intended destination – the locals are ruthless in their riding. The canal houses are all lined up, standing tall and slightly crooked due to the land on which they are built. This slight lean gives the houses a friendliness, much less like soldiers lined up for inspection but rather, sort of like a group of friends with their arms about one another.
The draw of the canals is irresistible. The bridges crisscross over the water, festooned with flowers and bistro tables that have spilled out of the bistros, and restaurants filled with people drinking and laughing, enjoying the pleasant weather. Because Amsterdam can be unbearably cold for much of the year, the Dutch make the most of the warm days. Those who are fortunate enough to live close to the canals simply pull a table out onto the sidewalk in front of their house, and enjoy an impromptu dinner al fresco, with pedestrians having to step around these spontaneous gatherings that appear up and down the street on temperate nights.
This most recent trip to Amsterdam was subdued. The usual hullabaloo of the city was absent. Though the Netherlands lacks many of the COVID restrictions other countries have adopted, there were simply fewer tourists. The typically bustling and full streets around the canals were quiet, the outdoor tables more likely to be empty. The effect, though, was that we felt more like locals. Publicans and waitstaff were more likely to remember us, camaraderie was easier to establish. We weren’t forgettable faces in a long line of tourists; we became regulars over our two-week visit.
I am reminded again and again that this is the reason I first fell in love with travel: the feeling of belonging that can come upon you in an unfamiliar place. That realization that no matter the language or the place, people everywhere are basically the same. The world over, people love sitting outside in the sunshine. Pleasant weather puts all of us in a better mood. The best part of visiting anywhere is enjoying the moments you’re there, whether you’re in a foreign city or a park across the street from your own house.
So even though Amsterdam wasn’t our first choice, it was the perfect place. A reminder of why we seek out foreign places – that we’re all in this crazy pandemic world together, and that sometimes you don’t need a new city; just a familiar one and a new perspective.