|“Ooh seeds, how nice, I’ve been meaning to get some more nasturtiums OH.”|
I am a ‘do stuff’ assistant rather than a ‘look pretty and take notes, doll’ assistant, and as the ‘do stuff’ assistant for a tourism company, this is going to involve a lot of business trips. The phrase ‘business trips’ alone conjures up elegant, luxurious images of people in fine tailored suits, sipping champagne in a quiet plane cabin, soaking in a broad sea of extra legroom. Unfortunately, as the economy is dying and midday champagne is the first step towards alcoholism, ‘business trips’ more often involve an early and cramped EasyJet flight with the added bonus of carrying a wadge of company papers, company laptops and expenses receipts in your minute executive rolly-bag. But I don’t care; something about going on a business trip makes you feel like a celebrity and this week, that cramped EasyJet helltube took me all the way to Amsterdam.
The reasons why I had to go to Amsterdam were sketchy at best. At first, I was to be visiting the Amsterdam office to attend a very important meeting. As soon as I had booked my flights, we established that the very important meeting was in fact taking place the day after my return to Berlin. As soon as I had rebooked my flights and had several arguments with EasyJet, we established that the meeting was in fact cancelled. By that point my boss, a man who makes decisions with the delirious immediacy of a drunken pirate, decided that we would both go to Amsterdam anyway because. So it was essentially a business trip for me to work at a slightly different desk (in actual fact the make of desk was identical but it was at a slightly different angle) for a couple of days.
Once my boss arrived to join me on the first day, everything got going. He marched me out of the flat and stomped all the way to the Apple store with me sprinting feebly behind (my boss is a muscly, striding, crush-a-beer-can-in-his-hand kind of guy), forged towards the counter and demanded that the man bring us a Macbook Air immediately and give us a corporate discount. The laid-back Apple guy was too cool for school and drawled his way through the sale with my boss flinging credit cards at him and abruptly answering urgent phone calls every three seconds. As soon as I was appropriately confused, the boss turned to me and told me to bring him a new iPhone case that was ‘good and manly’. Thus it was that I spent my first afternoon in Amsterdam looking at phone cases wondering which ones were most evocative of testicles and lumberjacks.
Once work was over, I had a chance to see the city in a less frenzied manner. My boss had decided that we were going to go on the ‘Red Light District tour’ together (please, no-one even try to interpret that decision, it is taking me all my energy not to personally) but a sudden crisis happened at clocking-off time, so I got to go all by myself. My regional manager helped me to find the meeting point by instructing me to wait by the monument that looked like a ‘giant white penis’. It was a fitting introduction to the city.
People come to Amsterdam for the sex and the drugs. But wandering through the streets, it was less like a raunchy night of hedonistic urban pleasures and more like a beautiful Monet painting that someone had dumped in a phone booth. The city itself is stunningly beautiful; the buildings are charmingly Seuss-like and lean slightly sideways and forwards all over the place so you feel slightly woozy. Canals ooze between all of the streets and are lines with trees, hanging baskets, chic bistros… And slotted in amongst all this, like pieces of litter in a manicured flowerbed, there are hundred of strip bars, peep shows, sexy-fun-time-‘toy’-shops – and, of course, the infamous booths. Prostitution is allowed in Amsterdam but not on the streets, which is why those lovable prostitutes set themselves up in tiny windowed cabinets facing onto the street so they can gyrate and flirt at passers-by until one of them takes an interest and steps inside so the curtain can be drawn.
It would actually have been more interesting if the prostitutes actually had gyrated and flirted, however. I was prepared for shocks and lascivious smut on this tour, but the last thing I had expected was quite how seedy and dull it was all going to be. The whores looked pissed off and bored, loitering about in their windows while occasionally scratching their armpits or having a packet of crisps. The peep shows and strip bars were crass demonstrations of nudity rather than thrilling spectacles; apparently there isn’t a single burlesque-style show in town, and the most popular shows involve you simply sitting in cinema seating while a couple of bored people shag each other for a bit or shove bananas up their wiff-waffs for no good reason. Even the few fellow Brits on my tour – a group of four unspeakably white boys with acne, buck-teeth and T-shirts with dragon motifs – couldn’t even muster the energy to give an adenoidal chuckle after a while. Those poor boys came to Amster hoping for the erotic time of their lives, but they were so disappointed I almost felt sorry for the sad little goons.
The sex scene in Amsterdam is like a vending machine. It’s nothing to do with the thrills and the taboos and the lick-your-lips juicyness we hope it will be. It’s just a market, a group of traders carrying out basic transactions: here is a naked lady, would you like to view the range of tarifs or simply pay for a one-off basic option? I began to feel that a lot of Amsterdam is much the same, after a while. The food is deep-fried, portioned up and handed out with no real intent of enjoyment; yes, there really is a chain of ‘restaurants’ that simply have vending machines with burgers inside.
The pot isn’t smoked in a louche, bohemian manner but is ubiquitously tacky, with those awful marajuana-leaf icons everywhere as if we were all fourteen again and thought this was a marvelously risqué, naughty thing to contemplate. Little pockets of the city reek of weed, which itself smells like burnt llama hair and is deeply nauseating.
And this all made me sad, because the time I spent in between the Red Light streets and the chip shops, when I would stumble upon the beautiful streets and historical corners, showed me Amsterdam as a real human city which is worth spending time in. It’s a fascinating place, with masses to do and see and so much character and good GOD such excellent cheese. But I sympathise with the locals, who are sick of being associated with nothing but sex and drugs. Amsterdam has nothing to do with sex and drugs, after all. Sex and drugs are naughty and exciting. Amsterdam’s legend is nothing more than a pervert’s fart. Amsterdam’s brilliance is every single thing that lies in between.
Next week, Barcelona! And don’t forget to keep commenting and emailing the new site email address, ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com with your ideas and questions!