Culture vulture

Amsterdam Pt. 2: A social laboratory
Imagine a town where you can walk into a legitimate place of business and select your purchase from a list of high-grade cannabis products. Sitting down on a couch or at a table, you can then smoke or otherwise consume these products to your heart and mind’s content with absolutely no fear that an officer of the law will burst through the door and haul you off to jail for engaging in this relatively harmless bit of neurological experimentation. That’s one aspect of visiting Amsterdam.

Imagine, after having steeped your brain in cannibinoids and caffeine, walking into a neighborhood of picturesque canals and narrow winding streets in which the centuries-old houses have been updated to accommodate hundreds of glass showcases, each occupied by a genuinely gorgeous young woman in skimpy lingerie who will engage in sexual activity with whoever can muster the money and gumption to pass her doorman’s inspection and pay for her professional ministrations. That is another aspect of visiting Amsterdam.

It’s unfortunate, in Culture Vulture’s opinion, that these two charming aspects of Amsterdam loom largest in the city’s reputation among travelers from the United States. Because, even without the inducement of legalized drug use and prostitution, Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful of Northern European cities, crammed with gorgeous architecture, art and historically significant landmarks. And the winter weather is a constantly shifting panorama of delicious extremes, ranging from radiant sunlight to windblown sleet to tempestuous rain to gently wisping snow in the course of an hour or two.

A handout we were given at the first coffee house we stopped into advised: “Smoke hashish and marijuana to have a good time. But don’t expect a joint to solve any problems for you.” And that is very good advice, which we followed to the letter. Unfortunately it didn’t go on to say: “Once you are totally stoned you may think you have misplaced your shoulder bag containing any number of irreplaceable prescription drugs and your traveler’s checks. Don’t worry, you’re just spaced out and the bag is safely waiting for you on the floor of your hotel room where you left it.” That little advisory would have saved us an evening of needless anxiety.

But, having regained our perspective, our sense of humor and our shoulder bag the following day, we were thrilled to roll up and swallow with our morning coffee a pea-sized pellet of hashish and proceed to the Van Gogh Museum, a focal point of art history that one could spend days exploring if only the jostling crowds permitted one to actually stand still for more than five or 10 seconds in front of each masterpiece. But the crowds never pause, and so the viewing becomes more kaleidoscopic than contemplative and one is left with flashcut memories rather than clear visions. Thank goodness for coffee table books; they may not reveal the depth of the troweled-on paints, but the compositional passion of their creator cannot be diminished by two-dimensional reproductions.

Which sort of sums up our impression of Amsterdam: Its renown as a mecca for potheads and whoremongers cannot overshadow its place as a genuine locus of collective artistic achievement.