Thursday, July 27, 2017

Falling into Amsterdam

We were in the Red Light district, or at least we crossed through it on our way from the Hermitage Amsterdam to the shopping district along Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. We did not make it to Zeedijk, where supposedly the Mexico City bar used to be located. The Mexico City bar is one of the settings of Albert Camus' novella The Fall. Before Mighty Reader and I truckled off to Amsterdam, I wanted to read a novel set in that fair city, and as it happens the only such novel we had in the house was The Fall, which I'd read way back in the 1980s and remembered very poorly, as it turned out.

Camus' Amsterdam is not the Amsterdam I visited. Camus' Amsterdam is dark, seedy, foggy and claustrophobic like Dostoyevsky's Petersburg in Notes From Underground; Camus lets the nested half-circles of Amsterdam's canals stand in for the circles of Hell out of Dante's Inferno. Everybody knows that image already, but I tell you anyway. The Amsterdam we trammed, walked, and bicycled through was a clean, bright, vibrant city of life. Except for the exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam, which was a clean, bright, depressing exhibition of murder and repression. Thanks, Putin. I digress, to the surprise of nobody.

When I was a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I learned in a history class that Amsterdam was built at the mouth of the Amstel river, where it emptied into the Zuider Zee. I have remembered "Zuider Zee" all these decades, possibly only because it's such a swell couple of words. But as soon as Mighty Reader and I decided to visit Amsterdam, I looked forward to standing on a dike and looking out on the gray fogs of the Zuider Zee. I did not know that the Zuider Zee no longer exists. In the 1930s, the citizens of Amsterdam (or maybe the Dutch government; I'm hazy on facts) decided to build a couple of dikes to separate the Zuider Zee from the North Atlantic, and they also reclaimed a tremendous portion of the lower Zee, creating a new territory known as Flevoland. Flevoland fills in the southernmost third of the former Zuider Zee. This was a disappointment to me, but likely the residents of Amsterdam and Flevoland are happy about it. After all, most of the Netherlands (or at least of North Holland) is reclaimed land, just like Flevoland. I continue to digress. But I'm pretty sure Flevoland did not exist when Camus visited Amsterdam, and it is not present in the fictional Amsterdam of The Fall. (I believe--though I can't find my source for it now--that Camus was in Amsterdam in the 1930s, and The Fall is set in the 1950s, which means that most of the reclamation of land in the Zuider Zee happened after Camus saw the place. There is also the theory that Camus deliberately has his narrator describe an Amsterdam, a North Holland, that is at odds with the real world of the 1950s in which he lives. Maybe, I say. The narrator is a liar, or he believes different truths than are on display to the rest of us.)

The bar Mexico City no longer exists, either. Apparently there is a monument or something on Zeedijk, and quotations from the novel are among the graffiti along the canal (maybe the Geldersekade) near the monument. Like I say, we didn't make it to that part of town. Our short jaunt crossways through the Red Light district was enough for me. Yes, prostitutes standing in their underwear behind plate glass windows, inches away from the foot traffic. Yes, sex shops, peep shows, wee XXX cinemas, etc. I was transported via my memory back to Times Square in the 1980s (I vividly recall a man handing out coupons in front of a basement-level theater, calling out "Naked women, gentlemen! Naked women!" Old New York, now only a dream). Amsterdam's Red Light district is also the home to a surprising number of restaurants selling Argentinian beef.

From the point of land north of the village of Marken, which we reached via ferry and then bicycle, one can stand at the gate barring the path to the light house and look out over what used to be the midsection of the Zuider Zee, and even on a sunny day the water is gray, or gray blue, but quite pretty, almost the pearly gray found inside fresh oyster shells. Fishing schooners sailed past in the middle distance, their red and orange sheets blown taut by the light wind. Eurasian oyster catchers poked about in the pale fine sand. The waves were gentle and slow. Camus' Jean-Baptiste should've gotten out of the city more often.


  1. I'm so envious of your travels. And I enjoy your commentary. Then I'm reminded of this:
    The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are. (Samuel Johnson)
    Enjoy reality.

    1. You traveled the world on an aircraft carrier! That sounds pretty enviable to me.

      Thanks for mentioning Sam; it's a reminder that I want to find a copy of the Trip to the Hebrides soon. I still do plenty of traveling purely in my imagination!