I left Prague a few months ago because I realized it was killing me. I suppose it had been from the beginning, but for the first two years I was just too drunk to notice. When it finally did kill a friend of mine, that woke me up enough to see what had been happening to me.
I looked around at the drunks and the stoners, the hipsters with the Elvis haircuts and cool tattoos, the beady-eyed perverts, the shambling, poverty-stricken English teachers, those nasal-voiced corporate types with bad suits and headaches from their piddling little eastern European business deals, all trying their damndest to find their own private, grimy way to hell, and I knew, I knew down to the bottom of my heart that Prague was never going to be what we'd hoped.
We all probably have a moment like that in Chateau Rouge one night: you're half drunk and getting fatter by the minute and hitting on some doped-up blonde slut, while the smoke curls by those red red walls and the Algerians and Nigerians size you up to see if you're good for another drug deal - and then you realize the boat left a long time ago and that you f*cking missed it by a long, long shot.
I had that moment, and I saw with the utmost clarity that in the end all you got here was a bad liver and a worse haircut and a bitter little smile, and if you wanted to save yourself you had to get the hell out while you still could.
So I went to Amsterdam.
There are five of us standing by the bar. It's past twelve and they rest of them are just talking bullsh*t in Dutch. The bar is called Hemingway, and Uncle Ernest adorns every wall, shotgun or typewriter firmly in hand. It's loud and smoky and quite pleasant. The guys I'm with all worked here when they were in school at the university in Utrecht, and they are definitely on their own turf. A nineteen year-old with intense blue eyes is trying to act like he's straight out of San Francisco. Hell, I think, he's probably spent more time there then I have.
"These American girls man, they're the f*cking worst, you know?" he speaks nearly without an accent. "They get all f*cked up and start yelling at you when you don't spend time with them. They're so paranoid, you know? Sometimes you just want to go drink with your boys, and they say you don't care about them. How come they're like that?"
I don't know why they're like that. I tell him I'd never f*ck another American girl again even if I could do it with his dick. He loves that one.
He even buys me a beer over it. There's a girl sitting there and I think she's giving me the eye, but it's a new country and I can't tell if it's a signal or if she just thinks I'm funny-looking. But anyway, she's cute and blonde with a nice tight little black sweater and she's awfully nice to look at. The kid sees me looking as he brings my beer.
"Hey, you like her, huh? No sweat, she's f*cking easy. Everybody here's f*cked her. " I bet they have. I bet they have. I take the beer.
Amsterdam, along with certain other cities in Holland, bears a certain superficial similarity to Prague for an American. It has a gorgeous, staid, old-world element to it, enhanced by the graceful lines of eighteenth century buildings sweeping along above the tree-lined canals.
The canals strike one especially: their cold, black, still waters reflect one's image back with merciless clarity during the day, while at night their obsidian surface is strangely radiant with the shimmering luminescence of nighttime street lamps. Wide windows, unshuttered but darkened, give one an odd feeling of security and calm, as though nothing terrible could ever happen in a city where people leave themselves so open to the outside world.
Words fail me here, as they ought. I will never be able to properly describe that feeling I've had so often in Holland, stopping for one last cigarette on one of the myriad bridges, very late at night, so late that the only sound is the echo of my footsteps against the ancient embankments of the canal: and as I look into those opaque, impenetrable depths, there is a wonderful feeling of utter peace and calm, as though all my cares and worries are draining out of my tired veins to vanish forever into that slow current.
It is a feeling I only have late at night, alone, on the water. I will always love Prague for those long moments I had alone along the shore of the Vltava just up from Palackeho namesti, or walking along Karluv most as thick tendrils of mist rose up from the silvery surface of the river as dawn was breaking.
But as in Prague, this sublime beauty stands in sharp contrast to the shocking, overt presence of pornography, drugs and blind public drunkenness that one would find only in the most vile slums of America. In the sex shops they sell chain by the yard and pornos by the crate.
Dildo-shaped bongs compete for shelf-space with varous other types of drug paraphanelia. Who wants to fellate a cock while smoking dope, I am inclined to wonder. Someone must, I suppose, or they wouldn't be there. I wonder what old factory lineman's job it is to check the dildo-bong mold every morning to make sure it's ready to handle the day's production demands.
The train station, an utter hellhole, is the first surprise. It stinks of poverty and urine and discarded Dunkin' Donuts. God himself could not clean the accumulated filth and grime from that chipped and cracked stone floor. It is populated by shambling, dememnted caricatures of human beings, stained with their own vomit and feces, as well as assorted other pimps, hustlers, petty thieves, and other run of the mill ne'er-do-wells. Calm announcements about departures and arrivals of the trains echo throughout that cavernous hall with a callous disregard for the petty human dramas involved in the passing cars.
And then it's on into the night, shouldering throught the crowds of gaping British hooligans, ignoring the shifty-eyed Nigerians trying to push their sh*tty flake on you, past the garishly lit coffee shops, until you're finally in the District. It begins by an enormous old church: perhaps because of the furtive guilt of the customers before the house of god, this is the lowest-rent district, and the rooms are inhabited exclusively by enormously fat black girls.
The Thais are on the other side of the canal. A couple of blocks up from the church is the best area, strangely, with huge picture windows in which stand heart-stopping, sad-eyed young nymphs in long, tight dresses who smile at you invitingly but wistfully as you walk by.
Groups of jabbering Italians and leering Brits gather outside the windows of these precious young blossoms, scratching themselves and grunting obscenely. Occasionally one gets up the courage to go make some lewd and insulting proposition, and gets the door slammed in his face for his trouble. Oohs and aahs come from their buddies after these brave performances.
Compared to the swine who wander the streets, the whores have an aura of long-suffering dignity about them, combined with supreme confidence. When you go into a room, she is the one in charge, and there is absolutely no question in that regard. I find all this incredible and admirable; and I am the same time ashamed. In the District, there is no pride in being a man.
We take a long, careening ride over the medieval cobblestones of Utrecht. The guys want to show me their local District, which is apparently renowned all over the Netherlands for the houseboat whores. Sipko, my buddy from work, is driving.
He's a dwarfish little drunk who still thinks he's in college. I like him a great deal. His two friends are complete lunatics: Harms is a skinny little freak with bulging brown eyes and enormous ears; stretched out, he informs me within minutes of meeting me, by frantic women pulling on them during interludes of oral sex.
Wilson, a six foot five computer dweeb weighing in at a solid three hundred twenty pounds, is navigating; he is a veteran of the District. According to Sipko, he drinks no less than seven liters of 7up and Fanta every day, and eats nothing but shoarma and french fries doused in peanut sauce.
At night he sleeps naked on an uncovered mattress, surrounded by buckets and bags full of vomit, which he empties and refills religiously every night after prodigious bouts of drinking. We pull on beers and shout incomprehensibly at each other over the techno as we rocket along the streets.
It turns out to be true about the houseboat whores. All lit up in red with big picture windows, alternately reclining, gyrating, or making obscene gestures with mouth, hand, or sex implement. Their tits are for the most part natural, I observe with interest. Wilson is shouting that he had this one, he thinks he had that one.
He had that one with a friend, but the friend couldn't come until she stuck her finger up his ass. Harms is gesticulating wildly, practically salivating while at the same time roaring that only fat sorry b*stards like Wilson need to pay for it.
The traffic is a weird mix of BMWs carrying constipated Germans in bad suits, dumpy Peugots full of drunk frat boys, and little red mopeds mounted by confidently swarthy dudes in pleather. I marvel at the social egalitarianism engendered by legalized whoring. Heads are fixed without variation upon the ladies of the houseboats to our left.
As I gawk, my nose is suddenly crushed into the headrest in front of me to the accompaniament of squealing brakes. We've just missed an Audi who has come to a rapid halt in front of one of the boats. A thick Teutonic type is trundling toward the magenta glow with alacrity.
The Dutch guys are rolling down the window and bellowing insults at him in their guttural tongue. Wilson struggles to turn toward me, but is largely prevented from doing so by his vast bulk. But for a moment, serious, shining eyes manage to gaze at me from behind thick glasses and over the fleshy ridges of his cheeks. An unearthly baritone chuckle resonates within his chest.
"Goddamn German's in the transvestite section. Wait til you see his face when he finds out."
We watch with bated breath and warm beer as he appraoches the door. The door opens a crack, and the markedly well-toned whore greets him coolly. They speak for a moment, and he steps into the redness within. We watch him for a moment as he stands awkwardly by the bed, until the whore draws the blinds.
"He'll be out in about two seconds," belches Wilson.
He isn't. We drive back to the bar. The Dutch are at once fiercely libertarian and closet fascists. It is hard to reconcile the open whoring and the spacewalking homeboys with needles protruding from their arms with the insidious tendrils of government control which permeate every aspect of ones private life. Continual monitoring by hidden cameras, automated notices from the police warning you to stay off the road if your insurance payment is a week late, three thousand dollar parking passes for the socially undesirable.
This contradiction finds expression in virtually every aspect of their culture. Drugs are legal but widely feared or simply despised, I can't tell which; the Districts are for the most part avoided assiduously by the Dutch and are solely populated by sexual underperformers from Liverpool.
The guys are unabashed, lascivious perverts, yet seem to play around less than any other race I've ever known. They tolerate everything in public and nothing in private. I can't decide if my frequent admiration for their clear-headed worldiness outweighs my occasional fury at their small-minded provincialism.
The resolution of these apparent contradictions is simple yet remarkable. As far as I can tell, Holland is the only country in the world ruled purely by reason. There are no given truths in Dutch society to which social policy and law are held hostage, as in most other countries: they have no equivalent to "drugs and commies are bad, mom and apple pie are good" or "Gypsies are lazy and smell bad, that's why they can't get jobs and are always getting deported", which I admire profoundly.
But nothing sacred means nothing sacred. The concept that there are limits to what a government may rightly do, or that the individual has inviolable freedoms in the face of the 'nation's will' as represented by government policy, is a foreign one to the Dutch mind.
Drugs and whoring are not legal because of some idea that people have a right to make their own decisions in these matters, but because some government functionary calculated (rightly) that trying to enforce laws against them leads to the loss of infinitely more lives and money than simply regulating them.
In the same vein, it was decreed in the Hague that companies can only maintain parking space for 20% of their employees, since the city had implemented a "traffic management system". Shout all you want that a lot of people need to drive and thus to park: there is no defense against the inexorable logic of the traffic management system. And with the cameras photographing you parking on the sidewalk and sending you automatic bills, you'd damn well better take the train.
In America I am terrified by society's blithe acceptance of the most grotesque contradictions imaginable - what perverse mind could invent a country which honestly worshiped life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which at the same time dropped bombs and intentionally starved children in the name of political expediency?
But in Holland it is the horror of utilitarian consistency which casts a pall over the green fields and healthy, cherubic faces, occasionally making me homesick for just a tiny little bit of blind hypocrisy. The bar feels warm and safe compared to the yawing shadows of the outer world. The guys I'm with have thrown out all of the other customers except for a few choice pieces of giggling adolescence. A good twenty people are still in the bar, and it's going on 4.
The music is loud, now, really loud: Harms is acting DJ, eyes focused intently on the discs before him, enormous ears cocked forward to catch the subtle undercurrents in the rythym which will tell him which track to play next. Beers are pulled and liquor splashed with admirable speed.
The real, current bartenders, a couple of downy-faced nineteen year-olds, look terrified at the mayhem: they are not assuaged by contemptuous assurances from Sipko and Wilson that "it was like this every night in the old days". Wilson is drinking from a beer mug full of cognac and talking to Saskia, the waitress we'd had in the upstairs restaurant at dinner.
She's a hell of a piece and I can't take my eyes off of her: big and voluptuous, smiling radiantly under a jet-black Uma Thurman haircut, and with a sickening air of decay and decadence about her which is somwhat repulsive but at the same time so very, very sweet. She's the sexual equivalent of a giant day-old jelly doughnut.
Wilson really likes her, that much is obvious: he's been watching her thoughtfully, even sadly, the whole night as she lurched from boy to boy. It seems absurd to label this demented pair tragic, yet somehow they are.
Sipko, red-faced and smiling goofily, is telling me about her. He has a hearty, baritone voice which is incongruous with his small stature. "That girl really likes to f*ck. We had this poor kid in here, sixteen or seventeen, working as a dishwasher, and one day he went into the bathroom to take a piss. Well, Saskia followed him in and stood there watching while he pissed.
Then she got down on the floor and sucked him without even shutting the door, I mean with the whole restaurant full of customers! And after he came, she stayed on the floor, and looked him in the eye while she licked him clean, like this..."
he mimics this, more than obscenely, using both hands. I'm laughing hard enough to split my sack, and have to hang onto the bar because we've been in this damn place since eight or so and I'm so loaded that I can't remember what day it is or even what goddamn country I'm in.
He continues. "She made him take her home later and, well, he was doing her from behind, and then she turns around and screams at him really loud, and I mean REALLY loud, "f*ck me in my ass, sh*thead! ! " Sipko shakes his head with awe. "Woke the whole block up. Nobody talked about anything else for weeks."
Good god, what a country, I think to myself. The teenage girls are definitely looking at me now, and they're getting older with every beer. As I stroll over toward them I have vague, flashing memories of another bar, in another town, where something like this might have happened.
I ask the girls if they know where the boat is leaving from, and they ask me in that cute little Dutch accent what boat I'm talking about, and I say, you know, The Boat, the one we came here to catch in the first place, hurry up, the damn thing's about to leave again! And I'm laughing again, harder than ever, and my sack is really in trouble now, but this time there's no bar to hang onto.