I went to Amsterdam because of President Bush. Not really: it wasn't the White House that issued the invitation. But I was so tired of hearing him utter incessantly the word 'freedom' on the nightly news, usually just after a report of casualties'civilian, military'in Iraq that I wanted to visit a place where "freedom" meant something less excruciatingly ironic.
And Amsterdam has a reputation for freedom'sex clubs, drug-taking, euthanasia'for everything that the city's Calvinist forebears might have considered 'dirty.' And in 2004 the gay visitor can easily enjoy himself: the red-light district has its leather bars and gay cinemas; backrooms in the city are open; and even the patrons at Arc, the chic gay bar/restaurant in Rembrandtplein, may surprise you with their demands after a cocktail or two.
But I had gone to Holland for a few days of reflief from Bush, from the psychic stress of living in a country where Senators, many Senators, condemn us during a supposedly serious debate. For relief I wanted a country where gay marriage is legal and approved overwhelmingly by the populace, and a city where gayness is so woven into the fabric that the challenge becomes not sexual orientation but a broader kind of creativity about oneself. What we find exotic abroad is often what we hunger for at home.
But first, the loo. Anybody who wants clues to the Dutch character had better start there. The locus of the quest for the personal cleanliness that the country's Calvinist considered quite literally akin to godliness, the toilet has now become another kind of locus: of design. In my four days in Amsterdam, which included stays at two of the city's toniest, canal-side hotels'Blake's and 717'an architectural stroll to look at contemporary building, and a visit to an exciting new waterside arts center, Lloyds Hotel, I kept coming back to the bathroom. Not because of any defect in the local diet: I had my share of the brood (bread) and herring, and ate especially well in the panoramic new restaurant, Club 11; and my digestion, helped along by the local beer if not by so many other folk's preferred aid-to-well-being, pot. When I say bathroom I mean the details of the place.
My inventory had begun on the flight over, on KLM, when, just after approving the good sense of an airline that gave people metal knives with a meal (since 9/11, has anyone ever doubted that a metal fork could be sufficiently lethal?), I nipped into the toilet and noticed that everything'hand towels, flush handle'was conspicuous, unlike airlines where you have to root around so long locating tissue that you receive impatient looks from the lined-up passengers as you emerge.
Ah, I thought: Dutch practicality. The next morning, however, I stepped into the shower of my settling-in-to-town hotel, the comfortable NH Amsterdam Centre, and for a moment could not find the nozzle. I wondered if American hotelier Ian Schrager had brought his brand of Starck design, replete with hidden urinals, to Amsterdam. It turned out to be a double shower head, and reversible. I thought of the attachment the next day while gazing upon a double portrait by the 17th-century master Jan Steen at the Riksmuseum. I stared at the cracked canvas and wondered: Am I jet lagged or have I inhaled some squirrelly second-hand smoke? (Yeah, yeah, yeah: in Europe everybody smokes: if you prefer tear-free eyes and odor-free clothes, stay home!) Amsterdam is a pot-lovers paradise, and every time I passed a 'coffee house' where cannabis is dispensed I thought of a French friend, hobbled by cancer and seeking a place of both rational euthanasic laws and ready access to THC, who had come here to die. Every time he saw a facade saying 'seeds' he told me, he felt his pain already ebbing. To those coming to Amsterdam'I was one'in search of a place congenial to one's own temperament, such signs are a birds-from-land harbinger.
For more about Amsterdam, pick up the October 2004 issue of Out.
Seven One Seven Hotel'A beautiful guesthouse overlooking the Prinsengracht canal, this luxurious establishment has eight spacious suites and rooms. And every one is a beauty. Contact: www.717hotel.nl or +31 20 42 71 717
Amsterdam Centre Hotel'This well-designed hotel is situated right in the heart of Amsterdam. There are two restaurants and spacious rooms. Contact: www.nh-hotels.com or +31 20 685 13 51
Blakes'Without a doubt, this is the chic-est hotel in Amsterdam. Within walking or bicycling distance from almost everything, and situated in a neighborhood crammed with terrific shops, Blakes is the place to stay if you like luxurious design and enjoy being pampered. Contact: www.blakesamsterdam.com or +31 20 530 20 10