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Amsterdam: a city of contrasts

Amsterdam is an odd mixture of modern and old-fashioned, the antiquated and futurist. There are obvious contrasts of course like that between the polished Amsterdam Centrum and the run-down suburbs of the Norde with their quirky graffiti, warehouses and artist’s cooperatives. But within the centre too, there are three noticeable contrasts.


Stunning town houses of Amsterdam Centrum


Warehouses in Amsterdam Norde

The first of these concerns the general environment of the city. The architecture of the centre is beautifully traditional. It encompasses everything from lopsided, pastel-painted, 6-storey, terraced town houses to wide squares facing imposing gothic cathedrals. Uneven cobblestone roads run alongside narrow canals and twist around squares. This, combined with the hordes of cyclists in long winter coats, makes the city look as if it could have been taken from a 1940s movie. The lack of traffic makes for a very peaceful city; the main sources of noise are that of bicycle bells and the chattering of birds.


Crowds at Central Station

On the other hand, the lack of traffic means that the city is relatively ‘green’ since the air pollution is much lower than cities like London. To compliment this, all museums, hostels and stations boast colourful, divided recycling bins. This emphasis on environmentally friendly transport and sustainable usage actually make Amsterdam a hugely modern city. Certainly, the extensive network of cycle paths and designated traffic lights ensures that it is fast and safe to travel by bike. In contrast with the lycra-clad and helmeted road-bikers of London, the majority of people in Amsterdam ride elegantly around, straight backed, in smart clothes and helmet-free. There is little danger from cars which will slow or even stop for cyclists. Indeed, as a pedestrian, it is wise to be more wary of cyclists who appear intent on reaching their destination regardless of anyone who gets in their way.


Recycling bins in Stayokay hostel

Another contrast between the old and new lies in Amsterdam’s famous red light district. Here, it is easy to see peep-shows. In many cases, the need for peeping is gone and the shows open directly into the street.  Sex shops brazenly promote their goods- vibrators, whips and PVC corsets. Sex-shows are advertised in glowing neon lights that sparkle over the canals. It almost looks beautiful and the groups of backpacking tourists who casually peer about create a sense of safety.


Reflections of a sex show glitter in the canal

All this sex is so normalised that it seems to both intrigue and affront the more prudish tourists. The locals seem almost bored by how ordinary it is. This blasé attitude towards sex is another reason that Amsterdam seems like a modern and forward-thinking city. The feminist in me can’t help but wonder, however, if it is not so much an open attitude towards sex but yet more sexualisation and objectification of women specifically. And the anti-capitalist part of my brain pipes up with yes, and the prurient commercialisation of their bodies.


Holland is also well-known for its stance on cannabis legalisation: so well known, in fact, that it prompts so-called weed tourism. In most of the country, you are required to prove that you are a resident in order to buy but in Amsterdam it is much more relaxed. People from across the world pop in to get high. I met an Argentinian, an Irish bloke on stag night out and most coffeehouses seemed to populated largely by Londoners. This, again, is an aspect of Dutch culture that is at once shockingly regressive and yet ahead of the liberal curve.


Tags, bags and fags

As you walk through the streets of its capital, you will frequently catch a familiar whiff from the “coffeeshops” (not to be confused with cafes). At first glance, it may seem as though legalisation would increase the numbers people smoking, becoming addicted and developing respiratory problems. However, despite the tolerance, Amsterdam is not completely without drug laws. Weed is not to be smoked outside coffeehouses, alcohol cannot be served in them and you must even go outside to smoke tobacco.  This separation of drugs makes it healthier to control the substances you wish to be affected by. Another advantage people often spout of making drugs legal is that it becomes safer. In Amsterdam, there is clear evidence of this. Any drugs you may wish to buy will be clearly labelled; many menus are even colour coded to denote the strength of any hash they offer. Legally, advertising cannabis is not allowed. (Coffeeshops, instead, have a little cannabis leaf black and white sign in the corner of their windows.) This moves smoking further from the realm of commercialisation and capitalist interest (although never entirely) and more into the territory of truly personal choice. In countries that have legalised cannabis, health statistics reflect the dramatic benefits.


In the sense of social consumption as well as health, the approach of the Netherlands seems more appealing. As with sex, drugs are normalised to an extent that seems incredible to an English person. It is legal to buy weed from and smoke in any coffeeshop. There are a huge range of these, with hundreds across the city. They are set up like bars (mood lighting, music and all) but have a vastly different atmosphere. Unlike the hyper-tense, sexually predatory vibe in most clubs, these are (perhaps as one might expect) very chilled-out. People are friendly and open to sharing experiences, people tend not to dress up, groups of mates play card games.


The prized window seat in a coffeeshop

All of this suggests a liberal attitude towards drugs that is missing in the rest of Europe. The main message of David Nutt’s book Drugs: Without the Hot Air is that drug laws focus too heavily on enforcing a moral judgement about drugs rather than accurately evaluating the potential harms of them. This, I think is key in understanding Amsterdam’s apparently contradictory approach. The liberal attitude does not simply condemn those who take drugs. Instead, the lack of advertising and limited area in which to consume them means that they limit the harms caused by them. In this sense, cannabis usage is viewed much like gambling addictions or health problems in what is, ultimately, a very forward-thinking and modern way.


Contrast of long winter shadows and sparkling sunlight

Amsterdam is a wonderfully confusing city. Its style cannot be easily categorised and its attitudes much less so than other places. One thing can definitely be said for it: this city has left me with more questions that I arrived with and that is no bad thing.

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