Well, there's a headline for you if I've ever seen one! This place known as Amsterdam is such an odd place for an American. From the get-go you're assaulted by foreign languages and strange sights but for some reason, it's not overwhelming. I flew into the city on Thursday afternoon not knowing how to get to town, how to get to the hotel, or really how to do much of anything in this new city. I made it... safe and sound. That's sort of been the theme of this trip so far - start with a goal and figure out how to get there. I'm sure there's some sort of deep moral statement floating in there somewhere but I've not found it yet. Probably something to do with having an end in sight and just working until you make it there.
So, allow me now, for a few moments, to pontificate about what it means to be in Amsterdam and how this city would never be possible in the States. First, the entire city is built for the people that live in it. Parking is about 35 euro a day so there aren't many cars around. To make up for that, there are THOUSANDS, and I mean THOUSANDS of bikes around everywhere. Every single spare space is filled with bikes locked to fences, railings, light posts, other bikes, and more. There are special lanes on every street for bikes to go through. These lanes have their own street-light system and are completely separate from the passengers. Trams are everywhere and go to every point in the city. We've yet to find ourselves lost in the city without some tram-rails sitting around nearby. It's great. All of the taxis are BMWs or Mercedes Benzs - clean, new, and expensive?
On the approach into the airport, I saw a number of firsts for me. At first it was the wind turbine farm that was off the coast. Next it was the turbines lining the major canals outside of the city. Then it was the canals themselves - they were both a great way to tour the city but also a means of travel. The Dutch have a very intricate energy plan here - something I wish we could make work for the states. On the canals, individual company lands had their own turbines - it was great! Who would have seen that coming?? States, take note.
Unavoidable when talking about Amsterdam is a discussion of the Red Light District. This was something I would have called Las Vegas if I didn't know better. Apart from the rest of the city, this area of town runs along two minor canals just south east of the central train station. Here, the setting changes from the quaint cultured structures of the rest of the city in exchange for neon neon neon. Girls here, sex toys there, a whole manner of debaucheries for those so inclined. Instead of Las Vegas' street vendors shoving cards of naked women into your hand along the street, the RLD was tame with the main drags being rather tame while letting the side alleys hold the practitioners of the world's oldest trade.
I still don't know how I feel about this whole situation. My mother would probably try to understand what they do by way of "cultural relativism" but I'm not sure that I can really agree there. The streets were crowded with on-lookers. Couples, homosexual and heterosexual, old people, young people, foreign and domestic. You name it and people came to gawk in hopes of seeing something but there weren't there to partake. Much like me, these people were just walking through the RLD - something that would leave a trip to Amsterdam otherwise unfinished. Sure you saw some Johns going in and coming out, heard the taps on the windows from girls in underwear etc. It was rather uncomfortable really. But just as soon as it started, it was over. The RLD is tiny - much smaller than I had imagined. In fact, it didn't really stand up to any of the preconceived notions that I had. It wasn't dirty, sketchy (too much), and was seemingly safe. Police on bikes, motorcycles, and cars patrolled the area much more often than other parts of the city. Security cameras were everywhere - who knows who was working them.
In general, it shows a rather mature approach to what we Americans look down upon as dirty and depraved. When reading some of the brochures of tours etc that were given to us in our room, we understood more the Dutch attitude towards the RLD. True, they are trying to get rid of it and they will eventually. But I'm not sure if that's the best way to control it. As it stands, the whores are unionized, have structured health tests, and apparently command a good salary. One history article mentioned that it was the oldest profession in the world, exploiting the woman's power in the work-place, and how it's a job that's portable. I personally see that as a bit of a romanticised version of dealing with it but whatever. I didn't partake but I don't look on others with disgust - it's a personal thing I suppose and everyone has their reasons, who am I to tell them theirs are wrong?
Another controversial topic bubbling through the canals that ring the city center is the bit about weed... It's legal here, you'll smell it EVERYWHERE from the shopping malls, to the Irish pubs, and definitely down the alleys where the "coffee shops" make their business. It was strange... very strange. Being on the outside of this one, I didn't really get it. I know in the states that weed is illegal and all but for the most part, that law keeps it off the streets. It's not something that is EVERYWHERE. Perhaps it's because this is one of the few places where the drug is legalized and therefore everyone comes here to partake, but it sure seems like the legalization increases the amount of people in the general populace lighting up or even having to smell it. The widespread use of marijuana calls up some concerns about safety - aren't there a bunch of commercials in the states about how driving high is just as bad as driving drunk? Hmm... I guess that's why they have lots of trams and bikes...? Then there's the thought - if it's legal, can you just go out for a smoke like people lighting up cigarettes while you're at work... that's gotta be different - maybe it'd make afternoon meetings more entertaining?
In general, I'm not convinced that the States ought to bring this drug to the legal market the way it is here. Whether it's a matter of culture or if it's a matter of details, I'm don't think the States are the place to rock the boat on this one. Yes, we can go back to cultural relativism and the like but at the end of the day I ask myself, is this what I want it to be like in Boston? Resoundingly the answer is no. Unlike the RLD, which doesn't publicly affect anyone else, those partaking of weed tend to affect those around them without their consent. It's been so long since I've walked into a restaurant and been asked "smoking or non" that I'm not sure whether I could deal with being assaulted by weed-smoke every time I went to dinner. Maybe the food spots would like it (reference munchies) but I doubt that their profitability would outweigh social welfare and responsibility.
The last bit that makes these last two topics so incongruous is the sheer density of museums here. Every block there's a museum, especially around our hotel. Granted, we're living in the Museum District, but even in other parts of the city there are MANY MANY places for one to visit the past. So far, my favorite has been the Van Gogh museum - I actually felt as though I learned something that I didn't already know and found it interesting as well. It was great. His works were organized in chronological order and were accompanied by stories of his life. I can definitely say that I knew more coming out of there than I did going in. Not just about the painter, but about what it meant to be a painter. Van Gogh, for those out of the know (haha), was a self-taught artist. He rejected all formal training and refused to go the traditional route. So, he set out on his own going into nature to discover the true forms of art and how to capture them. He kept himself in strict discipline to study only sketches and then once mastered, moved into the paint. His career was very short - he painted for a short 9 years before killing himself (another shocker). We could see the progression in his artwork as he was influenced by new people with whom he came in contact. We could see his skill building, peaking, and then fall away as his life dwindled in the twilight of his life. Disturbing but in some ways poetically tragic.
So, I sit here in the hotel lobby alone hoping that my travel companion makes it back ok tonight as we sort of did our own separate things this evening. We leave early tomorrow morning with a 10:20 departure from Amsterdam on our way to Barcelona. It's going to be an interesting few days to be sure. I'll do my best to keep you guys in the loop and whatnot but no promises. Check out the contact page for more ways to get ahold of me!