My wife always has good ideas. On this occasion, we had been wondering what would make a good present for an impending big birthday of George, a friend of mine to whom we owed many favours. It had to be a surprise and it had to be special.
She was leafing through the Echo Travel Section and came across an advert for cheap flights from Southampton. “Why not take him to Amsterdam for the weekend?”
When you ring up these companies, they make it so smooth that you’ve booked before you realise what you’re doing. Within minutes, the flights were reserved and paid for. All that was needed now was a hotel, and that also was arranged in a trice by a friend of mine who is currently working in Amsterdam. He booked us into the Bridge Hotel, in a prime position on the bank of the Amstel.
George and I both work in similar businesses in a small town. Within minutes of the present being handed over, the phone lines were buzzing.
“I hear you and George are going to Amsterdam for the weekend …”
“Ho ho, say no more, know what I mean, etc.”
“Well you know what Amsterdam’s famous for, don’t you?”
“Er .. canals? Tulips?”
“Come on, Oliver, you’re going for the dope and the red light district, aren’t you?”
Considering that neither of these things had even entered my head, it came as something of a shock to realise that these are the only two things for which Amsterdam is famous … even among its own population.
But first, there was the little matter of checking into the hotel. The receptionist, along with everyone else in this most cosmopolitan of cities, spoke perfect English. When I returned to point out that I had requested a room with two beds, not a double one, she admitted, “Well, I did wonder, but, you know, Amsterdam is that kind of city.” She explained the situation in Dutch to the cleaning lady, who could not contain her mirth. “Twie Männe!” she guffawed. “Yes,” I added, “but not twie that kind of Männe.” Not that anything was of avail, since the hotel was fully booked.
I haven’t shared a bed with anyone but my wife for twenty-odd years, and she tells me I snore, fart and shout out swearwords in my sleep. George and I crept into the respective outer limits of the bed and concentrated on not doing any of the above things. Even friendship has limits. In my dream, two beautiful Indonesian girls entered the room and insisted on taking me and George out on a tour of the city. But it was only a dream.
In the morning, we asked the receptionist about hiring bicycles. “Good idea,” she said. “You will be able to visit the red light district and …. (conspiratorial leer) … the coffee shops.”
“Well, actually we wanted to go to the Vondelpark and the Flower Market.”
“Yes, but I’m sure you will want to visit the red light area and the coffee shops on the way.”
In the bike shop, it was even worse. The assistant was a real live wire. “You don’t want extra insurance? But you will be leaving the bikes in dangerous areas and …” – he turned to me, God knows why – “especially you, will be going to the coffee shops. After that, you will probably have an accident.”
Rather pompously, and probably also out of general timidity, we indeed did avoid these famous areas, until tempted into a canalside café called, appropriately in view of the way the city works, “Chaos Café”. There we threw caution to the winds and started drinking beer. Prior to that, we had decided that the combination of alcohol and brakeless bikes in a frantic and almost completely anarchic traffic environment could well be lethal. The Heineken they served was pleasingly weak and we soon got talking to the charming barmaid and her equally charming friend. “Have you been to the red light district yet?”
“No, we thought it might be a bit dangerous.”
“Oh no, everything is very calm, because of all the coffee shops. You must have visited the coffee shops?”
“Well …” We looked at each other. “Not yet”, I said,” but we plan to visit the red light district and the coffee shops this afternoon.” Finally, we had come to realise that the recommendations were genuine and not necessarily an oblique and uncomplimentary inference that we looked like drug-addled dirty old men.
“I am bloody well going to go into all the porn shops and I am bloody well going to have a joint”, I thought. And so it bloody well transpired, the latter being planned first in order to provide courage for the former.
It didn’t work at all. First, there were two humiliating false starts. In the first café we entered, neither of us had the courage to ask for anything other than a beer. The second one turned out to be a cyber café. This was even worse. Before we knew what was happening, we had booked ourselves twenty minutes of computer time. We thought of sending e-mails to our friends, before realising that we only knew our own addresses and abjectly sending messages to ourselves.
The third café looked more promising. There were large murals of Bob Marley and reggae music boomed from its murky interior. George ordered some “space cake” but I was hyper by then and pointed to a box of joints. Sensing my inexperience, the barman enquired, “Is this the first time you smoke?” I nodded sheepishly. “Be careful”, he warned. ” Very strong, very strong”.
Needless to say, neither of us felt anything whatsoever. We both concluded that it was a complete scam. After all, you’re hardly likely to go to the police and complain, are you? “I’ve had enough of this”, said George. “I’m buying a bottle of wine.”
the Red Light district was marginally more interesting. Certainly, the display of baffling devices was comprehensive, as were the wall-to-wall video cassettes with unlikely-sounding titles. My favourite was “A Mother, a Daughter, a Fat Woman and a Dog”. To judge by the cover photo, the title was a literal rather than a metaphorical description. After a while, we realised that all the shops were duplicating themselves and that most were obviously part of a chain. As, shockingly, were the “Bob Marley” coffee shops.
The ladies of the night, in their little cabins, were disappointingly unalluring and, once you’d noticed that most of them had several rolls of kitchen towel beside their couches, not in the least bit tempting. Still, one of them actually did utter to me the immortal words, “Hi there, big boy”. How did she know?
After that, the touristy things we did were less daring but more satisfying. We spent a wild and wonderful evening in the Melkweg, a brilliant music venue where we saw the reassuringly wholesome and ultra-funky Luscious Jackson. Then we went the whole hog with a full-scale vegetarian Indonesian Rejstafel, quite an experience because it was so spicy that it rendered both of us completely unable to speak for nearly an hour.
In the morning, we hired a small electric boat to ply the canals. The charming girls in charge of the boats recommended a good route. “You will pass through the red light district and the coffee shops,” they said.
“Oh no we won’t,” we replied. But we did anyway.
From the Hampshire Chronicle