Overnight trains leave a lot to be desired. In this instance, I got on board at 7pm and wasn’t going to get off again until 10 the next morning. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing except when you’re in a train compartment with five other people and your legs are intertwined it gets hard to sleep. Add in the fact that people are constantly leaving the train and the sun is coming up and someone forgot to draw the blinds and really, not the best night’s sleep.
On the plus side, though, I did meet a nice guy named Ricardo who bought me an ice cream when we hit the Amsterdam Central
Station. He and I had been talking about writing at dinner the night before and then he told me about this special ice cream which sounded like the Dutch version of Coldstone. And it was good, too. But then, after ice cream, we said good –bye, I hoisted my pack and made my way through the Red Light District to my hostel, conveniently called The Heart of Amsterdam, and checked in.
The cool thing about this place is that all of the rooms are named after movies. I was assigned The Wall. Too bad really, since I was hoping for The Godfather, but you take what you can get, right? They have these lockers in the rooms which are electronic, with magnetic keys. They seem to be pretty secure so I throw my big and little bags in and then decide to go exploring. I found out about a free walking tour which was leaving from Dam Square later that afternoon so I head out.
Dam Square is the big central square in town, bordered by the city hall building on one side and a very phallic like sculpture on the other. In between is a huge open area where street performers, living statues and hot dog vendors all fleece tourists out of
hard earned Euro. I wandered around a little bit while waiting for the tour to start. Branching off from the
square were a bunch of streets all filled with souvenir shops and fast food restaurants. The main road which divides the square leads directly from the Train Station and goes right past Madame Tussauds (which had one of the longest lines I’d see there).
Finally the tour started and the guide was a guy named John from the States. It seems like a number of the tour guides I saw in foreign countries were native English speakers, which I guess would be a great job for an ex-pat. We got a little bit of history while standing around the sculpture and then started walking in earnest. We saw a piece of art which was imbedded in the ground (completely anonymous, too – no one knows where
it came from, who did it or what it means). We wandered through the red light district, which has been around as long as the city itself. It started as an economic thing. Since Amsterdam is a port city, sailors would come to town and need a place to spend their money. Girls seemed a good option so they started regulating it. Of course, just to make sure both sides of the coin came back to the local economy, they built a church right across the street. Those poor sailors got it coming
and going (to hell)!
And then there’s the famous “coffee shops,” places where you can buy marijuana in a variety of qualities and quantities. Do be perfectly clear… buying, selling, smoking or growing pot is still illegal the police just choose to look the other way. See, Amsterdam prides itself on its liberalism and general acceptance of everyone and everything- but they are also practical. Looking the other way on pot lets them focus on keeping the harder things off the streets. We could learn a lot from these people. Of course, the ultimate irony is that in the current, politically
correct, healthy atmosphere tobacco is not allowed in the coffee houses but pot is! Odd, I know.
Anyway, on my tour, I met Iwola, a recent transplant who was working her way across Europe from Poland a month at a time. She’s a photographer and we ended up meeting up later that night for dinner and book shopping. Since she’d been a town a few days longer than I, she knew the really cool places. We found this little side alley where a guy had a bunch of carts set up with all sorts of books in all sort of languages. I picked up a couple of old scifi pulps and a text on the supernatural in fiction and we spent WAY too much time looking at the photos in old kids travel books trying to determine the dates (cars and clothes were good, but not always the most accurate, indicators – we got really geeky when we started discussing the quality of color saturation in the printing).
I made it back to “The Heart” just as dusk was falling. Thankfully, I booked into a place where they didn’t care about smoking (yes, of all the places I stayed, Amsterdam hostels had to specify their drug policies) so I ended up not having to buy anything. I got some great contact highs sitting in my bed and typing. Much mellower than the days when I actually did the stuff myself
(which was twenty years ago, so the statute of limitations has dropped off). I did meet Cassie though. She was in my room (gotta love mixed dorms) and we made plans to go out the next day.
I didn’t get up early enough that next day to actually enjoy the hostel provided breakfast but when I did get up, Cassie and I hit the ground running… er… peddling. See, in Amsterdam, biking is the way to go and there
are plenty of places around to rent bikes. However, it took us a while to find one since neither of wanted to ask for directions right off (we knew where we were going) and by the time we realized how lost we were, it was more of a challenge to actually just find the place. I explained how I normally would ask but now it was a point of pride. I told her “I’m the gayest straight man you’ll ever meet” to which she replied “That’s good, ‘cuz I’m the straightest gay girl you’ll ever know!”
We finally did (and the guy gave us a great deal) and we headed out to SEE Amsterdam. We rode through parks and by canals,
almost got hit by cars and even got lost once or twice. Of course, getting lost is the best way to really see a place. You get into the back alleys and out of the way spots. It’s one of the reasons I
like to just wander. You don’t really get a chance to actually experience a city until you get off the main roads and tourist centers. So we did. We also hit Amsterdam’s Erotic Museum and she bought me a space cake (pot laden pastry – which, I must say really didn’t affect me at all).
That night was more of the same, but the next day… that’s when we discovered the REAL Amsterdam.