Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rotterdam has no soul

There are times when I love my job. Not only do I get to play with really cool toys all the time, but sometimes I even get almost-free, all-expenses-paid trips thrown in. Case in point: Last Thursday kicked off a three-day meeting in Rotterdam. The hotel, meeting, and meals were paid for, although I still had to buy my own train ticket to Rotterdam, and good coffee had to be bought at the train station.

Aside: The best coffee is not to be found in the coffee shops (the ones that actually sell coffee), but in the train stations. Fresh grounds for each cup--nothing better.

Rotterdam is probably the poorest city of the Randstad, despite its enormous size. I'm not entirely sure which one is larger, Rotterdam or Amsterdam, but it's definitely bigger than Utrecht and the Hague. Kind of fitting, if you think about it--the soccer teams Ajax (Amsterdam) and Feyenoord (Rotterdam) have had a rivalry older than many of their fans for a while, so much that it's hard to tell who's better.

I dislike Amsterdam. It's too commercial for me. The whole city feels like a tourist trap--until you wander into the Parts Where Non-Muslims Dare Not Go. To be quite honest these parts are substantially less scary than, say, North Philly, where I spent a fair portion during my time in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, there are parts of Amsterdam where people just don't go to, and the parts of Amsterdam where people do go are fitted out with the latest in Dutch marketing strategies to convince people to part with their euros.

But if cities have souls, Amsterdam at least has one. It's not an entirely pleasant one, especially if you compare it to the neat prim one that pervades Nijmegen or the hustle-bustle of New York, but at least it's there.

But Rotterdam--Rotterdam reminds me of Washington DC. Which is not to say that Rotterdam is pristine and glistening, or that DC is...well, Dutch. Because neither is true. Rotterdam reminds me of DC because DC has no soul. Whatever soul DC has is glitzed out by shiny new buildings and too many cars and fat boulevards. Rotterdam doesn't have shiny new buildings, although it does have too many cars. But both cities have one thing in common--the basis for their existence is money. In DC the problem is a surfeit of money and no way to spend it all, so all you see is one sparkly building after another (I'm talking about the area around the capitol, of course, and not the glaring povery on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were). In Rotterdam the problem is not enough money, so you see lots of stores trying to undercut each other, buildings built without any sense of style (a very Dutch trait, but one more prominent in Rotterdam than anywhere else), and no sense of cohesion into a whole.

The history of Rotterdam explains a lot about it: Rotterdam was one of the most heavily-bombed Dutch cities in World War II. After World War II the Dutch government didn't have much money to rebuild, so their criteria was, essentially, "anything that will stand". It was also a period where the right-wing Christians had a lot of power (read: Puritans), so the gaudy scrollwork that bedecks the houses in Amsterdam were frowned upon.

No, I can't say that I like Rotterdam much.

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