Amsterdam is funnier when you are driving in it. It’s beautiful all the time, I’m assuming – but it’s funnier when you’re in a car. Well, I’m sure it’s funny from the outside, at least. The one advantage of the Fiat Punto is its size, in this instance. Having a car the size of a small dog is a major advantage in a city in which canals dominate, and all the roads are one way, and you don’t know which way. The great disadvantage of having a navigation system is that something always seems to go wrong. In this case, in the city, it didn’t tell you what turn was coming up until it had already passed. Fine in theory, but Amsterdam isn’t set up for cars, and so doing the one-way circuit of a section of canal for forty five minutes gets you some looks from the Netherlanders on café chairs, which have confidently leaking out onto the road. Because no cars go there.
The streets of Amsterdam are a reddy-pink colour, and the roads are curved, rising in the middle a little, giving the roads a similar kind of shape to the canal bridges. The houses that line the streets are three or four stories, connected, but all different, in shades of deep, bright red, brown, white, orange and brick, with black and white details. Each has a peaked roof, brought up in a point like a gingerbread house. Each house has a beam protruding out of the peaked roof and a hook, which the merchants used to use to winch up their stocks, for storage on the top floor, when Amsterdam was a city of merchants. They’re still here today because the houses and front doors are so narrow, that people still bring their furniture in through the top floor. I didn’t see it happen, but there’s a particular ad on TV here in which young hip things are pulling and IKEA toy net full of stuff up into a house. It’s cute and whimsical, and I can see young people (what am I saying? I am a young person) from English speaking countries cringing at the oddness of it all. Did I mention beer in the cinema?
With my brother Adam visiting us from Germany for the week, we decided we would go to Amsterdam. I’m driving, still, and it’s supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour drive from Enschede. We want to make the 11.15 free city tour, so we’re gunning it, having left at 8.30am. It’s all going well, and it only takes two hours to get to the centre. But once we get there, without knowing where were going, we managed to get a park, at €4 per hour, €50 maximum, right next to the town square. Five minutes to go, and we make it to the town square. Like everything else in Amsterdam, the major town monument here is a giant phallic symbol. There is also a town lion sculpture. Lions, in places like England, and France, are proud and majestic; back muscles rippling, watching over the city, or rampant and terrifying. In Amsterdam, there’s a small lion, sitting with four feet on the ground but leaning back as if terrified, with a frightened look on its face. Except not frightened but alarmed, as if in the midst of a drug induced freak out while looking at a blank spot in the wall that has suddenly grown a face. It has bicycles around it.
We go to the area in the square that the tours seem to be going from. That is, there are five or six people walking around in the same red tee shirt, flanked by about five hundred tourists. There are people with tickets, and I approach one of them, a woman who is handing them out to the people in front of me. She gets to me and turns, moves off. I look back to Butters and Adam, and look for someone else. We know that the tour is done in Spanish and English. There is an affable enough man that’s leading a Spanish group, and I wonder how we would go with them. Then I spot Mark – it’s actually hard to miss him in his retro, magic eye trousers, yellow clogs and orange pom pom that’s been darned to his khaki cap after an overzealous afternoon with the zig zag stitch function. We go with him. Another girl comes around and asks for our email addresses, so that we can have exclusive access to the group photo they will now take of us. I give her my junk email address. Mark waits impatiently for the ‘photographer’ – and by waits impatiently I mean harasses annoyed and insists the photo is taken – to take ours. He pretends to be busy with a clipboard while Mark gets more and more edgy. Finally, the photographer gets his iPhone out and waves it in our direction, and we’re off.
Mark is thin, with a nose like a beak and clear green eyes that flit around like an eagle’s. He has an English accent, I think, but it’s watered down. He’s a freelancer, but he works with a global tourist guide company that offers free tours around major cities. He promotes the tours himself, and gives the company some of the money he makes from us: the tour is ‘free’, if you are a cold hearted bastard who can easily field the icy stares and tutt tutts of your fellow tour mates at the end, when your guide asks you to ‘pay what you feel’. He is laid back, but I don’t think that everyone who’s relaxed, in Amsterdam, is on a smoke drip of the green stuff. In fact, as Mark tells us, smoking weed is not legal in Amsterdam. It’s just tolerated.
Things are tolerated in Amsterdam. Mark tells us that they’re only tolerated, however, if they’re a) done discreetly, b) good for business and c) don’t hurt anyone. And well, while I think the idea that drugs and prostitution don’t hurt anyone are a little more up for grabs as concepts as the Dutch seem to think, they seem to think it works for them. Of course, prostitution is legal here, so it’s not exactly in the same category. But as Mark tells us, just before we take a turn into the red light district, he is reliably informed that most of the prostitutes in Amsterdam are working of their own free will. He is informed, after all, but the head of the Prostitutes’ Information Centre. I’m sure that a lot of them are, too. This is an entire industry in which, in the 1960s, 90% of the sex workers were Dutch. I can’t confirm that the head of the PIC told him that most of the money for sex here is consensual, but I can confirm that that’s not what the European Union thinks. In fact, Holland is, according to them, the number one destination for human traffic victims in the world. But little difference of opinion never hurt anyone.
I try to keep my eyes to myself, as I go past what are alarmingly normal looking houses, with windows at which women pop up into, as I walk past, in not many items of clothing. I try to keep to myself for many reasons, one of the strongest being that Marks tells us that if we take photos, they might flick stale urine at us. I have put my foot in my mouth in a lot of situations, but I’m a bit camera happy, and my iPhone rarely stays in my pocket. So I thought it was best not to look.
Also, I find a woman selling her body degrading. It’s not the work of an empowered, enlightened and strong person, comfortable in their own skin. I don’t see that selling intimacy of that sort should be business. Especially when it’s often hurtful to someone else, in my opinion.
Also, I think someone was dressed in a bright pink version of Borat’s mankini, which was hilariously weird.
Other than that, Amsterdam is the most beautiful place I have ever set foot in.
This is the city that defines a life lived on bikes. There are no bare bridge railings in Amsterdam. They all have bikes pinned to them. Some of the bikes are rusty, possibly melded onto the bridge. But they’ll never be moved. I have a friend, Dave, in Australia, who is a construction engineer (I don’t know what he is, actually. He is really smart, works on a construction site and doesn’t use a hammer. I imagine him in fluoros and a helmet, and spreading out paper plans over a table. He’s a good friend, but because I have an issue in my brain, I once spent the whole night calling him the wrong name. Dave: I’m sorry. Hopefully mentioning you in my post makes up for it) who rides his bike to work. He locks his bike to a railing outside, each night. There were two other bikes that hadn’t been used in a while, there too. One day, he came out and they were all gone. All of them. He’s a smart guy, so he called the local council.
‘Hey, how’s it going? So you took my bike.’
‘We didn’t take your bike.’
‘Yeah, you did. And you can’t do that.’
‘We removed some bikes that had been there for a while.’
‘I used mine yesterday. I don’t think you can just take people’s things.’
I don’t actually know whether they returned his bike. I can’t remember. But he’s very smart and diplomatic, so I imagine he did.
My point is that in Amsterdam, that wouldn’t happen. Mark warned us that he had lived here for thirteen years, now, and he almost got collected by a bike recently. They just have right of way, everywhere.
After having an age-withered fight with my little brother about me being the eldest, and him being the youngest, and our warped views of the world and each other from each position, we went to the Van Gough museum, and I got a fatigue attack and sat in the café for most of it.
After dinner – a steak bar in which every single table was filled with Australians – we tucked ourselves in for bed for the night. In the Punto. This is one of those times when it is not an advantage to have a car the size of a small dog. We had been looking forward, at least, to the relative darkness that an underground car park would afford, having each spent months so far north in the world that we’d started to actually believe that the sun should be in the sky at ten o’clock at night. As we approached the car, Adam frowned.
‘It’s not dark.’
He was referring to the three fluoro lights installed in every square meter of the car park. One over each car door, as it turns out. I was in the back seat, basically pinned there after Adam and Andrew put their seats back, and sat, like disgruntled economy class flyers, in their Punto beds.
In the morning, we went on a lovely canal cruise, and went home.