Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Amsterdam: Not Just Hookers and Weed

(But It's a Solid 70%)

I've read that in Amsterdam you get your fries from a vending machine, your weed from baristas and your hookers from window displays. As a serial expat, lifelong traveler and a Wide Body Jetsetter, naturally I was intrigued and titilated. I fucking LOVE fries, and I really wondered how a mere machine could possibly pull off that particular culinary coup without spraying hot oil on hapless customers or shooting mayo goo on their shoes.

As my flight started descending out of the clouds into the Netherlands, I could tell from my view out of the thick plastic window that the reason for the name of the country was clear: this spongy bog was clearly the nether regions of Europe, the waterlogged goop where Vikings feared to tread. From above it reminded me of a soggy green sponge. It also reminded me not to do dishes at 5am before an early morning flight. It was seriously fucking with my metaphor.

An airport is certainly not the best place to get first impressions of any culture. But Amsterdam tries so damn hard to be weird, so it is worthy of mention. After what seemed like an hour walking through the airport in the direction of the baggage hall (well, I stood on those floor escalators like a blob, so that might have skewed my sense of time), it became clear that the Dutchies were all completely high. At all times. At least the architects and designers are. Bizarre mutated pumpkins and squashes with hideous faces loomed out at me from metallic walls and giant, mushy-looking alien blobs were bent over backwards, leering at passersby. Just when I thought one of these alien critters was a cushy leather couch beckoning my butt, I had to slam on the knee brakes to keep from plopping down on solid metal painted and distressed to look like leather. No sooner had I got back into the cadence of the airport march than I saw a large alien hand grabbing an actual rental car. I'll wager that small Euro-cars are in huge intergallactic demand. That or the entire advertising department of Hertz is completely stoned.

A visit to the Amsterdam airport restrooms is also a unique cultural experience. Upon entry to one of the busy relief stations (WC, toiletten, the bog), a large Eastern European woman with a mop stood there staring at me. Ten years in Prague had prepared me for the experience of seeing female restroom cleaners at inappropriate times (like busily mopping behind a row of urinating men). This particular character is usually a female senior citizen, lovingly referred to by the Czechs as hajzlbaba (crapper granny). So to be greeted by a middle aged woman with a mop wasn't much of a surprise. But I wondered what kind of service was being offered when she threw open a stall door and beckoned me to enter with the sweep of her strong arm. Fortunately, the stall could barely fit my luggage and my wide body, so I didn't have to worry that she might saunter on in after me and offer me the XXL Red Light Menu.

After only 30 minutes in the Amsterdam airport, I was already giddy and paranoid. Maybe I will be skipping the weed.


19:00, Amsterdam Schipol Airport (5 days later, high as I write this):

I'm just coming down from the weed. 24 hours ago I went to my first and only Amsterdam Coffee* Shop. I told the chilled out skater dude behind the counter that I was temporarily returning to the rastafarian recreational regime after 20 years, and that I was a bit of a weed wimp.

"No problemo, Dudo Grande (no, he didn't speak Spanish)," he reassured me and asked me exactly what kind of depth, breadth and height of a high I wanted.

Photo by Gabriela Sarževská
"Glad you asked, mini dude. Y'see, it's like this: give me the mildest form of weed you've got. I'm a lightweight (ironically enough) and I have a flight to catch. I don't wanna be found in an alley sitting on my luggage playing bass notes with my own drool strings or anything like that. If you've got a scale of fuckuppery on your weed menu, like Nirvana being the highest and Diggety Dank being the middle, I want the lowest lawn. Just yer garden variety White Boy Grass. Nothing to get me noticed as I plow my way through the chips, mayo, pizza and airport snacks."

"Well," he said, "we are actually known for our strong weed."

"Ok. I'LL DO IT."

Dude had only two pre-rolled joints and a metric fuckton of various strains of weed—that you have to roll yourself. So I opted for the weaker of the two pre-rolled spliffs. One joint of 'Yellow Lolipop For Beginners' or something like that and 24 hours later, and I'm back on the ground. There were miles walked, cyclists dodged, hookers gawped at, fries, pizza and burgers eaten, and long gaps of time stretching between them. If I had opted for the OTHER joint, the stronger of the two, I might have been fished out of a canal with a smile on my face. Trust your weed barista. He knows what you need.

A brief moment of clarity at midnight as I looked up from a spicy garlic sausage and gorgonzola pizza (my 2nd in 24 hours) delivered to my botel: are they looking at me? Am I playing bass notes on cheese strings stretched from my bottom lip?" Aaawwww, the old familiar self-conscious feeling again. But no paranoia. So I resumed devouring the pizza with a face plant and serious snorfling sounds.

Something or things happened between landing and takeoff. I will try to reconstruct these experiences piecemeal from memory. Bear with me. My memory is like sieve at the best of times. Always has been, even before the decades of global pub crawling.

Ladies of the Evening (and Broad Daylight)

'Enough talk of you gorging on fries and pizza, you fat bastard. What about the hookers?!'

Glad you asked. Our first hotel was on the edge of the Red Light District, which was the inner circle, if you will, of a spider's web of canals which expands outward from the harbor to to the edge of the old town. If you'll turn to the imaginary Amsterdam history book in my head...

'Do we have to?'

Yes. The only thing I planned on this trip were the flights and the hotels. I didn't Google or Yelp a damn thing about The Dam, just like I used to do in the Daze Before The Internet. I like to just show up in a new country and dive in headfirst, experiencing and living and finding all the good stuff by sheer chance. I highly (snigger; I said highly) recommend that all of my readers do the same. Your trip will give you exactly what you need, not what previously-visiting strangers need.

Oh, the history. I'm guessing that this massive harbor leading to the North Sea trafficked just a buttload of sailors on shore leave. What do hard working sailors need? Vice, baby. Hookers, booze and weed. I don't think Amsterdam is any more liberal than any other Eurocity. When the foofy painters in poofy hats finished their run in the 1700s, the industrial age brought in the goods. On boats. None of these swarthy seadogs were buying paintings to take home. They wanted hookers, weed (or whatever drug was the predecessor to the Mary Jane), cheese and fried foods. And so that is what you get in Amsterdam to this day. I have never seen so many snackeries dealing in nothing but carbs, fat and oil in my entire life. It blows American mall food away. Deep fried sour balls? Check. Fries with dozens of dips? Check. 50 Shades of Waffle? Check. 50 kinds of cheese from the same cheese chain shops located every 200 meters? Check. The verdict: an entire city with weed munchies.

As in most Eurocities, the Euroweenies who inhabit them are in impossibly good shape for their diet. Germans live on bratwurst and beer and they are largely thin. Amsterdamers eat cheese, pizza, waffles and deep fried food (I could find no other foodstuffs in the week I was there) and mostly look like fashion models in hippie clothes. It's the goddam bikes. Both Berlin and Amsterdam are flat, marshy lands with no hills in town. This means that you don't have to be a Tour de France cycle nerd to navigate the city streets. Slide into 3rd gear and dive headlong into traffic.

Oh yeah: the hookers. Get your map (electronic or print; they all have the Red Light district highlighted in red) and dive on in. My wife and I (yes, we both wanted to gawp at hookers in windows) strolled the boisterous streets over canal bridges and into the thick of the night. Coming in from the southwest side, we saw mostly large ladies of color in windows. Once we hit another side street, the flavor changed to ladies of the Asian persuasion, then on to Slav street. If there are dozens of strains of weed in Amsterdam, there must be hundreds of flavors of tail.

All of the hookers in The Dam mostly rent tiny cubicle cubbies with glass windows and white tiles from floor to ceiling inside where they wriggle like bait on a hook (hence the historical origin of the name 'hooker'). The wife commented that it all seemed so clinical and sanitary, like standing in a hospital shower stall. I guessed that all that sends out the right message: cleanliness and godliness and all that. But there was definitely a weird vibe beyond the obvious voyeuristic one. It's hard to look at something in a window display and not want to ask about the sales and discounts. Fortunately, we didn't have to. An Asian man walking in front of me suddenly succumbed to temptation and tapped on a window. The door swung open, the lady slapped a smile on her puss and leaned out. I heard the man say 'How much?' and watched the woman stick out her hand with five fingers, which could mean almost anything.

A) No way is a hooker 5 EUR.
B) No way is that hooker worth 500 EUR.
C) Talk to the hand. No fucky-sucky with Asians (racist whore!).

Maybe he only asked for directions. That would be worth five bucks.

Being Chased By Smarmy, Swarthy Pimps (In My Mind)

The sun must rise and the ladies of the evening must retire, the white tiles are hosed down and the morning shift checks in. Amsterdam must keep up with Vegas in the 24 hour party cycle. The only thing more ubiquitous than the rows of window women are the signs that scream NO PHOTOS! everywhere nearby. We were near the end of our trip, our last day in The Dam before the airport shuffle began the next day. I remember craving only one thing in this city of vice: having a beer while looking at a canal. Previously, it was 'munching fries while watching women writhing and wriggling in windows', but every seat was taken. So I resigned myself to the daytime tourist blob leaning against wrought iron railings overlooking party boats slithering by with old rich guys dressed as sailors hosting bored women with buckets of slowly warming champagne. It was good. It was perfect.

I had read that you don't want to be caught photographing the hookers in the windows. Smarmy, swarthy pimps will chase you. I must have subconsciously wanted this type of adventure, because I found myself innocently taking pics of canals and rows of bikes and people and coffee shops and and and...suddenly the row of houses I was photographing had windows with legs and stockings and cleanliness and godliness sticking out. At this point it is wise to mention that I had had another puff of coffee. I was getting paranoid. So I high(snigger)-tailed it out there just in case. My pimp fu is not very good after a puff or two.

Avenue Anarchy and Bicycle Road Warriors

Just as in Berlin, cyclists seem to have the right of way at all times. Only worse. They seem to have the Dam Right to shoot out in front of cars, pedestrians and other cyclists alike—with impunity. I asked one of my kindly drivers about it as he was driving down a one way street with an obstinate hippy obliviously biking on the left hand side of the road directly towards him, with only a hair's breadth between the cars, the bike, the canal and mayhem. "Yeah," he smiled, "They're not supposed to bike against traffic...but if a car hits them—it's always the car driver's fault."

Meh. I HATE one group having more rights than another. It's like Apartheid or senior citizens on Prague public transport. And the hits don't stop there. The swirling mass of cyclists in Amsterdam was larger than anywhere I have ever seen; Berliners are like babes on trikes compared to the Dammers. So as I strolled through the city center snapping photos, I was constantly under threat of grievous bodily harm as bikes flew by me in all directions at all times, narrowly missing my lens, nose and other protruding appendages with only a PING! Sound as they strafed me. It was total. Fucking. Anarchy. How is it possible that there not constant accidents? It reminded me of driving in Tijuana in a giant circle of dirt and mud with cars entering the high speed vehicular tilt-a-whirl at top speed randomly. There were no traffic lanes. And there were no accidents. It defies reason.

Maybe I'll have to rethink the whole anarchy thing as a viable human political system. When bikes and cars dive pell-mell-into-the-breach-balls-out, it somehow seems to work. Maybe humans only need to be left totally alone to succeed.

I just realized: I never did get fries from a vending machine. Oh, I saw them. I was just too high to operate coins at the time.

*Coffee is Dutch for WEED.


  1. Ha-ha....glad you managed to elude the whizzing bikes...and sorry about no fries from the vending machines.

    Will there be canal photos later?

    1. Just for you: one canal photo added to the blog above, just below the section 'Being Chased by Smarmy, Swarthy Pimps.' The photo is all canal and zero pimp.

  2. Scintillating and too true, as always. This current blatho-brilliance stirred deeply reptilian memories in my Black Irish heart such as leaving a jorno colleague collapsed in his tidy garden at sunrise after an all-nighter of guzzling and other pathetic indulgences and his wife rushing out to rescue him with a vicious, blade-enhanced crucifix swiping at my head and screaming, "Out Beast! And come no more!" Or so it seemed at the time.

    The Damm is indeed a Dr. Suess-ian land where its two dimensionality (flat and flatter) only ensure that the laws of Keppler and god do not apply. Add to this the writhing sets of various lips gaping (and, yes, gawping) from behind tiny incubator windows - and all the other perversions you mention and you've got the proverbial Dutch Masters contemporary version of ambulatory horror.

    You have rendered the perfect cannabis-enhanced Etch-a-Sketch version of this canal-side memory lapse. I can only assume that it was your wife who took lots of notes...



    David Peevers
    Writer & Photographer
    mobile: 01577 305 5860
    landliine: 030 4005 7720

  3. Thank you Dr. Gonzo for your heartfelt comment. I feel I am walking in the path of giants. If only someone would chase me with a crucifix-slash-shiv (ouch!) my legacy would be complete.

    -Big Sir


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