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20th June 2023

Letter from Amsterdam

Lana Woolf


After Brexit there was a certain amount of talk of a number of cities taking London’s crown as Europe’s financial centre. Several runners and riders stepped forwards, but the results sometimes seemed underwhelming. JP Morgan sent its backroom staff to Dublin; a Goldman Sachs banking chief waxed lyrical about Luxembourg; and even Paris, that city so addicted to every kind of tax, but perhaps still nursing disappointment over the location of the 2012 Olympics, saw an opportunity.

But I remember thinking Amsterdam was quite a plausible competitor. Its mercantile past stares back at us in a hundred Rembrandts. Here, after all, is where banking found its rhythm after its initial invention in Florence in the Renaissance. This is a city with form when it comes to doing its sums – except when it comes to the question of the value of tulips where they may have erred from time to time.

In fact, some of the prophecy came true. Amsterdam has seen a marked post-Brexit uptick in fintech companies: TradeWeb, MarketAxess, Klana, Azimo and CurrencyCloud all entered the market here over the past five years, or else increased their presence. Of the 200,000 people who work in finance now, around a tenth work for a fintech company. AI, tech, and life sciences are also all growing sectors in this city. Of course it helps that Amsterdam has one of the biggest airports in the world, as well as proximity to one of the world’s largest ports in the shape of Rotterdam. Dutch people are also excellent English speakers.

It turns out that Amsterdam is eager to have our wealth management clients here, but increasingly less delighted to host our stag-dos. A recent campaign by the city, warning off the Brits, was a reminder that Amsterdam doesn’t necessarily want to be a place of infinite licence after all.

In confirmation of this, the Wallen Watch now patrols the streets at night, and though it’s possible for other nationalities to misbehave here, it has long been suspected that nobody does hooliganism quite like the Brits. On the way from the Eurostar to your hotel, it is indeed a miserable sight to see the windows of – often trafficked – women; the hash bars, wreathed in smoke; and the occasional poor behaviour of tourists in the Red Light District.

It is a tonic however to observe, rising out of all the evidence of human beings in decline, the gorgeous Oude Kerk, that medieval glory dreaming on another morality than the one which has long since overtaken Amsterdam.

It’s the anything goes morality of the 1960s, of course, and it’s probably time that went into retreat. But there are signs that Amsterdam has always craved freedom. In this city, unlike in many others in Europe, there are no Roman ruins for the tourists to tick off on their itineraries, though a few artefacts have been found here and there. Like the area around Westminster, Amsterdam was always marshy terrain, and therefore an incredibly unpromising place to build a major city. The Romans understood this and the world wasn’t yet thinking in terms of canal systems.

I sometimes think that the relative absence of the ghosts of Rome has meant for a city less tethered to the deep past, which may possibly account for its undeniable mercantile and hedonistic streak. Of course, it’s possible to take these sorts of ruminations too far: the presence of a Mithraeum doesn’t quash one’s delight in the present, just as the absence of one doesn’t excuse you from Gibbon.

While the Romans didn’t take much notice of here, the Nazis did. The Anne Frank Museum has to be visited if only to see what it means to fight for a freedom we might subsequently lament for the excesses it can bring. Here you wind up narrow staircases into the very rooms where the famous diary was written. What cannot be understood is how somebody could kill a girl with a smile like hers. To consider her fate, and to know that if one had the power to do so one would reverse it in an instant, is to doubt the wisdom of a non-interventionist God. But perhaps all the intervening is done elsewhere than earth. It certainly wasn’t done in Amsterdam.

Moving here has one considerable boon secreted amid all the admin: the Netherlands boasts one of the world’s finest healthcare systems. In 2016, the country topped the Euro Health Consumer Index. The system is based on a mandatory health insurance scheme (called the basisverekering), covering everything from GP consultations, hospital care, medicine prescriptions, maternity care and ambulance services: starting at around $95 a month, it’s affordable too.

And the city itself, especially if one has experienced the eye-watering prices of Oslo and such places, has an affordable feel too: beers come in at EUR4.50; a monthly transport pass at around EUR 90; monthly gym subscription at around EUR 36. The city doesn’t seem to want to take you money quite like other less exciting places.

And if you take the plunge and come here, you’ll be connected to some of the finest museums in the world. The Rijksmuseum boasts the famous Night Watch, a picture I sometime find it hard to get too excited about – partly because it’s surrounded by so much I think better: not just the other Rembrandts, but the Vermeers and the Franz Hals. Sometimes when we try to paint our masterpiece we merely produce something gigantic; when we’re off our guard and looking at a goldfinch with unusual attention, that’s when greatness can come our way.

Of course, for a while, a little known and superficially uncharming fellow called Vincent Van Gogh lived in the general vicinity. He painted supreme pictures to everybody’s equally supreme indifference. Now, he’s booked out months in advance and if you listen hard in the Van Gogh Museum, I sometimes think you can hear his kindly laughter at what posterity has given him. It’s the sort of turnaround only human ignorance, and its eventual corrective, herd praise could have produced. But there’s no begrudging Vincent, who deserves every paragraph of praise he’s ever received, including this one.

I sometimes worry we think too much in terms of capital cities: Amsterdam is a portal just like every other major urban centre. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed a peaceful walk around Delft, whose essential peace feels unchanged since the time of Vermeer. It was once said that a great artist is news who stays news. But another possible explanation is that there is really no news: human beings continue on their endeavours just as the earth is on its ellipse.

Elsewhere there’s also the Hague, which is a good option for relocation too, with a strong political scene both domestically and internationally.

Amsterdam is beautiful and thriving. Its excesses are really a wager it has made with the desire to be exciting. The good news is that it reliably is: the occasional whiff of hash is more than offset by the wholesome scent of a thousand bakeries and the ministrations of the stroopwafel. And that you really must try, whether you decide to live and work here or not.

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