Monday, 12 May 2014

Amsterdam for Beginners

You could travel the world a hundred times over and I can guarantee you will never find another place like Amsterdam. Whether this is necessarily a bad thing or not I'll leave to you to decide. This is definitely not a city for the faint-hearted but if you can get past the stoned sex tourists and the sleazy underbelly of the Rosse Buurt, it could be one of the greatest cities you've ever visited. Here are my suggestions on how to turn Amsterdam from a hole of smutty chaos into the sublime city that brought us such gems as Rembrandt and Heineken.

Visit a Coffee Shop

It doesn't matter if you don't smoke weed, simply sitting in one of Amsterdam's coffee shops is enough to immerse yourself in this unique experience. For those who are not into the marijuana scene, coffee shops in Amsterdam have the reputation of being full of either hippies or down and outs smoking super silver haze and having enigmatic conversations while they stare off into space. I'm not going to negate this stereotype because for the most part it is not erroneous. I am, however, going to explain why this is not such a negative thing as it may appear. These coffee shops, from my experience, tend to be set apart from modern conventions. Nowadays, it is generally frowned upon to sit in a public place for hours on end getting high, however, in these coffee shops it is not. Thus all our perceptions of what is acceptable in civilised society are subverted the moment we step through the door of this smokey room of hedonism. Now that one paradigm has been broken down, others are quick to follow. Suddenly strangers are allowed to sit next to each other and spark up conversations as easily and as quickly as that joint in their hand. A community is formed through a common interest and that common interest does not lie with copious usage of recreational drugs, it is, in fact, the shared need to escape the tight confines of "society" and the desire to form your own community where restrictions and inhibitions don't exist. To summarise, in these coffee shops, you can talk to strangers without the fear or being judged/ told to get lost.

Our new friends from Kuwait
Go Walkabouts

Nothing is more charming than taking a wander over the innumerable bridges that make up Amsterdam's quaint city centre. The squashed together houses combined with the cobbled streets make you feel like you walked into the middle of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale (and yes I know he was Danish but the point still remains). Once you've fled the sordid avarice and grime of the red light district you can really start to appreciate the beauty of the Netherlands' capital. Start at Dam Square and stroll through the city all the way down to Albert Cuypmarkt, a market street away from the crowds where you can find local produce at local prices. There are public transport options, namely the tram, however, seeing as Amsterdam is such a small city, I would recommend ditching wheels for your feet so you can take in the sights and sounds as fully as you can. You can easily spend a few days just walking through different parts of the city admiring the architecture and lounging in the parks. These activities are particularly good if you're on a budget as Amsterdam is notorious for its hefty prices.

Iconic squished together houses

Be Moved

For the more cultured among us, Amsterdam will conjure up images of more than just sex and drugs. Most notably, Amsterdam is famed for being the place of residence of Anne Frank. If a visit to the Anne Frank museum is not already on your itinerary then add it on NOW. I cannot stress enough the importance of going to visit this museum whether you have read her diary or not. In a time where extremism is on the rise and neo-nazis/ holocaust deniers are still not a thing of the past, museums like this are what keep disasters like the Shoah from ever recurring. Nothing could have prepared for me the emotional tidal wave that hit me as I walked through those empty rooms filled with artefacts and read the quotations from her diary which were painted on to the walls. It was the decision of Anne's father Otto Frank to keep the entire building empty rather than filling it with facsimile furniture and the effect of this is exceptionally powerful. The empty space is a constant reminder of the lives that were lost and by the end of the tour you feel like you knew the young girl personally, increasing the potency of that final room which reveals the heart-wrenching end to her tragic tale.

Go Out

One of the main pulls to Amsterdam is its nightlife and if you are looking for a wild night out you will not be disappointed. Staying in a hostel is the best way to experience all Amsterdam has to offer for a night out whether you pay to go on an organised bar crawl or you choose to make your own fun. Get chatting with the people in your dorm and head out. Start on Warmoesstraat and go from bar to bar until you finally end up at Rembrandtplein where the big clubs are (you may need to take a taxi/tram to get there depending on how hardcore you're feeling as it is a fair distance). WARNING: Amsterdam is expensive, there is no way to get around it so if you can sneak your own alcohol into your hostel for a pre-drinks session, I highly recommend it. When you get to Rembrandtplein you have a few club options but I'm going to narrow them down to two for you. If you want a huge super-club with a swanky VIP area, house remixes and dancers on podiums then go to Escape. If you want cheesy chart music in a more cozy environment and a less chic (and intimidating) crowd then turn around 180 degrees and go to Club Smokey. If neither of those appeal to you then I'm afraid you're going to have to ask someone else. One more warning, avoid the Ice Bar. It sounds cool (haha get it?) and chic but it is actually just a tiny freezer where they make you watch a weird film. Also that €15 you pay for entry and 2 drinks might sounds like a great deal in expensive Amsterdam until you realise that your 2 drinks are shots of apple sours or half pints of Heineken served in a glass made of ice (which I guess is what you're paying for). I was so mad about being ripped off that I ate my glass out of protest. 


Throw Out Your Prejudices

It is very easy to walk through the Red Light District and cast a condemning glare over the scantily clad women on display in their glass cages. As they desperately try to lure in customers it is very easy to question her morality and the choices she made to wind up here. However, never take anything at face value, especially in the Rosse Burt. It has been estimated that at least 70% of sex workers in Amsterdam have been trafficked into the industry, meaning they have no choice but to continue to sell themselves for the benefit of their captors. As soon as we realise this, our disgust should quickly turn into pity particularly as we become aware of the fact that these men who are buying sex are doing so with non-consensual women. In other words, these women are being raped roughly 10 times a day, every day. Sarah Forsyth's memoirs, 'Slave Girl - I was an ordinary British girl. I was kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. This is my horrific true story' is a fascinating book detailing her life while she worked in the Red Light District. It is a shocking and distressing read but it provides some real insight about the true plight of Amsterdam's sex workers. So think twice before you get all high and mighty and start looking down on these exploited women. A visit to the newly opened museum of prostitution is another way to get an interesting perspective of the life of a sex worker. 

Being a tourist

So long as you stay savvy and open-minded Amsterdam will definitely be one of the most exciting and unique places you have ever visited. Get cultured at the Van Gogh museum, be a cliché at the IAMSTERDAM sign and eat the best waffles of your life. 

A souvenir for Grandma

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