For Peter's Big Adventure, the dawn of time was August of 2014 when I moved from Boston to Hanoi (that's when I started this website). However, prior to this move, I had already done a good bit of traveling across a few different continents. I even lived in Spain for a hot minute. In the time that has passed since launching this website, I have often thought back on those early trips and reflected on how much further along this project would be if I had just started it earlier. However, I can't say it's much of a regret; those early trips did a lot to help shape the person that I am today, but I know that I would be cringing to go back and read articles written by my younger self. BUT HERE'S THE THING—even though I wasn't as good a photographer back then, I still took some really cool photos on those trips. So figure, why not share some of them?
What follows is the cream of the crop from a 2012 trip to Amsterdam...
Summer In Amsterdam
In July of 2012, a few friends and I were leaving Spain and embarking on what would be my first ever Euro-trip. In deciding where we wanted to go, I'd be lying if I told you that Amsterdam's famously progressive drug laws did not play a role in our decision to come to here. So our motives may not have been entirely academic, but once we arrived, I was enraptured. Amsterdam turned out to be one of the most beautiful cities that I had ever had the privilege of exploring. I’ve traveled a LOT more today than I had back then, and Amsterdam is STILL one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever seen. We spent 5 days here, and in that time, I took more photographs than I had of any place I had visited prior.
If you're not familiar with Amsterdam, here's a brief run-down...
With 2.4 million people living in its metro area, Amsterdam the most populous city of the Netherlands (a.k.a. Holland), as well as *technically* being the national capital. You see, the Dutch constitution mandates that Amsterdam remain the capital city for official purposes, but the actual government is mostly located in The Hague. This is normally where I would go off the deep end telling you about the history, culture, and personality of Amsterdam, but I'm not going to get too into the weeds on that stuff right now. I have no doubt I'll end up back in Amsterdam again in the not-so-distant future, so we’ll postpone that deep-dive until then. For now, here are a couple things you should know about Amsterdam before you see what's coming up...
Canals — A costal city, Amsterdam is actually about 2 meters below sea level, and as such, its connection to the ocean is a central part of the city's DNA. Throughout nearly all of Amsterdam, there are almost as many canals as there are roads. It's kind of like Venice in that way, and yet entirely different. Amsterdam is a world all its own.
Narrow Buildings — Throughout the history of Amsterdam, property taxes were calculated based on the area of the property, not the value of what was standing on the property. Or, to put this another way, it was cheaper to build *up* than *out*. For this reason, the cityscape is defined by distinctly narrow buildings.
Here’s a map to give you a feel for where Amsterdam is and how canals fit into the way it is structured...
Before you get into the following galleries, I'd like to note that this was before I had started shooting with a "real" camera. Back in 2012, I was walking around with a little "point and shoot" in my pocket. Prior to this, I briefly owned a DSLR, but then I was robbed in the Sevilla train station (which is a story for another day). So for all you photography snobs out there, I know not all of these shots are amazing from a technical standpoint. But you know what? I actually think I managed to get some really cool shots anyway! So here's a sampler of Amsterdam...
Those pictures of the beers next to the candles up there—I think those trigger my nostalgia for Amsterdam more than anything else in this gallery. You see, before coming to Amsterdam, I was young and I didn't like beer. I drank at parties in hopes of seeming "cool," but the truth was that I secretly hated it. This was college, so I was mostly drinking things like Rolling Rock and Coors Lite. But on my 2nd night in Amsterdam, we walked into a Dutch bar, the interior of which was all aged natural wood. In the corner, a group of white-haired Dutch men were talking and laughing heartily. We sat down at a table, and were promptly given just 2 choices for drinks:
I ordered the dark beer, but when I saw the white beer my friend had ordered illuminated in the candle light, I was intrigued and asked for a sip. And that was the moment when I realized that I did, indeed, like beer. I drank all the "white beer" I could for the rest of trip, not even really knowing what it was! When I returned to the U.S., I was sitting on a friend's porch back in Ohio, telling tall tales about this incredible "~white~" beer that I had had in Amsterdam. As I was finishing my story, somebody cracked open a beer and handed it to me. To bring my story to a close, I said something like "...so yeah, I guess I might never know what it was but damn was it good!"
Then I took a sip of the beer that had just been handed to me.
"Actually... I think this is it."
Yup. It was Hoegaarden. And you can buy it almost anywhere in the U.S. #themoreyouknow
The Van Gogh Museum
While in Amsterdam, we went all over the place. We went to the Heineken Museum, the Anne Frank House, the Tulip Museum... but my favorite thing we did was, by far, the Van Gogh museum. Opened in 1973, this Amsterdam museum holds the largest collection of paintings by the famous Vincent Van Gogh in the world. It was a gorgeous building, but I probably wouldn't bother showing it to you separate from the gallery above if it wasn't for one particular photograph. But before I show that you, here are a couple pictures from around the museum to set the stage...
There were rules stating that photography was not allowed inside the museum, but to be honest, I was pretty high during this visit, and there was one painting that just blew my freaking mind so much that I just had to sneak a picture of it. That sneaky pictures is as follows. LOOK AT THOSE COLORS!
Here's actual footage of me looking at this painting...
Amsterdam & Drugs
Okay, so before I finish this, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about the drug situation here. If you know anything about Amsterdam, you've probably heard that cannabis is legal here. Well the buck does not stop there! In the Netherlands, you can also buy things like ecstasy and "magic mushrooms" in stores. Harder drugs are still illegal, but it is not uncommon for some of them to be sold anyway in easy-to-put-together pieces. For example, we found a DMT "kit" in a store the center of Amsterdam. Don't know what DMT is? Here's a Wikipedia link for you. Crazy stuff. I’m extremely intrigued… and very intimidated.
Anyway, this libertarian facet of Amsterdam bears some mentioning. The easy availability of these substances was pretty shocking to me when I first arrived, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The commonly accepted term for establishments that sell weed is "coffee shops," and these places are literally almost exactly the same as any normal coffee shop that you might be picturing... except that they sell weed instead of coffee. There are lots of trendy variations on this all around the city, and lots of artisanal weed that is available for purchase to anybody over the age of 18. I spent a lot of time in these "coffee shops" over the course of my time in Amsterdam, but that's not the only place where weed is sold. The first picture below shows pre-rolled joints in plastic bags that we bought out of a vending machine! Lolz.
The second set of pictures below—for those of you who do not know—are shrooms. These too are available for purchase to anybody over the age of 18, although are not nearly as easy to track down as weed. You find these sorts of things in the Dutch equivalent of head shops. Just look for the Che Guavara posters and you'll be on the right track.
Although the federal legalization of marijuana in the U.S. is an inevitability at this point, this dimension of Amsterdam still carries a lot of novelty and shock value to the average American. For this reason, it's easy to focus disproportionately on this dimension of the city and forget about everything else that’s happening here.
And then there's Amsterdam's legendary / notorious red-light district. I went there, but I'm not going to cover it in this article. I'll save that for the next time I am in the Netherlands.
The point is, there's a lot of illicit activities that are readily available and very legal here, but if I walked away from Amsterdam having learned anything, it's that this is also a real place. People live here and raise families here, and they are a lot less fascinated with these sorts of things than gringos like me. I showed up in Amsterdam expecting to find some sort of hilarious, borderline-dystopian clambake... but what I found was a vibrant, evolved society that thought about things like drug policy in a very different way than I was used to. Of course, this was a few years ago now. In the time that has passed since then, I've actually come around to this school of thought when it comes to controlled substances, but I don't want to talk about that here either—this is a side note.
The main thing is that Amsterdam is the real thing. It’s a real city with a lot of amazing things to offer. And in the summer, it's like something out of a fairy tale. Seriously, this place is SO beautiful. And I'm sure the fall and winter are extremely charming as well. I've been to a LOT of places since this trip, and Amsterdam is still one of my favorite cities in the world. I would love to live here one day. If the opportunity ever presents itself, I'd up and move in a heartbeat.
Up next, we have our last installment of this #Throwback Thursday series, but before we get there, let me finish with a song that (a) I really love, and (b) brings Amsterdam into a very college / American lens. Love me some Guster.
Next stop: Prague!