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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Seattle to Amsterdam:

Better Travel Through Chemistry

How early do you need to arrive at the airport these days? Is over an hour early enough? I’m actually the early-arriving anxious type so I figured that over an hour early would certainly be early enough for anyone. Exactly how fucking early do I need to be? Is yesterday too early? When I slapped down the tickets and passports the guy at the check-in counter let out a sigh and then sucked his teeth. I also noticed that he shook his head ever so slightly.

Please don’t suck your teeth when my trip to Europe is at stake. Please find some other twitch or quirk that I may not understand because teeth-sucking says this to me: “You’re screwed and you fucked up and you should have got here earlier. Maybe you should have skipped showering and brushing your teeth and got here earlier. What were you thinking?” What I was thinking was that flying has always been a pain in the ass and under the new regime of Homeland Security it has become almost intolerable.

He assured us that we had got in right under the wire to board our flight. He also assured us that our bags would also make the flight—not that assurances from airline people actually mean anything. At least he stopped sucking his teeth. I think that he probably even wished us a good flight but we were already running towards the security check and our gate and never looked back at Mister Teeth Sucker.

I normally never wear a watch but I was for this trip and I forgot that I was wearing a watch which sounded the metal detector. The totally humorless Barney Fife at security took me aside and waved the metal detector wand over me. Good thing he wasn’t waving an illegal prescription drug wand over me or we may have had a problem. My Xanax and Valium stayed safely in my front pocket so there was no Midnight Express episode on this flight—at least not yet. I left the security check point and boarded the plane.

Before the plane took off they called the names of several passengers with Arab-sounding names asking them to please come to the front of the aircraft (For a summary house arrest, execution?). For all of the times I’ve bitched about how boring it is to be white your entire life this was one instance that I thanked my stars that in this hemisphere, and under the current administration, I look like every other gringo white schlub. I figured that if they called my name I’d just swallow all of my contraband and ask them for a glass of water or a chaser shot of vodka to wash it down as they escorted me off to jail.

Very soon after we took off the contraband was safely were it belonged: In my stomach floating around on an inner tube on a lake of vodka and orange juice. Before this trip I was more than half-way through Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing so I wasn’t too terrified of the boredom that normally accompanies air travel. With the right reading material I could easily handle a long prison sentence, even without the Xanax and screwdrivers. Prison doesn’t scare me that much but I would just rather not have to make those sorts of awful choices. I will never make the awful choice again of taking a long air trip without mood-enhancing drugs.

The first in-flight movie was Analyze That or worse, it was how that piece of dreck was filmed. I can’t imagine ever being so bored that I would put the headphones on for a piece of shit like that. Thank God I was stoned on Xanax and had a good book to read.

A friend loaned me this awesome Sony picture book mini laptop. Instead of the Harry Potter movie, which came up next, I stuck to farting around on this nifty new super tinie weenie laptop for as long as the battery lasted. I also had the book.

Before I could read or write 500 words I was completely dead to the world. I missed the entirely miss-able, in-flight meal. Usually I’m way too bored to do anything but wait for the dreadful airline food they hand out. When I did wake up I was hungry so I went back to the galley and scored us some lousy leftover pasta and a couple bottles of red wine.

There was only about six hours left and I had another Xanax to split and at least two more drink servings before landing. They display the plane’s speed, altitude, distance from Amsterdam, and arrival time on the video screens around the cabin. I was amazed at how quickly we were to arriving. It was really foggy (The weather and my brain) on approach and I lost track of where we were until I glanced at the screen and saw that our altitude was six feet. I’ve never been surprised by how short a flight seems. I had never before done anything but curse the airline industry for subjecting me to the degradation and torture of the type of travel they sell. What they need to start selling is Xanax.

Sweet, sweet Xanax, thank you for making this the easiest, quickest nine hour flight I could ever hope for. I will never fly without you again--with or without a legal prescription.

Customs in Shiphol airport is simply a matter of grabbing your bags and walking past a couple of good-natured Dutch kids with uniforms, yet somehow I feel safer here than back in the States with all of the ridiculously stern people who flunked out of mall security school. We have an army of low-paid, bored cop wannabes who are our front line in the war on terror. It just seems to me that we would be a lot better off with a few, well-paid professional who give a shit about what they are doing and know what to look for. Try hiring a bunch of former El Al employees.

Once again, as on my last trip here, I was unable to use the ticket dispensing machines at the airport to buy the 3.6E train ticket to Amsterdam—just couldn’t figure it out or maybe I had the wrong ATM card. A moral defeat that drove me to the counter and made me buy it from a person. I was able to buy our train tickets to Paris while I was at it so maybe I turned defeat into victory. Round trip from Amsterdam to Paris on the wonderful Thaly is 330E (5 stops) for two second class seats. I think the airport is 16 miles from Amsterdam’s Central station. It was still very foggy on the way into town. The industrial environs and suburbs of Amsterdam are about as ugly and as charmless as any other city, especially on this gray morning.

By the time we arrived at Central Station the clouds had given way to a sunny spring day and walking seemed like a better idea than immediately catching a cab for the hotel.

Our hotel is about ¾ of a mile from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gough Museum. It is sort of a sleepy residential area of traditional apartment buildings and ultra-wealthy private homes. Out of our window was a charming park with a lake. Not just a lake but a lake loaded with water fowl including a semi-tame crane. The number 2 tram line runs right past the hotel and is a convenient way to travel to and from the train station and the livelier places in town. I was still a bit groggy from the Zanax, the jet lag, and the nine hour flight but a double cappuccino cleared my head and put me in the mood for an epic walk around this city that I only discovered two years ago.

After coffee the next stop on the agenda is a French fry (Vlamse Fritte?) joint in the Rembrandt Plaza that I frequented on my last trip. A cone of fried potatoes with an artery-hardening amount of mayonnaise and a big coffee made me feel totally human and ready to walk all day and then on to closing time if necessary. These are the sacrifices I’m willing to make for the Leftbanker readers. God bless you all.

Now comes the dilemma for the traveler: What do you do when you are visiting a semi-strange city 7,800 miles from home? Do you spend every minute inside a museum or some other cultural icon from the travel books or do you just try to act like you live here and do what the people who live here do day in and day out? I’m not one to carry around a checklist of things that I must do.

I’m more of a walker, more of a coffee drinker, beer sipper, and voyeur than tourist. Probably my favorite thing to do in Amsterdam is to walk around at night and window peep into all of the beautiful canal homes. Every block, every house, every doorway is a wonder and what I also wonder is why more people of the world don’t build their cities as beautiful as this one.

Why don’t more cities realized the destructive and dehumanizing nature of the automobile and restrict its use as they do here in Amsterdam? Just two years after my last visit to this city I noticed a marked difference in the reduction of private automobile traffic. I also noticed the lack of hostility between pedestrians and cyclists. Bike paths have been systematically expanded and separated from walkways by iron pylons. The constant (and highly irritating) clinging of bells from cyclists seems to have faded as pedestrians and bike riders have come to coexist here in a manner that seemed impossible on my last visit.

What seems to have been dealt out of this formula are private automobiles. They seem as rare as horse and buggies in the age of the automobile; a small step—or crank of the pedals--for mankind. People ride bikes here. Oh my god do people ride bikes here. There seems to be an old bicycle chained to every solid object in the entire town. As we were walking along minding our own business we watched as a barge dredged one of the canals, removing dead bikes from their watery graves. An entire barge was loaded with the carcasses of rusted two wheelers.

While sitting in Rembrandt Square and sipping a beer late in the afternoon I didn’t see or hear a single car drive by, only the occasional jingle of a bike bell. The quiet was as refreshing as the late winter sun.

French fries with mayonnaise aside I don’t think that anyone would claim that Amsterdam is any sort of culinary capital. For dinner we just decided to take the tram to the Liedsplein area and simply pick out a restaurant at random. There are a bewildering number of South American steak houses that sounded to me like fat and gristle and fries. Indonesian food is a specialty here but just didn’t sound good so we decided on a quaint little Greek place called Kos, after the island of that name.

I figured at least I could speak to the help but I quickly realized that they didn’t sound Greek. The food was authentic enough and we definitely could have done worse. A three piece musical group played a lot of mournful dirge-sounding songs whose origins could have been Arabic or Balkan although I couldn’t identify the language they were singing to save my life which lead me to believe they were possibly Albanian or Bulgarian. The band consisted of a clarinetist, an accordionist, and a keyboardist—not the usual Greek combo. The female server didn’t understand me when I spoke to her in Greek so it’s anyone’s guess as to who runs this place. We got a couple of shots of ouzo instead of desert and headed back out to the Leidsplein. Instead of marijuana we were looking for a bit of absinthe but we thought the local hash bar would be the best place to look.

The Bulldog is like the Starbucks of marijuana bars in Amsterdam. They are fairly ubiquitous and no longer simply reside in the seedy parts of the Red Light District. We ducked down into the Bulldog in Leidsplein but they only sold beer and gave away second-hand pot smoke for free. I had a Cuban cigar to smoke and wanted to save my lungs for this much more preferable drug. We saw an absinthe bar on the way to the train station that we’ll check out on our return here next week.

No luck with finding absinthe on this night so we settled for a night cap of brandy. I was ready to smoke my $5 Romeo y Julieta Cuban cigar and wander around the canal district. Cigars are most definitely my drug of choice. I’m filled with a sense of euphoria that is lacking in other mind-altering substances. The canal houses seem more majestic, the canals seem more beautiful, and the entire city seems more charming when I’m high on Cuban nicotine. A full moon guided the way and at midnight we had the city almost to ourselves.

Take my advice: The best thing to do in Amsterdam is to get a little tipsy and then wander around the canals smoking a great cigar. Window peeping seems to be encouraged as people show off their wonderful homes by leaving on the lights and having the blinds completely open. The streets are almost completely deserted except for the occasional group of drunks or someone out walking the dog. There is little fear of being run down by a cyclist or a taxi. We finished the evening by sitting on the stoop in front of our hotel sharing a glass of wine and watching the late-night cyclists cruise past and admiring the row houses across the street. A clear night with a full moon in Amsterdam isn’t a bad way to end a first day in Europe.

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