Everybody loves Amsterdam because it’s marijuana haven, with hundreds of coffeeshops where smoking weed is legal and taking alcohol – prohibited. Coffeeshops are indicated by the display of an official, green and white sticker on the window (which nobody really looks out for – you just know a coffeeshop).
But weed and I have never had an amicable relationship. It smells like shit, makes hair and clothes stink, and then I’ve heard myths about substandard weed in Kenya. So ‘Why?’ I always thought, ‘Should I try what’s possibly not the real deal?’ Plus there was that time, about two years ago, when two policemen in Kenya planted weed in a friend’s car parked outside a club in Nairobi. Then they accused us of having in possession the biggest rolled-up bundle of weed I have ever seen. After holding us hostage nearly all night, turns out all they wanted was a bribe and to keep their weed. Because of these scenarios … visiting a coffee shop doesn’t make it in my list of Must-Dos while in Amsterdam – though at the back of my mind, I know that at some point I will have to act like am in the Rome of Netherlands. ‘If I’ll have to, I have to be accompanied by an Amsterdam native and smoker’ – I tell myself.
On my first day in Netherlands, while walking towards the apartment building where I am staying, I find myself staring blankly at three different people, a guy, another guy and a lady. They are fashionably dressed, leaning at several sections of the old building’s walls, smoking. Part of the smoke they emit is foreign. A little later I realize that it could have been weed. I am fascinated by the freedom to generally smoke along Amsterdam streets. It’s really cool yet annoying, if you can’t tolerate smoke. In IT Crowd and certainly Nairobi, you have to puff at a designated smoking zone, and you have to be so bad to smoke carelessly along any public place because you risk getting arrested.
On my second night in Amsterdam, I accompany friends into the first coffee shop we encounter along the Red Light District. It’s the most beautiful little shop I see throughout my whole stay in Netherlands. Decorated by multi-coloured graffiti, this is the Bulldog No. 90—we just stumbled upon what happens to be Amsterdam’s first coffeeshop, converted from a wine cellar. This explains why inside dozens of people are squeezed into a space probably designed for ten. Walking in feels like walking into a smoke machine. I can hardly breathe or see, so I step outside. My company returns with weed cakes and spliffs. I don’t smoke or eat any. We are met by more friends as we proceed to the supermarket to buy drinks to complete the supplies for a random chillax plan right around Rembrandt Square. I am happily shocked at how cheap wine is in Amsterdam. There’s an offer to buy two bottles for 4.50 euros or single bottles for a euro or up to five. I could buy my mother a barrel of wine but we only grab beer cans and a bottle. After an hour or so of enjoying my first uninterrupted sight of summer’s bright of night over laughs and conversations with friends, suddenly all the smokers are super loud and seem to be on a higher level than those drinking. The smokers soon bounce for home, without a goodbye. It’s so abrupt and unexpected. The rest of us head out to a classic Jay Gatsby-themed about 100-year-old Café Schiller; and later, to the only strictly hip hop bar in the city, which totally has that Choices Baricho Road vibe. I thoroughly enjoy my second night in the new city alongside an old and new friend.
Because of its coffeeshops and general restrained liberty, I think Amsterdam is cool. I have even bought some weed hoodies at the flea market, and several marijuana fridge stickers and lighters at the souvenir shops. But that’s as far as it goes. Regardless, a few days later, I meet up with a great friend of mine from Amsterdam. We first have dinner at Hannekes Boom while sitting outdoor, where there is a great view of the Amstel River overlooking part of the city. “What else do you want?” My friend is so sweet and the best host. I find myself requesting to be taken to a classy coffeeshop “with not so many people and so much smoke hovering.”
We end up at the perfect 420 Café, which balances with ease a café and bar feel. Its aesthetic and vibe makes our date even better. The ambience is to die for—dark wooden interior with low and high stools or chairs to choose from. Several huge framed old school tobacco posters make the café’s crème-coloured walls vintage.
My Amsterdaman (yes – I just created that word) actually used to live across the street, very close to Café 420. He schools my fascination: “In the early 20th century, smoking and tobacco were still quite exotic for the masses. It was also the onset of mass consumption and the birth of advertisement posters. Cigarette brands played on the exotic edge that was in fashion those days with advertisements geared to appeal to this. Cigarettes were associated with countries like Egypt or the cultures of the Far East, with images of ancient Egypt and other themes used to sell products. The 20s and 30s had their own Jugendstil – the style of the youth. So the owner of 420 Café uses his profits to buy an enormous collection of old cigarette posters just out of love for these – almost – pieces of art, that he constantly puts on rotation of different days.” We take a high table not too far from the entrance, that way we can also steal a glance of the dark of summer night creeping in through 420’s huge glass doors.
In the continuing series of my tales from Netherlands, read:
BONUS: This post is solely an account of my adventures and experience and should not be confused or mistaken for condoning the use of marijuana or any other substance.