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Friday, August 13, 2010

Impressions of Amsterdam

“I watched the universe fall apart. Twice. When I went to Amsterdam,” was one of the first thing my now ex-boyfriend told me when we met. A concise, albeit dramatic, summary of what Amsterdam means to the uninitiated. Mushrooms are no longer legal in Holland, by the way.

Amsterdam is an idea, a threat really. When someone says, “I’m going to Amsterdam,” the first thing that pops into your head isn’t the Van Gogh Museum (for some it might be, some people have class), its brownies. Special brownies.

But if smoking weed is all Amsterdam is to you then the words of Wells Tower’s customer in a recent GQ article become unavoidably true: “For a visitor, there are two very happy days in Amsterdam—the day you get here and the day you leave.” Granted, I don’t like weed. But even I couldn’t avoid the fact that coming to Amsterdam meant making a certain type of commitment: the universe better f-ing collapse.

The spring break I visited the city with my friends, we were at our first coffeeshop within a couple of hours of arriving. Hunger got the best of us, so after we had a giant lunch of Chinese food—an appropriate enough option considering the circumstances— and dropped off our bags at our hostel/Irish pub, we set out to explore. I don’t think we took the time to admire the beautiful harbor or savor the spring weather or look up what spots other than the Red Light District we should explore because as young tourists visiting Amsterdam for the first time, we were on the mission. After the mission was completed, then we’d take the boat tour of the canals.

As four of us split a brownie, terrified that we would leave the shop hallucinating, screaming, and tearing our clothes off (turns out splitting a brownie between that many people got exactly none of us got high and the brownie was OK), except Jessica. She wasn’t messing around with carbs when what she was looking for was weed. An ardent lover of ganja, Jessica smoked daily so for her visiting Amsterdam was a type of pilgrimage. She ordered a giant joint that came in a plastic capsule. With a thick blunt between the index and middle finger, her face lit up and taking her first drag it was like she’d finally found home. About a quarter of the way through, though, her cheeks flushed, she put out the blunt, and announced she had to go back to the hostel to lie down. She stayed there for the rest of the afternoon.

Meandering around that afternoon we also found the prostitutes. And their union. The Sex Workers Union. We took pictures of the building but not of them. In the middle of the afternoon these scantily-clad, bored-looking women sit on display in narrow storefronts, smoking cigarettes, leafing through magazines, looking about as threatening and horny as cubicle workers.

About halfway through day one of the mission, weed, sex workers, and the Red Light District start to get old. And everything else starts to come into focus.

I began to notice the city itself. Amsterdam is the walking city to end all walking cities. Bridges connect streets over meandering canals but without that whole sinking thing Venice has going on. The pace of life feels slower, bicycles are favored over cars, people are friendly and speak seven languages. Narrow colorful houses arranged side by side along the water have a harmonious flow to them.

Whereas some people genuinely fall in love with the coffeeshops, for me it was the endless amount of cheese and wine shops that made a strong case for missing the plane and just staying on as a newly minted local. No one ever talks about the food in Amsterdam. Colorful munchies stands are everywhere, serving hot dogs, waffles, and pizza at any time. Big open-faced crepes called pancakes covered in both savory and sweet complements are also featured prominently. The best way to start the day Having an ice cold Heineken at a sidewalk café by one of the canals.

Eventually we even found our way to the Van Gogh Museum, located by a large park with a lawn that invites you to sit and enjoy the day. Instead of visiting the museum, though, we decided to pose mock-provocatively in front of the DAM portion of the giant Amsterdam sign at the end of the lawn (sort of a requirement if you’re a tourist). During that afternoon, while lying on the grass, ten of us finished off Jessica’s blunt and the day actually did look that much more beautiful.

Naturally, we spent our last night in the city trying the rest of the bevy of sweet creations laced with weed available at the coffeeshops: cookies, milkshakes, tea… The universe did not fall apart, in fact aside from getting my debit card stolen it was a fairly uneventful trip. Sure we also visited Anne Frank’s House, the main square, bought some clogs…

My friends felt three days was enough time to visit Amsterdam because, “There’s really not that much to do here,” but I left feeling I’d only skimmed the surface. My impression is it can either be a quick jolt of legalized substance abuse, Heineken, walking around, tourist attractions, and done! Or… you can take your time with it. Unlike with Paris or Rome, falling in love with Amsterdam takes time. You have to be willing to slow down. And come down from the high.

** Pictures by Olga Bichko. 

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Northern Bohemia: Part 1 and Part 2

2 comments:

  1. I so want to go to Amsterdam. My mother was scandalized when I told her this earlier in the week. Ah, the things my parents don't know...

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  2. Nice post!
    By the way, if you have any intentions of visiting Red Light District, you should check out The Amsterdam Red Light Guide

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