Getting the ego shot out of the way early.
"You're going on vacation?"
"Where are you going?"
"You're gonna have fun in Amsterdam, aren't you?" [eyebrow raise, possible elbow nudge]
"Of course I'm going to have fun."
"No, I mean, that kind of fun." [eyebrows rise higher, elbow nudges sharper]
Anybody who has taken a trip to Amsterdam has held the following conversation, with mild variations. So let's get it out of the way right here: Yes, everybody, Amsterdam, like the rest of the Netherlands, has a fairly lax weed policy and "vibrant" coffee shop culture. Also, prostitution is legal (pimping is not; straight pimpin' it on the dance floor depends on the legal interpretation). Magic mushrooms are now illegal, but magic truffles are not. This is significant. Let's move on.
Actually, let's back up for a second. Why does one travel? What are the reasons behind it? See new places, relax, change your patterns, shock the system, partake in activities legally that would be illegal at home (hello, U.S. 18-20 year olds who travel pretty much anywhere out of the country!), meet new people, spend money, shop; a short list of possible reasons.
Why am I traveling this time? Well, frequent traveling companion and main man Ben made the call to commemorate our Euro blitz of 4 years ago, and increasingly frequent traveling companion Amy and I needed to spend a little time together. Also, I needed a break. Wanted to get off the computer (ha!), the workload, and the rest of it. Ben and I did some negotiating on where to go and ended up with an Amsterdam-Copenhagen trip (via Hamburg) and Amy and I will take down Denmark for a week afterwards. That's the short of it. I may just explore the themes of why I travel in the long of it, over the next couple months in the blog.
Really, his right leg is the short of it.
Ok, you say, but what about a better reason for traveling? A more general reason for traveling? Well, how about learning about the other, finding what a people is like, a new language is like, and whether the stereotypes held about them are true? Would that be a good reason? More importantly can I theme this blog post around the idea of testing stereotypes about Netherlands and the Dutch, and perhaps discovering fodder for new stereotypes?
At least for the last question, the answer is, "You goddamn well bet I can." It's my blog, and I'll write about what I want if I want to.
Amsterdam: Nothing but a Hippie's Paradise?
So now we can address the weed question, right? Let's make it clear: there are coffee shops everywhere. Many of them have Bob Marley related paraphernalia. The smell of weed permeates outside these shops. We saw a guy on the metro of whom Ben could say nothing but, "That guy's got a fat doobie in his hands."
Furthermore, I can point to our hostel, Lucky Lake. First, the hostel was a good choice: not too far from the center, cheap as it comes for a private "room" (more in a second), everybody's friendly, the breakfast is good. All you can ask for from a low-key hostel.
The inhabitants of the caravan next door to us. For some strange reason, they were really loud around 6 am every morning.
That said, the hostel is set up as follows: near the eponymous lake, there is a compound. On that compound are a bunch of little white cabins and white caravans. Caravans like the one Matt Foley talked about, but smaller. Sufficient, but certainly cozy. There is also the a caravan that operates as the "Smallest cinema in the world", and a big cabin known as the Lucky Lounge, where our nose-ringed host at reception said we might, "have a joint, talk some bollocks, whatever you'd like." Needless to say, that "like" sounded like "liiiike." Also, there is a pervasive habit among our fellow guests of just lounging in the courtyard on chairs by the plastic crocodiles and toking on their own. Also, chickens and a couple roosters walk around. Ben and I have taken to calling this the community. In the Community, we wash, dry, and put away our own dishes. In the Community, we dry the shower floor after we take a shower.
Hippies party, don't they?
This is evidence for the hippie side of things. And Amsterdam at the center is certainly tolerant. But also not that crazy. Sure, we saw two separate frat-like groups of young men, one where the newbies were dressed in suit jackets and purple tights and forced to run along the canals, another with freshmen (so to speak) dressed in yodeler costumes in a main tourist/restaurant street. But that's, well, frat-boy stuff. There were lots of boats in the canals on which groups of people barbecued or partied, but is that so different than what we would do? I dare say it is not. The brown cafes (instead of the coffee shops) are where men are men and beer is strong and Dutch. The beef is salty, the fries are thick and slopped in mayo, and the air is far too chilly to come directly from Israel. No, I tell you, Amsterdam is not so different from us. We are the ones who see the world.
Ok, but what about the Sex?
Amsterdam has sex in many places. There is a sex museum. There is an erotic museum. There are the whores. There is a larger than usual listing of escort services in the city guide (note: I giggled at this, thinking about how it was actually legal here. Sometimes, I'm not as mature as I think). Many girls here are pretty (I would argue many girls everywhere are pretty, but I'm easy). Hell, as I type this the first time at the Lucky Lake computer, flies on the edge of the screen are undertaking an act that at least suggests copulation. Oh, the inhumanity of it all!
Beyond that, however, it's just, well, sex. Snicker, giggle, move on. Even the red light district, vaunted and famed beyond all other districts of Amsterdam, was kind of tame when we went. Sure, we went at 1300 on a rainy Tuesday in September, perhaps not prime time. But all the same, despite persistent searching (believe you me, we searched), we saw nothing more than one woman standing in a white negligee behind a ground floor window, her expression not especially happy. This is what Amsterdam's policy of opening up sex does, apparently, which is to say, not much besides dirtying it a little.
Another Dutch dream bites the dust.
What about the Dutch people?
As hosts of a lovely place to visit, the Dutch are difficult to complain about. They are mostly friendly, they speak English very well (at least, within Amsterdam's confines), their language is very funny (Eet Smalejik = Enjoy your meal), and I haven't heard one car horn over three days in Amsterdam and Haarlem. Just bike bells. It is possible that I have grown immune to the sound of a car horn since living in Israel. But I doubt it.
That said, we've had our run-ins. There was the homeless man who kindly advised us on how to get to Centraal Station (in good English) and encouraged us to check out the Red Light District, all for a tip. There was the feisty crew at the supermarket around closing time (more below). Ben dealt with a cold clerk at the railway ticket office. And then there baker in Haarlem who spoke limited English. Upon our asking about what a Haarlem kruid cake, advertised on a sign outside, was made of (it looked like a dark pound or fruit cake), he said bread. We probed further: "What fruits does it have in it?" He deftly responded, "Ja ja, it has fruits, nuts, bread." We didn't buy any cake.
Most notable for me was our experience in an Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam. We each ordered a sampler plate, and had the choice of getting it in Mild, Medium, or Spicy. Our guidebook said, about the restaurant's fancier sister next door, that spicy was on a par with ordering napalm. I, not a lover of spice in general (as anybody who has tasted by "famous" guacamole knows), decided a full two steps away from napalm would be safest, and ordered mild. Ben ordered medium.
After fifteen minutes, a different waiter came up to confirm our orders. Ben's medium was all set. He asked me what I got. I said a mild. He said, "Is medium ok? The chef's wanted to make only medium." Well, there's no arguing with the chef. I said it was fine. That seemed like it would be the end of it. It was not.
As he brought the food, after I tasted the food, as we continued on our meal, and after we finished, the waiter continued to check on us, making sure medium was ok for me, bringing us a jug of water, refilling that jug, and so on. He also worked to persuade me that medium was better. "Mild has no taste. Why get mild? You need to have an adventure. Go for medium." And so on. He all but denied me of my manhood for daring to order mild.
The Dutch, needless to say, are known for their blunt honesty.
How about a traveling in the Netherlands fact that isn't yet a stereotype?
Well, we found it very strange how the Dutch dealt with credit cards. Paying with a credit card is nearly impossible. Same for debit cards. You could only use a card if it had a special golden chip in it, a thing which probably only exists in the Netherlands. Fine, you say, use ATMs and deal with it. It's just that the principle gets twisted to perversion.
To wit: at the Amsterdam central station, "Amsterdam Centraal", the ticket machines would only occasionally accept coins and rarely if ever bills. When checking out at the supermarket, we were left with not enough cash (despite making a meager purchase of 11.44 euros) and no card to use, and only saved by the ATM.
And yet we were not able to buy tickets for our trip to Germany with anything besides a card. When we rented bikes for the day, we had to leave an imprint of our card with the shop, but could not pay with a card. It all got a little confusing.
"Why can't you pay with a card?" Ben finally asked attendants in one store.
"That's a good question. There's no good reason I can think of," she answered.
Mark it as something for future travelers to be aware of, at least.
Back to stereotypes: Aren't the Netherlands famous for tulips, cows, and windmills?
Oh ya, you betcha. We saw plenty of shops for the first, plenty of the second, and at least a few of the third. Some evidence:
Ok, you can sort of see the cows. I didn't take many pictures of them.
They ride bikes there too, don't they?
Do they ever.
Netherlands has, according to our guide book, the highest proportion of bike users to the general population in the world, at 85%. There are bike lanes on most streets in Amsterdam. There are bike highways connecting the whole country. On streets without bike lanes, meaning smaller streets and canal banks, bikes have right of way regardless (de facto if not de jure). Bikes locked to rails fill bridges, sidewalks, and every light pole, mail box, bike parking spot, or timid sapling.
We didn't experience the nightmare of driving a car amongst all these bikes, but we did walk by many of them. If on a given walk in a city you have to be aware of cars and mopeds within the confines of the paved street, on a given walk in Amsterdam you have to be aware of those cars, of mopeds within the bike path, of bikes within the bike path, of trams running along the tracks, of other pedestrians, and of little red wagons pulled by tall Dutch children. There are a few additional ways to incur physical damage while walking, to say the least.
Ok, but you said you rented bikes. How was that? And how about you tell us a story after 2,000 words of babbling?
Yes, we did rent bikes. And hoo boy, let me tell you how that went...
We took bikes from Frederic's Bikes right near Amsterdam Centraal. For a mere 10 Euros (and the aforementioned credit card imprint) we had bikes for 24 hours. Considering we rented the bikes at about noon, and that the shop closed at 17:30, there was a good chance we would have to bring the bikes back to the Community with us.
Frederic's offered a fixed price for all bikes, meaning we could pick whatever we liked. Ben went with a sleeker handbrakes-laden bike while I choose a yellow cruiser with coaster (i.e. foot) brakes, hearkening back to my childhood bikes. We adjusted our seat heights accordingly and set off. Next stop: Haarlem.
View Larger Map
As you might notice, it's a pretty straight shot from Amsterdam to Haarlem, and then onwards to the North Sea coast. We set off at a relaxed but decent pace, observing the pleasant highway and suburb vistas of the LF 20 bike route. We passed by a billboard for, presumably, a Dutch reality show, featuring, presumably, a female Dutch celebrity who was crawling through brown stuff with a smile while the words next to her said that she was, and I quote, "diep in de shit." I almost ran into a few mopeds going the other way on the bike lane, as well as a moped that had passed me and then stopped around a bend where I didn't see it. Ben used his bike bell expressively. One of us went faster than the other (ok, Ben), though it may be left to the realm of eternal disputes whether that difference was due to biking ability or the quality of the bike in question.
Note the slick, racing design of Ben's bike. Also, it had hand brakes.
That mild taste of turmoil (not spicy enough, apparently) led us to our next phase, which was finding out how to get back from the train station to the Community. Normally, the Community Van shuttled us back and forth for the ten minute ride to the metro. We were close to the town Abcoude, and wanted to go through the town to pick up some things to make dinner. Signs for the bike paths are fairly good in the Netherlands, and so we followed our way on the signs and on the rough map that came in our Community Welcome Packet until we came to a supermarket at about 20:01. This being a small town, the store closed at 20:00. Ben locked his bike quickly and stormed into the store, not giving the young staff the chance to stop him. A minute later, I walked in, indicated my friend was already inside, and was allowed to proceed.