Amsterdam, You Don’t Have to Put on that Red Light!

My good friend Avinash, upon word of my jaunt to Amsterdam, posed the question, and I paraphrase,

“Is Amsterdam the drug and sex den portrayed crudely in the movie Eurotrip or the gorgeous, high class city in the movie Oceans 12?”

There was also some mention of how hot Catherine Zeta Jones is, but that’s neither here nor there. Well Avi, and all those interested and reading, Amsterdam is oddly both. If there were one word I would use to describe my experience in Amsterdam I suppose it would be “contradistinction”. I’ll be honest, its an SAT “hot word” I
just pulled out of a thesaurus about 5 seconds ago. Contradistinction means distinction made by contrasting the different qualities of two things. I guess the two things are the highbrow and the lowbrow, culture versus barbarism? Rather than wax philosophical about virtue and the lack thereof, something for which I am truly ill prepared, licensed or properly educated, let me instead take you through our experience in the city and perhaps share some feelings on the matter.

070208 – First Impressions

So as I had already mentioned in my previous post on Brussels, Zaritchka and I rode the evening train into Amsterdam, along with many of her friends from Paris. The others were all staying in 10 persons-per-room type hostels in or around the red light district, the area of the city infamous for its moral debasement. Our hotel, thankfully, was nowhere near there. We were staying at Jeanie B&B, near the Museum Plein, just due south of the city center. I think we would highly recommend it, so long as you’re in Amsterdam for a more down to earth experience, and on a budget. It was a tidy little place, on the corner of a canal and Beethoven Straat, a major street. It was a few stories high but lacking any substantial view. There were a handful of rooms rented by a jolly and extremely helpful couple that lived in the building a floor below our room. On the down side there was no elevator to carry us or our bags up the 4 stories, the double bed was two twins pushed together and the bathroom was shared. Yet, it was actually very cozy, clean and warm and perhaps best of all, breakfast was served anytime we liked in our rooms. What more can you ask for?

Our position slightly outside the city center gave us an interesting perspective on the city and a likely more “local” experience. Amsterdam is completely devoid of a metro or subway and instead relies on trams and busses for all of its public transportation needs. Like Brussels, the transit payment seemed to be honor based. Unlike Brussels, the tram and bus lines were very clearly labeled and easy to navigate. Of course this opinion might be biased, having received quite a bit of coaching from our very friendly B&B proprietors. The other major (and I mean major) way to get around the city was by bicycle. Those Amsterdamers are completely gonzo about bikes and the streets are totally engineered with the commuting biker in mind. Screw ubiquitous bike lanes, they have bicycle traffic signals and special road signs! We could have rented a bike, but the weather wasn’t exactly accommodating. Of course, taxis are also available, but as we learned our fist night by stupidly taking a cab from the train station, they’re pretty expensive.

Anyway, we arrived pretty late on Thursday night from Brussels and had no idea what to do, so we just decided to follow Zarita’s group of friends. They were all staying at the Bulldog hostel, right in the middle of the red light district on a major canal. It looked pretty nice in the lobby, certainly more original than many of the hostels in the area. They also commanded a chain of Bulldog cafes, coffeshops, bars, etc. throughout the red light district. I think it was a pretty decent place if you’re ever looking for cheap housing.

Somehow Zaritcka and I managed to avoid walking past anything too repugnant on our search for her friends’ accommodations. That’s not to say we passed along the streets without seeing our fair share of coffeshops, sex shops and paraphernalia dealers. It’s just that we somehow managed to miss the prostitutes, only noticing the alleys were all emanating a red glow. Z’s friends were not so disinterested and on our way out to find dinner, dove right into those glowing red alleys; gawking, gasping, giggling and gossiping right past room after room of Eastern European looking young ladies, behind big glass windows, bouncing in their undies under red lights waiting for a job. Just a few windows here or there were curtained advertising successes. Our little procession repeated itself numerous times throughout the night, even though there were certainly more direct routes from place to place. It became increasingly clear that the “staff” was not amused by our curiosity quenching, some even making faces or banging on the window as we passed. I’d like to say they weren’t happy to be on display like zoo animals, but it was far more likely they weren’t happy to be part of a free show.

“Well, I have to say I’m a little disappointed. I guess I was expecting more,” uttered a friend. Sad to say, but my initial reaction was the same; somehow I had pictured the lines of windows to be right on the street by innocent restaurants and cafes. I expected big prostitute arcades where you pay a buck and take your turn. Somehow these little tucked away single room holes-in-the-wall weren’t as shocking. Really though, MORE? Would it have been more impressive if they were spread eagle in the street stabbing each other with dirty heroin needles? What if there were some big bad pimps slapping them around? Or was the free show just not convincing enough, would it have been better if they were already nude? Was it the drawn curtains that made the whole thing so boring? After a pass or two through the alleys it became clear to me how gross it all actually was and how little more I wanted after all. I mean, there were dudes all over the place, hanging out in front of the windows checking out the goods, stepping in, closing curtains, and stepping out into the street like they’d just had a great nap. All of this within arms reach.

We grabbed dinner at a mediocre Tibetan restaurant and then went back to the train station to pick up another friend, eventually ending up at a coffeeshop, Baba, where without discussing anything incriminating, we topped off the night. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that late when the coffeshops started closing and we were tossed into the street. Most of Amsterdam begins to wind down not long after midnight, so much for the scary drug den of legend. The goods are too cheap and easy to get to bother committing crimes for and everyone’s too busy sleeping to be stalking the night all f’d up looking for trouble. Zaritchka and I passed through the now empty streets; once again back to the train station (small city) to pick up a late night bus to our hotel. This time, we had to pay. Incidentally, in case I failed to mention it beforehand, we had managed to dishonor they honor tram payment system and catch some free rides into the city center earlier that night.

So we arrived back at our hotel, a little tired and grossed out but otherwise satisfied with a pretty chill experience. It’s worth noting that as in Paris, I never once felt threatened or frightened roaming around late at night in a place I wasn’t familiar with. This even though police are scarce and lighting isn’t particularly bright. I think I completely stopped worrying when we paid the bus driver that night and he pulled out a loaded cash box to make change. I mean the bus driver pulled out a cash box at nearly 2am in the morning, at an empty train station, completely exposed. How could he do that? I’ll tell you, I’m pretty sure its because there are no guns. I don’t think he felt like his life was threatened! High and drunk people all over the place, prostitutes and shit down the street, and nobody’s a bit concerned for their safety. Shit, they don’t even really lock up their bikes.

070209 – The Amsterdam Experience

Having been thoroughly turned off by the red light district the night before, we resolved to spend the day trying to have a more “authentic” Amsterdam experience. We set our sights on the Albert Cuyp Market, a local outdoors thing that the B&B owner, George, recommended to us, claiming we might find cheap food, clothing and souvenirs. It took as a little while to find the place on foot, but it was well worth the walk. I guess the standard of living is a bit higher in Amsterdam than in the U.S., but George’s idea of cheap was certainly not mine. Still, the market was a colorful, friendly, and lively place full of fun things to look at, play with and eat! We strolled the market, taking some time out to browse in a clothing store with wild dresses, a spice shop with racks and racks of spices, candies and teas, a flower store full of bright tulips and exotic plants and eat some awesome frites with a peanut sauce and mayo.

The neighborhood right outside our hotel. Pretty residential and nothing fancy. Here you see a very typical bike rack, one of many on this block alone.

Another typical street on the way to the Alber Cuyp Market.

Tram lines run the length of most major streets.

About a block away from the market.

A butcher shop near the beginning of the outdoor market area.

We took this photo because the place was full of color but also because the little bike in front belonged to a boy we had passed, with his mother, much earlier along our walk. We thought he was totally cute and had an adorable bike. Apparently he lives in a house to match!

I dunno, I loved this sign!

In the heart of the Albert Cuyp Market.

A nice old couple shopping in front of the spice store.

One of the spice racks they had on display in the street ... woah.

One of several florist shops along the way.

Another perspective from the Albert Cuyp Market.

A flower stand selling tulips among other things.

Oh man, we thought we had gotten away from the debaucherous environs of the red light district. Well apparently even the average joe has some heat in his blood here. Zaritchka was thoroughly repulsed. I actually approached this because I thought the penises were tulips ... hehehe.

As nice as local entertainment and cultural experiences are, it was time for something more befitting a pair of American tourists, the Heineken experience! The Heineken experience is they Disney land of beer. It’s an amusement gallery set up inside the original Heineken brewery just outside the city center. The building was built as an extension to the original site, which was bought from a previous brewer. This new building was completed turn of the century and is mostly an unimpressive brick behemoth on he outside. On the inside it’s a modern marvel of funky colored lighting, interactive computer displays, video mail booths, multimedia pods and even a shaking beer bottle filling assembly line simulator. That was probably the best part of the whole tour. Guests file into a dark room with rows of standing spaces and rails to hold onto. A big screen at the front shows a film of the assembly line in a Heineken filling plant from the perspective of a bottle. “You” are washed, sorted, filed, labeled, packed, shipped and finally opened at a disco party. All the while the floor shakes, sways and shimmies recreating the jostling the bottle experiences along its way. With so many disturbances, it’s a surprise it ever makes it. The cost of admission was 10 euro, which included 3 beers at the two bars along the tour, and a parting gift, totally worth it. Our gift was a pretty decent silver bottle opened, but I managed to sweet talk a bartender in letting Z and me swipe two Heineken glasses with a James Bond image on them.

I thought this display of old Heineken adds was actually quite cool. Thats really how this place gets you though, succeeds in getting you to appreciate the art of their advertising schemes.

This advertisement was totally creepy, especially suspended in some dark, endless, concrete shaft.

A series of rooms explains the ingredients of Beer, this one was water and Zarita was thristy.

Mmmmmmm, smell the HOPS!

Poor little crazy, she thought the place was still working!

Well, I knew it wasn't working, I was just uh ...

Ohhhh, big beer kettle thing.

Just a little turn here, there ya go, every thing's fixed.

You have to appreciate her patience, she got to 23,456 before she gave up.

Soooo many caps ... who drank all this.

Oooooh, this place makes you thirsty!

OK Zarita, OPEN WIDE!!!

Ahhhh, it was almost worth it just for the fun and brainwashing, but the beers help.

After such a wonderful experience, we headed out to find some dinner. George had also suggested we visit what he kept calling “Lights Plein” but I couldn’t understand if he was actually saying lights or not. Anyway, he circled the location on the map where we eventually stumbled on Leidseplien. Well it might as well have been “Lights Plein” because while we were ready for a more authentic Dutch evening, Leidseplein was nothing of the kind. It was an American wonderland. Burger King, McDonalds, Steakhouses, cheap souvenir shops, Mexican food restaurants and even a place called the American Hotel, all made the plaza their home. The whole place was lit up as bright as any in the city and tourists swarmed around us. Oh well, George was 1 for 2. We used the toilets at the Burger King and rapidly passed through the plaza on our way to what we hoped was a more earnest location.

The American Hotel in Leidensplein.

A statue of a Dutch colonial scene, something to do with ripping off the natives, taken from a Rembrandt painting, in Rembrandtplein.

About this point our tummies were rumbling and we had wandered into what seemed like a snooty area along Leidsestraat. It wasn’t all that fancy, but the street was lined with tons of the typical global designer clothing stores, drawing the same tourist swarm. So all the restaurants we were passing were overpriced and out of our range. Hungry and tired, we persisted and broke off the street, finally stumbling on a series of Indian restaurants. I wasn’t expecting good Indian food in Amsterdam, so the astoundingly fine meal we had that night was a pleasant surprise to say the least. If you’re ever in the area, do yourself a favor and eat at Shiva. It was like in the top 5 of all time best Indian meals I have ever had.

Well, it had started to get rainy and cold so we wrapped up the night in Rembrandtplein with a Amsel beer in a pub and then a coffee in a coffeeshop not worth any particular mention. Somehow between waking up late and spending a little too much time wandering we had managed to waste the day and not see very much. That meant we had a lot to do the next day, our last. So we called it a relatively early night and headed home.

Ahhh, a little snack before bed ... too bad she got crumbs all over the place, I have evidence!

070210 – A Sad Day

So much for an early start. It was just too tempting to sleep late and take our time in that B&B. Breakfast was delivered whenever we wanted which afforded us the luxury of sleeping late and then rolling back into bed after eating. That and how could we leave early and miss the French sex show that was going on in the room next to us? Yeah, the obviously French couple in the room adjacent to ours was a little rambunctious. Not that we had our ears pressed against the wall, no it was quite obvious they had sex before bed, sex in the middle of the night, sex in the morning and on Saturday, sex in the shower; gross man, we had the shower after them.

Anyhoo, I really wanted to visit the Van Gogh museum and Zaritchka was very intent on seeing the Anne Frank House. The problem was we didn’t know when either would close and there was some concern the Anne Frank house wasn’t open late. So we figured we’d ask the friendly and helpful proprietors. George was out so his wife tried to offer her assistance …

“De Vaan Gawg,” she asked.
“Uh, no … the Van Gogh.” I clarified.
“Hmmm, I doughnt oohndersaand, Vaant Gwag,” she repeated.
“Um, no … the Von Go Museum,” I tried once more.
“Uh, Vann Gawg? Please hold, I call George.” She then proceeded to call George and speak with him quite seriously in a language I could not pinpoint. “George come now, he help.”
George stomped up the stairs and addressed us, “Now which? Ahhh, Vaan Gogh, yes yes, what is question?”
“Oh good, yes, we just were wondering if you knew when it might close today,” I asked, relieved that I wasn’t crazy.
George flashed a huge smile, lighting up his happy fat face and replied quite earnestly, “We don’t know this! Ok? Have a good day!” Then he held his smile as we thanked him, completely perplexed and stumbled down the stairs.

So we settled on the Van Gogh first and the Anne Frank later. The Van Gogh museum was located a tram stop or two away from our B&B in Museumplein, south of the city center. As expected, the Van Gogh was a total tourist trap yet nevertheless awesome. The first floor was dedicated to Van Gogh’s predecessors and contemporaries trying to provide a proper context for his early work and eventual revolutionary ideas. The second floor works you through many of his major works from the Potato Eaters to the famous bedroom painting and finally his sanatorium paintings of fields and trees, all in chronological order. The effect is to elucidate his intentions, inspirations and development while also providing a narrative of the man’s life and troubles. It was very moving and quite sad, as many of you may already know; Van Gogh’s life wasn’t glamorous. He was persistently impoverished, never saw the success of any of his work and was plagued by an epileptic-like mental illness that lead to his eventual suicide. I loved the place and barely had enough self-restraint to prevent myself from leaving the gift shop loaded with crap.

From there we proceeded to the Anne Frank house, located in a completely different part of the city. The Anne Frank house was west of the city center, in an extremely posh neighborhood dense with art galleries, trendy nick nack shops, expensive elegant restaurants, cute bakeries and cafes, boutiques, and charming canals and brick row houses. Completely out of our budget. Quite reassuringly the Anne Frank house was a modest little museum not quite reflective of its surroundings. Well, there isn’t much I can say about the exhibit. You walk through the place where this unfortunate family tried to hide from the Nazi racist, fascist, bastard menace before being discovered, forced into work camps and left to die of disease, mal-nutrition, depression or outright murder. It was sobering to say the least. I hadn’t ever read the book, so I picked up a copy in the gift shop and I think I’ll try to read it on the way home to the states.

They also had a little exhibit called “Your Choice” or something of that kind. On a big screen in front of bench seating, they showed various scenes and stories depicting various human rights issues; neo-nazis protesting in Germany, Sikh cops in London allowed to wear their turbans on duty, Danish Muhammad cartoons leading to riots, etc. You were supposed to vote on whether you agreed with the policies that various political, social, or religious leaders adopted. Yes to free speech rights that lead to Muslim riots or marching Neo-Nazis, No to separation of church and state philosophy that leads to banning headscarves in French schools. Then the results of that moment’s polling were displayed versus the results over the course of the exhibit. It was a little frustrating to answer such complex questions with a yes or no, but also very interesting to see how the people around you felt (and comforting to see the majority in line with me).

A canal on the west side of the city on the way to the Anne Frank house. The homes along the canals here are beautiful brownstone looking things. I believe that many of the boats are also used as housing! Some of them are also museums or tour boats too.

A biker riding over a small canal bridge.

Zarita and I had this little picture contest at this canal, who could take the best shots. I think I won hands down.

Zarah thought she'd get in closer for a better look. To her amazement she found out its real water!

An impressive boat.

A less impressive, but much cuter little boat.

This building looked absolutely amazing with its red shutters all over.

After so much sadness, we headed to a pub for a few Belgian beers and burgers. Wow man, I think I had one of the best burgers of my life in Amsterdam, go figure. After our beers we found a little coffeeshop and grabbed some coffee, water and sat down to chill for a little. Right after we got settled a scrawny, very young looking, German kid sat down across from us. Of course he started to chat up Zarita while I was in the bathroom, but was equally friendly with me when I returned. He was very preoccupied with our ages and our business in Amsterdam while extremely excited to share his personal matters. He had taken a 6-hour train from somewhere in Germany in search of pot because apparently Germany is a little dry now. He asked where we were from and was oddly shocked to learn that we were US citizens. “No Way!” he would exclaim but then settle into an “ok, that’s cool man, that cool.” It wasn’t clear from his comments, but Z and I managed to piece together that he was looking to get a lot of stuff at a very low price and somehow wanted our assistance. We kindly declined but this still lead us to a conversation regarding penalties. Apparently from his region of Germany, 20-30 grams of pot is punished with little more than community service or small fines. He claimed that other parts of Germany were more or less lenient, but that generally the authorities overlooked recreational use.

I figured that with his reaction to our citizenship status, it might be fun to teach him a little bit about how we do it here in the states. I proceeded to explain how jail time and serious fines often followed even insignificant possession, but more importantly that in some states his little 20-30 grams of personal stash would be considered intent to distribute, punishable by serious jail time in real criminal prisons. Furthermore, transporting that much would be a trafficking violation, a federal offence. We even explained how some states adopted 3-strikes laws that sent repeat offenders to jail for life! To all this he replied, “No man, that’s hard. That’s really hard. That’s really too hard. I think that’s a human rights violation isn’t it?” I agreed and offered my view that human rights aren’t a concern in the good ole’ US of A. “But all the world smoke pot, all the youth of the world, its nothing, its no harm!” He pleaded with me. Well yes I offered, all they youth and much of the world do indeed. It was hard to explain to him that he, as are many people I’ve met in Europe, is part of a reality-based community doomed to extinction.

We ended our night on a very pleasant note. First we bumped into some other friends of Z’s that were staying near our delicious burger joint, at the fabulous Bob’s Hostel. Then we stumbled upon a cute looking bar serving absinthe (which I forgot to order) with Christmas lights in the windows. The place was a really cool, dimly lit local bar and the music was finally good too! I had been complaining how every bar played the same total crap pop techno shit but this place was playing awesome hip hop and later a live DJ. We walked in, took our place in line at the bar and waited. The bartenders, two young ladies, refused to serve us! We couldn’t believe it but they served everyone who came to the bar, before or after us, until there was absolutely nobody left. It finally occurred to us that we weren’t in a typical tourist bar, there was no Heineken or Amstel on tap and nobody was speaking English. It took a little while, but the bartenders finally warmed up to us after we refused to be driven out and even started joking around with us by the end of the night.

Our fabulous Dutch burgers.

WOW, I think this place was like Scientology headquarters.

Bar Tetra, a totally local spot. I recommend it for good music and ambiance, but be prepared to be overlooked as a tourist. Give the crowd some time to warm up to you but keep a low profile man.

Wow, this place wins the award for coolest name ever.

Well, that was our last night and after a decent sleep and another breakfast in bed we were off on the Thalys back to Paris. I think I definitely liked Amsterdam, save the red light district. It’s a very relaxed city with great food and a rich cultural offering. It’s also very pretty with its row houses, canals, Pleins, and cue lady bikers everywhere. As for that dichotomy of trash and high class, well each has their place in the city and each seems to stay out of each other’s way. I mean, if you came to Amsterdam and just hung out in the red light district, you could easily believe it was the entire city. Likewise, it’s easily avoided. In the end, I like that. All the crud and shit and nastiness are nicely confined to an area that is controlled and avoidable.

One final word on all that nasty business, in the U.S. prostitution is as rampant a problem as anywhere else in the world and it is criminalized. The criminalization of anything makes it dangerous. When I’m in Chicago I have no idea where or how prostitution is played out around me because its done in secret between high risk individuals. This is very disturbing because for one thing, it makes it much more dangerous for the people involved and even those not. In Amsterdam it’s accepted as a human vice and regulated, making it avoidable safer for everyone involved. While I don’t think this is the solution to the problem of prostitution, I think it’s a step in the right direction. Yet, one outstanding problem I had with it is the advertising. The red light district is sold to tourists through tee shirts, postcards, shot glasses, etc. I’d much better like it if Amsterdam wasn’t so damn proud of it and marketed itself this way. I think in the end that probably turns me off of the place as somewhere I could see myself making a life.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with some ridiculous pictures of a bike parking structure right outside the central train station, enjoy!

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