Weed and prostitutes: a conversation in Amsterdam

One of the many canals in Amsterdam, Netherlands on Oct. 7, 2008

By Christopher Wink | Oct 9, 2008 | WeDontSpeaktheLanguage.com

We meet Sander and Neek at the outskirts of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Sean, his brother Brian, and I are on a bridge demarcating where the sex ends and the large, quiet residences begin. A small, sloping bridge over a small canal, 15-feet wide, on which covered bicycle taxis perch to take drunk tourists back to their hotels.

We’re deciding if one more walk through the alleyways glancing at half-naked women in their rented window brothel doorways would be one too many. Half-naked women tap on the glass under red fluorescent lighting – the most give and take you’ll ever have window shopping. They’ll sleep with you for a little money. This is one half of many people’s Amsterdam.

Sander and Neek walk by reminding us of the other half, shouting at us to ’smoke weed everday.”

I engage the pair. They seem excited to find a group of Americans.

“McCain or Obama?” asks Neek, the shorter of the two, with a thicker Dutch accent, bad teeth, a puffy black coat and a cigarette hanging from his lips. “I think you should vote Obama.”

While Sean presses Neek on why he was so certain Sen. Barack Obama was the presidential candidate of sensible choosing – he would work more closely with Europe, Neek says – I talk to Sander about common Dutch teen perspectives on marijuana-use.

Even with legality, Sander says, perhaps as few as half of Dutch have smoked weed. Two out of every five kids under 21 do so regularly, he estimates, but most slow down, if not entirely stop, as they get older. It’s something to do, he told me, when you’re young.

Sander is pure Nordic stock – tall, with high cheek bones, and slicked-back blond hair. After starting our relationship with his outburst about marijuana, he steadies to show off an intellectual side, boasting his English-speaking abilities, which are as complete as he points out to me at least twice. He tells me that starting weed at 15 didn’t lead him down a dark path of heavier drugs. That age is quite common to start among his peers, Sander says, as is his relative inexperience with anything beyond soft hallucinogens since starting.

“So just have a good time,” Sander says. “Yes?”

Sander went to San Francisco with his parents when he was a child; he loves the United States and even baseball. But not George Bush, Neek interrupts, though he has never been state-side. “Our government are idiots,” Neek goes on. “Like George Bush. And McCain. Vote Obama.”

Of course, Western Europe doesn’t seem to know much about Sen. John McCain – the default is that Republicans are bad for Europe, and McCain would be another Bush-term – standard Obama-rhetoric, right or wrong.

The two want to know where we are from. Sean and I act as official tourism agents, as we often do. We met at university in Philadelphia – the greatest American city of them all, where we now live – but we grew up in beautiful portions of the state New Jersey, between Philly and New York.

“Tony Soprano!” Sander exclaims. The HBOmobster family has thrown the Garden State into the international conversation.

“I just started season four,” Neek says smiling, referring to his DVD collection of the show’s episodes. Sean and I offer a half-hearted attempt to explain that just as Amsterdam isn’t just marijuana and prostitutes, New Jersey has beautiful parts.

We ask what else we needed to do in Amsterdam. If not smoking weed in a coffee shop or soliciting prostitutes, Sander says, he didn’t know.

“We have windmills,” Neek offers. When we question him on this, as we did on his U.S. presidential nominee predilection, he goes another way.

“Go to a coffee shop,” he says. “You’ll see windmills.”

Originally written for the travel blog WeDontSpeaktheLanguage.com.