The colours of the Amsterdam evening are jewel-like. Everything has a fluidity, a swirly-whirliness, like daubs on an Impressionist’s canvas. I seem to have found my way into a Van Gogh painting.
My mind skitters from thought to half-baked thought till it returns to the unsettling world around me. There are women behind panes of glass, bathed in a red light that’s bleeding into the sidewalks. The pavements shift beneath my feet, threatening to come up and meet me.
I am walking through Amsterdam, high, high as a kite. Though it has made me acutely aware of every fibre of my being, and every atom of the world around me, I feel disconnected from people. My husband of many years, father of my children and best friend, is walking beside me but he feels miles away. We look at each other with the startled surprise of strangers who find themselves in an embarrassingly intimate situation. With a dazed grin, he confides that the pavement is bucking “like a bronco”. I give him my “you seem nice but I’m married” smile, hurry past, only to backtrack when I recall that I’m married to him.
How did we get here?
After a half-decade of loving, responsible parenting, we decided that we desperately needed a grown-up Bacchanalian bender. We picked Amsterdam for that purpose, convinced that at nearly 40, with kids, careers, and other clutter, this would be our last hurrah. To make it a dirty weekend to remember, we had solicited hints and debauched tips.
“Gotta have ’em hash brownies,” said a friend.
“Must hang out at a Proeflokaal,” said another, urging us to visit the city’s famed gin joints.
“Try a threesome with a prostitute,” said one, “You only pay half-price for the second person.”
Despite our best intentions to be hard-nosed hedonists, we are gripped on arrival by an overwhelming urge to simply stroll hand-in-hand through the picturesque network of canals that is more quintessentially Amsterdam than any of its other delights. We stroll past a stunted skyline of narrow houses with stepped or bell-shaped roofs, each with a pulley and hook at the top to allow furniture to be hauled directly to the upper floors, circumventing narrow stairways. The mesh of bridges takes us past flocks of brightly coloured houseboats (often patriotically orange) and pretty little boutiques, delis, and cafes from which we accumulated hats, clogs, cheese and cups of Bitterballen (not-bitter-at-all meatballs).
We find little gems like Beginhof, a walled square where pious spinsters once sought sanctuary. It is quiet and historic but we are reminded that we’re in the most liberal of cities when we spot a roof-front statue of The Virgin in an advanced state of dishabille. Rambling through the flower market, ablaze with tulips and tourists despite the foul weather, we arrive at Rembrandthuis with its Photoshop-perfect red-and-green shuttered windows, where we disappointingly learn that the genius was also a jerk.
In the evening, we chat with believers in the pagoda at Chinatown and wash down hunks of steak with Gancia at one of many Argentinian steakhouses. But the time was ripe for a spot of debauchery, so we took a walk on the wild side.
The Red Light District is a surreal place—not depraved or degenerate, just other-worldly. A lurid crimson light bathes everything. Animated neon people display amazing sexual agility while flashing signs promise over-the-top adventures. “Live sex,” one screams. “Anything goes.” The hundreds of sex shops are as giggle-inducing as they are bewildering. Hoping to bag a curiosity, we end up so puzzled with what was meant to go where that we leave empty-handed (but with a gaggle to Google). Before that, though, we spot a must-have item for the adventurous lady: a bicycle with male equipment attached to its seat, so she arrives at every destination, satisfied.
While the crowd gawks and giggles, stray groups of men stride past with a sense of purpose, some in fancy dress. There were Vikings, knights and, appropriately for how hesitantly they approach their targets, chickens. But the lure of the place is the women in their illuminated windows, unabashedly displaying their wares in a manner that’s uniquely Amsterdam. Gingerly stepping past body parts thrust at us, we stop to catch our breath, only to find a window-woman beckoning. We nudge each other, grinning sheepishly. She holds up three fingers to indicate she’d have us both. But getting only gauche laughter in response, she marches out to fix us with an exasperated glare. “Are you coming in?” she says. “I am counting to five!” What could the cloistered parents of two toddlers do, but scamper? We run like we haven’t in years, breathless, laughing, all the way to our plush hotel where, after aeons, we catch up on coitus without interruptus.
On a roll now, our next stop is the best little hash house in town aka “Baba’s”. We inch into this hashish haze to the strains of a sitar and the smell of incense, watched by the giant Ganesh in the corner. Bolting down our massive chocolate slabs of wooziness, we head for our long-anticipated Indonesian dinner.
If any experience could be stranger than walking through Amsterdam on a high, dining out in the same condition must be it. We sit there teetering as the world around us reels and jigs. The waiter takes orders in an extra loud but sympathetic voice. (Stoned customers? All in a day’s work). Steaming dish after delicious exotic dish arrives and is wolfed down hungrily even as I try to ignore the riveted gaze of the man a few tables down. Had my sex appeal grown exponentially in the last hour or am I making a spectacular mess of the meal?
Our bizarrely enhanced hearing also makes us unwilling eavesdroppers on the seduction at the next table. A grizzled elderly man is schmoozing his way into a night of geriatric passion with a blue-rinsed old dear.
“Sex, you see,” he said, “is not for the young.”
“No,” she rolled her eyes at us “they don’t appreciate the nuances, the delicacy…”
That we were the young of their conversation pleased us no end and Hubby suddenly snaps out of his trance to suggest we attempt “the nuances”. But even as I tried to tell him that I was in no state to know where things should go, my chair starts keeling over, and the lights blink crazily. I rush out to breathe in fresh air and sanity. Behind me, I can hear running footsteps, and then there is darkness.
I wake to sunshine and stability. Gently propping me up, Hubby asks if I am up to a bit of Van Gogh.
The Van Gogh museum is being refurbished so we head out to where the cream of the collection is being housed: The Hermitage. A square, spare building with the brilliance of Van Gogh on every wall, it is the perfect place to commune with the artist on his birth anniversary. As we wander among the paintings, breathing in every brush stroke, every vivid shade and inspired choice of subject, we find what we have come to Amsterdam for: a high more genuine than the sex emporia or hash houses can provide. On Van Gogh’s canvases is a passion that lifts us like nothing other than our beautiful children could.
Linking hands we whisper and smile. We gaze reverently at the sublime “Sunflowers”, “Irises” and “The Yellow House”. Then stopping to scrutinise that most famous of nightscapes at the end of the hall, “The Café Terrace at Night”, we are more than a little surprised when, with a great whoosh, we are sucked into it.
Appeared in the July 2013 issue as “Starry Starry Night”.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.