Those who hold up the Netherlands as a beacon of toleration often cite Amsterdam’s ganja speakeasies as evidence. Last weekend I took a (coach) trip there to see them.
On the coach our Dutch chaperones are Brian and Edgar. Brian (his real name) has lived in Brussels for the past eighteen months. He reckons that Brussels, and Belgium generally, suck the chrome off a bumper. Why? Everything is better in the Netherlands. ‘Amsterdam is like New York. Brussels is like a village in Arizona. Public transport is shit. Everything is dirty. Wifi coverage is crap compared with Holland. Vegetables in the shops are squashy or too hard. And the bureaucracy...’
‘Don’t tell me about the bureaucracy,’ I say, but he does anyway, with a credible saga about his problems getting a Belgian bank card. I ask him about the coffee shops. Apparently people sideline as market gardeners growing weed to supply them, and the known supply chain helps maintain quality. I ask Brian whether a lot of people from the Netherlands are called Brian. He tells me that the name has been given to only 700 Dutch people, and that there are just 36 other Brians in his age cohort. I wonder how he knows this, but Brian is back onto drugs. He says foreigners can’t order anything stronger than coffee in the coffee shops, to discourage skunk tourism. Does he go to them? ‘No, they’re not interesting.’
Off the bus, I head for the Bulldog, prominently sited on the Singel canal and a Mecca for spliff-hungry grockles. What Brian told me on the bus must be balls de facto if not de jure, if only because none of the patrons is Dutch. In one corner, under the video screen, sit three young men. Two of them are twins, one in a Newcastle United shirt. With what seems practised ease the third man, whose name is Wilson, rolls a joint the length and girth of a twiglet while the twins toke away on the stubs of theirs. I inhale but do not smoke. Wilson, having tamped the ends of his reefer and lit up, immediately starts spluttering. I offer to buy him a Newcastle Brown to help wash it down.
In a second shop, Grey Area, further down Singel, all the customers are from London, and they don't seem to be there for the Tizer. One slurps on a hubble-bubble pipe; I wonder if it's much of an advance on an e-fag. Just off the Prinsengracht is the African Blackstar, where you have to buy something to be let through the airlock. I buy some ‘White Widow’ in a plastic snapseal bag and stuff it into my shoe; later it will go awol when I fall off the gangplank while disembarking from the cruise-boat opposite the Heineken brewery and dunk most of my right leg in the Amstel. Down in the Blackstar's airless basement I meet Dave, who says he's from up north. I tell him I’m fact-finding for a blog, and it's a nice change to do field research where you actually get to see some grass. He grimly rolls his spliff. Why bother to come out here when you can get the stuff perfectly easily at home? Dave says it's good to know that you can do it legally.
The gloomy basement reminds me of the atmosphere in my dad’s bookmaker’s office, soon after off-course betting was legalised, when I visited it as a kid. Bookies’ premises had to be glazed with frosted glass to shield upright citizens’ gaze from the depravity within. Here, as there, clenched men sit in smoky silence fiddling with papers. These are zones of tolerance, demi-mondes accessible from the public realm but not of it.
It’s Saturday night; our coach back to Brussels is late but Amsterdam bustles. A couple of absurdly burly cops arrive on bicycles and ticket a man for parking on the pavement. My right leg is still sodden. Brian wears the glum mien of one about to be ripped again from his homeland. Edgar wrinkles his nose and frowns. ‘Marijuana smoke,’ he says. ‘It’s everywhere in this town. Disgusting.’