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Amsterdam by Design

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Photo: Paul Bellaart

But style?"Who told you that?'' Horsting said, with a look of genuine concern.

Style is best taken on its own terms, I suppose. After weeks spent in certified fashion capitals like Milan, where the line can thin pretty quickly between fashionable ostentation and unintended self-parody, and Paris, where the eye quickly tires of by-the-numbers Gallic chic, it's a relief to be in a country where an essential element of the national character is a will to anonymity.

The umbrella phrase the Dutch use to describe this concept is "act normal," a concept somewhat analogous to the communally enforced modesty Australians refer to as Tall Poppy Syndrome. Under most circumstances, acting normal is not an idea of which I am a proponent; way too much normalcy already gluts the world. Yet, happily, in Holland the latitudes for normality are bracingly askew. At least superficially.

The stolidly handsome businessman bicycling to work in a natty double-vent jacket no more sets standards for normalcy than does the pothead slacker in a Rastafarian tam. The burdened member of that international mule-train fraternity, the global backpacker, has the same social valence as the young housewife whose market tote spills over with dahlias and sweet peas. In a fine crazy way, the neatly coiffed matron taking tea on Dam Square is socially equivalent to the kinky beasts who must clearly abound in Amsterdam, to judge from the quantity of retail establishments, and even hotels, that cater to those for whom a night of pleasure is incomplete without a quirt or a neoprene diving suit.

It is a great relief to me that these latitudes also extend politically in Holland to a greater degree than the press would have one believe. Fears of anti-Semitism all over Europe and of a trend toward the radical right are far from unfounded; a bomb barrier was erected around Amsterdam's historic Portuguese Synagogue just a month before I arrived. Yet in the middle of my stay, the government of the rightist Christian Democratic Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende collapsed abruptly when a coalition of ministers from the D66 party quit to protest his party's harassment of the controversial writer and parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ali, of course, is the Somali-born Cassandra who made her name writing about a Europe of the future swamped beneath an unstoppable tide of Muslim immigrants. She termed this doomful place Eurabia, and since the publication of her best-selling book, The Caged Virgin, has been forced into a security bubble, constantly protected by bodyguards.

Yet it does not escape one's attention that Ali's almost heedless brand of candor (she has written of the prophet Mohammed as a "tyrant" and "pedophile") would be unlikely to find a hearing in many other countries of the world.

This seems consistent, somehow, with Amsterdam's tolerant relationship with various forms of otherness, most famously the "bad women" who ply the world's oldest profession so openly here. A lot of ink has been spilled describing Amsterdam's prostitutes. Yet it is rarely mentioned how, far from being urban one-liners, the people who occupy the city's hundreds of glass-storefront windows constitute a well-organized and taxpaying workforce that even has a union of its own.

And of all Amsterdam's residents, its hookers are doubtless the most sartorially stylized, although theirs is assuredly a style that Paris will not be copying soon. Part Wonder Woman, part Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire, the hookers in Amsterdam during my summer visit favored metallic thongs and gladiator sandals, luxuriant hair extensions and what were certainly man-made bosoms, plump and shiny and as domed as a bombe in a French patisserie.

That these women have not just excited visiting lager louts but also inspired some of Holland's best-regarded writers and artists is, oddly enough, not mentioned in the tourist blather that makes up Iamsterdam, the city's current effort to improve its tourist image; I cannot imagine why. Better than all the ludicrous key chains and delft clogs and bovine bumper stickers crammed into store windows around town, it is Amsterdam's prostitutes that represent something authentic about her history of urbanity.

As illustrated by the harlots he often depicted, this was as true in the era of Rembrandt—whose 400th birthday is being celebrated throughout 2006—as it is now. It would be hard to find on today's international art market a painter more coveted than Marlene Dumas, whose watercolors of personages from the Red Light District easily command six-figure sums. Born in South Africa and now a resident of Holland, Dumas has often spoken about artificial dualities, the deadliness of "them" and "us." These distinctions exist in Amsterdam, as everywhere, but they feel somehow less glaring here than in other parts of Europe, where it is unusual to find people rubbing shoulders across race or class.


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