We made it. We’re in Berlin, we’re getting through our jetlag, and we’re walking everywhere. Which is not to say that there’s not great public transportation here. There is. We’ve just been walking everywhere, that’s all.
I won’t be writing very much about Berlin here, I don’t think – I’ll be posting about it mostly with Lisa over at Riveting Pictures – specifically, at the Berlin Diary today’s post is “Kerfufflage“). It’s going to be a twice-weekly thing goes the thinking. I’m on Thursdays, Lisa’s on Mondays. We’ll see how well we do.
Friday morning before packing out of the flat, it’s just after midnight in the Midwest, and thousands of people are already going crazy for deals. I hope they’re not stampeding anyone to death.
Not that I’d be out at just after midnight after a full Thanksgiving Day meal. I hate shopping. The addition of crowds of rabid, manic deal addicts just makes the whole thing that much worse, I don’t care what kind of deal you’re offering. There’s nothing like a bunch of sales between midnight and 6am to really get you into the spirit of Christmas – seeing as the Christmas season officially begins at midnight of Thanksgiving. Unofficially, of course, it begins right around Halloween, when all the retailers break out their seasonal reminders – hey everyone! In case you’ve forgotten, we’ve got Christmas this year!
I don’t know about you, but my memory of Dutch history is pretty sketchy. The British East India company comes to mind before the Dutch East India company does, even though the Dutch one might have come first. When you walk around the city, there are the stereotypical stores – for tulips, ceramics, for bike rentals. But there are also a surprising number of antiquary shops filled with curios from around the world, and then I remember, yeah, the Dutch, they plundered good.
This is a country of business people. They’re not selling us hash and sex because they’re immoral vice-pushers in the employ of Satan. They’re selling us hash and sex because it’s good business.
There’s some moral high ground I could climb up to here, but I’ve got to do some online research first for a TV I just remembered I wanted to pick up on the way back from the airport. I hear that today is a good day for sales in the States.
I don’t know if I’m going to make it to any Serious Museums while we’re here.
I’m okay with this.
I’d love to make it to the Van Gogh, and the Rijksmuseum comes highly recommended, and the Van Gogh Museum is by Vondel Park, and I want to go there as well. Honestly, in lots of ways I’d rather walk around green space on some days. We’ll see if it’s cold outside, that might drive me in to a warm museum.
I don’t expect this to be the last time I’m in Amsterdam, so I’m in no more hurry to visit a museum than I ever have been to see Liberty Island while in New York City. Point of fact: I’ve been to Ellis Island, never to Liberty. The museums also function as their own filter, just like the Red Light District. I could go to Paris and not go to the Louvre, or to Madrid and not to the Prado. There are a million things to see in a city.
We hit an Indonesian place for dinner last night for the rice-table (leave by 8pm, get 25% off – score) and wandered through the Red Light District on our way back to the flat. The prostitutes in the doors looked BO-RED. Especially the one on her cell phone and the one with a curling iron (Lisa double-checked – it really was a curling iron). Much more interesting that the RLD for its content was the RLD for its patrons. Lots of people like us who were walking through checking out the black-light-red-neon combination (note to lighting designers: probably not worth the effort), only slightly fewer in number who were there for the coffeeshops, and a small minority who were actually looking to “get laid.” I use scare quotes because it really doesn’t seem like much more than masturbating into another person. And on a side note to any RLD marketing folks out there – if I were to patronize your establishment, I’m less likely to go to one labeled “discount.” Just sayin’.
On this trip, at least, I’d rather wander around and look at the world and the people in it. I’m having a grand time watching the occasional movie with Lisa (who is not watching occasional movies, but establishing residency in certain cinemas). I’m spending a lot of time writing. I’m relaxing. That’s not a euphemism for smoking, either. I hope to get a shave and a haircut (what’s the exchange rate on two bits?) later today based on a recommendation from Mitch.
If I make it to Vondel tomorrow and I’m near Van Gogh, I’ll probably go in. In the meantime, I’ll keep collecting reveries and bits of trivia. Yesterday’s connected bits: the Dutch are, on average, the tallest people in the world. Personal observation suggests this is the case, our building manager confirms (“It’s a fact – you can look it up.”) Related: Dutch urinals require, for some folks, just a bit more arc than they’re used to.
I’ve heard a lot of things about the Dutch, beginning with spacecakes and the Red Light District, going through stinginess, chips with sauce, and culminating in the “open mind and closed heart” of an intellectually open society that struggles with its immigration policies and ethnic minorities. My sister, who worked with a number of folks from the Netherlands years and years ago, snorted derisively after one visit to the country while talking about going to a dinner meeting, “There’s a reason they call it “going Dutch.” Other friends who worked with Dutch nationals concurred.
We’ve got plenty of friends in the Milwaukee area who are Dutch by heritage but American by culture. Mostly this plays out as enthusiasm for the national football team, enthusiasm for Hollander and Centraal, but otherwise they’re as happy to buy around as to receive one.
Pre-travel joking aside, we haven’t traveled here for the legal drugs. Who needs to buy drugs in Amsterdam? I was practically hit in the face yesterday morning on the way to Centraal Station (for our less-than-successful-more-than-failed trip to Haarlem) with a blast of exhaled hash. That did me for the day. We haven’t traveled to “get to know the locals.” We came here at this time because of IDFA, thus all of the movies that Lisa’s running around and watching. (On today’s list: Errol Morris’ Tabloid.) Mark and Lori had never traveled outside the U.S. before, though they’re very well-traveled within vast swaths of the country, especially out of the lower 48.
We’re renting an apartment in the Jordaan, a residential area in the western central part of the city, walking distance from everything. We’re fine with the touristy stuff, not the kitschy stuff, which is why we took the canal tour the other day. (Because it’s Amsterdam, or because people everywhere have 2nd grade senses of humor, someone had scratched the “c” off of one of the canal tour bikes toodling by us, leaving: AMSTERDAM ANAL TOUR). We had an hour before the tour, so we hit a pub across the canal for a beer, Café de Prins. One round of drinks, 12 euro.
I’m sorry, did you say 12 euro for four beers?
We went back after the tour. – Well, Lisa, Lori, and Mark did. I went to write for a while. In the meantime, they made a good connection with the super friendly bartender, who was busy helping anyone inside, drawing maps for other visitors on the back of contiguously placed coasters, finding L&L&M an open table when they decided they needed to balance their alcohol content out. Generally, we decided this was a Great Place.
Last night, after a good tapas meal at Café Dos, we went to another local pub for a drink to kill some time before Lisa was to drag Lori off to some godawful industry party. Who should come into the bar, but the friendly bartender from de Prins. Figuring that in some ways this city is probably not culturally far from Prague, I suggest that he’s on his way home from work. He’s sort of embarrassed to see us, but in a loud, goofy, “I swear, I’m not stalking you!” way. That’s a quote. “I just live around the corner!”
We buy him a carajillo (coffee and Fundador, his drink of choice), and he says he’ll join us but he has to concentrate now. Thirty minutes of concentration later he arrives at our table with a badly drawn map and forty-five minutes of exposition. His name is Leszek, his mother was Polish but he was born here, and he gives us his work phone, his mobile, and where we should go for three great bars. He leaves and comes back before we’re gone, whereupon he creates another map for us.
Gastvrijheid is Dutch for hospitality.
He’s been the highlight of our trip.
After a middling-night’s sleep for everyone except Mark, we’re slated to go to Haarlem today.
Haarlem is about a 15-20 minute train ride west of here from the Centraal Station with trains leaving every less-than-fifteen minutes. It doesn’t get much easier. We’ll rent bikes once we’re there – Lisa and I may hit a pub while Lori and Mark nerd it up at a fossil-science-nature museum (yawn), then head through the forest west of Haarlem to the North Sea. I cannot emphasize enough how easy this trip looks on paper.
In spite of how easy this looks, were I alone for the day and Lisa off watching movies, it’s the sort of thing I could easily talk myself out of doing. I’m having a good time writing, I might decide, or it’s just easier to go for another walk around Amsterdam. I could even make sure I was coming up with a legitimate excuse, but what it would come down to is that I basically don’t like putting myself into foreign surroundings. If I’m walking around Amsterdam solo, sure I’m getting to know the city, but I’m also not having to interact with anyone.
But then I had to go and wrote about filters the other day and now if I let Amsterdam be all I see of the Netherlands I’ll feel like a total jack-ass loser.
It’s not even setting the bar high – this country makes traveling around ridiculously easy. Good and frequent transportation options, everyone speaks eight languages more than I do, and most of them speak English better as well. It’s just a matter of not being lazy and not being cowardly.
Time to heave myself off of my duff.
On a map of the city at the cashier’s office was a big fold-out map of the city – with three X’s aligned vertically across the front. I had been telling Mark about them while we headed past Damrak and he immediately began seeing them everywhere – on the metal traffic barriers that prevent cars from heading onto the sidewalks (no curbs in some places). Three X’s in a row in cobblestone, designating no parking. Faced with the map, I asked the guy selling us our tickets what they meant.
He laughed and explained that most people assumed (as I had yesterday) that it just meant Amsterdam is a triple-X, heavy porn city, but that they are St. Andrew’s crosses, and the three of them represent the three destructions of the city – to fire, to water, and to the plague. And now, it also means porn.
I’ll tell you what I do know – they’re called St. Andrew’s crosses because that’s the shape of the cross on which Andrew was crucified pre-canonization.
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.