The Box up the Stairs, Part Five: Amsterdam, 1981: It was all so very strange….
“Guard your bag,” George, having rolled the dice, whispered as he indicated with his head a fellow slithering toward our booth. “He has two passports.” The two-passport motif marked the Amsterdam pirate. Everyone who had been in the city a day knew that.
I was at The Bulldog, enjoying a coffee milkshake and a game of backgammon. I don’t know how to identify the category of establishment to which The Bulldog belonged. I suppose it was a café, or some sub-genre of one. George was one of my Aussie berth-mates at a houseboat bed-and-breakfast. The houseboat was on a canal, walking distance to Dam Square and everything else of interest to tourists in various stages of initiation. The houseboat had four bunks to a berth, and space was assigned in order of appearance without regard to gender or nationality. This sense of order seemed to be the prevailing motif in Amsterdam. But look, for about $12 U.S., you got a clean place to sleep and all you could eat and carry from a comprehensive breakfast layout consisting of eggs, cheeses, meats, breads, and fruits.
I was traveling alone in Europe for a month with the benefits of a Eurail pass and no itinerary. I came to Amsterdam for the most urbane of reasons: everyone there spoke English. After a glorious week in England, and still unready for total immersion, I crossed the Channel in a matchwood craft and came ashore at Oostende, Belgium at 4:30 in the morning, having no idea that I was in Flanders, or that trying to order some pancakes in French would be such a national insult. I departed for Amsterdam and broke my fast on the train.
A short walk from the train station, I found the houseboat and declared it raunchily charming. After settling in — in other words, tossing my backpack onto an upper bunk — I headed out to see the city. Near midday, I realized that a crowd was suddenly rushing toward me. Everyone in the street seemed to be running. I noticed some rather exceptionally brawny fellows with sticks, their faces bearing the malice of the quintessential evil dwarves of Gothic archetypes. I stood against a pillar until everyone had run by, and continued my walking tour and some shopping. I later learned that I had been in the midst of a squatters’ riot, a not particularly uncommon event.
That evening, I returned to the houseboat and met my Aussie berth-mates for the first time, and we hit the essential Bulldog and walked about the Square. I asked whether they knew why the ladies who were obviously prostitutes hung out in glass cases along the Square. Those ladies, I was informed, were licensed and vaccinated. The streetwalkers, on the other hand, were lethal objects. Not that any of my gentleman roomies had anything but indirect knowledge of such things. I had worked as a field epidemiologist in Houston for the state health department’s venereal disease division, but that scarcely kept me from feeling new to the planet in Amsterdam.
The following day, I was off to Norway to see fjords and Munchs; one of my chums returned to Australia, another was heading someplace else, and the other had bought a bike and an extra passport and was riding to Spain.
Amsterdam was all very charming; but looking back, I might at least have attempted a few words of Flemish in Oostende.