Amsterdam is not a city of superlatives. Oh, I’m sure the folks at the VVV or the "I amsterdam" campaign could work up some statistics that would show how Amsterdam is the biggest or best at something. But the fact of the matter is that Amsterdam is not an inherrently "grand" city. Beautiful? Yes. Interesting? Absolutely. But let’s face it: Amsterdam is not a city built to impress.
The city’s "illustrious antiquity" is not self-evident — as it so clearly is
in Rome, or Athens, or Beijing. Rather, the oldest buildings in the city date
back to the end of the Middle Ages (though there aren’t many that even go back this far). There is very little in the way of massive monuments — like you’d find in Paris, or Washington, or Moscow — celebrating the city’s or the society’s greatness. The tallest structures in Amsterdam are stubby office buildings and hotels, very practical and proper, and if you were to look down from the top of one of these "tall" buildings, you would see a very sporadically sprawled, mismatched, happenstance arrangement of architecture spanning the last five centuries. The labyrinthine avenues worming through the city — cutting thin channels through buildings stacked four, five, or six stories tall, just about everywhere — are certainly fascinating and intriguing… But they are not impressive.
Consider this: Commission any ten people to buy you "the quintessential" postcard representing the city of Amsterdam, and I’d be surprised if you got more than two or three that were depicting the same scene.
As any true Amsterdammer knows, the strength of the city lies in its incomparable ordinariness in the midst of its incredible diversity. By looking at a collection of scattered samples of items that more-or-less fall within the same category, one gets a better idea of the city. Taking fifty portraits, if you will, to get a single impression of Amsterdam. But even then, the impressions of the city are never complete. They are constantly evolving. Stereotypes and clichés and slogans must be brushed back like the dust and cobwebs of a forgotten attic — and then, only then, by way of glimpses stolen through the chinks and cracks and hidden crannies of honest everyday acquaintance can one begin to know Amsterdam. Not completely — never with truly divine omniscience — but more intimately, and increasingly more meaningfully.
In order to see Amsterdam through the eyes and ears of Amsterdammers, one needs to examine the images and stories of the city, uncluttered, stripped of any presumed glamour and grandiosity. But because Amsterdam is a mystical and spiritual city, we cannot help but be awed and impressed. The everyday gives way to the ethereal. And the small slivers of humanity, grasped and glimpsed through the tiniest of ever-moving spaces, illuminate the true greatness of Amsterdam and the presence of God in the city.