30 August 2009

Getting sloshed with celebrities

Arthur's opening line for the Amsterdam chapter invites snickers and raised eyebrows: "Amsterdam is a swinging town." The modern reader can't help but think, Oh, really, Arthur? What do you mean by that, exactly?

One thing it means in 2009--one of the more wholesome interpretations, actually--is, "Amsterdam is a great placed to party hard and get smashed out of your gourd." At least, that seems to be what this town has become, tourism-wise: the one place people visit in hopes of a trip they won't remember.

According to our tour guide yesterday, Amsterdam's famously lax drug laws and the attendant rise of the infamous coffeeshops didn't come into place until the late 1960s. (I'm on a public computer and am dashing this off, so no time for a fact check. But it sounds good, yes?) So that would be post-E5D.

But even now, the swingingest, liveliest, most popular part of the Amsterdam tourist experience seems not to be the part that is illegal in most other places, but that which is really quite readily available most everywhere: getting rip-roaring drunk in seedy bars.

Two nights ago, Lee and I took shelter from the rain in a bar near the train station. It was not Old World and wood-paneled and charming, nor was it kitschy and cheesy and touristy, and therefore charming or at least fascinating on an entirely different level.

It was just a dive. There were some gaunt, sallow-eyed toughs playing pool, and I have to confess to a few moments of panic and a vision of the night ending with a broken pool cue through my chest.

Lee and I took our beers to the tiny basement area, which was halfheartedly decorated with retro beer posters and broken sconces. Our conversation drifted to the writing life and the joys of people-watching in anonymity. We decided that well-known writers have just the right level of fame: people know their names but not their faces. No one recognizes them in public.

As we were joking about turning down autographs and wearing sunglasses in seedy bars such as this one, a young woman gaveled a massive beer stein on the table next to Lee, then eased herself onto the adjacent stool.

"We heard you talking," she said in a clipped British accent frayed with tipsiness. Gesturing to her four friends, she continued, "She says you were saying something about being famous. Are you famous?"

"Well, we will be," Lee replied, grinning. "Give us some time. A few weeks, maybe."

"Are you famous now?" the woman asked, apparently hoping we were just being modest.

"Yes, you've discovered us," I said. "I'm Brad Pitt and this is George Clooney."

She was not amused; her face became a mask of derision and disappointment. We were no longer interesting--just some losers in a bar, not celebrities she didn't recognize. I could almost hear her thinking, "Fuck you for not being famous." And also, probably: "I walked all the way over here and you can't even be some B-list reality TV stars? Just some writers? I'm wasting my breath on writers?!"

Lee and I, however, were amused and willing to continue the conversation. They were from London and had come here just for a long weekend to celebrate our new non-friend's birthday.

"Wait, you flew to Amsterdam just for the weekend, for a birthday party?"

They gave us blank looks. Of course you'd fly to another country for a few days for a birthday party. Dumb-ass Americans, stuck in the dark ages of travel.

"But ... why Amsterdam?" Lee asked.

The five answered in giddy, drunken unison: "To get fucked up!"

I'd like to point out, once again, that we were in a bar, drinking beer (that is, not in a coffeeshop consuming other items). Last time I checked, England had bars. Rather a lot. Also beer.

But such is the nature of European tourism now. With the open EU borders and the ease and low prices of air travel, going from London to Amsterdam requires about as much effort as traveling up to Edinburgh by train or even across to the other side of town. So why not?

They certainly weren't the only Brits we've met in the last few days who have come to Amsterdam to drink lots and dance to crappy pop music. (And incidentally, is European music just stuck 15 years behind American music? Because everywhere we go, even the quiet, Old World bars or side-street Thai restaurants, we hear the same godawful mid-1990s techno and Euro-hip-hop, of the variety that Lee termed "Fisher-Price My First Turntable.)

Once it was established that we really were lowly nobodies, the conversation turned to writing, and the pathetic nature of writers, specifically those who are Americans traveling in Europe looking for material. Our new non-friend drunkenly (and accidentally) tore the cover half off E5D when I brought it out to explain the project.

"So what kind of bad ideas have you had so far? Have they been really bad?" Her eyebrows waggled salaciously, as though I could redeem my lack of fame by offering a laundry list of vices, regrets, and deeply misguided doings.

"Well, I ... I showed up here without a map," I said.

She scoffed. "Did you go to the red light district?"

"Er, no."

"That's terrible. Your ideas aren't bad enough." Looking at her friends, she added, "I want a hot dog."

"So will we be in your book?"she asked as she drained her beer.

"You haven't been interesting enough," Lee said brightly.

"Just mention the drunk girl in Amsterdam," came the slurred reply.

"Let's go see a sex show," her friend added. I'm not sure if it was a sincere suggestion or just the first excuse she could think of to ditch these non-celebrities.

They headed out with half-waves, leaving us once again anonymous and at peace. We were fine with that.


  1. Your friend from ScotlandFebruary 20, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    The answer to your music related remark is that we are, in fact, at the pinnacle of music development. You sir, clearly misconstrue the cool irony of reinterpreted 90s technopop as a failure to move onwards and break remarkable new ground like American artists such as, say Nickelback, Uncle Kracker, or perhaps even Justin Beber...
    We are both guilty of heinous crimes against music. Equally we both have a hugely interesting and original left of field music scene and emerging music which will not be readily observed by a visitor.

  2. Wait, is this my friend in Glasgow? If so: hi, man. It's been too long. Hope all's well with you.

    As for the music:

    (1) Well said. Fair points. I prefer to deny the existence of Uncle Kracker (et al) altogether, but I suppose I cannot. Plenty of bad over here--and plenty of good over there. A tourist view is a skewed view.

    (2) I give the UK a pass from all of my criticism above.

    (3) But, really, have you *heard* Dutch or Italian or French pop? I don't mean to say that there's not plenty of good music in those countries (see: Phoenix). However. Nearly everything I heard in the shops and cafes and on the radio, made me want to set up some sort of charity mission--send some musicians from Glasgow or Portland to go help them out.

  3. Indeed Doug, it is I, the other Doug! Free pass gratefully accepted. A few tips for Glasgow bands to have a look at just now, most were just at SXSW.

    Frightened Rabbit
    Admiral Fallow
    Strike the Colours
    The Twilight Sad
    Olympic Swimmers

    Hope all is well!


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