A harsh lesson from Amsterdam: there are better things to spend 21 euros on than tea

The Dutch city is not that pretty outside of the centre, and is punitively expensive everywhere.

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So I went to Amsterdam for a long weekend to visit my daughter and her excellent young man. It sounds rather grown-up, doesn’t it, and nicely middle-class? A city break. Well, they have a spare room. I can always use a spare room, and I never saw them when they lived in Berlin, which is stupid of me, as I speak far more German than I do Dutch. And Berlin, whatever you might think, is a much more interesting city than Amsterdam, if by “interesting” you mean “somewhat louche”.

But, you may say, what about the drugs? The red-light district? Well, for one thing, the drugs you mention are only one drug, ie cannabis, and I wouldn’t call it a “drug”, I’d call it one of the cushions on the divan of pleasure. As for the red-light district, that’s more problematic, but I was reminded of Saint Augustine’s remark that without prostitution, the world would be convulsed by lust, and I certainly got the impression that the containment of, er, this sort of thing (to borrow a phrase from Father Ted) in a particular zone gives the rest of the town an almost puritan air.

I didn’t visit it. The last time I went must have been nearly 20 years ago, on my brother’s stag night. I remember myself and about eight of his friends, all younger than me and all mathematicians, or computer whizzes, standing around debating where to go next. One of our troupe returned from an exploratory mission to a bar, which, he announced in tones of some amazement, featured a young woman on stage who would do things, on payment, with a candle which it is not nice to mention in a family magazine. I advised them that if they wanted to see such things, which I considered of dubious value and utility, I suggested they enter a relationship, if they were not in one, and ask nicely, perhaps after cooking a very good dinner.

The second-last time I went to Amsterdam I got so drunk I sprained my ankle very badly indeed, and passengers and staff at Schiphol airport were treated, the next day, to the spectacle of a sheepish but healthy-looking man being pushed around in a wheelchair by a furious, heavily pregnant woman. But that’s another story for another day.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I hadn’t had much opportunity to examine the Dutch character, but I got to do so the second I entered the country, when the passport-scanning machine wouldn’t let me through. The Dutch cop on the other side explained that British passports have their mugshots on the other page to everyone else’s, so it has to be put in the other way round. I made a little self-deprecating joke about how the British always have to be difficult, and he replied, “It doesn’t matter, you’ll be leaving soon anyway.”

Five days on, and this remark still brings hot, stinging tears of indignant hurt to the eyes. “It wasn’t my idea!” I wailed, but he took no notice. I suppose my hurt should be directed at the charlatans and con-artists and another word beginning with C who influenced the result of the referendum, but still. I mentioned this exchange to my daughter when she picked me up. “Yes,” she said, somewhat guardedly. “The Dutch are very… direct.”

When we got back to her place she was a bit more expansive, because Dutch people can understand every word said in English. “What I meant to say is that Dutch people are fucking rude.”

That is, she explained, the Dutch do not have that habit of humorous self-deprecation which greases the wheels of interactions between the British. That said, the Dutch do have a sense of humour, but it generally revolves around, as far as I could see, trying to get as much money out of tourists as possible. They could tell that I was one, and my daughter wasn’t, even if I was cycling on an echt Dutch bike which must have been made with reclaimed Panzer parts and made about the same amount of noise. I named it Gertie, after the plane in the BBC Radio 4 comedy series Cabin Pressure.

Whenever I travel anywhere, I often find myself wishing I could live there. I’m not sure I felt that way about Amsterdam. It’s not pretty at all outside of the centre, and it is punitively expensive everywhere. My daughter and I went to a shop selling loose-leaf tea, and I bought her some Assam, the same size as a typical Twinings packet. “That’ll be 21 euros,” said the man.

Outside the shop, I marvelled at the packet in my hand, its exorbitance weighing heavily on me. I was reminded of a line of Will Self’s.

“Twenty-one euros!” I cried. “I could have got…” well, I won’t say what I said. It was a bit red-light district-y. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special