AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS — Night train to Amsterdam. Those words drum up images of Lost Generation bohemians in the ’20s, bottles of unlabeled wine, glowing cigarettes on the top of a coach as the sun hurdles into view.
In 2011, that is not the case.
Mike, Molly and I down a couple liters in the Augustiner Keller to prepare us for the long trip ahead and then trek over to the Hauptbahnhof to catch our ride. We search one, two, three sleeping cars looking for our berth, only to finally find a rickety old coach with 50’s style moon chairs that never left the stratosphere. Hard plastic and 45 degree angles are our only promises of the night ahead.
Nevertheless, we settle in and the train departs.
Next realization: this is not the night party train I remember from my travels 6 years ago. No groups of celebratory backpackers, no bottles of wine behind passed along the aisles, hell, there isn’t even a dining car.
So, while everyone around us hunkers in as best they can for the night, we shrug it off and bring the lonely bottle of wine and a couple beers behind the “sleeping” car and throw our own little shindig. We’re celebrating, after all. We are on our way to old Amsterdam.
The Dutch morning brings a massive crink in my neck and an unbearable thirst. I remember, no cafe car. We’re stopped at some country town while the last coach disconnects, so we step outside with the smokers — a little dewey fresh air and first light only slightly compensates for the lack of water.
The whistle blows and we are back on board, chugging slowly through the picturesque Netherland farmlands. Last time I was in this town, it was a bull rush of excitement, lack of sleep and odd sensations — the first stop on a three-month tour of the continent. I don’t think I slept for four days. Dozing off now, I wonder what old Amsterdam has in store this time around.
I wake to a definitively slower velocity as we rumble along a wide river — low houses and sparkling houselights glow from Amsterdam proper on the other side. Centraal Station is a madhouse, as usual, as expected. The mass of people puts you into a sort of awe as you’re swept with the human current and out onto the paddock in front of the turn-of-the-century iron hall. I look behind and Molly and Mike are dazed but smiling.
Here we are. Back in the ‘Dam.
The long causeway of the Damrak runs south from the station, lined by Frites stands, fast food joints, sex show emporiums and tacky souvenir shops that wait like spider webs, willing to catch the easily distracted, before opening up into the wide Dam — Amsterdam’s granite-covered central square. ‘Square’ is a relative term here — it is difficult to find anything at a right angle in fact — the streets running like bent spokes out from the dam, trams zigzag down drunken tracks, even the buildings lean at uncle-Murhpy-after-five-brandy angles. The only things that seem to follow the globally agreed-upon sense of geometry are the canals — orderly, quiet and cool, spanning out in concentric rings as if a massive water droplet fell into the center of Dam square and radiated out.
We hang a left and cross the first canal and here it is — the Wallen, the world-renown Red Light District. At 10am, the streets are relatively quiet. City workers quietly sweep up the reminders of last nights debauchery, sex shops are boarded up while their clients sleep and only a couple older prostitutes dance sadly behind red tinted windows. I can see Mike and Molly are in awe.
It’s only half a block down the first canal to ground zero — the Bulldog. We check in, grab a bier from the quiet smoky bar and sit back in the hostel coffeeshop — more of a hobbit hole than a storefront — and let Amsterdam warmly welcome us into her midst.