The capital (and largest) city of the Netherlands has a population of around 820,000. That’s about half the size of Warsaw, and it’s squeezed into an area about half the size too (200-odd square km against just over 500). Greater London has a population of about 8.5 million crammed into an area of 600-odd square km (by comparison the entire population of the Netherlands is just under 17million – so twice that of Greater London – but in a land area of forty one and a half thousand square kilometres. Much more spacious.). Mind you, these figures come from Wikipedia so may not be 100% accurate – but you get my drift. It’s a relatively small place.
So it feels like a small town rather than the bustling city it is. A train will get you from Schiphol airport into the main Centraal Station in about 15 minutes – much as will its London equivalent the Heathrow Express. A tram will get me from my apartment to the centre (or for that matter my office in the suburbs) in about the same time. The Heathrow Express may be more modern and more comfortable but with a fare of £25 it’s MUCH more expensive. Which leads me to the next Like…..
It’s very easy to get around the place. There is a very efficient tram network, a smaller but equally quick and efficient metro system, and plenty of buses. The metro is being expanded, but as with all such projects is behind schedule and over budget (much like London’s Crossrail and Warsaw’s east-west extension under the Vistula). Main line railway services also get you quickly to outlying city areas in comfort. All are served cheaply and cash-free by investing in an OV-Chipkaart that costs about EUR3 to purchase and you can top it up on-line (or at machines at all the major stations and interchanges) as and when required to enjoy unlimited discounted travel. It’s like the London Oyster Card only much cheaper.
I’m assuming at these prices there is heavy government subsidy for the service, but that is no bad thing, surely. Call me old fashioned, but I thought one of a government’s main tasks, right after the security of its citizens and health care provision, was to provide said citizens with some services - be it public transport, refuse collection or something else. This is normal all over Europe, but since The Blessed Margaret’s days such provision in London and other UK cities has always been largely paid for by increased fares (at decreased efficiency), and lots of “private enterprise”, under which shareholder return is more important than customer value. Someone should make it clear to Cameron and Milliband and Clegg and (dare I say it….) Farage that there are actually other ways of quantifying the concept of “value” other than “lowest cost”.
In any case, I’ve used the trams and metros extensively since I’ve been here, and they are great. My handful of mainline train journeys (to and from the airport) have also been comfortable enough, although I’ve had to stand every time – no surprise given the route travelled, and no hardship given the short journey time. Last week I caught a bus from my office in Amstelveen to the airport – it took maybe 20 minutes, and was as good as any other transport service I’ve used. As the bus stop is right outside the office it could be no more convenient either.
I’ve only taken a cab once, on my first morning here, from Schiphol to the office. It was a very comfortable Mercedes at a very uncomfortable cost of EUR30 (for basically the same trip as my bus last week that cost EUR2-50), but lugging a heavy suitcase with a broken wheel it seemed the easiest and most convenient option. I would not make the same choice again however.
Bikes. Lots of them
Holland is a flat country. In fact, a good chunk of it is below sea level, and there is an ingenious network of dykes that stop flooding from the rough wintry North Sea and rivers. Schiphol airport is actually sited on the bed of a lake that was drained over many years in the 19th century as part of the national flood defences (I’ve been told that the word schiphol means lake bed). So it’s quite natural that the Dutch have taken to bikes like no other nationality, and Amsterdamers are no different.
The city is chock-full of bikes. The vast majority of them are the same traditional Dutch bike – a high upright frame with no crossbar, big old-fashioned handlebars, generally a carrying rack or two bolted on front and back to carry shopping or passenger. A high proportion don’t have brakes as would be recognised elsewhere – you stop the thing by pedalling backwards. Mountain bikes and racing bikes, popular all over the rest of the world, with their lightweight frames, drop handlebars, raised seats and multiple gears (mine has 18), are few and far between.
There are many ingenious conversions on the road too, with small covered passenger compartments for the kids on front and rear (bolted to extended frames and often looking home-made and a little unstable). Kiddie seats are often attached to the handlebars, sometimes with a high windshield for further protection, and double up as a shopping rack. And of course there are tandems (with their own kid seats as well), and a contraption I saw the other day that is low-slung like a two-wheeled go-kart complete with a bright yellow all enclosed fibre glass body shell. I would love a go on that baby.
The main stations have multi-storey bike parks (even where there is no car-park), and every shopping mall, school, hospital, public square, church, park and office block – almost every street, in fact – has plenty of parking racks too. They are even in the Red Light district. Since all the bikes look pretty much identical, finding your own on a dark winter’s night must be a bit of bugger.
With all this undoubted popularity – cycling truly is a way of life here, from earliest childhood – the people are better riders than any I’ve come across elsewhere. Making calls and texting on your mobile is commonplace. Packs of riders bombing along laughing and joking and talking, a part of the scenery. Carrying a passenger on your handlebars or rear-mounted shopping rack? No problem. The best sight I’ve seen so far was a young lady, mid-twenties maybe, 30 at the outside, riding through the business district by Zuid Station and the World Trade Centre the week before last. She was riding no hands, talking on her mobile with one and holding up an umbrella in the rain with the other. She shot past the pub doorway and straight across the pedestrian and cycle crossing on the main road without even slowing down, secure (???) in the knowledge that The Bike Is Always Right (this is the unshakable traffic code in Amsterdam).
And not a crash helmet in sight.
Everyone speaks English
Oh, and they also speak a variety of other languages equally well…..and often all together. A friend of mine is fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish, French, German and Italian.
I feel quite inadequate.
I wrote in praise of Centraal Station on here last time. It’s not the only impressive looking building in the city, there are others that comfortably match it, both ancient and modern (and sometimes an interesting mix of both).
The Rijksmuseum is similar to Centraal Station, all Gothic pillars and vaulted ceilings. Along Damrak, running roughly south between the two, there are a number of other old buildings now converted to shopping malls and banks and offices that form an impressive skyline. Further out, around the Zuid and RAI business district stations, within walking distance of my apartment, are modern office blocks, hotels and conference centres towering in glass and steel splendour way above the older 1970s apartment blocks that remind me of some parts of Warsaw and east London.
On the eastern edge of the city, at Bijlmer, are more bank towers and hotels and conference centres (and IKEA), but all are put to shame by the impressive Amsterdam ArenA football ground. It’s a monstrous structure, and you can see it from miles away, squatting like some Spielberg flying saucer from the marvellous Close Encounters movie from 30-odd years ago. I think it was the first stadium in Europe with a retractable roof, which initially at least caused problems with the grass of the pitch – it just didn’t grow properly and had to be re-laid about 4 times per season. Ajax, the club that plays there, have a site outside Amsterdam that is used solely for growing and replacing the turf in the ArenA…..modern agro-technology has improved the situation somewhat, but careful management is still needed. But it’s still a brilliant stadium, and is the only one I’ve ever seen that is elevated on massive pillars to allow a six lane motorway to run underneath it (roughly along the pitch’s halfway line apparently). Note to self: must get to a match there soon…..
In the city centre, too, between the concentric canal network, there are many other lovely old buildings, offices and apartments and shops and galleries now, but formerly the homes and warehouses of the old Dutch merchants and traders from three and four hundred years ago. They’re all narrow and tall, perhaps four or five floors high but only ten or fifteen feet wide. This is a result of the taxes paid at the time, that were calculated according the frontage of the buildings: the narrower the building the less tax paid. So although narrow, their original owners built them to stretch way back, often to the next canal, to have sufficient storage and living capacity. All have the typical curved Dutch gabled roof, and lean outwards at the top, to make hauling goods from ground level to the upper floors easier and reduce possible damage to goods and building.
The food choices
There is a great and varied choice of eateries throughout the city. The usual suspects are everywhere – McD’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Starbucks. There are kebab houses, takeaway sushi parlours, Chinese and Indian and Thai restaurants. American and Argentinian steakhouses. French and Italian bistros. Spanish paella parlours. And more exotic diners from Dutch colonies like Surinam.
And pubs. Dozens of them, at least half of which seem to be Irish (or at least masquerading as Irish). I’ve been to a couple and the beer has been unfailingly pleasant and the food variable. This weekend I sought out The Old Bell in Rembrandtplein, an old watering hole from my original spell here 14 years ago that I had not been able to find a weekend or two back when I got here. Back in the old days, we all used to meet up there and enjoy the food and beer in an atmosphere that I remember fondly. The pies were particularly good, especially after one of the boys brought over some Bisto gravy granules and taught them how to use it. I found it okay this Sunday, but it seemed scruffier and definitely quieter (though that was probably because half three on the Sabbath is not the busiest time of the week). I sat outside for an hour or so, in the sunshine, reading my book and watching the tourists (and trams) go by, and enjoying the beer and food. I had a pie, minced lamb, with chips and salad, and it was very tasty. But no Bisto – the art has clearly been lost. And the lamb was not minced, only diced into big chunks. But I’m being a bit picky – it was fine.
There are lots of little chip shops scattered around as well, serving big paper or cardboard cones full of crispy deep fried chips smothered in mayo and/or ketchup, barbecue or garlic sauce. Filling, tasty and for a couple of euros a good belly filler when you’re wandering around aimlessly sightseeing.
And we mustn’t forget the pavement cafes and coffee shops that sell a decent cappuccino or double espresso and a pastry – and often substances that are still illegal in less enlightened countries (like the UK) and lend a sweet fragrance to the Amsterdam air and a smile to your face if you breathe in too deeply.
On its lakebed site, it’s huge and impressive, with a six lane highway going under the main taxiway. The taxi in on landing seems to take forever and it’s easy to believe the place is about the size of Liechtenstein. At Heathrow, on the approach to Terminal 3, there is an advertising display for Etihad Airlines that comprises a couple of scale model Airbus planes. At Schiphol, KLM advertises its domicile by placing a retired Fokker 100 airliner on the roof of its Panorama Terrace, where it forms a permanent museum attraction. Can’t help thinking BAA and British Airways missed a trick when they retired Concorde…..
But despite its sprawling size the airport terminal complex is very well laid out and efficient. The bus station is right outside the door and the railway station below the building, so access either way is easy. There is a single massive shopping and restaurant complex in the space, and easy to follow signs to Arrivals and Departures, as well as a wealth of flight information and train schedules. The departure area is up a moving ramp or escalator, and for Schengen travel couldn’t be simpler. There are check in machines everywhere, offering a simple process to print your boarding pass either by using your Frequent Flyer card (for a number of different schemes), quoting your name and booking reference from your e-ticket, or most easily by scanning your passport. It literally takes less than a minute. A further couple of minutes’ stroll gets you to security, and you have the usual aggravation on unpacking your laptop, taking off coats and belts and shoes, and going through the scanners while your bags are x-rayed, but in comparison to say Warsaw or Frankfurt or Heathrow, it is quick and efficient. When I flew home a week or so ago – arriving at the airport at 5:30 on a Friday evening: the rush hour – the whole process, from getting out of the bus to strolling into the bar inside the Departure hall and close to my departure gate took no more than 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes to print a boarding pass and clear security – it’s unheard of.
There are of course caveats. First off, I had no baggage except my laptop, nothing checked so no queueing at a bag drop counter. Second, both Holland and Poland are in the Schengen zone, as are all European mainland countries, so there is no requirement for passport checks (why the UK stubbornly refuses to join I have no idea). If I had a bag to drop or was travelling outside Schengen I’m sure it would be much more stressful – but that is why I’m happy to be back working in sensible Europe.
The TV and Radio
Like everywhere nowadays, it’s satellite and cable. At home, my channel selection on Canal+/Ntv runs to a good 40, including dedicated sports channels so I can keep on top of the Premier and Champions League competitions. But of that 40 odd, I have maybe 5 that are English language, and on three of them I have to actually select English as an option. Everything else is Polish, and if the programme or movie is in English, the local language is (badly) dubbed over the top of it so that the original language is heard, more or less clearly, in the background. To say the least, it’s a distraction, but one I’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
In places like Egypt and Cyprus and Qatar, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years, it’s a similar story – for Polish read Arabic or Greek. Ditto Switzerland and Germany and Spain and Turkey – pretty much everywhere. The main difference is always the quality or otherwise of that dubbing, and the English channels tend to be restricted to CNN and BBC World News, with bonuses of BBC Entertainment. Gulf states also tend to provide their local equivalents of Sky Sports, with a panel of English presenters and pundits typically hired away from Sky. But these are always premium channels and not all hotels provide them.
In Bermuda, I suffered three months of American television, which is every bit as dire as it’s made out to be, with BBC World News and BBC America thrown in, but for the latter the programming was dreadful – an entire WEEK of non-stop Doctor Who to launch the latest series, and endless repeats of Top Gear and Gordon Ramsey, entertaining though they often are, very soon wore thin.
So it’s been an absolute pleasure to get my basic cable channel package plugged in here. I have at least 50 channels, including English choices of BBC World News, CNN, Al Jazeera News, Euronews, Eurosport, BBC Entertainment AND BBC One and BBC Two. There are at least 10 other channels in the Dutch choices that broadcast English language movies and programs UNDUBBED (typically there are subtitles instead). My radio choices, within the same basic channel package, include Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, plus a whole range of Dutch genre stations (so for classical, opera, country, alternative rock and so on) where the music is good and the DJ babble kept to a minimum. On the news bulletins for the Dutch stations, where an English speaking politician is being interviewed or sound-bitten, again there is no intrusive dubbing.
Finally – the people
They have been unfailingly friendly and welcoming. The team at work, as usual, is multi-racial, and there are a good few that I worked with on projects 5 and even 10 years ago, and I haven’t seen them since. It numbers people from Bulgaria and Switzerland, South Africa and Ecuador, as well as English and (the inevitable) Indians. As we share a background and war stories, I would expect them to be friendly and welcoming (thankfully I’ve managed to make very few enemies over the years, and none of them are here). The bank folk too have been great, helping me settle in quickly.
But the locals outside the bank environment have been great too, in the shops and bars and restaurants that I’ve used so far. Always a friendly smile when I say hello, and an easy conversation in my language to follow. It makes it much easier to settle into a new place.
This is typical of the Dutch though. I’ve worked with many over the years, and indeed one of my closest friends at work (also a Warsaw based ex-pat) comes from Rotterdam, up the road. They seem to have a relaxed friendliness that makes them easy to get to know and like. Yes, they can be stubborn and grumpy – but then so can I (I put it down to my increasing age) – but generally there is an easy going, almost carefree nature to the Dutch that is right up my street.
I like it here.