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By Colleen Friesen

"This is the first time I've ever really wanted to take photos of Caucasians doing everyday stuff." Laughs Karen Judd. She and I have stopped overnight in Amsterdam enroute back to Canada. We've just spent a month in Africa, where everything people did in the Sub-Saharan nations we visited made for extraordinary photos. But she's right. Everything that anyone does here has the look of the amazing too.

Maybe it's because the city feels so calm. It's like entering a black and white scene from the early days of silent movies. There are hardly any cars as we leave Centraal Station after a zippy train trip from the airport. And little traffic; mostly bikes and tall pedestrians.

We walk past the coffee shops that sell magic mushrooms, the kitschy souvenir stands with the huge canary-yellow fuzzy "clog" slippers and the endless marijuana motif shirts for all the tourists who can't believe their good luck at finding a place that lets you publicly smoke pot while eating a piece of chocolate cake. And yes, that's part of the uniqueness of the city. But it's more than that. It feels timeless, relaxed and…well, yes, tolerant.

Paris is said to have sharp dressers, but if there are points awarded for scarf wearing, the Dutch win the prize. Perhaps it's their love of bicycles and all those stories of skating on canals that makes a scarf flying from a neck an irresistible fashion statement.

The bikes aren't fancy. Most are in basic black in styles that haven't been altered in years. This too, adds to the old film feel. No one has filled these people's heads with nonsense about spandex and Lycra and helmets and speciality cycling clothing. The Dutch just ride their bikes, children astride the back little chairs, women in suits and flying overcoats, men with jaunty hats and boys pedalling young girlfriends who sit side-saddle while wearing pretty pink shoes. I realize I am coveting their civility.

Not to mention their clothes and shoes. Karen and I are tall. The Dutch are tall. This is a good thing for shopping. We are in heaven. Shirts that have too-long sleeves, buttery leather boots in big sizes and funky long-legged fashions.

"Do you need help?" The man sets down his laundry basket on the top of the six steps up to his flat. He points at our map that we've twisted to try to match the myriad of canals intersecting the streets.

"We're looking for the Nine Streets - De Negen Straatjes." I realize that being of a certain height does not necessarily lend itself to an automatic Dutch accent. I'm sure I just killed the pronunciation of those few words.

"Excellent choice." He jumps down the steps and points us in the right direction. Like everyone else we meet, he is enthusiastic.

The Nine Streets is in the heart of Amsterdam's Canal district and is stuffed with one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, cafes, clothing and shoe stores. Within two hours, Karen is sporting gorgeous new boots and we've surreptiously taken pictures of various cyclists.

We head back to our friendly host at our Sofitel hotel, grab an apple off the counter and ask him what we should do next.

"You need to eat, yes?" He takes our well-worn map that he had previously circled with the Nine Streets shopping area.

"Here, this is an easy place to find." He circles Westerstraat. "A short walk and a good restaurant." He bends over the map and prints it carefully, while pronouncing the words for us, "De Eetkamer van de Jordaan."

We manage to get the last table in the buzzing little restaurant.

Walking home, we pass into film noir scenes of silhouettes backlit from their cigarettes. Our shoes echo on the cobble stoned narrow lanes. Light pours sepia-toned foggy mist from the lamp standards.

Tomorrow we plan to be up early to catch the flower and flea markets before we grab the speedy train back to Schipol airport, an airport that feels more like a fabulous mall than a place to board a plane. When we finally leave Amsterdam, we'll only have been there 18 hours, but it'll feel like we're leaving home.


To the land of the friendly giants:

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1. Canal View
2. Backlit Bikes
3. Mother and Daughter
4. Shadowy Street
5. Handlebars


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