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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Books Features |
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Amsterdam

As part of a six-week exchange course I did in Germany this summer (c.f. Salient Issue Two 2008), the DAAD arranged an excursion for us across the border to Amsterdam. It only planned for one day – go in the morning, walk around, see the Anne Frank house and come back – but a few of us (Nicky, Tessa, Lauren, Elizabeth, Richard, Thomas, Rowan, Alison and I, to be more precise) decided to stay the night there, to experience the ‘culture’, if you get my meaning. The bus left our hotel in Essen at around 8am and we got there at just past 11.

Arrivals and Toiletries
When you first arrive in a new country, a few major differences from the last place you hung about in immediately strike you in the face. Firstly, it was raining heavily, and had been ever since we arrived in the Netherlands. Secondly, the place was crawling with bicycles – thousands were parked to the rails alongside the canals, while people riding bicycles dominated the streets, some even with umbrellas. The third obvious difference was the language – Dutch is quite similar to German, and sounds quite peculiar to German speakers (and, to a lesser extent, English speakers). On a building I saw written ‘Open Dag’ (Open Day), and upon leaving the bus we were confronted with a sign that said ‘Urinoir’ (Urinal), accompanied by a picture of a man peeing and an arrow. Following the arrow I found the fourth peculiarity – the public urinals. In the street are little open booths with a wall on the inside for men to pee on – covered around the important bits naturally, but one is still able to carry on a conversation over the top.

Since Alison already knew a bit of Amsterdam she acted as our guide, happily leading us through the Red Light District, and gleefully explaining that if we took photos of the hookers we’d get beaten up. We found our way – past a sign on the street pointing to “A’dam West” – to Bob’s Youth Hostel. We paid for our accommodation and went to put our stuff in the room. We (the eight of us minus Alison) were sharing with eight British girls, there for the weekend to celebrate one of their birthdays.

At lunch time, we walked into town to grab a bite to eat. Down an alleyway we found a good restaurant/bar type place complete with pancakes on the menu. Meals in Amsterdam are generally quite expensive, but this place wasn’t too bad. And it had a cat. After lunch we wandered a bit more through the rain, saw a small windmill mounted above a shop, then settled into a bar for some nice cold Amstel beer. Beer can also be quite expensive in Amsterdam, especially compared to Germany, where it is cheaper than coke. Just about everyone in Amsterdam’s retail industry speaks English – they have to really – and are quite likely not from Amsterdam. The bar was decorated with posters and stuff in English too, one saying “We interrupt this marriage to bring you a football season”. Heading off to the loo I found yet another peculiarity, this one typical of Europe in general – the “shelf” toilet. These toilets have a shelf in the bowl above the water, which, well… yeah. It’s not always pretty.

Plodding Along Soggy Pavements
Pretty soon it was time to go to the Anne Frank house, and we wandered out into the drizzle. The Anne Frank house is naturally quite a popular attraction, and if you’re planning on visiting it sometime then be prepared to stand out in the rain By Michael Langdon 29 for a bit. The DAAD however had booked us in for the tour, so we didn’t have to wait that long. It was good being inside the house where it all happened back in the day, but I would have found it more interesting if I knew a bit more about it, having only seen the cheesy black and white film and not read the book. At the end of the tour is a nice café and a book store, containing copies of Anne’s diary in just about every language you’re likely to speak.

After that of course we went back into town. It was getting dark already and the streets colourfully lit up with all of the advertising. Our first stop was the popular tourist bar The Grasshopper, where you were required to buy a drink to stay, and let’s just say the drinks weren’t the cheapest thing on the menu… The atmosphere was good though and a few of us decided to stay, the rest going to a “café”, where we bought some space cake. Back outside I decided to buy dinner, and a nearby shop looked promising – hotdogs with various toppings, among other things. I bought a hotdog and a drink, but the owner’s English wasn’t the best. “Sixty-fifty! Sixty-fifty!” I was asked to pay, which thankfully only turned out to be 6.50€ (around NZ$13).

Back in the street Thomas (looking dodgy) was accosted by a bloke selling some hard stuff, and some English tourists made their presence known by forming a rugby scrum in the street. The stoners smoked in the cafés and the prostitutes posed in their windows. The atmosphere was energetic. Things in the street eventually quieted down however, and the smoke and cake (and tiredness for me) took its toll and we turned back to the hostel. We got back to our room and collapsed, and were surprised to find that it was only 7pm! 7pm on a Saturday night and town had just died! That couldn’t be right… Thomas theorised that everybody gets stoned early then just goes to bed. After a quick rest we went down to the reception for a beer and to ask where we might find a good bar or something. Nicky stayed behind, the space cake hadn’t gone down too well. The girl in reception gave us a map and showed us where the better part of town was, about 20 minutes walk away. I was still pretty tired, as I was only running on a few hours sleep, so decided to crash instead.

Intense Developments
You would think I took the boring option, but things in the room were actually quite interesting. Nicky was busy spray painting the inside of the rubbish bin, and the British girls were back, quite early too, from an interesting experience on mushrooms. They were also quite talkative about it: ‘It was such a great experience, but I would NEVER do it again’, ‘It felt like we were in that maze for ages, but it was only 7 minutes!’ and repeat. They had all had a freaky experience, but one of them started freaking out then and there, and her friend took her to the loo, where the following conversation took place.

“Just do your thing.”
“Do what?”
“Go to the toilet, like normal.”
“I don’t know how!”
“It’s easy!”
Who are you?”
“It’s me.” “…..”
“Your friend, Jenny.”
“Oh, Jenny Nichols?”
“Yes, exactly.”
“Where am I?”
“Bob’s Youth Hostel.”
(Noise in stairwell) “What was that?!”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t matter! Just use the loo!”

Eventually she calmed down though, and I tried to sleep over the girls’ chatter. The others came back later, at around 11pm. Town was still dead, so they had been to a sex show instead.

The Whole Tourist Thing
The next morning we were kicked out of the room at 10am by the cleaners – no sleeping in here! We went to reception for breakfast, as it was included in the price. It was only a few slices of bread, some jam and a hard boiled egg, but it was good nonetheless. We shared our table with a middle aged man with a bit of a speech impediment.

“Go see… Anne Frank… House.” “Yeah, we went yesterday.” “See… sex show… HeheheHEHEE!” At 11am we headed over to Dam Square, in the middle of the city. It is a large open square with nice old buildings surrounding it – the Royal Palace, the New Church (from the 15th C) and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Also in Dam Square is the National Monument, where we were headed. From there we took a free walking tour provided by Sandeman’s New Europe Tours, which starts there every day at 11.15am. The tour goes for 3 hours, and I didn’t think it would be any good – 3 hours walking around and listening to history, boring! But I was wrong.

Our tour guide was Kellie, a delightful young lady from Australia. She kept the tour going with her interesting explanation of Amsterdam’s history, her (most likely well rehearsed) jokes, and little facts (like that it rains 50% of the time there). We started with the National Monument, and a brief history of the city. One of the best bits was this – The Dutch never used to have surnames, all they needed was a picture above the entrance to their homes that showed what they did, right? But when Napoleon came in 1811 and the Netherlands fell under French occupation, the French decided that the Dutch needed proper surnames, and called them all to the town hall to register. The Dutch however, thinking it was only temporary, decided to make fun of the French, who couldn’t speak a word of Dutch, and register surnames such as “Poepjes” (Farts), “Naaktgeboren” (Born Naked) and “Zeldenthuis” (Seldom at Home). Names like this still exist today – think of the poor kids at school!

We went through the Red Light District and Kellie told us about the long history of prostitution in the city while leading us through the Red Light District. The city was a major port back in the day and got lots of business through horny sailors, and more recently tourists and the like. Only female prostitutes (and transvestites) are allowed – there was a male prostitute once but he attracted so much attention and cameras that he was made to stop. The oldest prostitute in the city is around 80. Does she get much business? Well, she has her established clientèle, and is apparently quite experienced. Just on the outskirts of the Red Light District was the Old Church, the name given to the oldest church in town (only a few years older than the New Church, funnily enough). The Dutch say things as they are. The Church’s closeness to the Red Light District may be questionable, but it is really to the their advantage. The Church was a convenient place for the guilty (but satisfied) sailors to repent, for a generous donation of course. Prostitutes get money, Church gets money, sailors are satisfied and don’t go to hell – everybody wins!

Around the corner Kellie was amused when the group started taking photos of a leaning house – another peculiarity of Amsterdam – but the houses effectively lean because of the way the taxes were calculated. Back in the day people were taxed by the width of their house (which also meant that you could tell somebody’s wealth by the width of their house: wider = richer, of course). This lead to the poor people needing smaller houses, and to maximise floor space, the steps were made steeper, at around 60° or more. But then how the hell were you supposed to get your lounge suite upstairs? The Dutch, crafty types, built a hook onto the top of each house, so things could be pulled up and through a window by rope. How to stop the load banging into the side of the house and smashing the windows? Build leaning houses, of course.

As we reached the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum, Kellie told us about the history of drugs in the Netherlands. Back when pot used to be illegal, there used to be a very big drug problem, both for the usage of pot and the hard stuff. The problem was so big that the police couldn’t cope with it all, so they decided to concentrate on the harder stuff and turn a blind eye to marijuana use. The police were successful and the use of the harder drugs went down, and as a side effect, after marijuana was decriminalised, its usage rate went down as well. I mean, if it’s not illegal, where’s the fun in it? And in fact, the Netherlands is currently one of the countries with the lowest marijuana usage-per-inhabitant rates in the world, the highest being… New Zealand! The difference being though the high number of stoned tourists you’d find in Amsterdam.

At this stage it was time for a lunch break, and Kellie took us along a canal to a nice buffet type place. It was amazing! The food! There was such a wide selection, from sandwiches to soup, fish and chips to stir fry, fruit smoothies to hot chocolate… It was a bit expensive, but not as expensive as most of the places you’d come across in Amsterdam. I chose some pea and ham soup, just like my mother used to make. It was hard to believe that two hours had already gone by. At the lunch table Rowan peeled his banana and stared at it for a while, deciding if he could still eat it after what he saw last night. The sex show had been graphic, naturally, and Thomas had observed that although everything came off, for some reason (safety?) they kept their shoes and socks on during the performance.

Back on the tour, Kellie took us down an interesting alleyway. In the corners of the alleyway were “urine shields” – angled plates 31 of metal that, should a drunken man decide to relieve himself there, would deflect the urine back onto him. Each uniquely designed shield, and the open “Urinoirs”, were the city’s defensive measures against being used as one large public toilet by the masses of drunken tourists, and it was clearly effective – none of us wanted to try one out. Another form of peeing into the wind, if you like.

Shortly after the tour came to an end, across the road/canal from the Anne Frank House. Kellie wrapped things up with a few jokes and told us what a great group we were, naturally. Since she didn’t get paid by the company, providing free tours and all, she asked for some tips if we’d enjoyed ourselves – and we had. Kellie really knew her stuff, was funny, answered every obscure question we could come up with, and made 3 hours walking around the city on a shitty day really fun. We tipped accordingly.

We decided to finish our time in Amsterdam with a boat tour of the canals. Sitting in a covered boat was a nice change. As we toured the canals a recording was played on the speakers that narrated bits in Dutch, French, German and English. We had fun listening to the similarities between Dutch and German, and sometimes we could understand the Dutch quite well. Another thing worth mentioning is our long-haired captain, whose boat driving skills are comparable to Michael Schumacher. He maneuvered the long boat through the narrow canal openings like a bastard, but he actually managed to get us stuck at one point, before announcing that the tour was over.

Leaving, we managed to get lost one last time on the way to the train station, as we seemed to recognise most parts of the city but just not where everything was in relation to everything else. Just outside the train station we found a parking structure, which on closer inspection was filled with bicycles… thousands and thousands of bicycles. It was like the city was giving us one last cultural “what the hell?!” as a farewell. Tired, we regretfully boarded our train. The trip back was long, but to be completely honest I don’t remember a thing about it.

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About the Author ()

Mikey learned everything he knows about English Grammar in an MSN chat room when he was 13. Believing that people don't say "LOL" enough in everyday conversation, he has made it his mission to teach the world about grammerz one person at a time.

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