The overnight train was fine. The kids love “hotel on the train” and tend to sleep pretty well even though Jason and I don’t sleep wonderfully because we are terrified they are somehow going to slither out of the top bunks and coming crashing 6 feet down to the floor. And then of course the train is stopping and starting, changing directions when they split somewhere in Germany so they can send some folks to Swtizerland and other to The Netherlands. All the same, as a way of getting around and saving on hotel rooms, you can’t beat it.
Here in Amsterdam we are staying in an expensive (although cheaper than the other options in the area) place in the thick of things. We came straight from the train and even though it was 10 am our room was ready (YES!) which meant showers and even morning tea in the club lounge. We set off around noon, figuring that we would have a late lunch and get a sense of the city on foot. Tomorrow we are planning to see some sights that require an admission fee.
It is chilly. Damp, breezy, 40s. Something that I, perhaps unfairly, think of as San Francisco weather. As a result of the weather, we all have windburned cheeks and chapped lips.
Although we selected our location very carefully so as to avoid the red light district, we weren’t more than a couple of minutes out of the hotel before a couple of red lights came into view. I mentioned in code (Jei-jie can now spell sufficiently well that we resort to English euphemisms and the romance languages in such moments) that we were going to have to come up with a quick strategy for explaining Amsterdam’s Dames and Mary Janes. At that very moment we walked by a basement window in which there was a woman sitting on a stool and wrapped in straps and leather. Mei-mei saw but as her parents were talking she waiting to say something while we kept walking. As soon as there was a break in the conversation she said, “Mom, I just saw a woman working in a restaurant and she was wearing funny black clothes and you could see her nipples.”
“Really?” I said. “That is interesting.”
“It’s right back there. Do you want to go back and see?”
“That’s alright. We’ll be coming back on the way to the hotel so you can show me then.”
A moment later we passed the “Gay Shop” with a large assortment of lascivious postcards set out on the sidewalk. Jie-jie said, “Those pictures are inappropriate.”
At that point we said that different countries have different rules about bodies and how much of their bodies people we should show other people in public. Amsterdam was famous, we said, in part because they had very easy rules about bodies.
That seemed to be sufficient and we didn’t encounter anything else noteworthy on our way to the Palace and Church. However, it all felt a bit off to me and everyone else.
The main church is a beautiful old building that is now a cultural center. The current exhibit is about Judaism and we were a bit horrified to see that the space was carved up with portable exhibit walls. I started to develop a sense that this was a city that took pride in their embrace of the profane.
Jie-jie noticed the pot. As we walked by one cafe, she asked why the cigarettes people were smoking smelled so funny. We explained that there are lots of different things that you can put in your cigarettes and that in Amsterdam they can put something in cigarettes called marijuana and that it is not allowed in many other places. That was what the smell was.
We went to main square. I’m not sure if it is that it’s Easter weekend or if it is an all-the-time thing (as I said, celebrating the profane) but there were lots of folks dressed as death, the grim reaper, witches, angels, rabbits, werewolves, etc. Throw a few coins in the tin and you get a photo. Mei-mei was terrified and so was Jie-jie although she is old enough that she gets a bit of enjoyment from the fear.
We stopped for lunch – mediocre Indonesian but our comfort food nonetheless. On the way back to the hotel Mei-mei made a point of showing me the window that caught her attention earlier. There was an Asian woman sitting on a stool, wearing almost nothing and talking on her cell phone. It was not the same woman as before. The woman earlier was African. As Mei-mei pointed, the woman looked up briefly, she glanced at Mei-mei, our eyes met and then she quickly turned away.
Again we kept walking. Mei-mei asked if I wanted to stop and keep looking and I said no, that since she turned away and didn’t smile at us, I didn’t think she liked us looking. Mei-mei asked why she was there and I explained that she was there advertising, trying to get people to go in and buy something. We’ve spoken a lot about advertising and that explanation seemed to be sufficient.
I was grateful to get back to the hotel. We had tea and then came up to the room and decided to let the kids watch kids public television. After a few minutes Jie-jie said, “Mom, I can barely understand their Swedish.”
“That’s because they are speaking Flemish,” I replied and that is when I realized that one of reasons folks (in my experience) tend to care so much about your accent in various European languages is that designating pure speech upholds the idea of the existence of distinct and bounded languages (the opposite of what happens in China where it is all Chinese even if people cannot understand one other).
So that is it for Amsterdam so far. Some other general thoughts.
- My general sense (early and up for revision, of course) is that this is a city with a bit of an inferiority complex. Browsing through the literature in the hotel room, I have read several articles in which people try to defend this city alongside Paris and London and New York – tough company, perhaps. There is also, of course, the whole world war two thing which hits pretty hard (home of Anne Frank after all). I get the sense that what people celebrate as their counter culturalism is really a bit of angsty nihilism. I don’t go in for folks who seem to be putting so much effort into being who they think they are. But, as I said, I haven’t even been here for 24 hours so what do I know.
- If you’re looking to party, this seems a great place to do it. If you are like me, so vanilla that you wouldn’t even pass for vanilla with vanilla beans mixed in and OK with that, I’m not sure what Amsterdam has to offer. Once again, I could be wrong. Let’s see what happens next.