Saturday, July 3, 2010

This was the city known for three things: drugs, prostitution, and Anne Frank. Perhaps you never thought you would see those three words in a sentence together. This odd juxtaposition of history and modern taboo is the epitome of Amsterdam.

When you walk down narrow streets that in the U.S. would automatically be classified as alleyways, you smell the stench of marijuana filling the air. It comes out of “coffee shops,” which, as the story goes, were the first ones to sell coffee—another substance that was considered dangerous and, for a time, illegal because of the effects of caffeine. Of course, the weed is not only smelt, but seen. The smoke seeps out of the shops each time the door is opened, and it is not uncommon to see someone walking down the streets with one of the “special muffins” or “brownies.”

There is also the ominous red-light district, where prostitutes sit in the windows waiting seemingly nonchalantly for their next customer. Although if you look closely, although I would advise, not too obviously, at their faces, you may perhaps be able to see anxiety on a few faces. Though this again may be the skewed perception of someone who is as close to a humanitarian activist without actually being one.

However, do not get the idea that the red-light district is a secluded area of town. It is, actually, the heart of the town and normally quite crowded, even during the day. And within the ominous red-light district, with prostitute shops next-door, stands the Oude Kerk, an old Catholic turned protestant church, dating back from the twelfth century. There it stands in all its glory, a testament to the religion that has been a practiced for a thousand years in this region.

Then, just over a kilometer away, across three canals, which have given Amsterdam the nickname, the Venice of the north, is the Anne Frank house, where for Anne Frank and her family hid for two years before their arrest.

And while Anne Frank is the most famous of the Jews in Amsterdam, many still remain. Their synagogues and a famous Jewish museum can be visited, attesting to historical events and present day traditions.

But don’t let Amsterdam’s reputation for legalizing drugs or prostitution fool you. If you walk far enough down one of these “alleys,” you will walk out into of the main streets that serve as streets more for bicycles than cars. In fact, there are separate lanes for the bikes, and one must be careful, lest he accidentally step in front of a bicyclist, who are not out to be considerate to pedestrians. A word of advice: if you hear a bell ringing behind you—move.

In the middle of these streets, like large medians, flow the Amsterdam canals. In fact, one of the most eerily beautiful things about Amsterdam is waking up on a morning when the fog sits bodingly on the canals, enveloping the city, as though it holds vast secrets of sins of the night before and heroism of years past.

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