Huub rolled his toy truck across the table and smiled mischievously at us, two strangers who had joined his family for dinner on their houseboat. Nearly 2, he's just learning to speak Dutch, a language we don't know. But as his dad, Daan Stoelinga, served a starter course of salmon fumé on toast with chopped onions, parsley, and sour cream, little bits of red onion flew in our direction. In the universal language of toddlers, Huub had clearly said, "Look at me!"
Laughing, we happily obliged. With a motion no tour guide or concierge could match, Huub had made us feel at home on our first day in the Netherlands.
While his mom, Jasmijn, got Huub into his pajamas, Daan invited us up top where the Amstel River is their backyard in the heart of this Old World city. Pots of tomatoes, flowers, and grapevines in their little garden left plenty of deck space to enjoy our wine on a lovely early autumn evening. A string of houseboats, none alike, lined the shore in front of the impressive Muziektheater, home of the National Ballet. After pointing out Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) already twinkling with hundreds of lights, and the route to local markets and museums we might enjoy, Daan said that nearly everything his family needs is right here. How fortunate they are to live in such a beautiful and manageable city, I thought, as Huub arrived in Jasmijn's arms for a bedtime kiss. We headed below for the main steak course but not before I caught the look of curiosity - or envy - on the faces of tourists snapping photos from the nearby Blauwbrug (Blue Bridge).
Our evening had been booked through the Amsterdam-based company Like-A-Local, which aims to show you the life of a city as if you had a friend living there. We selected one of many ways to eat like a local. We could as easily have arranged a picnic with natives in Vondelpark or lunch with an artist in her gallery. You can also live like a local in an apartment, bed-and-breakfast, or private home; or go like a local on a half- or full-day custom tour.
Beyond Amsterdam, Like-A-Local operates in the Netherlands' second largest city, Rotterdam, and in Paris, London, Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm, and Barcelona, where you can hang out with a native in his favorite neighborhood tapas bar near Las Ramblas. In London, Zoë will take you to her favorite stalls at Camden Market. Have a special interest? Tell the folks at Like-A-Local what you want to see or do and they'll try to accommodate you.
It's not easy to peek inside one of Amsterdam's 2,400 private houseboats, which are a distinct part of the city's character, but that's just what we were able to do. Daan, who works in marketing and sales, and Jasmijn, a hospital facilities manager, were happy to tell us about the Netherlands, their jobs, and how a former herring trawler was adapted to become their home. They showed us Huub's cozy bedroom, in the bow, where the machine hut used to be, and their full-size modern kitchen. Daan purchased a permanent lease for his anchorage. When the city planned a festival on the Amstel last summer, officials arranged to have the houseboat towed upriver for 10 days and paid him for use of his prime location.
The day after our dinner visit, I met Mandy Mooren in a cafe near Centraal Station. Over coffee (that's "koffie," the kind you drink, not "coffee," which is legal marijuana available here in "coffee shops"), we discussed the Internet-based company she founded with two friends in 2005. The three Dutch women, now in their 30s, have been friends since they were 4. Mooren, Esther Weeber, and Marieke van Os hatched their idea for Like-A-Local when as teenagers they visited a friend living temporarily in New York.
"She took us to her favorite restaurants and skating in Central Park," said Mooren. "We felt like we lived there. It was so much fun that we wanted to give others a similar experience." Some 15 years later, they began their business in their hometown, recruiting friends who were familiar with the city's unique districts and willing to share their knowledge with travelers. Soon friends of friends wanted to become local guides and bookings mushroomed. In 2006, the trio quit their day jobs to focus on the start-up full time. Earlier this year, Like-A-Local won an Amsterdam award for developing a business that creatively promotes the city.
"Soon we were in 12 cities," said Mooren. "It surprised us that it was not difficult at all to get friendly locals eager to participate. We were growing so fast but it was hard to maintain quality. We decided to pull back a little, temporarily. Now we're concentrating on more offerings in fewer cities that we think are especially nice to visit and are served by low-cost airlines. Amsterdam is wonderful for Americans and Canadians because everyone here speaks English, and Barcelona is very popular with the Dutch." To ensure customers' safety, as well as keep their personal touch, one of the founders meets every potential local host in person. Locals are required to speak English.
The fee scale can be confusing. The per-person rate drops according to the number in your party, generally one to four people. It typically costs 18 euros per person to tour South London's trendy Balham and Clapham district, or 52 euros per person for an art lesson in Amsterdam's fashionable Jordaan. Our dinner was on the high end for meals at 35 euros per person with wine. Most accommodations have a two- or three-night minimum.
Dutch Design (28 euros per person for a group of four) is a three-hour walking tour with a designer to the creative corners of Amsterdam and an up-and-coming design center, where you'll see the work of interior and fashion designers. Or tour the city's infamous Red Light District (66 euros per person for two) with a woman who lives in the neighborhood. She won't blush when you ask about what goes on there.
In any of the destination cities, you can sample local cuisine on culinary tours of markets and shops with a local who loves to cook, then enjoy a meal of what you find, perhaps prepared together in your guide's kitchen.
The tips we got definitely added to our trip. We ate lunch in Jasmijn's favorite sandwich shop, Van Dobben, a neighborhood place with neither atmosphere nor many tourists, where simple, inexpensive Dutch food includes a croquet sandwich (2.24 euros) and mushroom soup (3 euros). The meal was tasty and filling.
Amsterdammers love their pancakes with anything from fruit to turkey; we ate them for lunch near the Van Gogh Museum. We meandered through Waterlooplein flea market looking for deals but didn't run into Daan, who goes there for everything from clothing to the salmon we ate.
Walking everywhere, we crisscrossed many of the city's 1,281 bridges to reach every district that time allowed. When our feet could take no more, the public transportation system was a breeze to use. Amsterdam's 1 million residents reportedly own 400,000 bicycles and they all seem to ride at the same time. Jasmijn is among thousands who commute on two wheels. Everywhere, we saw cyclists dressed stylishly in high-heeled boots, skirts, and long scarves or business suits, talking on their mobiles, balancing oversized shoulder bags or backpacks. They visit friends, take the kids to school, even exercise their dogs, on strictly utilitarian one- or three-speeds. Passengers, usually teens, balance effortlessly on rear fenders. It's an impressive display of fearlessness - and fitness - as they command the roads, defying pedestrians, buses, trams, and cars.
Do they ride as much in winter? How do they look so put together upon arrival? I'll have to ask my new friends.
Janet Mendelsohn, a freelance writer in Somerville, can be reached at email@example.com.