|Survival of the fittest|
It feels like a mischievous child who likes to play pranks, and we're buzzing with excitement and anticipation when we arrive in Amsterdam, my girl friend PJ and I, not least because Brussels, our first Euro stop, hasn't exactly been a hopping spot. (More about that in a separate post)
The train journey from Brussels passes pleasantly as we sit behind a noisy group of English guys in shiny, identical suits and pinstripe ties. The lure of eavesdropping is taken out of our hands as they are talking so loudly anyway that we'd have had to have steel girdles through our ears to NOT hear everything. We gather from their animated conversation that they are on their way to a stag weekend in Rotterdam where there will be a lot of drunken debauchery.
As the train pulls into Amsterdam Centraal station, I look through the window and stare wide-eyed at the number of bicycles chained to racks outside the station. There are rows and rows of them, and, quite simply, I have never seen so many in one place. It is perhaps a warning of the near death experiences we would later have with the two-wheeled monsters who rule the streets of Amsterdam. (I also now have a PJ-shaped dent on my arm from when the jumpy girl would grip my arm so tightly if she so much as saw a bicycle near her)
Amsterdam. At last!
We stay at the luxurious Okura Hotel, whose selection was based on mildly amusing antics by us. The very name 'Okura' sounded like the Twi language word for 'mouse' (ekura), but a look at pictures of the hotel quickly dispelled any notion that it would be a mice-infested place. Goodness, no. We took one look at the plushness, and it was like, 'but of course, darling, this has to be where we stay!' Nevertheless, we were still tickled by the name, and would often burst into spontaneous rendition of the popular local Ghanaian chorus, 'okura yen, okura yen, enti yen suro..' Once we're checked in and shown our room, we can't stop squealing in excitement over the careful attention to detail, the lushness and amazing view of the canal from our eleventh floor suite. We quickly decide we were made for this.
Amsterdam's first surprise for us is that evening. We take a leisurely walk from the hotel to Leidseplein, an entertainment area with trendy restaurants, bars and nightclubs, stopping along the way to admire the majestic architecture of the Rijksmuseum. It has been raining on and off the whole day, and so, standing and shivering outside the restaurant where we dined on a sumptuous Indonesian dinner, we decide to get hot drinks. We see that to our immediate left is a coffee shop, De Rokerij. Neither the unusual darkness of the interior, nor the presence of a bouncer/security guard at the entrance prepares us for the pungent smell of weed that fills our nostrils as soon as we enter. We scarper back to the entrance, and to the bouncer guy who smirks at us - he KNOWS he's tricked our Jenny-come-lately selves, and he's enjoying our slight confusion.
'Um..excuse me, we just wanted to get coffee..?'
He points to the name above him. 'Well, what does this say?'
'Coffee shop,' we say dumbly. Meekly, almost.
But...what about the obvious smell that wafted over us, and the people rolling joints?
He bursts into laughter. 'Welcome to Amsterdam, girls. When you see a coffee shop here, you know there's more than coffee on the menu.' He winks.
'So this is not exactly a Starbucks kind of place?' We're still in a dumbfounded state, and the reference to Starbucks tickles him some.
He turns out to be quite the chatty bouncer, enjoying our general curiosity about Amsterdam's reputation as a destination for hash and hedonism. In this city, a coffee shop is where one procures pot, and smoking regulations forbid the smoking of tobacco in such places.
He has an amusing way of stating facts, and then shrugging them off with a jolly, 'But who cares, right?!'
We leave him shortly after that, and PJ says casually, 'I think I'm already high.'
I give her a look.
'Oh don't be ridiculous, girl,' she says with mock outrage, and adds innocently, 'I meant that I'm high on life.'
As we pass one restaurant after the other on the packed street, young men beckon to us to come in and eat. We see an attractive, smiley man in front of a Mexican restaurant. He looks about our age, so we stop and ask him for a good place to go dancing. We are in the mood to shake our shimmy in Amsterdam. He reels off a list of venues - Escape, Sugar Factory, Paradiso and Studio 80 because, 'that's where the magic happens.' He has the look of someone who knows the night scene in the city well, and so we are not surprised to discover later that he is in fact a photographer who specialises in capturing images of night time entertainment in Amsterdam. It is now past eight, and having already eaten, he tells us to come back at 11pm.
'But your restaurant will be closed, no?' I ask
He smiles slowly, lazily. 'Yea, well, I'm not talking about food...'
We fall in love with Amsterdam, hook, line and sinker. It is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities I've been to.
'More beautiful than Paris?' PJ teases. We both know that I am as biased as they come when Paris is mentioned.
I hesitate. 'Well, it is certainly up there with Paris.'
We make plans to go cycling before we arrive in the city, yet by some unspoken agreement, we are both put off it when it feels like our every step is threatened by an approaching bicycle. Instead, we walk everywhere - to Dam, the heart of the city where, inside a massive H&M store, a man follows us around, chanting incomprehensibly in Dutch at a clearly baffled PJ. ('But what is he saying, Davida?', 'How should I know, Peej, he's smitten with you!'); to the Red Light District with its abundance of sex shops and prostitutes beckoning seductively at passers-by, and I wonder briefly if this is perhaps one of Amsterdam's oldest clichés; along the Prinsengracht to the Anne Frank Huis, where we are disappointed to discover that it is closed because of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur. I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and noting a seemingly innocent line:
'Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I've never written before, but because it seems to me that later on, neither I or anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.'
How wrong she was! I have never read a more moving account of the Occupation during the war; that it is the voice of a young girl makes it all the more heart-wrenching.
We bask in the picturesque beauty of this city with so much character and history, its network of canals, arresting colours and architectural designs, and we declare that we shall return. I'm disappointed that during the entire trip I have not tried Dutch pancakes, mostly because in Brussels I consumed a deliciously sinful fruit sundae on warm waffle and promptly felt queasy, probably from an overdose of sugar, and so can't abide thoughts of pancake. Of course, later, I realise there may well have been savoury options too, hence my disappointment.
There is no shortage of entertainment for us in Amsterdam, however fleeting. Once, in a restaurant, I see Amstel on the drinks menu, and thinking it was the malt drink I used to have years ago in Ghana, I quickly order it in a fit of nostalgia. When it arrives, I take a sip and gag - it is not the Malta Guiness-like taste I was expecting; it is simply beer, which taste I completely dislike.
We crack up over cheesy lines thrown at us - a Dutchman waves away my protestations that I can't dance (see last post. In truth, I was just tired and needed to sit down), and assures me that, 'it's not a problem, I'm not a good dancer myself - I just want to bounce against you.'
Another gallantly tells PJ not to worry about the 50 cent charge to use the bathroom, as he will pay all her 'peeing money' for her. Now that just puts the 'pee' in Prince Charming.
Ah, Amsterdam. So dam good!