Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Scenes from an Amsterdam Coffee Shop

Amsterdam. The city of water. The ultimate contradiction combining regimented canals and identical streets with it's blase attitude and penchant for weed.

A photo posted by Vicki Maitland (@vickimaitland) on

It's hard to believe that it's been over a month since I visited this beautiful city. It feels like no time at all and all the time in the world has passed, which, coincidentally, is how the city feels. Amsterdam manages to hustle and bustle in the most relaxed way of any major city. There is always movement but it's at a pace which doesn't disorient. I think that's partly to do with the amount of bicycle traffic - things feel busier than a pedesterianised city yet not as hectic as a capital where cars pump poison into the air. The ring of a bicycle or tram bell is less imposing than the blare of a car horn or the clamour of tube trains which rumble beneath the pavement. If you get the chance, I recommend renting a bike and cycling around the city for a day. It allows you to experience life as the Dutch do - with ultimate right of way over the roads - and Amsterdam is small enough that you can cross it numerous times in one trip. On our bicycle adventure we cycled out beside the Olympic rowing lake and through a small forest to get to an amazing pancake house (a bonus of visiting the city with a boy who grew up there).

If you do know a local I'd really recommend visiting the city with them. The fact that Kyle knew his way around the center really helped us not to get lost in the maze of canals. They really all do look the same, although by the end of the week I like to think I could indentify the Keizersgracht from the Prinsengracht. 'Like to think' being the operative phrase in that sentence.

You won't be short of things to do and see in Amsterdam. If you have an afternoon to spare, I'd really recommend visiting the Rijksmuseum. It boasts a massive collection of art from the 1600's to the present day, and is well worth spending your time over. I found the pre-renaissance art especially hilarious - in particular these chaps who are all sat on each other and look confused at your judgement of them, or this guy who looks an awful lot like Rowan Atkinson.

I'd also strongly suggest spending some time in the Anne Frank House - although be warned about the queues. Me and Rosie stood in the line for two and a half hours to get into the house, but it was worth the wait. Obviously I don't have any photos from inside the house, but I was struck by how bare it was. At the request of Otto Frank (Anne's Father) the rooms have been emptied of all furniture. I have conflicting opinions of this, as it simultaneously made the house feel very clinical and very large. With furniture I think the rooms would have felt a lot more cramped, yet it would also have felt homely. I was most struck by the pictures Anne had taped to the walls. It reminded me of how very young she was - just a teenage girl sticking pictures to her wall, writing in her diary about her life. Anne was remarkable but also completely unremarkable, which is what is so sad about her. Her name could be replaced by countless others and the story would still be filled with sorrow. Yet, I am glad that we celebrate the life of this young girl, and her spirit against adversity.

Here, I am going to take a moment to remember Anne, and the millions of others who died at the hands of the Nazi's.

Picture obtained from www.annefrank.org

Yet, if Amsterdam is a city bound by its history, it is also a city bound by the present - and one glance down the Red Light District is enough to show that. It's a peculiar place and not at all what I was expecting. The girls in the window (although as scantily clad as I had expected) looked... bored. Most of them were on their phones, or painting their nails. They looked like shop girls stuck on the till during a particularly dull evening shift. It made me feel really uncomfortable, but at the same time it stopped me from dehumanising them. Sex workers are very easy to disregard - and are often done so in the media. Sex is a business in Amsterdam, and it is treated like a transaction. Thinking of it in such clinical terms is odd for me, but somehow makes perfect sense in this city. The girls look like their on a boring shop shift because they are, and whether or not they enjoy their line of work is neither here nor there. Personally, the fact that the female body (and it is the female body) is being sold more male pleasure (and it is male pleasure) makes me very uncomfortable. At the same time, walking around those streets, I found it hard to criticise.

You also cannot escape weed in this city. The smell of it drifts by down the canal and through the park. Clouds of sweet smoke escape from coffee shops. It is as integral to the city as it's waterways are. I really admired Amsterdam's attitude to drugs. There is etiquette about where to smoke (not in shops, not around children) even more so than Britain's attitude to cigarettes. Even if you don't want to participate, I'd recommend sitting outside a coffee shop with a glass of fresh mint tea and enjoying the atmosphere.

A photo posted by Vicki Maitland (@vickimaitland) on
I stayed at Hostel Orfeo, in between Museumplein and the city center. It was as you'd expect from a hostle - ie simple breakfast, simple rooms, simple beds, simple shower. It was comfortable enough, though, and the staff were all very helpful (some slightly too helpful - I fully realised I was bad at drafts and didn't need to be explained how to play, thank you!). I couldn't fault it's location.

In short I had a thoroughly good time in Amsterdam, and it is one of the few major foreign cities I could imagine myself living in (partly because the Dutch speak such good English). I'd love to go back some day, and pick up some of the delicious cheese!

A photo posted by Vicki Maitland (@vickimaitland) on

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