amsterdam is the land of watery misdirection. its a city full of tears and cheer and simple, solid stone.
at the hotel, i asked front-desk Hans if he had any destination.recomendations. he steered me to Rembrandt Square. not having been there myself it seemed like a fine idea. turns out it wasn't much more than a sprawl of stale-beer bars and sloppy shouting brits. this was to be my first clue to the reality that for most amsterdammers, the idea of a tourist is a stoned-drunk fucker because this, in fact, is exactly what most amsterdam tourists do: smoke pot, drink, and fuck. gambling is legal, prostitution is legal, marijuana is legal, and smoking is legal (none of which are legal in san francisco, that supposed bastion of libertine liberties), and so the touring visitor that looks anything like me is there to get wrecked.
my tourism muscle wasn't warmed up yet. instead i stood in the dark and oggled at the lights on the canals.
it was an easy night in a strange hotel i had been put in, and the next morning i left to find that what was outside was far different from what was inside:
this is a thing that borders on scandinavian; the difference between the interior and exterior worlds... somehow not surprising.
that morning i got to work and started asking random people 2 questions:
"if you were king of amsterdam what would you change?"
"if you were king of amsterdam what would you leave as it is?"
satisfied with their disatisfactions. as i talked with them, most of them wanted to be somewhere else, but when i asked them where, they would change their minds, and tell me they were happy there. they seemed a little sad, but at the same time, it was a sadness they wore like a scarf. it kept them warm and anyway it was a god-given right to feel how they did and, besides all that; it was winter.
given what i've heard it seems that amsterdam started as a port town that was stacked on stilts to lift it out of its muddy origins. dutch trade during the 17th and 18th centuries had gotten hot enough to invent new warehouse architecture, new corporate structures, new trade routes, a blossoming prostitution industry and the place mutated into a northern, liberalized, version of venice. since 1850 the population has almost doubled. and it shows: out of nearly 7,300 historic buildings (under either state or civic jurisdiction) about 2,400 require restoration.
they care, but not too much.
its best that way. this is a wise approach.
so its a harbor town and the canals are the frame for the city. like venice its another odd dream gone cracked dry and confused, with cars slowly pushing people off the street that was never designed for tires and dual overhead converters.
there are three "Rossebuurta" or "pink neighborhoods" in amsterdam. walletjes is the main (or most famous anyway, the others being singel and pijp). sailors of yore would hop off the boat and look for something else to hop onto. this started an industry that quickly rose to pinkslip redlights since now, since 1996, the hookers get taxed.
one night in some effort to find out what was going on around me, i went out to make some friends. i met two pimps, two hookers, two drug dealers and probably the single highest and one of the most beautiful young women i've ever seen in my life. let's start with her since she was, more or less, the hound that led me to the bushes.
it was about midnight and i was in an alley outside the main redlight district (monikenstraat, i think). i saw what looked like a long-haired blonde california girl sauntering like the wind - kicking one leg out, hip jut and hair toss, then she'd swing back the other and no walkman to rhythm to so i focus on this funky little dancing bird and decide to follow her to see. i was bored, and she was high so i decided to stalk her. entertaining impulses is the only way to get them to leave (they are, after all, friends, of an unwelcomed sort) and so off we went, she dancing to invisible tunes and me swatting away ill-willed and bored intentions. i wasn't serious (just curious) so after a block i decided to blow my cover to find out what drugs she had and where they came from. this dutch princess had gotten into three cookie jars in one hour; heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy. oh, and nicotine. she was the rainbow in he dark but we didnt get along that great because after about 5 minutes she realized i had no drugs, i realized she WAS drugs, and so she ditched me for a moroccan with a crack pipe.
since she was obviously having a better time than i, i decided that i needed drugs, too.
a brer rabbit from turkey made me an offer i couldn't refuse and we walked some 2 blocks together and traded the all-important background checks: names, terms, countries (from that point on he called me "United States"). it was all fine fair's fare until i pointed out that cops work undercover in the US. of course they work undercover in amsterdam, too, but i was more fishing for a reaction and making convention.
when i asked him if he was a cop he blew his lid so high it made me laugh. of course he wasnt a cop - he was too skinny, too dark, too poor and too loud. but he blew his top like one. he told me american cops have a reputation in amsterdam; people's lives get wasted for a gram of marijuana (actually, three people in amsterdam had more to say about american cops than dutch cops. they seem to be gaining an international reputation).
but i regress. we went into a different alley and smoked our crack and i walked off when the local dealers started to turn the corner (i didnt want to get ruffled for chipping off their profits), but the rainbow princess of death was long gone and i didnt really care anyway since i was getting The Tourist Groove in me and decided to go look at fishbowl hookers rather than stalk sexy smackhawks.
amsterdam felt las vegas; as if nothing was mysterious and everything was expensive.
raunchy just means haunchy. any "Seedy" neighborhood is just a "Sinewy" neighborhood. the "dirty" parts of town just have more flesh in em. that's all it is. its a more physical world. less sterile. not dangerous, unless you think having a body is dangerous, which most people do.
anyway, more of the drunk british blokes (maybe it was the same guys i saw in Rembrandt Square.. they all look and sound and act alike, now that i think about it) were clustered around a window screaming things like "It's got a nice set o tits on it though" and so i stood there watching, mocking, smoking, leaning against something, looking at this gag of brit bolts urging each other to act like assholes and wondering how in the hell someone would be motivated to sit in a bikini behind a barsign window and tolerate drunk tools like these. the dolts left and so i walked by to see what she was doing. pulling the curtains? looking down? shaking her tits? she was about my age, wearing a miniskirt and horned-rimmed vaguely cruel glasses with minimal foliage covering the canopy. she opened up the door and asked me where i was from?
i thought 'cantonese.. no russian, maybe" and felt for her a touch sad after watching the drubbing she'd just received (the brits had all left after gathering their cruel entertainment for free). and she was stunning in a librarian meets porn star sort of way. in retrospect it was probably my big night; i could have become a Man and scarred my heart by having sex with 50 women, but instead i stood there and talked with her.
"i live in paris. i'm american."
She looked serious which seemed unprofessional. "You want to come in?"
"no, thank you m'am, but i am curious; why the booth and the glass? seems like its a hassle."
.. and as soon as it left my mouth i felt like a jackass for asking because i knew the answer, but didnt, at the same time.
she cocked her head to one side, "What do you think would happen if I stood out there?"
"you'd get cold, m'am."
"Right, and I'd have a lot more hassle than in here."
right.. or not, i thought to myself, since i know of a herd of hookers that live near my place in pigalle and they dont ever seem to get hassled. at least not that i've seen. or so, since the hookers in paris all hang out together in bars. but i was there to be polite rather than debate the safety of working as a goldfishpussy,
so i said, "well, those are beautiful glasses you've got there." hoping to change the topic to some other kind of glass.
"Thank you. And you have a beautiful smile."
i firmly decided it was a romanian accent. the line didn't work on me. if it was a line, which it probably wasn't. but it set my evening at an angle and the red lights turned a deeper shade of purple and black and the crack i'd smoked was working my nerves and making me chew my teeth.
it was probably 3 so i took a cab to the hotel. the cab driver told me he thought the united states was stupid. i concurred. i rinsed off and laid there, watching MTv or something like it until 5am ... rattling my teeth around in my skull and wondering about the two women with whom i had fallen in love; the junkies and the hookers always know the truth the rest of us ignore. this was why i fell in love with them both. they were beautiful because they knew.
the next morning i had lunch and took the trolley to the central station.
in the rest of the world the sun floats around overhead and we bottom-dwellers stare up, watching while the tides push it back and forth across the sky. in amsterdam the sun is a big flat stone that has been skipped across the lake and everyone below sees it skimming along the horizon, leaving ripples of yellow silence and winking gold clouds along the rim. the ambience of the city is silent and the stone buildings, pinched at the top like strange bishops, are patient underneath the angled light and eternal rain. the canals seem to be quietly waiting, licking the banks, holding out for a time when they'll be useful again.
in amsterdam things rust, moss grows, old people are as permanent as gravity. there are concerns about the suburbs, and the traffic, and the quality of life. these are standard concerns for a standard city in europe or north america.
but amsterdam is old and gold and it keeps a curious watch on itself, as if it were its own child. as if it were completely alone in the world.
amsterdam is a city like any other, save for one main difference; i didnt meet people that were afraid or people that were concerned or radical or upset or angry or wanting to dismantle the world bit by bit with their teeth. this exists in most other cities i've been to. it is strangely peaceful there.. it might have to do with the peaceful light or the peaceful government or the peaceful gold sky, or it might have to do with the simple fact that so little there is forbidden and so repression has no where to hide and Curiosity can satisfy itself alongside its lover named Freedom.
the dutch seem content and i dont think its because they dont have problems, but rather that they know how to deal with them; they know how to deal with sadness.
the secret i discovered in amsterdam is simple. the dutch are different because they know how to build canals for their history. they know where to channel their tears. and this leads them to oceans of satisfaction.