Amsterdam is the weird capital of the world.
If you know anything about Amsterdam, you’re probably pretty surprised I went there. Allison Pohle in a city where weed and prostitution are legal? Really? Yes. It happened. No, not any of those things, but me going to what I’m sure is the craziest city on the planet.
I had always wanted to go to Holland since I rode the “It’s a small world” ride at Disney. The Dutch dolls are the ones I remember the most. Apart from their painted-on, toothy grins, I remember a scene with lots of windmills and tulips and people in wooden shoes clogging around green hills. The whole set-up looked cheery and happy. Now maybe that isn’t the best reason to go, but our interest in traveling has to start somewhere, right?
I haven’t experienced much spring in London, which made my desire to go to Holland more intense. Even though I’m from Cleveland and am used to terrible weather, London’s dreariness has been getting me down. So tulips and sunshine? Yes, please.
As you know, the easiest way for a student to travel is by staying in hostels in big cities. Amsterdam is the most accessible city in Holland and it looked beautiful in pictures.
I knew it would be nuts, I just wasn’t prepared for how nutty it would be.
The first sign: our flight, which was about 80% male and 90% under the age of 30. It was also 70% full of intoxicated men drinking Heinekens. Might I add that we took off at 9:30 a.m.
When we got off the train in the city centre, I was hit with the unmistakable smell of weed. The stench never really went away for most of the trip. And neither did the joint sightings. I saw a 14-year-old with braces and frizzy red hair choking on a joint as she sat at a bus stop. I also saw a grandma and her teenaged grandson smoking joints together. Talk about bonding!
My friend Shelby and I were then charged with the task of getting to our hostel with no tram map. The metro system in Amsterdam is almost completely above ground and looks like the trams that go around the edges of Disneyworld (maybe my subconscious is channeling the Disneyworld Holland too much). Except instead of pictures of Mickey and Minnie, it’s all in Dutch. Somehow we managed to make it, but the Dutch tram system isn’t easy! There aren’t as many maps on the trains as there are on the tube, so I’m spoiled in London.
Our first stop was the Van Gogh museum. The earless artist lived in Amsterdam for much of his life.
I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for museums that are well-organized, and the Van Gogh museum was no exception. His paintings were arranged both chronologically and according to theme, some of which included his experimentation with Impressionism, Pointillism and Oriental Art. His favorite subjects were peasants. He went to live in peasant villages to paint them, and described their cottages as “little human nests,” which is a description I love.
If there’s anything the museum taught me, it’s that it’s never too late to try something new. Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27. I only wish he was able to apply the “never too late” philosophy to his own life. He only painted for 10 years.
Shelby and I decided to go look for dinner after the museum and didn’t have much luck. We walked down endless canals, side streets and main stretches, which were very beautiful and reminded me a lot of Venice.
We finally found a restaurant and walked inside. As soon as we stepped in, I noticed that we didn’t quite fit in. The entire restaurant was full of Malaysian people who were having a private event. They seemed very surprised to see us, but in our defense, there was no sign on the door. We had to awkwardly squeeze between their chairs to get out as they stared at us.
In what was a change of pace, I feel like I did most of the wide-eyed staring throughout the trip. As we were walking and searching for dinner, I noticed a red lightbulb in a street lamp. “Oh” I said to myself. “The red light district.” I knew from friends who had visited Amsterdam that this was the area where prostitutes went to work. Then, as if on cue, I looked in a window and saw a 250-pound woman in a thong.
Walking into the red light district intentionally is one thing, but stumbling into it unexpectedly is quite another. We were shocked, to say the least, and the sightings only got worse and more graphic. As we know, in the US, prostitution is very hush hush and shameful, but here men walked right up to women on the street and seemed cocky, if anything (sorry, I can’t help my puns). It made me sad to see these women turning to prostitution to make all of their money. Especially if you look at Amsterdam as an artsy city full of opportunities for artists and dancers.
The red light district is also full of “coffee shops” which are a pseudonym for places that sell weed. Most of them are called “coffeshop” on the street signs, so I’m not sure how they keep them straight! But between the enormous number of coffee and sex shops I had seen, I was very discouraged with Amsterdam. It was nothing like the Holland I was imagining, and worse, it seemed to be the eternal bachelor party, where endless gaggles of men who were stoned out of their minds trounced around in costumes and approached naked women. (Yes, I should’ve known better and I realize that).
Luckily, when we were on the tram, I saw a sign for Keukenhof Gardens. This place is the most photographed location in the world, and is what I think of as “tulip heaven.” I knew it wasn’t in Amsterdam and would be a side trip away, but I also knew that if I didn’t see the tulips my Holland trip wouldn’t really seem worth it.
So off we went. And thank goodness we did. Although they weren’t completely in bloom, the tulip fields were vibrant and gorgeous. We walked down endless paths of flowers in the sunny weather. Finally, I felt like I was having spring in Europe. The tulips were also unlike anything I’d seen in Europe so far. They looked even better than the ones on the small world ride, too.
That afternoon we took a tour of the Heineken brewery. Our tour once again reinforced that Amsterdam caters to people living the “high life.” There were areas in the Heineken “experience” where you could lay down and watch TV screens. It was a lot like the Guinness tour I took in Dublin except this time there was a 4D ride where you got to pretend to be beer getting bottled. We got splashed with water and tousled around. It was pretty fun! We also got free samples, so who can argue with that?
Shelby and I took a cocktail cruise on Amsterdam’s famous canals that night. We were the only pair on board who wasn’t a couple. Oops. We had fun though, and Amsterdam proved that it could be very pretty at night, which made me warm up to it a little more.
The most memorable part of my trip by far was my visit to the Anne Frank museum, which deserves its own post. The museum was the best thing I did in Amsterdam, so the upcoming post is worth it!
We finished off the trip by taking a quick look into the diamond museum and taking pictures by the “I Amsterdam” letters. This proved to be quite the struggle because most people decided to have 10 minute photo shoots on the letters, and because a baby straddled me just as Shelby was going to take my picture (see below):
In every other city I’ve been to, I’ve thought, “I would love to come back some day.” I don’t feel that way about Amsterdam. It’s too cooky, too out there and, actually, too free.
Amsterdam did however give me the Anne Frank museum, which was worth the trip in itself. It gave me a greater appreciation for my ability to write freely, and it gave me a taste of springtime (no, not the leafy kind, thank you very much).
Until next time,
Allison, who is now finally having springtime in London