Unfortunately it rained every day we were in Amsterdam, a couple of times quite heavily as storm fronts moved through. But with our clothes occasionally wet we soldiered along and did a lot of walking and sightseeing. We had a nice long work this morning, and we think we have a pretty good idea of the city. A typical four story Amsterdam building with a strong hoist extending from the top floor over the sidewalk to lift heavy items of furniture Houses with furniture lifts

When all is said and done, Amsterdam is full of contrasts and contradictions.

Some of the buildings and boats in Amsterdam are in bad condition, almost decrepit. Yet renovation and gentrification is taking place everywhere, and locals complain that property values have tripled in the past fifteen years. Large paving projects are in the works throughout the central city; old paving stones are being replaced by new paving stones still of the turn-the-ankle variety.

Amsterdam boasts of being a free city where people can enjoy themselves in the evenings, yet we've been told by other hotel guests of thefts of laptops and wallets taken from backpacks and been frequently warned of thieves.

Non-polluting bicycles are used by the hundreds of thousands, and those bicycles, some dead and some still usable, clutter the sidewalks; separate parking facilities for bicycles are lacking. Because of the wind and rain, umbrella fragments are stacking up as well.

Streets are narrow and parking virtually non-existent. Because the city is below sea level, underground parking is not an affordable option. Stores The bottom floor of a red brick building houses a store with elaborate carved and varnished wood and bicycles parked in front Bicycles parked everywhere generally do not have separate access for service and delivery vehicles; as a result these vehicles generally park in the pedestrian areas in front of the stores, forcing pedestrians into the bicycle and traffic lanes.

Public transportation is heavily used. The trams and buses aren't as new, clean or fancy as those in other cities, but they run continually. Everyone soon learns to have a healthy fear of trams -- they are so big and deadly looking. On the other hand, the tram drivers are very considerate and do stop for pedestrians.

The city is very tolerant of drugs but drug use is still illegal. Tourists in particular get into difficulty through overuse of drugs and/or alcohol. Although the incidence of AIDS has been reduced through free needle exchanges, there is little indication that authorities are educating the public of the deleterious effects of substance abuse, and no indication that the authorities are concerned about the rights of those who do not use drugs or alcohol. For example, there are no non-smoking areas in Amsterdam restaurants, and cigar smoking is common.

At the same time that marijuana and ecstasy is freely sold, trusting the individual to use these substances responsibly, we have had difficulty obtaining the following: (a) metamucil -- available in pharmacies only; (b) Vitamin E in 1000 IU capsules -- too dangerous in that dosage; (c) hydrocortisone cream -- very dangerous drug; (d) Sudafed -- not available, but we have a homeopathic A heraldic device consisting of three vertical white X's on a field of red topped by a blue crown surmounts an elaborate door in an Amsterdam alley Elaborate doorway decongestant; and (e) Contac -- another dangerous drug. All of these items are available over the counter in supermarkets in the U.S. And, speaking of supermarkets, the Dutch druggist doesn't understand how these materials could be sold in supermarkets!

One aspect of the non-prescription medicines business is clear to us: European shops charge an arm and a leg for the few non-prescription medications they do sell; clearly they don't want to miss out on those nice profits. But another aspect is not so clear -- would a doctor please answer? -- are the items listed above really dangerous?

In the central city, the people on the street are noticeably younger than in, say, Munich. We think this is because lots of younger people -- say, those under 40 -- come to Amsterdam to partake of its free and easy life.

People in Amsterdam are as friendly and polite as any we have encountered in Europe; in addition, they seem to have a good sense of humor. It was the locals (all of whom speak English, often quite fluently) who first warned us of the trolleys. Our favorite Amsterdam bookstore shelves its books by subject, combining Dutch and English books, and on our last walk we found a Waterstone's bookstore with an all-English stock, as well as "The English Bookstore."

Businessmen in our hotel told us that Amsterdam is a popular location for corporate headquarters for tax reasons, and that Schiphol airport is heavily used for expositions.

Amsterdam is a city we'd be happy to visit again, but we wouldn't want to live here.