I just spent a long weekend in Amsterdam, a city which has many well-known “amusements” for the intrepid visitor. So you might be surprised to hear that what really got me excited were canals, and a glasshouse. Probably this says more about me than it does about Amsterdam, but still, I will try to share some of that excitement with you.
Holland’s capital is a wonderful city, perfectly suited to hours of aimless wandering about. The centre of town is a compact area of cobbled alleys, pedestrian walkways and gorgeous buildings. There are grand churches and clock-towers and palaces, wonderful public squares on every corner and over fifty museums compete for your time and attention. They include the world-famous Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House, and the not-so-world-famous sex, torture, chess and tattoo museums.
Beyond the marquee attractions, however, almost every street seems worth visiting in its own right. They are typically lined with five-story high homes, old and narrow and elegant, built of weathered brick with distinctive Dutch-style windows and decorative gables and moulding. Many of these buildings tilt sideways or lean forward precariously, so Amsterdam’s streets often look a lot like rows of crooked teeth. Flower boxes add splashes of colour, and wherever I walked packed cafes overflowed onto the streets, tourists and locals alike taking advantage of the warm spring weather.
Bicycles, the preferred mode of urban transport in this pancake-flat, environmentally-conscious country, were everywhere. Apparently there are twice as many bikes in Holland as there are cars, and literally hundreds of thousands decorate Amsterdam’s streets, chained to every available pole and railing in the city. They are incredibly picturesque, albeit in a slightly quirky way.
Amsterdam is not, however, a cutesy European “old town”, exquisitely preserved but nowadays largely devoted to the tourism trade. Rather, it is the vibrant home to 1.2 million burghers. The fifteen million tourists who pour in each year do nothing to change the city’s feel, of a pulsating, breathing place that is actually lived in, not just visited.
Which also means that, as cities go, Amsterdam is a bit rundown, and a touch dirty. Many walls are covered in graffiti, or papered over with posters that advertise everything from political meetings to dance parties to cheap shoes. Streets are grimy; cobblestones are uneven; pavements are cracked; garbage bins overflow. Messy rubbish bags lie in piles, blocking footpaths and gutters while they wait for collection.
Amsterdam is also quite seedy. I guess this is what comes from being Europe’s sex and drugs capital, a result of Holland’s pragmatic approach to prostitution (legal and regulated since Napoleonic times) and laissez-faire approach to cannabis (technically illegal, but decriminalised and regulated since 1975). Although that doesn’t seem to bother the Dutch, who are not at all bashful about these things.
Take the city’s Red Light District, for example. It is both a thriving, functioning flesh market and a prime attraction, clearly marked on every map and street sign. Here you will encounter the weirdness of tourists by the busload – male and female, young and old – wandering around, gawking at hookers. For their part the working girls ply their trade from behind lit-up glass windows, dancing seductively in skimpy bikinis and lingerie. It is as if the department store mannequins have come to life in the window display, although the goods on sale in this particular store are not clothes and handbags.
Walking through the Red Light District I found myself trailing a package tour group from China, who were far more interesting to watch than the girls. The group was made up mainly of middle-aged couples, in some cases with an overweight single child in tow. A Chinese guide marched ahead of the group, barking instructions and holding a red flag high above his head. Every now and again the group would pause for a photo opportunity. They would all dutifully pull out their giant cameras, and proceed to snap shots of “the sights”: the old buildings, the narrow alleyways, the giant wheels of Dutch cheese. And then, without missing a beat, the semi-naked prostitutes dancing in the nearest windows.
As for marijuana, every street in Amsterdam is home to at least one “coffee shop”, where you can buy coffee, tea, cakes and cannabis. The latter is offered in bewildering variety (loose-leaf, grass, pre-rolled joints, hash blocks, water-pipes, cookies, etc), and in a range of potencies. The coffee shop next to my hotel, as an example, offered eight specific smoking experiences, described on the menu as starting at “mild and relaxing”, and finishing at “blow your fucking mind out”.
In one of life’s little absurdities, I learned that a ban on smoking tobacco in Holland’s coffee-shops was introduced in 2008. Technically, therefore, you are only allowed to smoke marijuana in a coffee-shop if it is not mixed with regular tobacco, which we all know is very bad for you…
A ban on selling cannabis to tourists was meant to follow, and was supposed to take effect across the Netherlands on 1/1/13. However, smoking pot contributes so much to Amsterdam’s economy that the mayor of the city rejected the intended ban completely. He described trying to curb the city’s marijuana trade as “tourism suicide”, and specifically ordered the police to ignore the ban. One leading Dutch newspaper was glowing in its praise for these actions, describing it all as: “good news for tourists hoping to chill out with a toke after a trek around the flower market or Van Gogh Museum”.
For me, this actually sums-up the whole Amsterdam experience rather well. It is a place where Rembrandt and getting stoned go hand in hand. It might be odd, but that’s the Amsterdam package deal. The city is steeped in history and culture, offering amazing museums and glorious architecture, but there is a run-down, slightly tired, and relatively seedy city lurking in the shadows there, as well.
Legal marijuana aside, canals are probably what Amsterdam is best known for. The centre of Amsterdam is a patchwork of about ninety small, square-shaped islands, created by a network of 100km of artificial waterways, criss-crossing the city from all directions, and linked together by more than 1,500 bridges.
Amsterdam’s canals are also working waterways, and a key part of the city’s transport infrastructure. At all hours of the day and night they are used by countless riverboats, passenger vessels, “canal buses” and barges. A good number of people in Amsterdam choose to live on the canals as well, in boats of all shapes and sizes that are permanently docked along the sides.
So stand on just about any street corner in Amsterdam and you will almost always be standing in front of an incredibly beautiful, photo-ready scene, filled with church-spires, handsome buildings, boats, whimsical metal and stone bridges and colourful flowers. All framed by the shimmering, calm waters of a canal.
Tourist appeal aside, Amsterdam’s canals are also an engineering marvel. They are a wonder of our world, not to mention a source of many weird and wonderful Amsterdam factoids:
- Prior to the canals being built, the whole area of what is today central Amsterdam was an uninhabitable swamp. The canals drained that swamp, and by filling in the areas between, a city was born. In other words, Amsterdam as we know it is the ultimate manufactured city. UNESCO (which has awarded the canals world heritage status) describes Amsterdam as being the best example there is of “the entirely artificial creation of a large-scale port city”. That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?
- To fill in the swampy land between the canals, long wooden poles were driven into the ground, and form the foundations of the whole city. Every Dutch school-child apparently gets taught this, and knows that the Royal Palace, for instance, stands on exactly 13,569 poles.
- Amsterdam’s canals are also part of the city’s sewer system. Three times a week the canals are “flushed” when locks are opened so water can flow in from the North Sea. So whilst in winter people often enjoy ice-skating on the canals, swimming in them is probably not advised.
- One houseboat that is permanently moored along the Singel canal is called the Poezenboot (literally Cat Boat). It is a floating home for stray cats, staffed by volunteers, and at any given time several dozen strays enjoy life on it. All under the official protection of the Amsterdam City authorities.
- Each year over 30,000 bicycles (remember them) wind up in Amsterdam’s canals.
The one fact about the canals that really merits mention is probably the most obvious one – they are old. They weren’t built fifty or a hundred or even one-hundred and fifty years ago, but in the 1600s. That is, Amsterdam’s canal system was created more than four hundred years ago, in a time when there were no CAD computer diagrams, or cranes, or bulldozers. Yet despite this, it was all conceived, designed and implemented in roughly twenty years. An amazing feat of town planning that we would probably struggle to replicate if we tried today. Not to mention an inspirational example of what coordinated human ingenuity can achieve.
So what was I doing in Amsterdam, you may well ask?
Well, despite how it may seem at times, this constant roaming around the world is not all play, and occasionally I have real work to do. In the case of the Netherlands, I was there to visit a glasshouse.
A glasshouse is basically a large, hi-tech greenhouse in which fruits, vegetables or flowers are grown. The company I work for is part-owner of a glasshouse currently under construction in Australia. Tiny peanut-sized Holland happens to be a world leader in this type of specialised horticulture, and so I went there to meet John, a “grower” who has some glasshouses about an hour’s drive from Amsterdam. There he grows tomatoes. John had kindly agreed to show me and some colleagues around, so we could get a first-hand idea of what the glasshouse in Australia would be like, once complete.
In case this all sounds a bit rustic and rural and country-bumpkin-like, perhaps now would be the right time for me to tell you something about the size of John’s glasshouses. They are, quite simply, gargantuan. In them John produces around twenty-five million kilos of tomatoes each year, which is a lot of tomatoes, trust me. The glasshouses cover about thirty hectares, so roughly fifty very large football fields. They are so huge we did not walk inside them; instead we rode bicycles to get around (bikes again – they really are everywhere in Holland).
The bikes however, were the most low-tech thing there. Everything else we saw in John’s glasshouses was NASA-grade stuff.
To start with, the internal climate of the glasshouses is constantly monitored and micro-managed. Computers open and shut vents in the glass roof panels, and circulate hot or cold water around the glasshouse through tubes in the floor. This ensures that every moment of every day inside the glasshouses is a just right, tomato-friendly temperature.
Human pickers – very much poor cousins to the all-powerful computers – move through the rows of tomato vines on little automated carts. As they pluck the ripe tomatoes their baskets are electronically weighed, scanned and tagged. Every single plant in the glasshouses (and there are a lot of them – about one million in total) is numbered and regularly checked, so that nothing is left to chance. John’s computers can tell you all sorts of interesting things: the ratio of good and bad bugs living in the glasshouse ecosystem at any time; what the nitrogen content of the air is that day; or exactly how many kilos of tomatoes will be harvested in, say, three months from now.
Although where it really moves into the realm of science-fiction is in the packing area. There, millions of picked tomatoes are packed into cartons, boxes or plastic tubs. Massive crates of tomatoes are tipped onto a special conveyor belt, and as they move along at high speed a robot takes five photos of each individual fruit. These photos are then analysed by yet another helpful computer and a different robot then consigns the tomatoes, one by one, to the right packing line, based on its colour, shape and weight. It all happens in the blink of an eye though, and human intervention is simply not needed. The machines do a far better job than we ever could.
“Hang on, what on earth is so exciting about this?” I can hear you say. Isn’t this all kind of gross and a bit scary, the very epitome of everything that’s wrong with our modern world? Computers replacing humans; industrialised processes relying on robots and big, impersonal machines, all leaving a trail of pollution, pesticides and chemically-laced foods in their wake?
Which is exactly the point: at John’s glasshouses, this perception is turned completely on its head. They may be big, hi-tech and ȕber industrial, but his glasshouses are also insanely good – for all of us, and for the planet. They tick just about every box you can imagine:
- The tomatoes are grown hydroponically, using state-of-the art drip-feed irrigation. Water is used with maximum efficiency, and is recycled again and again. All in all, about ten times less water is needed in a glasshouse as compared to conventional “open-field” agriculture. Tick.
- The whole point of a glasshouse is that the internal environment can be controlled. There is no rain and no wind, and the temperature is regulated to maintain an optimal climate for whatever is growing inside. As a result, one metre of land, which outdoors might produce five kilos of tomatoes a year, produces around seventy in one of John’s glasshouses. That makes a pretty big difference when it comes to feeding a hungry planet. Tick.
- Inside a glasshouse things not only grow quicker, but better. There is no need for chemicals, pesticides or gassing (a common trick in the food game, apparently, to make green tomatoes go red, or unripe bananas turn yellow). John’s glasshouses, by contrast, use native European bumble-bees to pollinate the tomato flowers, and good bugs to eat bad bugs. That’s about it. No tricks to enhance production; no screwing with plant genetics. Tick.
- Tomatoes in glasshouses are grown vertically, on strings. As the fruit ripens, the strings are loosened so that anything ready for picking is at chest height. Meaning that a picker’s job, although manual, is not arduous or dangerous. No back-aches, no falls from ladders, no work-place injuries. Tick.
- Not to mention that John’s pickers get paid a decent minimum wage, plus a bonus based on how many kilos they pick. John has also installed a kick-arse sound system in his glasshouses, blaring out pop music that is chosen by the pickers. So what I saw during our visit there were not the miserable-looking labourers common to so many farms these days, but happy young workers, bopping up and down though the rows of tomato plants, singing along to Lady Gaga. Tick.
- Best of all, remember what you learned in high-school: plants consume carbon dioxide, and create oxygen. CO2 is thus a key input in the growing process, and is pumped into plant-intensive glasshouses, not out of them. In other words a glasshouse not only doesn’t produce CO2, it actually helps eliminate it. Less pollution, reduced carbon emissions, super-duper levels of environmental friendliness. Tick. Tick. Tick.
In short, it is very hard – almost impossible – to fault John’s tomato growing operation. It is large-scale, commercial and profitable, although at the same time it is sustainable and environmentally sound. I couldn’t help thinking that this has got to be the way of the future, and I was suitably wowed. After all, it’s not often one gets to ride a bicycle around the inside of a real-life crystal ball. And that’s pretty exciting, wouldn’t you agree?
People go to Amsterdam and often leave slightly stoned, with happy memories, beautiful photos, and a pair of fluffy souvenir clogs in their bag. Little did I expect that I would leave Amsterdam feeling more inspired than I have for quite a while, thanks to some ingenious canals and a modern-day tomato farm.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it….