“Watch your head,” said our Airbnb hostess as Rich and I negotiated the steep steps leading down into our basement apartment. It was like climbing into a hobbit hole. “We had flooding last week with all the rain. I’m sure it will be fine now, but when you go out, be sure to place your suitcases on the sofa. Just in case.”
It was the kind of practical yet startling remark that I’ve come to associate with Amsterdam, a city whose deeply embedded common sense and tolerance often lead to a special kind of quirkiness.
For instance, I don't know of any other city where you could pay for your drinks with live monkeys. Back in the 17th century, sailors returning from Indonesia and other far-flung outposts of the Dutch Empire often found their thirst outstripped the number of guilders in their pockets, and they began offering their newly acquired pet monkeys as alternative payment. The owner of one establishment said, “Hey, why not?” and soon his tavern was known as In’t Aepjen, which means “In the Monkeys.” According to one account, “Soon the In’t Aepjen was overrun with so many monkeys that customers began to complain of the fleas.”
Sincerely hoping they’d solved the flea problem, Rich and I went to check out this unusual watering hole for ourselves.
In’t Aepjen is small and charming, with plenty of old, dark wood and countless statues and pictures of monkeys. As we sipped our beers and nibbled on the only bar snack available — large cubes of cheese with mustard for dipping — I tried to imagine how much pandemonium a single monkey could create in there, especially if the room happened to be packed with hard-drinking sailors. And with multiple monkeys romping about? I’m not sure the fleas would be the primary problem. Luckily one of the regulars, Gerard Westerman, volunteered to give all the monkeys a new home in his large garden on the other side of town, and eventually his collection of exotic animals became the city’s Artis Zoo.
I don’t know how the monkeys felt about living in Amsterdam, but the humans in this city seem to love it, despite the far-from-ideal weather. Right now, as June slides into July, the gray skies, frequent rain showers, and chilly breezes make it feel distinctly un-summery. I’ve heard that winters can be very cold indeed. But let’s face it, nobody goes to Amsterdam for the climate.
My friend Margriet moved to Amsterdam from a Dutch village when she was a small child. “Coming here was so exciting. There was so much freedom. It was a cool city to be in. Back then my father and I had to walk through the red light district to get to the market. In Amsterdam, nobody thought anything about it.” She grinned at my expression. “When you’re young, you’re not easily shocked.” Margriet has lived in Seville (where we met), Paris, and most recently Australia, but she always returns to Amsterdam. Why? “The architecture, for one thing. You can walk over the canals for years and still find it breathtaking.”
“Some Australian friends,” she recalls, “told me, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been to Amsterdam, but I can’t remember a thing about it. Heh, heh.’ They talked of coffee houses and the red light district and that was it. But those places are for the tourists. Nobody from here goes there. Years ago I made a map for visitors that showed the kinds of places locals go: gardens, the cafes where people buy their coffee, the markets, the one-of-a-kind shops. That’s Amsterdam.”
“Here people are very much individuals,” she adds. “When I lived in Australia, I couldn’t stand that so many things were being done simply because ‘it’s done.’ In Holland, we have a wide possibility for thought and a culture of strong opinion; we love a good discussion. People criticize, and that’s fine. Everything is discussed.” Living in other countries and working for an international company, she’s found Dutch directness isn’t always welcome and has learned to be diplomatic when necessary. But she’s glad to be living in a place where “freedom of speech is very highly valued and there is a lot of room for new ideas.”
Tonight Rich and I will accompany Margriet to watch her Irish fiancé, Patrick, perform in an avant-garde play. They have warned us that it’s edgy stuff, filled with politically incorrect ideas and raw language. Personally, I don’t mind any of that; right now, any evening that doesn’t involve rising floodwaters or being overrun with live, flea-bearing monkeys sounds downright congenial to me.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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