*This post was originally published on Nikki’s personal blog during her 8 month backpacking trip in 2014. Nikki wrote a pretty cool summary of this trip through numbers and you can read it here.*
If I say the word “Amsterdam” and you are pure of heart and mind (for which I applaud you), perhaps you think of the following things:
Now, if you are like the majority of the population (myself included), you likely think of two things: pot and prostitutes. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the pot aspect. Saying this, while eating breakfast and deciding what to do during my last day in Amsterdam before catching an overnight bus (one of my least favorite things ever) to London, I decided that I probably ought to get a glimpse of the inside of one of these oh-so-famous Coffee Shops (hint: they are not known for their coffee).
Now, while you might think that it would be tricky to figure out where the Coffee Shops are, the truth is that, like the Red Light District, they are anything but discrete. Although for some strange legal circumstances they are not allowed to openly advertise that they are actually selling drugs (meaning, the name of the store can’t be “weed shop” or anything like that), everyone already knows what they are as they are numerous and can always be identified by a sign saying “Coffee Shop” (places that actually sell coffee will be denoted as “cafes” or the like). Otherwise, usually just taking a whiff of the air around you will be sufficient enough to lead you to the nearest one.
So then my quest was not just to find any Coffee Shop (as I mentioned above, that’s pretty easy), but to find a suitable looking one; one that looked not too sketchy but also not too touristy (although, since they are mostly made for tourists, I’m not sure I was successful in this particular pursuit). After walking past several windows featuring live women advertising their trade, I spotted glittering, neon red letters, atop a background of what I thought were green palm tree leaves (perhaps unsurprisingly, it turned that that these were not palm tree leaves), in the distance, signaling me to the “Coffee Shop Bassment” (and no, I didn’t spell that wrong). Since I approved of the color scheme (who can argue with Christmas colors?), I decided that this place was to be it.
Oh, and there’s something I should probably mention… although I’m in an Coffee Shop in Amsterdam, I am actually not smoking pot. Although I don’t think now is the time to discuss my drug habits, I will mention that, true to its name, many of these Coffee Shops actually serve “normal” things as well (although, I don’t know how many people just stick to those) and so I’m sitting here while sipping a hot chocolate (which is surprisingly tasty).
As I ducked my head underneath the low entrance door, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. The place was dimly lit, stuffy (seriously, I was melting) with loud music, wooden benches, a large pool table (for those that still had the energy to play pool after smoking), and reeked of I-bet-you-can-guess-what (to the point that my eyes burned). So, basically like any old dirty bar with the added feature of things that were illegal back home.
Although in many Coffee Shops you are not allowed to buy alcohol, to the right of the entrance was something that resembled a bar. I approached it and asked the “bartender” to see a menu (that’s what I was told I ought to do) and in response to which he handed me a single, laminated sheet. On it, there was a single variety of blonde hash, one of dark hash, and the names of about seven different varieties of marijuana, including titles like “Black Cheese,” “White Widow,” and, my personal favorite name, “Amnesia.” Out of curiosity (and a lack of knowledge about drugs), I asked the bartender what the difference between blonde and dark hash was (“one will get you, like, crazy high and the other just a nice buzz”) as well as his personal favorite (“hmm…depends on my mood and what else I’m going to do that day”). I half-expected him to laugh in my face at my obvious cluelessness, but he was surprisingly friendly, though that could have been because he was high himself. I then told him that I thought I would pass for the day and asked for the drink menu instead. After I had ordered my hot chocolate, I chose a prime seat to watch (because I’m a creep) the customers that were already in the shop as well as those flowing in and out.
I glanced around my surroundings and chuckled in seeing that Family Guy was playing with Dutch subtitles on a screen in the corner, to the left of a glowing cigarette dispensing machine and a red coke sign. There were quite a few people within already; some people were chatting lazily in groups, others playing pool, and others still just chillin’ and staring off into space (no surprises here).
I watched two “tough” looking guys in black leather jackets, earrings, and partial mohawks stroll in and order at the bar. After they had ordered, the “bartender” took out a little Tupperware container filled with their chosen variety and measured it out onto a small scale with his bare hands. Once satisfied with the amount, he put it into a little Ziploc baggy for the guests. After handing the baggy off to the guests, the bartender said, as if they had just received a meal (and, I suppose, for some people that’s what this was) “enjoy, guys.”
I was surprised by how much traffic came in and out of this place…it truly was an impressive variety of clientele. There were some that looked like confused tourists while there were others that looked like definite, well, stoners. Since you are technically not supposed to smoke outside of the Coffee Shops (although, just based on what I saw and smelled during my treks about the city, I don’t think many follow this rule), many stuck around after ordering. Others, however, ordered and then left. You could tell that some, like me, had no clue what they were doing.
At one point, a girl who I believe was French (based on the accent), came in and asked the bartender to recommend something “light” for a “first-timer.” Others, like this guy I saw with slicked back hair, a coat with a fur hood, and thick rings on each finger, was clearly a professional, ordering his “treasure” with confidence and then afterwards calling a friend to tell him that he had “just found a new Coffee Shop” and “it was cool as hell” (I guess that means I had good taste) so they “better come join him.” Clearly, I had just witnessed an experienced veteran here.
As far as I could tell, nearly everyone that came in was a tourist as, all but one, spoke in English to the bartender. Not that this was all that surprising as, according to the Dutch people I’ve met, most of locals are not frequenters to the Coffee Shops themselves. Regardless, though, still an interesting place to observe.
So, what do all of you readers out there think of the Dutch Coffee Shop scene? Have you tested it out? Please let me know your experience in the comments area below.
*This article was written by the website’s contributing editor and author, Nikki Elliott. Nikki is an American who has several big backpacking trips under her belt and is currently teaching English in South Korea. If you wish to contact her about her article, please comment below.
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