Oud Zuid Amsterdam: A Simpler Life?

I t was a clear and crisp morning in the Old South neighborhood of Amsterdam, more formally known in Dutch as Oud Zuid. To get there, I had paid the five Euros and boarded the bus at Schiphol Airport — where I had just arrived on a flight from Madrid — to a bus stop several blocks from home of an American and his family.

Having been to Amsterdam before — seeing the canals and some of the other sights which the city has to offer — it was a refreshing treat to visit a neighborhood away from the areas where tourists typically frequent.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

The door buzzed open after I rang the bell. I climbed the stairs and was greeted warmly into the spacious apartment by the person whom I first met in person several years ago on a special flight from New York to Paris, as he is a member of FlyerTalk.

Unfortunately, I was initially not greeted so warmly by his dog; but that was not a problem. I eventually became a new best friend of the dog before long.

After talking for a while and meeting his wife, we took a stroll around the neighborhood. It was a neighborhood like many you would see around the world or perhaps near your home: people milling about, strolling in the park, shopping at local stores, and — most noticeably — riding bicycles.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

No matter what may be the weather, bicycles are the preferred transportation here in Amsterdam — so much so that special lanes were constructed just for this mode of transportation. It is clean, efficient and inexpensive. It is not unique to Amsterdam — I have seen special lanes in countries such as Malaysia, for example — but just the same, it left me wondering why transportation by bicycle was not more widely used in the United States, where a special lane for bicycles is little more than two white stripes of paint on the right side of a busy road with a little logo of a bicycle occasionally in the center of the “lane.”

“Notice how some of the bicycles are custom-made”, said my friend as bicycles with compartments for toddlers, groceries and other people and items sped by on this autumn day in the park. One bicycle had a protective covering for a baby as the mother rode past us.

When we reached the end of the park, we walked towards a local street with “mom-and-pop” stores on it — including a store where you can rent videos; as well as not one but two travel agencies.

Try finding either one of those in the United States these days. I wondered if the proprietors of these establishments realized that the days of their companies are probably numbered — or if the local clientele was that loyal to keep patronizing their businesses.

The florist cut the flowers to be used by company visiting my friend and his family later that night. He paid her in cash; and she cheerfully greeted him a good day as we left.

“Many merchants do not accept credit cards here”, he told me as we were in a local store searching for containers in which to store leftover homemade soup. I guess the store owners do not want to pay the extra fees for which they would be charged if they accepted them. This, of course, means that the practice of “manufactured spending” is not nearly as prevalent here as it is in the United States. No earning cash-back bonuses or extra frequent travel loyalty program miles or points here — or, at least, the chances are quite few and far between, anyway.

Searching for the right containers to store a pot full of soup — as well as other items Americans may take for granted — can be a challenging task. You cannot just walk into a Target or Wal*Mart and quickly get whatever it is that you want. The variety of items are limited in these local neighborhood stores; and yet somehow the residents of Oud Zuid manage to continue on living their lives.

I was reminded of my formative years growing up in Brooklyn, where I remember walking to the neighborhood grocery store and picking up items such as milk and bread. Next door was the produce stand where my mother purchased fresh fruits and vegetables. Down the street was the barber shop, the butcher, and the apparel store where every year my mother purchased clothes for me just prior to the start of the upcoming school year. Trips to the supermarket were occasional and not an everyday occurrence.

The people in Oud Zuid still lead the simpler life which many Americans used to enjoy before the advent of suburban sprawl enveloped many areas within the United States, where people usually hop into cars to accomplish their everyday tasks.

“I thought about buying a car while living here — but why?” said my friend, who would have to be concerned about where to park it. He needed a car at his suburban home in the northeastern United States; but in Amsterdam, public transportation, bicycles and walking pretty much covers all of the transportation needs of his family.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

It was a peaceful and relaxing day, walking around in the cool air with the rays of the sun shining through the leaves of the trees, which had started to fall. Despite the number of people milling about, the neighborhood was relatively quiet…

…and he was quite content with his living situation — albeit uncertain at this time as to whether it was temporary or permanent. “I really like living here”, he told me. Although he travels to the United States on a somewhat regular basis, he has no strong desire to move back anytime soon.

On that note — as late afternoon started to turn into evening — it was time for me to return to Schiphol Airport to catch my flight to Seoul.

I find it ironic that traveling to a different continent reminded me somewhat of what everyday life used to be like when I was a boy; but that is not to say that I wish to return to those days. Rather, I would like to have the best of both the past and the present — and in some ways, I am fortunate enough that I do…

Photographs ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

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