I’d already been christened by the libertine enclave of Christiania when I first arrived in Amsterdam on an overnight train from Copenhagen during the furore of the 1998 World Cup. Every backpacker knew the autonomous commune as “Little Amsterdam” because of its cannabis trade, which flouted the country’s drug laws. I walked there in the late afternoon sun from my hostel, poked my head around the workshops and craft stores then got a beer from a wooden shack with a small second-hand television broadcasting the start of a World Cup Round 16 game. Being on my own and relying on my own two feet to get me back to the hostel I was hesitant about having a smoke. Christiania also didn’t have the transparency of Amsterdam’s coffee shops which I’d already read about. I knew there was weed everywhere because I could smell it. But I didn’t know the system, and have always been ruled by a quiet fear of social embarrassment. As the darkness took over the Luddite charm and eccentric buildings decorated in graffiti and bright murals everything began to feel a bit more sinister. The pervading smell of skunk rose like a freshly stoked heath and hooded gangs started to gather on the streets, slugging down beer and dragging on joints. So I finished my beer and left Christiania to the dope smokers and the night.
In Amsterdam it was a long walk from the train station to the International Budget Hostel on Leidsegracht canal. Along the way the anticipation of the quarter finals match against Argentina was visibly building with troops of orange jerseyed supporters starting to decorate the larger canals in. I deliberately booked into the small hostel because it was on a picturesque canal with quaint historic residences and cafes, and yet was only a short jaunt away from the nightlife areas – at least that’s the way I remember it. A newlywed couple from the USA had checked in to the shared room when I arrived. They looked tired as they quietly rearranged their luggage on the two middle beds. I was 21 years old but even back then I found a four single-bedded dorm room an odd choice for two people celebrating their nuptials. However, I also had a deep respect for shoestring travel, as it was the only way my minimum wage earnings allowed me to travel.
I congratulate them as I claim the bed furthest from the door near the window and ask them if they have any evening plans. Eric brightens has he launches into a premeditated agenda. I like how simple and achievable the plan is: a romantic night-time cruise along the city’s famed canals, while consuming magic mushrooms. The only slight complication is they haven’t much time to procure mushrooms. Night cruises are a popular choice for couples and sightseeing groups in Amsterdam. I wasn’t either, and couldn’t afford it anyway so I didn’t even entertain the notion. However, as honeymooners it again seems a slightly odd choice since it’s blatantly clear from looking at Stephanie that she is in no participating.
She rolls her eyes at Eric as he panics while getting ready about the time needed to buy tickets for the cruise then get to the ‘shroom shop before it closes before coming back to the hostel to change into more appropriate clothing. Given Eric’s nervous disposition I guess in everyday life he too had a zero drug policy, but had adopted the old adage: When in Amsterdam…
The source of Eric’s gusto and determination is a familiar one. He explains friends back home had done likewise on a previous trip to Amsterdam and told Eric it blew their minds. Conformity and a fear of missing out over a “must do” activity is enough to nudge Eric into unfamiliar territory. There was no way I was taking unknown hallucinogens in a foreign city on my own, but even my own indentured social spirit is lifted by Eric’s irrepressible eagerness to go “tripping balls” out on the romantic glow of the canals at night. I wish Eric luck as he leads the charge out the door.
A short while later Chelsea, a flamboyant fellow American from Florida, tackles her way through the doorway to claim the last bed. She’s up for it all before she draws her wheeled suitcase to a halt in the middle of the room where it falls like timber. She’s after the “classic” Amsterdam experience – a coffee shop, a spliff, a Heineken and company. I’m more than happy to oblige.
To be fair weed in Amsterdam can just as easily be found on the free shelf in hostel kitchens. Virgin travellers come to dip their toe in the red light district. To chase the dragon of cut-snake highs for a lost weekend – toking on reefers and scoffing down space cake while taking in a peep show or live sex shows. Waking late for a pre-booked intracontinental train connection with eyes full of gravel is the inevitable conclusion. And in the maelstrom of packing a half-eighth is lobbed into the communal kitchen or lounge room bowl like an afterthought before bodies and packs burst out the door.
However, the vibe at the hostel when I arrived was sombre. Two dissident Swedes, critical and morose about their homeland, occupied the small common room offering little indication the mood was going to change. I tell all this to Chelsea, which makes her rush even more to get ready for no apparent reason. We’re almost out the door when Eric and Stephanie return from the mushroom shop. Eric is giddy like a school kid on the eve of summer break as he elaborates the screening process of buying the most comfortable high for a riverboat cruise. Just like ordering spicy food, most purveyors dispensing mind-intoxicating substances employ a sliding scale of numbered potency. Eric sounds confident with his purchase recommended for the uninitiated to provide a weak but pleasant buzz. I say, ‘have fun, but make good choices,’ as Chelsea and I head out.
When we arrive at a coffee shop in the red light district it turns out I have partnered with the only more clueless cannabis connoisseur in Amsterdam than me. Where was Doctor Dan from Manchester who could divine any weed strain and it’s personality from sight and smell alone – and with an authority we all trusted because he was a bone fide doctor. On the countertop strains of weed are displayed in plastic containers, ordered in incremental strength with names like Monkey Magic Ganja, Cinderella Pumpkin Hour, Vaseline Lights, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s Father and Galactic Stonecrusher Kush. I ask the gaunt monkey man behind the counter which is the best because I’m big believer in local recommendations. He points very slowly and methodically to each one, calling them all shite except for the last two. Chelsea says she can’t roll. Call it a craft of the hands but I learnt to roll way before I smoked. I tell Chelsea not to worry. She’s already declared she’s paying and is only interested in convenience. She wants a pre-rolled spliff like it’s a lifelong ambition. The server gestures to an array of mason jars behind the counter on a top shelf filled with white pencilled joints.
Since Chelsea’s footing the bill I order two pints of Heineken and go sit at a window front bar top. She joins me exclaiming she got a 5-5-4 carrot (based on an precise triple stage system where one represented crap and five embodied mindfire). I spark it up and take a couple of puffs before resigning it to the host. The potency Chelsea opted for understandably makes a lot of sense at the time until the glass of my Heineken mug starts melting like wax down around my finger tips and we get insanely baked. Halfway through my pint my head is the weight of a tree. I swaddle my forehead in the cradle of my arms, feeling like a birthday candle for a long time, knowing it is poor form. And with my paranoid Superman ears I can discern every voice in perfect clarity in the quiet loud cafe – effortlessly translating the international folk around me with their pronged tongues – calling me a dope and a gringo and a lightweight. Out of an frosty blizzard I hear Chelsea’s voice.
‘Dave, we need to walk it off!’
‘Yep – you’re right!’
We abandon our half drunken pints and head back along the black and golden canals to the hostel. I take in the oily magic of Amsterdam at night while passing seas of orange with horns of celebration over the World Cup victory against Argentina. When we arrive back into the darkened dorm room Chelsea flops on her bed nearest the door and passes out. I see Stephanie is in the next bed all rolled up under covers and fast asleep. I tiptoe to my bed at the far end of the room and hit the backlight on my alarm clock to find my toothbrush. That’s when I notice Eric is still awake – a set of frightened rabbit eyes poking out of a moustache of covers.
‘Hey dude, how was the riverboat cruise?’
‘Oh man-’ Eris whispers.
‘How were the ‘shrooms?’
‘I think it’s just starting to happen.’
Eric’s gaze is locked to the blackened burlap ceiling as if he’s witnessing a cosmic rebirth, which I guess can be terrifying to some. Without disturbing him further I say goodnight. Early the next morning I wake to a spat between Stephanie and Eric that has no place in communal living – and shits on the basic principle of when everyone else is sleeping shut the hell up.
‘I need the key!’
‘The key! The key!
‘I need to take a shower-‘
‘Eric! We have to check out in two hours.’
Eric groans like a groggy drunk and rolls over to find his jeans at the foot of his bed. He fishes out 20 guilders from his back pocket, which he then hands to his new wife.
‘Twenty dollars! You just gave me twenty dollars!’
Eric looks confused and Stephanie is pissed off – with a distinct tone of resentment carried over from the previous night which permeates like fresh, strong coffee being brewed.
‘I – want – thA – key – card – for – thA – RooM!’
I wondered if Chelsea’s acclimatisation to Florida crazy allows her to sleep peacefully like a bug on a rock through the commotion. Eric finds the keycard in his shirt pocket. Stephanie snatches it from his feeble reach and slams the door on her way out. The room retires back into peaceful slumber but doesn’t last long.
‘Eric – you have to shower!’
I sleep in broken fits through slammed doors and Stephanie’s scolding directives. When I finally decide to pull my furry mind into the conscious light of late morning Eric and Stephanie are gone. There wasn’t a single note in Stephanie’s postnuptial aria that would make you bet on the newlyweds’ longevity. And regardless of Eric’s hedonistic spirit the two to them should have at least learnt by their age when a tolerant force meets an implacable spirit something will break AKA people who mind drugs and people who don’t mind drugs rarely mix. But as good a reason as any to get away is to leave behind a madness you can’t fix or cure. And I’m sure the discordant episode of Eric’s drug experimentation will shortly be buried by the scenic history and splendour of the continent’s other capitals.