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City of Beauty and Decay

by Cassandra Lidgerding

Shaded street in Amsterdam
I am a freelance technical writer from St. Paul, Minnesota who genuinely loves writing technical material. It's such a challenge to create materials that help people use technology to better their lives. I've written all my life and recently decided to delve into the world of personal essay and article writing. When I'm not writing, you can find me out at clubs seeing live music, traveling, chatting online, playing online games, or just playing with my husband, dog, and three cats.
Amsterdam is a city of beauty and decay. You walk with your head up, taking in the Golden Age gables and quaint flower boxes and you miss most of the decay – unfortunately, you end up stumbling on a crumbling cobblestone. But beauty and decay is what makes Amsterdam . Just like a woman, she is full of contradictions.

An early morning walk through Vondelpark shows a deceptively peaceful city. The golden sunshine streaks through rain-fat clouds and dapples a thin veil of scum on the stream before you. You step up on a little foot bridge with an iron railing that is black, scrolled, delicate, and broken on one side. A hulking drunk lurches up to you and asks for a cigarette in slurred Dutch. When you shake your head and open your hands to indicate you don’t understand, he slips into spit laden English and asks you if you’ve been up all night. You’re not sure if the spit is a remnant of his all night drinking or of his native tongue. Dutch is not so much its own language, as it is a mix of an Englishman clearing his throat and a Swede with a heavy cold. You tell him you haven’t been up all night, but he smiles and says “Ahmsteerdahm eess cchhgreat, eesn’t eet?” and, as he stumbles away with one of your cigarettes, you’re thinking What a nice guy… despite his smell and bloodshot eyes.
parking problems everywhere
Early morning

The Leidseplein, an open square of grey cobblestone, comes to life by noon . Tables beckon you to lounge and umbrellas pop up like Coca-Cola mushrooms, warding off the persistent rain showers. The square is hemmed in by pubs and Dutch fast food restaurants on one end and by the glitzy Bulldog Coffeeshop dripping with neon on the other (the locals sneer at the tourists leaving the Bulldog, with its American sports bar feel, thinking Stay home and drink a Bud Light).

As you stand in line for the ATM, with a silent prayer that this time it will work and that this time the instructions will be in English, the crowd swells and swirls around you. They part only for the trams that speed through the center of the square ringing little bells of warning. A gentle, happy sound that means “Out of my way now!” They aren’t kidding, you think as you see a boy of twelve bounces off the unstoppable tram.

A short, greasy man in dirty jeans and a torn sweatshirt weaves across the tram tracks and starts to howl in French. Incomprehensible, you’re sure, even to native speakers. In front of him walks an Italian woman in tight black pants, idly eating some ice cream and paying no attention to him what-so-ever.

Up a narrow bridge and you try to stand at the railing, but it is buried deep beneath a stack of bikes. The kind of bikes your mother rode to school in the fifties – big and black with heavy shining fenders. You step back and a biker zooms past with a quick brrrring on her bell and a dirty look. The bikers are worse than the trams.

A quick turn and you follow a narrow side street, walking along a quiet canal filled with brown water. Suddenly, you look up from the uneven cobblestone trying to grab at your feet to see noble canal houses in brown and black staring down at you. Their teasing eyes lidded with geraniums and other nameless, colored lashes.

window box
Window box high above the street
You are alone. Amsterdam swallows the sounds of the Leidsestraat and you turn around to see if somehow you stepped through a magic portal into another world. Like a lover, the city wraps you in her warm, brown embrace and winks her flowered lashes at you. She loves you like a woman in a beautiful dress and smeared makeup. A gentle breeze slaps a paper to the back of your ankle and then carries it to the canal at your right.

You want to delve deeper into this lover’s embrace, so you follow a street you know must lead away from the crowds. Instead, the city turns you around and pushes you back into the tourist area with a gentle laugh. Maybe this lover must keep her secrets to herself. And with a certain sadness you let yourself be swept back into the throng of people looking and laughing and eating.

Now Amsterdam is playing a game with you. You are in the maze of the Damrak...maybe...you are not sure. Follow the street, see where it goes, but you cannot see. The streets turn too soon and lead you back to where you started like the strong brush strokes of Van Gogh.

You want to stop, but you cannot. The crowd pushes and pulls and prods with a pickpocket’s fingers. Paper creeps along the street trying to escape the crushing feet. Dog poop doesn’t stand a chance here, crushed to oblivion a minute after it is excreted.

Flowers bloom from canal-side stands in garish colors and sad-eyed statues peek from above the rusting shop signs reminding you that underneath this bustle, the beauty still radiates...defying the decay. The people, a blur of color and musky smells, radiate a beauty unknown to you before this moment. You do stop now and let them slide past you. A thousand languages, a thousand faces, a thousand stories to tell.

The crowd jolts you out of your observations and you are moving again, as swift as a river, through the maze. Past shoe shops and tacky souvenirs and sex shops and flower shops and pannekoeken restaurants and music stores and you have to breath deep because you think you will never escape and you don’t understand how anyone can find a store that actually sells what they want because the whole scene is one big swirl of brown and neon and people and noise....

And suddenly, the city pops you out into Dam square.

The royal palace stares down on you like a prison guard, the national monument thrusts his gray phallus into the air from a base of circling steps. You breathe deep and sit.

In this gray open place of tourist traps and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, the city is so claustrophobic that it is difficult to see the beauty. Gray palace, gray monument, gray clouds promising rain. Here, the people are the beauty. From every land, the women sway their rounded rumps and full breasts as Italian and German and Spanish and Turkish fall from their lips in pearls of music. Australians laugh in their off-key way and the English totter slowly by pointing at the palace. You are a calm island in a sea of people.

A young boy throws breadcrumbs to the pigeons. They crowd around him in a ten foot deep circle of wriggling, writhing gray at his feet, cooing and gobbling. You envision them pecking up his body, engulfing him, and then flying away in a scatter of oily wings to reveal nothing but bones. With a shudder you stand and move on.

Away from the bustle of Dam Square, away from the push and holler of the Damrak. To a quieter place that is no less busy. Red lights illuminate a window as a ragged African man offers you ecstasy, heroin, or coke, but you brush him as the city beckons you towards the lovely flowers growing alongside the canal. A young couple in love canoodles next to a window well in which an ageless man thrusts his crack pipe into his mouth with a sexual pressure. The prostitutes look bored and resigned and utterly sexless.

Amsterdam whispers in your ear of other secrets and you move away from that place with a look over your shoulder. Soon you see Centraal Station before you. The great dominatrix of a building with its lions and gables and golden clock and weather vein. Like a gingerbread house and witch’s tower rolled into one.

Outside a group holding “Repent Now!” signs to try to stop the weary travelers before they can enter the den of sin that is Amsterdam. But that group cannot overcome the powerful smell of seduction. Within the din of the crowd you can hear Amsterdam laughing lightly at their attempts.

The travelers leave the great brown hulk of Centraal Station and turn to look with a gasp at how beautiful the building is on the outside. Because on the inside, it is cold concrete and ugly remodeling that seems to have been started ten years past and ended one day when the workers decided not to come back from their smoke break.

You go inside and find that the Burger King beckons you slyly. You want that taste of home. But when you go to sit down you discover that it is the most beautiful Burger King you have ever seen. Rich, deep woodwork lines the walls. Old bookcases, empty and forlorn, are hidden away to the side, evidence of grander days. But you look up and plastic fast food televisions stare down at you with dead eyes. Brightly colored trashcans with pool ball handles laugh at you while you eat the worst chicken sandwich you have ever tasted.

It is that moment that you want to go home. You want to be somewhere where a fast food restaurant is a fast food restaurant. Where an old beautiful building is treated with respect – either rebuilt or torn down...not dressed up like an old woman wearing too much rouge. You want free refills on your pop and when they ask you how many packets of ketchup you want with your burger, you want to cry out “Fifteen!” and you want them all to be free.

You sigh deeply, toss your wrapper in the trash, and think, Amsterdam is a woman of beauty and decay. Overlapping, contradicting, stubborn and old. Beguiling with the eyes of a maiden and smiling with the teeth of a crone.

And when you finally escape her embrace, back to the straight-laced streets of home, the memories of those teeth leave you astonished you survived; the memories of her eyes leave you longing to return.
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