notes from afar 6: Amsterdam and Paris


Ended up hanging around Amsterdam for a couple of weeks, long enough that the raw data of experience began shaping itself into patterns of meaning; began to understand the place better. The last week and a half I was staying well out of the centre, in a neighbourhood with a very different demographic and feel, away from the tourists and embedded in everyday life. Over time, the race thing became weirder, and, harsh as it sounds, I can see how the Dutch gave rise to South Africa. There is nothing overt or hostile, just a sort of standard that is kept to – Dutch culture is very rules and order based – and it is implicit that the blacks don’t often meet that standard. And if you can’t keep up, you fall off, and no one will stop to pick you up. I think perhaps once I saw an inter-racial grouping hanging out on the street.

But anyway. It is a beautiful city, and an easy place to be. Riding around is great fun, and time passes pleasantly.

Amsterdam is very expensive, so I didn’t do much other than wander around lots. The budget I am on means my experience is quite particular. It is like going from borderline poverty in New Zealand, to borderline poverty in Europe. This makes it much the same; however, this gliding along the surface is what I am used to, my mode of analysis into society.I also realized how much of my experience of cities is of the night-time-city, a different world from the day time, and it was fun to explore Amsterdam by night. Different currents, a little darker, still safe and easy. Amsterdam has the biggest nightlife I have ever seen. The whole centre city is full of bars, pockets distributed over a vast area, all busy.


Paris. After a week and a half here, the French make a lot more sense. A couple of hundred years ago, this must have been the most amazing place on Earth. Grand beautiful buildings, parks and boulevards are implanted in the fabric of the city. The culture has found a sweet spot – all of the basic things are easy, and good – good food, good wine, a pleasant lifestyle in a city that has been lived in long enough that the patterns are established (Amsterdam had this too – double edged, in that while the prevailing pattern is pretty sweet, it would implicitly be much harder to change things – coasting on the patterns created centuries ago when extreme wealth descended for a brief golden age and all the amazing buildings were built. in an important sense we are our patterns of interaction with our environments, and these patterns were laid down long ago… well, long ago in the New Zealand mentality…).

The French thing in general, the reputation and attitude they are famed for, seems just to be this: that they have a culture, they have a way of doing things, it is actually pretty sweet, and if you aren’t participating in it they aren’ t really interested in you; and if you turn up and aren’t participating, you are somewhat annoying. Even within that, the culture is somewhat cliquey, compared to the pub culture of the UK. But ultimately it just seemed to be that sense of “we have a good thing going here, leave us to it”. The downside is a kind of backward looking insularity in fast-changing times, and a problem integrating those with different cultures, who may not be at all interested in “becoming French”.

Which leads to: the race thing in Paris was pretty insane. Like, it felt openly tense and hostile at times. Have never encountered that before. These people just need to learn to talk to each other. Not that NZ is any kind of enlightened paradise, but at least we can talk to each other, you know? And the stories from my host – a charming little vegan rock DJ – of the number of fights he had gotten in, and how and why, all involving really fucked up and unwarranted behaviour with a racial angle, was startling.

Anyway. In brief: the Louvre is incredible. Putting all this historic art in a palace itself opulently decorated in a style which reflects that history of art is a stroke of brilliance. The Venus de Milo is genuinely amazing – living flesh captured in marble. The Mona Lisa, who knows, you view it from a quarter of a mile away amid a throng of people taking photos. You could look up a photo of it on the internet and have a better experience of it. I dug the Akkadian/Mesopotamian stuff in particular, it just has this totally otherwordly feel. But in general the Louvre is way too vast to get around even half of in a day. Notre Dame is cool. Hanging out by the Seine or a canal and getting happily boozed is nice. The underground music scene feels about a similar size to Wellington’s, but a bit more active. And in general, while big, Paris is surprisingly small. Though somehow very disorienting, on the street.

Booze is cheaper than food here. The drinking culture in Europe really puts Kiwi drinking culture to shame. Courtenay Place is actually an international disgrace, not just a local one.

Stayed with burners at Monkeytown, really excellent and interesting people, with more passing through. Interesting how much of our obscure cultural taste was shared. Went to a really excellent party at the Time Machine, a ridiculously epic apartment (4 bedrooms, library, 2 bathrooms, huge living areas, hallways, etc, with art and statues all over the place) – apparently the end of an era, the last party there. Great conversations, booze and dancing.

Being from the Hutt, I do find it surreal that I am somehow in with this amazing network of cool people; the jetset side of things adds to it. Tonight I will go to a party on the sand of the Thames, I hope to get to Italian Burning Weekend, and Smoking Craic in Ireland (a party in a freaking castle!), three parties in three countries in three months, all just part of this network. Whose life is this?

Back in London briefly – the Chunnel was a bit of a let down, the bus packed into a weird iron train carriage – again lots of fun to catch up with people. Went to Tuttle, a random discussion group, and ended up staying most of the day having amazing and unexpected conversations. The C4CC is an amazing space, would love to see something like that in Wellington. Then ended up out in Camden, having a blast.

Off to Peru for a month tomorrow morning. Feel shockingly unprepared, no plan, almost no language ability. I don’ t actually feel particularly adventurous or intrepid as a traveller, so it will be interesting. Wish me luck!

2 Responses to “notes from afar 6: Amsterdam and Paris”

  1.   Vince
    September 4th, 2011 | 5:37 pm

    Your comments tally pretty much with what I thought of Paris.

    You know, I was actually a bit pissed off, the first time I was there. Pissed off because it was obvious that Paris was/had been at the centre of a pretty massive civilisation. One that had done many of the same things as Anglo-Saxon civilisation, but my clever old teachers at various NSW schools had somehow neglected to mention that fact for all the years I was at school. I was amazed at how blinkered my education had been. Those pesky French seemed to cross paths with the Brits at all sorts of times and yet no-one made the obvious point, that we weren’t alone Out There.

    I agree with your comments on the Louvre and the Mona Lisa. What with the crowds and the bullet-proof glass, you probably ARE better off looking at a print. But hey, there’s so much other stuff in there, and in a dozen other art museums. My favourite piece was The Raft of the Medusa.

    My take on the the proverbially rude Parisians is that they’ve seen billions of tourists, and they’re not going to get all excited over you. Because you are just another tourist. Fair enough, I suppose. If you don’t expect them to be like comedy French in movies, they’re not too bad. But I prefer the Italians, who are friendlier.

    I used to have a girlfriend whose family was Dutch. She’d been there to visit family a couple of times and her take on rules and the famous Dutch permissiveness was that you could legalise *anything* in Holland and it wouldn’t be a problem because the Dutch love rules and they wouldn’t change the way they behave. She told me that the dope cafes are mostly frequented by foreigners. I wouldn’t know, but it sounds plausible.

    Have a great time in Peru. Pity Buenos Aires isn’t on your radar, it was redesigned along the same lines of Paris, BUT… it’s in Latin America. Which will make more sense once you get to Peru. 😉

  2.   bruce
    September 5th, 2011 | 5:12 pm

    >The French thing in general

    Yeah… the way I put it, is the French are like Americans, which is why they dislike eachother. Very language and culture-centric,eogtistical about their historical achievements. Of course the French eat and dress better.

    Buena suerte en Peru!