After five days in Bruges , we drive to Amsterdam. It is a major culture shock.
The streets and squares, canals and bridges, are filthy, covered in litter and the detritus discarded by the hordes of what my mother would describe as “the great unwashed”. A back pack and a joint are all that most tourists here require. A room and a shower are luxuries. You only have to breathe in the air to get high. If you ever want to feel old and out of touch, this is the place for you.
But the city is beautiful. Built on a network of canals that looks like a spiderweb when seen on a map, the streets and canals are lined with tall narrow houses with the typical dutch shaped roofs. Many date back to the “golden age” of the 17th century when Amsterdam was one of the most powerful and richest cities in the world.
The canals are a necessity, because of the low lying land. Holland is constantly struggling to reclaim the land from the ever encroaching sea. This makes building in Amsterdam problematical. The architects of the 17th century hadn’t completely understood the need for bedrock and the soft damp soil on which they built has proved a hazard for the old buildings. Many of them lean alarmingly. They are saved by the fact that each building is built directly next to it’s neighbor, allowing them to support each other in their years of need:
But housing can also be found on the water. In the old days living on a houseboat was a sign of poverty. But in the 1940’s an enterprising gentlemen realised that an old barge could be converted into a charming, if small, home and by removing the engine more living space could be added. What he didn’t realise is that houseboats require even more upkeep than a regular home. His home, once a showpiece, now looks like this:
He had rightly assumed that if he moored his home on a canal there would be no taxes to pay. A brilliant idea that fell foul of it’s own success. Houseboat after houseboat quickly followed, as did the taxman. Now houseboats line the sides of most canals, all dutifully adding to the tax base:
The streets of Amsterdam are narrow and hardly suitable for cars. Many of them have been made pedestrian only. But in this case pedestrian seems to include bicycles. Everyone has a bicycle. The streets and lanes are full of them. It is said there are more bicycles than people, and if you doubt that, just take a look at the parking lot outside the railway station:
There are so many bicycles that parking one can be a problem. But with a little ingenuity you can always find a spot
The locals understand the dynamics of a bicycle. They know how to weave in and out of pedestrians, they know there are bicycle lanes on the the larger streets and they stay in them, and they know that unlike cars, no one hears them coming. And in a lesson that could be learned in the rest of the world, they stop at traffic lights. They navigate their way quickly and easily without any problems. The tourists on the other hand rent bikes to feel like a local but have no idea how to ride like one. They ignore traffic lights, bicycle lanes and pedestrians, making everyone else’s life miserable if not dangerous.
And then there is Marijuana. Lots of marijuana. Clouds of marijuana.. People smoke openly in the streets, hanging out in groups, swaying rhythmically to the sound of the music in their heads (earphones not required), eyelids drooping, mouths set in a constant smile of contentment. It seems like a perfectly agreeable way to spend the day, providing you don’t want to do anything.
The first cafe selling marijuana to it’s customers opened in 1973. People flocked in and stumbled out. Those that kept a clear head immediately saw dollar signs and when they realised it was not a hallucination they went into the business.
Now it seems that every block has at least one marijuana cafe, where beer and coffee are served along with a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of weed cooked in cakes and cookies or served straight up in a joint. The cafes are instantly recognisable by the powerful smell that greets you from the street, by the décor, which is usually psychedelic outside and shabby but not chic inside, and by the line of shabby but not chic young customers lined up outside, all showing their false IDs in the desperate hope that they may be let in.
The Bulldog was the first marijuana cafe and is still going strong!
In what must be the final irony, smoking is not permitted in cafes and restaurants. So the marijuana cafes display signs saying “absolutely no tobacco to be smoked in this cafe”
Bicycles and Marijuana : that’s what Amsterdam is all about. And unfortunately the two don’t mix. Every day there are small dredgers going up and down the canals. They have a large claw on a winch, like a giant amusement arcade game where you try and grab a prize with the claw. But in this instance the claw is looking for sunken bicycles.
They pull up an alarming 4,000 cycles a week. There is no barrier between the roads lining the canals and the canal itself, not even a curb. A serious oversight when you consider that most cyclists and pedestrians are under the influence. And sadly the bicycles are not the only thing that has to be dragged out of the canals. One body every week is the average. Once in the canal it is extremely difficult to get out. The canal builders blissfully unaware of what the 21st century would have to offer it’s inhabitants, saw no necessity for creating a way out of the canal. There are no steps anywhere. A fact that few people realise until it is too late.
Fortunately we were made aware of this fact early on and manage to stay away from the weed and the edge of the canal for our entire stay.