When In Doubt, Vacation. . . The Amsterdam Anthology
To me every vacation begins with a trip to the bookstore. For years now, when our kids were little, I would traipse down to Barnes and Noble and fill my arms with beach reads and summer bestsellers. Last week was no exception. I was browsing the "International Travel" shelves of my local bookstore in anticipation of our two-week trip to Europe.
This trip has been years in the making and something of a milestone. For the first time in twenty-two years (as old as our first-born is) my husband and I are venturing out alone. . .without our kids or the company of friends. There's glorious joy as well as trepidation. . .in raising our kids and building a life as a family, it's as if we've lost each other a little and need to get our groove back.
The first stop in our itinerary is Amsterdam and I've been looking forward to it with great anticipation. I've been told it's a city of intimate charms. You can stroll quiet neighborhoods, browse bookshops, sample exotic foods. . .do much of what is delightful to any American tourist in Europe, but with legal marijuana and prostitution, Amsterdam promises an earthy spirit of live and let live.
After a blissful and luxurious Air France flight (most of it spent in a dreamless sleep, thanks to the full-bodied tannins of the flavorful Bordeaux served en-route) we arrive. Amsterdam is a city of approximately 820,000 people and almost as many bikes. We can see men and women, students, pizza delivery boys--even, the police, zipping past in their bikes with the "brrrrring" bells even as we cruise down the highway in a cab. We check in at the legendary Intercontinental Hotel on the banks of the Amstel river. It's grand and idyllic and the elevator with it's vivid carpeting and gilded chamber reminds me of the movie, "The Grand Budapest Hotel". Sadly, there is no bell boy Zero lurking in it's plush confines.
The time is 7:30 p.m. but the light outside is bright as day. We're told it stays that way until as late as 10 p.m. which maybe the witching hour in some places but not Amsterdam, which comes alive at night. After a quick pick-me-up (aka a glass of champagne) we decide to wander out to Leidseplein. This is Amsterdam's liveliest square: filled with outdoor tables under trees ringed with cafes, theaters and nightclubs; bustling with tourists, diners, trams and street artists. No wonder locals and tourists alike come here day and night, to sit under the trees, sip a coffee or beer, in the warmth of the sun or the glow of lantern light. The bustle has not been exaggerated. When we reach at 11 p.m., the place is humming with people.
On the east end of Leidseplein are the ubiquitous "coffeeshops", where marijuana is sold and smoked legally. Incredible as that may seem to visitors from the States, it's been going on here in Amsterdam for thirty years --another Dutch cliche alongside windmill pepper mills and wooden shoes.
We venture into the Bulldog cafe and coffeeshop for an adventure that every well-meaning friend and acquaintance has advised us to sample. The Bulldog is a dark, dank bar, oozing with the smell of grass, weed, skunk or whatever. However, what could seem seedy in any other country, seems perfectly normal in Amsterdam. Everybody wants to get stoned here!
Since neither of us has mastered the art of smoking a joint, we decide to go for the gold and try a space cake. (Space cakes are basically hash brownies.)
I'm hoping for a luscious, Fifty shades of Grey experience with my man. The reality. . . a nightmare of epic proportions; I'm trying to escape a burning building through an elevator shaft that's on fire in my high-as-a-kite fantasy.
Oh, well. There's always tomorrow. . .and another space cake waiting to knock me off my feet.