Should I Move to Amsterdam?

Weed, Tightwads, and Hookers
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 24 2005 6:47 AM

Should I Move to Amsterdam?

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Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Click here for a slide show. 5: Kind Bud

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Some people visit Amsterdam and neglect to smoke any weed. Frankly, I can't comprehend this.

Imagine, for the sake of analogy, that you have traveled to a tiny village on the banks of the Amazon. Some friendly villagers (as they are wont to do, in my experience) have offered you a bowl of insects. To eat.

Now, I would argue that—for the sake of experience—you really ought to try at least one or two bugs. Even if eating insects is something you'd never do at home ... and even if you find the practice frightening, or wholly repugnant.

Because in the end, I can promise three things: 1) Eating a couple of insects won't kill you. 2) If nothing else, now you know what insects taste like. 3) There's very little danger that, upon your return back home, you'll feel uncontrollable urges to fry up a heaping batch of ants in your kitchen.

This same set of promises applies to smoking weed in the Netherlands. And I'll offer you another, even more ironclad guarantee: Smoking pot will be more fun than eating ants.

Following this impeccable logic, I wandered into an Amsterdam coffeeshop ("coffeehouses" sell coffee, while "coffeeshops" sell cannabis) along the posh Prinsengracht canal—far from the annoying hippie/frat-guy stoner scene near the city center. This particular coffeeshop was called La Tertulia, and it's the cutest little marijuana mart you'll ever see. It has a garden and a goldfish pond. Outside, there's a mural of Vincent van Gogh, and some canalside tables and chairs so you can smoke up al fresco. At the counter, a nice older lady (I'm pretty certain she's the owner) will sell you a zip-locked baggie of pot for 12 euros.

There are several choices on the menu (including a strain called "Bubble Gum" and another called "Northern Lights"). A friend of mine back home—who, unlike me, is a true connoisseur in these matters—had insisted that I simply must try a variety called "Nepalese Temple Ball" if I could find it. But it wasn't on the menu at La Tertulia, and (based on the terrifying name) I'm thinking that might have been for the best.

La Tertulia caught my attention because it's exactly what a yuppie, Upper West Side hash bar might look like, if such a thing existed. I've often thought that aesthetic considerations—and not moral or health concerns—are at heart the biggest stumbling block for the "legalize it" movement. Because while we associate alcohol with all sorts of vibes and venues—including black-tie affairs and professional gatherings—we associate pot-smoking only with smelly hippies and zoned-out videogamers. Weed's got an image problem.

What it really needs is a better publicist. Someone who could play up, say, the scene in Eyes Wide Shut where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman roll a joint. Here we see a successful, rich Manhattan couple (he's a doctor, even!) smoking pot in a decidedly non-hippy, non-smelly manner. This is good for the stoners' cause. (Of course, Cruise's character later attends a perverted, masked orgy ... and it seems that Cruise himself is a couch-stomping loon—but a decent publicist could gloss over this.)

How does pot's semi-legal status play out in the Netherlands? In terms of overall drug-use rates, some claim it's been a great success (though, as always, there are arguments on both sides). But in terms of everyday life in Amsterdam, I can see how the Dutch might get fed up. Each weekend, hundreds of British teenage boys storm the city, get totally blazed, and stumble around in a zombie stupor. It's like a plague of retarded locusts.

The American kids are less staggering in number but equally irritating in behavior. I watched one frat guy play "I Will Survive" on his acoustic guitar, sitting cross-legged on the grass at Museumplein, as a buddy nodded his head in time and then launched into a feeble somersault. They both had souvenir poster-tubes from the Van Gogh Museum's gift shop. I watched them with a burning revulsion. Later, I saw a different kid sitting alone on a sidewalk at night, his eyes as red as maraschino cherries. He was totally incapable of speech. Or thought. Or standing up. And again, I hated him fiercely. Pull it together, you toasted-out spaz!

Of course, the Dutch deal with doofuses like this every day, yet manage to maintain a tolerant (if unimpressed) attitude. It's the price you pay for enacting a vaguely rational drug policy.

Me, I'm no blazed-out teen. But I did thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to hit La Tertulia, spark up a jaybird, put on my headphones, and then listen to Nina Simone as I walked the canals on a sunny afternoon. I assure you: My eyes were not red, my gait was not wobbly, and the Dutchies were none the wiser.

Am I a doofus? Oh, yes. But a doofus in moderation.

6: World-Class Skinflints

The Dutch are widely thought to be the cheapest people on earth. Wherever there's a guilder-(now euro-)shaving angle, there's a Dutchie. For example: Why are canal houses so narrow here? Because they were built at a time when property taxes were based on width.

This is the country that brought us the Dutch East India Co., which was the Halliburton of its day. (Think about it: the undefined, quasi-military role; the natural-resource plundering; the exploitative, paternalistic bone-headedness ... it's all there.) The Dutch are responsible for the tulip craze—the world's first speculative bubble. In the early 1700s, the Dutch markets went to warp speed. One historian describes a period where shares rose so quickly that traders had no time to go outside and defecate—they simply squatted in the corner of the room.

You probably think that "going Dutch" means splitting the check 50-50. But in fact it's much less casual than that. According to my friend Carey, who has witnessed this ritual many times, the Dutch will split each check right down to the dish. Thus six people eating a meal together will carefully examine the bill, determine who ordered what, and then pay precisely their share. (And it goes without saying that you don't have to tip your waiter.)

I get the feeling that I'm being squeezed at every turn. Just look at the bathroom in my hotel room: I'm certain that its cubic capacity is the absolute minimum necessary to fit a toilet, sink, and shower. My God, but these people are masters of niggling. Have a heart, you cheap bastards!

I think the Dutch are secretly happy to dominate the soft-drugs tourism market (all the annoyances aside). It's a highly profitable niche, and they can't resist it. Same thing with prostitution, which is a massive tourist draw.

7: Hookers

Speaking of which, I suppose I should address the hooker issue.

I can give you no first-hand accounts. My girlfriend would not be coolio with that. Frankly, I would not be coolio with that, either, girlfriend or no. Paying for sex seems rather icky.

With your interests in mind, though, reader, I tried to enlist a few single guy friends as surrogate reporters. I was hoping one of these dudes might be willing to indulge in some red-light shenanigans. But I found no takers. What a bunch of nerds my friends are.

So, here's what I can say: Even if you never close the deal, it still puts a bit of a zing in your step when a stocky, pockmarked whore waves you over to her window, flashes a dun-toothed smile, and gives you her best bedroom eyes.

Maybe next time, you squat, sexy minx!

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