I held Joe’s hand, tight, but it didn’t stop me slipping into the darkness. Down down down I tumbled, sick to the pit of my stomach and desperate to cry out to him for help. He was right there next to me on the cheap hotel bed, but I had no voice. The fits of giggles that filled the lift back to the room were a distant memory, probably from days ago, or possibly just minutes.
“I finally understand the poetry of Byron,” Joe’s voice echoed in my skull. He was miles away, a vast desert of duvet between the two of us. I started to cry. We never should have had that second space cake.
So my first trip to Amsterdam at the age of 19 was a bust. I saw little more than the four walls of my hotel room, the smoky haze of coffee shops and watched a film about talking animals about six times. Last week I returned, a little apprehensive and embarrassed by my own memories.
“Weed is not actually legal in the Netherlands, it’s just tolerated,” Mark read from the guidebook as we settled in to our Art Hotel out by quiet Westerpark. I felt a stab of shame for Past Suzy – as an enlightened traveller I don’t really want to just be ‘tolerated’.
“Well, when in Amsterdam, do as the Dutch do is what I say,” Mark added and my spirits dropped. I didn’t want to lose this weekend to a drug-induced stupor.
“I thought you weren’t interested in that?” I said.
“Do you even listen to me? All I talk about is bicycles,” Mark replied and a wave of relief washed over me.
Our first cycle took us to the leafy Jordaan neighbourhood with peaceful canal-sides, a wide variety of boutique cafés selling nothing but actual coffee and cakes. Views of bridges, houseboats and tall, colourful houses were fit for a postcard. This was the Amsterdam I was looking for, not the sex museum on the Damrak (although the Victorian pornography was quite interesting).
A ten minute cycle took us to the Southern Canals and right underneath the Rijksmuseum. We sped past other tourists climbing all over the ‘I amsterdam’ sign like ants. Cruising through the Vondelpark, puffs of the familiar oily herbal smell drifted from the grass and pedestrians became a little more difficult to predict.
We followed the stream of day cyclists along the Amstel River. Buildings morphed into trees and open fields. An old windmill with a thatched roof and wooden sails stood proud by the riverbank. Tulips of every colour dotted its garden like confetti. Dutch cyclists said “hello” as we passed on the path. A farm making gouda and clogs was our lunch stop, the pungent smells of a hundred orange wheels of cheese mixed with wet pine in the background. Cows blinked long-lashed eyes and mooed softly while we sat on hay bales and munched cheese sandwiches.
Looping back into the city we saw single houses among completely flat fields before pedalling through a forest-lined path.
Back navigating hump-back bridges and pedestrians in the centre, we thought we would take in the sights of the Old Town, perhaps giggle our way through the Red Light District like school children and cycle through the quiet, picturesque backstreets. The Old Town, however, was rammed with people and we seemed to be the only two on bikes. Stag parties staggered into my front wheel and anyone emerging from a coffee shop was deaf to the ringing of my bell. Perhaps if I looked hard enough I would have a Murakami moment and see Past Suzy stumbling about the streets, laughing at the half-dressed women in the windows to hide her awkwardness, her glazed eyes looking for the nearest stand selling fries and mayonnaise.
Bugger this for a game of soldiers, Present Suzy thought, I’m off back to the Jordaan for a cup of tea and a crepe.