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.
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
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