A Weekend in Amsterdam

May 9-15

One of the greatest things about Germany would have to be its location. With its position smack-dab in the middle of Europe, you are only some hours away from a multitude of other cultures in every direction. As such, I found myself in Amsterdam for an extended weekend.

My friend and I exited our night train from Berlin groggy, but excited. We were met with an astounding first sight of the Netherlands’ capital: great crowds of people splitting off into three wide streets, many of which were bearing neon signs promising Heineken beer or a plethora of souvenirs. Then, of course, there were the bicycles. Just outside the central station was an area which must have held thousands upon thousands of bikes, and each street had something like eight lanes which included a sidewalk, car lane, tramline and a bike lane for each direction.

Our first bit of exploration was through a multitude of shops. The palpable vibes of counterculture and tourism were strongly reminiscent of Venice Beach and Las Vegas, with all the magnets, clothing and knick-knacks sporting imagery of either pornography or pot leaves and cartoonish characters with bloodshot eyes professing their love for the stuff. The word “cannabis” was printed on just about everything from vodka to energy drinks, nearly all of which admitted in fine print that there was no actual THC in them, proving that many of these shops were just out to profit from the city’s biggest stereotypes.

However, the complete openness of the sale of certain items was definitely surprising. In every single one of these shops was a corner devoted entirely to cannabis candies and cookies, and next to that was almost always a fridge selling manufactured packets of magic mushrooms and startup kits to grow your own. I could have even been the proud owner of my own little peyote cactus for only 15 euro. Of course, across from the “soft drugs” there were bound to be genital-shaped candies, porn videos, human breast stress balls and sex toys.

Afterward, we decided to have a look at a few of those notorious coffee shops that Amsterdam is known for. They all varied in decoration with some looking more or less like a standard café. Some had a look influenced by Hindu deities or East Asian aesthetics and one even looked as though it were a cave underground, with each seat and table being a mushroom. However, the procedure and vibe was pretty universal. You’d walk up to the counter, prove you are 18 or over, and are then given a menu of delicious coffees as well as a menu for different marijuana strains—a list usually two to three times as long as the food and beverage list.

Lounge music ranging from hip-hop to more energetic Punjabi tunes could be heard pumping before you even enter. The dank skunk scent would creep into your nostrils as soon as you got past the doorway and you could see groups of people, most of them men in their late 20s to early 30s, huddled together in clusters. They’d either be smoking out of bongs that the shop rented for free or some of the fattest joints I have ever seen. The smoke would snake upwards from each little cluster of customers, eventually pooling together into a narcotic smog layer that hugged the ceiling.

After that, we found a stand with a considerably long line and a sign boasting that it had the best French fries in all of Holland. I got a cone of thick, fresh potato slices—crispy, straight from the fryer and only lightly salted and smothered in Fritessaus, a special kind of mayonnaise. I sat down with my little wooden fork and chowed down. Vince Vega in Pulp Fiction was entirely wrong—the mayo-fry combo was immensely satisfying. And after having enjoyed fresh French fries as a meal unto itself, I don’t think they’ll ever be the same to me as just a side dish.

We began to wander some more and eventually walked around the Old Church, the oldest and one of the most impressive buildings in the city. After that, not a minute went by when we were met with the image of a young woman in nothing but her underwear standing outside in the cold wind. Before I could even process this pleasant “WTF” moment, it occurred to me that we had found ourselves in the legendary red-light district, De Wallen. I don’t think there is a greater symbol of the amalgamation of culture and tolerance of the city than the fact that the oldest and holiest building is smack-dab in the middle of its most sinful area.

However, De Wallen is hardly what one expects. Instead of a network of seedy and run-down avenues that come to the mind when hearing “red-light district,” it is actually made up of three gorgeous canals with tightly-packed houses of old Dutch architecture along each side and thin alleyways connecting them. Most of the buildings had two floors consisting entirely of closet-like rooms with glass doors, and behind each of these doors was a woman in a bikini, lingerie and the like. Such a neatly lined-up selection was eerily reminiscent of an aisle of Barbie dolls that you could find in any toy store.

Each lady would either dance or alternate poses, frantically tapping the glass to get your attention as you pass. In all their eyes was a combination of a sad puppy wanting attention and a hungry tiger locked onto its prey. If one smiles at them, as I couldn’t help but do, they would crack open the glass door, stick out one hand and crook a single finger while saying “Come here! Come here!” As I was walking around, I would see the occasional middle-aged man peek his head through a glass door and then walk in. Then the lady would pull some curtains and you can imagine the rest.

However, Amsterdam deserves to be known for much more than a den of open indulgence. Throughout my stay, I was blown away by how international it was, and how English was the most spoken language throughout the entire city. The Dutch are all perfectly fluent in English and use it as the default language in every shop. British schoolboys could be found ogling the ladies on display and sniggering, Americans could be found laughing their asses off in almost every coffee shop and in one bar I even found a Canadian branch of the Veterans, a biker gang. Yes, apparently Canada has biker gangs.

The city is surprisingly small, with only an hour’s walk to get from the Central Station at the north end to the collection of museums and “I Amsterdam” sign at the south end. The sheer amount of museums (52 in one city), art galleries, music venues and options to navigate the canals were astounding. In the following days, I went to the Heineken brewery and learned how to properly pour and drink a beer. I also saw more Van Gogh paintings than I even knew existed. I watched a fantastic hip-hop artist live, learned about the history of cannabis at the marijuana museum and learned a tremendous amount of the city’s history at the Amsterdam Museum. Even after all that, I still feel like I barely scratched the surface of such a dense hub of culture.

Four days later, I was sitting on the train back home to Germany with a camera full of pictures and a bag full of Heineken-labeled goods, a block of homemade Dutch cheese and a little bottle of absinthe. And though I was sad to leave such a wonderful place, I am now left with a deep lust to travel and experience even more wonderful places.