Hamsterland

The girl bulldozed onto the train, shouting “I can’t believe it, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, IT’S ME FIRST TIME ABROAD!”

She had long black hair, heavy mascara, and the obligatory piercings. “I CAN’T BELIIEEVE IT!” she shouted again in a broad Welsh accent, turning heads at the far end of the compartment.

The Dutch are a notoriously relaxed bunch—they didn’t even flinch as her boyfriend tanked down the aisle, the automatic door sliding shut behind him.

The girl looked around, making sure she’d captured everyone’s attention, and then pulled furiously on the handle. “Howdya open the FUCKIN’ DOOR?” She shouted.

Someone smiled at the Welsh halfwit and turned the handle—the door silently slid open.

“Oh, THANKS, BABE!” she gushed, and began shouting for her boyfriend. I sighed and leaned back against the bulkhead, immediately activating the fire bell as the button connected with my skull; the Dutchmen didn’t give a shit about that either—the alarm was considerably quieter than the girl.

I first set foot in Amsterdam in 1980, and I’ve returned on multiple occasions. The attraction remains unblemished—each trip offers up a new set of Brits, mad as a basket of fish, hell-bent on enjoying the wild and wonderful city.

The Netherlands remains the only European country where pot is completely legal, though in many countries the authorities have decriminalized possession, realizing it’s pointless to turn spirited youngsters into hardened criminals.

But marijuana is certainly not the only business model in Amsterdam—dope joins hands with sex, alcohol, and a stream of derived services: tattoo parlors, cannabis ice cream shops, and often a hybrid model where souvenirs range from herb-themed fridge magnets to large ornamental red dildos, triple X emblazoned along the shaft—these creatures are made of china, and look eminently breakable: please don’t try this at home.

The coffee shops are informal, relaxed affairs, with an extended product list detailing name, origin, price, and consequences of the mind-altering substances on offer. The customer look varies from jolly to confused, and I presume on occasion a misguided stranger actually ducks in for coffee. For reasons I don’t fully understand, patrons can no longer light up within the store, but are instead forced out into the street or into bars where smoking is permitted.

Window Dressing in Kanaalstraat

Window dressing in Kanaalstraat. The drill bit is already suffering from a mild case of brewer’s droop.

The coffee shops offer a languid, back-lit ambiance, but the bars are plagued by insufferable decibel levels and an interesting combination of alcohol and dope—often not the best of mates. Youth, tattoos, and the usual quota of space cadets are in evidence.

I sipped a glass of tinto fino and suffered the recitations of a British exile who fancied his chances as a street poet, along the lines of his fellow Mancunian John Cooper Clarke. He’d left Manchester eight years before, found his way to Greece and Thailand, and eventually gravitated to Amsterdam, which seems to exert an inexorable gravitational pull on the misfits of the planet.

As he gulped his pint and dragged deeply on his joint, he explained he had a date, but the waitress behind the counter was so attractive he couldn’t bear to pull himself away.

So I did.

Argentinian steak houses hold a bizarre domination over Amsterdam’s culinary landscape—you don’t go to the Netherlands to sample Dutch food. An American told me he was from Iowa, and refused to believe I knew where it was. “Ok, name one state, just one, next to Iowa.” I got Indiana wrong on my first go, but they had to think about it, and then hit the jackpot with Nebraska.

Some years ago in the Caribbean the reverse happened: I told an American about Portugal and asked if he knew where it was. “Sure I do, it’s right next to Israel!” Thankfully not, given the present state of the Mid-East.

Dam Square was in the grip of particular insanity, with a gigantic Ferris Wheel, a rotating beam with flip-cabins at each end, and an elevator tower—given the THC content of the consumables on offer, I imagine some of the merrymakers were in for a thoroughly bad trip.

Two minutes down from the Krasnapolsky you enter an entirely different world, where girls smile at men through plate glass windows. The attire is more conservative than a few decades back—only rarely is a boob in evidence. Of course the visitors to the zoo are mainly men, a good number reinforced by the aptly-named Dutch courage, but middle-aged couples promenade hand in hand down Kanaalstraat, as if in a digital-age stroll through the Bois de Boulogne.

The ladies fire censoring looks at the sex workers, while the men studiously look away. Fashions have changed, or is that window (un)dressing? The girls displayed their wares in a bikini, but many sported large plastic spectacles, in studious shades of black or brown—maybe there’s a general fetish for math teachers, or perhaps the trade is now sponsored by Eyemart.

My theory? The girls are really a collection of brainy-hotties, escaped from the innards of Dan Brown books. They’re on the run from the sexless Doctor Robert Langdon, a breathless hero who solves mysteries without ever eating, sleeping, or bonking.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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