Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Amsterdam, or The Moral Gray Area and What I Found There

Amsterdam for me, as an American, was at the same time an exciting and frightening experience filled with joy and guilt. We like to think that we are the freest country on the planet but I would venture to say that the US is the strictest country in the Western World (thanks to our puritanical founders, of course). You can die for your country before legally tasting your first sip of alcohol. And what does this give us? The worst binge drinking society in the world. Europe as a whole is relaxed, but Holland even more so. If put into an analogy of high school teachers, the US is your religion teacher that always gave you detention for being literally 30 seconds late after the bell rang, whereas Holland is your art teacher that thought your month long wax sculpture project of a duck with a cow's head was a brilliant piece of art and merited a bronze casting. Seriously, day and night difference.

Holland's moral motto is something like, "As long as you don't hurt anyone else, go for it." So imagine me, a generally liberal American being continuously shocked by Amsterdam. Marijuana, along with other natural "experience enhancing" drugs, are totally legal (within some limits, i.e. to be smoked only in your home or one of the many coffee shops selling weed that, in Amsterdam, are more numerous than Starbucks in Seattle). Prostitution is legal and considered a legitimate career that one pays government taxes for like any other job. Not to mention the freedom of the press, where swear words and nudity not only are allowed but abound. It was just nuts. Now I bet some of you at this point are imagining Amsterdam to be a bit like that scene in Pinocchio right before he turns into a donkey, with chaos and violence running rapid, but that's entirely not the case. I never once felt unsafe in Holland and I am by no means an intimidating guy. What scared me the most were the transvestite prostitutes... I still get shudders just thinking about it.

Now as for the two experiences I'm sure you're wondering what I tried. With the weed I decided, "When in Rome...". The prostitution on the other hand, not on your life. When we went to the coffee shop I was afraid of what Serena might think (since she is nearly twice my age and technically like a supervisor to me), so I pulled her aside and asked her if she would be offended if I tried it. She looked at me seriously and said, "But Joe, I'm Dutch," as if that was all the go ahead I needed. So I smoked a joint and absolutely nothing happened. The rest of the day I felt just as normal. So the next day I went back and told the guy who sold me the joint that nothing happened and he had a hard time believing me, so I bought some "Space Cake" (like pound cake but baked with weed). The directions where to eat a quarter of the slice and wait for two hours. I was feeling immune from my experience with weed the day before so I went ahead and ate half. An hour later I was high for the first time in my life. Oh, I should mention it hit me midway through touring the Anne Frank House. It was a different feeling, but mostly I felt light headed and very dizzy with no sense of balance, which made the narrow, nearly vertical staircases inside the Anne Frank House extremely difficult. It was an ok feeling I guess, but it's not a habit I would make because a) it's an expensive habit to have, and b) as far as mentally altered states go, I prefer being drunk.

[I questioned putting up my weed experiences due to them being used as incriminating evidence against me if I ran for president someday (hey, you never know), but then I remembered that interview with our president during the campaign in '08 when a reporter had found out Obama had smoked marijuana and asked him, "But sir, did you inhale it?" And Obama replied, "Well isn't that the point?"]

The whole time I was in possession of marijuana I never once felt guilty, but that was the exact opposite case with prostitution. The Red Light District is your one-stop shop in Amsterdam for all of your physical needs. They have women standing in front of glass windows (under a red light of course) advertising their, well, goods. There are also many bars and strip clubs, video, dress-up clothes, and toy stores (KY, not KB). But every time I walked past the windows of these ladies of the evening standing in their windows with barely more than a bikini on, I would immediately look away and feel extremely guilty. Thank you Catholicism. Even going in the 5 euro sex store made me feel questionable, and I stayed for less than 10 minutes. The most shocking part to me was that the Red Light District fans out from the center, at which is a 700 year old church. Many prostitutes windows are facing the church, barely 20 yards away! Here I was being shocked left and right, and Serena wasn't even flinching. She had actually said, "I'm here as an adult without the kids for the first time in my life, I want to be shocked," but it was impossible due to her understanding Dutch upbringing. Not even when we learned that the oldest prostitute was 83 years old did she so much as bat an eye. If only Americans could be more Dutch.

Other than those worthwhile life experiences, my two other favorites were the Rijksmuseum and the Heineken brewery tour, called the "Heineken Experience." The Rijksmuseum was great, well laid out with interesting objects (like blue ceramic Delftware) and awesome paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Steen. Way better than the Van Gogh museum, which was in my opinion a huge rip off. 14 euros with not a single discount! Rijksmuseum was 12 euros and much better. Even better yet was the Heineken Experience at only 10 euros (which included two beers). Basically my pictures in the Holland album give you a mini tour, but it was really fun. I think we spent about 2 hours there. Besides those museums we did a lot of shopping since it is still the tail end of sale season here. I finally (and pretty much too late for winter) found some leather gloves at a second hand store. I took many more pictures after that because my hands wouldn't freeze when I took them out of pockets to snap a quick shot.

It was a tiring week, that is for sure, but very much needed and enjoyed. It was also nice to experience a nearly guilt-free society even if I'm just too American to fully appreciate it.

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