Homecoming in Amsterdam

It was to have been a kind of homecoming, but now as I sat in front of the great, gabled Central Train Station and reviewed the hurried four or five days I spent trying to renew my 14-year friendship with Amsterdam, I wondered how close we still were, who indeed had change more.

It occurred to me, my feet dangling from a wooden landding 100 yards in front of the station, where the canal tour boats are moored, that with only an hour left in town this was one of the few quite, serene roosts I had found all week. Yet, noise was not the objection. Amsterdam had always been a clamorous, crowded city, where one could still find civility and grace.

Was that it? Was she losing her civility? Surely it had seemed that way on the Sunday afternoon when I walked out of the central station after an overnight train ride from Italy and headed first, as always, for the Leidseplein. More than the teeming Dam, the Leidseplein was my point of reference, my anchorage, and yet now it seemed to be everyone'sm anchorage. In 1966 it was a busy but well-scrubbed square where the provos, those Dutch cousins of the hippies, mingled with the ordinary burghers and sat aside by aside in the high-ceilinged American Hotel lounge reading the international newspapers hung on racks. Now the square was littered, the lawn in front of the hotel sparse and uncut.

Part of the problem was that I had surprised my favorite old town in the most of a four-day religious weekend. In a city whose populace cherishes a spirited autonomy through a normal workweek -- where bikes, trolleys, cars, trucks, and pedestrians blithely share the same narrow lanes and canal bridges and never quite -- that tender thread of control now seemed absent. Well, of course. The Amsterdamers themselves were absent. But the hotels were full, and as I began to canvass the familiar little canal houses -- Amsterdam's answer to B&B -- around the Leidseplein I could see my challenge mounting. In almost every window a sign said "Vol, Full, Complet." I peeked into the Impala Hotel, where in the parlor floor dining room the owner hand-lettering a sign "CLOSED," which I took to mean full. On more than one visit I had awakened in the Impala with the best of all prospects: a view from a cozy, atticlike room to the sparkling (or leaf-strewn or frozen, depending on the season) canal below, then a careful trip down the steeply pitched stairs to a full Dutch breakfast in the buzzing little dining room.

Mr. Venema, the owner, remembered me and said he would have a room once the holiday crush broke. He acknowledged what I had deduced in one block's hunt, that the canal house is less a bargain than ever before. One dollar would get you only two guilders now, and the sparest room in the Impala (with cheese, meat , egg, bread, and beverage for breakfast, of course) cost $30 double. Forty dollars and up was more the rule in the canal houses on the slightly higher- rent Prinsengracht and Heerengracht Canals, but it was all academic: Not a room was to be found.

I tramped back to the central station and pushed my way into the throunged little VVV tourist room-finding office. I gave up before ever reaching the front line. Travelers were being advised to take the train to Haarlem to find a room. From the Frommer $15-a-day guide, I noted a few private- home rooms, phoned from in front of the station, and received very polite, even sympathetic, turndowns.

The search went on for three hours, and on each pass of the Hotel Wiechmann at 328 Prinsengracht, I stopped to report my progress to the breezy, bearded man seated out front on a bench with his two dogs. It looked for all the world like a back-porch scene in "Oklahoma." And no wonder, for bearded TEd Boddy is former Sooner who married into a Dutch hotel family and today, with his wife, operates the reputable Wiechmann. Of course it was full.

"I paid the equivalent of one dollar to stay at this hotel in 1952," he said. "Now I sell the same room for $22 a person. Of course we've put in central heating, a shower for every three rooms, instant hot water in the taps and showers. Fact is, I've replaced everything but the floorboards, beams, and walls."

MR. Boddy, whose preferred list of canal houses and hotels eventually led me to a $40 hotel room behind the Concertgebouw, far from my beloved canals, agreed that the city had grown sootier and more chaotic. He blamed the leftwing city government and its public-welfare system, a charge that sounded strangely out of place in liberal, free- spirited Amsterdam, indeed would have sounded more at home on a back porch somewhere in Ted Boddy's homeland.

No doubt the hotel-hunting travails of that Sunday afternoon had colored my view of the city, but within a day much of the old warmth and feelings was seeping back. And now from my perch on the wooden landing in front of the central station with too little time showing on the big clock, my train probably already boarding passengers for Paris, and a TWA flight set to take me away from the Continent the next day for who knew how long this time, I could only think of what I would miss about Amsterdam.

I would miss the serpentine yellow trams whose ourside doors I had learned to open with the press of a mysterious button. I would miss the trioi of grand, adjacent museums -- the Rijksmuseum (with its directional signs leading through the building to Rembrandt's "Night Watch" like an old Burma Shave ad), the Stededlijk, and the Van Gogh, all three mercifully uncrowded on a weekday. And I would miss, among a dozen other things, the quaintly sagging 17th-century houses with furniture hooks protruding from their brows. Maybe Amsterdam and I had both changed. Certainly we would see each other again.

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