My one day visit to Amsterdam in October 2007 can best be summed up by cannabis leaves, the Red Light District, water, and bicycles. Of course, Amsterdam is a major capital city with museums, lively districts, parks, monuments, embassies, and shopping areas as well, and also seemed to be a bit of a left leaning artistic city with plenty of images of Che Guevara and rainbows. But it seemed like I kept seeing images of cannabis leaves all over the place, even on underwear for sale in tourist shops. And there was that underlying sort of bitter but soothing smell of burning joints near bars or outside areas where people stood around smoking something. Cannabis can be bought at a “coffee shop”, which is not exactly a Starbucks or a Tully’s where you can find virtually any kind of coffee drink imaginable, but more of a place where you can find about anything aside from coffee within their dark and smoky interiors, specifically cannabis. I did not actually visit one of these, but I walked by several with their catchy names, smoky interiors, and prominently displayed pipes that resembled the hookah that the caterpillar smoked in Alice in Wonderland.
Amsterdam of course is known for its Red Light District and the tiny glowing pink “apartments” with large windows that show a prostitute who is looking for business. During the daytime, the Red Light District is typical of a large city, with offices and businesses next door to bars, sex shops, and coffee shops, with a sort of rough graffitied look about it. But at night, the entire area glows with warm lights from the streets and the shops flickering on the nearby canal. Throngs of people mingle along the streets, enjoying the atmosphere or perhaps indulging in vices that are illegal in other places. Aside from the prostitution and coffee shops, it was actually like lively parts of other large cities, like Paris’s Latin Quarter, London’s West End, or New York’s Greenwich Village.
Amsterdam is surrounded by water, which was made clear when I first arrived at the Centraal Station. Exiting the station to the west led to a broad waterway next to the harbor, with ferries and excursion boats passing back and forth, while exiting to the east led to the network of canals, with places to board the numerous excursion boats for a tour. The network of canals were built in the massive expansion of early modern Amsterdam in the seventeenth century and resemble streets that pass by stately residences and businesses. A typical canal is lined by small boats tethered to the shore and the numerous houseboats that are a partial solution to the city’s perpetual housing crunch. Both sides of the canal are lined by streets with cars and numerous bicycles chained to the guard rails. The canals were originally used for cargo, which three centuries ago would have passed through Amsterdam’s large port from all parts of the world, but today the canals are used more by privately owned boats and excursion vessels that force their way around the sharp corners.
Amsterdam is a major center for bicycling. Sometimes there seems to be more bicycles on the street than cars, and many of the streets, even in the city center, have lanes designated just for bicycles. The sides of the streets and every available post have bicycles locked to them. The typical style of bike is not a lightweight Cannondale or Trek, but rather one with only one or three gears and a woman’s frame from the 1950’s. And people just wear most any type of clothes while riding – none of the lightweight helmets or the spandex shorts or colorful jerseys that are the proper attire for the “serious” cyclist. And often two people ride the bike, with one person peddling and another balanced on the back frame. Regardless of the time of year, you constantly hear the dinging of bells as cyclists try to get pedestrians out of their way. Bicycle theft is also a problem, to the point that the police allegedly tell the victim of such a theft to just steal someone else’s bike. Vandalism is also a problem, which sometimes just amounts to throwing the bikes into one of the canals, to be eternally visible as a scum covered frame with a basket.