I was going to wait to flesh this out a bit more, but I figure a) I'll wing it for the opportunity to post something when it's the Sunday before July 4th and a solid chunk of people are stuck at home with their dysfunctional families, sneaking cigarettes at the end of the driveway and looking for something to read on their smart phones, and b) I have flipped 100% percent on the issue of self-promotion, and will unpack every statistical trick I've learned in six years of internet work to get people reading this.1
I am never going to Amsterdam again. I've been twice, possibly three times depending on whether we hit it when I was thirteen and with my parents. If you've never been and you smoke pot, I appreciate your envy,2 but that won't stop me from spitting on your unfulfilled fantasies with the following spoilers.
Trip 1, 1999
I hadn't seen my girlfriend in about ten weeks, as she was at college overseas. Things were not going well. She had found emotional solace in another dude. I accepted this, because I hadn't yet realized where finding emotional solace leads for depressed girls, even though I'd been the beneficiary up until then. I actually told the guy, in these exact words, "Hey man, there's no problem between you and me, don't worry about it." Had I known this had already turned into physical solace, and he and my girlfriend already had rude nicknames for me, I would have understood why I should never have come and why I should have beaten his fat face in with a chair on the spot.4 Whatever. My relationship was over, but I was digging my passive-aggressive claws into any available purchase, like you do when you're a terminally depressed teenager with no game who somehow managed to bag a hottie. She invited me on an art trip that spent a few days in Amsterdam.
The teacher leading this art trip decided to book a hotel smack in the middle of the Red Light District. At almost 19, I couldn't decide whether I was excited or appalled. Her explanation was, "You should be open to new things." She said it so calmly and knowledgeably, as people stumbled out of shroom bars behind her, many of my American sensibilities vanished forever on the spot.
I found the red light booth by accident. Briefly, my girlfriend was being a huge bitch, and also wouldn't sleep with me. I can tolerate only one of these things at any given time, and it was particularly bad because I hadn't had sex in the ten weeks prior, and had no idea I was going to show up to a girl who was "not into sex right now. I don't know why," and who was going to tell me I could never understand her and yell at me about things. I took a walk by myself.
Since I was a college dropout working at Friendly's, I only had fifty-five bucks' worth of whatever currency the Dutch were using back then, and this was my girlfriend's money. I had blown my money on a particularly nice pipe for smoking weed, which had 19 parts so you could change the length or turn it into a one-hitter. It was fabulous. I lost all 19 pieces one by one at various points while living in Bar Harbor, but that's another story. I could probably have bought some hash and been able to explain that when I got back to the hotel, but I settled for a lonely beer in a strip bar. Five bucks. I decided I was being pathetic and walked around exploring the city. Turns out Amsterdam isn't especially big, and it's mostly shopping or bars completely overrun with slightly-less-pathetic-than-me tourists.5
The other thing that was all over Amsterdam at the time was a thick population of drug dealers who could smell American college student at two miles on a windy day. Once I unknowingly neared the meat of red light area, I was accosted every five steps by somebody hocking "Weed, hash, coke, shrooms, what you want man, I got it, I got it." The competition was fierce, and half of them followed me for thirty feet before they targeted somebody else. At one point I ducked down an alley just to get away from the latest one, and that put me in the first Red Light district alley.
I was impressed. Rows of red lit windows in front of gorgeous women dancing in neon underwear and haggling and flirting with a wall to wall mob of drunk men spilling their beer over each other.
I considered my options. Of course, in order to consider my options, I had to know what they all cost. I got close to a window and shouted over the din:
"Fifty bucks for a suck or a fuck."
No shit. I said thanks and wandered away. Only fifty bucks6 for a hot girl who will both have sex with me and not scream at me? On the other hand, though I had the money, it was my girlfriend's money, and I was still trying to salvage that wreck, and spending her money on a hooker didn't seem like a good step in that effort.
Let me be clear, the moral issue for me was not in paying for sex, it was in using my girlfriend's money to cheat on her. Also, had I at that moment somehow discovered what the situation actually was, and that my girlfriend was cheating on me in the kitchen of her dorm while I slept two doors away, I would have dropped the fifty bucks, moved my flight up, left a note reading "Spent your money on hookers and beer, thanks babe!" and been in Boston by the time she woke up.7
Since I didn't know any of that, I just tried to find a quiet, less libido-confusing place. I walked deeper into the alley to avoid facing the drug dealers on the main drag. I walked past a couple of very depressed looking girls, fully clothed, in one of the booths, with the curtains open, just talking. It looked like two waitresses out for a smoke break. In a way, that's probably about what it was.
Then I turned a corner into a wide street that was completely empty. I blinked. There were still booths here, with women in them, but absolutely no men. I was the only person in the street.
Suddenly, the women in booths saw me, and they all rushed to the windows and started tapping on them. I was scared shitless. Then it dawned on me: the crowded street was full of booths with hot, young, white or asian girls. This was where the old and black hookers were.
The pure profit driven racism or the situation made me feel as disgusted as I've ever felt with anything besides myself. It took about ten, horrible minutes to find my way out, hearing tapping all the way, and I once I escaped, I went directly back to my girlfriend who hated me. Even that was better.
"Fuck this place," I thought, and swore never to come back.
Trip 2, 2008
Since I don't believe breaking oaths will send me to Hell, I went back nine years later. This trip was ostensibly much better. Again, my girlfriend was getting bored of me, but we were older so she hid it better, and had the decency to treat me well and not try to fuck flaccid englishmen next door while I was sleeping. Again, no sex, but she was on her period, so that seemed like a solid excuse. This time we actually explored the art and history, and it was pretty cool. I learned that in the 18th century, the dutch were all really short and slept in closets. We stayed in a gorgeous little attic room in a bed and breakfast, and the owner would make us cheese and fruit and yogurt breakfasts. It may have been the healthiest point in my life since I started smoking.
So I was adult and employed and having a fairly good time. Maybe Amsterdam wasn't so bad. In 1999, not smoking pot and banging a hooker was a failure, now I just had no interest. The shops were okay. It wasn't too completely packed with obnoxious tourists, though there was a strong representative population.
Here's the thing: Amsterdam when you're an adult just isn't an especially glamorous city. I found myself wishing I still wanted hookers and drugs.8 It's still small. You can cover the good museums pretty quickly. I'm definitely jaded from living in New York, but the restaurants weren't that good and they were overpriced, and the staff was all rude. If we were both Americans, I could have understood this, but my girlfriend was european and spoke six languages, so as long as I kept my mouth shut, there was no way to tell we weren't natives. And not just rude, but bad at their jobs.
So I tried to make the best of it, but after the third meal of crappy food with unpleasant and incompetent service, we started wondering if we couldn't just cook for ourselves. Also, doing anything near the red light district is similar to getting around Union Square in the summer, except everybody's drunker. I had a better time in the town where my girlfriend was interning, even though she was working eight hours a day and I spent most of drinking coffee and reading or going for walks.
Also, on the way back, I ran out of money and things to read while on an overnight layover in Switzerland, and had to spend the night looking for a comfortable bench in the airport, and spent most of it just staring at the ceiling waiting for a shop to open so I could spend my last ten euro on a book and a croissant.
"Fuck this place," I thought, again. I wasn't blaming Amsterdam just then, but when you're in a shitty mood, you tend to mull over all the other things in your life that have put you in shitty moods so you can muster up a really nasty shitty mood and maybe find an excuse to punch someone, so I reviewed all the lousy service and annoying lines at mediocre museums and managed to get a "fuck that place," out for Amsterdam.
Yes, I was in a failing relationship both times I went, which colored my opinion of the place, but the facts remain. Amsterdam is:
2) Boring, unless you're doing drugs.
4) Crowded with drunk tourists.
5a) Full of bad food.
5b) Served by rude people.
This time, I'm really never going back.
1 I recently had this conversation with a friend at the bar:
Me: Yeah, I generally block people on Facebook if they repeatedly post links trying to get attention for whatever it is they're doing.
Tim: Wow. Just wow. How's it feel out there on hypocrite island?
Me: Water's warm, women are pretty, and you're never accountable for your actions.
Tim: I respect that.
Just thought you should know.
2 In fact, I relish it.
3 Do I talk about girlfriends a lot? Fuck yes I do. See note 2.
4 Actually, they almost found physical solace. He was a cokehead and couldn't get it up. This is one of my all time favorite factoids.
5 Oh, and a bunch of historical stuff. And I guess art stuff, since that's why we were there. I didn't care until 2008.
6 This is actually not as great a deal as it sounds. I was informed by a friend who actually did procure Amsterdam bargain tail that fifty bucks gets you a stiff, bored body for twenty minutes, and you can't even touch them with your hands without coughing up another fifty.
7 Actually, I probably would have just cried and moped like a bitch. But if modern me was sent back in time, that's what it would do.
8 Actually, I do still want drugs, I just can't do them.