Six Months In Amsterdam

Now that I think about it, the title sounds like a good title for a song. It would be kind of like “One Night in Bankock” but with less of a techno beat and more references to sex and drugs. In case you didn’t already know, I spent the first half of 1999 living and working in Holland. Here is my trip report.

Technically, it’s illegal to buy and smoke marijuana in Holland. Of course it’s also possible that you will sleep walk into the nearby woods in the middle of the night only to be awakened by the sound of your leg setting off a bear trap, but most reasonable people don’t stay up at night worrying about getting caught. You can also go into special “herb” stores and get whatever other goodies that you feel the need to put into your body. Is this the best way to run a society? I really don’t know, but my experience has been that the number of people on the street that you don’t want to have anything to do with is comparable to any other large city I have ever visited. It’s way better than New York City.

The other “selling point” of Holland is the legalized prostitution. If you go into the Red Light District you can shop around for women conveniently displayed behind the glass windows of their “shops.” Provided you have the money and you don’t have any visible open sores or other odd physical defects, you can have the woman of your dreams in convenient fifteen minute increments. Is this the best way to run a society? Once again, I really don’t know, but it doesn’t appear to be destroying the city. As one of my friends who came over to visit from Colorado said, “They still have pimps in Holland, but it’s more of a desk job.”

Holland is chalk full of first rate public transportation. Based on my experiences and some information that I pretty much just made up, here is my advice on how to build a city without having to depend on automobiles: First of all, start building the city in the middle ages when people are too busy with things like neighboring armies, crusades, and the plague to ponder ideas like the internal combustion engine, traffic flow patterns, and the needs of the middle class. Combine this with a series of interlocking canals and you have a city that just isn’t very friendly to automobiles.

There is actually a law in Holland that forbids the construction of parking spaces in the city limits. OK, OK, they don’t REALLY have laws in Holland, but it is almost impossible to find a parking spot in Amsterdam. The only vehicles that you see on the roads are taxi drivers and tour busses. Since their job is to just drive around all day it really isn’t a problem. Occasionally a lost tourist from a neighboring country will accidentally drive into town. The desperate search for a parking space ends when their fuel supply runs out and they are forced to stop in the middle of the road. When this happens, the angry taxi drivers and tour bus operators stuck behind the vehicle work together to push the car out of the street and into the closest canal.

As difficult as it is to get around Amsterdam with a car, it’s quite simple to get around with the public transportation. Intercity trains, subways, trams, and busses all work together to get you where you need to go. After a long day at work it is a lot less stressful to get on the train than to have to drive an automobile. I think it has something to do with the fact that you don’t have to actually drive the train. They have people for that.

While the trains in Holland are, on the whole, pretty safe, every now and then you will see things that make you wish you had waited for the next train. The most disgusting thing I saw on the trains was a guy who picked up a crumpled Heineken beer can from the floor in an attempt to extract the last precious drops of alcohol that the previous owner missed. There were also the two women on the train late one night who were shooting up heroin. The really strange thing was that nobody else on the train seemed to care.

Whenever I hear the phrase “stick it where the sun don’t shine,” I always picture Holland in the winter months. Between the extreme northern latitude and constant cloud cover, the sun doesn’t make much of an appearance until the spring. Combine this with cold temperatures and a fairly constant drizzle of rain and you have a nation that doesn’t receive many tourists for half the year. The popular joke for the Dutch to say to foreigners goes something like, “Of course we have summer in Holland. Last year it was on a Thursday.”

One of the most difficult aspects of my trip involved the language barrier. While the majority of the natives speak English, you never know when you will come across someone who can’t speak your language. Of course there are times when body language is more than enough to communicate information. A lovely example of this phenomenon occurred after a rather odd series of events put me in a unique situation with a young woman at a local restaurant. Our nonverbal conversation, insofar as it can be expressed in words, went something like this:

Me: “I know that I am in the women’s bathroom in a busy McDonald’s restaurant. I’ll leave now”

Her: “I don’t know why you are in the women’s bathroom in this busy McDonald’s restaurant, but I’ll let you save whatever small amount of dignity you have left at this moment in time by not screaming or otherwise drawing attention to the situation. I hope the rest of your day goes better than this.”

Here is an interesting concept that is worth mentioning: in Europe, they play music videos on MTV. Sure, they play commercials and they have occasional news updates, but it’s mostly just videos. It seems like the producers of MTV in Europe realized that constantly broadcasting footage of a bunch of twenty-year-old college dropouts driving around the world in a Winnebago just isn’t very entertaining.

I generally don’t keep track of any kind of vital statistics about myself beyond the usual, “my heart is beating,” “I’m hungry,” and “I’m currently standing in the women’s bathroom in a busy McDonalds restaurant,” but the past six months have seen some rather significant changes in my lifestyle. Here are some of the more interesting numbers that I came up with.

Taco Bell franchises I found in Holland: 0
House plants I killed: 1
Different countries in Europe I visited: 6
Number of fruit stickers I put on the phone in the apartment for no particular reason: 10
Most consecutive days I was forced to wear long pants: 89
Most consecutive days I didn’t eat at an American franchise fast food establishment: 121
Days I didn’t see a “Saturn” brand automobile: 183
Days I preserved the natural ecological balance of the back yard of the company apartment: 183
(or, the number of times I mowed the lawn) 0

I can honestly say that I enjoyed these six months in Amsterdam. For someone who hasn’t spent much time outside of Colorado, I have come to realize that there is a whole different world out there where people aren’t very tan, don’t wear sandals, and don’t have much interest in who killed JonBenet Ramsey. Sure, they get the words “soccer” and “football” mixed up most of the time and have adopted darts as their new national pastime just because a Dutch guy won the world darts competition last year, but these are small problems that can be easily overlooked. To quote the most commonly spoken phrase on any American talk show, “Can’t we all just get along?”