notes from afar 5: Edinburgh and Amsterdam


The English countryside is really rather flat, and well tamed by long constant inhabitation. Approaching Scotland it gets hillier and prettier and more interesting.

Edinburgh is really pretty. Just daft, really. A host of amazing buildings, a castle on a fist of rock in the middle of the city, and a weird multi-layered thing – suddenly you find yourself on a bridge looking down on a street below, with no sense of how the hell it is geographically possible that there is a street below. Caught up with a bunch of good people, climbed Arthur’s seat, ate a haggis, boggled slightly at the whisky flavoured condoms in the mens room, walked around a whole lot, visited the castle, sat about on the Meadows in the sun…

After London, Edinburgh was just so friendly. I had forgotten that people might actually smile at each other on the street, and, god forbid, interact. It had a really nice vibe, and yeah, would be an easy place to live. (Except maybe for the winter, which does sound epicly shit.) But nice as it was, I felt no particular urge to be there.

Took a surreal bus ride back to London, with two Scottish drivers who were either drunk, mad, or lost, or a combination of those, but they weren’t telling anyone what was going on, and the bus was two hours late. Weirdly, returning to London felt like coming home. Straight to a pub to meet people, since that is how socialising works in London.

Caught up with a few more people in London, saw a few more whatsits and thingamys, drank beer in pubs. On the whole I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed London, though that is probably largely due to the people I know there. Facing it alone would be colder and greyer and more grinding.

Then hopped on a plane to Amsterdam. Whee. The different security protocols around the world are pretty weird. Britain has the most stringent and unamused I have encountered yet. Ran into a kiwi waiting to board the same plane to Amsterdam – again, no idea they were in the country. We ended up sitting next to each other since they didn’ t assign seats, and had a random catchup.

Amsterdam. Flat. Lush. Very efficient. The impressions from the bus from the airport, anyway.

Crossing the street is pretty mad at first, with bike lanes, tram lines, cars, and pedestrians, all kind of happening at once until you grasp how it works. Much ringing of little bells on bikes, and the clonk of the tram, warning to get out of the way.

Ended up staying in a compact top floor flat on the Prinsengracht, one of the three big canals in the middle of town, with a cat, a dog, and two lovely lesbians. When I booked the flight at random, needing an onward ticket to enter the UK, I didn’ t realise I was arriving two days before Amsterdam Gay Pride weekend, one of the biggest parties of the year. Just hordes of people. A really long canal, chock full of floats and lined with people in boats. Street parties so thick with people you can hardly move. Weirdest moment was bits of 2×4 being thrown back and forth between the guys who were jumping into the canal to splash people on boats, and an unamused dude on a boat. Lots of people and booze is always messy.

Since the parade takes place on boats on the canal which goes by the flat, naturally there was a party. The whole weekend was a bit of a blur, with loads of people – Nowhere folks, mostly – crashing at the flat, sort of a big slumber party.

There are many weird tensions in Amsterdam, several cities overlaid on each other. Pride was weird, if only for the sheer scale of gayness, a lot of which must be imported for the weekend. The red light district is weird, just as an environment, as tourists wander bemused, taking window shopping to a new place; lurid but unerotic. The coffee shop thing is weird, if only because something that has so long been tinged with furtiveness is now just a bored guy at a counter selling weed, and at a glance many of the shops don’t have a good ambience. This city would be mecca for 20 year old frat boys.

Part of what is weird is the contrast with the Dutch themselves, who seem notably conservative, but benignly tolerant of difference. The other part is that something weird happens to subculture when it goes overground – it becomes formally appropriated by capitalism – and this really changes the vibe of it, the explicit out-to-make-a-buck thing changes it. Also from an identity perspective: when identity is carved by being an outsider, this is somewhat defanged. Yet even while legal, these things are not really welcome or accepted. It is not a utopia, and the criminal element is present in how these trades are conducted, especially the sex trade.

But yeah. Amsterdam is a pretty city to wander around. The canals are nice, though hard to tell apart, and it is pretty disorienting at first, as many of them are long and curve slowly. It often looks like a painting from a few hundred years ago. Pleasant, but somehow distant. The ex-pats living here have all commented on the difficulty in breaking into Dutch society.

Good times, good people. I am learning a lot, and processing a lot. Still not really sure what next, or where; feeling no strong pull, and finding a lot of the skimming along the surface of travel a bit empty. Missing the depth and engagement of being involved in creative projects. Though surprisingly the other day I realised I have written maybe 40000 words of diary so far while traveling.

Most of this was written a week or so ago now. It has been pretty grey and damp since. I have pottered about, and have enjoyed getting to spend time with people I have known for ages but never hung out with alone much.

Will probably do some random tiki touring of Europe, then head to Peru.