So I went to… Amsterdam


Ciara said it was thirty years since we’ve been but I can’t believe it’s been that long. That would make it 1986. I think closer to 1991 or 1992 which is still twenty five years.

Unbelievable. To think I’ve passed through Schiphol Airport so many times since and even Schiphol Train Station, on my way to Breda, or Nijmegen, or Delft or Rotterdam, or the many other Dutch and Belgian cities in which I’ve worked.

Anyway, when we got off the train in Amsterdam Central Station there were two young women on the platform with signs that said: “Syrian refugees, you are welcome. We can help you.” And the same message below in Arabic. And I thought, wow, so this is the new Europe. And what a way for young Dutch women to spend a Thursday evening.

Then, after dinner we went walking around the hotel and it was snowing and lovely and sharp and cold. On Spuistraat, a mostly residential street, I noticed those long neon red lights at windows in the distance, and my heart sank. And sure enough, inside two of the windows sat young women in high heels and underwear selling their bodies for money. A different way to spend a Thursday night.

So much has changed, but so much stays the same.

And I know, I know the arguments on both sides. It’s so much better to make prostitution and drugs legal to take it out of the underground and away from the criminals and to control it and regulate it. And, of course, those women can do whatever they want with their own bodies, and as long as they are not being coerced or trafficked or whatever that’s fine. And the same with the drugs – we walked past coffee shops with kids wasted inside and that’s their choice. But the gangs of doped up and drunk men around the Oude Kirk on Saturday night was not pleasant. And the fact that the Dutch have made a tourist industry out of it says how pragmatic they can be.

Or perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps those were just young men having a harmless night out and a weekend away. Or maybe it’s that I just don’t want to witness it. With my middle-aged, middle-class sensitivity, I’d prefer if it all happened behind closed doors and away from my delicate sensibilities. And that’s the amazing diversity of Amsterdam. Of The Netherlands in general. The social contract, the environmental awareness, the directness, the openness, the behavioural freedom allowed to its citizens (and its tourists), the high value of money.

Anyway we had a great weekend, the highlights of which were, as usual, sitting by a window watching, as my father used to call it, the passing parade. Preferably by a canal. Listening in on conversations, many of which are in English. Sipping a coffee or a beer and just looking at the people going by. The amount of cycling is a wonder to behold and the Dutch never cease to amaze me – that they can keep their cool, and make all the bikes work, while still conforming to their great Protestant work ethic and drive for success.

Because it’s not the scenery, or art, or architecture or food, or waterways that make a city what it is and so interesting – it’s the people. And the Dutch are. Soo interesting. So tall and attractive and composed and calm and polite and in control. So young, or so it seemed to me. And so erect on their high-nellied bikes, up and down the cobbles, going so fast. With loads of all kinds on board (including children), on phones, with umbrellas keeping them dry, in suits, in mini-skirts, in coats – all with one thing in common. Not a helmet between them.

Jordaan and the Western canals are our favourite areas. Residential and with some cool retail, with some old local bars and cafes. And we had a grand cheap dinner in one, near the door with a great view of all the comings and goings of the locals. Speculating. And, although the following night we went upmarket and ate haute cuisine, the dinner in the local café was more interesting and perhaps more satisfying.


The Rijksmuseum is open again after a few years of renovation and that was a great treat. The stillness of the Vermeers, the great shade and light and scale of the Rembrants. And there was a Munch/Van Gogh exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum and we made the last day of it. And it was so moving, I was close to tears at times. I’ve not seen much Munch close-up before but it was riveting and I could feel my heart beating faster and faster as I made the way around it. It is a rare and great humbling privilege to be in the presence of such insight into the human condition and the articulation of such suffering.

The canals are a thing of wonder. We spent an hour one night on the water looking at the light exhibition and the expensive houses. And water does something. I’ll have to come back to it, but it does. It quietens and slows things down to start with. It facilitates easy contemplation. Which is just what you want on a city break. At least I do.

Oh, and I took far too many photos, which are here, if you’re inclined.


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times,, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.



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