Amsterdam: Hippocampus All In


Where the kerk meets red lights

The hippocampus is a part of the limbic system. The limbic system is the area in the brain that is associated with memory, emotions, and motivation. The limbic system is located just above the brain stem and below the cortex. The hippocampus itself is highly involved with our memories. (

There are many things I still love about Amsterdam sixteen years later: crooked canal houses, riding a bicycle at night on quiet, misty cobblestone streets, and winding canals draped by boxy iron bridges. In daily life, I rarely remember the details of eighteen months in Amsterdam. Snippets return with prodding: cycling in the rain while holding an umbrella, talking on the phone and juggling groceries – being surrounded by seven-footers at a concert at the Melkweg – cruising pedestrian shopping streets after work – endless jokes about my last name.   These memories? They are few, precariously perched on the frontal lobe, content to make an occasional appearance.


Canal houses near Centraal Station

There’s no mystery as to why a recent Amsterdam trip allowed access to the depths of my hippocampus – the place where memories, pain, passion, and dreams lie. The bicycle! The trusty, ubiquitous Dutch bicycle – big, blocky, heavy, and sturdy on cobblestone streets. I made plans. This day I’ll ride to De Pijp to find my old apartment, the next I will trek to De Jaren Café, the day after I’ll head to Waterlooplein flea market. Simple plans that during execution unlocked the minutiae as well as the flavor of memory – the whoomp, there it is of memory – the feel of the curve of the road on the Spui, turning a corner on a gracht and peering into a curtain-free living room, because the Dutch have nothing to hide.


Mijn fiets

These are visceral memories that induce tears or waves of joy and sadness. Sixteen years ago! Who was I then and who am I now? My early 30s are far behind me and yet I could taste them just then, with the sadness of knowing that era is long gone (and should be) and a corresponding uncomfortable twinge of the loss of the daily wonder and awe I used to possess (which oughtn’t be).

There were times in Amsterdam when my hippocampus and I were disappointed and  lonely. Amsterdam has changed a great deal in sixteen years. The level of tourism in Amsterdam in September felt like Venice in August. The Center of the city is packed to the gills with tourists. Vendors speak English first; later, if needed, in Dutch. My old humble neighborhood, De Pijp, is unrecognizably teeming with yuppies and hip restaurants.


De Bloemenmarkt

Amsterdam doesn’t feel as gezellig as it used to – the difficult-to-describe Dutch coziness, warmth, and understated joy. Gezelligheid is the experience of quiet but supreme satisfaction that manifests thanks to meaningful companionship and a simple delight in the senses.

I used to be spoken to in Dutch and would respond with a little Dutch myself. (Once I did, a kind and perhaps impatient multilingual Dutchie would switch to English.) Sixteen years later in Amsterdam, I barely heard even the basics in Dutch: hello, goodbye, thank you, see you later, enjoy your meal.


The ubiquitous houseboat

The population of locals, immigrants, and tourists looked and the vibe felt more like New York City – electric, but transient and less connected. My Dutch friends stated that Amsterdam is an international city now, not a Dutch one. You have to leave Centrum, definitely, and perhaps Amsterdam, generally, to return to an authentic Dutch experience. (Sadly, I am hearing that the countryside is being overrun by tourists as well.)

Amsterdam still suits me, though. It always has. My American coworkers in Amsterdam used to tell me: “You are going to stay in here. Out of all of us, you belong.” When my job ended in 2002, I returned to the States with the sad realization that I may never have a Dutch-level quality of life again.


Tot ziens

The vacation is over. I’ve returned to daily life in New York City and continue to delight in my Amsterdam photos and residual hippocampal bliss, but I can feel it fading. Maybe I should continue to pursue returning to the places I once lived. On the other hand, perhaps I should focus more on new places, to me, like Iceland, where I stopped for five days en route to Amsterdam. These sights, people, culture, and languages are new to the senses and jolt a re-circuiting of neural pathways. They offer an upload of fresh content to a tired hippocampus. I’ve not had to consider these things before, but as I approach fifty years of age, do I need to revisit old loves and losses or is it time to forge straight ahead?

Get your little butt out there!



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