Despite living in the UK coming up for nine years, and despite the fact that Amsterdam is a cheap 45 minute flight away from London, until this weekend, I had never been. To my credit, the first few years of my life in London where on a South African passport - and having one of those means you need a visa if you so much as want to go to the toilet, never mind the Netherlands. As a South African and wannabe jet setter, you find yourself standing in a lot of embassy queues at 7am on cold winter mornings.
Anyway, I finally got to go and see Amsterdam, and I was so excited. In my mind I was going to visit a place that had a lot of watery canals and bank upon bank of tulips and other colourful flowers. There would also be windmills, and lots of pancakes, quite possibly with cream. In my mind, it was always sunny and warm - and people wore clogs, and some of them wore funny turned-up hats. On the other side of my bizarre (and what would later prove to be incredibly wrong) fantasy - was the seedy drug-infested red light district. Here pickpockets and perverts reigned supreme, and unsuspecting and unwilling passers-by (usually god-fearing Americans called Jim) got dragged into brothels and injected in the thigh or neck with heroin – only to come-to later and discover that their wallet had also been stolen. In reality, no self-respecting prostitute or drug dealer would force their products on an unwilling tourist for free – but one’s idiotic fantasy-life is often devoid of reason. To my paranoid credit, I was told that pickpockets in this area are in fact a reality.
So that was my mental image of Amsterdam: Happy, traditionally be-clogged, pancake-yielding young girls with armfuls of tulips by day, and a seedy underworld of drugs and prostitution by night. I was in for an adventure.
Well as it turns out, Amsterdam is none of these things, except of course for the watery canals, and the flowers - though the latter are for sale in the flower market, and not (as I had imagined) growing freely in every available space. It is, for all means and purposes, a city (and quite a chilly one at this time of year) with non-clog wearing people who look and dress very much like everywhere else in Europe. The city layout is structured around a series of concentric canals, dotted with houseboats and populated by the occasional duck or three. Despite being fairly built-up and busy, it also manages to be quite suburban and homey, and is incredibly picturesque - one of the prettiest European cities I have visited.
What did strike me immediately as being different to anywhere I had visited before, was the amount of people on bicycles. Everyone is on a bike - kids, adults, women in 6 inch heels, grandfathers. And not just any bike mind you, but the old fashioned kind of bike Postman Pat used - none of this fancy mountain bike business. What's even more striking is the fact that no one wears a helmet, and the Dutch seem to treat riding a bicycle with a certain reckless abandon. There is much multi-tasking while cycling - they talk on their mobile phones, give lifts to friends who sit on the little ledge on the back side-saddle, and I can equally imagine them rolling cigars, flipping pancakes, or whittling a pair of clogs - all while winding their way down the road.
Then there are the methods by which children - of various developmental stages - are transported. They have these sorts of wheelbarrow attached basins on the front, where the kids are placed inside (equally helmet and seatbelt-less) or for those who can't be bothered with this, children sit perilously on the back, where one might attach a satchel. I saw one woman this morning, with a small baby in one of those canvas baby strap-on devices, cycling without a care in the world. Either they are very confident in their cycling ability, or the sheer danger of it just doesn't occur to them. One taxi driver told us, with a sadistic glint in his eye, that there were people in Amsterdam who shot at cyclists. I don’t know if this was him voicing his psychotic desire to do so, or if it was the truth, but one can see that the sheer magnitude of people on bicycles is bound to cause traffic obstructions and an annoyance to drivers.
And what about those cannabis-selling coffee shops that everyone talks about? For some people this may seem too good to be true, but if grass is your thing - you should visit, because these cafes do actually exist. They are situated mostly in the city centre, and primarily close to the red light district. They are fairly easy to identify because the shop window is usually painted in the Rastafarian colours of red yellow and green. Either that or the cafe has a picture of a guy with a huge spliff in his mouth - so not hard to miss. You you can either buy the cannabis and take it with you, or you can smoke it in the cafes, which were generally filled with youngish people, and not in the least bit seedy or threatening-looking.
The red light district is a must - again, just because it's so weird seeing something which is illegal almost everywhere else in the world, so freely on display. We didn't visit it at night - so I can't vouch for how safe it is then, but during the day it wasn't in the least bit scary. It was also full of thrilled-looking groups of 18-year-old men, what looked like stag parties, and German families.
The women, of various shapes, sizes, and ethnicity (as well as what looked like some very attractive transsexuals) display themselves in either lingerie or swimwear in these little windows. I was dying to take some photos, but with my large digital Canon I thought they’d think I was a pervert, or making a promotional brochure, and either way would want a cut of the profits. I had visions of myself being chased down the street by these women in their tiny animal print underwear, or worse, by a gaudily-clad pimp with gold teeth.
These women (and transsexuals) wore openly provocative expressions which were (I imagined) supposed to be alluring, but some were just kind of frightening. Robert mostly started as his shoes as we walked past - I’d like to think it was out of shyness, but have a sneaking suspicion he was worried about being recognized. I gawked freely - for the sake of reporting back on here, of course. I think what really came home to me when seeing all these different women, is that if you think that the popularized media size 6-8 with big boobs image of sexiness is what appeals to everyone, you’re sorely mistaken. It takes all types and tastes to make the world go round - and indeed these women make money from their unique differences from the norm, which are clearly in demand.
The sex museum was equally an education, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. I think what was most interesting about that whole experience were the photos of pornography taken back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and the fact is that very little has changed in terms of what people find sexy. What has changed is that the body shape of models is different – those women had a lot more meat on their bones, and generally quite visible stomachs, as opposed to the flat or six-pack look now. Also pubic hair (and a lot of it) seemed to be quite fashionable in those days, as opposed to the bald Hollywood wax look that is so fashionable nowadays.
If you want to buy pornography or sex toys, Amsterdam is also a fairly good place to shop for it. We went into one shop, called quite ingeniously I thought, ‘Sexy Land’ which advertised itself as the ‘1st Erotic Supermarket’. I can’t begin to tell you of the treasures that lay within, and one film which particularly stuck with me (and will probably inhabit future nightmares) was, ‘Dial M for midget – getting down with the little folk.’ I don’t think I need to detail what that particular cinematic gem was about, nor do I need to describe the pictures on the back.
But aside from all this bicycle, cannabis, and midget business, was the central purpose of our trip - Robert’s half-marathon, which he ran on Sunday and completed in 2 hours and 9 minutes. That’s 21 kilometers in just over 2 hours. I’m very proud and impressed, and indeed baffled as to why anyone would want to put themselves through such bandy-leg inducing agony, but he did it, and I think he’s amazing. Well done Robert! I saw him off, along with a few thousand other Dutch and English zealots – hopping around from one leg to the other in the freezing cold ahead of the starting point. These people came out in droves to go and punish their limbs and joints, and seemed excited to be doing so. Must be all those legal drugs I reasoned. In fact I attributed any sort of (what I thought to be) strange behaviour, and what appeared to be a general sort of happiness amongst the Dutch people, to all that freely available sex and drugs. Who wouldn’t be happy, or indeed a wee bit strange?
Briefly, because this is the world’s longest post already – I had such a fun time catching up with my friend and ex-writing partner Blair, and loved Amsterdam. The best bit had to be where she gave me a lift on the back of her bicycle to a cosmetic wonderland, called ‘Da’. There we were – her cycling, me sitting on the little back ledge in a large leopard-print coat, screaming down the side of a canal with the wind in our hair, laughing out loud like two mad women. Her brakes didn’t work, and I must have weighed a ton. It was absolutely terrifying, and wonderful, and the last time I did something like that I was 12-years-old. Happy times.