Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Amsterdam: a taste of pragmatic tolerance and alternative social policies that would scare the hell out of most Americans

Apologies in advance for the political sounding title; I'm not going to make any dissident claims about my home country's laws, but after thinking about my time in Amsterdam for quite a few weeks, the polarizing difference from the US in terms of attitude to some social issues is the one thing about the city that really stuck with me.   We arrived in Amsterdam on the evening of May 5 and left only 24 hours later, saying our farewells to Kyle and Emily as they had a 2nd night in this great town.  

An Amsterdam canal at night
Reflecting back on the short trip, I can't really pin any "must-see" sight in Amsterdam.  Yes it has some very high quality museums that I did not go in, such as the newly remodeled Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum.  We did tour the Ann Frank's House museum - easily the highlight of the trip.  I was able to appreciate this much more after seeing Auschwitz last year.  At the end of the day [literally], I told Kerry that Amsterdam is not really a tourist destination like the other big Euro cities we've seen.  It's more like a town that I'd like to spend 3 months to discover.  I see myself getting a short-term work assignment and a single speed bicycle with curved handle bars and trying to exist like the locals to really enjoy the city.  Would this ever happen in reality? No, not unless I make some massive changes in the near term future.  But through observation, it's evident to me that it would be a rich, worthwhile experience to live in this city with it's open-minded laws and pragmatic solutions toward contentious social issues. 

As a midwestern American, I grew up ingrained to know that smoking tobacco is for 18+ only, drinking is for 21+ only, prostitution is clearly illegal and immoral, and cannabis is not only illegal but also the path to wasted life.  And then there's the ongoing issues of the legality of homosexual marriage and abortion which will really spark some controversy in mixed company.  My point is - in the worldview of an American, the Dutch take a very "out-of-the-box" approach to these controversial topics.  It doesn't stop there however.  The Netherlands has some very cool ideas for more mundane things, as well.  

All that said, I'm fairly sure what works for the Dutch does not work for the Americans.  Put simply we're different, even as some might lean more one way or another.  I do think we prideful Americans could stand to observe and learn with an open mind to find ways to improve in small ways.  As an example, (keeping in mind I'm writing this 3 weeks late), the Indy 500 race weekend arrest report was published by the Indy Star.   14 people were arrested for either furnishing tobacco to minors or being minors in possession of tobacco.  Is this really worth the trouble - resources and time - to process these infractions?  And does it really change anything?  I would bet all 14 of the above will grow up to be life-long smokers.  What can I do about it?  Besides warning them of the health detriments, nothing.  So why bother wasting my time?  I've rambled on too long already, but I'm just trying to give you all a flavor of the pragmatic approach to some issues that could end up saving us Americans a lot of money.  

Finally, before I move on, I just want to say Schiphol airport is the coolest, most beautiful, and efficient airport I've ever had the pleasure of passing through.  It is exactly the opposite of the Ciampino airport, easily the worst, ugliest, and wasteful airport in the south of Rome (you'll have to wait about 3 posts before I get to that one...).  To give you an idea of the level of zen Schiphol is at - they invented the idea of etching flies in the bowls of the urinals.  This was after a psychology study stated that men tend to prefer having something to "aim" at to avoid splatter and messy public bathrooms.  In other words - aim for the fly, less cost to janitorial cleanup of the public toilets, and I don't have to step in it. Mind blown.

Since I went off on a tangent up there, the rest of this post will simply be captioned photos from our stay.  Enjoy.

Yeah I booked us 1st class tickets to Amsterdam from Paris without realizing it. Worth Every Penny.

Livin' large with free drinks and snacks after every major stop . Oh and we brought our own bottle of wine too.

The bunting was for the recent holiday.  Also they recently had a change in the royalty.  And the Amsterdam football team (Ajax) won some big final game that night.  It got a little crazy, like riot crazy.  I saw an armored vehicle.  Kyle and Emily's apartment was in the thick of it.

Chilling at a nearby bar after an eye-opening wander through the red light district (no photos allowed, duh). We opted for a much tamer environment.

Good times and conversation with friends.  The beer was good, too.

I think this is typical Amsterdam, you're welcome.

Kerry was asking if we needed a new salt shaker.

The Dutch would wear painted, oversized wooden shoes because they thought it was funny.

More classic Amsterdam on our walks, cycling is very popular . As a pedestrian, keep your head on a swivel - these bikes are silent.

I gave this guy some money for his cool contraption of a music machine. He also sang.

The national WWII remembrance monument

Kerry and Emily fitting in just fine

At the garden shop - the unexpected sun required some covering on the head . Man I love sun.

Beautiful flowers and tulips on display at the flower market - a great stop

I read you can grow up to 5 plants before facing illegal prosecution - it's all about managing the amount available

Colorful cactus for sale

A wonderful cactus arrangement - I got yelled at for taking pictures after this one. Not sure why she cared?

The full scale letters - so crowded (at the time) and big that you can't dare to fit the whole sign in one go.  The little letters actually make a better picture...

While Kyle and Emily went to see the Van Gogh museum, Kerry and I learned about historical pornography of different cultures dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Stay classy!

While the Keukenhof gardens were in bloom, our short stay did not allow us to visit. We did relax in Vondelpark for a while with some stroopwafel (delicious crispy waffle with a caramel filling) and admired the tulips.  The 24 hr metro card came in very handy.

More views of locals relaxing in the park on a beautiful day

Kerry at the mouth of the canal - we tried to see a fleamarket but it was wrapping up by the time we got there.

We had a great time wandering the city, using the tram, and learning about the culture with help from the Rick Steves guidebook (courtesy of fellow expat Steve, thanks!).  After reading, I found out Rick Steves is very into the legalization of marijuanna.  His argument shouldn't be dismissed immediately; in the book he offers guidance for the novice on how to order some from a coffeeshop (for the record I did not - for heath and fitness reasons).  He is also very fascinated with van Gogh.  His background on van Gogh for the museum, which I read on the plane without actually looking at the paintings, was superb.

Well there you go, if you're an American visiting Europe, to do so without the Holy Testament of Our Father Rick Steves would be sinful.

There were a lot of things we did which did not allow pictures or I'd rather not take and publish on the internet.  Also, I must thank Kyle and Emily for helping us pull the trigger to visit Amsterdam, as it was a city I was prepared to skip for budgeting.  It was worth it, even if it was for a short while.

Finally, the people of the city were some of the friendliest I've come across.  And they are taller, fitter, dress better, and speak more languages than most of us Americans.  It's tough to live up to that, but Kerry and I are just happy to have the experience.


  1. The best picture was the one of Kerry in the wooden shoes. Love it. Also, where did you find the miniature I amsterdam? It definitely took better pictures!

  2. It's hard to believe I went a few places without a Rick Steves book. What was I thinking?!

  3. Tara - the mini sign was near a stop on our RS walk outside the free section of the Amsterdam museum, yeah it was way less crowded too!