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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsSaunterings - Amsterdam
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Saunterings - Amsterdam Post by :jamesc96 Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2814

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Saunterings - Amsterdam

The rail from Antwerp north was through a land flat and sterile. After a little, it becomes a little richer; but a forlorner land to live in I never saw. One wonders at the perseverance of the Flemings and Dutchmen to keep all this vast tract above water when there is so much good solid earth elsewhere unoccupied. At Moerdjik we changed from the cars to a little steamer on the Maas, which flows between high banks. The water is higher than the adjoining land, and from the deck we look down upon houses and farms. At Dort, the Rhine comes in with little promise of the noble stream it is in the highlands. Everywhere canals and ditches dividing the small fields instead of fences; trees planted in straight lines, and occasionally trained on a trellis in front of the houses, with the trunk painted white or green; so that every likeness of nature shall be taken away. From Rotterdam, by cars, it is still the same. The Dutchman spends half his life, apparently, in fighting the water. He has to watch the huge dikes which keep the ocean from overwhelming him, and the river-banks, which may break, and let the floods of the Rhine swallow him up. The danger from within is not less than from without. Yet so fond is he of his one enemy, that, when he can afford it, he builds him a fantastic summer-house over a stagnant pool or a slimy canal, in one corner of his garden, and there sits to enjoy the aquatic beauties of nature; that is, nature as he has made it. The river-banks are woven with osiers to keep them from washing; and at intervals on the banks are piles of the long withes to be used in emergencies when the swollen streams threaten to break through.

And so we come to Amsterdam, the oddest city of all,--a city wholly built on piles, with as many canals as streets, and an architecture so quaint as to even impress one who has come from Belgium. The whole town has a wharf-y look; and it is difficult to say why the tall brick houses, their gables running by steps to a peak, and each one leaning forward or backward or sideways, and none perpendicular, and no two on a line, are so interesting. But certainly it is a most entertaining place to the stranger, whether he explores the crowded Jews' quarter, with its swarms of dirty people, its narrow streets, and high houses hung with clothes, as if every day were washing-day; or strolls through the equally narrow streets of rich shops; or lounges upon the bridges, and looks at the queer boats with clumsy rounded bows, great helms' painted in gay colors, with flowers in the cabin windows,--boats where families live; or walks down the Plantage, with the zoological gardens on the one hand and rows of beer-gardens on the other; or round the great docks; or saunters at sunset by the banks of the Y, and looks upon flat North Holland and the Zuyder Zee.

The palace on the Dam (square) is a square, stately edifice, and the only building that the stranger will care to see. Its interior is richer and more fit to live in than any palace we have seen. There is nothing usually so dreary as your fine Palace. There are some good frescoes, rooms richly decorated in marble, and a magnificent hall, or ball-room, one hundred feet in height, without pillars. Back of it is, of course, a canal, which does not smell fragrantly in the summer; and I do not wonder that William III. and his queen prefer to stop away. From the top is a splendid view of Amsterdam and all the flat region. I speak of it with entire impartiality, for I did not go up to see it. But better than palaces are the picture-galleries, three of which are open to the sightseer. Here the ancient and modern Dutch painters are seen at their best, and I know of no richer feast of this sort. Here Rembrandt is to be seen in his glory; here Van der Helst, Jan Steen, Gerard Douw, Teniers the younger, Hondekoeter, Weenix, Ostade, Cuyp, and other names as familiar. These men also painted what they saw, the people, the landscapes, with which they were familiar. It was a strange pleasure to meet again and again in the streets of the town the faces, or types of them, that we had just seen on canvas so old.

In the Low Countries, the porters have the grand title of commissionaires. They carry trunks and bundles, black boots, and act as valets de place. As guides, they are quite as intolerable in Amsterdam as their brethren in other cities. Many of them are Jews; and they have a keen eye for a stranger. The moment he sallies from his hotel, there is a guide. Let him hesitate for an instant in his walk, either to look at something or to consult his map, or let him ask the way, and he will have a half dozen of the persistent guild upon him; and they cannot easily be shaken off. The afternoon we arrived, we had barely got into our rooms at Brack's Oude Doelan, when a gray-headed commissionaire knocked at our door, and offered his services to show us the city. We deferred the pleasure of his valuable society. Shortly, when we came down to the street, a smartly dressed Israelite took off his hat to us, and offered to show us the city. We declined with impressive politeness, and walked on. The Jew accompanied us, and attempted conversation, in which we did not join. He would show us everything for a guilder an hour,--for half a guilder. Having plainly told the Jew that we did not desire his attendance, he crossed to the other side of the street, and kept us in sight, biding his opportunity. At the end of the street, we hesitated a moment whether to cross the bridge or turn up by the broad canal. The Jew was at our side in a moment, having divined that we were on the way to the Dam and the palace. He obligingly pointed the way, and began to walk with us, entering into conversation. We told him pointedly, that we did not desire his services, and requested him to leave us. He still walked in our direction, with the air of one much injured, but forgiving, and was more than once beside us with a piece of information. When we finally turned upon him with great fierceness, and told him to begone, he regarded us with a mournful and pitying expression; and as the last act of one who returned good for evil, before he turned away, pointed out to us the next turn we were to make. I saw him several times afterward; and I once had occasion to say to him, that I had already told him I would not employ him; and he always lifted his hat, and looked at me with a forgiving smile. I felt that I had deeply wronged him. As we stood by the statue, looking up at the eastern pediment of the palace, another of the tribe (they all speak a little English) asked me if I wished to see the palace. I told him I was looking at it, and could see it quite distinctly. Half a dozen more crowded round, and proffered their aid. Would I like to go into the palace? They knew, and I knew, that they could do nothing more than go to the open door, through which they would not be admitted, and that I could walk across the open square to that, and enter alone. I asked the first speaker if he wished to go into the palace. Oh, yes! he would like to go. I told him he had better go at once,--they had all better go in together and see the palace,--it was an excellent opportunity. They seemed to see the point, and slunk away to the other side to wait for another stranger.

I find that this plan works very well with guides: when I see one approaching, I at once offer to guide him. It is an idea from which he does not rally in time to annoy us. The other day I offered to show a persistent fellow through an old ruin for fifty kreuzers: as his price for showing me was forty-eight, we did not come to terms. One of the most remarkable guides, by the way, we encountered at Stratford-on-Avon. As we walked down from the Red Horse Inn to the church, a full-grown boy came bearing down upon us in the most wonderful fashion. Early rickets, I think, had been succeeded by the St. Vitus' dance. He came down upon us sideways, his legs all in a tangle, and his right arm, bent and twisted, going round and round, as if in vain efforts to get into his pocket, his fingers spread out in impotent desire to clutch something. There was great danger that he would run into us, as he was like a steamer with only one side-wheel and no rudder. He came up puffing and blowing, and offered to show us Shakespeare's tomb. Shade of the past, to be accompanied to thy resting-place by such an object! But he fastened himself on us, and jerked and hitched along in his side-wheel fashion. We declined his help. He paddled on, twisting himself into knots, and grinning in the most friendly manner. We told him to begone. "I am," said he, wrenching himself into a new contortion, "I am what showed Artemus Ward round Stratford." This information he repeated again and again, as if we could not resist him after we had comprehended that. We shook him off; but when we returned at sundown across the fields, from a visit to Anne Hathaway's cottage, we met the sidewheeler cheerfully towing along a large party, upon whom he had fastened.

The people of Amsterdam are only less queer than their houses. The men dress in a solid, old-fashioned way. Every one wears the straight, high-crowned silk hat that went out with us years ago, and the cut of clothing of even the most buckish young fellows is behind the times. I stepped into the Exchange, an immense interior, that will hold five thousand people, where the stock-gamblers meet twice a day. It was very different from the terrible excitement and noise of the Paris Bourse. There were three or four thousand brokers there, yet there was very little noise and no confusion. No stocks were called, and there was no central ring for bidding, as at the Bourse and the New York Gold Room; but they quietly bought and sold. Some of the leading firms had desks or tables at the side, and there awaited orders. Everything was phlegmatically and decorously done.

In the streets one still sees peasant women in native costume. There was a group to-day that I saw by the river, evidently just crossed over from North Holland. They wore short dresses, with the upper skirt looped up, and had broad hips and big waists. On the head was a cap with a fall of lace behind; across the back of the head a broad band of silver (or tin) three inches broad, which terminated in front and just above the ears in bright pieces of metal about two inches square, like a horse's blinders, Only flaring more from the head; across the forehead and just above the eyes a gilt band, embossed; on the temples two plaits of hair in circular coils; and on top of all a straw hat, like an old-fashioned bonnet stuck on hindside before. Spiral coils of brass wire, coming to a point in front, are also worn on each side of the head by many. Whether they are for ornament or defense, I could not determine.

Water is brought into the city now from Haarlem, and introduced into the best houses; but it is still sold in the streets by old men and women, who sit at the faucets. I saw one dried-up old grandmother, who sat in her little caboose, fighting away the crowd of dirty children who tried to steal a drink when her back was turned, keeping count of the pails of water carried away with a piece of chalk on the iron pipe, and trying to darn her stocking at the same time. Odd things strike you at every turn. There is a sledge drawn by one poor horse, and on the front of it is a cask of water pierced with holes, so that the water squirts out and wets the stones, making it easier sliding for the runners. It is an ingenious people!

After all, we drove out five miles to Broek, the clean village; across the Y, up the canal, over flatness flattened. Broek is a humbug, as almost all show places are. A wooden little village on a stagnant canal, into which carriages do not drive, and where the front doors of the houses are never open; a dead, uninteresting place, neat but not specially pretty, where you are shown into one house got up for the purpose, which looks inside like a crockery shop, and has a stiff little garden with box trained in shapes of animals and furniture. A roomy-breeched young Dutchman, whose trousers went up to his neck, and his hat to a peak, walked before us in slow and cow-like fashion, and showed us the place; especially some horrid pleasure-grounds, with an image of an old man reading in a summer-house, and an old couple in a cottage who sat at a table and worked, or ate, I forget which, by clock-work; while a dog barked by the same means. In a pond was a wooden swan sitting on a stick, the water having receded, and left it high and dry. Yet the trip is worth while for the view of the country and the people on the way: men and women towing boats on the canals; the red-tiled houses painted green, and in the distance the villages, with their spires and pleasing mixture of brown, green, and red tints, are very picturesque. The best thing that I saw, however, was a traditional Dutchman walking on the high bank of a canal, with soft hat, short pipe, and breeches that came to the armpits above, and a little below the knees, and were broad enough about the seat and thighs to carry his no doubt numerous family. He made a fine figure against the sky.

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