Friday, August 5, 2011

Purple Haze

A day of wandering the streets of Amsterdam produced one conclusion – they all look the same. Beautiful, but the same. On a gloomy, cold day, Amsterdam has no trouble reflecting the mood of the weather either, in its gloomy architecture. Everything in Amsterdam is brown. The concrete is speckled with brown stones, the bricks are brown, the benches are brown and the barrier poles separating road from footpath are painted brown too. Even the bark of the trees is a different brown from home somehow, a gloomy Amsterdam brown.

On a cloudy, not quite rainy day, the brown and the grey wash together to create a murky town that feels like it is still in the 1940’s or earlier. It’s easy to imagine war time in Amsterdam, because the town still looks like every town in every wartime film, just with brown-water filled canals as well.

This is not to say that Amsterdam is ugly, quite the opposite. The brown and grey and the sadness that seems to lurk below the surface is actually ethereally beautiful. Amsterdam is the first town other than New York City that I have ever said I would like to see covered in snow. With New York it’s more because New York is such a winter city, but with Amsterdam I think that despite the cold, the city under snow would be incredibly beautiful.

Walking through the streets it really does feel like the set of a wartime or postwar movie, it feels like there’s a sadness you just can’t quite reach. But of course, then there are the visible layers, the layers modern day Amsterdam residents have created and the modern day Amsterdam government is trying to clean up. Floating on top of the hazy aching sadness is a different haze altogether. Every corner has a coffee shop and every second person gazes with red eyes and slow reactions as you pass each other.

Souvenirs sell t-shirts saying ‘Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Amsterdam’ and similar quotations. Hash cookies sit on the counter next to chocolate bars and lighters. You can buy Salvia and Magic Mushrooms by the gram. The person in front of you in the line for a cappuccino will likely order a side of marijuana, and be offered a container to smell before selecting exactly what they want. All over the counter, and as long as you smoke it inside the café, legal. If you want to smoke it outside, you’ll need to supply your own, but that’s easy enough, there are plenty of places that sell hundreds of varieties of seeds and everything you need to cultivate them.

We got offered cocaine within an hour of entering the city and heard it mentioned several times over the coming days. The red light district is prominent but sticks to it’s own corner of the city. Other than that, Amsterdam really does all look the same. Canals, bridges, houseboats, doorsteps, cafes, and bicycles. Bicycles, almost one per resident, are everywhere. Many of them offer some of the only colour in the city, adorned with flowers, beads, anything to make them different to everyone elses.

We stumbled very accidentally on a weekend market, selling knick knacks, clothing, food, beauty products, jewellery – everything you can imagine, colourful. I could have spent a lot of money there. Residents seem to live on top of the city, they bring colour and life and energy into the brown. But the brown and the brick and the history and – Amsterdam itself - seems to be in charge, and along with the haze, the residents seem to float just slightly above the surface.

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