Sunday, May 2, 2010

The smell of Amsterdam

We’ve invented a really good form of exercise: pack two large suitcases full of clothes that are for a climate other than the one you are in. Make sure that the suitcases themselves weigh at least 8 to 10 pounds, empty. Add extras for possible trips to wild regions where little modern services exist, packets of personal wipes, first aid items, a bed sheet, some pillow cases as a safeguard against questionable laundry practices. Also, while stranded and waiting for some sense of normalcy, acquire gifts for everyone back home, making the suitcases even weightier. Drag them, push them in front of you, preferably on cobbled streets. Book yourself on a couple of trains which will also require climbing up and down multiple flights of stairs, hoisting those pesky suitcases.

We took the train to Amsterdam, just to go somewhere else. I like trains. When I was young, my family traveled through Europe on trains. We had five children, the youngest of which barely two months old, plus luggage and a collection of musical instruments. My father developed a system. The train would pull in to the station and he would throw open the window, then run off the train. My mother and I, with the help of the other kids, would toss out the luggage, guitars, a banjo and autoharp, the frame to the baby carriage and sometimes the baby herself, asleep in her portable pram. As soon as every possession was out of our compartment, we would also dash off the train to help Dad pick up all of our stuff from the platform. The windows on the railroad cars no longer open in this way, but I smiled as we pulled into stations, remembering.

The only reason people seem to go to Amsterdam is to get high. I do not know why I did not realize this. My children certainly did and probably were wondering at our choice of cities to escape to. I knew that pot is legal in Holland, but thought it was confined to special shops. I was surprised to find hippie types staggering through the streets, and that pungent, recognizable smell permeating everything. We wandered out from the train station, pulling our luggage behind us and stepped into a side street, in search of a cup of coffee. Spying a sign saying “coffee shop,” I gratefully plunked down on the bench outside while my partner went in to get me a cup. The woman inside, noticing the handle of the suitcase, mistook it for a stroller and asked in alarm, “you don’t have a baby out there, do you?” This was how I realized that the coffee shop was of a different kind. Apparently you can buy joints of all kinds of strength, color and type of high in a “coffee shop,” but you can’t have children anywhere near them.

It’s a curious thing; since becoming a mother, I have objected to pot smoking on the grounds of its illegality, coupled with fear of the draconian Rockefeller laws in New York State. I have held the same line about underage drinking, even though it is now quite clear that my children did this anyway. Yet, in Holland, where it is perfectly legal, I was still very uncomfortable. Sitting on the grass in Vondelpark with blankets of young people smoking all around me, listening to hip hop music and speaking a mixture of Dutch and English (f-ing being the most prevalent English word) I felt disturbed. I was unable to figure out why. Perhaps it is because I myself am slowly rising out of a debilitating fog and dislike seeing others consciously put themselves into one? But that is very judgmental; I don’t really care what other people do. Go ahead, have fun if you like. As I watched a heron walk by, some white nosed coot families swim near some mallards, I relaxed. I don’t have to smoke the stuff if I don’t want. Let it be. Take a deep breath and smell early spring, the loamy, sweet scent of the mud on the bank. A breeze blows across my cheek, spiced with flowers and marijuana. Should I inhale?

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