Red Lights of Amsterdam

Say what is that?
An iPod.
Does it just do music?
Yeah, I'm old fashioned. I don't need a phone or video or anything like on the iPhone.
Oh wow. I'll have to swipe me one of those later. Hee hee hee.
—Man on the Amsterdam tram

In Europe I've talked to more homeless people than I ever thought I would. Eating street food alone on a bench or a wall is the best way to draw them out. It also helps to appear poor with a hint of dishevelment. If you can manage all that, so many homeless people will try to talk to you that you'll wish you brought your tin foil hat.

They come up and candidly tell you things you never wanted to know ever and never asked about, and they help you with things you did not need help with until you feel like you're pals, and then they spring the question -- "Do you have any change" -- and you feel bad if you don't and taken advantage of if you do, like if a girl shows you a good time and then asks for a check, only the girl is a man with no teeth and never more than a dozen long hairs on his chin.

My favorite homeless people are the ones who practice Shakespeare, or something like that. They walk onto a subway car or stop still in the street like the Devil is taking hold and then belt out a fiery harangue that makes Mussolini look like Don Corleone. I never know what they say since it's in French or Dutch or German, but it always sounds really impressive. I would probably put money in a cup if they had one out. When their vituperation is finished, these preachers of a ragged order just turn and leave, and nobody but me says a word or looks at them or even claps.

Amsterdam lies between Bruges and Las Vegas on at least several spectrums, but to see them all you'd have to take everything on the Smart Shop menu, from 'shrooms to sleeping pills. It's more adult than Vegas, with fewer restrictions and less family-friendly frosting on the cake of debauchery. Yeah, there's pot. Yeah, there's hookers. Yeah, those twenty Danes are singing and pounding the table with their fists. Who cares?

Every Amsterdam local is totally chill with the whole business of their city, and they will talk to you about anything at the drop of a hat -- a mellow disposition at odds with the grating number of tourists and the sometimes wild streets.

Most cobblestone avenues lack lanes, painted lines, and sidewalks, so the only way cars can move is to barrel through pedestrians like bowling balls. On these streets rove packs of feral frat boys -- the same no matter what country they come from -- especially in the alleys around the Red Light district and the nearby Warmoesstrat of weed café "coffee shops," Irish pubs, shantytown hostels, and the ivory storefront of Condomerie that sells exactly what you think it does.

I liked Amsterdam. I skipped the museums and tried to see as much of the city as I could. Houseboats tied up and half-sunk on the canals between the streets. Sunny flower and flea markets and book stands. Seedy bars and alleyways. Wood-paneled coffee shop hot boxes that share the same playlist: Bob Marley and Air.

Today I came to Cologne, on the Rhine in Germany. I'll stay here a few days before going across the country to Berlin, then Bavaria (Deutschland's Texas). I was going to visit Hamburg, but vivid tales of the three mile-long street of strip clubs deterred that plan.


  1. Katy McDonald12 March, 2009

    i'll make sure to bring my tin foil hat thankssss

  2. Ms. McDonald12 March, 2009

    Another great entry. Looked for some photos, especially of your new friends, but was disappointed. I will try again later. Too bad it is too early for tulips. That must be something to see. Enjoy Germany. I hope the Rhine boats are running. Love, mom


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