Cees Nooteboom Reflects on Amsterdam

Amsterdam bridges the rivers IJ and Amstel; at its heart, water swirls through a spider’s web of canals. Marcus Koppen / Gallery Stock

I live in the oldest part of Amsterdam, on a street named after a red windmill, a windmill that’s no longer there. On old maps, where the city is still small, a long line of windmills lies beyond what was then the outermost canal; maybe one of them was red. My house dates back to 1731 and stands between two canals. Amsterdam’s a water city; you can see that as soon as you open up a map. The River Amstel winds voluptuously into the city from bottom right, flowing into a spider’s web of canals, or grachten, to form a magical semicircle, and then on into the River IJ, part of the old Zuiderzee. The ships of the Dutch East India Company, the second multinational in history, would return from long voyages with their Asian and African wares, to moor where Centraal Station now stands.

That magical semicircle of canals traveling from water to water is the heart of Amsterdam. But how did that city begin? I once wrote a poem about it: Between sea and sea,/salt marshes/behind dykes of seaweed./Water people, land makers,/black angels,/forefathers, gliding over mud flats./They are the first./They dream walls of driftwood/in the wandering river./Ame, water./Stelle, place of safety./The name of their liquid/city.

They made dykes, a dam in the Amstel: Amstel-dam, Amsterdam. They pulled that city out of mud and water and, a few centuries later, the first monasteries came, the first markets, the first ships. A few more centuries and the city on the IJ and the Amstel was a world metropolis, rich and powerful. Hundreds of ships anchored there, transferring their cargo onto smaller boats, which sailed into the city on an inland waterway that is now filled in and called Damrak. That semicircle is both a labyrinth and an image of the highest order. The innermost circle, Singel, was once a defensive barrier against water and enemies. Then the second canal was dug, Herengracht, the gentlemen’s canal, its name evidence of a new and assertive bourgeoisie. The princes and emperors came along later, in Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht, which are intersected by so many smaller grachten: canals of the tanners, the brewers, but also of the lilies, the laurels, and the elk, for this city is a city of words, the realm of the poet. And that’s what I always seek out whenever I return from a distant journey.

My plane from New York, once Nieuw Amsterdam, or from Jakarta, the Batavia of a colonial past, has landed early. It’s a misty autumn morning and I don’t want to sleep yet; I want to be out among the words of my city. Only a few steps from home, I walk across a narrow footbridge, the Milkmaids’ Bridge, and think of Vermeer. Then, as I head down the Brewers’ Canal, Nooteboom’s Law comes into effect: spend a day walking around Amsterdam and by the evening you’ll have seen just about everyone who crossed your mind when you were so far away, and you’ll be up to date with everything that matters in this small cosmos. I walk past houses with dates and pictures on their gable stones; everything here suggests an eventful past, but without cloying nostalgia.

My local bar, a dark living room, is called Papeneiland, Papists’ Island, and it was a Catholic enclave back in the 17th century. It’s where I go to find the people who are not my family even though that’s how it feels. A recent addition is a letter on the wall from Bill Clinton, praising the owner for his delicious apple pie. The president’s visit was completely unexpected, but everyone left him to enjoy his pie in peace, and the warmth of his letter shows that he appreciated how Amsterdam bars work: you’re in someone’s living room and if you act naturally, you’ll find yourself among friends.

At the end of my day, I walk my poem to the beat of my feet, down a narrow alleyway called Prayer Without End (the site of a nunnery in the 14th century), through streets with names like Herring Sheds and Piggy-Bank Lane, and when I finally return home, I can feel the centuries swirling around my head, together with the light of this city on the water, the light you see in paintings from the Golden Age, a light that is found in no other place.

(Above translated from the original Dutch by Laura Watkinson.)