Tuesday, October 18, 2011

AmsterDAM!

Hello everybody.

I have just returned form a weekend in Amsterdam, hosted by the charming and affable Kenneth and Vandi. First up I'd like to extend a hearty public thank-you to them for putting us up and showing us a great time.

Next up I want to wax lyrical about the intriguing and spectacular city of Amsterdam. Upon arrival in The Netherlands I was struck by the flat and almost completely featureless geography of the place. Even coming from Melbourne, whose suburban landscape is mostly devoid of contours, it was strange to encounter a place that seemed to stretch forever with not so much as a bump on any horizon. I could suggest that the topography of Holland is boring, but that doesn't convey the eerie feeling of being in a place completely different from anywhere else I have ever visited.

I will also suggest that the social differences of Amsterdam contrast directly with its unspectacular geography. In fact I will go so far as to suggest that the current conservative elements in Dutch society that are lobbying to rid Amsterdam of its other liberal attractions are in danger of turning The Netherlands into the most boring place on the planet.

A visit into town to showcase these attractions, whilst altogether too brief, was an enlightening experience. We caught the train into Amsterdam Central and walked to the museum district past canals and marketplaces. Like my recent trip to Sweden I was exhilarated by the bicycling culture there. It is such a way of life that the bicycles mix with pedestrians and automobiles without incident. As a newcomer you really have to be alert to avoid the darting cyclists, but I did not witness a single incident where any antagonism existed between any cyclist and a driver or pedestrian. It is possible, and Melbourne especially can learn a lesson in how to share public roadways.

But the thing that attracts the many tourists to Amsterdam town isn't the bikes. It is, of course, the sex and the drugs - the scourge of modern society elsewhere. Governments around the world are intent on clamping down on people's personal freedom to explore the limits of indulgence and desire, yet Amsterdam, at least for the present, is able to function as a modern, thriving, cosmopolitan city whilst exercising tolerance - even promotion - of these vices.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the place is perfect. I was not there long enough to gather enough evidence to mount a contrary opinion. But what evidence I did gather was, for me at least, compelling. There may be a down side to the drug culture in Amsterdam. But I didn't see it. There may be deep rooted social problems with regards to prostitution and sex slavery. But I didn't see it. I'm not going to pretend these things don't exist, but what I did see was happiness. Everywhere. I'm not kidding, or being glib. I have never, ever, ever been to a place where people were so openly and undeniable happy. Walking the streets of not only the red-light district, but much of the entire city, I have never seen so many smiling faces. Not in Sweden or Denmark, where the living seems easy, were the people so content as to wipe the serious, rat-raced, too-busy-to-care blank looks from their faces. In Australia, the lucky country in so many ways, the urban population, whilst friendly, do not exude the same delight whilst just getting about their business. Granted the day I visited was a picture postcard post-summer delight, but that surely was not the only reason for the relaxed countenances of the general population.

No. What we have in Amsterdam, at least to my casual observance, is something approaching a modern utopia. Was everyone high? No. Was everyone visiting the ladies (and ladyboys) of the red-light district? No. But the fact that the Dutch are trusted to indulge in mind altering (mind soothing?) drugs and pleasures of the flesh empowers them to exist in a tolerant and carefree state. My visit to The Grasshopper and subsequent sojourn through the red-light district and past the shopfront booths of ladies of ill-repute was entirely devoid of shame or fear. Contrast this with London's Soho district, where the atmosphere is dirty, cheap and threatening, and you have a window on what the world could be like if governments allowed people to exist without arbitrary restriction. I have long believed that prohibition, in almost any context, serves no other purpose than to criminalise behaviour and make it dangerous. If something is illegal there is nothing to stop those that control it (usually organised crime syndicates) from employing further criminal activity to secure their control and profitability. Remove the criminal element and you allow people to find their own limits. Are people spending too much time and money on drugs and hookers in Amsterdam? Very likely. Yet I cannot fathom that the Dutch spend any more of either  because of their free access to both. I would argue that people everywhere else are more susceptible to the evils of the sins due to the criminality and illicit nature of the acts where they live. Indeed, in my new home town city of Inverness I see many more junkies upon every street than I saw in the whole of the Amsterdam red-light district, where I saw a grand total of one guy who looked like he might have been on smack. Maybe.

I took only a few photographs of Amsterdam on the weekend. There was very little to capture my imagination as an amateur travel photographer. Amsterdam's  visual charms (if you don't count some of the stunning examples of femalehood on display in the windows) are few. It is what Amsterdam contains, what it stands for, and what it proves to the rest of the world that make it such an amazing place to visit. And I hope I will have the opportunity to visit again soon.

Local Market Colour

Mmm. . . Boobies.

The Happiest Place on earth?

Until next time.

x.