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On Amsterdam waters, Summer 2000

I met a New Zealander living in Amsterdam who owned a small boat that he used for giving tours.

One evening Owen was planning to go out on the water, and invited me. There were a few paying customers who had booked, and he could take one other person, so asked me. It's good policy, besides being a friendly gesture — a smart way to generate positive word-of-mouth.

Owen's boat was 9-10 meters long, and I'd say about 40 years old. The cabin was painted white and had a patina of green Amsterdam canal moss. There was a kiwi bird stenciled on top. New Zealanders could tour for free.

We had smokes, and Owen had brought some cans of beer. There was a bucket down in the engine room, if you had to pee. Just put your knee on that other bucket, and duck your head a little bit....

It's nice on the water in Amsterdam. Amsterdam, of anything else that may be said of it, is a beautiful city. It's stunning, really, as you absorb more of it. The sheer number of stylish canal houses, in variations of the "golden-age" Dutch style, is a treat for the eyes. Many of the boats on the canals are as beautiful, many of which serve as housing.

Entering the Red Light district, Owen asked that nobody take photographs. (This is standard. It is very rude to photograph prostitutes at work. The scene, women behind glass in red-lighted chambers, are for eyes only. [unless you pay for sex; but no cameras, ever.] A flash-bulb from his boat would be a serious embarrassment for Owen.)

We passed the reputed narrowest house in Amsterdam — though you could see by the shape of the roof that it widens a bit, further back. At front, it's about as wide as the door. (Old Dutch houses are generally narrow relative to their height. This is due to both the limitation of property space [which has been a constant on land established as necessary on watery terrain] and to the method of property-taxation when these houses were built — fees assessed according to the width of the structure.)

We went under a brick bridge that had small quarters under each end; there were windows, and they showed that the floor level was just above water. The word is, this was once used as a prison. A myth tells that on the rise of the water-level, hardened criminals inside this prison were drowned. (But this is obviously mythical, because the water level in Amsterdam doesn't rise. It's Dutch — the water level is engineered, held constant.)

When we passed under the bridge and looked back, the door was open. Inside, the lights were low and exotic-looking. A woman was standing in profile at the door, in expensive-looking lingerie. Somebody was just going in. There was more than one person inside. Obviously there was something sexual going on, something a bit up-market.

We went out on the Ij, the (what do you call it? is it a bay? It's an inland water body; it used to be salt, and is now fresh water. Harbor.)

We motored past the life-size replica of the V.O.C. Amsterdam, a cargo sailing vessel that ran aground on her maiden voyage in 1749. "I don't know why they chose* to make a replica of a ship that sank on her maiden voyage," Owen wondered. Good question.


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*The ship V.O.C Amsterdam ran aground in sand near Hastings, England on its maiden voyage toward Indonesia, in January 1749.

The abandoned ship sifted deeply into the sand.

A low spring tide revealed the Amsterdam in 1969. It is the best-preserved V.O.C. ship ever found.

Major excavations of the V.O.C. Amsterdam in the mid-80's produced dense archeological evidence about the Dutch East Indies Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or "United East-Indies Company.") The V.O.C. was an immensely successful business-military venture at the heart of the Dutch Golden Age.

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