August 18, 2017 Amsterdam Netherlands: canals, dope, flowers, & freedom

This was our second trip to Amsterdam so it was not new, but that was all right. It is well worth a second visit (or even many more for that matter). I have included in this blog photos from our previous trip because we had a better opportunity to take pictures on that trip than we did today. Last time, skies were blue and we were not confined in a gondola with glass over our heads. Bart, our cruise director gave us a lot of information about his homeland—the Netherlands.

The population of the Netherlands is about 16.2 million people or about half as many as Canada. For some reason that struck me as weird. Why would Canada have more people than the ancient country of the Netherlands? I think the reason is size. Canada is big; the Netherlands is small. In fact the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Where could all those extra people go? After all, they can only “reclaim” so much land from the sea. Bart helped us to put that into perspective: 182 countries the size of the Netherlands could fit into Australia. 242 countries the size of the Netherlands could fit into Canada.





Amsterdam is justly famous for its canals. The city has 165 canals that stretch for 100 km.  The canal ring has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

26% of the Netherlands is below sea level and 60% of the people live 5 metres below sea level. If their dykes broke the country would literally be inundated. That is one of the reasons that the Dutch, unlike the Americans, take climate change seriously. They are already working to prepare for higher sea levels. The people of Miami and many other places around the world should be doing the same thing. The Dutch are already building their dykes higher and higher. They cannot take the risk that the science of climate change is right. They know that they must assume that it is right, because the risks on the other side are too catastrophic. Really that is true for all of us. The Dutch are just smarter than many of us .

The windmills of the Netherlands are not just tourist curiosities. They are used today. In fact their main job is to keep pumping the water out from inside the dykes. If the dykes stopped working in 1 week the country would be underwater to a level of 2 feet.

The Dutch assert that the land they use that was below sea level, has been “reclaimed” from the sea.  I don’t like that expression. What does that mean? Does the land belong to the Dutch or does it belong to the sea?   According to the Dutch, who are very self-effacing, they got the land that no one else wanted. Some say, ‘God created the world and the Dutch created the Netherlands.’


They don’t actually pump the water out. They have a more efficient system. They “screw” the water out. That is part of Dutch ingenuity. The Dutch refined Archimedes’ screw that he invented in 250 B.C. The power from the windmill drives the screw. Yes—the Dutch are smart.

Even though the Dutch are so smart, they are modest and self-deprecating. Bart was a great example of that. For example he showed two pictures of a recent international summit conference. He showed a slide of Obama arriving with his massive jet and legions of security people. Then he showed a slide of the Dutch Prime Minster showing up in a bike. I don’t know if he really did show up riding a bike, but it is not inconceivable. Is it conceivable that Donald Trump would arrive by bike?

Politics in the Netherlands is strange. Because of their system of proportional representation, many political parties are encouraged. This is the exact opposite of Canada and the United States. In fact in the Netherlands there are more than 11 political parties as a result. For example, one of the parties is the party of animals. Animals have their own party.  They have another party for people over 50 years of age.

In the US they basically have only 2 significant parties. Canada has 3 or maybe 4 if you count the Greens as I certainly do. Is their system not better? Does the small number of political parties in the US not lead to more severe and crippling divisions? In the US its an US against Them World. I don’t think that is healthy. I would rather have an animal party. In fact I think in Canada we need a party for plants!   Let the wild flowers enjoy rights too. (I am only half joking here). To some extent I believe that, but will leave this issue for another day.

As a result of proportional representation and having so many parties, it is difficult for any party to get a majority. So they parties have to form coalitions. Often that forces them to cooperate with other parties. They have to learn to play together nicely. Is that not a good thing?

The Netherlands has more bicycles than people. They have more than any other country in the world. It is home to 18,000 bikes. That is nearly 3 per person. Of course many Dutch don’t know where they all are. The average person rides a bike for 2.9 km per day and use bikes for one-quarter of all of their trips.  Bikes must have lights and driving a bike impaired is a crime. Of course bike stealing is common. There are so many bikes it is just plain easy to steal one. Perhaps that is why most of the Dutch have modest bikes, not fancy ones like us North Americans. They don’t need fancy. Plain bikes will do.  I had to be careful at every intersection to make sure a bike did not run me down. I was not nearly as worried about motor vehicles. Cyclists wait for no man and have been known to literally run down pedestrians in the bike lanes. The cyclists are militant about this.

Perhaps in part because they ride bikes so much, but really because they are environmentally responsible, their government plans to abolish all petrol (gasoline) and diesel-powered cars by 2025. That is only 6 years from now. Their law is not yet binding, but that is the direction they are riding (on their bikes of course.) By 2025 they want only electric cars on their streets. And bikes of course. China is moving in this direction too. Americans and Canadians instead are chasing losing technologies.

The Netherlands is also famous for allowing marijuana use. That does not mean anything goes. There are rules and laws. First, as Bart explained, the laws were not changed to legalize marijuana. Policies were changed not to enforce the marijuana laws in some circumstances. The Dutch policy allows people to possess and use small amounts of cannabis. The maximum amount one can carry is 5 grams (0.2 ounces) can grow is 5 cannabis plants.

Selling grass in coffee shops remains technically illegal but is tolerated by police and prosecutors provided owners stick to the rules and don’t create or permit nuisances in the neighbourhood. They are not permitted to advertise. We were told that if we saw “coffee house” that would be a place without marijuana. Sort of like Tim’s. A “coffee shop” however is a place where you can find whacky tobacky. Weirdly, smoking domestic tobacco products is not permitted in these shops. The Dutch are strange. Or perhaps they are just stoned.

The rules are not quite the same for foreigners. The government has said that only Dutch residents can buy weed in coffee shops. They don’t want to encourage grass tourism. So oddly, a Dutch person from New York cannot buy dope in the Netherlands, but a Canadian who lives in the Netherlands can. Sometimes I think the politicians who created these rules smoked too much dope.


In the afternoon, Chris stayed back on the ship, and I went for an afternoon stroll on my own. I love the city of Amsterdam. To me it represents diversity and freedom, 2 things I cherish. Amsterdam is the city of intellectual, political and religious freedom. That is definitely for me. In North American cities people are expected to toe the party line. In America—the so-called land of the free—people who do not demonstrate sufficient patriotism or staunch Christian beliefs are severely ostracized. That certainly is not freedom. Too often I think the only freedom Americans enjoy is the freedom to impose their views on others. Too often, genuine freedom is forbidden.

40% of Dutch people self-identify as non-religious. Yet they are extremely tolerant of religious views of others, provided they in turn practice tolerance. That is precisely the right way to deal with religion in society in my opinion. Everyone should be free to exercise the religion of their own choosing including the right to practice no religion at all.

The Dutch also do not like to impose their social views on others. The Dutch were the first to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001. Freedom of religion in the Netherlands is rooted in the religious wars that took place in the 16th century in European. People remembered how people were slaughtered over their religious views and practices. They do not want to repeat that. That led to the first form of limited constitutional recognition of freedom of religion in 1579. Remember that was during the 16th century when Catholics and Protestants elsewhere were taking turns burning each other at the stake.

The city of Amsterdam is extremely congenial. It was so easy to feel completely at home here. No doubt it is one of the most congenial cities in the world. I love Amsterdam.


The Dutch love art. They have one of the world’s great museums—the Rijksmuseum. One of the world’s greatest artists—Rembrandt—comes from the Netherlands. They also love tulips! How can you not love a country that loves art and tulips? The Keukenhof Gardens are the finest tulip gardens in the world.


Did you know that the first financial boom and bust was caused by tulips? It seems incredible, but it is true. There was tulip mania from 1600 to 1630. Tulips, not railroads, furs, diamonds or gold led to the world’s first stock market boom and crash. I bulb could be sold for a fortune. Land was traded for tulips. In 1634 one Dutch trader exchanged one 1,000 pounds of cheese, 4 oxen, 8 pigs, 12 sheep, a bed, and a suit of clothes for one tulip bulb. The Dutch know what valuable—flowers!

We were lucky when we went to Keukenhof because they also had an orchid show. Go figure–an orchid show in a tulip garden! Life is good.

Historically the Netherlands welcomed religious dissidents fleeing persecution in other countries like Germany and France. They accepted religious dissenters. That was another reason why I loved Amsterdam. This was my kind of city. Tulips, canals, bikes, art, freedom, and rebels. What is there not to love?

I saw no sign of military posturing. The Dutch have outgrown that. At one time they had it too. Not any more. All military ambitions have been abandoned.

This does not mean that the Netherlands is perfect. Like so many other parts of the world the fearful people are growing in influence here too. The fearful people are trying to persuade the rest that all of their problems are caused by nasty immigrants. As a result far right political groups have been growing in popularity, but thankfully have not become dominant. I don’t think they will become dominant either, but we will have to wait and see.

No one seems to fear terrorist attacks. The Prime Minister is single and lives with his mother. No one comments about that. He is completely free to do that. People like him. He is thoughtful, not aggressive. He is kind, not belligerent. He talks calmly without ranting. Americans could learn a lot from the Dutch. So could Canadians. This country is for me!

Perhaps my search for civilisation was over. It seemed to me that it could be found here in Amsterdam. I was able to forget about terrorists. I remembered them, but only for a short time. As I walked through the city enjoying the sun, the canals, the wonderful old buildings, the sidewalk cafés and bars, and the obvious freedom enjoyed by all. I was immensely pleased. It really felt like this was the place for me. This was civilisation. I love the Netherlands!

After our last river cruise fine meal and copious amounts of wine, we returned to our cabin to pack our bags. This was sad. Our river cruise was over tomorrow and all our friends for life were going their separate ways. We said our good-byes and prepared for our new adventure on our own. That was scary.



2 thoughts on “August 18, 2017 Amsterdam Netherlands: canals, dope, flowers, & freedom

  1. There was a big flood in The Netherlands in 1953. I was unaware of this until I watched a Dutch movie called (are you ready?) The Flood. The dikes were breached and the ocean flooded in.

    1. I heard about but no little about it. I think it was serious and they were very worried the dyke would not hold, which would have been a disaster. Much worse than the so-called flood of the century

Leave a Reply