After visiting the antique fair in Maastricht, Holland (a brief and easy 3 hour drive from Paris), I decided to stay in Amsterdam for the weekend, to discover a new city. This is very adventuresome for me, since I usually hang around home, whether in Paris or San Francisco. But alone in Paris for the month, I decided to do something different for a change, and weekends are very quiet in Paris. And it is so easy to hop from country to country in Europe, often after a very short drive. On the way to Holland, I drove through Belgium, so I was in 3 countries in 3 hours: France, Belgium, and Holland. It’s a three and a half or four hour drive from Paris to Amsterdam, Holland, sort of like going from Boston to New York, except that instead of crossing several states, you cross several countries, each with different cultures, customs, food, and languages, which makes it a lot of fun. They speak Dutch in Holland, and both French and Flemish in Belgium, and it felt like an adventure.
I had actually been to Amsterdam 15 years ago, for the launching of a boat about an hour or two outside of the city, so I never got to see the city (although I had a lot of fun at the boat launch), so Amsterdam was all new to me, and I found it fascinating. It’s a city of about 700,000 inhabitants, and has the feeling of a small city (nothing like New York which is electric and booming. It reminded me a little bit of San Francisco, as it’s a small city, and tourism seems to be its major industry). And many or most people move around the city on bicycles, you really have to watch out for them as they whiz by you. Everyone seems to be on bikes, with babies, dogs in baskets, their groceries in little carts attached to the front of some bikes. There are bike lanes everywhere on the streets, and the whole city seems to be on bikes, which are a major means of transportation. There are taxis and trams as well, so it’s relatively easy to get around, and it’s a great walking city. I stayed at the same elegant old hotel I stayed at last time, sitting at the edge of a canal. The entire city is intersected by numerous canals, where boats provide taxi service, deliveries, and tours for the tourists. The city is actually below sea level, so the canals are extremely important for controlling the water flow between rivers. Apparently Amsterdam has as many canals, if not more, than Venice, although there are cars in Amsterdam as well (which there are not in Venice). People are friendly, Dutch is spoken, but most people seem to speak English as well. And the architecture of the city is decidedly Dutch, dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries in many cases, and is a little dark. It doesn’t have the light, sophisticated look of Paris, but seems a bit more somber and has a totally different look than France for instance. The buildings are very square, and there is a lot of brick, and there are many churches. And many, many streets are bordering canals, and there are countless small bridges across the canals, and in places traffic gets tight. There is a definite street life there, and lots of activity on the streets until late into the night. I don’t know if it’s any safer than any other city today, but there are so many people on the streets, that I felt comfortable walking quite late at night, to explore a little on my first night there. Eventually, I went back to my hotel, but I felt relatively safe walking around at night.
There are lots of young people on the streets of Amsterdam, probably many of them tourists, and I heard many languages around me. The ‘coffee shops’ are a big draw for the young in Amsterdam (over the age of 18), which I had always heard about—–not where you can get a cup of coffee, or a bagel, or a cheeseburger, but rather these ‘coffee shops’ sell small amounts of marijuana, and it is legal to smoke it there. So it’s quite common to see people sitting at tables outside these cafes, rolling a joint and smoking it. It’s a little startling at first, but seems to be part of the landscape there. As the driver of the cab I took back to the hotel said, Amsterdam is a very ‘tolerant’ city, and coffee shops selling marijuana are part of that tolerance. I don’t smoke marijuana, and I knew that was part of the local lore, and I noticed that there are one or several of these coffee shops on just about every block in the populated areas. And they seem to be very popular, judging by the number of people sitting there, both on my first night in the city, and the next day as I watched people sitting in the sunshine rolling joints. There were both older and younger people there, though mostly young (they must be over 18 by law), and they also sell cakes or cookies with marijuana in them. I didn’t go in to check it out!! But it is definitely part of the atmosphere of the city; along with the gazillion bicycles you see everywhere. But the coffee shops are so much in evidence that you can’t ignore them either. (I did have to chuckle though, my ‘evil vice’ is smoking cigarettes, and yes, I know how bad it is. But after watching people roll joints and smoke them all day in outdoor cafes, in plain sight—-I was given a very stern reprimand by my hotel for smoking a cigarette in my room, and threatened with a punitive charge from them. So smoking marijuana is tolerated in Amsterdam—-but not cigarettes. We cigarette smokers are always treated like a pariah now!!! Although less so in Paris).
I indulged my own addiction the next day, which I prefer: shopping. There was great shopping. All the same brands that we see all over the world now, Diesel, Replay, etc. And some great high end shopping on one long shopping street: Gucci, Chanel, Cartier, Hermes, etc. I had a good time wandering in and out of stores a little. (At least here, I could afford a little indulgence—which I couldn’t at the fabulously expensive antique fair the day before!!). I had a great time shopping. And on the drive back to my hotel at the end of the day, I was driven past another legend I had always been told about in Amsterdam: the red zone. Prostitution is legal in Holland, prostitutes are registered, have a license, pay taxes, etc. And on certain streets, somewhat mixed in with residential buildings and more ordinary shops, are store windows, where instead of showing shoes, groceries or blouses, there are women in bras and G strings or lacy underwear, literally sitting in a shop window, waiting for customers to buy the services they offer. I guess I’m a little over the hill or out of it, but I found it really startling and amazing. All the more so, because mothers with young children are whizzing past on bikes, taking their groceries home, or families stroll by paying no attention to these women who must be considered commonplace there. The driver explained to me that these neighbourhoods are a mixture of families, hookers, sex shops, fine dining restaurants, businesses, it’s all kind of blended together. And I was a little stunned, watching it all. There are women of every shape, size, age, nationality, race or description, sitting in their windows waiting for customers, and in a few cases men are negotiating in the doorway. I find the whole concept of prostitution depressing—-having 5 daughters, and being a woman, I can’t think of a worse fate for a woman, and it can’t be a happy life, but they all seemed quite content with what they were doing, and no one else seemed upset about it. I’m not sure I would be thrilled to walk my five year old son or daughter past a street level shop window with a hooker in it, in fact I know I wouldn’t like it, to say the least. But no one else seemed bothered. And quite remarkably, in one street, there were ‘older’ women in the windows, and ‘older’ is a major understatement, they looked old enough to be my grandmother, and there they were, showing off their stuff, slightly more covered, but not much. So along with the very fun shopping street I enjoyed and indulged myself in, I saw the famous coffee shops that sell marijuana openly, and the hookers in the windows. I felt very adventuresome—-although I can’t be too prissy or righteous, since there are hookers as well on the street where I live in Paris, but they wear street clothes, overcoats, and are fully dressed and usually operate discreetly out of cars parked along the curb (and are usually chased away by police if they’re too obvious, although we all know they’re there, and some of them aren’t too young either, and some are in fact older than I am by quite a bit), but in Amsterdam it is far more blatant, as they sit in frilly lingerie a foot away from you, in a store window, smiling enticingly at passers by. Personally, I preferred looking in the windows at Gucci and Chanel on the other street, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fascinated by the hookers in the windows. It is an amazing cultural phenomenon, particularly geographically blended in to normal city, residential and even family life as they are. And no, once in Amsterdam, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Hmmm…….
Other than those somewhat (to foreigners) unusual phenomenon, it is a pretty little city, lively with lots of people on the streets, and some important cultural features. The Van Gogh Museum, notably, currently a Picasso show, the beautiful canals, and lovely churches. I am sure there is much to discover about Amsterdam that I never got to, but it was an interesting visit, and I enjoyed it. And after cruising past the hookers in the windows (I hate to admit it, but I gaped from my car windows. I will confess I am not ‘cool’ or sophisticated enough to be blasé about it, even living in Paris (where prostitution is not legal, so a lot more clandestine), and it quite stunned me). But there are lots of beautiful aspects to Amsterdam, which have nothing to do with their ‘tolerance’, —and after cruising by the famous windows, I had a very proper and civilized ‘high tea’ at my hotel, which was fun, delicious and old fashioned, with tea sandwiches and scones. Like most cities, Amsterdam is a city of contrasts, the old, the new, the historical, the modern, the business side of life, the charm of a very old city and the lovely canals (a family in a kayak drifted past my hotel windows in the morning, and there are swans on some of the canals), it definitely has its beauty, and its very stately proper side in contrast to the ‘racier’ coffee shops (which actually don’t seem too racy, just busy), and the ladies in the windows. It was definitely a fun and interesting weekend. I had a chance to see my Dutch publishers before I left, I had a good time, thoroughly enjoyed my shopping and discovering the city, and then headed back to Paris, a mere four hour drive back home to familiar turf. It’s good to see something new for a change, and made me feel very adventuresome…..and I’m sure it will all turn up in a book somewhere!!! It was fun and very different for me, and the residents of Amsterdam were very friendly. It was an interesting, relaxing, and enjoyable weekend.