Tradition of Tolerance Declines to Drug Culture

Our messy room
Reading the "International Herald Tribune" in our messy room in the youth hostel.

September 6, 1991

      Amsterdam is what I expected. This country is very proud of being liberal and tolerant; at times during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Netherlands was the only place where intellectual thought of any integrity was done. The sanctuary given to minds like Spinoza and Descartes only confers honor to the Dutch.

      However, this distinguished tradition of political sanctuary in a religiously bigoted and oppressive world has turned into a kind of legal loophole for the members of fringe communities. Drugs, while technically illegal, are tolerated here in small amounts. Hence, there is a large drug culture (a vegatory drug culture) and there are supposedly bad addiction problems and the resultant crime. It is almost as if all the hard core druggies of Western Europe and the U.S. flock to Amsterdam where there are no hassles and other similarly minded drug groupies. Many of these people are destitute and wasted away. In the Red Light District, one is constantly harassed by drug dealers (almost all entirely black, for some reason) on the street, "Hash, coke, ecstasy?" Prostitution is legal, and when one walks down the famous Red Light District one sees women sitting in lingerie by windows and if one likes what one sees, there is a door right to the side of the window. The door opens and the drapes are drawn across the window and business is transacted. Of course, it would be a rarity that a beautiful or desirable woman would be found in this vice sink. Most of the women are black, fat, ugly and cheap looking in the usual garish prostitute fashion. There are also various theme areas: all oriental women to one side, sado-masochism on another, etc.

      The whole thing is somewhat degrading - to the men whose naked lust necessitates a visit to a prostitute to the women who sleep with men for the money which they need to survive. As I write this, I am sitting on a park bench in this district where I have spent the last hour watching and writing while waiting for my clothes to be washed. A despondent black man going through some kind of hysterical delirium (drug withdrawal?) is writhing in pain on the bench next to me, being half consoled and half assaulted by a friend. I have measured the amount of time between when the men enter the door next to the prostitute to when they leave and the drapes are thrown wide open again and she is open for business again. It averages about 15 minutes; I guess they dispense with the foreplay! This whole scene disgusts me after having spent a whole afternoon in it. To be fair, there are many little bars and restaurants here that are legitimate. It is funny: this Red Light District is so well known that it is a tourist attraction and tourists clutter the streets and alleys! I guess it is inevitable that a tolerant and permissive situation like that of the Netherlands would ultimately come to be abused and the people irresponsible with their extraordinary freedom.

      This experiment in permissiveness is interesting. There is a whole lot of prostitution, drugs, and vice in the American cities but it is not out in the open (at least not like it is here). I can admire the lack of hypocrisy in Amsterdam but the public acknowledgement of the legitimacy of vice seems to encourage and add to the vice itself. From a bastion of political and intellectual freedom, Amsterdam has become a refuge for drug addicts and drug culture. Incredibly, this has prompted the tolerant Dutch into cracking down with the police! I would imagine that the Amsterdam police have a strange and dangerous beat here but they are the only cops (outside N. Ireland, which is different) I have seen yet who look like they mean business. It seems, even where they are legal or tolerated, that drugs breed violence. It is poignant that my brother, who has had bitter and damaging problems with drugs and alcohol, is most adamantly against the legalization of drugs. Sometimes I think back in the States we should legalize drugs and let all the fools who are going to kill themselves do it and be done with it. It is like that laboratory rat that can give itself drugs by hitting a bar in front of him and proceeds to do so continuously until it dies. Essentially, addicts are no different. There are no free lunches or miracle cures in this world and the transient pleasure from drugs is usually paid for in one way or another. I have no pity for today's lotus eaters who are so blithe to embark upon their Faustian agreement (pleasure for your soul). I am so tired of the argument that chemical dependency is a "medical disease" which discounts so much personally responsibility. People know the stuff is dangerous in the beginning but eiither refuse to believe it or gravitate towards it for exactly that reason. It is sad that people are so prone to abuse the extraordinary freedom they have here. And it is precisely because so many of my generation have been so damaged by drugs and alcohol that I have so little pity for them.

      The Dutch youth seem comfortable and liberal. This plus the foreign drug-types gives Amsterdam a 60's counter-culture feel. There are people sitting around stoned, playing guitars and singing in groups, being "free," socially concerned, etc. I am not really sure why but this really bugs me. This species of "cleverness" and moral aloofness with its condescension, naivete, and youthful ebullience. I am living in "the" druggie hostel and am enjoying it, despite the seaminess of it. One thing you can say for druggies is that they are generally mellow, leave you alone, and are easy to mix with. Most of the people go across the street to the "Grasshopper" coffee shop all the time and then return to the hostel stoned until the buzz wears off which means another visit to the Grasshopper, and the cycle repeats itself over and over. Many of my roommates have been in Amsterdam for a week or more and have not deviated from this routine in the slightest and have not ventured out at all to see metropolitan Amsterdam. I am thoroughly enjoying this hostel.

      And Amsterdam is a beautiful city although more diffuse and old-worldish than most. The day-to-day-Amsterdam-for-the-Dutch exists outside the tourist city center and is a collection of tall and wide houses with beautiful bridges spanning peaceful canals. The Dutch seem to me an affluent and educated permissive type. The quietly elegant bars of the Jordaan and beautiful fields surrounding Amsterdam all remind one more of the comfort and grace of Mozart than the heavy Gothic Beethoven of Germany or feisty anxiety of Vivaldi of Italy.

Amsterdamn at night!
The dreamy canals of Amsterdamn at night.
      The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was worth seeing but most interesting was the Anne Frank Museum. It is the actual secret annex where she and others hid from the Nazis for two years before being discovered and sent on the last train to the concentration camps. The site was going to be leveled afterwards and a group of prominent Dutch citizens formed the Anne Frank Foundation and preserved the building and made it into a museum so that the episode would not be lost to future generations. An enviable cause, but its didactic value is diluted by an attempt to promote progressive causes today, methinks. I first read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was thirteen years old or so but the tragedy of the story is heightened by a personal visit to the location. I could see the whole street the house was on and I tried to imagine how it was during the Nazi occupation - this proved difficult to do in present day Amsterdam.

      I have been seeing the results of Nazi Germany all over Europe and I am looking forward to seeing Berlin and Germany so I can try to understand the national madness of Nazism. I was looking at some of the crude Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda in the Frank house and I could not believe that a whole country could descend to this. Did the honest and kind people of Germany see what they wanted to see or did they simply ignore what they saw? Indeed, in such circumstances the easiest thing to do would be nothing. It is amazing how much of England and France was destroyed in the war and there still exists bitterness today. And for all this the Nazis ultimately brought an even greater destruction to their own country.

      My heart goes out to Otto von Frank. He seemed an honest and decent man as well as a loving father. Yet he was chased from a successful business and comfortable life in Germany, forced into hiding in Amsterdam, captured by the Gestapo and finally survived the concentration camps that claimed the lives of the rest of his family. He must have returned to Amsterdam after the war an utterly broken man. It is tragically ironic that many of the best men suffer undeserved and unwarranted hardship and misfortune in their lives while scoundrels are often accorded fame, wealth, etc. Outside of a specific cause-effect relationship, the Judeo-Christian belief that good actions will result in a blessed life is proven untrue daily. The capriciousness of fortune: tragic deaths, accidents, misunderstandings, wars, all happen all too often in a completely arbitrary manner which claims the innocent equally with the guilty. The plague rips through the community with neither law nor prejudice, striking down both the good and the bad. To my mind, all persons holding religious beliefs tying bad conduct to bad luck or the belief that earthly fortune does not matter (afterlife is important) are engaging in wishful thinking designed to make the sufferings and painful vicissitudes of life easier to endure. For most people, the notion that there is no inherent order or justice in life is terrifying and unbearable, hence the belief in God and order and justice and a paradise after death.

      I am traveling with Katie, and two friends of hers from Stanford: Matt and Karen. They seem nice enough and are mellow and intelligent in the Bay Area Stanford fashion. Katie seems to be happy with the female companionship and they are eager to have me to keep Matt occupied and out of their hair. Still, we travel as a single unit, more or less.

      Europe seems strangely socially segregated. The people who have money have education, and the people who have no money have no education. Clothes are an easy way to distinguish someone's place in the social scheme. The shopowners and laborers do not mix with the businessmen outside of business, nor do they seem to want to. In Europe, I have been told that if one wants to return to college later in life it is almost impossible. One lives much like one's parent. The monied in Europe seem to have a much bigger attitude about it, giving the term "snob" new dimensions.

      Everything in Europe is set, old, tradition bound. Companies are 200 years old, cities and public areas have changed little in a century - it is all beautiful, classy, and quaint. However, there is a worldly-wise and worldly-weary attitude which embarks an aura of stagnation, of entrenched routine. I have sensed little vigor or spontaneously unloosed enthusiasm or dynamic-type frenetic enthusiasm. Especially in Paris, it is almost as if people have had the rawness refined out of them. The absolute worst thing that can happen to a Parisian is to be laughed at for awkwardness. I went dancing once in Paris and almost no one danced, or they danced alone; dancing was almost a spectator sport. In Los Angeles, it was an activity that took almost Olympian athleticism.

      I am definitely homesick. Not in the sense that I miss my friends or family so much - I miss my life. I am tired of living out of a backpack and in the same pair of jeans. It has been a long time since I felt good about how I looked or was dressed. Europe is interesting and more than anything else I am learning a lot. If I am doing anything here, I am keeping my mouth shut and simply observing. But I am a little bored and prefer to travel furiously to keep occupied. I am also a little frustrated in that I am not really seeing the soul of these cities. I see the major cites, streets, and the way people live in society but I am not getting a good view of individual persons, what is important to him/her, etc. After all, it is hard to deal in abstractions without any personal tie-in. It would help enormously if I knew any locals (which I most emphatically do not) but as a somewhat scuzzy tourist, locals ignore you. I group my personal observations in with what I have already read about the places. In terms of being a foreigner in a foreign land, I miss being around Americans. The cities here are, on the whole, more pleasant than in the U.S. but I could not see planting myself here for an extended period. My first thought would be, "What would I do?" I cannot see myself going to the gym, running, etc. here. More than anything, I would be a stranger in a strange land with absolutely no anchor who knows no one and has little in common with my neighbors. This would be a huge obstacle to overcome and would take time.

      As a traveler, I have no real purpose other than to visit, read, sightsee, and observe. I have met many fellow backpackers who had real jobs and finally could take no more, snapped, quit their job, sold everything they own and are now in Europe on a wing and a prayer and no return ticket. I have many friends back in the States who would love to get some lame job in Europe and hang out and party, but I look forward to returning to the States even though I will value this trip greatly. I do not kid myself on knowing Europe very well and my paltry stays in Europe hardly leaves myself the time to feel comfortable with simply getting from place A to place B inside a city. The more complex problem of feeling like one belongs is not even close to being addressed. I spend most of my time with expatriate Americans, which is disappointing even as the company is convivial and appreciated. I am in Europe to see and meet Europeans and so far I have done precious little of it. Perhaps I had excessively hopeful expectations. What did I expect with such a busy itinerary?

      The women in Europe are beautiful. Their features are aesthetically correct (classical) and they are thin and small-boned. This is, of course, a broad generalization but generally true. I have seen the most incredible number of great asses and slim figures. But there is also an anemic and uninterestingly placid and composed, ice Princess-like restraint. There are few spunky, spontaneous, athletic types a la California. It is amusing to think of it now, but I came here with a sort of chip on my shoulder: "No women in the world are as beautiful as those of Southern California!" Well, my pride has been shattered and I remain humbly enamored with the elegance of the women of Europe. The men can have a rakish, cutting-edge stylish look but I have not been as impressed as by their female counterparts, and neither have any of the American women I've met.

      All throughout Europe, I have been struck by a smug boredom, a gentle and flaccid comfortableness. There is a lack of primal energy. People talk more where in the U.S. people move. We could learn a lot from the Europeans about how to sit down, relax, and enjoy a good dinner and lively conversation. I think the French, especially, enjoy "clever" dialogue. The emphasis in the States is on efficiency, convenience, success, get it done, bottom line effectiveness. And then with the dronish work-obsessive Japanese, we have come full circle.

      Even though I speak in comparisons of Europe-vs.-American or French-vs.-German, it easy to overestimate the differences between peoples. I figure there are both kind and cruel peoples everywhere and I am appreciative of the hospitality and generosity that many have shown towards me so far. From other Americans, I have heard stories of almost unbelievable kindness. People are people and if an unassuming and patient attitude is put forth, it is hard to imagine problems developing. No one likes to be hurt and abused. These people are humans such as myself, after all, and not from Mars or something. They appreciate kindness and chafe at arrogance. The only problems I habitually run into are from people who habitually deal with tourists and obviously would like nothing better than to never deal with another one for the rest of their lives.