Amsterdam, Holland

Continuing my tradition (if two makes for a tradition) of free walking tours, I took Sandeman’s New Amsterdam tour. Again, the tour was excellent. Audrey, the guide, was from the US, but was excited about Amsterdam, and full of facts about the city and its history – though she was a bit shaky on the difference between the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (GWC) and kept using the phrase, golden ages, rather than golden age, which made me cringe a bit every time I heard it. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the tour and met a cool Estonian woman, who has been living in Amsterdam with her boyfriend, studying Dutch and a university program called Leisure Management.

Amsterdam itself is a really magical place, with an incredible history that includes the foundations of risk diversification, the stock exchange and the Dutch polymath, Christiaan Huygens, who helped develop calculus, built some of the first accurate clocks that were important to Dutch seafaring, discovered Saturn’s moon Titan, and so for. You can read more about all of that in the history books, or in Neal Stephenson’s fantastic three-volume tome, The Baroque Cycle. Unfortunately, so much of this is overshadowed by Amsterdam’s reputation as a hedonistic den of debauchery. If you can get beyond all of that – and it’s easy to do so because it’s generally restricted to a small area of the city – there are many great things about the city.

Two of my favourite things about Amsterdam were the popularity of bikes (most people own two) and the public library. The picture that’s part of this post was the ceiling of one of the escalators in the library. The entire building was stunning and embodied everything that I think I library should incorporate. The building was brilliantly designed, was open and filled with light in the right sort of way. From my first step in the door, I was encouraged to move deeper into the building. The building was modern and bright, without being blinding (like a WalMart). The building had great signage throughout, many computers that were free to use, well-lit shelves, that never stretched too high to reach without a booster step and a great restaurant on the top floor.

Since I have an unlimited EU Rail Pass, I took the train to Den Haag for the day, to see the city and check out all the UN Criminal Courts. The city was pretty – much like Amsterdam – but with many fewer tourists, which I welcomed. I really enjoyed walking along some of the quieter tree-lined streets, populated with interesting galleries (including the M.C. Escher museum) and sculpture. In Amsterdam, I stayed at the Heart of Amsterdam in the centre of the Red Light district, so I often felt crushed by fellow tourists, seemingly mostly Australian men there for “a blow and a root”. Or, like Goldmember (of Austin Powers fame), maybe just for a smoke and a pancake.

On my way out of the hostel this morning, I met another Estonian woman, who left me a bit awestruck. She was in Amsterdam for a job interview as a security specialist with Symantec. She programs in assembly, has built rootkits and her intensity and geekiness basically caused me to fall completely in love with her 6.7 minutes after meeting her. Talking with her about security, software development and exploit/penetration testing made me really, really, really miss working.