The pillow fight broke out at 17:00, right on time. In the minutes leading up to it people milled around holding large, rectangular shopping bags and looking inconspicuous. Miraculously, the clouds had parted just hours before after days of rain. A mild sun lit the city's most central square, filled with a thousand tourists. A lone, lame street performer juggled earnestly, blissfully unaware that he was about to be definitively upstaged. At the sound of a whistle all hell broke loose. Neither man, woman, child nor chicken would be spared a fierce beating. None would ever sleep soundly again. What was once a gentle place to lay one's head became a weapon to vaporize dignity and pummel all within reach into absurdity.
Later that night, the streets would be littered with bedding and feathers. A bit later than that, I would be mistaken for a lesbian.
(Bonus: witness the saga of the best shower in history.)
I'll back up. In fact, I'm skipping ahead. I flew into London from Miami in the last days of april. As in new york, I brought with me dreadful weather - bitter cold, wind and endless rain. I spent 4 days doing virtually nothing but recovering from the Miami train wreck. Well, that's not strictly true, but it belongs to it's own entry and it will get one. But the following weekend my friend and host Chris had the easter weekend off and we made the sober and conservative decision to go to Amsterdam.
We considered taking the fun route - an all-night ferry with casinos, bars and clubs. But given the time constraint, we opted to fly instead. With that solved, we tried to figure out where to stay. The holiday weekend had booked up most of the hostels and the rest were prohibitively expensive. It seemed like a perfect time to try couchsurfing. I wrote maybe 5 or 6 people a short message saying that two professional guys in our late 20s were on holiday and wanted to stay a few nights. I got a few messages politely declining for various reasons and one saying yes. Robert, our prospective host, sent along an address and some directions. I printed out the directions, tucked them in my bag and let Robert know what time to expect us. I wouldn't hear from Robert again, which was mildly alarming but we decided it would be fine.
Naturally, our plane was late and we took the wrong train from the airport. No one in the train station seemed to know how to get to the address on the paper. I learned something important about couchsurfing that day: always print out a map. Secondly: get a phone number. Finally we located a tram stop with the same name and hopped off. A guy on the street gave us a general idea of a direction and we set off walking. I think we finally found the place around midnight. Robert answered on the first buzz, he had been watching TV with a glass of wine and waiting for us. A single email and we were inside this guy's house.
For the most part, it looked like an ikea catalogue, not really in a bad way - clean and open. A big two-bedroom condo 10 minutes from the city. Everything was new, he had just moved in. Robert described his work as mobile app development, and told us that amsterdam was making an effort to become a creative center in europe. In his early 30s, he seemed an easy-going, practical guy. His brother, however, makes showers.
Had we not been told, we would have assumed that Robert had bought a prop from a 1970s sci-fi movie and left it in his bathroom. The shower was all chrome and curved glass, with doors that slid open along the curve of the shower to reveal several knobs without labels and a computer screen. Yeah, a computer screen. It had a radio, a temperature readout and several buttons to control an integrated sauna. With a straight face, Robert told us it had an optional intercom system that he didn't spring for. I can imagine what you would say into a microphone in the shower, except perhaps to phone the mothership. Beam me up, Scotty, there's no intelligent life down here.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience as my first time really couchsurfing. We had a few beers and some laughs and got along fine. I think by the end we probably overstayed our welcome a bit - especially when I got locked out at 4am and had to ring the doorbell. But I'll get back to that.
That first day was, of course, raining and cold and miserable. I apologized, assuming it was my fault. We broke out our umbrellas and caught up with a free walking tour that Chris had taken in a few other European cities and reccomended. It took no small effort to stick with the tour in the rain, especially as every third storefront beckoned us with the possibility of spending a few euro to waste away the rest of the day giggling and staring off into space.
But we stuck with it till the end, learning all about the history of the city - including the magic bread, the boob in the street by the church and all the many ways that urine shapes public space. I won't waste time reiterating them for you. Except - it's pretty astonishing the volume of urine that needs to be managed on a daily basis. There are places all over that provide a small privacy screen on very busy streets where you can literally piss into a hole in the ground. It is, in fact, pretty awesome. So awesome that, during the 70s, a group of women protested that they too should be able to piss in public. Upon being declined, they threatened to piss on the largest bridge in amsterdam if their demands weren't met. The government called their bluff, but it was no bluff. You go, ladies. So the city did indeed build public, free bathrooms for women around the city providing some privacy. In short order, these became a wonderful tool for drug addicts and rapists. So they're now sealed, but still all over the city. See what I mean? Never before have I been in a city that's so thoroughly obsessed with urine.
You'll notice, by the way, that I didn't take that many pictures. I don't know if I mentioned this before but it was raining like a motherf!@#er the whole goddamn time.
It did clear up, miraculously, though, a few hours later. I take this as evidence that God is a fan of random silliness. While researching things to do in Amsterdam, I saw on Facebook that a number of my friends around the world had RSVP'ed to similarly named events in a number of different cities all centered around something called World Pillowfight Day. It was something I'd heard of, but never been to before. I knew there had to be one in Amsterdam and sure enough there was. Saturday, 5pm in the center of town. Chris and I both agreed there was no way we could miss it. Upon being told our plans, our host gave us the first of what would be many dubious looks that seemed to say, you guys are how old again?
As for the fight, the pictures speak for themselves:
In the aftermath, we brushed all the feathers off that covered us and everything else and went drinking in the red light district.
I know you've heard of this, the part of Amsterdam where prostitution is essentially legal and wildly popular. The only thing I can say about it is that I don't necessarily have any ethical problem with prostitution as an occupation. My problem with the red light district is that it is extraordinarily creepy and not sexy or sensual in any way shape or form. Take strip clubs - love them or hate them, it's only theater and you're paying money (a lot of it) to be teased, it's an act. This is no act, of course, and that makes the nuts and bolts of the business very different.
In a strip club the economics are simple - the girl is always trying to up-sell. Come have a private dance, spend more time, have another girl join us. With these girls, there is no up-sell because they're giving up the goods immediately. So the game for them is speed of transaction. The more guys in one night, the more money they make. Which is incredibly disgusting.
And the women look the part - even the prettiest ones are haggard and have a dead, predatory stare. The working conditions are designed for safety and speed so they look quite a bit like hospital rooms. We were told by our tour guide that on occasion the girls will make the guy do their business from behind a plastic sheet. It sounds really romantic and fun.
But who am I to question someone else's good time?
There are some great bars in the area, though, and we managed to stir up plenty of trouble. At one point we ducked into a dutch bar with Robert and a friend of his. I couldn't stop laughing at how serious everyone was, all tall blonde people with neutral expressions dancing stiffly to weird dance-music covers of American 80s pop songs. We did end up meeting up with some people from our tour group earlier that day, ironically all college students from Boston. Apparently, they told us, they had made dinner plans but in the intervening time between the tour ending and that evening they had gone into one of the 'koffee' shops and eaten some muffins of a certain special variety. They were a bit strong and they all had had a good long nap.
All but one of them ditched us to go home at around 2am, which was when a lot of bars started closing, if you can believe it. The three of us walked around for a while before finding an open bar that was still pretty crowded. We pushed through without really looking around and ordered 3 pints of heinekin. I saw a sign at the back of the bar advertising what looked like a cheap house shot, 2 euros for something called, and I know how this sounds, CLIT ON FIRE. Now, maybe it says a lot about me and my modern attitudes towards women that this name didn't really shock me, or maybe I was just, er, really drunk. But I ordered 3 of them. The bartender, a tall brunette, gave me a funny look, leaned across the bar and shouted, "ARE YOU A LESBIAN?" I spent a disoriented moment trying to determine if this was a trick question and decided in the interest of international diplomacy that I would answer in the negative. A moment later we started looking around at the other patrons in the room and realized that yes, in fact, we were in a gay bar. By the way, the shots? Really freaking gross.
The following morning we nursed our hangovers a while and decided the best cure would be more beer. The heineken brewery then. I can tell you very definitively that heineken has no particular history to speak of. None. We saw some token old stuff and they tried to explain the brewing process at least 3 times, each more stupid than the next. It got to the point where we were taken on a movie ride with a shaking platform and bubbles falling from the ceiling and a man describing how we, the beer, were being processed. I swear to god, it was called BREW YOU. Chris turned to me halfway through and said he thought he might vomit. I couldn't imagine that really detracting from the experience at all. The upside however was that our 15 euro ticket bought us 3 half-pints. Along the way, we ran into the same group of girls from the night before, who announced they didn't really like beer and we could have their drink tickets...
When we eventually sobered up, we walked the few blocks to the Van Gogh museum. It was still raining and miserable and there was a line well out the door, but it was worth every minute. Of the 700 or so paintings of his that exist, 200 are there. Early student works that were, the accompanying plaques told us, complete shit. Bizzare japanese woodblock style painting that were inspired by parisian magazine covers of the time. My favorite, though, was a still-life painting of a vase with a flower in it, next to a glass case containing the vase in the painting.
Naturally, having long ago decided what kind of weekend this would be, we took our newly sober selves back into the center of the town to join a pub crawl. Back into the red light district, we went to bar after bar drinking pints and shots and living up to every ridiculous stereotype of the drunken foreigners that we were. But, for me, and I'm at a loss to explain why, I remained stone cold sober no matter how much I drank. Late in the night, long after people started drifting away from the group and staggering back to their hostels, I was completely lucid.
As the bars and shops started closing, I began to feel a frustrated restlessness. Chris went home with the key and said he would let me in when I called. I wandered, not in any direction, just walked the streets alone, following the canals and letting my mind wander. It's a cheap and lazy metaphor but literally true that being as lost in the world as I felt in my mind was deeply peaceful and satisfying. I can't tell you exactly what that feeling was or how I could get it again, but to be unburdened and aimless was a momentary kind of heaven.
But, the reality of the situation eventually set in. The sun was threatening to come up, I had 15 euro in cash, no working debit or credit cards and the trains had stopped running long ago. I knew the address of Robert's house, but not a clue how to get there. I hailed a cab and told the driver I would give him 15 euro to get me as close the address as he could. Unfortunately, he had never heard of that street. We put our trust in his navigation system, then. Sure enough, he got me there with a few euro to spare, which I gratefully left as a tip. Standing out in front of Robert's house, I phoned Chris.
Nothing. I tried again, nothing. His phone had died. My phone started beeping urgently, then died as well. I was standing out on the doorstep for a while, contemplating whether it was cold enough to just simply sit down and wait. I decided that offending our gracious host was the only sane option, so with some regret I rang the doorbell. A few minutes later, I rang again. This time Robert appeared, opening the door in his underwear and smiling wearily. I apologized very profusely and then promptly passed out on the couch, in my clothes.
An hour or two later, Chris woke me up. We had a flight to catch and a weary trek back to London.