We were trying to find a place for lunch when we rounded a corner and ended up walking down a cobblestone laneway lined with nearly naked women. The way the ladies lounged in doorways, smiled and comfortably held my gaze was unfamiliar and interesting, but it was not the time to ponder the merits of legalized prostitution. I was shoulder to shoulder with my 21-year-old son and we had clearly taken an unexpected turn. Laughing, we agreed we didn't even look out of place among the wildly eclectic mix of people on the street, and started to work our way out of the red light district.
Quirky and a little off-kilter, Amsterdam has a way of taking convention and turning it on its ear. In fact, that's why I was there. My son, Jamie, an art-school student majoring in furniture, had landed an internship with hot Dutch designer Maarten Baas, and had flown to Holland six weeks earlier. But what had seemed like a prestigious opportunity was turning out to be a bit odd. Although the work was exciting and stimulating, for accommodations, Jamie was offered the storage compartment of an 18-wheeler, left on the grass beside the workshop, which was on a farm outside of Amsterdam. When he wasn't in the metal shop or the clay studio, he was tending sheep and feeding chickens. There were no other students around, and on weekends, no one else around at all. Could I come and visit for a few days?
I bought the first cheap ticket I could get, but as soon as he met me at the airport with a grinning "Goedemorgen," I could see my boy was getting the hang of his Dutch adventure. Soon I was looking for a taxi stand and he was rolling his eyes. With the station right below Schiphol Airport, we would be taking the train, he told me flatly. Great call – tickets were about $5 each instead of almost 10 times that for a taxi, and the ride to the central station was quick and easy.
Wanting to treat Jamie, I'd chosen an upscale boutique hotel in the Nine Streets, a cluster of shop-lined avenues in the heart of Amsterdam's canal district. It was too early to check in, so I just opened my bag and took out a raincoat – a garment you would not want to be without in Amsterdam – and we were on our way. Though he'd been living right beside it, Jamie hadn't had the time or money to explore the city, so we did the job together, paying special attention to our two great loves, design and food.
He decided our first stop would be Droog, an influential design collective known for its cutting-edge approach. On the walk over, he described his favourite Droog piece, a polished metal cube that comes with a hammer so you can bang your chair into whatever shape you want. "Why is that good?" I asked. (And it must be good somehow, because the Do Hit Chair retails for about $10,000.) "Because it's more than aesthetic," he said, "it's experiential." The store was an experience, too, with avant-garde furniture pieces from the Netherlands and beyond, as well as great lighting (loved the 85 Lamps by Rody Graumans) and unusual accessories. There was even a conceptual garden out back, where I sat beside metal flowers while contemplating cork mushrooms.
Hungry (and perhaps disoriented by narcotic fumes), we walked the wrong way from Droog and ended up on Dam Square then that X-rated alley before finally finding a herring stand and tentatively ordering a little serving with onions and pickles. And then two more. They say it's an acquired taste, but we loved the fish's silky texture and briny flavour. We figured we must both be long lost Netherlander. We could have eaten herring all night but we had a dinner reservation.
Restaurant As was not far, but it felt like a world apart. Sitting at a table in the round concrete building that was once a church, we ate oil-poached fish and braised sweetbreads as we discussed Jamie's experience in detail. Yes he was lonely, and there were both linguistic and cultural barriers. But he was learning how to conceive, construct and market designer furniture in a way just not covered at school. And Baas's playful, subversive style was a great fit with his own thoughts as a designer. So was he okay to stick out the rest of the internship, I asked gently. "Of course!" he almost shouted, eyes shining.
The next morning, we rushed out to the Saturday Noordermarkt, a collection of food stalls in the fashionable Jordaan neighbourhood. While I shopped to fill Jamie's fridge at the farm, he stood at the oyster counter and downed a dozen on the half shell alongside some Dutch guys. On our way back, we found the Moooi store, where my lesson in avant-garde design continued. Jamie pointed out an enormous Paper Chandelier, A Random Light by Netherlander Bertjan Pot, and the Smoke Chair, one of Maarten Baas's most famous pieces. Why smoke? Jamie explained that fire had been applied to the frame of this otherwise baroque leather chair, leaving the wood charred, crackled and obviously manipulated. "We're actually working on a mirror from the same series right now," he told me.
Jamie woke up feeling restless on our last day. Surprising us both, he said he was anxious to get back to his metal shop. There was a chair he wanted to finish, and he needed to check the farm. I hugged him goodbye with a familiar mix of pride and sadness, then I went for a stroll. The sun had finally come out, and couples were riding bikes along the Prinsengracht canal holding hands. Without really trying, I ended up in front of the Frozen Fountain, another design hub. The Dutch style that had at first seemed so offbeat now drew me in – oversized lighting, day-glow textiles, felt sculptures that looked like animal hair. Excited, I walked over to a little table on spindly, clay-covered legs, recognizing it as a Maarten Baas. But the moment was mine alone. Jamie had already gone off to make more furniture. And feed the sheep.
If You Go
Where To Stay
Located in a historic building on one of Amsterdam's most famous canals, The Dylan is intimate and luxurious. Each of its 40 rooms is unique but all are designed in rich fabrics, antiques and original artwork. Starting at about $420. Keizersgracht 384, dylanamsterdam.com
What to eat
For a sensory treat, take a taxi to De Kas in Frankendael Park. It's the project of a Michelin-starred chef determined to save a 1926 greenhouse where you can dine on smoked tomatoes, seared white fish with cabbage, and ginger-rhubarb ice cream while contemplating seven metre ceilings and sweeping views on all sides. Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3, 31-20-462-45-62; restaurantdekas.nl
What to do
The canals in the Nine Streets are charming as all get out for strolling and shopping. Beware of cyclists, or rent your own bike and join the fray. For culture, check out Anne Frank House (annefrank.org), The Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl) or the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl).
Special to The Globe and Mail
The writer stayed as a guest of The Dylan Amsterdam.