Nether region

Amsterdam, possibly the gay-friendliest city in the world, is a monument to tolerance — of all kinds

mark lowry  | Contributing Writer

DUTCH TREAT | Rainbow flags are peppered throughout the streets of Amsterdam. (Photo courtesy Mark Lowry)

Amsterdam, the capital and largest city in the Netherlands, is often called the most liberal city in the world. Holland was the first country to legalize gay marriage (in 2001), and cannabis and prostitution are not only legal, but there’s a live-and-let-live vibe about them (as well as other vices). This idea of acceptance is not new: Amsterdam was a safe haven for religious refugees going back five centuries.

But perhaps nothing speaks to the city’s passion for tolerance as much as a small area near the city’s Jordaan District, in the Western Canal Ring. Across the street from the Anne Frank House, now a museum and one of the world’s greatest symbols of intolerance, sits the Homomonument: Three large pink granite triangles that form a larger triangle, on the same small patch of land where one of the city’s oldest churches, the Westerkerk, sits.

The Homomonument, designed by Dutch artist Karin Daan, opened in 1987 as a tribute to persecuted gays and lesbians around the globe. Tying it more closely with the Anne Frank House, the pink triangles represent the emblem that homosexuals wore in Nazi concentration camps.

Both are stirring tributes to horrors of a war from the not-so-distant past, from a country that shares a border with the Netherlands. But despite the Nazi occupation and a history of warring rulers wanting to claim Amsterdam as their own, the city is remarkably well-preserved. The signature row houses from the 17th and 18th centuries still hold up beautifully. Some of the older structures, with the neck gables atop four or five stories, even display the date of construction proudly. It’s not uncommon to see “1627” or such on one of these buildings … and that’s not referring to the address.

That’s all part of the storied history. But what’s interesting about Amsterdam is that it’s completely feasible to hang out here for a good week (or longer) without even visiting the museums and historical sites, and still get a strong sense of this world-class city.

Everyday life — people bustling on their way to work, most of them riding bicycles and ringing bells on their handlebars to warn pedestrians — intermingles seamlessly with the tourism industry. Travelers from all over Europe and the world arrive on trains and leave from the Central Station and throughout the Old City Center and Canal Rings, hanging out at one of the many outdoor cafes by the edge of one of the city’s famous waterways. (There’s actually more canal mileage here than in Venice, reflected in Amsterdam’s nickname “the Venice of the North.” Doing a canal tour is a must.)

They also populate the coffee shops, where you’ll find the younger generation, as that’s where marijuana is legally sold, even to foreigners. It can be purchased in joint form, smoked in pipes, or in baked goods, such as hash banana bread (yes, there are brownies, too). In fact, walking through the tourist-heavy Old City Center, it’s impossible not to get a bit of a contact high — pot smoke wafts from everywhere.

Perhaps that’s why the Dutch seem so laid-back. There’s a word they often use, gezelligheid, that refers to the sense of leaving all your cares behind and chilling.

Where to stay

We have nothing but raves for the gay-owned bed-and-breakfast in the Jordaan District, Mae’s Bed and Breakfast. American Ken Harrison and his Russian partner Vladimir Melnikov have run this spot for more than 15 years, and even have a newer property down the street. Rooms are spacious and comfortable, and the breakfast goes far beyond the typical continental fare found at European hotels. Mae’s is a few blocks’ walk to the Anne Frankhuis.

They can also guide you to some of the city’s gay-owned restaurants and establishments. We especially recommend the bar Prik. Gay bars are all over the city and not necessarily clustered in any one neighborhood, another sign of Amsterdam’s acceptance of all walks of life. If you need further help, find the Pink Point tourist kiosk, which caters to gay travelers. It’s easy to find: Just a few feet from the Homomonument.

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE | Amsterdam’s extensive canals earned it the name ‘Venice of the North.’

Getting around

It’s not a huge city, so walking to many of the attractions is feasible. But there’s also an easy bus and tram system, and you can take bicycle tours, too. At the Centraal Station, pick up an “I Amsterdam” card, which gets you free transportation for one, two or three days, and free entrance into many attractions, plus discounts to restaurants.

What to do

Here a few tips for places to visit on your trip to Amsterdam. If you don’t get to them all, don’t worry — this is one of those cities that beckons you to come back for more.

Rembrandt’s House. Holland was home to a number of well-known artists, including Van Gogh and Vermeer, and you can visit museums that tribute them in Amsterdam. But the one not to miss is the house where Rembrandt lived and worked. The multistory house is a fantastic history of 17th century Dutch life, and is filled with Rembrandt’s paintings. If you’re walking through as an etching demonstration is going on, don’t miss it.

The Red Light District. The most famous Red Light District in the world is on streets that spoke out from the city’s oldest church, the Oude Kerk, which began construction in the 14th century. You’ll see red lights denoting spots where the prostitutes are, posing in full windows for willing customers. The industry is regulated by the government, so it’s closely watched and the workers are kept safe. (You’ll notice that when they’re not working, they often file their nails or talk on cell phones, as bored as most other people at the daily grind.)

GET YER GAY HERE! | Kiosks like this one, catering to the gay community, are common in the city. (Photos courtesy Mark Lowry)

The Red Light District is not only a great place to people-watch, it’s filled with some of the area’s best restaurants. Their Chinatown, one of the best in Europe, is nearby. And considering that Amsterdam has one of the largest international populations of any city in the world, there are plenty of choices, including Spanish, Russian, Argentinean, Mexican and even Tibetan. Indonesian is especially popular, considering that the Southeast Asian island nation was once a Dutch colony.

Another popular food in Holland is pancakes, slightly thicker than French crepes and large in diameter. You can get them with sweet toppings, but also with savory ones, such as Thai red curry. (We have a theory as to why pancakes are so popular in Amsterdam: Munchies.)

The Anne Frankhuis (Anne Frank House) is the most popular museum in Amsterdam (aside from the famous tulips, which bloom in April), and if you plan to go, get there early, because the line gets long quickly.

It’s a fascinating tour. The building next to the apartment where Frank and seven others hid out from the Nazis for nearly two years is a museum. From there, you walk up winding, steep stairs and enter, through the bookcase that was used to mask the hiding spot, the area where the Frank family and their friends stayed. In Anne’s room, her pictures from movie magazines are still there, preserved by her father Otto, who was the only one of the eight hideaways who survived the concentration camps after they were discovered. It’s truly an awe-inspiring tour.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Deadly vices

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, by Bill Clegg (Little, Brown and Company, 2010), $23.99

Portrait of an Addicat as a Young ManIn the new book Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, author Bill Clegg’s addiction was far from harmless. In the end, in fact, it almost killed him. And it all started out so innocently.

Like many college students, Clegg and his roommates enjoyed a good time. They smoked a little pot, drank and serial-dated women, pulled pranks, did cocaine, and got high again.

His introduction to crack came from the first man he ever had more-than-fleeting sex with. A hometown lawyer, a man he had known forever, invited Clegg to his apartment for a drink. They talked about the man’s kids and his wife, made out a little, and then the man disappeared into the bedroom. He came back with “milk-colored crystals” and a clear glass tube.

After his first gulp of crack, Clegg says of himself, “He misses the feeling even before it’s left him and not only does he want more, he needs it.” And from then on, he needed it all the time.

But that (the night of firsts) was all before Clegg repeatedly lied to his friends and family. It was before he left his boyfriend, Noah, at an important film festival in order to fly home to get high. It was before he slept with other men in seedy hotels. His first hit from the clear vial was before his business partner changed the locks.

And it was before Clegg nearly died from the drug that had ruined his life.

Reading Portrait is a different kind of experience. This book makes you squirm, and you’ll want to get through each page quickly, not because the story is good (which it is), but because reading about what Clegg lived is hard to endure.

Starting with a major binge, then moving back and forth between childhood memories and fuzzy recollections of being high, Clegg walks a tightrope between wry humor and wrung-out horror. Early memories are written in third-person, giving them a remote feeling and adding more tenseness to this already-raw memoir.

If you relish a tough-to-read story with edge, you’ll want this one. Like any craving, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man will be impossible to let go of.

— Gregg Shapiro

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 3, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas