Every place has a story and a range of story tellers to go with it. As a writer, I am one of those seeking to weave the webs that could influence how you think about places, ideas and people with every word I jot down. When traveling I have mostly sought to avoid reading too much about my destinations, preferring to ‘read’ the streets for myself.
However, as I am now staying in one place for a much longer time than just a traveler, one of the ways in which I seek to understand the city of Amsterdam, is by reading about it, meeting its writers, poets, musicians and reading its book and hearing its stories.
This process started while I was in Switzerland when I was given the excellent Amsterdam: The Most Liberal City In The World by Russell Shorto. It’s a very pro-Amsterdam book that looks at how its tradition of tolerant thought and behavior is linked to the development of liberal thinking and action that can be traced to the roots of much western socio political thought.
But apart from that weighty aspect of it, it has been a fascinating tour guide, explaining the origins of street names, grachte, neighbourhoods and more. As one walks the city, one walks through the pages of this fine book.
That book led me almost inevitably to the reading of more about Spinoza… and I have just finished The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom. THIS book is a fascinating look at who Spinoza was and what he thought as mirrored against the anti Semitic traditions of the Nazi party prior to World War II
These books start to give one a deeper sense of the spirit of a place and the reasons behind so much of the behavior you witness.
Many mistake the existence of the red light district and coffee shops, for example, for being evidence of Dutch liberalism and possibly lax moral nature. While these kinds of books go on to explain the intellectual and societal background that led to these things that are in fact very different to how many visitors perceive it.
I have also finally got to meet up with author Richard De Nooy (@Richarddenooy), a South African born writer who has made Amsterdam his home for the last 25 years. I have been following Richard on Twitter for quite a while so it was nice to meet a fellow writer turned performance poet in the flesh and hear his version of life in this city. Richard has been published in both English and Dutch, is fluent in both and works as a translator in between penning his novels… this is part of the emerging literary life that I am beginning to perceive as I stay here.
In addition, I been sharpening my interest in the ongoing relationship between the Netherlands and South Africa… a close relationship what was abruptly severed by the British take-over of the Cape colony (originally in 1795 and ratified in 1814). In Amsterdam, Zuid Afrika Huis is the seat of part of this ongoing relationship. They have a great library of South African literature and are involved in several programmes to maintain relations and share knowledge.
The Institute also offers language lessons and stages events (well, there building is currently under renovation, but this is part of their normal programme of activities). I popped in to deliver a copy of my poetry book For You Or Someone Like You and discovered that they actually had a copy of the short story collection I edited in 2002, Urban 2. That was a very cool surprise and a nice reminder for me that, while on this journey, my journey with writing itself has been going since my first publication back in 1991.
There are an extraordinary number of literary organisations, book shops, journals, poetry and writers groups and more in Amsterdam and I am gradually going to be meeting many of them, and reading their work and dealing with their infrastructure… it is going to be an interesting ride!