Monday, October 27, 2008

X: Bicycle Race (The Amsterdam entry)

Everything you've ever heard about Amsterdam is true.

The sex, the drugs... it's all there. And to illustrate this fact, I'm going to give a few detailed definitions about the place using anecdotes from my trip this weekend. But hopefully, instead of simply justifying what you may or may not already know about Amsterdam, it'll just create a clearer picture of what is perhaps the "coolest" city in the world. And by "cool," I mean it in a very specific context of course - because truth is subjective, no matter how much or what kind of reason it takes to arrive to a truthful conclusion.

Having said that, I'll start with the famous and wind my way down to the not-so-obvious aspects of the city.

The Red Light District:
Running parallel to the Damrak (the main street of Amsterdam) is a small stretch of canal in which you will find a bustling, and very much active, center for legalized prostitution. It is aptly named after the literal red lights that accentuate the figures of dozens of women standing in the windows like live mannequins... who smile, wave, gaze and pose for potential clients walking down the street. You're not allowed to take pictures directly into the windows, unless of course you want to pay an exorbitant amount of euros. But it's okay for photo-ops on the adjacent bridge.

For those of us who haven't grown up in a place like this, it's easy to conceptualize prostitution as something very dirty and desperate. And when my friends and I set out on our quest to visit the district, we approached it with a mixed sense of fear and embarrassment... because based on what we've heard, we half-expected to see women naked and spread-eagled, possibly masturbating or performing lewd acts in the windows for all to see.

But when we finally found it, we were simultaneously amazed and nonplussed, because what we experienced on that street was sort of the opposite of what we were expecting. The women, some in costumes and others in lacy undergarments, for the most part just stood there not really doing anything obscene. And the people walking by were much more subdued than you'd think. They were seemingly unfazed by the whole situation. To most, it was like walking past a guy in a Ronald McDonald outfit.

We learned from our tour-guide that these prostitutes are screened for STDs regularly and are also unionized, making it a completely respectable and accepted career path. And a common service provided by these women is a "suck and fuck for 50 euros." Yet, a girl can make up to 1,500 euros in one session... makes you wonder what they do to make up for the difference in price.

Coffee Shops:
All over Amsterdam are the famous coffee shops, but one should be careful not to confuse them with cafes. Cafes serve coffee and tea. And so do coffee shops... but they also serve marijuana. The most famous and touristy of these coffee shops is called the Grasshopper. And although our tour-guide Erol recommended that we visit his favorite one, named The Bush Doctor, we opted to visit the Grasshopper anyway.

Upon entering the building, which was bursting-at-the-seams full of people, our delicate senses of smell were overwhelmed by the herbal, slightly sweet aroma of Dutch cannabis. People were smoking weed all over the place and we were extremely curious about the process of purchasing some. What do you say exactly? Was there some secret codeword that we needed to know? How do you order it... just ask for a joint or a brownie?

So when we walked up to the counter, we were all a little nervous. And perhaps because of the confused/scared looks on our faces, the man at the counter did all the work for us. "Do you want to see a menu?" he asked. We all replied simultaneously with a timid "yeah?" in the form of a question... connoting our sense of "is this okay?"

The man then pointed at a big red button on the wall that had a sign saying "do not push" right underneath it. Yet he said, "push the red button." After several seconds of hesitation where we wondered what would happen if we pushed it (like if the police would come speeding in to arrest and deport us all), we acted against our better judgment and pushed the damn button. Suddenly a glass case, which we didn't notice before, was lit up from behind, exposing a menu of various types of weed... 3 joints of white widow for 18 euros, 1.36 grams of purple haze for 20 euros, etc... take your pick. We had no idea what to do. So we stared at the menu for a while... then let the button go... the light went out... and my friends decided to go for a brownie for 7.50 euros instead. What happened after that? I will leave it to your imaginations.

The next day (Saturday), we had our official guided tour of the city (because the first night was left to us to find our own adventures). And so we noticed even more how pervasive marijuana is in the city... because as you walked down random streets, you'd catch a whiff of it coming out of restaurants, stores, whatever.

Then during our free hours, we came across The Doors Coffee Shop (which I assume was off the beaten path because there were only a few people inside). We walked in only to find an absolute gem of a place where people sat in comfy couches with their joints, listening to the best of The Doors musical concoctions. We went in for the coffee... and for the pictures of Jim Morrison all over the walls... and we found a great couch near the window with great lighting.

The guy making my latte had a joint in his mouth as he took my order. All the while, "people are strange... when you're a stranger..." was blasting through the speakers. It was beautiful.

Cheese, Clogs and Windmills:
As part of our guided tour, we went to a cheese and clog factory where we were able to sample Holland's famous dairy products and see a demonstration of how wooden shoes are made. Our "hostess" was adorable in her traditional Dutch garb, lace hat and all... and we got to be the most touristy of all tourists for about an hour and a half.

I left the place with a block of garlic/onion cheese... "cheese for lovers only," as described by our hostess. You can only eat the cheese with your lover, she said, because only your lover would be tolerant enough to smell your breath after eating it. How cute. But that wasn't why I bought it... after sampling everything in the house - that one was by far the most amazing cheese I've EVER tried in my life... no joke. I haven't cut into my block since I've gotten back but I have a feeling that once Kim comes down from Edinburgh this weekend, we're gonna' have to have some of it.

Unfortunately I didn't bring back any clogs... because let's be realistic, what the hell would I need wooden shoes for? Still, it was fun to see some authentic ones in real life.

On the way to central Amsterdam after leaving the cheese/clog factory, we stopped by a windmill to take some pictures. More touristy stuff... but they really do have them! There are a lot. And they're quite pretty.

Amsterdam has lots and lots and lots of bicycles. I can't say I've ever been to another city where the sound of bicycle bells are more prevalent than car horns. In fact, bicycles are such a huge part of the culture that THEY have the right of way before cars or pedestrians. During a few instances where we were crossing the street or walking through a footpath, we were nearly trampled by cyclists... who only warn you with a bell just a fraction of a second before their front tire comes ramming into your bum.

It was amazing to see the hundreds of bikes lined up against every bridge and in front of stores on the sidewalks. And usually, they're not even chained or locked up.

It boggles my mind, among the hundreds, maybe even thousands of bicycles everywhere, how you can find yours after you've left it somewhere. But I figure that these people must have some ingrained homing device... and even if someone were to steal it, you'd probably be able to find it in another part of town.

Amsterdam, the city
It's an amazing place and my only regret is that I couldn't stay for just a little longer. Before getting there, I assumed it would be somewhat seedy and dirty because of all the stories that I've heard in the past. But if the trip had any type of real impact on me, it's that I was suddenly made aware of all the ways we are conditioned by our cultures. To us, drugs are bad. To us, prostitution is bad. But suddenly you are exposed to these things where they are a very real and accepted piece of the culture. (Let me add that marijuana is not actually legal in Amsterdam, but it's "tolerated").

Really, it was a bit of a reality check. Because while others may feel offended by some of these things, I found it to be beautiful. Not so much in the aesthetic sense... but more a sense of open-mindedness and liberation. I witnessed a 50-something suburban Australian ex-pat eat a weed muffin with her husband and 24-year-old son without even flinching. And then they went to a sex show (live porn) later that evening, as if they were visiting the eiffel tower or something.

You really can't understand something until you've seen it for yourself - and Amsterdam is definitely proof of that. Despite the more taboo things, it's also full of charming canals and buildings that are so old that they're practically falling over.

And it's a place full of history and art... from the Van Gogh museum to the actual home of Anne Frank. Everyone is so friendly, full of smiles, and relaxed - a very apparent difference from most people in London. All these things in one little city... definitely makes it "cool" in its own context.

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