Going Dutch

Uptight tourists get stoned on freedom in Amsterdam.

Ray Crowley

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Topics Politics

Just mention Amsterdam to any schoolboy, and little green leaves and unlimited porn will light up in his bulging eyes.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing (although the schoolboy would probably disagree). The extent to which Amsterdam has become both celebrated and criticised as a sex and drugs Mecca for the frustrated European, sadly misses the point.

Booking my trip to Amsterdam just as the few inches of snow that recently fell on the UK ground the country to a halt wasn’t the best timing. As it turned out, I was a little too cautious about how long my journey to the airport would take. Some things, however, are even more annoying than arriving for your flight four hours early due to snow-induced travel paranoia. Imagine if I’d left it another couple of weeks, and returned to find the army waiting for me at Heathrow airport – a chilling reminder that maintaining the threat of terror has become a more pressing campaign than actually going to war.

Another irritation is going to an airport nosherie that is supposed to be a bit posh, only to find that metal cutlery is not allowed ‘for security reasons’ – as was the case in Gatwick airport. It did pass the time to snigger at people eating their la-de-da food with plastic knives and forks, but come on. In said nosherie, you can buy drinks in potentially lethal glasses. And in nearby duty free shops, you can buy bottles of vodka the shape and size of caveman clubs.

In the end, my flight was delayed because of snowfall in Amsterdam, and it took them about an hour to clear the runway for landing. But at least the Dutch didn’t go into shutdown for 24 hours under a few white flakes, like the British do. The cabin crew still looked tired, though. ‘We’re going to Geneva next’, they said. ‘I hope they know how to deal with snow there.’ ‘They do’, grumbled my Swiss boyfriend.

In spite of all the over-the-top security measures at Gatwick, there was an insane man on my flight – the flight steward. We were warned not to use mobile phones on the flight because there was ‘over X amount of fuel on this aircraft, and you don’t want to ignite it, do you?’. We were also reminded to place bags safely in the overhead lockers, because ‘the person your bags fall on may not remain your friend’.

The standard flight safety talk was accompanied not only by the usual hand signals, but by a running commentary of what could happen if we didn’t obey the instructions. ‘Please keep your seatbelt fastened at all times – you don’t want to go flying around the plane if we experience turbulence and land in someone’s lap, do you?’

These good behaviour warnings reminded me of the first time I went to Amsterdam, as a schoolgirl on a coach being drilled by a teacher – who wasn’t nearly as patronising as our steward. ‘Remember, flying is the safest form of travel’, he reassured us after the tenth warning – ‘especially with those crazy drivers out there on the icy roads’.

As for Amsterdam itself, I’m not going to go all Tessa Jowell on you – freedom of behaviour for civilised people who want a glass of fine wine after the theatre, even after 11pm. And I’m not going to witter on about the wonderful art in Amsterdam, and argue that queuing for the Van Gogh museum really is worth it.

Nor am I going to talk about the historical places of interest, and the poignancy of Anne Frank’s house (wonderfully adapted into an informative museum, although the CD ROM 3D reconstruction of her hiding place, on sale in the shop, was slightly over the top). I’m not even going to enthuse about the beauty of the canals and the tulip market, and such quaint hidden gems as the Kattenkabinet cat museum (complete with eight delightful furry tour guides). Even dopeheads can buy guidebooks and discover all of that stuff.

No, when anyone mentions Amsterdam to me, my eyes light up with beer glasses backed by Daliesque dripping clocks. When I finally arrived, I got to enjoy one of my favourite things about mainland Europe – having the option to drink late, and at a leisurely pace. Being able to sit in a bar overlooking the canals drinking beer until 1am on a Sunday was a real pleasure, and one only heightened by the absence of New Labour-style penalties for drunken behaviour to compensate for the late license.

Of course, in the UK you can always stock up your fridge before the offie closes and build a mountain of crushed beer-cans beside the sofa, Homer Simpson-style. But having a bit of freedom as to when and where you have your last beer is definitely a plus for Amsterdam (even if it usually doesn’t come in pints), as is the feeling that your behaviour isn’t being policed.

Such freedom of behaviour has given Amsterdam its infamous reputation. Schoolboy fantasies of ‘green’ coffee shops and the red-light district can easily be realised, especially in the centre of town, while the areas around the Grand canals and Jordaan, or the Vondelpark, are less legendary.

But is it really surprising that in spite of Van Gogh and Anne Frank, the naughty side of Amsterdam still eclipses the more sedate side? After all, if we weren’t so obsessed with regulating behaviour at home, tourists wouldn’t be so desperate to go somewhere where they could smoke some blow and blow their loads.

You can’t really blame a stag party for zooming off to the ‘Dam for a grope and some dope, when the inability to do anything vaguely hedonistic on home turf gives such activities a romantic mystique that they really don’t deserve.

Amsterdam’s reputation for porn and soft drugs reflects badly, not so much upon the city itself, where people just get on with it, but upon the cities that its visitors stream from for a precious taste of freedom.

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