If one has less than 24 hours to explore a city what should one do? Hop on and off a city tour bus and see as much as two eyes can possibly see? Run from one monument to another and take as many pictures as one can – ‘This is at so-and-so bridge’, ‘Here I am at what’s-its-name Palace’. Or should one merely walk about – armed without maps or guidebooks but some good old fashioned wanderlust instead?
I chose the last option when I found myself on a 5 hour date in Amsterdam. This year, the city of windmills and clogs found itself hosting my agency’s annual Christmas shindig. And what a do it was!
Roused at the ungodly hour of 5:30am to catch a flight from London Luton to Amsterdam Schipol, I found myself sharing a cab with J and M. The former an over-enthusiastic account exec in the early stages of pregnancy and the latter my boss whose usual eloquence had been replaced by ‘I’m-not-a-morning-person’ stoicism. So while J twittered on about pregnancy caused wind, nausea and incontinence, I feigned sympathy and tried to decipher what M’s occasional grunt meant.
4 cups of coffee and a rather lesbian body frisk later I found myself on the flight. Sandwiched between K and M1 (the other big boss) I fended off questions about the caste system, female infanticide and dowry. And all this even before breakfast. Thankfully the flight was short and K’s panic attack prevented me from having to answer anything in great detail.
On landing, the big bosses insisted on doing a quick head count and roll call. At least we didn’t have to wear flashing neon badges that would identify in case we got lost. A smooth train ride later we found ourselves outside the Central Station. The map indicated that the restaurant we lunching at was a short 10 minute walk from the station. The map was lying. After trudging for half an hour along the docks through the freezing cold we finally found the place – Onassis. An Italian restaurant with a Greek name in Amsterdam. Oh well.
The lunch was lovely. Raspberry Bellinis, freshly made pastas, wine, heavenly ice creams and Babboon - the sweetest dog in the world. I hasten to add that Babboon was not on the menu but did wander about looking working hard for scraps from the table.
After a very long lunch we stumbled in to waiting cabs and were whisked off to DeWaag. Built in 1448 this old building now houses a trendy restaurant in the heart of NieuwMarkt. The big bosses M and M1 wanted to shop and N – the quiet studio boy offered to drop them off at the mall and rejoin us. We didn’t see him again till we boarded the flight – causing much debate over which nefarious activities he’d been indulging in.
Our group began ambling along the tiny back streets near NieuwMarkt and rather soon we found ourselves in Amsterdam’s famous red light area. While SoHo is in-your-face and seems a bit crude The Rossebuurt, as the locals know it, is unlike any other place and rather – nice. A lovely canal runs down the street. Old fashioned street lamps soften the red lights that illuminate the windows behind which the girls stand. Some girls sat still. Some did their nails. Others were chatting on the phone. Apart from the few gawking tourists (like us) everyone else were walking about nonchalant - as though passing a live window display at a lingerie store. Not at all the seedy, sordid place I had thought it would be.
I soon broke away from the group. I wandered alone about a small market and haggled unsuccessfully with the stall owners for some rather Dutch milk maid skirts (No corsets though). I found stores that sold cannabis lollies and drug paraphernalia of every shape and size – from the phallic to Hello Kitty Bongs. Boutiques with cutting edge Dutch design. Hippy hang outs that sold kalamkaari beadspreads and lambadi embroidered bags. A little bit of Goa in the heart of Amsterdam.
I bumped in to R and C outside a shop specialised in rude and bizarre gifts. Pen holders fashioned from plastic men bending over with their pants pulled down. The pen fits right in the… well you can guess where. A little rubber woman the size of my index finger. The packaging claimed that if you put her in water she would grow 600% in size - ideal for nights when the Mrs has a headache.
Half listening to R and C discuss N’s sexuality (they both think he’s gay) I dodged manic cyclists ( there are more chances of being mowed down by a cyclist than a tram or car) and came to the conclusion that I liked Amsterdam as much as I did the edam cheese it’s famous for.
Amsterdam doesn’t overwhelm you as Paris does with its grand buildings and boulevards. It isn’t as large and impersonal as London can be. It doesn’t make your head spin as Rome does with fountains, obelisks and stunning chapels on every street corner. Amsterdam is lovely in a quiet but quirky way. Unassuming but certainly not unprepossessing. It makes you feel welcome, at ease and at home. It allows you to soak up its ambience at your own pace. It doesn’t impose itself on you.
I suppose I’m rambling. But somehow that seems appropriate for a day spent doing nothing but just that.