One of my photos

Piet Koopt Hoge Schoenen

July 27th, 2010 · Posted by Skuds in Uncategorized · No Comments · Uncategorized

I have just finished reading Amsterdam from the ‘City-Pick series of books, which I got through Amazon’s Vine programme.  It is a collection of snippets from literature about the city.   I must have visited Amsterdam more than anywhere other city except Paris and can find my way round it better than anywhere except London, but after reading this book I realise I have only scratched the surface.

Some of the writing is beautiful, some of it very functional.  There are few hard facts in it: the one that sticks is the mnemonic Piet Koopt Hoge Schoenen (Piet buys high shoes) to remember the order of the main canals – Prinzengracht, Kaisergracht, Herengracht, Singel.  Even so, by the end I felt I knew a lot more of the city, especially the Jordaan district which I have probably wandered through umpteen times without any notion of the historical context.

Here is what I said about it on Amazon:

This series is pitched and described as a sort of alternative travel book, but it is a very oblique sort of travel book, being more of an anthology of literature around the theme of a city, with a mixture of writing from both well-known and obscure sources. These can be excerpts from novels, histories, letters and diaries – including one of the most famous of all diaries: Anne Frank’s.

With Amsterdam being one of my favourite places I was prepared to enjoy this book, and I did, although for me it started a bit slowly. Of course everybody will find some of the pieces better than other, it just happened that all the pieces I liked least were in the first section. I was worried that the book was going to be a disappointment but it soon got under my skin.

There are some pieces from very well-known writers like Albert Camus, Simon Schama, Ian McEwan and Voltaire, but a lot of the book is by Dutch writers, many translated into English for the first time. Perhaps surprisingly it was the pieces by the relatively unknown writers that were more engaging.

The book is split into sections with loose themes: the sea and canals, art, the occuoation of WWII, and the famous tolerance of the Dutch and specifically Amsterdam. The section that is closest to a traditional travel book contains descriptions of various ‘must see’ places, but even this is an idiosyncratic selection, including plenty of places that I had, to my embarrassment, never heard of despite many visits – like the Portugese Synagogue.

This is not the place to come looking for hard factual information on what to do, where to stay or where to eat, but rather it wraps you up in the atmosphere of Amsterdam. Every time I came across the names of places I knew I wanted to be back there seeing it in a new light and every new place described made me want to just see it.

I think this is a very neat idea executed very well and I’m sorely tempted to try the equivalent books on Paris, London and New York if they do them – but not before I have gone back to Amsterdam to check out a few places first.

Some of the writing about the second world war was very moving and thought-provoking, and also uncomfortable reading – but even more uncomfortable for any Dutch readers.

There can be few cities that have generated sufficient writing of sufficient quality to make a similar books – London, Berlin, Dublin, Paris are the others in the series – I wonder which other places could follow?  New York?  Rome?

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