Sunday 23 May 2004

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© 2004 Giles Orr

I got up around 0900, showered, and had another nice breakfast. I walked out Brouwersgracht to Prinsengracht, which I followed to the Westerkerk (closed Sundays) and on the Berenstraat. Anne Frankhuis is also along there, and there was a big line. It's on the must-see list, but I'm not interested - too depressing and I haven't read the book. I took Berenstraat to Herengracht and went to the Woonbootmuseum.

Apparently there are 2500 houseboats in Amsterdam. Imagine a single-wide trailer on a concrete floating platform and you have a pretty good idea of a lot of them, but the majority are genuine boats. They're hooked to electricity, water, natural gas, cable ... permanent.

The Woonbootmuseum is a houseboat converted for public viewing - no one lives there anymore. I stuck that on my own "must see" list, it wasn't on the guidebook's. And that's why I should do all my homework before arriving in a city. I thought that it would be desirable to have one of the boat-like houseboats rather than a single-wide on a floating concrete block, but it turns out that A) the wood or steel boats have to go to the dockyards once every three years for required maintenance (a city requirement, I think) whereas the concrete ones don't, and B) almost none of the boat-like houseboats have engines anyways, so both types have to be moved by a tug. They say there are 2500 in the city, and all mooring points are in use. A houseboat already at a mooring point sells for about €300,000, similar to the cost of a house (but it needs a lot more maintenance and is a lot more cramped). There are mooring costs (€600 per year seems low considering) that include electricity, water, and return of waste water. The onboard washroom was tiny but functional, and the place could easily house two even in my estimation. Preferably short people though - the ceiling sloped down on both sides from a central height of about 6'4".

From there to the Flower Market on the Singel (bulbs are at least as common as flowers) and The Magic Mushroom.

The Magic Mushroom sells all kinds of interesting things: energy drinks, weird powders, and, of course psylocibin mushrooms. Under Dutch law the only way they can be distributed is fresh, so they're in a small cooler in little plastic produce holders. The Mexican is cheapest at €12.50 for about three mushrooms. I asked "What do you do, just eat them?" "Yah - the more you chew them the better the effect." I said "I hear they taste awful." "Well, they're easier to handle dried," and he pulled out a wax paper envelope with dried mushrooms in it. If my comment on Dutch law earlier didn't make it clear, that would be illegal. Unlike marijuana, which is illegal but "allowed" as Marcel puts it, fresh mushrooms are entirely legal.

Then past the under-re-construction Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum. The presence of not one but two Gs in his name renders it entirely unpronounceable to English speakers. No, it isn't "GO."

My feet were exhausted, so I found a seat near a cast of one of the Burghers of Calais (Rodin). They have a bust by him as well, and those two sculptures are almost equal to all the paintings for me. Van Gogh's style varied wildly over his lifetime (he killed himself at age 37!!) and it's only his late stuff that's really interesting to me.

Not many people are bothering with the Burgher, but I guess they didn't come for that.

Of the Van Gogh's, "Irises" and a couple of the self-portraits were the things I liked best.

They have a Dante Gabriel Rossetti display as well, and of those I liked "The Beloved," "Venus Verticordia," and "Sibylla Palmifera" best. All portraits of the same lady to different (usually religious) ends. He does her face and hair very well. The wall notes say "they are not portraits" and "different models were used," but it's saying that of 20 or so images.

After finishing at the Van Gogh Museum, I walked to Axum, an Ethiopian restaurant in between Grachtengordel South and the Old Jewish Quarter. I'm tired. Of course I've been walking or standing nearly all day. And I'll walk back to the hotel. I maybe ought to go out, but this might just be a quiet night in doing homework. I've used up a lot of the stuff that interested me in the sections I've read.

Axum is recommended by the Rough Guide. I've finished my Doro Wat (came with veggies and stuff, main part being chicken and egg - all quite good). On injera, of course, and no utensils. I made a mess, but not an appalling one. After I asked if there is such a thing as Ethiopian coffee. The lady said yes, and I asked what was unusual. They fry the beans themselves, and she also brought out a small pan of sizzling coffee beans to show me after I ordered. Cool.

God I miss living in a real city.

Oh wonderful - "Every Breath You Take" in sappy Ethiopian. Well, I assume it's Ethiopian because I can rule out English, Dutch, German, and French.

Apparently the coffee is a big ritual - it comes with its own charcoal incense pot. Actually a fairly nice mix. She poured the coffee for me from a weird-looking traditional clay pot. Just like the rest of Amsterdam, the cup is very small. Unusual stuff. Not as potent as I expected (the grounds are in it) but strong and unusual. As always, I load it with piles of sugar (no cream here ...).

This should keep me wired for a while.

I asked the Axum lady how to get to Gary's Muffins on Reguliersdwarsstraat, and she wasn't sure of directions or English. When I was leaving around 2000 (I'd stayed a long time sipping coffee and thinking) she showed me the coffee room attached to the restaurant and suddenly suggested I ask the people there because they could tell me. A man and a woman and a young child. We talked for an hour until he left to put the child to sleep, and she and I talked another hour until 2215 - mostly politics but tourism and sightseeing and all kinds of things. Her name is Jesse (pronounced "Yesseh") Goossens (which, because of the "G" I can only think about pronouncing). She has some major association with the Tuschinski Cinema (did an article or a book on them I think) and was appalled they wouldn't let me take pictures inside. She said "Mention my name - I think they'll let you."

Jesse said that when she was in university she did telemarketing for €5/hour (well, she was probably paid in guilders at the time - she's 35) and she had friends who worked in the Red Light District. She said there are a lot of students working there quite voluntarily - as her friends said to her, you make €100/hour and sometimes you even enjoy it. And if you don't, you just ignore it.

That easy, huh?

Well, even if it isn't that easy it does seem to indicate that many of the women there are perfectly fine with the arrangements, and Jesse obviously has no problem with the legalization of prostitution. We didn't discuss the details much, but she seemed to apply the same logic I do: if it's legal it's much better controlled, safer, and taxable.

I walked back to the hotel along the Amstel (took some very pretty night shots), Rokin, and Damrak. The latter is the main tourist strip, running as it does straight out from Centraal Station. And it feels so much like Yonge Street in Toronto, night and day, it's astonishing. Same vibrancy and sleaze. Sex shops, substitute one-armed bandit arcades for Toronto's video game arcades, nasty all-night restaurants, even scary English-language panhandlers (okay, only one).

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by giles