I’m not exactly sure why I decided to go to Amsterdam. Sure, there was the Peter Bjorn song that I had fallen in love with, bearing the name “Amsterdam”; and sure there was that draw of seeing the place where both weed and prostitution were legal; and who could forget the history of Anne Frank, the girl whose memoir moved me so when I was only 12 years old; but I think the real reason I was excited to see Amsterdam was because of a friend, who had lived in Amsterdam for two years. Her love and passion for the city was infectious, and I couldn’t wait to see this place.
I spent three and a half days in Amsterdam. By the end of my time I could make a perfect list detailing the things that I loved, and the things that I hated about the city. There is not too much room for in-between, no shades of grey, if you will, when it comes to Amsterdam. For me, Amsterdam was both a breath of fresh air and smoke-filled exhaust. First, let me explain the things that I loved about the city.
I loved the houses. Those delicious ginger-bread row-homes were just too perfect for words, and the hundreds of canals made me feel like I stepped back a few hundred years in history and was walking along the banks, seeing the thriving east India trading company at work. I liked how the houses tilted forward, like a small child, arms outstretched, welcoming the goods that trading ships brought to fill their walls. The hooks on the tops of the houses surprised me, and their history enthralled me as I learned ropes were used to heave goods up the sides of the house and through the windows.
The bikes. I feared being run over constantly by the vicious bike-riders. But I also grew quite fond of the men and women, in their business suites and high-heeled shoes, applying make-up and talking on their phones as they wizz by on their way to work all the while ringing their bell for pedestrians to get out of their way. It was amazing how many bikes there were, and how few cars. I liked that about the city. Bikes were locked up everywhere. I now know why my friend who lived here for two years is such a good bike rider. She had a lot of practice.
I loved the boats, and the history, the museums and the buildings, I adored the people and the food, but there were some things I couldn’t overlook.
Walking from the train station to my hostel I passed about ten sex shops and three strip clubs, walking in a straight line for less than half a mile. Two doors down from my hostel was the condomerie, right across the street was a sex club, my hostel was above a bar, and two sex shops were catty corner (both directions) from my hostel. It was too much, at least for me.
I grew up in a conservative, Christian home. And I grew up naive. All those sex shops still made me uncomfortable at 24 years old. I didn’t like the emphasis or obsession, as I thought, that the city had with sex. (Later, I realized that all these shops cater about 95% to tourists and not to locals, as do the coffee-shops, which sell marijuana, so I am talking about the very touristy side of Amsterdam.)
The worst for me was the red light district. It is unreal to see shops, consisting of windows, outlined in glowing red lights, with half-naked women standing in the space, trying to get your attention. You can’t turn away from it, and at the same time you don’t want to look (or at least I didn’t). It was weird to me, I kept thinking mom, sister, daughter, niece, granddaughter. Now, I know that these women (most of them) chose this profession (well, kind of. There is a lot of illegal sex trafficking in the Netherlands according to my friend. And I can only imagine the lives of some of these women that led up to them becoming prostitutes, but I will hop down off my soap box for the moment). But still. It is hard to swallow the fact that women are selling their bodies for money. Walking through the red light district made me feel like a piece of meat, like an object. It was perhaps my least favorite part of the city.
I have to cheer myself up with some good things. I took a half day trip outside the city. I went to see the windmills that the Netherlands are so famous for. And, I had the chance to see a cheese making demonstration and buy some of the best cheese I’ve ever had in my life. The day ended with a trip on the largest freshwater body of water in Europe, and a demonstration of clog making.
It was one of my favorite days in Amsterdam. The boat cruise that I took on the canals also led to my fascination with the city.
Now, it is Amsterdam after all, famous for weed. Technically, weed is not legal in Amsterdam, but everyone kind of looks the other way. It is legal to smoke, but not to buy, so spend some time and figure that one out. The coffee shops are everywhere, and they sell tons of different kinds of weed. Some people would be fascinated with this, I was not. I was 24 at the time, but I doubt even if I were 17 it would be much of a draw for me, I’m just not that kind of person. It was more surreal than anything else being able to walk into a store, buy, and smoke weed right there, with a cop right outside the door.
The whole city had a pulse, a vibration that you could feel in every step you took. This pulse, the wheels of bikes on the sidewalk, the river flowing down the canals, the noises of the crowds in the red light district, was so easy to grasp. All cities have a rhythm, but Amsterdam’s was definitely unique.
Elizabeth Gilbert in her Book Eat Pray Love writes that each city has a word. Well, if I had to pick a word for Amsterdam it would be surreal. Because that’s what the city was to me, beautiful, hideous, crazy, and wonderful, full of surprises and shocks.