First, I had to remember how to pack again for a big trip. I added masks, doubled-checked my health coverage, and compulsively reviewed ever-changing international travel rules and Covid testing requirements. After months of avoiding crowds, busy airport lounges and check-in lines were unnerving. Most people wore masks, as required, but the few who refused or kept them on their chins reignited that burning fury that threatened to rob me of that prickling anticipation of being transported to a new reality. But I made it.
Amsterdam feels different. The August air is cool, the skies overcast, but something has changed.
There’s an unfamiliar seriousness in the air. The city that routinely drew millions of visitors, some looking for high art, many simply wanting to smoke pot, has grown a bit quieter. The people, it appears to me, have become friendlier. The city seems more grounded — and lovelier than ever.
Some tourists have returned, but the raucous crowds that made it impossible to hold your path for more than a few seconds on a sliver of sidewalk are nowhere in sight. The sidewalk cafes are still full when it’s not raining. They have more tables outside. The city is still lively. But you hear almost only Dutch, another noticeable change.
The narrow, cobble-stoned streets are still buzzing with bicycles, but the riders are almost all Dutch. Gone are the swarms of tourists in yellow or red-painted rental bikes, pedaling uneasily and stopping suddenly, disruptively, for snapshot of one of the distinctive 17th century Dutch houses lining the old canals.
Most people are not wearing masks, but many establishments restrict the number of people they let inside. My neighborhood coffee bean store, founded in 1826, allows only two shoppers at the same time.
Unhappily, entrance to museums is less easy than it used to be. I keep an unlimited-access pass, so I always enjoyed walking the streets and spontaneously popping in and out of any of the dozens of museums across town. That’s not possible now. Now you need an appointment, also in an effort to limit the size of indoor crowds.
But Amsterdam in summer is a glorious city. Without the crowds, one can better admire its unpretentious beauty. The monuments are small, the houses only a few stories high, and now, without the mobs, there’s less shouting, less swerving, more time to watch the lighter traffic of boats gliding down the canals.
Eventually, the pandemic will end and tourists will return. This new, more serious Amsterdam will become another one of the memories of this strange time. For now, walking along the iconic canals, recognizing the quiet, and seeing how much has changed, how even the people seem a little different, is part of what traveling is all about, a heightened sense of awareness, the unmistakable feeling of being alive, and the knowledge that the world is calling out with more places to visit. I can hardly wait! (And I have already made reservations.)