Rounding the corner, a wide-stretch of striking modern architecture and haze came into view. Inhaling deeply, I sighed with happiness. This view, shrouded in air pollution, reminded me of my beloved southern China. I could have been in Hong Kong or Guangzhou, but I was not. I was in Rotterdam.
Rotterdam is the Netherlands’ second largest city, and unlike Amsterdam, The Hague or Utrecht, it is strikingly modern. In fact, it does not feel like the rest of the Netherlands much at all. For example, look at the city’s clean and functional train station. It is completely different than the old and grand, but unkept and shabby, Central Station in Amsterdam.
During my day in Rotterdam, the sun was shinning, early spring was in the air and it was utterly refreshing to take a break from historic, charming Holland to walk around a city that was fresh, new and experimental. A place that wasn’t bound up by history. The city’s experimental freedom came at great cost, as much of city was completely destroyed during World War II. The result today, however, is that Rotterdam feels like a place in America or southern China: a young place with over-sized aspirations.
At the same time, the city isn’t cold and sterile as some modern spaces are. Instead it has a cutting-edge playfulness revealed by the artsy Witte de Withstraat area (nicknamed the ‘Axis of Art’) and by the city’s many strange and risqué pieces of public art.
After a few kilometers of artistic oddities, I will admit that my taste for the new dulled. By lunchtime, I passed the lobby of an art hotel filled with lamps and chairs made out of multi-colored garden hoses and merely gave it a weary glance.
What caught my eye at this stage was an old building: the former head offices of Holland America Line. This was the very place where thousands of Europeans left from the Netherlands in search of a better (or at least different) life in America. I had stumbled across the exact spot where some of my own ancestors had departed from the Netherlands in 1895.
It was a very odd feeling to be standing there, 120 years later. This was the last bit of European land that they had touched before setting off for New York City and then to the American West. After stepping off of this patch of land, they never returned to their homeland again.
Perhaps they too needed a break from charming, historic Dutch stuff and thought: “I’ve had enough of all these windmills, canals, stately brick buildings and green fields. Give me a gritty, dry cowboy town full of opportunity!”
They could not have guessed that the city they left behind would become such a forward looking place, a place full of the sorts of possibilities that they sought in America.