And so I found myself hungover, in the back of a campervan, bound for Amsterdam. ACDC was playing ‘Shook Me All Night Long’ and a packet of paprika chips/crisps was sliding around the breakfast table (which would, later that evening, turn into a bed). I slept through the border crossing (I still, after all those borders I have crossed, expect more of a fanfare to be made upon leaving one country and entering another) and only figured out we were in Holland when, in all my puffy eyed, hooded glory, I rolled into a service station for the desperately needed aforementioned crisps. I stared for a while at the ‘Welkom’ sign, my synapses firing sluggishly. There is a funny delayed reaction that seems to occur when one has become accustomed to a foreign language and getting by fusing said foreign language with their own mother tongue. When faced with something neither in that language, nor one’s mother tongue, there’s an extended moment in which one tries to read the new language before realising it doesn’t fit in an existing language scheme which ultimately leads to a mumbling of, ‘hang on, if it’s not English and it’s not my fake second language, then where the hell am I?’ Holland, it turns out.
I have long been told of Amsterdam’s surprising beauty – surprising because it’s obviously largely known for its liberal take on all things ‘illicit’ and its appearance is consequently always a secondary consideration. And, beneath a clear blue sky, with its Christmas decorations twinkling, it is indeed a very beautiful city. A mixture of quaint and pretty, it doesn’t boast or preen like other canal cities (Paris … Venice … I’m looking at you). Rather it sits there, looking very sweet and promising to be fun and open minded. Amsterdam is a friend you want to make, rather than a cool kid you want to impress. It’s also very walkable. In fact, we started walking Saturday afternoon and didn’t stop until we quietly (because none of us had much to say) finished strolling the red light district, listening to my friend intoning ‘did you know that less than 10% of the sex workers in Amsterdam are actually Dutch?’ A statistic that makes walking past young women with their tattooed eyebrows and glomesh g-strings staring out at you from neon lit glass cabinets, even more depressing.
There are some excellent markets in Amsterdam on the weekend, stocked full of cheese and cakes (two things the Dutch do brilliantly) and, because such a thing goes so well with cheese and cakes, vintage clothes. A raspberry tart, made from the sweetest, tartest raspberries, gave us enough energy to rifle through tables of Patricia Field’s wildest dreams and then it was time for Rembrandt. The Netherlands has produced its fair share of artistic genii and Amsterdam has several museums that pay homage to this. It seems liberalism, mind altering substances and beauty will always be a recipe for great art.
Amsterdam by night, at this time of year – at any time of year, I’d imagine – is picture book-esque, with its Christmas lights strung above shop lined cobbled streets and the canals reminding you of their presence with a soft glimmer each time you cross a bridge. There are loads of places to eat – Italian, Mexican, Argentinian – and after trawling the bubbling streets for a while, went for a simple Italian place. It’s not a cheap city, so if you’re on a budget, you may need to be more diligent in your pre-entry menu-perusal, but the endless choice means finding something decently priced isn’t too difficult. And for God’s sake, leave room for a waffle. It will change your world. It changed mine.
If you can ignore the gaggles (and there are gaggles) of English men or the furtive looking tourists walking in and out of reggae-blaring coffee shops – or indeed if you can embrace these city stalwarts – Amsterdam emerges as less a city of cheap, legal thrills and more the adorable, cool-without-trying little sister of those show ponies, Paris and Venice.
Amsterdam, I shall be back. You and I aren’t finished yet.