It was approaching 11pm. I walked down Warmoesstraat, the main street through the red light district, assaulted by lights, logos and liberalism. This was my third encounter with the city since visiting twice as an eager eighteen year old. I had imagined that maturity might have tamed this vision of madness that once again confronted me.
My head swivelled from side to side and an imperceptible current towed me down the street, through this alternate reality. My eyeballs tingled with an explosion of colour and creativity: words and images jumped out from every direction; “Freeland Coffeeshop, Route 66, Chickitas Sex Paradys, leather rubber twisted gear.”
We dribbled down the road, my three best friendsleading Iain and I. They had arrived a few days before us, and had enough time to acclimatise to the surge of stimuli that now attacked me. I followed them, feverish, head performing the involuntary left-right action, hand dipping into my pocket every second minute to check that my wallet was still there. “Grolsch, Magic Mushrooms, Paella,” the words came at me from every angle: on four foot beer bottles, in flashing neon, from a giant plastic dog perched on the roof of a bar called Hunter’s.
We continued past shop windows with luminous sex toys dangling from strings, through wafts of marijuana smoke that floated from the coffee shops, until we reached Amsterdam’s infamous window girls. The city’s legal, income tax paying prostitutes often operate behind the security of a large window through which they are free to display their wares. Blondes, brunettes, blacks, whites, Europeans, Asians, size 30’s and 40’s were all lined up to make a (quick) buck. Fifteen meagre minutes costs €50.
A few smiled seductively at Iain, but most slumped on their stools upon sight of us: a largely female group of gawkers. Almost any indulgence we could (and couldn’t) imagine had been on offer that night on our wild window shopping walk.
Earlier that evening, Iain and I had scoured Amsterdam train station for Emma, Lindy and Kerrie, my three best friends from junior school. I spotted Emma first. She was ahead of the others, waving eagerly. A camera flashed in my eyes as I turned and saw Lindy, ever keen to capture the moment. Kerrie was laughing, her head tilted back, hands in the pouch of her grey hooded sweatshirt.
Half an hour later, we were lounging on Emma’s dad Luke’s furniture in his large, cosy houseboat on a canal near Centraal Station. Emma stood chatting across from us in the kitchen, half drowned out by the growl of an electric blender, making Bacardi cocktails. Hip hop tunes competed with the blender. Our voices competed with both. It was two years since the four of us had been together and there was lost time to make up for.
A bottle of Bacardi later, we said goodbye to Luke and headed for a club in the heart of Leidse-Plein, which they had discovered earlier that week.
The venue was small and packed with a cosmopolitan crowd. We weaved our way to the Amstel badge glowing in the corner. The dance floor spilled out all around us, ramming us up against the bar counter. I wormed my way through the crowd and colonised a few square centimetres near the edge. The familiar hip hop alternated with raga rhythms that slowed my dancing body to a dawdled shuffle, neck loose, eyes on my friends’ glowing faces.
A high pitched sequence of notes sounded on the speakers, the tune unmistakably Asian in origin. From the depths of the dance floor an Indian man appeared, five foot high with an impish smile. He manoeuvred his body into the traditional Indian poses that I have only seen in pictures, hands pointed outwards, head swaying, dancing with glee as my friends and I watched, astonished.
For an instant, my journey east fast-forwarded in my head. I was amidst the chaos of India, my eyes and ears deceiving me. I stared at the Indian man, bewildered. The jittering strobe light had begun to make me feel dizzy, and I froze on the dance floor, unsure of where exactly it was that I stood. Holland was my third country that week. I still greeted shopkeepers with “Hola” since leaving Spain three nights before. The brief spurt of French in our two days in Geneva didn’t ease the mind’s confusion. I had enough foreign stimuli in my short term memory that, combined with the pace of the last week, (and an excess of Bacardi), a night at this cosmopolitan club proved too overwhelming for my befuddled and exhausted self.
We got a taxi back to the houseboat and collapsed. At least I did. My crazy friends danced around me until dawn to blaring music that couldn’t stir me.
The Anne Frank Museum, on Prinsengracht, is housed in the original building where the Frank family hid for two year, with four other Jews, during the Nazi occupation. The house itself, Otto Frank’s business premises and the neighbouring house were converted into a museum in 1960. Lindy, Iain and I queued for two hours to visit it the next day.
“I get frightened when I think of close friends who have now been delivered into the hands of the cruellest brutes that walk the earth. And all because they are Jews!” said a clear female voice, reading from Anne’s diary as we entered the museum’s first section. Anne’s thoughts and feelings are captured in the diary she kept for her two years in hiding. The diary, which was published 50 years ago, has been translated into 67 languages and sold 31 million copies.
We passed into another room containing photos and relics from the Frank family’s life and the spice and gelling company Otto worked for. A television screened an interview with Otto’s secretary, now a tired, elderly woman. Her pale skin wrinkled as she spoke of the family’s hardships trying to remain undiscovered in the hideaway. She could not restrain tears while recalling the last time she saw Anne, through the fence of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
We entered the house itself through the same bookshelf-door that served as the entrance from Otto’s office to the secret annex, or achterhuis, and immediately climbed a steep staircase that led to the living area.
The layout is organised so that visitors file through the tiny rooms and passages of the house in a one way system. Anne’s bedroom was no more than three metres long. Its walls were hand pasted with cuttings from 40’s magazines: mostly flowers, smiling ladies, entities from the outside world. Sharp corners wound us through narrow passageways, the blackened windows closing us in. The thought of enduring that claustrophobia for two years made me shudder.
A spacious room came into sight. We had exited the Frank’s house itself, and were faced with a row of facts detailing the fate of the hideaway’s eight residents. None but Otto Frank survived.
Kerrie and Emma, who had been to the museum before, were waiting for us at Hill Street Blues, a “coffee shop” cum bar on Warmoesstraat. This is still my favourite hangout in Amsterdam. It was when I first visited, at eighteen, with a keen bean bunch of Ozzies on my Contiki tour. The walls are covered from top to bottom in graffiti: every brilliant colour, size and style imaginable. But there’s nothing shabby about this place. Trendoid waiters take drinks orders from the wooden booths and arrive with icy pints of Hoegaarten, served with lemon and a swizzle stick by default. A vending machine provides pre-rolled joints for anyone who’s beyond going to the “bar” upstairs and ordering from the menu of cannabis varieties – white widow, northern lights, super skunk, take your pick – sold with complimentary rolling paper.
I once saw a Frenchman turn blue from half an hour in Hill Street Blues. “This happens with tourists all the time,” the barman assured us. “Give him something sweet and he’ll be fine.” And he was right. It’s common for young travellers to arrive for their three days in Amsterdam and spend every waking hour consuming as much marijuana as their wallets can handle. Their bodies inevitably give in first. Most are quite ready to leave after 72 hours of barmy paranoia, and many are left with the advice that they didn’t take ringing in their head: “Just eat half a hash brownie at a time, wait half an hour, and see how you feel.”
The next afternoon, Emma, Lindy and Kerrie flew back to London and Iain and I took a walk to explore some of Amsterdam, beyond its red light district. We meandered through a lattice of canals and streets, past the main shopping area, until we had escaped the central bustle and found ourselves strolling the suburbs. Cyclists were almost as abundant as in the city centre, but rode freely, without the turmoil of the traffic and the trams.
Along one of these quiet canal side roads, we stopped at a quaint little tearoom, a medley of aromas brewing inside. Owned and run by a friendly mother and daughter, La Tertulia is a cosy little café, selling homemade sandwiches and near-famous hash brownies. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to linger amidst the inviting crystal filled ambience, we had arranged to meet Luke for dinner.
The evening was one of several culinary treats in Amsterdam. I’m near obsessive about the delight of (good) restaurant meals and was thrilled to be invited for a fancy dinner on Luke, who enjoys the city’s cosmopolitan dining opportunities as much as he enjoys being a generous host and hates pretences – he went to all of the restaurants in tracksuit pants and flip flops. We had already been taken for exquisite Indonesian food at a relaxed pub with tables almost in the open kitchen. That night we ate perfectly grilled sole at an old fashioned and elegant restaurant in Centraal Station. And, the night before leaving, Luke introduced me to Teppanyaki.
A Japanese man, wearing the traditional dress of a sushi chef, greeted Luke with a little bow and a smile as we arrived at Hosokawa. He was the owner, we later discovered. The restaurant’s host, a Dutchman, seated us, a wide grin planted on his face. He made an in depth inquiry into Luke’s health, and spent the remainder of the evening prancing between us, the waiter and the chef to ensure that our every whim was satisfied.
The chef began frying our rice on the hot teppan in our table’s centre, creating neat piles, and spreading it out, at intervals. An egg was cracked onto a drop of oil and meticulously incorporated into the rice, as I watched, tantalised. We had all ordered the fillet, having learnt to take Luke’s advice, and watched eagerly as it sizzled sensuously a few feet before our eyes. It was whipped off the teppan, precisely at medium rare, sliced into bite size pieces, and elegantly presented with soya dips and soy soaked garlic cloves. “I’m just glad you could experience it,” Luke announced, when we thanked him profusely for treating us, again. It sure beat backpackers’ meals.
After the meal, Luke excused himself, and the host quickly reappeared. “How is he really since the operation?”, he entreated, anxiously. Luke had recently undergone the removal of some cancerous skin cells, and had recovered well, and swiftly. It took some convincing to satisfy this man that Luke’s health was in perfect order. He beamed when Luke returned, and insisted on giving him a loud kiss on the cheek.
We hailed a taxi outside the restaurant, just beyond an enormous pillared structure that Luke pointed out. The words “Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum” – an ironic translation of the modern proverb “Never piss into the wind” – were carved in stone above us. Only in Amsterdam.
On our way to the Bloemenmarkt the next morning, we stopped at an “internet café” and sampled a mug of their exotic tea. We managed to resist the Magic Mushroom Grow Kit on sale, and the offer of more adventurous hallucinogens like a Peyote cactus, advertised on a poster beside the row of computers.
A vibrant cluster of stalls selling an assortment of seeds, bulbs and flowers, including Holland’s illustrious tulip – when in season – line the banks of a canal at the Bloemenmarkt. Tulips, with their luscious bright petals, are my favourite flower, but the fake ones on offer out of season didn’t quite suffice. We sat outdoors, across from the market, eating syrupy pannekoeken until the afternoon arrived.
Back at the houseboat, Luke and his neighbours were holding the annual barbeque that follows a short swim across the canal to the floating Chinese restaurant. The brave swimmers, the spectators and us tag-alongs were then treated to “Luke’s heerlijke braai.”
Apparently, it had taken some time for Luke to become accepted by his Dutch neighbours. But now there was no denying their fondness for him. They chatted to him as he braaied the meat, responding in a strange fusion of Dutch and Afrikaans. He has never formally learnt Dutch, but speaks Afrikaans well. The roots of the language lie in Dutch, and many words are recognisable even to me with my appalling handle on Afrikaans. I took advantage of the Dutch precision in English, and spoke that.
The afternoon became evening and everybody huddled under the awnings, knowingly assembled, as the rain poured down around us. Not a successful summer braai by South African standards, but I had to give it to the Dutch for anticipating the dismal weather and not letting it put a damper on the gezelligheid: their term for the kind of cosy, inviting environment that they cultivated.
We spent our last day contemplating Amsterdam’s network of canals by pedal boating along them. I leaned back and savoured the scenery, pedalling as much as necessary, which was very peaceful indeed. Iain navigated through four way stops, under bridges, steering and pedalling madly, and found it a somewhat exasperating experience.
Given that there were only a few hours left in the afternoon, we decided to split up and pursue our individual interests. Iain went straight to the second hand bookstalls, selling mostly English titles, where he could fetishise for hours without my impatience. I, thrilled to be free of his complete intolerance in the department, went shopping.
I had spent several hours in Waterlooplein market on a previous visit to Amsterdam, and now once again wandered, delighted, through its hotchpotch of vintage clothing and muddle of miscellany. I hastily bought a skirt from a Turkish man who offered to marry me, and abruptly left, the constraints of both my backpack and budget rightfully nagging at me.
I left Amsterdam early the next morning, with some reluctance. The city’s London-like convenience and cosmopolitanism seems to fuse flawlessly with a unique and vibrant pulse. I love its balance of order and chaos. Perhaps it is this sense of balance that makes it the city I have become so fond of, and this element that, once again, made me vow to return.
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