Everyone in Holland is blonde. Tall. They have pale skin and slightly flushed cheeks from peddling their bicycles too hard. They speak perfect English. And they are unfailingly polite. That can’t possibly be true, but it really seems that way. In the same way that everyone in Paris seemed to be impossibly thin despite the fact that their food was great. It’s as if they just spent a lot of time looking at their great food and not eating it. Everyone in Holland or Paris is not one way. I know that. And yet still it feels that way.
A baffling sign is posted in English in the bathroom of our hotel in Amsterdam. “Please do not take a shower outside the bathtub.” The thought of somehow taking a shower outside of the bathtub had never entered my mind until I was warned not to do so. Now I’m considering why I would want to flood the bathroom floor by spraying myself with water outside the tub. It taxes my imagination. Who would want to do that? Maybe if I were super drunk. If they were just trying to cover all their bases, why stop at that one? “Management appreciates you not hanging naked women by their calves outside the hotel window.” “Thanks for not having sex with llamas on the fold-out couch.”
Along with its fabled Red Light District which features prostitutes who rent out a boudoir window to display their wares, Amsterdam has plenty of upscale museums. The Sex Museum. The Brothel Museum. The Torture Museum. It’s possible the Museum of Sexual Torture is still under construction. There are also coffee houses where smoking marijuana is perfectly legal. Because we were traveling with my son, we went to Nemo, a children’s science museum, where he blew gigantic bubbles and put his hands on an energy orb that radiated lightning bolts to his touch. And we went to the Anne Frank Museum, which was good to visit, but perhaps not as titillating as other places we might have gone.
I had always liked to imagine the Red Light District in a slightly provocative way. My wife managed to ruin that notion for me. When our tour guide notes that women rent out their tiny rooms in the District for eight hour shifts and that the rooms are in continual operation for 24 hours a day, Robyn poses a question I’d never considered. “When are the rooms cleaned?” she wants to know. The tour guide doesn’t hazard a guess. It leaves me wondering if any cleaning has ever happened in the rooms. I suppose you could show up as a customer bearing a small squeegee, a spray bottle of cleaning solution and a pair of rubber gloves and spend part of the time you rented the room to give it a thorough going-over. But that might cost extra.
Amsterdam, Paris and London don’t have first floors in their hotels. They have Zero Floors. You go from zero floor where the lobby is located to floor number two. When I press the elevator button for Floor Zero, I fully expect to enter an alternate dimension. I’m weird like that.
An old camp song from my Camp Eagle Feather days keeps recurring in my head during my stay in Amsterdam. I can only remember the first few lines, but their recitation is sufficient to annoy my wife to no end. I first utter it upon landing in Holland. “Amster. Amster. Damn. Damn Damn,” the song goes. This song was recited in the back of the camp bus in a loud chorus in those halcyon days when I could still get a guilty head rush from the use of profanity. “Are you ten years old?” my wife asks. “Amster. Amster,” I repeat under my breath in a sort of uncontrollable nervous tic. I leave her to complete the rest of the camp song in her head.
Amsterdam has all the canals you could ever want to see. All the bicycles you could imagine. And a million tiny picturesque bridges over the canals being traversed by bicycles. It has windmills galore. But the windmills are not the lumbering thick windmills that you imagine when you think of Amsterdam windmills. The new windmills you see everywhere in the countryside look like the wings of a stealth bomber, sleek and metallic and huge. Way too modern for my taste. When we spot a few of the old windmills on our tour of the countryside, I am ecstatic. Why do I want so much for Amsterdam to be the way I imagine it? Does it have to have a girl in a milking maid outfit wearing huge wooden shoes dancing primly in front of an old-fashioned windmill for me to be happy? I guess not. But then again, I feel like I’d feel I was cheated if I didn’t get to see at least one giant thick old time windmill.
The strangest place we go in Holland is to an amusement park that has pretty much all the highlights of the country in miniature. I like that a lot, and I begin to wish France and England had the same sort of exhibit. You can see all the fabulous architecture of ancient cathedrals and palaces in miniature and admire them for a few moments before moving on. The park is educational and interactive. Avery attempts to put his fingers in the holes of a miniature dike that keeps sprouting water from more and more holes until he is eventually nearly soaked in water.
But the story of the boy who put his finger in a dike to stop the water was invented by a New York City schoolteacher. So, everything I know about Amsterdam is built on weird outdated notions. Everyone doesn’t walk around in giant wooden shoes. Those were good for working in the fields in the old days because they are waterproof, but there are lighter waterproof shoes to be found these days. New sleek windmill turbines have replaced the old fashioned lumbering ones. And the Red Light District can’t possibly be sexy because there are no cleaning crews working nonstop in the rooms to make them safe for use.
You have to let go of the Amsterdam in your head to appreciate the lovely Amsterdam right in front of you. It’s not easy. But that’s what you have to do.