Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth, it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.John Green, The Fault in Our Stars.
As we stepped off my first plane journey, nausea swept through my throat. My mind ached and pushed against either side of my skull as though it had expanded and outgrown my head. I don’t know what caused it, but we were in Amsterdam, the city of sin, and things could only get worse from here unless I were to forego all sin, but sinning is freedom.
First impressions count, and I was disappointed to find a city the same as the one we’d left. Everything the same from the Starbucks on the corner to the signposts, except they were written in Dutch with English beneath. A British stag group marched passed us chanting “lads on tour,’ and we felt at home in a familiar city.
After checking into our hostel, we left to explore the city which Mark considered a search for a beer, but the reality was a long walk into the city centre trying not to walk into the path of a cyclist or tram. In a city with more bikes than people, mounds of bicycles lay abandoned along an empty canal path. We never saw the tram coming.
John wanted to visit an Art Gallery, but Mark typed Van Gogh’s name into Google and shoved his phone into John’s face. ‘There you’ve seen it,’ Mark said.
‘It’s not the same,’ John said.
Our first stop was a cafe with a cartoon Bulldog and a spiked collar on its logo. A dark room with infrared lights packed out with hipsters and skinny jeans. Famous people adorned the walls, posing with the cafes branding and newspaper clippings celebrating the cafe. They had a cupboard with lighters, rolling papers and cannabis grinders with their unmistakable brand besides the bar. Despite the cafes small size and its cramped nature, it was a quiet place to relax and enjoy the Amsterdam culture with a coffee or something that may find you in a prison cell almost everywhere else in the world at the time.
Disturbing the peace was a British speciality, and a group of girls, away from the weekend for a birthday party shrieked from the sofas by the bar. The four brown-haired girls screeched as they slumped on the couches in front of the bar and we heard them over the server pointing out what he had on offer in his glass cabinet. Our server glanced towards them and raised his eyebrows before continuing to run through the cafe’s products.
‘Do you have brownies,’ John asked.
‘A what,’ Mark said, ‘they don’t sell beer.’
‘We’re not allowed to serve it here,’ the barman explained. ‘We don’t have a license to sell alcohol. You can’t smoke cigarettes here either.’
The barman pointed towards the brownie and said it was a weaker grade, John said he’d try that, and Mark agreed to share it with him. I continued staring through the glass, trying to figure out what the names meant, or if they could somehow indicate the quality. Their names were creative, some called firecracker, some called lemon balm. Neither sounded like anything someone would want to smoke but I settled for a lighter pre-rolled tube and a coffee.
‘Do we just eat it?’ John asked, as though any of us knew what we were supposed to do with a cannabis-laced brownie. Mark urged him to eat it, but John flicked his eyes between Mark and the dry brownie. John broke it in two, then dropped both pieces onto the plate.
‘Are you going to eat it?’ Mark asked, picking at his half of the driest chocolate brownie any of us had seen. John shrugged. Marks teeth ground against the dessert and screwed his face. ‘It’s dry and chewy. It’s not sweet either, but it tastes better than it looks. It’s hard to swallow.’ Eventually, Mark swallowed and pushed the plate towards John, ‘It’s your turn mate.’
John broke his half in two and forced a piece into his mouth. His face screwed too, but he began to let bits fall out of his mouth. ‘This is disgusting. Try it,’ John said, pushing his plate towards me.
‘I’m okay with this,’ I said, waving my lit rollup and blowing out smoke. John forced himself to swallow the remnants of whatever he had left in his mouth and raced towards the bar for something to drink.
But John didn’t return.
He’d sparked a conversation with one of the English girls and joined the rest of them on the sofa, adding to their screaming. His name echoed around the café. Mark sighed at his oldest friend, a chameleon changing with whatever company he kept. I offered him roll-up, and he accepted it reluctantly,
‘I’ve never smoked before,’ Mark admitted.
‘It’s simple. You inhale it like taking a deep breath and then breathe out. Not too much, though. You’ll choke the first time.’
Sure enough, Mark choked and burst into a fit of coughing. He took another drag and inhaled, smiling before he handed the burned-out roll up back to me. We took turns passing the remainder between us until we crushed the butt out and left to find him a beer.
‘You guys go, I’ll find you later,’ John said, pulling on the cigarette the girls passed around their circle.
He always does this,’ Mark said as we wandered cobbled streets and searched for a decent bar. ‘He’ll buy them drinks all night long and then when they go home. He’ll call us, and we’ll have to go an find him.’
Mark rambled on about our friend as we searched for a pub, but there weren’t too many to choose from, and every time he found one, we waited on me to finish a cigarette, and he saw another pub in the distance that might have had a better choice of beer. The streets were quiet with a few passers-by, and Mark wondered aloud where we might find nightlife in ‘this city.’ Each pub boasted of the local beer on tap, the famous two. Heineken or Amstel. Their logos adorned the sides of buildings, but Mark had his favourite beers, and neither of the local options appealed to him.
We turned a corner and found ourselves alongside a canal lined with flowerpots and a wealth of people strolling along the cobbled paths. Cyclists bells chimed, and voices echoed. Amsterdam boomed. Mark and I stood and stared around, taking it all in, wondering if everything we saw was real. In the space of a turning, the quiet town exploded into a metropolis.
Red lights lined windowed doorways. Women danced in their underwear and tapped on windows, waving tourists towards them. The tapping grew aggressive, and a door flew open.
‘No pictures!’ a voice screamed.
We swivelled our head and saw a group of boys, laughing and pushing their phone into their pockets. A younger man in a blue striped shirt approached the window next to us and exchanged a few words. The door creaked open, and the man strode in, as the tanned beauty pulled the curtains closed behind him.
Amazed by what we’d discovered, we settled on a second-floor bar with a circular green board with a red star in the middle declaring they proudly served Heineken. We ordered two. The walls were decorated with pictures of celebrities and Rock memorabilia because it’s famous visitors made the cities businesses proud.
Mark complained about the beer, then complained about John again, and then ordered another two of the same beer he’d complained about. Mark relayed his thoughts about the strangeness of our surroundings and the hordes of men we watched disappear through a window. I listened and smiled along as Mark complained about everything. Mark ordered another two beers, and we laughed with our Heinekens until the bar closed.
We swayed the length of a canal road and soaked in the atmosphere. Tourists laughed and smiled beside brothels as women giggled in their windows. My head thumped. Too many Heinekens and a fancy name cigarette had brought my nausea to the tip of my throat.
At the end of the canal, we crossed a bridge and wandered along the other side while admiring women in their windows on both sides of the water. I needed to get to a bed, to pass out before the exhaustion and nausea caught up to me, but neither of us knew how to get back to our accommodation. We needed to find John.
We strolled along a street filled with people, drunk and screaming after their friends. Fast food restaurants opened along corners and shone light into the street. The smell of warm pastry and rich chocolate sauce filled the air. People seemed content to stand still as though they didn’t want their night to end. I choked on the sweet air, and the two of us stumbled towards the end of a road that hadn’t felt as long.
‘Hello.’ I turned to find Mark slurring down his phone. ‘John. Is that you?’
Mark handed his phone to me.
‘Where are you guys?’ A voice said. ‘I think someone’s following me.’
‘I don’t know, but I feel sick,’ I said. Mark had stopped giggling at everything. ‘Marks almost sleepwalking.’
‘Seriously where are you, I can see them getting closer. I’m next to the tall statue with stairs in the main square.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I think we’ll be near there if we keep walking this way. It looks familiar.’
‘Hurry up,’ Joh said. ‘I’m worried there’s ten of them following me.’
‘John,’ I said, glancing my surroundings, the street had begun to empty of people. ‘No one’s following you.’
‘They’re coming after me, I can see them. Hurry up. I need to get out of here.’
‘John, listen. I love you, dearly, but no one is following you. And if they are, then even with me and Mark, we’ll be vastly outnumbered so you might have to take one for the team.’
John didn’t laugh but repeated his desperate pleas. The restaurants ceased to exist. There was no one around as we approached the end of the road, the night crowd remained towards the top end of it as they waited on their taxis home.
A towering monument appeared. John shivered underneath it and still held his phone to his ear. The eerie silence of a city surrounded us. It was easy to see why John felt scared; civilisation has disappeared. However, I had to ask the question.
‘John, where are these people following you?’
‘I think I might have been seeing things,’ he said. And it prompted a snort and a small laugh from Mark who hung his head on his shoulder.
‘What have you taken?’
‘I don’t know,’ John said. ‘I think it was the brownie.’
And of course, it wasn’t.
‘I love you guys,’ John said. ‘Let’s go home.’
John spun and sped off across the main road. Mark mumbled under his breath about John always thinking about himself and not slowing down for us. Either too drunk or too ill to walk. John marched through alleys and across roads neither of us remembered walking. ‘I think John’s got us lost,’ Mark said, and the alcohol beer began to wear off.
‘I feel sick,’ I said. Mark called after John and shouted about my health, but John refused to slow down. I pulled us to a halt and ran towards the corner of an office building away from the main road. Everything came out. The excitement from my first flight, an abundance of beer, the late-night, early rise, and the distinct smell of an illegal cigarette back home.
Mark held my jacket back and called after John again. ‘Forget him, Mark said. ‘We’ll get a cab. I don’t think he knows where he’s going anyway.’
John waded off in the distance.