Travel: Sex and drugs and Amsterdam

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Amsterdam. I've been saving Amsterdam. Don't ask me for what. For an emotional rainy day, maybe. Or for when I'm old enough, because whatever its reputation as a capital of youth culture, I've always had the feeling that Amsterdam is a city of old men.

It's where you go when you're disappointed, when your heart has grown as impenetrable as a Rembrandt interior, when you no longer want life to torture you with promise. Not even the promise of melancholy.

Well, this isn't an emotional rainy day and my heart is not yet impenetrable, but I am here anyway. An impulse thing. I am suddenly sick of saying I have never been to Amsterdam and seeing people look at me as though I must be from the Salvation Army.

Nice and easy does it, though. I am in an elegantly understated grand hotel, once the convent of St Cecilia and St Catherine, on what's almost an island bounded by canals. Speaking only topographically now, a sort of Dutch Alcatraz. The perfect area for a quiet, uninterrupted stroll on my first evening in town.

From my hotel window I see the very bridge I want to linger on. Three pink-bricked arches; cobbled, visited only by the occasional cyclist, making his way home in the gauzy light. I don't bother consulting a map. Here is lovely. It is only when I leave the hotel courtyard and cross the bridge that I discover "here" is the red-light district, that the streets bordering my meandering canals are crowded with agitated men, laughing falsely, and that the shop windows are stuffed with phosphorescent whores.

I was anticipating no less, of course. But not here. And not yet. Whore day was to be tomorrow. But now I'm in, I'm in. And gripped? No. Yes. No. What does fascinate me is how quickly you come upon, then lose again, the cavalcade. Turn into an alley, between a cathouse and a dildo store, and you could be in the Cotswolds. Where does the sound go? Do the canals swallow it? Or was the city built on some extraordinarily prescient acoustic principle, ensuring that sex would be something seen but never heard?

Traffic likewise. I am almost run down by cars or bicycles every 15 seconds, because what looks like the pavement is in fact the road, yet their noise, too, is muffled. The only other place I know as bafflingly silent as this amid the din is Venice.

But Venice has neither cars nor tarts in windows. And the Venice silence echoes with the terrors of the dark lagoon. But not here. Out on the razzle, where everything goes, Amsterdam sounds like the air coming out of a leather sofa.

Comfy, that's the word for it. The whores' terraces are as sedate as Kensington, the little rooms in which they sit cross-legged, reading or chatting on mobile phones, demure and chintzy. The best reason for paying one a visit would be to pass time in an environment more comfortable than your own. As for sensuality - none. The neon tries to ignite the senses but is no match for the matter-of-factness of the architecture.

The aesthetics of public sex here proclaim something wonderful: Amsterdam is not turned on. It is past being shocked, therefore it is past being excited.

Didn't I tell you it was a city for old men?

A question, though... Am I not obliged to do better than merely walk the lanes? Shouldn't I, to satisfy my readers, first experience a live sex show, and thereafter duck into a ganja coffee shop and roll a joint? Of the two obligations, the second is more appealing.

I like the coffee shops with their brown interiors, lit by candles, and their aromatic exsufflations prickling the nose, as though you're smelling fires from the Indies. But the last time I smoked dope was in 1969, and all I remember of that is fainting just before an orgy I'd initiated and waking again with a splitting headache after everyone had left.

Thirty years on - for a new day brings new thoughts - Rembrandt feels a better bet. The star turn of the Rijksmuseum is The Night Watch, which makes an epic of the mundane. But today it's Isaac and Rebecca that holds my attention longest. A biblical subject not painted biblically.

The strength of Dutch painting is its refusal to be consoled by beauty or allusiveness. Occasionally a painter goes to Italy and comes back with Sienna on the brain, imagining a blue that never was, but in the main, Dutch painters find inspiration in actuality. Isaac and Rebecca are not figures of fleshly or spiritual dreaming. Theirs is gravity of emotion made palpable. If it is possible to paint the drama of individual loneliness at the trembling moment of its daring to look out and trust - what the poets call two becoming one - then Rembrandt has painted it.

I should now fly home, for Amsterdam cannot show me anything more fair than this. But I cross the Singel and look around Leidseplein, where people sit in wicker rows as though waiting for the human spectacle to start. I am curious to see the Black and White cafe, whose staff I have read about on the Internet - Mirelle, whose favourite phrase is "Bloody buggery bollocks" and Pappy, otherwise known as El Casanova, "who is like round women as flies are with dog-do". Characters. And don't we all love a character?

In fact only Panda ("top bloke!") is here, a top bloke enough as far as pouring a beer and sawing off its head with a ruler is concerned, though not exactly a "character". But then I am joined by Victor - "They call me Victor because I'm willing to lose" - a little Indo-Portuguese fiddler in a houndstooth overcoat and soft fedora, who knocks back jenevers as though they're mineral water, and tells me the story of his life, punctuating his accomplishments and mishaps alike with big, rapscallion laughs. He plays a tune on his fiddle - "Hava Nagila" in the manner of Max Bruch - but not before saying what I never thought I would live to hear anyone say in real life: "A violin is like a woman..."

So there are two things it's been worth coming to Amsterdam for.

In the afternoon I go gable-gazing - gables being the nearest the Dutch get to the sublime - then take a canal trip in a sort of floating greenhouse, a glass envelope built to fit under low bridges and boil visitors alive. This is the shoddiest tourist excursion I have ever been on. A recorded commentary withholds information from you in four languages. "And to the left, the harbour building with its numerous offices," lingers in my mind by virtue of its sheer newsiness.

Already I have come to appreciate the advantages of a city without a spiritual skyline, without saints gesticulating from every rooftop and soldiers on horseback commanding every square. It is good not to get over- excited. If you don't spend the morning looking up, you won't spend the afternoon cast down. Intelligent emotional economy. Something Protestants know about. The city as Prozac. But the canal trip makes me wonder whether Dutch plainness has its limits. Man cannot live without the occasional flourish.

So I go to a live sex show after all, to see whether anything in this city ever breaks loose from its confines. Answer, no. You sit in red cinema seats alongside Geordies awash with Heineken, thinking about your VAT return, while couples show you

their parts - "And to your right, Truus with her numerous orifices" - prior to interpenetrating on the kind of revolving table you get in Chinese restaurants when you order a banquet. Curtain closes, couple waves. Not bad, not sad, not even dispiriting. Not anything.

Leaving only marijuana for me to worry about. It is at the back of my mind, as a chore, all the next day as I sit in the sun watching Amsterdammers having free tango lessons in the Vondelpark. I pick out Dutch faces that I like, and realise they all have one feature in common. Cheek pouches. I used to think Dutch cheek pouches were marks of wisdom, experience taking its toll on the countenance; but having listened to the Dutch choking on their language (is that why double- Dutch - because every sound they make they must make twice?) I now reckon that those pouches store saliva, to lubricate dry mouths.

The association settles it. Dry mouth, joint. That and walking into a Free Tibet concert in the Dam, where a rock singer tells us to "Get back to the Garden". Five minutes later I am in a coffee shop called Paradise, Bob Marley everywhere, wondering how you go about letting them know you want a smoke. Like they think I'm here for cappuccino! It's done by menu - who would have thought that? Before you've found a seat you have a psychedelic bill of fare in your hand, with the price per gram, hash on the left-hand side, marijuana on the right. Neat.

The waiter, for I don't know what else to call him, sees at once that my last spliff was circa 1969. He sits beside me, talks about his native Surinam, sells me 1.8 gms of Super Skunk, and does the rolling for me, which is handy because I wouldn't have known how, don't have papers, don't have tobacco, and to tell the truth, never guessed it would come in a little plastic bag, like a tulip bulb, and not in a cigarette that I could simply pop straight into my mouth.

Why it's all just the teensiest bit surreptitious still, when no one's breaking any law, I don't know. Unless smokers just like it that way.

That I am feeling lightsome, back on the streets, goes without saying. It's lovely here. Not agonisingly lovely like Venice, no death waiting upon beauty, but accommodatingly lovely. Watery lanes open out on to squares, narrow down into watery lanes again, in tune with the changeful rhythms of hope itself. Apart from the cyclists, who are the new eco-terrorists, sanctimonious even as they mow you down, I count every man my brother.

Seated at the window of Indrapura, an Indonesian restaurant in the Rembrandtplein, looking out upon a statue of the incomparable artist covering his erection with a cloak, I eat luminous rice and satays made of every animal that went into the ark. When the bill comes it lists only what I ordered, with none of those mysterious additions that make liars of bills in London and Venice. I find that polite. I am, I now fully comprehend, in a do- as-you-would-be-done-by society. I pay and go out grinning into the square where, as ever, nothing very much is happening.

Travellers Guide

Getting there: Flights serve Amsterdam's Schiphol airport from two dozen UK airports. Most are on KLM UK (0990 074074): also easyJet (0990 292929) has good fares from Luton and Liverpool.

Trains run seven times an hour from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam's Central Station, taking 15-20 minutes: costing about pounds 2. Be warned that theft is rife on this rail link.

Rail: Eurostar (0990 186 186) has a special deal for pounds 129 return for two people, travelling from London and Ashford to Amsterdam via Brussels; this works out at pounds 64.50 each. Book a week in advance, stay a minimum of one Saturday night.

Howard Jacobson travelled with Kirker Travel (0171-231 3333) whose luxury short break package, including flights, three nights B&B in the five-star Grand Hotel and transfers in a luxury car, costs pounds 349 per person if you stay Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Special offer: the Amsterdam Travel Service (01992 456 080) is offering readers a pounds 99 package that includes return KLM flights from Heathrow or Stansted to Amsterdam and one night's bed and breakfast accommodation, for travel between Monday and Thursday. You must quote The Independent when you call.

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