Amsterdam, Netherlands - (map)
The scent of pot smoke in a public place normally sends me scanning my surroundings like a prairie dog searching for predators, standing upright and alert, wondering with curiosity who is breaking the law. But it didn't take me long to loose that reaction in Amsterdam, as the smell wafts through every street and visitors roll joints in plain view of the police.
This afternoon is sunny and pleasant. I'm in an undistinguished coffee bar near the red light district, similar to the others found around the city. One menu offers drinks, another offers a variety of cannabis with different strengths and qualities, plus space cakes and other goodies. Most of the people around me are smoking joints like cigarettes, or in process of rolling a joint. But there is no stigma attached to this, for right next to me a German family is ordering drinks and laughing. I'm eavesdropping over two normal looking men in their late 50's as they talk about European history and the spread of Christianity.
And they've smoked a couple of joints during the time I've been sitting here.
The cafe looks like any other in Europe, with people enjoying an afternoon outside. Nobody looks particularly drug addled or stupid, and without the stigma, pot smoking seems normal.
Many activities that would seem deviant at home take place in the open here. Yesterday I waited for a friend outside of the popular Sex Museum, which displays historical pornography, humorous exhibitions, and a few images in a specially labeled room that I probably shouldn't describe here, as I don't want the web site banned by schools, libraries, and upset parents.
The crowd that entered the museum held my interest as much as the museum itself, mostly because they seemed so.... normal. Just regular people, ranging from giggling teenagers to elderly grandparents, viewing each exhibit with almost the same regularity as patrons in the Van Gogh Museum. Ever so often I'd remember where I was and laugh myself back to reality - like when I studied an exhibit of 25 dirty black and white photos from the 1930's while a retired couple stood next to me doing the same.
The city is open to almost whatever you want to do, and whatever that is can be done in the open.
My hostel has a beer machine.
Herbal stores sell psychedelic mushrooms in carefully measured packages, with suggested dosages and detailed descriptions of what each variety does and how long they last. (Four to five hours, excited buzz similar to...)
The Erotic Supermarket doesn't hide behind boarded windows, but displays its sex toys, latex clothing, and Tarzan outfits behind nicely decorated windows.
Tour guides now whisk retirees through the surprisingly upscale red light district, which now draws more tourists for free gawking than for paid sex. I can't imagine anything like this outside of Amsterdam - rows of women behind glass doors motioning to you to come forth, but displayed like sandwiches in the Febo fast food vending machine restaurant. I particularly enjoyed watching the group of sheepish 40-60 year old couples waiting in line for a live sex show. What is this world coming to?
The only time I've seen the police do anything was last night at 3 AM in a public square with people smoking joints all around me. I was told off by a police woman for drinking a beer in public - something that is 100% legal in most of Europe.
But I guess that is why I am in Amsterdam - to stretch my freedom in ways that I could never do at home, even if that means getting yelled at for the smallest offense.