My experience in Amsterdam was one of juxtaposition.

I was woken by the soft October sunrise peeking through the 8×16 oval window to my right as we descended on the historic city. After a quick taxi I’m off the bridge and on my way to the bustling train station embedded in Schiphol airport. The customs agent struck me more as a timeshare salesman than someone tasked with making a national security decision of whether to let this disheveled Canadian sporting shorts and a toque into the country. The only question asked was what kind of product I use in my beard. After identifying our shared loath of oils and affinity for balms I’m on my way. I jump on the next tram to Amsterdam Central only to notice I’m the only person in sight not sporting dirty blonde hair, blue eyes and resting face of inquisition (my resting face is a mix of skepticism and annoyance – I swear I’m not as cagey as I might appear).

20 minutes and several instances of awkward eye contact later I’m stepping into the crisp, warm air swirling through Central Station (luckily I hedged my bets with the shorts/toque combo). The only thing that outnumbered the flock of seagulls coasting above was the comical number of bicycles locked up in droves at the edge of the pier directly opposite the train station. My stay in Amsterdam is a short one – a quick stop en route to Tel Aviv – so I’m planning on making the most of my time there. A quick mental snapshot of the giant map on the wall of the station and I’m on my way to the Van Gogh Museum.

Side bar: When I’m in a new city I try very hardest to go without modern navigation, instead opting for a quick survey of a city map, picking out some key landmarks and counting the intersections to know when and where to turn. In a world dominated by technology (and I am the biggest offender) its my one opportunity to be present in the city, having to be acutely aware of the details of the city scape – a forcing function to immerse in the subtleties of the city.

In Amsterdam, the canals serve as my guide, every bridge crossed like unpeeling another layer of an onion to the next ring emanating out of the center where I started (I hate onions, but the analogy seemed fitting). The streets are busy but with a calming energy that feels like the antithesis to North American city centers.

On my way to the outer limits of the downtown core I can’t help but wander into the side streets of local markets to explore local artistry, from paintings to hand-written poetry, the pride in the work of the artisans is the only constant. After a 4-hour, detour laden trek to Vondelpark, I am greeted by local musicians sitting on paint cans playing the cello and singing in a baritone octave, surrounded by more local artists selling their work, some of which is being created real-time. It was at that moment I realized that although just steps away was priceless work, all I wanted was to see every piece of work from these people – so I decided to skip the museums instead opting for the cobblestone art exhibit on Paulus Potterstraat street.

After a few hours of wandering beneath the arches of Rijksmuseum, christened by what I gleaned was a large Italian man bellowing opera to passers-by, I realized I had yet to eat anything since I arrived. Off I went, back to the heart of the city, in search of more serendipitous encounters, but more importantly, sustenance.

As I traversed the canals I stumbled into a small market situated at the foot of a bridge – there I found a collection of fishmongers, selling fresh herring, mussels, and oysters – naturally I made sure to try all of it. I sat on the edge of the canal, eating the fresh catch, watching narrowboats pass by as the sun set. A perfect evening before I hopped back on the tram to the airport.

As the crisp night air rolled in, however, the dark side of this beautiful city followed the darkness beset by the sunset. I was well aware of the famed red light district and had no intention of visiting, but I knew I had to pass through its periphery to get back to the tram station. Even the fringes left me with a feeling of emptiness and heartbreak.  

The tranquil, curious ethos of Vondelpark was a stark contrast to what I experienced on my trek back to Central station. Drunken tourists spilling into the streets, hurling obscenities at each other as they gazed at women in doorways, selling themselves to whomever was willing to pay for a short stay in the rooms that lined the walkways, with the same dimensions of a prison cell. Steel bars are replaced by a glass door and drunken patrons take the place of guards – this isn’t prison, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they feel just as trapped. A drop of a curtain was the only thing between the world outside and an empty encounter inside. The look on the faces of these women was one of emptiness – my heart broke.

I do not know the backstories or what brought these people here – I pass no judgement, everyone has a story. What was most heartbreaking though was the sense of ownership these men had over these women. To them its an ephemeral feeling of power.

The same short trek from the morning felt like an eternity as the train seemed to lurch back to the airport. My feeling of excitement and curiosity just 12 hours prior on those same tracks supplanted by a feeling of consternation.

My time in Amsterdam was still one I hold dearly, albeit short – but what was a picturesque day was marred by a dark ending.

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