11 June 2010

Friday flicks: scenes from a pirate bar in Amsterdam

Man, some weird stuff happened in Amsterdam.

I know I am not the first person to utter those words, but I'm guessing I'm the rare individual for whom the "weird stuff" does NOT involve, say, being chased down the street by demonic giant squid or having a profound conversation with a fire hydrant--that is to say, the ingestion of substances not legal back home. We did none of that (no wink wink, nudge nudge here; it's the truth).

But we did spend several days chasing and being chased by creepily dapper secret-society initiates:

[You thought I was kidding?]

... And we did inadvertently start a massive party in a pirate bar.

Before I tell you the story of the pirate bar, I need to remind you that ours is something of an Odd Couple pairing, that Lee is a freelance writer whose beats include nightlife and the singles scene; that I recruited him for this trip in part because Frommer says that "Amsterdam is a swinging town," and Lee is the swingingest guy I know; and that I am, as the Dutch say,

Let us also have a quick by-the-numbers establishing of some key facts about yours truly:

Total number of bars I had entered during the trip before Lee arrived:

Times in my life, ever, that I had been bar-hopping (as in, you know, patronizing multiple bars in a single evening): not a one

Lee and I had joked that it was his job to get me into trouble, and now, as we wander the streets of Amsterdam that first night together, in search of our--count 'em*--
fourth bar of the evening, I am both congratulating and cursing myself for the fact that this "joke" is apparently becoming reality.

It's sometime well after dark, and we've found ourselves in a bustling commercial entertainment district, all neon signs and blaring music and restaurant hosts imploring passersby to try come in and try their drink specials. I'm standing on the sidewalk, taking it all in, when Lee says, quietly, "There."

As I'm about to ask "What? Where?," he cuts me off with a decree, firm and authoritative but tinged with worrying mischievousness. "Pirate bar."

"Pirate ... what?" I don't like where this is going.

"Pirate bar," he repeats. He points toward the forest of neon. My eye follows his gesture, and defying my brain's instructions to feign ignorance, settles on a flashing yellow sign that says, sure enough, "Pirate bar."

"That's where we're going," Lee says, striding forward.

"Um," I say. I compose a mental inventory of reasons why this is a bad idea, but there are so many that I don't even know where to start listing them out loud. So I follow him.

As we get closer, I notice that it looks surprisingly non-kitschy, not much follow-through on the pirate thing. What it looks is totally frickin' sketchy, the Amsterdam equivalent of the candy-offering strangers your mom always warned you about. Come here, little backpacker, it seems to say. Come inside, have a drink, pay no attention to the fact that the weird skeleton out front looks nothing like a pirate and everything like that British college student who went missing here last year ...

I've got it: that's my out. "I disapprove of the lackluster theming," I say as we examine said skeleton outside. "Where are the palm trees and parrots and Jolly Rogers?"

But Lee can't be dissuaded, not by the lack of kitsch, not by my mumblings about roofies and canals and that friend-of-a-friend who woke up without a kidney, not by the fact that we appear to be the only patrons but for two young women dressed Amsterdam-appropriate attire, if you see what I mean. As we sip our Heinekens, we look around the room and note that (a) there really, seriously is no pirate theme whatsover, and it really is just a sketchy dive bar, (b) there is a weird riser-stage thing that is too small for a band but would be just about the right size to serve as an operating table for kidney-removal, and (c) the two women have disappeared through the swinging saloon doors leading to a dimly-lit back room.

As I whimper to myself, two more young women enter through the front door. Thank God. Strength in numbers. They're dressed as if for clubbing. They speak with English accents. They order beers and Jag bombs. A couple of minutes later, few more women enter, same attire, same accent, same order. And then they start coming in waves, clones or sorority sisters or something, dozens of English twenty-somethings, nearly all female.

Within ten minutes, the place is jammed beyond the fire marshal's worst nightmare. The force of the crowd is slowly pushing us off our bar stools. The music starts up, then the fog machine and the strobe light. The party has frickin' started.

I look at Lee, my jaw agape. I want to ask him if he ordered up this party, if he can just snap his fingers and conjure a crowd, if it's going to be like this every night. It's too loud for conversation, though, so I just mouth, "What the hell just happened?" He grins and shrugs, "Who cares?"

We order another round, sit back, and watch the spectacle. Trays of shots pass through the crowd. Several of the Brits crowd the stage-slash-operating-table, dancing to the latest pop hits to reach these shores (meaning, of course, the songs that were popular in the US ten years ago, and whose performers have long since dropped out of the pages of People and Billboard back home).

Very late at night, as the crowd's energy peaks, we're finally treated to a bit of pirate-ness here at the pirate bar. The music and the strobe lights turn off, the bartenders light torches, one of them puts on a tri-corner pirate hat ... and then this happens. (The camera cuts away at the crucial moment, but you can probably deduce what's going on.)

[Yes, it's just six seconds long. I'm running really low on videos!]


* Lee, my friend, allow me to preempt any quibbles that this is exaggeration for effect. In case you have forgotten, the others were: 

  1. The bar on the little pedestrian street by the hotel, with the enormous wooden kegs and the one tiny booth in back 
  2. The cafe/bar on the bridge over the canal, where our waiter gave us little porcelain Dutch clogs 
  3. The place in the Jordaan (or thereabouts) where I ordered "nachos"--totally not Frommer-approved; sorry--which turned out to be plain ol' tortilla chips with foul mayo-guac

      08 June 2010

      Reading list: THE TOURIST

      Just finished reading The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class by Dean MacCannell (1976). It's an academic book with a light touch and a lot of surprisingly playful prose mixed in with the theoretical bits and the name-checking of Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi-Strauss.  If you're interested in the sociology of travel, even just on a general rather than theoretical level, I really can't recommend this book enough.

      MacCannell has a knack for expounding on some of the complicated issues around tourism with a concision and balance that I envy. Take the matter of whether or not tourism is implicitly good for the preservation of culture. I've been thinking about rather a lot--it's clearly an important issue, one that is central to the ethics of and reasons for travel. I can tell you that keeping an entire town under glass, artificially stuck in time for the amusement of visitors, is bad; I can tell you that maintaining longstanding cultural traditions is, in general, good. But I've never been able to articulate where I think it's appropriate to draw the line between what is "good" preservation of culture and what is "bad." MacCannell, though, nails it:
      The common goal of both ethnography and tourism is to determine the point at which forced traditionalism ceases to base itself on the truths of day-to-day existence and begins to crystallize as a survival strategy, a cultural service stop for modern man [by which MacCannell means the observer--the tourist].
      Right. When it's about being entertainment for outsiders, about conforming to their expectations of how you should live rather than living the life that you would have without their interference, that's where it becomes objectionable.

      I was also pleased that MacCannell is very much of the "let's face it, we are all tourists" view--in fact, he uses those exact words, quoting a student of his, "a young man from Iran dedicated to the revolution," who then emphasized his point "dramatically in a hiss: 'Even I am a tourist.' " MacCannell tweaks those who fall into the cheap and false dichotomy of "tourist" vs. "traveler" and points out the futility of the quest of the traveler--and the "modern man" in general--for authenticity. These comments ring particularly true today, thirty-four years after he wrote them, and seem all the more insightful, even prescient, given that they were written before the full-fledged influx of theme parks, interactive museum displays, and infotainment, and other ways that reality and amusement increasingly blur together in what MacCannell terms "staged authenticity."

      One of his best lines on the subject--which, again, seems prescient and twenty-first-century in its postmodern view and snarky tone--comes on page 155:
      For $200,000, one can buy an "authentic" French country home on Philadelphia's Main Line. The modern world institutionalizes spuriousness in the values and material culture of entire wide areas of society. Puritans, liberals, and snobs call it "tacky" when anyone can afford it and "pretentious" when it is dear. Pretension and tackiness generate the idea that somewhere, only not right here, not right now, perhaps just over there someplace, in another country, in another life-style, in another social class perhaps, there is a genuine society. The United States makes the rest of the world seem authentic; California makes the rest of the US seem authentic. 
      To be clear, MacCannell is at pains to note--as I try to do as well--that the "inauthenticity" of much of the tourist experience is manifestly problematic. It can, and all to often does, distort our understanding of the culture, and detrimentally affect the culture itself. But there's no one pure way of travel that avoids this--we are, indeed, all tourist, all guilty of our own sins and our own self-delusions about the cultures we visit, as well as our leaving our own imprint, for better or for worse, on the places we visit.

      [CONTINUED after the jump]

      04 June 2010

      Friday flicks: Not your mother's brewery tour

      Mom visited the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam in 1967 and sent my dad a brilliantly-designed mailable coaster that opened up to reveal a small booklet of photos from the brewery. If you addressed it, they mailed it for you, with a Heineken postmark, no less. (The coaster is at my parents' house; I'll try to scan it and post it here soon. It's a genuinely cool design.)

      In the "Readers' Suggestions" section of his Amsterdam chapter, Frommer quotes a correspondent who visited the brewery for its once-daily tour: "While guests are waiting for the tour, they are seated at a very long table, scrubbed white, in a charming tap room with beamed ceiling, and they are served excellent coffee and a variety of cigarettes to please everyone. The tour is very interesting and lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes. Following the tour, you return to the tap room for cheese and Heineken's beer. ... A worthwhile tour, and no fee of any kind."

      Let's file this in the every-growing category of "my, how things have changed." Like the Glockenspiel in Munich, this seemed like a case study in how modern tourists--make that modern people in general--demand that their attractions be a bit more whiz-bang, a bit more technologically advanced and interactive than what passed for amusement and entertainment a generation ago.

      The first clue that this would be more than a mere self-guided stroll through a brewery came from the site's name: it's no longer merely the Heineken Brewery. It's the Heineken Experience. And "no fee"? Incorrect. That'll be fifteen Euros, please.

      The video below shows some of the scenes from the tour. Alas, I don't have any footage of the beer ride (yep), in which you stand on a platform that tilts and lurches as you watch a movie about the brewing process--specifically, what it would be like if you were being brewed. When you're being cooked, heat lamps come on. Sprinklers spray you with water. And when they add the hops, GIANT BEANBAGS drop from the ceiling onto your head!!

      Okay, I made up that last part. But I half-expected it, given the intensity (and general weirdness) of the ride.

      Anyway, here are just a few of the things we did see at the not-free, over-the-top Heineken Experience:

      Oh, and they didn't have any beer coaster postcards, free or otherwise. They did have free e-postcard booth, and Lee and I sent my mom a cheesy note with a cheesy photo of us mugging with a Heineken-green windmill. And they did have big packs of coasters--not the mailable kind--for sale in the gift shop, alongside other items, such as ...

      02 June 2010

      Book deal!

      I had all these plans for all the clever things I'd say here when I got a book deal. But I never wrote them down ('cause I'm weirdly superstitious like that), and now my brain is kind of malfunctioning and I have no idea what those clever words were supposed to be. So let's just say it:

      Europe On Five Bad Ideas a Day is officially going to be a book! With Perigee (a Penguin imprint)! Holy crap! More details soon.


      Fun fact about Perigee (from their web site): "William Golding's Lord of the Flies is now the only work of fiction in a list otherwise devoted to prescriptive nonfiction." Yes, I'll be keeping company with THAT Lord of the Flies. A good metaphor for my trip, don't you think? (Note to anyone who's new to E5BID: that's, um, a joke.)

      Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off for a celebratory pastry and/or fancy Belgian beer.