Part 1: The Intro
I was scared shitless to go to Amsterdam last month.
Like, palpably afraid.
I cried, before leaving, I was so terrified.
My wife and daughter looked at me with deep empathy, and my son, nearly 12.5, had the awkward grin I recognized from my own youth.
A look that said, I’m uncomfortable with your naked display of emotion. Men aren’t supposed to cry. I’m not quite sure what to do here, so I’m going to smile like a paralyzed snow-monkey.
I understood how he felt, as for a moment, I could see myself though his eyes: the bearded, aviator-sunglasses-wearing hipster Dad, always cool.
And there I was, crying like a baby because I had to go to Europe.
We’d all discussed the risks, as there was not yet Coronavirus in Holland, no tourists were leaving China, and it wasn’t thought you could just pick it up in an airport.
So after my best mate and my book’s designer, Caleb Cain Marcus, told me the book could be 10% better if I supervised on press in Holland, he, my wife and kids all pushed me to spend the money and go.
To spend that much, (though I did get a great deal,) and to head out into a world where this new virus was taking root, it triggered some deep fear in me.
From the distance of only a month, (that feels like two years,) I now know why I was so fucking scared.
The wave that was coming was so much bigger than I could have anticipated, but I felt it in my bones.
Walking to my car, with my bags over my shoulders, I swear, I could hear the Jaws theme with each step I took.
Duh duh duh duh.
And then, (other than almost dying once,) nothing bad happened.
Nothing at all.
Quite the opposite.
I had a magical week, alone, in a shockingly cool European city.
Part 2. The journey
I bought a package trip on Orbitz, and the airfare and hotel were together what the plane ticket was supposed to cost. So when we all start traveling again, (which WILL happen,) I’d recommend you consider the tactic.
It meant I was able to leave my home, drive the 2.5 hours to the Albuquerque Airport, and board a flight to Houston, where I’d grab my international leg straight to Schiphol Airport.
In retrospect, the flight to the Netherlands, which I found obnoxious at the time, now seems like something powerful and special that I neglected to appreciate.
There we were, in the middle of the plane: A middle-aged, tall Dutch businessman to my left, an older Afro-Caribbean lady to my right, and a young Indian woman, living in Holland, to her right.
The four of us, crammed in tighter than a miser’s butthole, in a plane full of diverse humans.
Again, that was just over a month ago, as I write this on Wednesday March 18th.
I took two Benadryl to get some sleep on the flight, and it messed with my brain, because I know I watched two movies, but all these weeks later, for the life of me, I can’t remember one of them.
Seriously, what the hell did I watch?
The other movie, “Booksmart,” directed by Olivia Wilde, was a clever, Post-Me-Too update on “Superbad,” and maybe all teen movies like it, by flipping the protagonists to female, and making one gay.
Not that I saw the parallel until this very moment, but after my 4 hour nap, I watched the beginning episodes of “Killing Eve,” which I finished on the flight home. (A proper 10 hour binge watch!)
Highly, Highly recommended.
Talking about flipping the script? Who needs James Bond, really, when you have female characters this badass, complex, sexy and surprising?
Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh are brilliant, and some of the foreshadowing, in particular in season 1, when Phoebe Waller-Bridge was show-runner, was bone-chilling.
(I won’t do a spoiler alert. I just won’t spoil it.)
In our new world, with plenty of spare time, watch this one and you’ll thank me.
Part 3: The arrival
If you think I’m teasing this out, well, maybe I am?
Do you have anything else pressing at the moment?
I’m reliving it in my memory, and if I savor every morsel of the now-forbidden-travel-fruit, would you blame me?
But as I said earlier, everything went so smoothly. Me and the other humans, pressed up against each other, and I was through customs in twenty minutes.
The train station is in the airport in Amsterdam, out at Schiphol, so it’s the easiest thing in the world to grab a 5 Euro train ticket into Amsterdam Centraal Station, the rail hub of the country. (Though all the other cities, Den Haag, Rotterdam and Utrecht are close by as well.)
I remember sitting on that train, closing my eyes, and enjoying a moment of quiet, after I’d been traveling for 16 hours or so.
Then, I heard some loud American teenagers, and they wouldn’t shut up.
“Seriously?” I thought. “I travel halfway across the world, and my jet-lag-headache gets lit up by some dumb teenagers on a pleasure trip with their wealthy parents?”
Eventually, I moved, and then they got off at the wrong station, got back on the train on my new end of car, and sat down near me again.
After they kept yapping, I shot the Dad a look, and he quieted them down for me.
It’s an important thing to remember in these new times.
A lot of important information can be communicated through body language. (Nearly all of what we need to tell a stranger, anyway.) So as you approach people, and step into their personal space in the next couple of months, (or whatever,) just think like a martial artist, and read their energy and intent first.
I stumbled off the train, having to take a piss like you wouldn’t believe, and would you know it, but after walking up and down the train station, I found a public toilet, but you had to pay to use it?
I had no European money yet, much less coins, but the nice guy working there let me in, because I was polite, and obviously had to pee.
Why do I tell you this?
Because up and down that city, people were so cool and friendly. I’ve been around the block, and I can’t say enough about the Dutch, and the Amsterdammers in particular.
After leaving, I quickly arrived at the Hotel Mai, which is somehow located in a quiet, chill vortex that is both right up the street from the train station, and right on the cusp of the Red Light District.
There is no reason for that spot, on the Geldersekade canal, to be mellow and relaxing, but it was.
I arrived shortly after 10 am, woozy from the jet lag, and met Jimmy, a nice young guy behind the desk, who told me there would be no Hurricane Dennis. (Which I wrote about previously.)
I asked if he’d take my bags, and he said sure, but then I kept asking about when I might be able to check in early?
The entire time I was in Europe during 2019-20, having a Verizon phone, which only works with Wifi, was a big downer.
Except for this once.
Because each time Jimmy said, “I’ll text you when your room is ready,” I could truthfully say, “I won’t get it. My phone doesn’t receive SMS here.”
He pushed some buttons around a few more times, and then said, “You want a king bed, right,” and I said, “Of course.”
“I have a room for you now,” said Jimmy, and then, all of a sudden, at 10:15am, I had a hotel room, a place to clean up, and my goodness, if that wasn’t a gift from the travel gods, and an omen of good things to come, I don’t know what was.
Part 4: The coffee shops
So what do you do, standing in your beautiful, brand new hotel room, staring out at the shimmering water of the canal, now that it’s 10:30am, and you’ve washed your face, smacked your cheeks, and talked to yourself in the mirror to get psyched up?
Well, the first thing you do is change money.
I’d been to Amsterdam 4 times before, including one that I wrote about here in the column, so I had a rough mental map of the area. (Now it’s much sharper.)
I cut Southeast to Dam Square, though the tourist throngs, so I figured I could get my Euros there. (Cash only in the coffee shops.)
It was easy to find the action, and I went to the money changer in the middle, because the ones on either end grab the first tourists to happen by.
The man behind the counter was friendly, and gay, with big chunky glasses, and we chatted for a few moments. I came back two days later, to get the rest of my money changed, and he told me about one of his favorite places in town.
It’s called “This is Holland” and is a 5D experience in which you get to simulate flying over the country. Though it sounded dope, I never made it. (But when things open again, you might want to try it.)
After I got that first batch of money, though, I hightailed it straight to the Oude Kerk, a beautiful 17th Central cathedral, because my favorite coffee shop was there, the Cafe Oude Kerk.
Though it seems like not much changes in Amsterdam, (until now of course,) the cafe was now called the Old Church, the English equivalent.
And it wasn’t open yet.
I walked around for 10 minutes, killing time, and finally the woman working there came out to talk to me.
Apparently, the “coffee shop” moved to a different part of downtown, and this coffee shop only sold coffee and food.
No weed or hash.
Luckily, they’d printed a map, (for all the idiots like me,) and I walked there in 10 minutes, like she promised.
Why did it have to the be the same place as last time, when there are hundreds of “coffee shops” in Amsterdam?
The Old Church had a Cannabis-Cup-winning-hash, from 2004, a blonde hash that was my all-time-favorite.
(Brand loyalty, if you will.)
But the young woman behind the counter sold me something that didn’t seem the same, though it had a similar color, but she was confident.
Pineapple Express pollen hash.
I’d bought a pipe and a lighter at a little convenience store before I walked in, so a gram of hash and a pear Looza juice, (silky, from Belgium,) set me back 17 Euro.
I sat down, smoked a couple of small bowls, and felt a nice buzz, but that was about it.
I overheard the ladies behind the counter saying “California, California.”
There was scorn in their voices, but also jealousy, so I went up to investigate.
“What’s that about California,” I barged in? “Their stuff is great, no question, but I’ve been thinking of coming to Amsterdam for years. You can’t get this hash back home in the US.”
“Well,” one young woman said “if you look at the menu, all the top strains are now from California. 30 Euro a gram or more.”
“I hear you,” I said. “I can get that back home. It’s great. But what about the hash? This doesn’t seem like what I had before. That won the Cannabis Cup?”
“Ah,” said a deep, smoker-throaty-voiced, blonde women in the corner. Obviously the boss. “You mean the Royal Cream.”
“Yes,” I exclaimed! “Yes. The Royal Cream. That’s what I came back for. That’s the shit you can’t get in the US.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” she said. “You can’t get it here now either. It doesn’t leave Morocco anymore. They have a new King, and new rules. Plus, most of the old timers are retiring, and their kids don’t want to do the work.”
“Bummer,” I said.
I left, with my mild buzz, and headed over to The Jolly Joker, a centrally located coffee shop, where I hung out with Hugo in 2013. (I still wear the T-shirt.)
I bought some weed to go with my hash, the Tangerine Haze, for 14 Euro. A lot of the local strains had “haze” in the name, and all of them were pretty average, compared to what I have access to in Colorado.
It’s a blanket statement, but I’ll make it here and now.
The best part of the coffee shop experience was the social interactions, the music, the vibes, the people watching, and the fact that smoking decent weed and hash only made it cooler.
At The Jolly Joker, I sat down at a table for two in the window, and watched the world go by. Within minutes though, a young man approached and asked if he could join me.
As is (or was) the etiquette, I said sure, and as he rolled a joint, I began to ask him questions.
His name was Gerrit, he was a social worker from Munster, Germany, in town for a big guys-night-out.
10 German dudes, meeting up to go out for beers and grilled meat. (But he only knew two of them, and was therefore a little nervous.)
Gerrit made no mention of sex clubs, or anything illicit, and I took him at his word.
10 German guys in a food, booze and weed feast only.
I asked if he’d send me a picture, and eventually he did.
I bragged about my luck, getting a hotel room a block away at 10:15 in the morning.
Gerrit’s face fell.
“What?” I asked.
He said he was waiting for his buddies to come to town, and he couldn’t check in to his hotel for 4 more hours. He was tired, dirty, and couldn’t wait to get some private space.
And there I was bragging!
I felt awful.
“The least I can do is help you pass the time then, since I can go shower and lay down whenever I want. My hotel is just up the block.”
“Thanks,” he said.
So I stayed, and we talked for another hour.
That a month later, the simple pleasure of smoking and chatting with a stranger, in a public place teeming with people, in a busy city crawling with humans, would seem so luxurious?
We’re all still trying to comprehend it.