Rotterdam is for people who need a break from charming, historic Dutch stuff

Detail of Erasmus Bridge Rotterdam _

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.

Erasmus Bridge and Rotterdam skyline _

The Erasmus Bridge and the Rotterdam skyline, complete with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

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.

Rotterdam Central Station: like some sort of an awesome, modern ski lodge or Bond villain lair.

Rotterdam Central Station: like some sort of awesome, modern ski lodge or Bond villain lair. 

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.

"Santa Claus" by Paul McCarthy. Also informally known as the butt-plug gnome.

Santa Claus by Paul McCarthy. Santa is not holding a Christmas tree, but something you would find in an erotic shop.

I have been unable to discover the name of these colorful worms creeping along the Mauritsweg.

I have been unable to discover the name of these colorful worms creeping along Mauritsweg. I did wonder how many people have tried to roll them into the canal.

"Darwin" by Atelier Van Lieshout. Also known as giant purple sperm.

Darwin by Atelier Van Lieshout. Also known as ‘Giant Purple Sperm.’ The head can be opened and contains a kiosk.

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.

The historic Holland America Lijn offices. Now the New York Hotel.

The historic Holland America Line offices. Now the New York Hotel.

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.

11 responses to “Rotterdam is for people who need a break from charming, historic Dutch stuff

  1. Stumbled across your blog, and it looks like you’re having a great time. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer and am looking for people to help me out with a project for my English class in Mozambique. There’s more info on the Postcard Project tab on my blog. Let me know if you’d be able to help out. Haven’t gotten anything from the Netherlands yet

  2. Oh my goodness! Those sculptures are so hilarious! I love the way many european cities are so forward thinking and okay with things like santa holding a huge d****. I can just imagine if those were erected (hahah pun totally intended) back in the States.
    Also, your story about the Holland American Line building is so amazing. Did you know that was were your ancestors were from before hand? I am not sure I would know where my mixed bag of relatives came from in such detail.

    • Gosh in the state I grew up in they even ‘draped’ a sculpture by Rodin that was part of a traveling exhibition!

      I knew that one line of my family tree came from Rotterdam, so it was by random (and super cool) that I stumbled across the spot where all ships out of Holland bound from America left from!

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