It was a sticky afternoon at Schipol airport when the tyres touched down on the tarmac. As Lady Stardust and I walked past the stewardess who nodded politely at the door I had the sudden jolt of excitement that is usually only reserved for jumping out of a plane instead of stepping off one. As we descended the narrow steps onto the sizzling tarmac to the connecting bus I glanced around at the swarm of faces that were tired, hungry and under rested. We were here, after months of earning every penny possible, we had made it to Europe and Amsterdam had one hell of a welcome mat.
Preconceived notions are dangerous to have when diving into darkness, while pop culture loves painting portraits of the world, the sight you see is rarely as advertised. Depictions of the sinking city are usually littered with red lights, green thumbs and mushroom beds— a true cacophony of sin and mayhem. Some aspects are there but I assure you they’re not quite Hollywood. There was more lurking beneath for those willing to dig a little deeper. After two weeks of acclimating ourselves to the European heat and strolling through the cobbled streets of the ‘Dam I noticed a trend that has become prevalent in the miles travelled since— there was an air of plastic around us, everything is a commodity in Summer.
After a few days of jet-lag and growing accustomed to the Dutch air we began walking further away from the comfortable familiarity of the centre of the city (which had been the general route in getting our european legs) towards the Anne Frank house. Commercials plastered all through guide books described it as a “Must See Attraction!”, which was strange enough wording without the added bonus of being right next to a 15% off entry for Cassa Rosso. Strolling becomes the normal pace as you stretch further along the canal lines— as long as you check for cars and bikes cascading alongside one another on the cobbled roads. You had no qualms with the world with that sort of vibe, but, of course— as we approached the turn onto the Prinsengracht canal we were sobered by the sudden rush of reality that set in…
It was a traffic jam of people, stretching hundreds of meters from the distant museum/house all the way to the calm canal. A sea of faces waited sullenly behind each other with singlet tans, local maps and selfie sticks hoping to gain access to the piece of history— I wonder if they have Wi-Fi in there, with some of the shit we’ve seen since that day, I wouldn’t be too surprised. Over the bellows of screaming children and stoned parents were the all too familiar multi-lingual tour groups with umbrellas thrust upward to signify the path to follow. As we observed the snake of blank faces I noticed each group had a print out or snapshot of a barcode on their phone. As it turns out, you need to book ahead in order to enter the house, something that neither Lady Stardust or I had even considered a notion that needed consideration. A notion that would be doomed to repeat itself over the course of our trip in surprisingly sad ways but more on that later. Once its booked for the morning you can choose to wait in line for the afternoon viewings, at the corner of the canal where we were at that moment it was only a quick and breezy 4 hour wait to get inside…
It only took a glance at each other before we readily decided that perhaps there was another avenue in which to take in the voice of the Netherlands— So we picked a random direction and started walking towards the silent side streets. Along the canal there were the occasional picturesque portraits of couples eating fresh deli lunches with their feet hanging inches from the waters edge. There were locals bringing their boats quickly into dock and leaping out of port into their thin daydream houses to have a quick lunch with their partners. It’s easier to see the city taking a breath when its not clogged up, it’s a city of casual passion.
All roads led to the Red Lights, and like most cherry european explorers, curiosity definitely subconsciously guided us there. While 12:30 in the afternoon on a weekday wouldn’t usually be considered ‘full swing’ time for the sinful district, as we arrived on the outskirts we were once again reminded of the depths of depravity that lurk beneath newcomers to open market sin. Walking through it was like walking through the mind of a sexually confused teenager— anxiety, general nerves and manufactured interest in most things, except primal instinct. It was hard to even separate the people who had come for the novelty with those who were here for the girls— and with the range and scope of the workers, every niche is probably covered. As we struggled to get through the Portuguese walking tour outside the Sex Museum we came to the steady conclusion that perhaps strolling isn’t designed for summer travellers, the almighty itinerary is harsher than any clock. All around us were hoards of DSLR lenses with people hiding behind them, even trudging down a particularly narrow lane couldn’t allow us to evade the circus. Down the lane we squeezed past a young bloke in a dichotomous state of ecstasy and bankruptcy as he stumbled out of one particular curtained red room. He casually slid his sunnies on to adjust to the midday sun and walked toward us, nodding politely with a smitten grin as he lit up his joint. We laughed and ended up at the corner of De Wallen and taking a moment to appreciate the irony of a couple snapping shots and selfies in front of the NO CAMERAS sign outside one of the doors.
It was at around two o’clock when Lady Stardust sighed and defeatedly said, “Well, let’s just find a nice spot to relax”. After some more random pathways we found a nice spot just outside the district— a long day of finding the thick packets of travellers can really take the depth out of a breath. A small bench had just freed up on the edge of the canal on a street I can’t remember. As we sat back with a herbal remedy and a small lunch we finally had a chance to see the city in slow-motion. There was a stone silence throughout the mini feast, I presume it was us digesting the idea that perhaps this unplanned high density frivolity would have to be undertaken everywhere we went, “Well shit, maybe a Contiki would’ve been easier” I muttered to myself.
Maybe it was the remedy sinking in or the sweet canal air, but suddenly the overcrowding presence of shutterbuggers evaporated into white noise. Between bites we began joking about the shapes of the buildings, the whole city looked like a scene from a Lemony Snicket novel they were swaying from the foundations, permanently twisted into an imperfect balance along the skyline. We began trading nonsensical observations of people passing by, from tourists walking, to the truffle-heads who were casually stumbling in the 5th dimension with music blaring from their headphones— all with a healthy glaze of righteous bliss across their faces. Our raucous laughter became intoxicating and in that moment of bliss, we had forgotten that we were in the same space of bucket list aficionados because well, we weren’t.
As we sat there for what seems like hours (in all likelihood it was probably around 30 minutes) we noticed a trend in the boats that drifted past on their way to De Wallen and the people inside them. You could hear the local boats coming from a mile away, clinking of glasses, music blaring and the smell of Mary Jane hung long before and after they floated by, but the sightseeing boats were a marvel unto themselves. Through the glass barricades of the tour boats were a collection of faces, all plastered into permanent slouched cynicism. The ones who weren’t holding their GoPro out for a video were staring blankly at the landscape with headphones pressed firmly in. Families even had their hands in the centre of the tables, it was like a wake in more ways than one. There was a silence that wasn’t genuine, it was paid for— Lady Stardust and I were in our own perpetual paradise for the price of a pre-roll and a share serve of frites and ketchup from a kiosk down the road.
To find the soul of a city, you really need to bury any expectations that a tourist guide will provide all the answers, sitting in front of an anonymous building and watching people live out their lives was insurmountable, culture is clockwork, it’s all under the surface where things get intertwined.
As the afternoon wound down into the evening the search for a perfect pizza was afoot. I don’t even know how that became the top priority of our day, but it didn’t matter at that point—The mission was clear and we were all in, as Hunter once said ‘Anything worth doing, is worth doing right’. After Wi-Fi hopping trying to find the perfect spot we were on our way, a little pizza place on the edge of the main island that catered to Lady Stardust’s Eurovegan diet. It’s really too easy to get distracted in this city, too many bright colours and moving shiny things, that could be something else talking though…So we decided to sit down and recharge, finding yet another magic bench on the water, we took a moment or two to regroup our thoughts into coherent speech to order the meal when we arrived.
Barely ten minutes had passed before the sputtering engine of a local boat came roaring through the canal, the white paint was stripping off the bone to reveal the wooden craft had been through several owners and storms. Its crew were two wildly intoxicated shirtless dutchmen and an overzealous dog. As they barrelled from the main canals towards the more open channels that laid beyond the bridge that we were sitting on they slowed down. Angry dutch slurs were being thrown between them, echoing across the quiet suburban area, even in dutch you can hear the drink take its toll on their ability to speak. Their boat stopped just before the final bridge— directly in front of us. Middle age had a profound effect on the reflective skin in the evening sun, they had no care for whomever was offended, or maybe they didn’t even notice anyone was around.
That was until… the reason for their stop was revealed, in an all too revealing manner. I could sense Lady Stardust and I tense up as we leaned further in to take in the show, the boat was floating against the base of the bridge as one of them leaned forward with one hand on the brickwork. Lady Stardust turned to me and excitedly whispered “Is this actually happening?!”, stunned silence was all I could get out before he unzipped his fly—and without missing a beat, he began to unleash litres of recycled beer into the canal. The ‘captain’ was balancing the steering wheel with one hand and his can of Amstel in the other, swaying heavily back and forth attempting to counteract the buoyancy with forced sobriety. I say attempting since, well, on one of his movements he swayed a little too far back and guided the boat with him. In a symphony of drunken yells and poor timing, the pisser was quickly reintroduced to his deposit in the canal. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, I felt like I was watching inception and they were about to jump back a level….and then, WHAM!
The deafening belly-flopping splash drew the gaze of locals heading home from their day and soon the water was foaming with anger spilt beer and fresh piss. It was utter insanity, the dog was running rampant between bow and stern, the captain was trying to keep the pup from jumping in whilst simultaneously pull his friend back on the boat. The worry for his safety was dissolved by the slap of wet skin against the boat floor. The spell was broken and suddenly the mission came back into focus— pizza. We subtly tried to stand up without getting their attention shuffle off into the crowd, the show was over and all the gazers were back to their regularly scheduled evenings. As we began the walk along the main road we found ourselves in the path of a local who had stopped to see the spectacle from his vespa. He was maybe mid-30’s but looked much younger, his bronze tan was amplified by his off silver suit and reflective ray-bans—as he noticed our flabbergasted faces he jokingly frowned with a nonchalant raising of his eyebrows as if to say “Ah, such is”, before riding off into the golden horizon.
So that was Day 4…