We approach Amsterdam via a calm and simple train ride, with a club car that has decent snacks, good beer and coffee, and a slender grouchy fashionable entitled German woman, set up in the corner of the clickety-clacking vehicle, who keeps ordering her daughter in a loud voice to buy food. No one, even the daughter, seems to mind. So I decide I don’t mind either, and eventually we arrive in Amsterdam.
Our Turkish taxi driver thinks his President, Erdoğan, is doing the right thing by going hard against anyone he believes was connected to those rebels, because, after all, they killed people didn’t they? So what if the dictatorial tactics include mass arrests, torture, removing whole swathes of people from the civil service and the judiciary,…yet the driver seems nice. For once in my life I say nothing. Maybe the three and a half weeks of vacation have actually calmed me down?
Our destination is HOTEL V. Fifth in a series? Five centuries old? Its sign is a modern abstract of a coat of arms that seems to be two lions on hind legs scratching, growling, fighting each other. Kinda like a lot of the world…
HOTEL V, according to the tiny map they give us, is in Nesplein, on a tiny alley a block off the Grimburgwal canal. Our room is quiet and medium-sized and nice enough. The fancy restaurant does NOT include a breakfast buffet, for the first time since Switzerland. Yet the Hotel V costs more per night than any other lodging on the trip.
Amsterdam is known for its marijuana and its prostitution. Does that mean it draws more tourists than Berlin or Prague, even Paris? So supply and demand drive the prices up? Yet the town seems so wholesome in the early evening light.
The Grimburgwal is peaceful, with its rhythms of ripples amidst varied breezes that reflect, then lose, then re-reflect amidst the lovely ducks that paddle around, the tour boats, the edifices that loom above. Each structure has a large hook suspended on a pulley, so that furniture and other large objects can be moved up and down on the outside rather than through the narrow interiors. When night falls it is the various lamps, on the streets, in windows that get reflected, doubling their warm and sparkling glow.
During our walk around on the first evening, I spy a place where the youth are lined up to buy their joints. Some even smoke the thick spliffs inside, while they sit with their wine and beer. It’s all loud and young and formidable so I wait until morning, make my way back into to that rear counter, where I boldly request a joint with CBD’s in it. (It’s the CBD’s, I have learned in Medical MJ California, that can relieve the pains associated with arthritis, inflammation, bad knees, and on and on.)
You have to go to a pharmacy to find your CBD’s, the guy behind the counter informs me. Fine. I go in search of a pharmacy and soon I see one, with a marquee that features the stylized cannabis illustration I’ve already spied on candy wrappers and cookie bags in corner stores. Which cute little packages, btw, contain only products with hemp, nothing that gets you high. And the pharmacy? There you can get CBD’s, yes. If you have a prescription. But none of their CBD products contain THC. Just in case you want to get high. Which, believe me, by now I do, because after all, isn’t that what Amsterdam is for?
I stroll into what looks to be a cannabis shop located near the top of the Red Light District, as the Woermostraat area is also called on our map. Red Light District, in big letters! This place has no coffee, no chocolate, no beer, no brownies, no packages with an emblem of any kind. Just an immaculate glass counter and small plants.
There I ask the young man behind the counter my simple question—can I buy some marijuana to smoke that has both CBD and THC in it?
In response to which he informs me emphatically that marijuana is NOT legal here. And it is NOT legal in Italy, which is where he comes from. And even in California it is NOT legal, and by now he is yelling. Well! I’m from California, I yell back, and medical marijuana has been legal there for twenty years, and recreational marijuana is coming in 2018. He pays zero attention to my lecture
No! He stands his ground. Marijuana is legal in only one country in the world, and do I know where that is? At this point I really want to walk out of there.
“Ecuador!” he shouts before I can even think about it. “Evo Morales! And he’s the only one! And your federal government can swoop in and shut down all that stuff in California whenever it wants to!”
I find myself nodding because he’s actually kinda right, especially since now Jeff Sessions, who in his wisdom has announced that marijuana is harmful to us all, is in there as Attorney General.
The Dutch don’t use it by and large, they don’t like it, and they look down their noses at those who do, my Italian friend continues, more reasonable in his tone now that I have decided to listen. Marijuana, is tolerated in Amsterdam just like in California, he tells me, because of the taxes it generates. And the same goes for prostitution.
Okay okay, the guy is intense but he is actually also making sense, so I give up on the CBD’s and ask him where, if anywhere, that’s not a dark bar reeking of tobacco, can I just sit and smoke a joint?
Sweet and kind suddenly, he says that someone who looks like me (viz. elderly white woman) can pick a quiet place. One of those insets along the canals, or a bench in a square. And if the police do stop me, they will just ask me to put it away and move on. AND he knows of a café with the good stuff. There is scaffolding on the outside of the building, but the shop is in there.
He writes arrows on my map, and we set out to locate it. Eventually, after two young women send us all the way around a long block when it would have been just around the corner if we had taken the opposite direction, we find the scaffolding. But there is NOT a place behind it, even closed, let alone open.
So I ask one of the directionally-challenged girls where there is another place to buy. She informs me with a disapproving look that she’s not sure, because she’s given the drug up.
Luckily I now remember that the Italian guy had marked a second place on my map—a mother-daughter operation, he said, but the product is not as good. We follow more of his arrows, and, miracle of miracles, we FINALLY find it.
I purchase one huge spliff,stuffed with coarse-looking weed, take my product trot off to a quiet old neighborhood across the Boerenwetering canal, which the Italian guy had also recommended, to get me away from the Red Light District.
I find a bench on a peaceful corner where the infrequent passers by look Dutch…and? The stuff is raw on the throat, but one must be tough as a tourist, right? I puff away. . . And?
It’s nice. I’m happy. The area is peaceful; the people are lovely, especially the ones on their bikes. Some riders have children with them, seated in various places—on the back fender, on top of the basket in front, in a container clipped onto the rod under the handlebars. They wear helmets or they don’t. With or without a child, the cyclist is upright and alert, and often whistles or hums as she or he goes along. The bikes are frequent, their drivers determined.
While under the influence I conclude that Amsterdam’s marijuana is definitely more a virtue than a vice.
But what about that Red Light District? Three times we stroll through it, once in the morning of the marijuana search, again later that afternoon, and of course, at night. Each time the displays behind windows of actual human female beings, in their close decorated spaces with their wide open decorated bodies, are more disconcerting than erotic for me. I remember that twenty years ago in this same city a live show with actual intercourse stimulated intense desire. But now all that is missing.
More than once I see a door open, each time to admit a young white man/boy who looks like a student on break. I can’t help but visualize what comes next. Disrobing, him with lust, her with boredom. Engaging physically. And afterwards? The kid would leave quickly, a bit embarrassed, maybe even ashamed. The woman would shrug, clean up, and get into position to attract her the next encounter.
What has happened, have I become a prude? Whatever, I do understand that it would not be better to put them—or, more precisely, one of them, the woman—in jail. . .
On the second day, after a breakfast finally so ordinary I can’t even remember it, we split up and I head out for the famous museums. The line in front of Van Gogh is daunting, the Van Rijk museum familiar from twenty years ago, so the Stedelijk Contemporary Art Museum it is.
Generous, full-blooded, intense and very female, the paintings impress and jumble together at the same time. I can’t even be bothered to remember the names of the artists—a sure sign that home is pulling at me, the journey nearing its end.
I emerge into the sunlight, start the long walk back and at the height of my fatigue with the tramping, my cell phone rings and it’s my husband telling me that I have to come where he is, right away. He had struck up a conversation with a passer-by who happened to be black, and the guy had told him about a celebration of slavery’s end that happened to be now, this very day and hour!
I haul myself into the hotel, they call a cab for me, and the driver takes me the edge of a large open space that must be Oosterpark on my map. He informs me with a bemused look that there will be good falafel and kabobs nearby.
But when I find Walter and we get into the park, there is nary a typical Middle Easterner in sight, because suddenly just about everyone is black. Dark-skinned black. Women are decked out in long dresses that flow with bright colors. The men sport vivid designs on their shirts, scarf strips, and even shawls. The children are quiet and respectful; the greetings among friends and family are elaborate and heartfelt.
Eventually someone informs us in perfect English that the folks here are descended from the formerly enslaved Africans of the Dutch republic of Surinam. According to my phone Surinam is a teeny-tiny country on the Northeastern coast of South America, but there are so many Surinamese listening to music in the huge field next to us that we are not even tempted to get close.
Eventually we locate a procession of percussive sounds that emanates from a smaller inside space. We edge into the dense crowd, and near the center we crane our necks to glimpse a substantial group of male drummers and swaying female singers. Concentric circles of audience shuffle in time with elaborate patterns of intricate steps. Difficult but not impossible to follow. Or so I believe as I imitate the nearby women who seem to pay zero attention to me as they dance. Fun!
We leave and keep walking. A guy or two has a beer in hand, but pretty much everyone indulges only in water or soft drinks. Varied scents of meat and vegetables prick at our nostrils, but the lines are long. We pick the shortest and end up with cobs of corn on sticks, lathered with butter. We are happy.
At last we come to the statue that commemorates the end of slavery for the Surinamese. Adorned by offerings of flower bouquets and garlands, it depicts a determined group that engenders a girl, upright and clothed in real fabric for this occasion, who in turn metamorphoses into a goddess with wings, her long body and outstretched arms ready to ascend to the sky.
The sign explains: “First all the slaves were ‘freed,’ but next they were required to work an extra seven years (!) to compensate their owners for the loss of property (!!). This holiday in early July is to celebrate the end of the transition, the beginning of true freedom (exclamation points added).”
Later as I tell the nice (white) guy at the lobby desk about all this, I notice he has a troubled look. Oh yes, he says, he has been to this place himself on this day in the past. Not too many white Dutch out there, right? Yes of course a few, but the Dutch still have so many problems with all this.
When asked for an example he turns his computer toward us and brings up a bank of photos of drunk white Dutch men celebrating Christmas as grotesque black-faced parodies of St. Nicholas.
On day three the same helpful hotel employee gets us tickets for 11 AM at the Van Gogh Museum, instructs us on where to catch the tram, and we are there only fifteen minutes late which doesn’t matter, so we get to bypass the line and walk right in. Van Gogh is so wonderful that his art need not be photographed, let alone described with words, as far as I am concerned. I wander the floors thrilled to stare unencumbered at the multitude of his works.
We emerge happy and hungry, and eventually settle at a sidewalk café where we sit almost touching shoulders with those on both sides of our narrow table. Walter orders a quiche that is so beautiful when it arrives with its sweet scents of warm cheese and mushrooms that two Spanish-speaking women tourists tell us in English how much they wish they had chosen the same.
We eat, and I stroll around the corner while Walter pays the check. Out of nowhere comes a cavalcade of nude bike riders! Stunned, I can’t even get my phone out to take a picture until near the end, but there must have been at least eighty in the group. Mostly men, so more penises out in the open than I have ever seen in my life.
Without my one pic for evidenceI would wonder if it had all been a weird and feverish dream, but no. This was just a nude bike ride in Amsterdam on July 1st of 2017. Must be a back story, but I do not know it . . .
That evening we head back out on the same tram to the same area for a concert at the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw. First we eat, of course, in the famous hall’s café. I have smoked salmon with capers and good rye bread and a touch of salad and a glass of white wine, all of which makes me ridiculously happy.
As for the concert, it seems out of another world altogether. The hall is huge, the giant organ behind the podium festooned with flowers. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta, a relatively small summer orchestra, seems dwarfed by the expanse. The featured star is Martin Fröst, a Swedish clarinetist who descends a staircase from high up into the space behind that incredible organ, so that he seems to be coming down from the clouds. He approaches conductor Candida Thompson, and their bows to one another constitute a dance of greeting.
The music swells to fill all the space and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A has never sounded more sublime. (Also Brahms Waltz and 2 “Klezmer” dances composed by father Göran Fröst)
The next day is the final one of our month-long European trip. We decide on a bus ride into the countryside, which is flat and wet, with a prim and proper beauty. It must be reclaimed from the sea, but there are no dykes in view. Excerpt for the motor vehicles the area could be from an earlier century in its unbothered simplicity.
In line for a ferry to a town where we can catch another bus back, in some amazement that that such a hidebound place would be so close to the free and easy city, I ask the ticket taker—“so who actually lives around here?” He beams, and tells me he lives here, and has done so for his whole entire life!
In the afternoon we go to the Verzetsmuseum, aka the Dutch Resistance Museum, for one final World War II experience. It is in a building with a star of David embedded in the plaster triangle above the door. Inside is a series of spaces, entered through narrow doorways, with displays in various diminutive square and rectangular spaces. Photos, newspaper articles, documents, both personal and official, the accompanying text has a forthright honesty about the difficult choices that had to be made once the Nazis occupied the city. Accommodate and cooperate? Lay low? Resist?
All three alternatives are explored. A collaborator is imprisoned after the war. Resisters are regularly shot by German troops during the war. The Jews, as usual, have been shipped off to be cremated. No wonder most people found themselves to be cowards under those circumstances and put their heads down in the hope that eventually the Nazis will go away. The thrust of the exhibits is that this is exactly what the majority of Dutch residents did.
Further, the text confronts the weird but ubiquitous fact that, for at least a generation, little or none of this horror was even alluded to among friends and family, let alone discussed openly within the culture. So often this is what the human being does with trauma—shove it down down down to the deepest part inside, with a desperate fervent hope that it never has to be gone through again.
Which doesn’t work, it seems to me. Which perpetuates the cycle, which, which, which…why are human beings so cruel and perverse in the first place anyhow?? AU REVOIR WORLD WAR II!! Good by and good luck and may you stay in the rear view window now, forever.
So it’s off late on our last night to a gourmet seafood restaurant in a neighborhood I can’t be bothered to find or name on our tiny map. The place has white tables, white chairs, white-jacketed waiters. With much fanfare delicious oysters are on offer, along with other platters that taste of the sea and contain items so unusual in the U.S. that I can’t name them. This mysterious final meal, in a hidden neighborhood with unknown foods is the perfect ending, before our inevitable return to familiarity the very next day.by