|Deciding on a Join Operation
by Sarah Shuckburgh
Would Sarah Shuckburgh
explore Amsterdam along a straight and narrow path or
would she join her friend and leave no turn unstoned?
My plan for the weekend is as follows: Van Gogh, Vermeer,
historic houses and - maybe - marijuana.
I don't smoke, I hardly drink, I have three grown-up
children and I am a law-abiding, upstanding citizen. To me,
a joint means a Sunday roast or an arthritic hip. But the
recent plans to downgrade marijuana to a class C drug have
got me thinking. I wonder whether the time has perhaps come
to try it . . .
In Amsterdam marijuana is still technically illegal but
coffee shops selling soft drugs are tolerated by the police,
and business is booming. My friend Guy knows his way around,
and on Saturday morning he steers me towards a neon-lit
emporium displaying hundreds of mood-altering options. I
feel at home with supermarket pick'n'mix sweet counters, but
this array is baffling.
Jars of greyish green leaves, looking like dried oregano,
sport exotic labels - Citral, Purple Haze, Super-Skunk,
Chronic, Mary Jane, White Widow. Hard blocks of cannabis
resin compete for shelf space with potent pollen, shaken
from the tips of leaves. Hundreds of oddly-shaped pipes
dangle from hooks. A whole wall is devoted to colourful
cigarette papers and punters must also choose from dozens of
roaches, or cardboard tips. The music is deafening. Teenage
tourists, in baggy jeans and baseball caps, are getting as
stoned as possible. They don't look very well.
"This weed is hype," enthuses the lad behind the counter, as
Guy lights up. "Nowadays it's mostly grown hydroponically,
here in Holland. There are tricks to growing it - they add
liquorice or orange juice. Or urine . . . A cup of weed tea
for you, madam?"
"Er, maybe later," I reply as I make for the door.
Back in the fresh air, we hire sit-up-and-beg bikes, and
whizz through narrow cobbled alleys, over humped bridges,
along tree-lined waterways, dappled with sunlight. At the
stunning Van Gogh Museum, we shield ourselves from the
crowds behind headphones, the English commentary creating
the illusion that we are alone in front of each painting.
Who needs drugs with such intense and vibrant paint?
At lunchtime, we pedal to bohemian Spui square, and sit at a
pavement cafe among elegant intellectuals, our bikes chained
with theirs to nearby railings. We choose Bittergarnitur -
which the menu explains is "very many Dutch appetisers".
Indigestible wedges of speckled Spam arrive, with lumps of
pink and grey luncheon meat and tepid balls of mashed offal,
garnished with a couple of damp gherkins and a heap of bland
Guy wolfs it down. "Dope makes you hungry," he explains.
"Now, how about a hash coffee or a hash cake?"
This second coffee shop is smaller and quieter and the
clientele is older, more arty-looking. Latterday Oscar
Wildes, Jack Kerouacs and Bob Dylans sit staring into space.
Some gulp smoke through water-cooling bottles, or bongs.
"Dope heightens awareness and increases creativity," muses
Guy, inhaling deeply. "Buddha smoked marijuana to achieve
But doesn't marijuana also make you giggle like an idiot and
then become comatose? And why don't these customers look
either creative or aware? "On our bikes," I say, bossily.
The enormous Rijks-museum presents a daunting challenge,
with 5,000 paintings, a million prints and drawings, and
30,000 sculptures, but today we have a limited goal. Room
218 is empty apart from a uniformed guard, and we have the
Vermeers to ourselves. One of us is stoned, the other is
not, but it's hard to quantify our enjoyment. We both gaze
in silence at the gentle, exquisite paintings, drinking in
the detail, the light and shade, the stillness, the
perfection. I am glad that I am not comatose or giggling
That evening, Guy is alternately voluble and taciturn, but
he tucks into a 21-dish Indonesian meal. The sky darkens as
we stroll home beside inky canals, over bridges twinkling
with fairy-lights, past gabled houses with glowing windows.
Until the 20th century, canals were so smelly that rooms at
the front of these prosperous merchant houses were rarely
used. Now, at every turn, our noses catch whiffs of
cannabis. There seem to be coffee shops everywhere. Guy
chooses one that heaves with rowdy men and groups of
giggling girls. I study the menu, which includes hash
pizzas, weed sandwiches, marijuana milkshakes, pollen tea
and a choice of "smokes" as wide as a gourmet wine list.
Three young men in suits are inhaling dope through
credit-card-sized cooling devices. A bearded man in sandals
harangues me about the annual Weed Fair, where growers from
all over the world gather in Amsterdam to exchange tips
about equipment and techniques that will produce the
strongest drug, and the maximum profit.
"Have a brownie and you'll be high for days," he promises.
"No thank you," I say, politely.
Guy tries one. He tries another. That night he's sure he
sees a flying saucer on the ceiling and he comments
repeatedly on the amazing colours of the whitewashed hotel
On Sunday morning, I am maddeningly alert and lively. "We
have done Vermeer and Van Gogh," I say. "Now for historical
Guy decides to stay in bed.
At the intriguing Willet-Holthuysen Museum on the
Herengracht - the grandest of the grand canals - the
17th-century residents seem to have just popped out for a
moment. Even less like a museum is the wonderful Van Loon
house, on elegant Keizersgracht - another of Amsterdam's
best addresses. I ring the doorbell and wander unaccompanied
upstairs and down and into the gravelled garden.
I reach my third historic interior before it opens and wait
in a busy canalside cafe. The Walletjes area is the oldest
in Amsterdam - narrow houses of assorted heights line the
canal - but it's hard to concentrate on architecture when
riveting scenes are being played out at ground level.
As church carillons tinkle folksy chimes, I watch two
chattering teenage girls fumble in their bags for keys and
unlock a pair of glazed doors. An Asian woman carrying
bulging shopping bags opens another door and greets a large
black woman opening curtains at a nearby window. Behind her,
a narrow bed, draped with a towel, looks as unromantic as a
couch in a doctor's surgery. I realise that these
ordinary-looking people are prostitutes arriving for the
And yet it all feels very unthreatening as I sit alone at my
cafe table. It is a bright, sunny day and middle-aged ladies
pause on the bridge with their wicker shopping baskets,
chatting with friends. Families cycle past with toddlers
strapped into little seats. The cafes are full of people
drinking coffee, reading the papers and watching passersby.
One o'clock strikes and the Amstelkring museum opens.
Leaving the sex-workers, I climb up to another world - a
cavernous church, ornate and beautiful, hidden in the attics
of three houses. This clandestine chapel dates from the 17th
and 18th centuries, when Catholic services were illegal - a
time when theatres were considered immoral too.
Different eras bring very different moral codes, and nowhere
have I seen a more striking contrast between the
restrictions of 17th-century puritanism and the licence of
I stroll back through the sunshine. A few doors from our
hotel, in the otherwise peaceful terrace of canal houses, a
tiny coffee shop sits beneath the elm trees, and Bob
Marley's face gazes from a window pane in autumnal
Rastafarian colours. I find Guy installed at a pavement
"Natural Ethiopian bush is grown from the green earth and
the orange sun," he explains in a slurred voice, "in
contrast to unnatural laboratory-made weed."
I have done Vermeer, Van Gogh and historical houses. There
is only one unfinished part of my weekend plan.
I am nervous. I order my usual drug of choice - a cup of tea
- while I think about it. . .
First published by the Telegraph.