DAY 10: DECEMBER 28, 2014
AMSTERDAM! A city that has been high on my bucket list since I studied abroad but I just never made it there…until now. So saying I was excited our entire 4-hour train ride from Bruges to Amsterdam would be an extreme understatement.
We arrived around 2 pm and the second we walked out of the train station we caught glimpses of those famous canals, crooked houses, and racks on racks of bikes! It took us a while to figure out the bus system, but once we did we met up with our Airbnb host who walked us over to the apartment to show us the place. We stayed in a small studio apartment which was about a 20 minute walk from the center, which was a little further than what we would have wanted, but it was the best-priced option we could find considering we were staying for New Year’s and therefore all of the prices for accommodation were outrageously jacked up. Also the apartment had a giant window that faced a canal which was awesome and really made us feel like we were in Amsterdam. With time, we got used to the walk to the center so it wasn’t bad at all.
THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT
After getting settled in, we ventured into the city and got dinner. Afterwards, we wasted no time and went straight to the famous Red Light District. This district was like nothing I had ever seen before- I was so intrigued by it! The widely-known fact is that prostitution is legal in the Netherlands. It is a very liberal country that believes something is okay as long as it covers three criteria: 1. It must bring the city money. 2. It can’t hurt anyone. 3. It must be discreet. Since prostitution covers all of these things, it has been legal in the Netherlands for centuries and consequently, prostitutes are granted with access to medical care and a help building in the center of the district called the Prostitution Information Center. Shockingly, the Red Light District is also the safest in Amsterdam as there are plenty of policemen and bodyguards for the women.
Doubling up as also being the oldest district in Amsterdam, the small cobble-stone streets are literally lit-up in red. I was amazed by how big the district actually was. There are about 300 total windows that the women themselves usually rent out, where there are all different types of half-naked women posing seductively, mostly from Eastern Europe. The women are organized according to type so that it makes it easy for the men to find what they like. There were skinny women, curvy women, old women, young, white women, black, Asian, big boobs, small boobs, etc. It is the law that the prostitutes have to be at least 21-years-old. The oldest prostitutes just retired- they were twin 70-year-old women! There is even a website where men can see all the women that are offered so that they can read actual reviews about these women (like how they treat the men and whether they offer a girlfriend experience or not) and the location of the girl. The price of the “services” are negotiated at the door, but usually cost about 50 Euros for 15 minutes. We witnessed a couple different men actually negotiating with the prostitutes and then entering the small, red-lit rooms often only consisting of a single bed. Of course these men got a lot of stares from us fascinated spectators on the streets.
The streets of the Red Light District are not only filled with women in windows but also a lot of the famous coffee shops that sell cannabis and a lot of sex show theaters. You would think that this district would only be filled with creepy, solo men searching to pay for sex but there were actually all different types of people wandering the streets (I mean, we were three, young women walking around, right?). Yes, there were plenty of those loner men, but there were also groups of men, groups of women, tourists, couples, and even families with young children (though I can’t say that’s an appropriate place to take your 10-year-old but hey, every culture does things differently).
Speaking of the coffee shops, they are another icon of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Another widely-known fact is that Holland is very lenient with their drug policies. What’s not widely-known, however, is that marijuana and all other drugs are actually illegal. So then why is the Netherlands known for being a country where you can walk into a coffee shop and buy a blunt and openly smoke it there? It’s because the Dutch people know that it’s impossible to stop all drug consumption and therefore as a method to lower the consumption, coffee shops (not cafés) are permitted to sell small amounts of soft drugs, like marijuana. This also follows the three criteria that says in order to be allowed, it must be good for business, it mustn’t hurt anyone, and it must be discreet. Since these shops are hidden under the identity of being “coffee shops” it stays discreet and the police are able to pretend like these coffee shops don’t sell drugs. There are about 200 coffee shops in Amsterdam (which is sadly dropping in numbers) and they are easy to pinpoint because the official ones have a green and white license sticker in the window. It was crazy walking down the streets of Amsterdam and immediately knowing when we passed a coffee shop because a strong smell of weed would surround us.
I personally am in love with Holland’s liberal approach because it seems to be working. Since the Dutch people have easy access to soft drugs, the police are able to focus on catching the people selling harder drugs. They must be doing something right because Holland has the lowest number of drug-related deaths in Europe. Also, our tour guide, who had been living in Amsterdam for several years, told us that when he first arrived, the cool thing to do was to go to the coffee shops to smoke. But since it was “legal”, it sort of lost it’s appeal because it was no longer a rebellious feeling. Now the Dutch people don’t find it very exciting and these shops just draw in a lot of tourism (which is great for business!).
While we were walking around the Red Light District on our first night, we ran into an Australian guy who we met at our hostel in Bruges (small world!) so we went into a “coffee shop” to check it out and it was like walking straight into a cloud of marijuana. The atmosphere was so relaxed and everyone was just chilling in their seats with their friends engaging in conversation or, you know, just staring blankly into space. The coffee shop sold the cannabis in many different forms. You could buy it in a joint, a space cake (which is a brownie), a pound cake, or every person can buy a maximum of 5 grams. You have to be 18 with an ID in order to purchase and you cannot smoke outside of the coffee shops. We also saw in the Red Light District that there were shops advertising “magic truffles” AKA mushrooms so apparently those are allowed as well.
DAY 11: DECEMBER 29, 2014
We started our day off by doing the Sandeman’s New Europe free walking tour which met in Dam Square at 11 am. Whenever I go to a new city, I usually like to spend my first day doing these tours because in a few hours you get to see a lot of major attractions of the city, learn about the history, and hear about some interesting little-known facts. These tours are run on a tip-only basis, so at the end of the tour I normally like to give 5 Euros. Although our guide in Amsterdam was the best tour guide I have ever had so I was tempted to give him 10.
After the tour, Ange went to meet up with her friend Emily who was in Amsterdam at the same time as us and they went to the Van Gogh Museum together. Lindsey and I wanted to go to the Anne Frank House at that time but the line was crazy so we decided to walk around the city instead. We met Ange and Emily at the big IAMSTERDAM sign and then walked around the city some more. That night, Lindsey and I took a special tour of just the Red Light District, since that was the most fascinating part about Amsterdam for us. This tour, though we had to pay 10 Euros, was worth it because we learned so much more about the district, including the history and recent times.
DAY 12: DECEMBER 30, 2014
Lindsey and I slept in while Ange went to go meet with Emily. Lindsey and I had quite the list of things we wanted to do, but that didn’t stop us from spending a good chunk of our morning trying on samples of make-up at HEMA- the Dutch version of Target. That’s not a fair comparison for Target since HEMA definitely cannot compare, but Target is the closest thing to describe it. Fortunately for me, there is a HEMA a couple streets over from my apartment in Madrid! We also bought an oliebollen from a food truck- a Dutch donut with powdered sugar, usually served around New Year’s. They were delicious!
We wanted to squeeze in both The Heineken Experience and a canal cruise that day but apparently we had lollygagged too long and we were only able to do the canal cruise. We bought a combo pack, though, which allowed us to do The Heineken Experience the next day. This called for a busy day the next day because it was our last full day in Amsterdam and we still needed to see the Anne Frank House. So Lindsey and I planned to wake up early the next day to fit everything in and still have enough time in the evening to get ready for our New Year’s Eve celebrations!
DAY 13: DECEMBER 31, 2014
Happy New Year’s Eve! Or so we thought. Lindsey and I planned to get an early start so that we could get at the front of the line for the Anne Frank House right as it opened but our plans changed a little bit…
I woke up about an hour before our alarm to go to the bathroom and I saw that Ange was also awake. When I came out of the bathroom to go back to bed, Ange said “Sam. I’ve been up for an hour and I can’t move. My side is in excruciating pain, I can’t pee, and I don’t think I can go on like this.” Not knowing how to react to this, I woke up Lindsey to hear her thoughts. Apparently Ange had told Lindsey about this about an hour beforehand but Lindsey rolled over and went back to sleep haha so since the pain was still pursuing an hour later, she figured it was serious enough to wake up this time hahaha.
After some serious discussion about the matter, we used Lindsey’s Skype credit on her phone to call a taxi to take us to a hospital. We signed Ange into the emergency room, as she could barely stand up straight. Lindsey and I sat in the room with her as she was given an IV of morphine. After 30 minutes, the pain was still not subsiding so Ange requested stronger pain medication. It was a really scary experience as we didn’t know what was wrong and we were in a completely different country, but the doctor ended up diagnosing it as a kidney stone. We waited in the hospital for about 4 hours waiting for the stone to pass. Lindsey and I, being the supportive friends that we are, spent our time running back and forth to the FREE coffee machine (we’re both addicts and there were so many different options like mochaccinos!) and using the free wifi to play quizzes on our phones. Luckily Ange finally passed it and she felt much better and was then released from the hospital. Also, the charges weren’t nearly as bad as we had expected.
After Ange went to the hospital pharmacy for her prescribed pain medications, she and Emily went back to the apartment while Lindsey and I booked it to The Heineken Experience in the hopes of still being able to accomplish everything we wanted to do that day. We got to The Heineken Experience around 1 or 1:30 and tried to zip through the whole thing in order to make it to the Anne Frank House in time but it was nearly impossible as it was flooded with people. The whole thing moved much slower than expected and we could hardly enjoy anything. We got two free beers at the end which we chugged on empty stomachs, then we grabbed our free Heineken glass and ran out of there.
We tried to flag down a cab to take to the Anne Frank House but it was impossible so instead we walked. We made it before closing, but the line was already cut off by a guard who said they weren’t accepting anymore people. I was SO bummed because the Anne Frank House was a top thing that I wanted to see in Amsterdam, but we made some poor decisions regarding our time and there was no way we foresaw Ange having to go to the ER that morning.
Feeling disappointed, Lindsey and I just decided to accept our defeat and enjoy our free time before our big New Year’s Eve plans. We got dinner, bought some alcohol, and walked back to the apartment to relax and get ready. On our way back, we got deja vu from our last NYE in Berlin. Amsterdam’s and Berlin’s New Year’s celebrations are comparable in that they are both like firework war zones. On this day, people just go crazy setting them off everywhere- in the middle of the streets, from balconies, etc. I have a video from last year in Berlin where you can see a firework literally land at our feet. So as Lindsey and I were walking back to our apartment in Amsterdam, everyone had started with the fireworks and one guy set one off right next to us and we had minor heart attacks. Welcoming the New Year with the possibility of being killed by fireworks was thrilling in Berlin, but one time is definitely enough. Which is why I was thankful that we purchased tickets for an all-night party on an ocean liner that cruised the harbor instead.
After our very hectic morning in the emergency room, we were very happy to see Ange feeling better and willing to still go out! Since we’re all English teachers in Spain, Emily and Ange had the cute idea of bringing Spain’s New Year’s tradition to Amsterdam. It’s a tradition that at the strike of midnight, everyone eats one grape for every chime of the bell. These 12 grapes represent good luck for each month of the new year. Since we didn’t have a real bell and we were going to be at our party at midnight, we made our own little make-shift countdown at 10 PM with an alarm on Emily’s phone. The chimes were spread a little further apart than the normal countdown so eating all of the 12 grapes was a little easier than it normally is. Before we knew it, the time we needed to leave to catch our boat party had passed and we were late! It was at least a 20 minute walk away, in addition to locating our particular boat because the harbor was a large place. Once we realized how close we were cutting it, we ran. And I mean RAN. We made it JUST in time and the ship set sail pretty soon after we boarded.
The ship was definitely impressive. The interior reminded me of the Titanic (of course) because there was a large staircase (obviously nothing like Titanic’s grand staircase) that lead down into the middle of the boat where the large dance floor was. The dance floor faced a stage where the music changed back and forth between a DJ and a live band. It was an open-floor plan so the 2nd floor of the ship looked down onto the dance floor. Before midnight, everyone gathered outside (it was FREEZING) for the countdown. At midnight, we sailed parallel with the city and we could see all of the fireworks in the city light up the whole skyline. I was in literal awe. Amsterdam is known to go firework-crazy on New Year’s, and we got to see all of them. And the best part was that we weren’t in the middle of the mayhem so there was no chance in being hit by one haha. Our ship shot some off the back, just not in our direction thankfully.
The ship docked early in the morning and we were back in our beds by 6 or 6:30 am. It was definitely a New Year’s Eve to remember forever. Waking up the next morning to check out of our Airbnb and fly to Copenhagen was a killer though, as one would expect.
I loveloveloved Amsterdam. It was my favorite stopping point on our trip. It’s rich history and liberal mindset is enough to draw anyone in (well, maybe only those who are liberal). It was a place unlike I’d ever been before and was a perfect location for our New Year’s Eve celebration. The only thing I can think of that I didn’t like about Amsterdam was the biking culture. I thought I would like it but there are SO many of them and they come from all directions. So when you think you’re good to go to cross a street because there are no cars coming from a certain direction, you need to make sure you look the other way because a cyclist could be speeding around the corner. But I suppose it’s the perfect city if you are a cyclist yourself. I 100% intend on visiting Amsterdam again in the future. If not to see those beautiful tulip fields in the spring, then at least to finally see Anne Frank’s house! (I will be forever bitter about that lol).