04 September 2012

Book Outtake: Always Something Weird in Amsterdam

In the comments following my last post, about how to enjoy the beaten path, Lee pointed out that we when we patronized Europe's myriad drinking establishments, we would typically make a point of sitting at the bar to chat up the bartenders and get a bit of local insider knowledge. That comment reminded me of a deleted scene from the book, so here's an outtake. Enjoy!

Everywhere we went in Amsterdam, we spotted these creepily dapper young men, in groups of five or ten. Probably in their early twenties. They wore dark sportcoats, black ties, carefully-groomed hair, vacant looks in their eyes, and unidentifiable but vaguely New Agey amulets around their necks. Lee's theories about who they were ranged from Scientologists to competing a capella singing groups.

Now, by the university, we spotted yet another group of them. And this time, Lee wasn't going to settle for mere idle speculation. This time, he wanted answers. This time, he said, "Let's follow them.”

Amsterdam is, famously, not a wholesome place. Not dangerous per se. But not wholesome. Not the sort of place where you mess around with possible cultists. Or a capella singers.

* * *

On the landmark Skinny Bridge--which our canal boat tour guide described only as historic and the most-photographed bridge in Amsterdam (“So I will slow down to allow you to take your own photos”)--we had seen seven of these men standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a row, facing another three, who appeared to be giving orders.

Near our hotel, in the heart of the tourist area by the train station, another group had walked by, some of them with an extra, incongruous accessory: a chartreuse sweatshirt, dirty and mangled and seemingly pulled from a canal, tied loosely around their necks, preppie-style. On the front of the sweatshirts was a large orange and yellow logo for a company, or perhaps an oddly-named sect, called Taco Mundo. The addition of the sweaters, needless to day, did nothing to diminish our confusion.

At this moment, by the university, there were perhaps two dozen of them milling around, chatting and casting furtive glances at passersby.

Three of them broke off from the group and headed toward the Red Light District.

“I've got it--I know who they are, ” Lee said as we followed them from a safe distance, my legs striding quickly to keep up while up in my brain, dueling thought-factions of anxiety and adventurousness grappled for control over my muscles. “They're the European version of a street gang.”

Rain clouds formed above us, darkening the skies and lending our pursuit a dramatic, ominous air that rather unsettled me. Anxiety was winning.

The dapper dudes dodged past families and tour groups, their strides purposeful, never slowing, even when the rain began. At the edge of the Red Light District, they stopped in front of the door to a building that, unlike many of the others here in the surprisingly-clean Red Light District, had a truly dilapidated appearance and a nefarious aura. For a few moments, they spoke with a young woman sitting on a chair in front of the door. Then they disappeared inside.

* * *

The skies opened up, drenching us, so we took shelter in the nearest bar. Lee was in his element, immediately striking up conversation with our bartender, Klara, a cute blonde graduate student from Poland. When she confessed to not knowing much about some of the liquor bottles on the shelves behind her, he excitedly explained the finer points of the various boozes, adding commentary and asides like, “I knew some people who drank Ricard. They were trapeze artists.”

He offered to teach her how to make a particularly daring and esoteric shot.

“You'll do one with us, right?” he asked, flashing a grin that I was beginning to think of as his trademark, a smile that goads you, charms you, into doing something that your common sense is strenuously advising you to avoid.

Klara giggled nervously. “Okay!”

“And you'll let us have them for free, right? Since I'm teaching you how to do it?”

“Oh, I don't …” Her gaze met Lee's. Game over. “Okay, my boss is not here. If he comes, you will have to pay. But if he does not, then it's okay.”

We could hear the rain pick up outside. More drenched patrons surged through the door.

“Busy,” Klara said, frowning, and went off to serve the newcomers.

* * *

Within a few moments, Klara's boss appeared, which meant no free booze for us—a relief for me, because I wasn't sure I trusted Lee's secret shot not to leave me retching in the gutter or, worse, dancing on top of the bar. I was content to nurse my beer.

All around the bar, there were ads some kind of Bolivian alcohol made with coca leaf. Lee asked Klara about it, noting that he'd never seen it in the US. Was it illegal back home? She shrugged. Probably. That was all the enticement Lee needed. He ordered one. It was bright green and looked like it probably glowed in the dark.

“Time for some hallucinations,” Lee smirked as he tossed it back. Luckily for posterity and Lee's future ambitions for elected office, I videotaped the key moment:

* * *

Klara noticed my book sitting on the bar. “Europe on five … dollars? Each day?”

“Yep, that's all we can spend,” Lee said, that grin creeping back. “You can't charge us anything more.”

Klara's eyes widened, and she was speechless until Lee burst out laughing and explained the project. She understood the concept, but not the appeal. “Every day, something weird in Amsterdam,” she said.

* * *

Which reminded us of something. The Dapper A Capella Cult Gang.

"Question for you," Lee said to Klara. "We've been seeing these guys around town ..."

Klara nodded in recognition as he explained. We waited for her explanation.

"They are very bad men," we expected her to say. Well, okay, I expected it. She would then continue, "You must avoid them if you want to see your families and internal organs again."

Perhaps Lee's glow-in-the-dark Bolivian coca alcohol would factor into it--the booze brainwashed you, made you into a zombie who survived only on glow-in-the-dark coca and Taco Mundo.

And brains.

I leaned forward on my bar stool as Klara winced and started to speak. I looked around the room, wondering if perhaps she should speak in a whisper, lest the wrong persons hear. I scoped out the closest exits.

Klara rolled her eyes. “Student group,” she said. “Like you have in American movies.”

We thought for a few moments. “Fraternities?” Lee asked, his brain evidently more optimistic than mine. “Like in Animal House?”

“I do not know this one,” Klara replied.

"It's like a club, and they live together. And before they can join, they have to do stupid stuff," Lee said.

"Ah, yes. One of these."

Lee and I both sighed slightly. Mine was relief; his was disappointment.