The Thalys high speed train from Paris to Amsterdam was a quick and comfortable 3 1/2 hours. I bought a second class ticket and it was just fine, very smooth and astonishingly fast. I sat across from an Indian couple from Mumbai who were good conversationalists. He said that a friend of his, upon learning that the man was taking his wife to Amsterdam, advised that the city charges “corkage” when a man brings his spouse to town. I was not familiar with the term so the joke sailed over my head but later, when I looked it up, realized that it was a pretty good one.
The train passed through Brussels and Rotterdam, neither of which look very appealing from the rail yard, but again few cities do. In China the peasants bring their ducks to the Shanghai Saturday market on trains and busses. In Brussels a young men in a business suit on his way to the market brought his Subway tuna sandwich aboard, loudly ate it, then spend the rest of the trip quacking into his cell phone.
In Amsterdam it didn’t take long to master the public transportation system of trains and light rail trams. I bought a two day pass at the Centraal Train Station for about 8 Euro that gives me unlimited travel on both systems. The population of Amsterdam is 750,000 and, compared with some of the other cities I’ve been to like Shanghai (pop. 14,460,000), Istanbul (11,220,000) and Paris (10,430,000), getting around is easily manageable.
They really do allow coffee houses to sell pot here and, walking past one, the unmistakable smell pours out the open doors. I was at the train station all of 5 minutes before I saw a young man burning one while waiting for a tram. The smell is reminiscent of the way Amsterdam’s other famous product, Heineken beer, smells and tastes when it has been on the shelf too long in its green bottles – skunky.
My hotel is called the Savoy and the room is smaller overall than my berth on the Baltimore, and costs more on a per-day basis. The big television is mounted on the wall at the foot of the twin bed and swings out over the bed for viewing. There is a tram stop right outside though, the Cornelis Troostplein stop on the Number 25 tram line, which goes directly to the Centraal station in the heart of the City, and I’m not spending much time in the room anyway.
Amsterdam is not trying to be grand like Paris is, it goes instead for unpretentious and quirky. It doesn’t quite make it, as the City feels smug and a bit self-satisfied with its tired hippie airs. In the third season of the great HBO series The Wire, one of the police majors, without clearing it with his superiors, establishes a zone of a few blocks in Baltimore in which the crack sellers can ply their trade without police interference, so long as they stay out of the other residential neighborhoods. If they stray outside the zone, they are pounced on by the cops. Several of the drug dealers mishear a reference to Amsterdam and its liberal drug laws as “Hampsterdam” and I found myself thinking about that as I was walking around this pretty little city.