That first day of walking around I had a few hours to kill before meeting up with my friend Willemine (from the West Coast road trip) for a little dinner party
. All I did was take two small sections near Centraal and go as far as Dam Square, winding in and out of every side street. I saw probably every square inch in that area, which is great to know a city like that, but bothersome when you know you saw a place that sells something you want but you haven't a clue where you saw it. The other half of that section was the famous Red Light District. And it is everything that people say it is. Prostitutes in the windows (and they are HOT -- some of them anyway -- none of the heroine-addicted, I might catch something just by breathing the same air as them prostitutes in Kings Cross), coffee shops everywhere and sex shops at every turn. The great thing about it is, everyone knows why they're there. It's not like if you walk past a sex shop in the middle of New York and you give a couple sideways glaces while pretending you're not actually looking. You feel perfectly free to stop, look around and think, 'wow, I never knew you could do that with that
.' The marijuana smoke was incredible -- walking around for a couple hours I think I started picking up a bit of a contact high. I even got grabbed by a Russian prostitute who gave me a spanking when I declined her offer for a good time. It was the damndest thing, though -- everywhere I went in the city, everybody seemed to think my name was Charlie. So let me clear the record Amsterdam: my name is not Charlie. And no, I don't want any cocaine.
That night I had dinner with Willemine and four of her friends -- real live Dutch people! After dinner they were all keen to go out since it was Saturday, except for Willemine (she's a nurse in the ER and was working the morning shift the entire time I was there -- meant I hardly got to see her since she was working in the mornings and asleep by 10 to be ready for the next day) so I now had authentic Dutch people to introduce me to the Amsterdam nightlife
. Of course the guy running the show, Neer, (and technically, he's Israeli, but that's a minor detail), and he can be a bit, ummm, odd. He had a friend on a guest list to a club, so that seemed like a good option. Of course, we get in and start realizing something's amiss. Everybody, EVERYBODY, was Gothic -- uber Gothic at that. We were the only people not wearing black, and from the looks of it, the only ones not overloaded on ecstasy. So I spent the whole night trying not to be horrified, figuring out who was male and female (most confusing bathroom trip of my life -- I could see urinals through the open door but two certain females at the sink, but oh no, they were not female. Oh yes, I was afraid) and who if anybody was hetero. The music, as you might imagine, was terrible and the two different rooms were running big screens with skeletons and scenes from awful black and white C-grade horror flicks. Would it hurt these people to smile and wear a color occasionally? No wonder they're so depressed. And they all looked the same, so their whole anti-conformity thing was taking a bit of an ironic twist. It was, umm, an experience. We'll leave it at that.
The next day my one thing on the checklist was the Anne Frank House. I think they expect people to know the basics of the story, but the museum is still well done, leading you around the house, slowly filling in with more and more details and showing the occasional video with people who knew the Franks or helped them with their hiding
. There's even one with an interview of her father. So now I have yet another book I have to read once I get home. That night I decided I wasn't going to let my Amsterdam experience go to waste, I was going to see some more 'normal' nightlife, even if I was flying solo. I had a foolproof plan, head downtown early, hit a hostel bar, make friends, go out with said friends. Too easy I figured. When I started the trip I had made a rule -- no going out alone -- but the night's where I felt obliged to break it I had some excellent times, so now, screw it, I can flaunt that rule because I think I can meet people no problem. Well, the hostel bit fell through. One place refused to let me in because I wasn't a guest (I don't get it, my money is just as blue/red/orange as anybody elses) and another was full of stoner dudes getting stoned, so getting my plan to work was going to be a bit more of a challenge. I perused the Red Light District until I found a bar that seemed somewhat lively, went in, got a pint, found a group of backpackery looking types, asked if I could join, and bang I was in. Too easy. And that's how I spent the night with Joe, Mick and Nic -- and you'll never guess where they were from. Thanks to that night I was even able to fit in a coffeeshop experience. Normally I don't smoke, doesn't do much for me, but it's Amsterdam, you have to get the experience. I'm not religious, but I've been going to temples and churches all over the place. I don't eat intestines normally, but I'll eat haggis in Scotland. So clearly I needed a coffee shop, and where else to go but Bulldog, the original?
The next day I went to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam's biggest art and history museum with many works from its most famous artists. It charges a bruising €10 for admission without a student discount to speak of. If you're thinking of going to the Rijksmuseum, do yourself a favor and spend that €10 on a pint and a space cake instead
. What a rip off. It's under construction so only 14 rooms are open. So you're paying nearly €1 per room and most of the rooms contain just a couple paintings or artifacts. Sure, it contains Rembrandt's Night Watch, and it's impressive and all, but it's one thing to fork over €9.50 to see David -- the greatest sculpture in the world. I's another to pay €10 for the Night Watch, the thing doesn't stand alone in the world of paintings. So boo to Rijksmuseum, charge a full fare when you have a full museum.
That night I changed hands from Willemine to Bregje, who was also on the road trip. We all got together for dinner at Bregje's place. I couldn't believe it but we had carbonara that night. I'm not a betting man, but I would've put what's left of my savings on that happening, maybe would've tried to take out a loan from the bank as well. Death and taxes aren't even as much of a certainty.
My remaining big touristy thing was the Heineken Brewery 'Experience.' Heineken no longer gives a tour, they have an interactive bit where you walk around on your own, learning a little about the company and how to make beer before being led into rooms where you can go on silly rides and do stupid things. That one was also €10, but with that you get 18 rooms and a couple silly rides
. Plus you get three beers and a bottle opener. I'll trade you silly rides, three beers and a bottle opener for the Night Watch any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
My final day in Amsterdam I went on a canal cruise with Bregje. It was one of those fun, goofy, something a local would never do until a tourist friend comes around and gives them an excuse things to do. It was nothing amazing, but it was fun -- cruise around, see a bit of the city, take a few happy snaps and maybe learn a thing or two. For example, when it was settled, Amsterdam was protected by dykes. Now you can see them every Tuesday and Thursday at the Moulin Rouge. Thank you thank you, I'll be here all week.
Since I had free accommodation and a couple different friends to visit in Amsterdam I had nearly a week to play around. It's amazing what a difference it makes when you have six days for a city instead of two or three. When I was in Berlin in July I wound up jamming two to three museums per day into three sweltering days while nearly killing myself in the process. With Amsterdam, I could pace myself, devote a day to nothing but walking around feeling out the place and then doing one 'touristy' thing per day. There's something to be said for the city that it's managed to maintain some of its personality and charm in the face of all the commercialism and tourism, even if some of that personality and charm is clearly exaggerated to live up to its reputation.