Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

Amsterdam ends
January 18, 2010, 18:07
Filed under: Amsterdam, Travel

There was a photo in the local press over the weekend of favela children cooling off under a hose (or fountain?) attempting to relieve Rio’s stifling heatwave, and the reality hit home that I was about to head home: Amsterdam has ended.

Most of my housemates at Grote Bickersstraat are here for a year, so they’re only half way through their stint as an international student, and I guess if this was the case, you’d pace yourself knowing the annual demands of seasons, subjects, borrel (drinking) sessions and semesters, which is what I think I’ve done – pace myself, that is – albeit subconsciously, but for only half that time.

And so now as Australia Day approaches, my time is nigh, and I want to move on, to meet Anita midway home in South America and trek through Patagonia. So with exams over (Distinctions across the board, with one HD), the goodbyes are done, the cell inspection passed, the housing bond refunded, the bike ‘recycled’, winter clothes donated and excess baggage posted. Ah, out it all goes, but not before a Cafe Thijssen double espresso. The last photo has been taken, the final tosti eten, and farewell drinks at Cafe De Gouden Reael, consumed. It’s goodbye cheap red wine and cans of tuna in brine; I won’t miss my feet freezing, but the wholemeal multigrain baguettes will be hard to beat.

All expectations (academically, professionally and geographically) thoroughly and chillingly exceeded.

Due to the obscene departure hour (8am), I stayed the final night at an airport hotel,  Citizen M, and it is a little bit Futurama meets The Jetsons. Take a look at the pics below. Eames and Vitra furniture everywhere. I was sure Scotty was about to beam me up at any stage throughout the shower, a cylindrical, transparent tube with a water faucet as big as a dinner plate and with more pressure than your average sports masseuse. You could check in, spend the night, watch movies for free on a big plasma flat screen, dine in the cafe/bar (portion control meals you heat in a microwave or dress your own salads), have breakfast and check out without ever coming into contact with a single staff member, for it can be entirely self serve, from start to finish. You just swipe your room card (issued from an ATM-like machine on checking in) and the tally keeps increasing, charged directly of course to your credit card, for there is no cash whatsoever in this establishment. Rest assured, there are staff if you do need assistance, but for the most part, they’re conspicuous by their absence. It was voted best new hotel/concept 2009 by the Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

Note loo at left (an opaque glass door slides around you), see the transparent cylindrical shower tube at right; mid frame is a pedestal basin, with bed and plasma screen beyond. Outside the window is the runway.

Funky foyer, one of 6 'rooms' that make up the ground floor. This one regarded as casual business; apart from the bank of check-in machines, other 'rooms' include formal business, children, TV, games, cafe and bar. WiFi free everywhere.

Strangely, I think I feel ready to return to work too, though that won’t be until after Easter, so there are still a few months remaining of wandering and wondering, of reading and dreaming … and then came the boarding call for Iberia flight IB 3215 to Rio de Janeiro, via Madrid, so I raised my arms as if held at gunpoint, but it’s only the full body scan treatment, although the woman in front of me was persistent in her resistance, she was eventually convinced the revealing technology was in all our interests as it was meant to deter the occasional terrorist.

Perhaps the final entry in this blog must wait, to allow some ‘distance’ before a closing reflection can be fully articulated, or appreciated, of the semester this man spent in Amsterdam.

The big dump
January 6, 2010, 20:36
Filed under: Amsterdam

I entered the sub-terranean basement basketball court in the bowels of the Sports Centrum (aka the exam room) in glorious sunshine this morning, only to exit this afternoon into a postcard. The wind had dropped, the air had warmed (yes, warmed) and there was fresh snow everywhere. And it was still falling, great fluffly chunks of the stuff, and it squeaked when I walked. But oh how dangerous it was for  bicyclists as their tyres loose all traction in such conditions, with many coming to grief in a sprawling tangle of metal and rubber and loads of flying snow.

I had missed the pre-Christmas blitz of cold weather and icy canals due to the mini tour of North Africa and other parts Mediterranean, so it was kinda cool to see this today. I took the overland tram home from the exam venue instead of the much quicker underground Metro, and snapped these pics during the short walk from Centraal to my cell. Oh, and the exam wasn’t too bad either.

Tomorrow, pending a working airport, I head to northern Greece for another short tour of duty, stopping at Berlin and Braunschweig on the way back, via Albania.

Click image to see The Big Dump Flickr set.

The lore of the communal laundry
January 3, 2010, 19:53
Filed under: Amsterdam, Student

With more than 80 student tenants and only 4 washing machines, things can get a little ‘heated’ in the basement laundry, and we’re not just talking about  condensation from the 4 dryers. Having arrived home last night from the mini tour with a backpack full of soiled clothes, I was dreading the prospect of having to take several days to wash and dry more than one load.

Alas though, the place was deserted, except for the rogue panties and socks left behind in machines or dryers and pinned to the group notice board awaiting their owners’ retrieval. Strange that I felt such joy and contentment then at finding the laundry to myself, and we’ll probably not explore that point any more. Seems many kiddies are still on leave, and from a clothes cleaning perspective, that makes me happy.

But it was not always so. In the halcyon mid semester weeks of warmer weather and dirty collars from hours of late night dirty dancing, the laundry was a hot bed of frustration and delay, and into this maelstrom of liquid detergent and undergraduate detritus, something had to give way.

Which is how the laundry lore developed. I do not know if it was discussed at the body corporate or bar room level (probably the latter), but this is how it works. (Note, this only applies to washing, not drying, as some people have delicate intimates not suitable for the rough and jumble of a tumble dryer.)

You leave your clothes basket (or bag) and detergent in a queue in front of a washing machine if it is in motion. And the next day you’d go down to the basement and there would be your clothes shoved into your laundry bag awaiting collection on the bench.

There was no laundry fairy, just the poor sucker who happened to be there when the load had finished and the machine idle, for it was their ‘duty’ to empty the completed load into the supplied bag, place the contents of the next basket/bag in the queue into the machine (using the supplied detergent, which by the way, was mostly liquid, not powder, in case you were interested), and then set your own basket/bag down at the end of the queue. If you worked it right, and had an uncanny sense of avoidance, you never had to actually “do a load of washing” all semester. As for drying, well that was a free-for-all; it was every man for herself, but most ended up buying a clothes horse or drying rack anyway.

Join the queue

However, this lore does not work for people who may object to handling other people’s dirty laundry, but it seems many tenants had no such qualms. For those more sensitive types, you either had to wait for a machine with no queue (which could take weeks) or head to the laundromat on Haarlemmerstraat, which was quite expensive.

I mentioned this lore to some more ‘adult’ friends here in Amsterdam, who lived in apartments with their own washing machines, and they seemed quite impressed that a system of shared responsibility had evolved to solve a potentially heated situation. Someone even suggested the lore might be used to address climate change, but I don’t think it has much application beyond our humble but crowded basement laundry, but you never know.

December 14, 2009, 10:36
Filed under: Amsterdam

There are all sorts of walking tours of Amsterdam; introductory, alternative, red light district, Jordaan etc. I took the graffiti tour in my first week here. I took the Cannabis tour last week with Amsterdam City Tours. Its website promises to explain:

Various aspects of this plant, from its medicinal use all the way to its recreational consumption and of course drug consumption related politics. We will visit the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum to learn more about this controversial plant.

Sean, the 40-year-old American tour leader, knows Amsterdam and his way around a coffee shop menu, having lived here on and off for more than a dozen years.  He teaches art history part-time and leads various tours for several companies in his spare time.

The bonus was Sean’s intimate knowledge of so many other aspects of Dutch living; he took us to a Jenever (gin) tasting room, Wynand Focking, as well a boutique brewery tucked away in the heart of the red light district.

I was interested to find out where coffee shop owners acquire their product: “Don’t ask,” was Sean’s advice, explaining it’s a topic that’s just never addressed, suggesting there is a lot of trafficking (and not all of it legal) needed to supply Amsterdam’s 230 plus coffee shops. You see, each shop can only stock 500 grams in total. But it can stock at least 20 or more cannabis strains. So if customers are allowed 5 grams maximum, some of the more popular shops in busy areas – in order to merely maintain a workable inventory – would need to stock way more than their 500 gram legal daily quota. Again, authorities prefer to turn a blind eye to this glaring, but pragmatic, hypocrisy

As they do the laws on personal cultivation. You’re allowed five plants at home, but not grown hydroponically; it must be propagated ‘au natural’. This would make it just about impossible to raise a crop in winter with its limited daylight and much lower sun in the southern sky. Naturally, there’s a thriving business in hydroponic equipment and technology, “for growing vegetables and cooking herbs”, of course!

The tour takes you to the more famous coffee shops (Bulldog and Dampkring), their customers being primarily tourists. But the real revelation was visiting coffee shops deep in the suburbs, far from the madding crowds, including Paradox and Sanementering, both hidden away in the backstreets of Jordaan.

Sanementering is special, says Sean. It started out decades ago as a second-hand store selling general domestic bric-a-brac. It still does, as you can see in the photo. It then introduced cannabis ‘on the quiet’ as a side line, dispensed from a tiny ‘bar’ in the back of the shop. It still does.

One other thing I learned was that some licensed coffee shops opted to do away with selling product and just allow customers to ‘smoke’ on the premises. A change in the law a few years back, according to Sean, banned cannabis coffee shops from also selling alcohol: they were only allowed to stock soft beverages (plus tea and coffee). In response, some bars elected to do away with selling cannabis altogether, but still retain their liquor licence. This enabled customers to ‘smoke’ on the premises (with gear bought elsewhere) while also allowing them to ‘drink’ alcohol. The irony is that cigarette smokers in these same ‘cannabis’ bars have to go outside for their nicotine hit, due to EU laws banning smoking indoors.

The tour ended at Grey Area, an infamous coffee shop on the western edge of the city near Herengracht that has won the Cannabis Cup on numerous occasions. Its reputation is well deserved, says Sean. Grey Area sources premium product (don’t ask from where or how!), and its customers are prepared to pay premium prices for their industrial strength high. Staff will even hand-roll your joints to order. Now that’s the kind of service this city could do with a lot more of.

December 7, 2009, 00:47
Filed under: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Christmas and Santa Claus comes early in the Netherlands. December 05 (the eve of St Nicholas’s feast day) marks the main day/evening for gift giving, when you’re meant to not only buy a gift, but also compose a poem that pokes fun at the foibles or otherwise of the intended recipient. Purists say the gift should be hand made though. Young children would have spent the last few days at school making prizes for their family. So it’s not something that should be left to the last minute, which probably explains why my lecture on Friday 04 December had less than half the normal student numbers attend. Not a bad excuse, I guess, but you could only drag it out once a year.

Anyway, in Holland, the big jolly man in the red coat with a white beard however doesn’t have any reindeer to help him; he has Black Pete (Swarte Piet) instead. As the name (and the photo below) suggests, this single helper is very dark skinned. The story goes that a Moorish boy was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, and a bishop intervened to spare his life. In gratitude, Pete vowed to help Sinterklass deliver the presents to all the children who had been good. You can imagine the attempts in more PC times to correct this legend. Judging by the number of Swarte Piets I saw roaming the streets this weekend, those ‘corrective’ efforts have largely failed.

American tourists recoiled in shock at the sight of all the Swarte Piets ambling along the steet.

As this is very much an in-house family affair, and with no one to buy presents for (or receive presents from), it was shaping up as a very quiet Saturday ‘Sinterklass’ night; perhaps a glass of gluewein and a slice of apple tart at one of the Jordaan cafes would suffice? But a last minute invitation to share the evening with some other rootless, friendless expats quelled by aching heart.

I had to get to Heineken Plein on the city’s south side. It was raining (as usual) and I don’t like riding my bike in the rain because my specs get wet and I can’t see. Plus the roads get slippery. Public transport wasn’t really an option so I rugged up with gloves, scarfe and beanie, and wheeled out the two-wheeler, flicked on the lights and rode head first into the freezing dark Saturday night.

We drank Chilean cabernet and ate French food at Helden Cafe, which has an unusual entrance: you walk straight through the kitchen to get to the dining area. Somehow the discussion topic of birthdays emerged, mainly because two guests had recently celebrated theirs. At about 10.30pm when the belated toasts were all done, I added that my birthday was about 90 minutes away. Well, having a birthday on St Nicholas’s actual feast day turned out to be a big deal, according to the Dutch floor staff at least. When the clocked ticked over to the 6th at midnight, a single sparkler atop a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in crushed nuts appeared to a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday from one and all. Esther, the cloak room kiddie, was especially vocal, but I’m not sure why. With a lot of women in attendance, the congratulations can take ages because you have to kiss each girl 3 times, alternating from cheek to cheek, and when I finally got to Esther, my lips and neck were getting a little sore from all the turning and pouting. After that drawn out embarrassment, we adjourned to a nearby bar and drank Cognac until the wee hours.

Then, sometime around 2am – and a little worse for wear – I bid my farewells and thank yous and commenced the long, unsteady pedal home. On cue the rain ensued, but with a little Dutch courage on board, I popped my umbrella, and with the confidence only alcohol and a sub-zero tail wind can instill, ‘sailed’ along Prinsengracht to the Westerdoks in record time, running red lights (traffic, that is) like locals do and arriving at the cell door drenched but mostly sober.

And wouldn’t you know, Sinterklass and Swarte Piet had paid a visit in my absence, for a large parcel of dark chocolate in the shape of an ‘S’ had been left on the landing leaning against my door with a note that read:

Vrolijke Kerstmis van de de huisbewaarder en coöperatieve vereniging van de dekeyhuisvesting.

Van Gogh – a man of letters
November 30, 2009, 18:32
Filed under: Amsterdam

In a city spoiled for artistic heritage and choice, the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum (until January 2010) takes the notion of curatorial scope and excellence to extraordinary heights. This is no doubt helped by the subject matter. But nonetheless, the 6-volume set of Van Gogh’s letters represents a watershed in arts publishing and a rare glimpse into the creative process by one of the truly big guys.

You see, the letters of famous persons generally disappoint. Letters, unless specifically written for the public, are personal in essence. It is one human being in contact with another, sharing things that, often, only the two can fully understand. The letters of great persons are no different. At best, they provide a glimpse into secrets, a chance to hear the unguarded thoughts of public figures.

Should rare moments of intimacy emerge, Morgan Meis (writing in The Smart Set) suggests that the aura of fame is stripped away and the person becomes human again. That is also what makes letters boring. Money problems and petty disagreements are the bread and butter of your common letter. A letter makes the world small again, shows a person enmeshed in the day-to-day affairs that everyone understands. Thus, by way of their potentially shocking intimacy or through their potentially overwhelming banality, letters tend to lack the specific elements that are to be found in the actual work of a great artist. Letters, inevitably, are the flotsam and jetsam through which the scholars pick. They contain little meat for you and me. But this is not always the case …

In reading these letters, as Anita and I did last month, Vincent van Gogh becomes one of us. You see him as a human being negotiating his way through a complicated world. But there is something more, some portion of his greatness contained in these letters. This makes them unusual; an artistic goldmine.

He distills his entire process into the simplest of terms, effectively using his letters as a kind of sketchpad, working through ideas by drawing on paper as he wrote about them. Not really the crazed picture of a deranged man chopping off his ear? Yes, the unraveling of his hold on reality destroyed his ability to do art, not the other way around. Just a year before his death, he writes to his brother Theo:

Work is going quite well — I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper — a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil — I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. … But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold. … Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me.

Image courtesy of http://vangoghletters.org/

For those who can’t make it too Amsterdam, the online version is remarkable in the interaction it provides and the insight it uncovers. See it all at http://vangoghletters.org/

High times at the Cannabis Cup
November 25, 2009, 20:43
Filed under: Amsterdam

I knew something was not quite right, just that bit unusual, when on walking past Barney’s Uptown late last Monday night, I noticed a large crowd on the footpath, either eager to enter or some smoking reefers. This is extreme.  Barney’s Uptown, as the name suggests, is one of the rare upmarket venues catering to the more discerning pot smokers lingering between the various ‘coffee shops’ dotted along Haalemmerstraat. Barney’s designer decor, mood lighting, very attractive female staff and premium prices manage to deter most of the tourist riff raff on their cannabis crawl. And for this reason, Barney’s Uptown is hardly ever full; just relaxed and comfortable. It’s the place grown ups come for their post-ganja chill. Or so I’m told. But this week, things were amiss.

Ahh, the Cannabis Cup had begun. It coincides with Thanksgiving, that peculiarly North American celebration of the harvest ritual. That being the fourth Thursday in November (yeah, go figure how they came up with that day). Just like the first Tuesday in November is for Australians, this uniquely Dutch gig is the Tour de France for pot heads from around the world. Mind you, the Dutch have nothing officially to do with running the event; it’s completely managed out of the States by High Times magazine. For US$199, ‘stoners’ can buy a ‘judges’ pass, which effectively entitles them to sample the green stuff from nearly 30 participating ‘coffee shops’ all this week, and somehow pass judgement on what the best weed or resin is.


This is no task for the faint-hearted pot head. This takes stamina, perseverance, sustenance and a certain amount of technical knowledge, similar to that of a judge at a wine show. Consider these abbreviated instructions from the Official Cup Guide:

Before you consume, inspect it carefully. Is it well-cured and well-manicured? Does it have a coating of sugary crystals? Use your loupe [I had to look it up – a magnifying glass] to inspect the trichomes that contain the THC. Are they amber and well-formed?

Then there’s the smell. Those in the know hand grind a small portion and note if the aroma is “spicy or fruity?” Haze strains have a distinctive piney smell, apparently. “Diesel smells like red grapefruit … If the smell is green, the strain hasn’t been cured.” Then there’s the taste. And the high. So you can see, this is no easy task for the judges.

A final note of warning suggests judges return any mouldy cannabis – it’s not safe – and to “drink water, but avoid alcohol, caffeine or other substances that may confuse your cannabis palate”.

The streets all this week have been awash with such folk, ambling and mumbling as they try and find their way from Dampkring to Grey Area, or any one of the other 30 ‘coffee shops’ listed on their Official maps. There are shuttle buses to assist visitors with this, but some invariably get waylaid. Like the 2 American kiddies who accosted me this morning, just after 11am, near Amnesia (a past winner) as I made my way home in between lectures. They were looking for De Tweede Kamer (another past winner). They were near the right canal/street, but many, many blocks and bridges from their destination. I just directed them to Singel, told them to follow their nose (literally) and keep heading south; they were bound to find it.

Cannabis crawl map: #24 is De Tweede Kamer and #20 is Amnesia. Note #7 Russland, right in the middle of the university's UvA campus. Only in Amsterdam.

There is an Expo as part of the week’s festivities. Seminars on growing seeds, hydroponic insights, and the like are featured. With no uni lectures tomorrow (Thursday), guess where I’ll be? All part of the life of a freelance writer, you see! I’m particularly looking forward to Denny Danko’s session at 5pm; he’s the Senior Cultivation Editor of High Times. Another highlight will be the induction into the Counterculture Hall of Fame of Tom Forcade, creator of the industry’s bible, High Times. Previous inductees include Louis Armstrong, Jack Kerouac and Cheech & Chong.

Plus, the major prizes will be awarded. It’s the Big Day Out at night, topped off with a show by, get this, Jefferson Starship, formerly known as Jefferson Airplane. What the … ? These guys pre-date the Rolling Stones. [Warning; pun alert] Seems they’re on a ‘roll’ from ‘head’lining at the recent 40th anniversary Woodstock reunion concert. So rather than pack away the Zimmer frames, they’re live at the Melkweg (Milky Way) Night club. Tickets are sold out; have been for weeks. Sure promises to be a high time at the culmination of the Cannabis Cup. At least I’ll be able to get a seat at Barney’s Uptown now.