Nancy Reagan was right—one drug leads to another. The proof? After allowing myself to write a column featuring tobacco, now comes a column about the Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum in Amsterdam. One more step on that slippery slope …
The Dutch sure had a knack for building wonderful cities. There’s Bruges (I know, it’s in Belgium, but Belgium didn’t exist back then) and Utrecht—a beautiful little city that’s well worth a visit despite being off the beaten track. But Amsterdam is … well, Amsterdam.
First of all, there’s all that water. While Bruges and Utrecht have their canals too, Amsterdam positively lives on the water. For that matter, a lot of the residents actually do live on the canals, in houseboats. The others tend to live in tall skinny houses of four or five stories with pointy roofs and great big windows that have no shutters and, often, no curtains. The Dutch have nothing to hide. The size of a house in Amsterdam, many of which date from the 17th century, is related to the size of the canal it lines. Big canals get five- or six-story buildings, three windows wide, while smaller canals tend to get the two-window-wide variety. And if most of the buildings seem kind of crooked, it’s not a lingering coffeehouse effect; they really are. A lot of the houses in Amsterdam lean a little one way or another. It’s very charming.
Despite its beauty, the first things that come to mind when many people think of Amsterdam are sex and drugs. There’s ample reason for this, since Amsterdam does tend to flaunt both. You can’t swing a dead cat in Amsterdam without hitting a marihuana-serving coffeehouse (it’s amazing how much coffee the Dutch drink), and once the poor dead kitty bounces off the coffeehouse, it may well land in the lap of a prostitute, especially in the red-light district.
It’s not as if you could avoid the red-light district, either; it’s smack dab in the middle of the old part of town. At least these windows have curtains, although they’re only drawn when the women who occupy them are busy catering to the fantasies of some man. These fantasies apparently involve heavy older ladies to a much greater degree than one would expect.
In the middle of all this is the Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum, at 148 Oudezijds Achterburgwal. It is an interesting little place, a kind of shrine to the hemp plant. There are exhibits that show how hemp was used to make sails, including a fetching wooden model of an old sailing ship, examples of clothes made from hemp fiber, and a wooden duck that displays how waterfowl use hemp to build their nests. This might explain why ducks walk so funny and giggle all the time. There is also ample discussion of the joys of smoking the stuff, including a nice little collection of pipes (and an antique nargile!).
One whole section is devoted to decrying the excesses of the United States’ war on drugs. It repeatedly states the claim that smoking hemp in its various forms (hashish, marihuana, etc.) is no worse, or even less problematic, than drinking alcohol, and it explains the Dutch government’s position: essentially, we would officially legalize it if the other countries of the world would get off our backs, but in the meantime we’ll tolerate it (nudge nudge, wink wink, and won’t you come down to the Bulldog coffee shop and have a puff?).
The museum is big enough that one could easily while away 15 minutes or so without getting bored, and it shares a “growing room” full of hemp plants with the store next door: the Sensi Seed Bank.
The Sensi Seed Bank does most of its business selling seeds to entrepreneurial home gardeners who are undoubtedly enamored of the hemp plant because it is really quite pretty, as can be verified by a peek at the growing room. At the Seed Bank, which has a number of outlets in Amsterdam and a few more in other Dutch cities, one can buy all kinds of hemp seeds, as well as videos explaining how to cultivate the wondrous weed. One can also buy various tools of the trade: fertilizers, trowels, bongs … your typical gardening implements. According to the young gentleman who was managing the store, they do a thriving business, although they have been hurt by the decrease in American tourism to Europe. It would seem that many of their customers are American, although I don’t know what they do with the seeds—they would be crazy to try to bring their purchases home (just read the bit on the American war on drugs in the museum). Maybe they eat them? Roast them up and sprinkle on some salt or something?
I must confess that I did make a purchase at the Sensi Seed Bank. I bought a Frisbee. I live in France, and the French consider Frisbees to be toys—they only sell them during the summer, and then they sell you these flimsy little things. I have been looking for a good old 175-gram ultimate Frisbee Frisbee and, lo and behold, they were selling one in the Sensi Seed Bank! OK, so it has the image of a cannabis leaf on it, but it looked good and solid and I snatched it up. Why they were selling a Frisbee is beyond me. Maybe they just made an automatic connection between marihuana and Frisbees—something to do with California.
All of this talk of cannabis and such may well end up making you hungry. This is a little problematic for two reasons. First of all, the Dutch tend not to eat out at lunchtime, so many of the better restaurants are closed. Second, Dutch food is resolutely uninteresting.
I know I’m asking for a hail of criticism from people who can’t get enough Gerookte Paling and Krabbetjes, but let’s face it, it’s just not exciting stuff. And it sounds even worse. Of course, everything sounds bad in Dutch. What the hell, since I’ve already earned the ire of any Dutch readers by insulting their smoked eel, we may as well make fun of the language, which is one of the five ugliest languages on the planet (and I say that out of kindness … the other four don’t actually come to mind). If you want to approximate Dutch, imagine a German with the flu who has a tongue full of Novocain and is trying to yodel in Swedish. This gives you something vaguely resembling Dutch. Surprisingly, the language does become much prettier when sung—listen to Jacques Brel go on in Flemish in songs like “Marieke” and you may even get used to it. Of course, Brel could make anything sound magnificent and poetic and winsome, even the port of Amsterdam, where the sailors, they drink, and they drink, and they …
But I digress.
Anyway, as I was saying, the Dutch tend to eat sandwiches with milk for lunch (which is one of the reasons the French absolutely detest doing business with them), and if you’re wandering around Amsterdam with the munchies around noon, then you’re going to have some problems. In general, your best bet is to try an ethnic restaurant. There’s a Chinatown in Amsterdam along the Zeedijk with some good places (and a large Buddhist temple in case you’re in need of peace of mind), but you really should go to an Indonesian place.
Luckily for the Dutch (less luckily for the Indonesians), what is currently Indonesia used to be the Dutch East Indies, and when the locals finally kicked out their colonial occupiers, the latter returned to Amsterdam with a taste for spicy dishes and peanut sauce. There are a lot of good Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam, where you can get among the best satays and sambals this side of Jakarta, often for a good price.
In the end, the best thing to do in Amsterdam—once you’ve calmed your spirit at the temple, your stomach at an Indonesian restaurant, and your brain at a coffee shop—is to walk around. There are great museums and boat tours and such, and you can look them up in a normal travel thing, but it’s the city itself that grabs your attention and just won’t let go. And, of course, you should make haste—half of the Netherlands is actually below sea level and the country may well disappear within a couple of hundred years due to global warming. They seem to be stoic about this, though … I even saw a coffeehouse named the Greenhouse Effect.
Can hemp be grown underwater?