Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lost in Amsterdam

[Editor's Note: Pictures coming when I get a chance to upload the stuff from my digital camera. Might be a couple of weeks.]

The train from Schiphol Airport is painted like a lime-green Creamsicle. It is packed, yet completely silent, and the overwhelming heat provides an uncomfortable backdrop for an IKEA city. In Amsterdam, beginning with the airport and working all the way around the horseshoe-shaped old city, everything looks like it came in a box with a trendy Swedish label. Cars, warehouses, apartment buildings—even the weather—look store-bought and self-assembled. The airport has a meditation center, a massage center, a kids’ center, and a miniscule casino. None of the web sites I’d perused, nor the drug-addled tales I’d heard, talked about the one glaring characteristic that trumps all else about Amsterdam: it’s really, really hokey.

As I disembark from the train at Centraal Station, I mutter, “I hope this isn’t one of those polite countries,” yet confirm my fear with every encounter. Tram drivers laugh too loudly at my jokes. The museum of sex is chaste, proper, and boring. As I pass a sign that says, “Ultimate Party Wishes You a Good Time,” I know that my maiden voyage to Amsterdam will be a lot less grungy than I’d like.

I cut through the red light district and into a bar, a dim, smoky hole named “Lost in Amsterdam.” Apropos, indeed, since I am psychologically lost in this would-be den of iniquity. The Polish bartender pours absinthe over a pulverized spoonful of sugar, and sets fire to the concoction until it caramelizes. He thrusts the smoking crust into a waiting glass with the balance of the absinthe, sending flames dancing about the rim. When the fire dies down, I put back the warmth, and a soft numbness travels from my throat to my feet. I feel a bit queasy, and then a bit drunk. This encapsulates my whole trip: absinthe, the romanticized, allegedly psychoactive, and largely illegalized libation of Bohemian and French artists, is simply licorice-flavored alcohol. No green fairies, no visuals, and nothing psychoactive. The bartender tells me how to say “I’m lost” in Dutch (phonetically, “Ick Ben Ferbvolt”), I light up a second shot, give the bartender 15 Euros ($22) and two DayQuil, and go looking for the cheese market.

Contrary to very popular belief, Amsterdam is not a lawless, perverse oasis, teeming with legalized vice. It is not strewn with the pleasures whose very indulgence would warrant arrest in other parts of the world. Sure, the prostitutes beckon like mechanized mannequins from store windows in the red light district, and coffee shops and bars have a marijuana and hashish menu alongside their food and drink offerings. Cocaine dealers walk the streets (coke isn’t legal), audibly advertising their wares. Yet, the reprobation is strikingly sedate, and lacks for boisterousness what it has in substance—or substances. Innumerable arcane laws and bylaws govern these practices, such that the initial glee of, “Oh man, they sell pot here!” speedily morphs into, “So let me get this straight—you’re allowed to grow one pot plant per person, with a maximum of five per household? And if you go over, you get evicted?”

Police raid each cannabis-friendly bar exactly three times a year to make sure the patrons are of legal age and that the quantities of marijuana are within legal boundaries. It’s legal to sell pot in these designated shops, but commercial growing is illegal, and, as mentioned above, doing so can impede one’s housing options. One may smoke in the designated shops or at home, but nowhere else. Prostitution is legal, but is highly administrated by the state. Freewheeling Eden it is not: Amsterdam is about as anarchic as a laboratory.

Things like magic mushrooms are actually quite blasĂ©—a hallucinogenic tourist trap, in fact. They’re regulated, taxed, and closely monitored. The strong ones come with warning labels, and upon purchase the store clerk provides detailed instructions on dosage size and safety precautions.

In spirit, Amsterdam is far more subdued than the average urban center. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t ache under the press of as many unfulfilled desires, and so doesn’t have any restless energy to expel. More likely, though, it is because of the economy. Amsterdam is a social democracy, meaning that financial solvency is relatively easy to come by. Blinding wealth is rare—as is poverty—but comfort is almost a given, and that manifests in ways that the typical capitalist mind could never comprehend. Yes, this is a gross, nation-wide generalization, but a huge percentage of the populace is guaranteed some amount of money, socialized health care, and comprehensive social welfare should they need extra assistance. Those staples in hand, Amsterdamians don’t distinctly divide work and play, since the attitude towards labor is much more lax. They have little to gain and little to lose. Call it complacency or call it cafĂ© culture, but that looseness leaves room for regular doses of prurience and narcotics. Amsterdamians don’t party when they party—they’re halfway partying all the time.

I return to Schiphol Airport on an identical lime-green train, three back-to-back two-seater benches my only scenery for most of the half-hour ride. Most city residents speak fluent English, so I talk for a few moments to a college student about what she’s studying. At the airport, I pay 3.50 Euros ($5.15) for orange juice.

Ick Ben Ferbvolt.

Stay Salacious, Amsterdam Legends
DJ Dutch

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