Guest Contributor: Sarah Presley
When you’re waiting in line to buy a gram of weed from behind a wooden counter with a bunch of other customers and you’re from New York, chances are you’re going to feel like a bit of a narc. Not that you want to snitch on anyone else who’s in line let alone the vendor—just that you will almost inevitably squirm on the inside from being conditioned to think of weed as, nowadays, at least less than legal.
That was the main adjustment I had to make as a New Yorker exploring the idyllic capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam. Well, there was that and the overwhelming ratio of bike traffic to car traffic, how clean the streets were, and how relatively homogenous the general population appeared compared to New York. (This was odd, I felt, having been told that Amsterdam is one of the most diverse cities in the world, or at least Europe.) And, of course, there were the sex workers. On display in windows, more so than any weed we purchased, the sex workers showed off their “wares” nonchalantly to hoards of tourists passing through the red light district for the novelty of it…or as customers.
For some background, I went to Amsterdam because my roommate’s brother lives there (he’s studying for his Master’s degree) with his girlfriend. They gave me and my roommate the rundown on the various aspects that make the city truly unique. Mostly, they were legal aspects—the drugs and the women…and who purchases them. So, who does purchase them? Largely, we were told, tourists.
We saw some of the culprits—the potbellied British men in tracksuits coming out of alleyways in the red light district, the young travelers posting up in the sort of “coffee shops” (aka, marijuana stores) where purposefully trippy music blares out of the speakers, the walls covered in murals of fetuses blooming out flowers being watered by tears from the sky, etc., etc. The more touristy the coffee shops got, the more likely they were to give off that kitschy weed aesthetic, and the more likely they were to offer a variety of weed baked goods. Otherwise, this was no Colorado, and the vendors didn’t get fancy with their weed. Only via a detailed rating system, sometimes denoted by emoticon-like faces wearing variously droopy expressions, did the shops show true enthusiasm for weed culture as we’d understand it in the US.
Overall, we heard mostly English spoken in the coffee shops. This was likely because the locals don’t tend to frequent the places as much as visitors do. What the locals did seem to frequent were the cafés, which tended to look like nicer versions of your typical dive bar.
At one such café, I walked in seeking shelter from the rain to find myself surrounded by older locals—clear longtime regulars at the bar. As a foreigner–and an American, no less–I assumed the treatment would be frosty. I was pleasantly surprised when the older Dutch man on my left struck up a cheerful conversation about the weather, his history in and out of Amsterdam, and the upcoming major holiday, King’s Day. The bartender, also easily the youngest person in the bar, joined in, and I felt nearly as at home as I do at my local bar in New York. In no coffee shop (the weed kind) did anyone make an effort to be friendly to strangers, as far as I noticed. Perhaps this has more to do with the nature of the substances sold at both establishments and less to do with the whole locals vs. tourist divide.
As the older local at the café told us, King’s Day, the city’s (country’s?) biggest holiday was coming up during our visit, so we prepared to celebrate it with gusto. After digging through our hosts’ closets for all the orange items we could find (the color of the Dutch royal family) on the day of, we headed for the streets, where people of the city were already celebrating in full swing. Still, the more conversations we got into with those drinking in the streets around us, the more we realized that the revelers weren’t nearly exclusively Dutch. We met a group of Italians, some Spanish travelers, the requisite hard partying Australians, and many others from abroad.
Perhaps the Dutch people had their own friends and plans and venues (not to mentions boats in the canals) to the point where they weren’t as inclined to enter into conversations with strangers. Or maybe the hard partying culture that Amsterdam has come to be somewhat known for internationally is kind of a…myth? Or it’s something that’s embodied more in the city’s visitors than its permanent residents.
Overall, the things that define the city for tourists (legalish weed and psychedelics, the red light district) are very much not what account for the average local’s experience. This made me think about how tourists see New York. Of course there are the major landmarks, likes Times Square and the Empire State Building, which tourists feel the need to visit but locals avoid like the plague (that being said, my friend and I definitely went to a few of Amsterdam’s big tourist destinations—the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank house–luckily we avoided the Heineken Experience). But culturally, what do tourists assume about New York that’s kind of…off?
For New York, the tourist image has to consist of bright lights and big, glamorous events taking place almost exclusively in Manhattan (though Brooklyn’s steadily making its way into the spotlight these days, too). If you’re a local, you realize that this is all around you (the lights, the events) but you’re a) unphased by it, and b) not compelled to take part. You have a job, friends, family, a life—living big, loud, and “glamorous” isn’t necessarily why you’ve made a home in the city. And if you’ve moved to the city purely for the party, you’re probably not going to last here that long.
That being said, I’m pretty sure my roommate’s brother chose to study in Amsterdam in part for the coffee shops, and he seems to be lasting there just fine.