Letters to My Manager: The Netherlands

After crossing France and crossing Belgium, the systems for getting around changed abruptly. The Dutch, like most people in the world, have their own way of doing things. The defining feature of getting around the Netherlands, largely speaking, is that every level of transportation is highly highly integrated into one another. Driveways become roads, become streets, become, byways, become highways. Likewise the tram links to the municipal train links to the intercity train links to the national train almost too seamlessly for someone who is looking for the most direct path. And, almost stereotypically, the same is true for bikes.

The Netherlands is a pretty small country, the whole thing is navigable on an efficient bike if that's your thing. I did probably some 70-100 miles of biking in just a few days there. Even after several weeks of not running, I still had the engine and the will to bike into the wind that sweeps across the Netherlands off the North Sea for hours at a time.

 Hopeful on the road to Amsterdam. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Hopeful on the road to Amsterdam. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Traveling by bike turned out to be really necessary because staying in the Netherlands isn't the most convenient place to try and settle in. The small country isn't densely populated really, there's a lot of cow pastures between cities, but each major city has a dissipating density of tourists concentrated between a ring of locals in burgeoning Dutch suburbs and a bullseye of local industry.

 A low lying new development in Vleuten. A very Dutch suburb. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

A low lying new development in Vleuten. A very Dutch suburb. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

So the most affordable places to stay for travelers is usually in exurbs like Vleuten of smaller cities like Utrecht. It was in this new but very Dutch subdivision, with landscaped canals for no discernible purpose that I started my last message home. I summarized a few days spent in Vleuten and Utrecht.

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Later that day I'd take off on one of two mostly ill fated, overly touristy trips which, nevertheless, showed me a little bit more about myself than I'd usually care to discuss.

 Bumper cars at a fair in Vleuten. Shot on a Canon 70D.

Bumper cars at a fair in Vleuten. Shot on a Canon 70D.


I'd gone to the Netherlands for a few choice reasons. First, flying out of Amsterdam Schiphol airport is pretty cheap. It also happened to be an airport I was familiar with from a trip to Germany I'd taken many years before. Point was Amsterdam was a reasonable point of departure. Second was my guiding hope for this particular trip, visiting a number of major world cities on the continent was really my goal--Milan, Rome, Paris, all fit the bill, and so did Amsterdam. The generally Northwest trajectory of the trip was helpful in picking destinations as well, Amsterdam being the end of the line in that direction. But I was at least interested in Amsterdam's coffee shop culture.

My own experience with marijuana is really vexing. As a result, I was really hoping that separating drugs from the American culture of drug use--which is far more socially damaging than any drug in any schedule even as it changes--would help me get over some of my own baggage with this drug. In retrospect this interest was pretty selfish and thin, but at the time I also felt a bit at my wits end on the matter.

So I stopped by Dampkring which is one of the better known coffee shops in Amsterdam. I actually really recommend this spot if smoking is something you're interested in doing in Amsterdam. Why? The atmosphere is very laid back and there's a really good sound track, it's pretty private in a discrete ally, the staff is super professional, and it's frankly kind of worldly in the sense that it's well worn and often traveled and diverse. I wound up striking up a conversation with a local originally from Turkey at the bar. I sat by a window and scribbled in my notebook as I began to lose control (typical for me) with some international students studying in Amsterdam. I didn't bike the 23 miles back to Vleuten, I made sense of the train system and made it back on my own.

Another thing to say for Dampkring was that it's not too clinical, and this is a bit of a risk in the more permissive atmosphere of Amsterdam. Essentially the problem is that the aesthetics associated with a high are varied and out in the open. Running into this kind of widespread variation in signaling around a high is something that contributes to anxiety I associate with a high--an over abundance of information moving too slowly through my brain. So I guess you could say that I get marijuana road rage, like being stuck on the highway while being concerned with the make and model of every car on the road.

These were the problems I had at the second coffee shop I went to. And it's not far off the mark. Marijuana inhibits transmission at cannabinoid receptors in the brain which are responsible for short term neurotransmission, this kind of backing off of some neurotransmission has some explanation for the side effects of marijuana use like hunger and dry mouth, but that's another story. A lot of the research that explains the issues I have with this drug simply hasn't been allowed to happen yet but has to do with areas in the brain where cannabinoid receptors are and what the effects on neurotransmission is in those areas.

The at the second coffee shop I went to the subjective experience was mind racing, heart pounding, and slow breaths. Walking back to the train station, I tripped over myself, I turned blue on a bench by a canal. I seized and basically had the worst four hours barring some the anxiety attacks I'd had some months earlier. Calling me back to Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic website is the only source I found afterwards which had anything sensible to say about my experience and the pharmacology associated with combining benzodiazepines, SSRIs, and THC. But there's more to Amsterdam than drug tourism.

 A cat in the Vleuten subdivision that said hello to my high ass as I barely kept it together just a few feet from home. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

A cat in the Vleuten subdivision that said hello to my high ass as I barely kept it together just a few feet from home. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Not to be too unfair either, there's growing research into the plurality of drug experiences, but at least for my part no regular weed user in my life at the time proved to be empathetic to my experiences. That fact, which seems typical in the American discourse in particular, only aggravates the problem.


 The lowlands seen by train in the rain. Still remenicent of Dutch landscape painting. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

The lowlands seen by train in the rain. Still remenicent of Dutch landscape painting. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Amsterdam and the lowlands are a deeply artistic part of the world. I'm partial to the Dutch masters, but at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam you can really revel in a lot of the great works that came out of the Golden Age of Dutch Culture.

 Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum. I sat perpendicular, looking straight on at these paintings, for more than twenty minutes as groups passed by in waves. For many reasons, Vermeer is one of the best painters in history and one of the most important to me personally. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum. I sat perpendicular, looking straight on at these paintings, for more than twenty minutes as groups passed by in waves. For many reasons, Vermeer is one of the best painters in history and one of the most important to me personally. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

But what stands out to me about seeing these images in Amsterdam is how the art reckons with the country. This was something on display in Florence, but here it was up to date. Many of the images of Vermeer or Rembrandt stand up today because they still feel fresh in some way.

Some of that, I think, has to do with the way the influence of these painters is marked in my lexicon of modern media. The films of Wes Anderson for instance have the same staging as a street in Amsterdam. Recent films by the Coen Brothers have similar stand-offish pallets and tone.

 A Wes Anderson like street in Amsterdam. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

A Wes Anderson like street in Amsterdam. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

In Amsterdam, with its sidewalk-canal-sidewalk-building layout, you can really take in the whole face of a building from a perpendicular view. This is something that's actually quite difficult to achieve in other settings. In most cities the buildings either aren't low enough, the ground isn't flat enough, or the streets aren't wide enough to take in this kind of view.

Reflecting back on this time looking at paintings all over Europe, I've had to think more and more about how the literal, physical, natural and architectural environments artists work in impacts what kind of art they like to make. I've been thought about how Chicago has influenced my eye.

But first I was to return to my adoptive Minneapolis via Iceland.