One thing with living in the Netherlands, visitors are always asking about the drug culture and sex industry. It’s a source of great fascination to many people that the Dutch are tolerant and open about these less than respectable, by the standards of most nations, trades. I’m asked endless questions about how, why, when and most of all where.
Come on. Like I’d know.
In the years I’ve lived here the Amsterdam Red Light district is not somewhere I’ve visited. Not for any reason particularly, it just hasn’t happened. I haven’t made it to the Anne Frank house or several other notable tourist sites, because there’s so much to see and do in Amsterdam and you figure it will always be there and you’ll go at some point.
I don’t notice the coffee shops either – they’re pretty discreet unless you’re with a bunch of adolescents who always want to take photos of them. Never been in one. It hasn’t been a conscious decision either way, hasn’t been on my radar.
It seems the coffee shops, certainly in Amsterdam, are frequented mostly by locals for whom it is a lifestyle choice and what are known as the ‘three-day-tourists’ – those visitors who arrive for a few days and want to hit the ground running and experience the slightly daring and risqué side of the capital.
There does seem to be that mind set with some visitors. Normally staid responsible pillars of the community back home, they feel the need to let their hair down and regress to being teenagers once they inhale the liberal air of Amsterdam.
I have a girlfriend, for legal reasons she will remain anonymous, who visited Amsterdam on a three-day cruise from that island off the west coast of mainland Europe. It was a ladies group, not girls, they were all old enough to know better and back home were well-respected, well-heeled and the solid centre of their communities. Think school governors and the Women’s Institute and you get the picture – although I must stress in this case none of them were actually members of this esteemed organisation.
Once disembarked they headed straight for the Red Light district, not the usual cultural jewels of Amsterdam such as the Rijks or Van Gogh museums, the canal boat or architectural tours as they’d told their families they would be doing.
Oh no, these ladies headed to the nearest coffee shop to partake of the local fare. As non of them were smokers – why does that not surprise you – they decided to imbibe the narcotic substance via hash brownies killing two birds with one stone as they got their chocolate fix too.
Initially they were a little disappointed with the result. I understand their first response was to inform the coffee shop owner they’d been screwed over at which point they were asked to leave.
They think they had a lovely afternoon wandering the streets and did have the presence of mind to visit the Van Gogh museum just to cover themselves if interrogated by family and friends on their return home.
Apparently they loved the intensity of Van Gogh’s colours and the mastery of his brushstrokes, with one of the group spending rather too long in front of one painting, breathlessly extolling the creativity and genius of the artist much to the nervous consternation of the other visitors. I can only imagine.
My girlfriend has rather blurred memories of the rest of the trip. How they got back to the ship she has no idea, although she has a vague memory of a rather helpful taxi driver. I bet. Lord knows how much that taxi cost.
Once back at the ship there was some difficulty getting aboard, caused, she believes by their inability to stop laughing and falling over several times due to the strange motion of the ship. That it was still in port obviously didn’t compute.
Several crew members were assigned to help them find their cabin keys and subsequently their cabins after they’d spent several hours wandering the decks, doubled up with laughter at their own ineptitude. They slept soundly only to wake feeling rather tired and emotional the next day.
At the time my friend regaled me with her story I remember being shocked and horrified. This was so not her. She’d never done anything remotely outrageous in all the years I’d known her which was over several decades. It had the same effect as if I’d heard the Queen was partial to the odd joint or partying with toy-boys.
It seems the experience of my girlfriend is typical of the behaviour of the three-day-trippers coming in to town, according to an article on the Radio Netherlands Worldwide website quoting drug expert August de Loor, ‘ …they want to cram everything they’re not allowed to do in their own country into their three days in Amsterdam – binge drinking, smoking marijuana in ‘coffeeshops’ and doing magic mushrooms on top of all that. It’s just too much. They also take the magic mushrooms in Amsterdam’s busy city centre, with all the noise and trams. That’s the very worst place possible!’
In an attempt to stop bad things happening to tourists who go wild in Amsterdam, the authorities banned magic mushrooms in 2008 following several incidents when people died after taking them. This gap in the market was soon filled by ‘trip truffles’ (sclerotia) which have the same hallucinogenic effect as the mushrooms but, unlike them, the truffles grow underground so are technically legal. Their properties fade when cooked so bear that in mind amateur chefs.
The result has been fewer emergency call outs according to the Amsterdam GGD health service spokesperson Sanne van Meeteren, who also notes that the incidents are generally less serious than those involving the use of magic mushrooms. It seems most of the 69 truffle related incidents last year most were the result of panic attacks. ‘In 59 percent of the cases, the problems can be dealt with on the spot by talking, reassuring and arranging for somebody to stay with the person.’
Sounds more like an attack of conscience to me – fear of having to explain to family back home how they really ended up in hospital.
Another problem for the authorities has been ongoing issues in the Red Light district.
Not so much from a moral standpoint but trying to stamp some authority over the dubious people who do business there. One such businessman bought prostitution premises with funds alleged to have been part of the ransom paid to the kidnappers of Freddy Heineken, the then CEO of the brewery giant.
The authorities decided to bring brothels and sex shops under the umbrella of the Shop Opening Times Act earlier this year, forcing them to close at 10pm in the evening instead of 2am, which has been the practice for the past 40 years.
Whether this has achieved the desired effect I have no clue.
It seems rather strange to have a sex trade which closes at 10pm. I can’t imagine the girls rushing home to curl up with a hot mug of cocoa and a hot-water bottle to watch the late evening news. (It’s been a cold summer here in the Netherlands).
Quite how the sex industry is getting round this one I have no idea, except we all know they will have found a way. It’s a huge business and the cat-and-mouse tactics between the authorities and the pliers of the trade will continue regardless.
In the meantime the three-day-tourists continue to arrive and have fun, despite threats that coffee shops may soon only be available for use by residents. There’s some talk they’ll be classed as members only clubs to get round EU legislation, which prohibits the Netherlands from not allowing other EU residents the same status as locals. Who knows.
What won’t change is the number of people who visit Amsterdam each year for a variety of reasons. And for a capital city, Amsterdam is about as chilled out as you can get.