Think of it as the kidney…
I’m just back after doing a bit of a solo walk while Lisa engages with her third of an anticipated four films today. I headed up to the Central Station (Dutch: Centraal Station) and walked down Nieuwendijk to get there, where I got a contact high. The density of coffeeshops is in direct relation to your proximity to the Central Station, and Niewendijk has coffeeshop after coffeeshop, punctuated by the occasional smartshop. The whole block smells like weed.
I took some pictures of all of the bikes at Centraal (for a later post) and headed down Damrak, one of the central arteries, which is fully occupied by fast food chains, souvenir shops (complete with t-shirts with a vertically oriented XXX – that’s right, we’re so porn-y, even our t-shirts are hot), and the odd street performer.
I do mean odd. Most of these folks just dress up in costume with a latex head mask (Scream, Freddy Krueger, the Grim Reaper) and gesture so that you’ll have your picture taken with them. No performance per se. And they still seem to get coins. Weird.
Back to our story.
There’s a kind of dehumanizing element to this kind of capitalism. The quality of the products is cheap and it’s sold to tourists at inflated prices. But that’s okay, because we’ve set aside some discretionary money for our vacation and that t-shirt is HILARIOUS – XXX – like porn! Get it??? Then there are the three dudes going into the Sex Museum together, all of them wearing their heterosexuality rather aggressively. (Yes, straight men, go watch porn together. Does anyone else think that’s… what’s the word… Hmmm. Let me know if something appropriate occurs to you.) This whole section of the city is all about What You’ve Heard Amsterdam Is. Pot is everywhere, the Red Light District is just over yonder, and here’s a picture of me in my t-shirt standing next to a guy in a mask to prove I was there.
Every big city that I’ve been in has this section of town. In Prague, it’s the New City, primarily, Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square, with pockets located in other hearts of the center. New York and Chicago have them, as does London and Paris. As generally yucky as I feel like these places are, it occurred to me this afternoon that they do serve another function. As I walked into the center of the center from our apartment (which is in the center, but in a decidedly more residential part) and then out of it again, I thought of the visiting people as commercial blood, here to spend our money, and these centers as the kidneys that filter out (through self-segregation) all of the people who don’t want anything beyond What I’ve Heard Amsterdam Is. Let those people stay where they are, the city seems to say, let them find the best coffeeshop and compare prices of hash. Let them ogle the women in the windows of the Red Light District (no pictures!). It’s like asking a drunk college student in New Orleans, here, would you please stay on Bourbon Street? Daiquiri? Of course, here you go. Now just sit here in your own vomit. Good boy.
To a degree, you could make the same claim about the relation of the city to the country. Have I visited the Netherlands? No, I’m in Amsterdam. While Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, it’s not the Hague, or Rotterdam, or one of those fortified fishing villages. It’s like saying you’ve visited the States because you went to Atlanta. Technically true, but not very accurate.
Everyone I talk to about travel professes a desire to get to know the locals – even the Dutch cab driver who took us in from the airport, before he started telling us about going to Barcelona and spending one of his three days there drinking on the beach. I can get to know a city superficially well in a few days, but you really have to live somewhere before you start to get its flavor – and even living somewhere, well, let’s just say I’ve met a whole bunch of ex-pats in Prague who’ve never bothered to learn the language.
“Going local” is just another way of setting ourselves apart and distinguishing our own erudition, I think. Mostly, though, we seem to all be stuck in the kidneys.