Check Your Morals at the Door – Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Check your Morals at the Door
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Check your morals at the door and lock and dam the kids in the hotel room, it’s Amsterdam time! Aaawww yeah! Soft drugs! Government sanctioned prostitution! Live sex shows! More sin than you can shake a bong at! This place makes Las Vegas look like Iowa City!

But first, let’s take a few thousand words to discuss Amsterdam’s rich 700 year history. In the 13th century some fishermen built a dam across the Amstel River and soon after the city was… Naw, I’m messing with you! On with the debauchery!

Coffee Shop

Coffee Shop

People come to Amsterdam from all over the world for the sole purpose of pureeing their brains into a soft, drug-addled paste. Hash, mushrooms and other soft drugs are easier to get than a decent ice cream cone. While drugs are not in fact 100% legal, they are tolerated more than a regular cigarette is in the U.S. these days. While owning and using soft drugs is worry-free, don’t plan on collecting a duffel bag worth of psychotropic substances and opening your own Kool-Aid-style booth on the corner. If you get busted with more than five grams of gear – the amount that authorities have deemed an acceptable sized stash for personal use – you will indeed get tossed into prison. There’s no need to worry about hoarding a personal inventory though. “Coffee Shops” – code name for hash bars, which are the only acceptable soft drug merchants in Amsterdam – are more numerous than Starbucks in Manhattan. There are several in each neighborhood and in places like the over-saturated city center, a modest, second-hand buzz can very nearly be attained by simply loitering on one of the busier streets.

It goes without saying that any tourist stopping in Amsterdam for more than a couple days has an agenda that includes many, many hours, slouched in a stupor in the back of a hash bar. I ran into countless people whose European itinerary went something like this:

July: France, Germany Switzerland, Italy and Spain.
August: Amsterdam.

While only about five percent of Dutch citizens indulge in the free-for-all of soft drugs available to them (painfully ironic and telling, isn’t it? Should someone send the U.S. Drug Czar a memo?), there is a repellent presence of permanent resident, drugs fatalities staggering around Amsterdam. These are people who probably arrived in the city anywhere from 5 to 20 years ago, decided to stay a while, never left and eventually spiraled down into a serious, hard drug habit. While Amsterdamers are generally indifferent to soft drugs, they have no patience for the harder stuff. Nearly every hash establishment has huge signs announcing that hard drugs are not tolerated on the premises, so people seeking the harder stuff are forced to hide out in alleys and under bridges. In a few, disagreeable parts of Amsterdam, particularly in the vicinity of Zeedijk street, leading to Nieuwmarkt, it is impossible to walk 10 steps without encountering a dope fiend hitting you up for change, putting on a free, drug-fueled song and dance show or just tripping so hard that they can’t figure out how to zip their pants back up after reliving themselves on one of their buddies. In most cases you can laugh this off as part of the entertainment value of Amsterdam, but sometimes these spectacles can be disturbing enough for even a hardened local to stop and stare at the sight of a raw, depraved, drug addict passed out in the bushes with only their legs visible, sprawled out on the sidewalk. These people are so far removed from reality that they are completely unaware of their degeneracy. Typical tell-tale characteristics include a stick-thin body, five foot long dreads, inch long, yellow fingernails, wearing clothes that have clearly not been washed in months and permeated with an aroma that could knock a buzzard off a garbage truck. While I can empathize with the argument for legalizing soft drugs, it is impossible to spend an afternoon in Amsterdam and not think twice about the path that starts with innocent soft drug use and leads to a wretched, pathetic life.

Sex Museum

Sex Museum

The Red Light District is a whole other matter. While hash has it’s specific cross-eyed demographic, the Red Light District in comparison almost resembles a family theme park atmosphere. The area takes up about six square blocks and every street is packed with happy tourists walking up and down, admiring the scenery as if they were in a nature preserve. But instead of birds and flowers they get to survey huge pictures of anatomically correct dildos and graphically depicted sex acts displayed outside the copious sex shops. Whole families routinely make the tour through the District with mom, dad, bug-eyed Joe junior and little, horrified Ashley getting the uninvited education of a lifetime and wondering how long it’ll be before she gets her boobies and how long after that before they get fondled by a disheveled guy wearing sunglasses, camouflage boxer-shorts and combat boots. Live sex theaters line the streets with humungous, color, pornographic photos. Then there are the infamous crimson-adorned hooker windows where scantly clad women and women-formerly-known-as-men flirt and pose for passersby, hoping to score a customer. By and large, these hookers are about as appealing as a three finger prostate exam. Once in a great while, during peak times, you can find an attractive woman that you might consider for something more than a foot rub, but this is rare. The prostitutes appear to be mostly poor immigrants from Asian and Latin countries and in all likelihood didn’t have a whole lot of options available to them other than entering into the sex business when they arrived in Amsterdam.

If, at this moment, you are sitting there saucer-eyed while reading this, particularly if you have a younger, angelic sibling or one or more offspring heading into Amsterdam in the very near future, you can relax. Amsterdam has a surprisingly gorgeous depth that goes far beyond the drug and sex industry. Some of my most cherished, oh-wow moments were gleaned from simply wandering through the very scenic Jordaan neighborhood (four canals east of the train station) or ogling the stunning, hundreds of years old row-houses that had somehow survived decades – maybe even centuries – of high impact college student residents. The neighborhood mindset in these areas is strong. It very common for people to know all of their neighbors, their neighbor’s children and pets and to greet, play with or pet all of the above as they walk up and down their street.

Everything in Amsterdam is small. The houses are small. The streets are small. The restaurants are small. The bathrooms are really small. The Dutch rival the Swedes with being the tallest people in the northern hemisphere, so how they cope with a bathroom that I can barely squash my 5’9″, 150 lb. frame into without suffering a head or elbow injury is beyond me. This lack of personal space is not only due to the vast number of people crammed into Amsterdam, but it can also be directly attributed to a medieval tax law. Back in the olden days, the people in Amsterdam were taxed according to the width of their houses. The natives finessed their way around this obstacle by constructing narrow, extremely long houses, most of which are still standing today. The Amsterdamers make the most of the room that they have by finding ways to utilize every square inch of horizontal and vertical space. i.e. Book shelves above doorways, lofted beds and their three foot bongs hung from ceiling hooks.

The hotel/hostel situation in high season can be spirit crushing if you don’t plan way ahead. A week before my July visit, after an afternoon of frenzied searching for a room on the internet, I was forced to fire off a panicky, pleading email to my friend Sanne, who I had not seen in six years, to secure a spot on the floor of her efficiency apartment. Reasonably affordable rooms will almost invariably challenge one’s preconceived notions of cleanliness and “budget” accommodations. Prices are high and some of the hundreds of years old buildings could use a once-over by a toxic substances abatement team. Comfortable and spotless accommodations are naturally plentiful, but these options may require you to cash in a few ripe, high denomination Savings Bonds in order to cover the bill.

Amsterdam is the home of the legendary Anne Frank house and museum. The “Secret Annex” in this building was where the Frank family hid from Nazi authorities between 1942-44, before being betrayed by a Dutch cohort. Anne Frank composed her now famous diary during this unthinkable confinement, before being shipped to Germany’s Bergen-Belsen camp where she died at the age of 15 two weeks before the British liberation. Anne’s father Otto Frank, the only family member to survive the ordeal, found his daughter’s diary and published it so the world would remember her. The Anne Frank House happened to be located on my walking route between Sanne’s apartment to the city center and I had intended to stop and take the tour for the massive history value, but every single time I passed the place, the line to get in was so long that I could have written my own flipping memoirs in the time it would have taken to get inside.

If not for the elaborate system of dikes, locks and dams, something like three quarters of The Netherlands would be under water. The ground under Amsterdam in particular is so soft that the houses would all eventually sink if they weren’t all built on top of deeply sunken piles. As Amsterdam grew, the city planners kept on expanding the city’s canal system with ever widening layers of concentric circles. Unlike Venice’s random canal arrangement, Amsterdam’s canals were built with a clear city plan in mind. The canals were not only used as defenses against invaders, but they were also used to deliver heavy goods right to everyone’s front door. The houses along the canals were all equipped with a block and tackle (basically a hook and pulley system) hanging off the front for raising and loading goods from the canal up into the windows of the upper levels of the houses. These systems are still used today when people move in and out of the houses, due to the stairways being far too small and narrow to carry up anything wider than a folding chair.

Despite the streets being barely the width of a golf cart, they are open to all forms of traffic from cars, to horse-drawn carriages to the swarm of bikes that dominate the city. On the canal streets, pedestrians are sometime given little slivers of something resembling a walkway, but these are often obstructed by locked bikes, café tables and slumbering, free roaming pets, so pedestrians are forced to share the road with everyone else, making the streets a chaotic every-man-for-himself atmosphere with a constant choir of horns honking, bike bells chiming and people yelling to warn others of their approach and to make space for themselves. During my brief visit I saw several near accidents, mostly between bikes, scooters and people but there was also a very close one between a horse drawn carriage and a car that almost resulted in both vehicles plunging into a canal.


Cycling in Amsterdam

The biking situation in Amsterdam rivals Copenhagen’s under-rated biking utopia, but there is far less structure. The larger streets – two whooping lanes wide instead of the usual one skinny lane – have designated bike lanes, otherwise the bikers roam freely and brazenly into any open space they can find. In the bikers’ defense, even when bike lanes are available, they are often crowded with confused tourists thinking that they are on a secondary sidewalk, so the bikers are forced to either ring their bells incessantly to make a path for themselves or they have to get creative with their routes and find space on the sidewalks, streets and tram lines. Dutch cyclists are known for their ingenuity and sometimes misplaced confidence while riding. It is very common to see bikes with a second person balancing on the rear wheel rack and a small pet in the front basket. Even with this tottering load, the bikers like to add to the danger element with one or more accessories in use such as walkman, cigarettes or cell phones.

One of the more entertaining aspects about Amsterdam is the fascinating and sometimes hilarious clash of the old and new. Common sights include four hundred year old houses with late model sports cars parked out front, dusty old restaurants with waitresses carrying wireless Palm ordering pads and creaky, old canal boats puttering around blasting Rage Against the Machine.

Amsterdam canal

One of Amsterdam’s many canals

After a few days of beating the streets on foot, Sanne and I decided to take a two hour pedal-boat ride through Amsterdam’s maze of canals, thinking that it would be a very radical way to tour the city. The concept is indeed hugely cool, but upon pushing off we discovered that Amsterdam’s 100 kilometers of canals have way too much traffic on them and we spent a large part of our time and energy desperately trying to avoid other craft. All motorized boats have the right of way on the canals and pedal-boats are expected to keep as far to the right as possible. This wouldn’t have been so difficult if the steering stick and the rudder on our particular pedal-boat weren’t seemingly two independent entities. We often found ourselves in situations where we were on a hair-raising collision-course with a giant tour boat, with the steering stick wrenched into a hard, right turn, desperately trying to avoid disaster, and the pedal-boat just continued lazily forward or even occasionally on a slight hook to the left. When we weren’t doing battle with the steering stick, we ended up spending a fair amount of time trapped in corners of the cramped canal intersections while two or three tour boats or private motorboats navigated around each other. Despite these troubles, we managed to cover a lot of distance and see a great deal of the city from the canal point-of-view without noticeably damaging the pedal-boat.

With the right budget and intentions, Amsterdam has a giddying amount of offerings. The only thing that can threaten the enjoyment of this magnificent city and its wondrous attractions is your timing and, in some cases, your will power. Plan ahead, avoid June through August and leave grandma and any travel partners that may be a member of the clergy in The Hague.