Sunday, February 1, 2009

Guess we’re coming to dinner in Amsterdam

My husband and I stood uncertainly on the front step of a tall, 17th-century canal house in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. We’d never done anything like this before, and we weren’t at all sure how it was going to turn out. We’d even come up with a signal we could use if one of us was ready to go home.

We took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

I know what you’re thinking. Get your minds out of the gutter, people. We might have been in the Red Light District, but we’d simply invited ourselves over to dinner with strangers. Given where we were, that seemed like a rather tame adventure.

Even so, we were nervous. Would we find anything to talk about? What would the food be like? Would it all be awkward?

A bit of explanation is probably in order. We’d arranged the dinner through Amsterdam-based Like-a-Local, which I’ve blogged about before. (See “Check out NYC indie bands with a local” and “New insider’s tour of Madrid.”) Among other things, the company helps travellers book dinners in private homes in a number of European cities.

Before leaving Canada, I’d scrolled through the firm's website and been drawn to the description of dinner with Paul and Lucie, a couple in their 60s. It mentioned that they had lovely African art that Paul had collected on his travels, and that he loved to cook traditional Dutch dishes. The clincher? He was quoted in his listing as saying, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”

I sent our payment to Like-a-Local (42 euros per person, which included a four- to five-course meal and all drinks), and off we went to Amsterdam. It all seemed good until we realized we knew nothing at all about these folks. Then the vision of a five-course meal talking about the weather reared its ugly head.

We needn’t have worried.

The moment we rang the doorbell, two heads popped out of a fourth-storey window. “We’re coming down to get you,” Paul cried.

(I'm in the middle, flanked by our gracious hosts, Paul and Lucie.)

The apartment ran the length of the fourth floor. A compact, well-organized kitchen—where we stopped briefly as Paul poured us each a glass of wine—opened onto an airy living room with red velvet couches and big windows overlooking the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal. The size of the room surprised us, as the 330-year-old house looked so narrow from the street.

Nibbling on tiny pieces of toast topped with chopped boiled egg mixed with anchovies, we fell into a relaxed and easy conversation that strayed quickly from the weather. I was momentarily startled to learn that the house’s legal papers give Paul the right to rent out one of the neighbourhood’s brothel windows, but he quickly assured me he hasn’t exercised the privilege.

Over a rich pheasant soup, we talked about everything from Paul’s 24 years working in West Africa to the intricacies of Dutch politics. We learned about our hosts’ history together—they had dated in their 30s, split up, then reconnected a few years ago. By the time we dug into an amazing dinner of stuffed quail and another bottle of wine, we felt like old friends.

(Great food, great conversation--what more could you want?)

Of course, it helped that Paul and Lucie were old hands at being gracious hosts. At that point, they’d been involved with Like-a-Local for three years, hosting 12 to 15 people a year. “We don’t do it for the money,” Paul said. “I like to exchange ideas with people from other countries.”

When Paul suggested eggnog ice cream for dessert, we were stuffed but couldn’t resist. Once we'd had coffee, we wondered if we should go, but we were all having too much fun.

Our hosts told us about the evolution of their neighbourhood, and urged us to see beyond the windows, the dope-smoky coffeeshops and tourist joints like the “Erotic Museum.” Lucie mentioned Project 1012 (named after the postal code for the neighbourhood), which aims to restrict prostitution to a few small areas and to encourage fashion designers and other upscale businesses to set up shop. Both Lucie and Paul hope the project will deter “hooligans”—the squads of young men, mainly British, who descend on the area each weekend to drink, yell and generally carouse.

(One of the district's many churches.)

But even without Project 1012, the neighbourhood is already much more than its image. Many families live here, surprisingly, and there are several nearby hotels. An organization called Redlight Design is currently running an exhibition by leading Dutch jewellery designers. And the area, Amsterdam’s oldest, is home to seven lovingly preserved medieval churches.

Later in the trip, I visited the fascinating Our Lord in the Attic, just across the canal from Paul’s apartment. A Catholic merchant built this tiny church on the top floors of his house in the 17th century, when Roman Catholics were forbidden to worship publicly in Amsterdam.

From clandestine churches to apartments full of African art and warm hospitality, there’s much more to Amsterdam’s sedate-looking canal houses—and to the Red Light district—than meets the eye.

One final note: Amsterdam isn’t the cheapest city in the world to visit, but there are lots of ways to save euros while you’re there. One of my favourites is to use the city’s extensive, efficient public transit system—another great way to meet locals. Head to this article on budget travel in Amsterdam for tips on trams and more.

Do you have tips for meeting locals and travelling frugally in Amsterdam? Please post a comment here and share!

And if you like reading about foodie adventures on the road, please check out the "WanderFood Wednesday" blog links every--you guessed it--Wednesday at

Disclosure: I travelled to Amsterdam courtesy of the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions.


Jane Louise Boursaw said...

Laura - This is fascinating! I love your writing, and the pictures are fantastic. Great post!

Laura Byrne Paquet said...

Thanks so much, Jane--glad you liked it! I had a lot of fun writing it.

wizardofwords said...

Great article, Laura. And congrats to you and Paul for being bold enough to embrace the experience! Sounds like you had a lovely evening and made some new friends in the process. I'd love to try that service sometime and have now bookmarked the link.

Laura Byrne Paquet said...

Thanks for the compliment, Doreen! Glad you liked it. And do try the service the next time you're in one of their cities. Our Like-a-Local dinner was one of the best experiences we had in Amsterdam.

Julia said...

What a lovely experience and a lovely post! Travel is o much better with real connections like that.

Stephanie said...

Looks beautiful! Gorgeous photos... what a neat way to have dinner! :)

Rambling Tart said...

What a splendid evening! I love that you did this AND that it turned out so well. :-) How fun!!

LadyE said...

What a great way to experience a city! Thanks for sharing.

Laura Byrne Paquet said...

Thanks for the compliments, everyone! Glad you enjoyed this post about Amsterdam.