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From New Amsterdam to Amsterdam

Posted by A Colin Treadwell on 10/4/2018
Posted in: Musings From Colin Treadwell
Tags: Travel, Tauck, Amsterdam

Amsterdam is such a special city in so many ways, it would be hard to catalogue them.

I feel a special connection to Amsterdam because New York, my home, was originally New Amsterdam. It was founded in 1625 by the Dutch West India Company. And even though it was later taken over by the British and eventually became part of the United States, the original stamp of its founding by the Dutch remains at the core of its modern-day character.

At the time of the founding of New Amsterdam, the Dutch were about the most advanced businesspeople in the world. The Dutch Republic is considered by many historians to have been the first modern capitalist nation state. Running neck-and-neck with Great Britain, Holland was the inventor of modern capitalism. The Dutch West India Company was one of the world's first global corporations.

Colin Amsterdam blog Twentieth-century German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart said that the Netherlands was where "the capitalist spirit for the first time attained its fullest maturity." And the culture of capitalism pervaded the Netherlands in every corner.

"In the Netherlands," wrote Sombart, "an entire people became imbued with the capitalist spirit; so much so that in the 17th century Holland was universally regarded as the land of capitalism par excellence. It was envied by all other nations, who put forth their keenest endeavors in their desire to emulate it."

Holland's spirit of capitalism was infused into New Amsterdam at its founding, and that DNA was at the root of New York's legendary spirit of enterprise. It was an important component of the character of New York as the city blazed trails of every kind during its spectacular rise in the 19th century to what it is today, the most concentrated business center on the planet.

So even before I went to Amsterdam I felt a kinship with it based on its being the parent of New York. My perspective on Amsterdam was to come at it from New Amsterdam, its colonial offspring. It was like meeting a long-lost uncle.

How Did the Dutch Get So Smart?
One of the most charming things about Amsterdam is the canal system, which is one of the most elegant and efficient transportation systems of any city. It was an advanced way to move things before steam power, gasoline power and electricity. The canals also contribute immensely to the beauty of Amsterdam and help to make it a wonderful city to walk around in.

I don't know how the Dutch got so smart, but historically they seemed way ahead of most of the world in a number of ways.

They were doing land reclamation from the sea with their ingenious dyke system centuries before anyone thought of climate change and the problem of rising sea levels that we are now facing. The Dutch, with their can-do attitude, know how to master these things.

The famous windmills that became a symbol of Holland are not only quaint and picturesque, they also represent an ingenious method for harnessing wind power, an early form of sustainable, renewable energy. It seems that we are just catching up to Dutch ingenuity now.

I keep returning to my question: How did the Dutch get so smart?

Exploring the City
There is so much to do in Amsterdam you have to get busy and jump right into it. By doing so you are getting into the spirit, emulating that busy, productive personality of the Dutch.

It's a great place to walk around, night or day. The beautiful canals, lined with a great variety of colorful boats, the many flowers, the 17th-century architecture, drawbridges and windmills. And of course there are always people from all over the world walking around enjoying the beauty, just like you.

Amsterdam's focus on business is the root of its liberalism toward some enterprises that are outlawed in many other places. Casinos, marijuana smoking and prostitution are tolerated in Amsterdam based on the culture of laissez-faire capitalism. The attitude seems to be: if those things aren't hurting anything, leave them alone. We've got business to attend to.

So when you walk around Amsterdam, depending on how you feel about those kinds of things, you may or may not want to walk through the parts of town where those activities are allowed. But if you do, just as an observer, it can be quite fascinating.

One bit of local color that is bound to catch the attention of Americans is the zillions of bikes. In bustling Amsterdam one quickly gets used to watching carefully for vehicles hurtling past you from all directions, including cars, trains, buses and bikes.

The Rijksmuseum
The city claims 36 museums, so you have to pick and choose. The Rijksmuseum is the definitive showcase for the Dutch Golden Age of painting. The painters of that period specialized in landscapes, portraits and still lifes, and produced some of the most true-to-life images in the history of painting, including many of the greatest masterpieces of Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum is said to have the greatest number of works by Van Gogh and his contemporaries in the world. No museum can claim to have all the best Van Goghs. But the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is a definitive stop for anyone who appreciates the artist, with more than 200 of his 840 paintings and many of the 1,000 drawings he produced in his 10-year career from 1880 to 1890.

In our day we are used to seeing reproductions of the world's great paintings. But when you stand in front of a Van Gogh painting, you realize that the reproductions you have seen could not possibly fully capture that image, with its layers of luminosity, its depth, its indefinable, shimmering magic.

The museum has some of his most familiar paintings, such as the early Potato Eaters, the colorfully pixilated self-portrait of 1887-88, The Yellow House where Van Gogh lived in Arles, and his graceful watercolor of the Langlois Bridge at Arles.

Before I went I read Van Gogh's letters to his brother, which allowed me to follow his story from his own point of view, which was a deeply moving experience. Then when I stood at arm's length from one of his most famous self-portraits, I suddenly realized that I was standing just where he would have been when he painted it. My mind reeled at the thought and for an instant the painting seemed to come to life, as if I were somehow staring at the actual face of the artist.

There are of course plenty of other things to do in Amsterdam, such as cruise the canals, take a city tour or have the Heineken Experience. To me just being there is really enough, just sitting at a sidewalk café watching the people walk by, the boats in the canal and the reflections of the lights on the ripples in the canals.

Amsterdam is a great place to be. I hope you will be able to have the Amsterdam experience. If you've already had it, I hope you can have it again.

Happy Travels!

Your humble reporter,

A. Colin Treadwell

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