Famous, Infamous, Dead, and Alive

Travel Blog 16: Party On, Wayne

Life takes hold among brick and stone. It can either be given room to grow, in the gardens and planters set for it, or it must force its way up through the cracks of misplaced or ill managed places. 

This city, Amsterdam, is one of a kind of dual nature. Life has been cultivated, but it has also flourished only thanks to the hard-bitten personality of its underbelly. And that part of it that scrabbled in the dirt is now a calcified piece of the city that outsiders glorify and the insiders seem to despise. 

You can feel it in the atmosphere as soon as you step off the train, the flow of things, the glowing nature of people who can escape the bustle of daily city life by sitting with their legs dangling over the waters of the running canals beneath. They can retreat to ideal local parks or the hole in the wall of a local cafe. 

And what’s strange, is that it’s not much different than other major cities that I’ve been to in Europe over the past month or so. Perhaps it’s the near spinal-tap of coming from overcast skies in grey Cologne to the unique vibrancy of the canals of Amsterdam. The small boats and barges pass with a languid pace under mine and other’s feet, all of them tourists or lovers. All the standing brownstones, each seeming to sport a different shade of brown-red brick, feel like the backdrop to some stage play set, rather than spaces for the living and breathing. 

This is the kind of existence that is passed in trickling heartbeats. Like my body will surge with energy drunk in from my surroundings and my eyes will collect all the dripping scenery in one huge burst. Even their church bells, rather than bleat out their monotonous cacophony, will first play a simple melody, like a child on a toy harpsichord, then finally playing the gonging timber to mark the passage of time. 

And yet there is a kind of smoke that billows up from the center of Amsterdam. Just southeast of the massive facade of Amsterdam Central train station, it’s a cloud that rises like burning soot and diffuses out through the surrounding streets, and the further out you go, the less you can sense it.

But you can still smell it.

It’s famous, infamous, dead, and alive. Everyone knows of Amsterdam’s marijuana-infused corridors, alleys, and streets, and of course the neon-streaked Red Light District.

It’s a tourist hotspot, and the local shops around the city center have been tuned in precise ways to accommodate the throngs. The bakeries sell pot brownies on the countertops alongside vibrant macaroons. Other shops are dedicated to selling bowls, bongs, and lighters, many adorned with the image of the notorious green leaf. In the local cafes and bars, they advise you don’t smoke tobacco, but weed is more than permitted. Some clubs have cups of loose marijuana for those who like to roll their own sitting in the middle of the table like a bowl of loose oregano milling on the side counter of a New York pizza joint.

And as you walk eastwards along the crowded streets in the city center, the number of sex shops exponentially increases, and following them like a trail of breadcrumbs you stumble down a side alley where dollhouse windows bordered by red curtains display the other product of tourist-side Amsterdam. A woman in a black frilled brassiere taps on the glass of the box she sits in, startling some unexpected family, the reverse image of a child prodding the side of a fish tank.

At a small house party/barbeque for solo travelers I got to talk to a few people who have lived in the city for months or even a few years. One was a young woman, a florist from Taiwan, while the other was a young Dutch guy. I asked them, what’s the difference between visiting a place like Amsterdam versus actually living in it. It’s what I expected.

“We don’t really go to central Amsterdam,” the young woman said. 

A 15 minute walk can take you from scenic canals into the X-rated heart of the city, where the porn theaters and dildo emporiums litter the thin strip of district on both sides of the canal. This is where drunk men slur their cooing sounds to the glaring women behind glass windows, and families with baby strollers saunter down the street look on with mild interest, the babies couched in their rolling seat staring around, confused by the spectacle.

That dual aspect to this city, that of a mecca of travelers who are only looking for new means toward inebriation and the other of a center for Dutch history and culture, does not so much as mix but form a solution, like oil in water. That’s why the reference to smoke, the way it floods down streets, and though it dissipates the further you get from the center, it still lingers in the form of the occasional “coffeeshop” (a moniker used for the places that sell drinks on one counter and marijuana on the other) or the occasional kitschy condom emporium.

Recently, Dutch officials have made comments about wanting to stem the tide of tourists flooding into their city. They’re set on limiting tourism to a max 20 million people per year. They want to emphasize travel specifically for the cultural aspects of their headline city, for the museum and music, and not the sex and drugs.

In which case I ask, how do you retool an entire city that’s been working toward this point for decades? When this month has been their celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride, when the pride flags flutter on top of official buildings and local shops all around central Amsterdam, do they expect the throngs to for some reason not gather in the streets on a Saturday, singing and dancing and bedecked in rainbows and fishnets? The festivities were more subdued than perhaps they had been before the pandemic, but they were hardly small. Any attempt to clamp down on such expression would be a loss for the entire community.

Here is also, perhaps, the most lax COVID regulations of any European country I’ve been to. People are only required to wear masks in places where they are “incapable” of maintaining 1.5 meters of distance from each other, essentially those places like train stations or on public transit. Of course, the bar scene is booming, and do people truly maintain that select distance? No, of course not. They’re reveling in the fact they’re free of other country’s restrictions, even though they reached a new peak of infections in late July. You can’t mandate a limitation on travel while at the same time creating an environment where travel becomes that much more appealing.

A thing can be positive and negative, and for the same reasons. That is what the cloud is at the center of Amsterdam, a broken bottle of ambrosia, a preserved relic and center of maritime trade turned center of drug culture. The city is and for years has been the means to take that underground drug culture of the 70s, of underground weed and mushroom dealers and unleash them unto the surface streets like some mutated sewer crocodile. 

Locals, or at least some locals, do not like it. They do not like the image the world has of their city, and they do not like the crop of people who have breached their sanctum. I have been traveling for more than a month and a half, and it was only in Amsterdam that anybody ever called me a “tourist,” at least in a language I could understand. It was shorthand for a curse, a moniker of derision. The second time was when I accidentally caused a minor bike collision, thanks to the multitudes of cyclists and my ignorance of the strict rules of biking they have in the city. “Fucking tourists,” she said.

But on the other end, the travelers know the score. Lonely people gather on those streets, and sharing a smoke into the early morning hours I can sit and chat with a young traveler, a fellow American from Detroit. We spoke about past adventures, of the problems of being a woman even in a modern world, and the changing dynamic of gender and sexuality.

And in one young Greek man’s single bedroom apartment on the southern part of the canal-suffused Gratchengordel neighborhood, where the wine and beer flow free and the smoke drifts lazily into the air, the outsider’s Amsterdam comes alive. Outside, for those few hours until the dawn, the rest of the world is dead.

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