The rain had fallen almost every day since I’d been back in England. I had left the sticky heat of Chicago still with an overwhelmed heart. Among the pale stones of Bath, England I met up with three friends from university. The rain spat as I bought the American visitors their first pints of real cider. Summer had not arrived in England and never did that year. Grey skies followed us back to Frome and then to Bristol the day after. In some parts of the world dark summers create a landscape as barren as blank pages. My home the West Country, though, grows greener and so lush that at times it feels as though the land colours and reaches all the way up to the sky, such is the enclosing, quaint vastness of its rolling green hills. In this land the wind kisses like autumn all year round and the earth still lies as she intended. We passed over her border, marked with concrete, and arrived at Bristol Airport in late July.
The night before I had been convinced to come along on their trip. Jeff, a tall blond Midwesterner said he would pay for it all. Amsterdam, Ibiza then London for the end of the Olympics. I had no money. In the morning I overheard one of the brothers, who I had known for two and a half years, say “I have been bailing out Ryan for the past four years. I’m not doing it now.” The rain was still coming down as I walked down the stairs and confronted his scrunched face. Jeff broke the silence with “I have thousands of dollars and I wanna have a good time. You are coming with us no questions asked.” Looking at the two brothers he said, “You guys don’t have to pay anything for me or Ryan.” The blond brother replied “Ye, I really don’t mind.” The scrunched face said nothing. In Ibiza I would try to headbutt him but would end up falling over dead drunk.
By the time we were at the airport the excitement of traveling had set in although a clear division between the four of us was already apparent. At the check-in desk me and Jeff waited to see if I was allowed to travel. My passport was falling apart worse than our group.
“I’m sorry sir you won’t be able to fly today,” the girl said, itching her cardboard uniform. “There is no way they will let you in at Amsterdam. Maybe we can send someone to the terminal to see if it will pass through our scanner down there. Is that OK? They are stronger.”
So I waited as the rain plastered the big square windows that flank one side of Bristol Airport. More than 10 minutes later the portly manager returned with a thumbs up and off we went. easyjet to Amsterdam. The short flight touched down amid an overzealous round of applause which seemed apt considering I was flying with Americans. In Illinois, four years ago at the beginning of my university adventure, the end of The Dark Knight was met with similar celebration although I have never understood why audiences clap when gameshow contestants say their wives are pregnant. Clapping is overused like the word genius.
In Amsterdam the customs official waved me through. He barely noticed the peeling passport in his hand. We were soon on a train and heading for the city centre.
Centraal Station stares out across Amsterdam like a schoolmaster, with its elegant brickwork an entry and exit for good and bad students of this academy of arts, drugs and sex. We avoided the rumbling trams and walked past the Grasshopper building in search for a place to stay. Within an hour we were sat in a cosy apartment on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, where the furnishing included two beds, a table and a dirty, luminous green bong. When night fell the street glowed red across the canal. Looking outside the window I inhaled. The first drag on a cigarette, we had fallen in with the bad kids.
Coffeeshops and Van Gogh
Girls from the Eastern Block stand sullenly during the day and night, framed by red light that stinks of exploitation, Mafia and the Hells Angels. When the sun shines there are fewer girls and, at all times, the city feels safe as long as you tow the tourist line. There is also a sense, though, that the canals are tainted with their own claret colouring. Our small apartment looked out onto the dark stone banks that formed the canal. Flowerbeds hung from street lamps on the canal’s edge rocking in the wind, sending petals floating aimlessly into the warm air.
“Can we use your camera to take some pictures today,” Jeff asked black hair. “Have you seen me charge it at all since we have been here?” He replied.
“So that’s a no?”
And with that we set out to spend our first full day in Holland.
Bulldog, located on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, is a mainstream bar where the price of a gram of weed is 10 Euro, which is pretty much the same as everywhere in town although prices do change with potency just like a good pint of 6X is more expensive than a pint of Fosters. Bulldog’s big wooden layout reminded me of a Weatherspoons in England. The only differences being a cloud of haze hanging in the air and good music like Sting, David Bowie and The Who playing on a loop. After Bulldog we floated on Amsterdam’s festival atmosphere to Barney’s, watching the one legged girls hop, the gay boys scream and the long-haired runners fly through the crowds. The walk to Barney’s on Haarlemmer straat was less than 2 miles but took us hours. Colours and clowns walked the streets as we passed the smoking noodle bars and entered the wide open Dam Square. We walked past the Royal Palace, passing the waxworks on the left. Bikes flew by with a ring of the bell, pushing tourists out of the bike lanes and into other people on the pavement. Bikes rule in Amsterdam.
“Surely they can think of a better name than Wok to Walk for a noodle bar?” I said. Sweat ran along my eyebrow and stung my eye.
The window of Barney’s is framed in chestnut coloured wood and inside the smoke hangs heavy in a dark room. We drank coffee in every coffee shop and so were high and wired every day. We left Barney’s and I spotted the copper green dome of the Royal Palace between the stooping shops. “It’s like god damned Diagon Alley round here,” Blondy said. He was right. There is a mystical feeling in Amsterdam, particularly on the west side, that is created in equal parts by the jagged renaissance architecture, eccentric occupants and the level of marijuana consumption. Blondy continued: “I really think we should see Van Go, man. It’s gotta be a must in if we are here man.”
“Well we will have to go back to the apartment first,” his brother replied.
Black hair’s voice quickened. “Because we don’t have a map and Ryan won’t use his phone so we will have to walk back and look where it is.”
I have to admit at this point that I had banned using my phone to navigate around a city that is, in my opinion, an attraction unto itself.
Jeff said: “I actually have that crappy map the guy from the hostel place gave us. It’s pretty terrible but I think I saw Van Go on it.”
He pulled out the crumpled map and pointed to a crude drawing of Vincent Van Gogh’s tattered face and off we went.
The colours on Damrak, one of the main roads going through Amsterdam, are brighter and more universal than in the interior streets of the city. Large crowds shuffle into brand name shops wearing slacks and blue tank tops. The stripy orange and purple trousers are taken off and ties are invented. We were leaving Saturn and its rings of canals but first the horrific road had to be crossed. Trams thundered at diagonal angles with their white walls striped once with blue. “Fuck this shit,” Jeff said. Me and Blondy ran for it but only got to the middle island before a wash of mopeds screamed around the corner.
“Oh dear god,” Blondy said.
“Look,” he said, laughing in that nervous, amazed way only stoned people do.
I looked then stared back at him. The whole middle island was full of Chinese tourists that had thought we knew what we were doing. Laughing nervously and amazed, I said: “If they die it’s our fault. I feel like that game, Lemings.” Responsibility is marijuana’s Kryptonite.
Bikes, mopeds, trams and cars make up the vicious game that all tourists must quickly master if they are to survive this town. It’s as though the European Union decided to round up all the stoners and slaughter them legally by creating a transport system where tram drivers get tax breaks for running red lights and mopeds get to use the pavement.
Like the lucky wildebeest that avoid the crocodile’s jaws we, and all of the Chinese, made it across the river and could soon see the semi-circular dome of Vincent’s tomb.
The rain had started spitting now as we politely entered the museum. Spending 15 Euro to see this man’s work is the best value for money you are likely to find anywhere. The whole experience is built around following a timeline of his life and how his work often reflected his personal issues. How meeting Monet pushed him to brighten his drawings, how he chased Gauguin with the same razor that stole his ear, and how only one of his paintings was sold before he died. I met a girl in America that said to me:
“What’s the point at working hard at any art form or putting any foundations down for your grandchildren because, even if people discover you once you are dead, you won’t know anyway.”
Human vending machines and gaybars.
We did laps of the Red Light District on all three nights that we were in Amsterdam, joining thousands of other pushers, peddlers and spectators. We got to know barmen and local weirdoes that drove around on mopeds singing songs about dragons, but it was still “Charlie” who remained the most popular guy in town. Whispers from the dark called for him continually, similar to the questions of “hashish?” in Marrakech and “Pills?” in Ibiza. On the second night, I walked along the canal and looked up to the 3X3 columns of glowing windows. Long-winded winks momentarily covered vacant eyes in the way the sun illuminates the bleak, secretly lightless moon. The look of emptiness belies the physically animated bodies these girls have and removes any humanistic connotations. Meat for sale as dead as chopped liver. “I’d fuck one of them,” the black-haired brother said.
Ducking into a long alley, lit with the dull red light from the adorning windows, the crowd thinned and we found ourselves standing outside a sex show. We bought the tickets and were directed to another building where the action was taking place, on a cycle, for 24 hours a day. The first mistake we made was sitting at the front. Sweat thickened the blue-lit air as the three of us and around 30 small Asians watched the show. Deep house music thudded along to the beat of our main protagonist, a thespian with a dick and no sense of, well, anything. His terminator shades glistened as the three of us winced. These were ugly people with undoubtedly ugly stories. All I saw of the girl were the palms of her grubby feet. Anything that costs 50 Euros means you stay for another show. We waited as the not-arousing-in-any-way hardcore porn played in the intermission. The scenes of ass tonguing were soon replaced by a pretty girl who smiled and waved and pursed her lips. She was eagerly joined by a rabbit of a man that could have steered a gondola. About 30 minutes later all three of us had lasted twice the national average and decided to leave. A sex show in Amsterdam is like a camel ride in Africa or watching the news in America. They all sound good but in the end you just end up being covered with shit and feeling uncomfortable.
Gaunt from a diet of weed and coffee, and haunted by the image of the Terminator, I needed a beer. Luckily there was a place right in the Red Light District that opened late. Blinded by a need for booze we somehow didn’t notice the huge rainbow flag outside, or the huge bald men dressed in tight leather trousers with tight leather hats. After that first big gulp Jeff looked at me with a huge smile on his face and laughed in his hysterical, high-pitched laugh. The two brothers had smoked far more weed and looked petrified. All around us bulking men glided along the floor with grace, while immovable Hells Angels, all of whom stood above 6 foot 4”, cracked in laughter, stretching the leather on their wide backs. Another drink and we were all smiling. We had come to Amsterdam, the barmen explained, during one of the largest gay pride festivals in the world. “So are you gunna get with one of these prostitutes then?” I asked the black-haired brother. “Ye, I said I would didn’t I?”
“You did,” I replied.
“It is 40 Euro for 20 minutes,” the girl said in her muted Eastern European accent. Looking back I saw him nod so the rest of us walked to the railing and sat beside the canal and waited.
He explained later what the girls of Amsterdam’s red light district provide their customers with. “So I went in there and she basically ordered me to sit on the bed. She stood next to me and literally within one second she threw the condom on and started jacking me off. I mean, these girls are professionals. It’s ridiculous really. We started going at it and she just kept saying ‘o baby, yes, yes ,yes’ in the most monotone voice ever. In that accent that sounds like the bad guys in shitty 80’s movies. Then after I was done she just disappeared into a little bathroom and told me to leave.” He smiled and laughed his chesty laugh. “I’ve never felt so used in my life!”
On our way back a girl stepped out in front of me. “Sorry,” I said, apologising for nothing as I always seem to do in foreign lands. She looked back and smiled as the wind swung shut the framed glass door she had stepped down from. With a flick of her hood the girl disappeared into the crowd. Just another character in this city of sin.
With that it was time for bed. Until we remembered the flights and accommodation we hadn’t booked for Ibiza the next day.