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In Search of Europe’s Nightlife


I recently traveled to places in Western Europe – Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Berlin, and Cologne. Here is a detailed travelogue of my experiences there. I do not intend this to be a complete comprehensive travel guide – I didn’t spend enough time in each of the places to write one, besides, there are many good travel guides available. I will instead try to focus on my own thoughts and experiences.

Amsterdam

To a lot of people who haven’t been there, Amsterdam is synonymous with coffee houses legally selling drugs and red light district. I was naively expecting an ultra-liberal society with this forwardness showing on streets. My first 5 minute walk in the Dam area didn’t disappoint me – I came across more buildings with titles beginning with “sex” (sex museum, sex-o-rama bar, sex-store, etc) than I can hope to anywhere in a US. So, my first long chat with a local Amsterdamer disappointed me – I realized that she (and most Dutch people in general) have similar priorities in life than any of us, and don’t even notice or think about things that grabs the attention of tourists!

I landed on Friday evening keen on seeing things I had heard or read about (no, I don’t the pun here–its not my fault that “red” and past tense “read” are homophones). Amsterdam’s famed red-light district is a long street with many small alleys all lined up with houses with glass walls on the first floor – behind the glass are bikini or lingerie clad women posing, looking enticingly at all the men passing by. This pattern is broken by peep houses and small pizza or falafel joints. Surprisingly, the area still has a very classy feel to it. Even at 3 or 4am, there are lots of tourists walking around – even couples or entire families! The girls and the peep-house shows’ promoters standing on the streets really mean business– try talking about rates, and if they sense you are haggling about price without being serious, they can get nasty with you. I tried that with a show promoter, and as I left after the price negotiation, feigning dissatisfaction, he yelled behind me: “You Americans talk so much about how you are doing good to the world, but can’t spend a little money for the girls?”. I did not know how to respond, besides I am not American, so I didn’t feel it my responsibility to respond. Instead, I hurried away without turning back.

I decided to move on to something more familiar. I ventured to a more popular night-life area, and entered what from outside seemed like a typical Dutch brown bar. I was surprised (pleasantly, I think) to notice myself to be the only guy there, and was only beginning to get comfortable with this observation when a dressed-in-all-black girl walked towards me and said, “Will you like to buy me a drink?” “Err….”, I was fumbling for answer when she added, “Only 55 euros”.
“What? 55 euros for a drink?”
“And sex”, she added, “or if you want to sleep with me, its 300 euros”.
“But I am here just to buy drinks”.
“Then you are the wrong place”, she reprimanded me, pointing to the door.
It was clear I should leave. As I opened the door, the guard rebuked me for wasting their time, giving me a reason to start a mini-argument and get the satisfaction of wasting more of his time. Walking away, I noticed the sign “Paradise Sex Bar” in red neon.

Next, I landed in a real club. The familiarity encouraged me to try things I haven’t even done in Boston. I approached an attractive looking Dutch girl if she wanted to dance with me.
“I have this luggage”, she said pointing to the suitcase she had.
After some talk about her travel plans and my own, I suggested leaving the suitcase in the cloak room and hitting the dance floor.
“I don’t have the money”, she replied.
Anyone with “How to approach girls in bars 101” knowledge would have known it best to move on. I didn’t, and few minutes later, I was sneaking out of the club alone having lost about 10 euros and whatever remained of my self-respect. I decided to call it night.

I did fairly well the next morning in recovering – I rented out a bike (by the way, the best way to see Amsterdam), and spent the day biking about admiring the beauty of the place, and doing the more universally accepted civilized things – visiting museums (ok, I must admit – I visited sex museum and torture museums too) and a diamond factory.

As someone living in United States, I was surprised by the Americanization of Amsterdam (and as I was to discover later, even if to a slightly lesser degree, all of the Europe). Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway and Starbucks are just about everywhere, and popular among the young people. And then, there is Hollywood. Maybe George W. Bush can get some tips from the the corporate giants and Hollywood on promoting “American ideals” in the rest of the world – they are likely to come up with better suggestions than Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.

In the evening, I went to a Dutch coffee house– it was to be my first time trying out weed. The coffee house had a separate table manned by a police officer (not in uniform) for these substances. As a starter, I got something light. I left the place feeling pretty sane and in control, though what happened immediately after suggests I may have been wrong.

On my way somewhere later, I inspected my pouch and didn’t see my passport. I remembered using it earlier in the day, so it had to be on me somewhere. I searched my backpack – no, not there either. I was beginning to get worried – without the passport, I was screwed. I probably dropped or forgot it somewhere – perhaps, at the museum when using my credit card to pay for the ticket, or the coffee house when using it as my ID. I went to the coffee house and asked the guard if he asked me for my ID before entering.  “You look older than 18, so I don’t think I did”, he replied.  I searched inside, and some other places I had been that day, but didn’t find it. Tense and upset, I went to bed early.

Next day, in between my trips to the museums and police station, the tired hungry and unhappy me waiting for my food order in a restaurant remembered about the bike rental – I looked them up in the yellow book, called them, and realized I had deposited it there.

Isn’t it strange – there was me intending to squeeze every minute of my time during the trip, being always serious about what to do next when things were going to the plan, now far more ecstatic when my entire plan had been thrown off, and a day wasted? Maybe, we all need some troubles in life to enjoy the pleasure of thinking about how bad the situation could have been but is not when we get overcome those troubles.

I am digressing. Let me come back to Amsterdam and Dutch people, but still continue the philosophical meanderings. Yes, the Dutch are generally tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and handsome, yes, but there is more – they challenge our perception of societal norms, trying out ideas more liberating and trusting of their citizenry and people. Theirs was the first modern republic back in 16th century, and even today, they have legalized that are tabooed in many other parts of the world, and presenting a living example of an advanced and generally happy society.

Paris

Paris is probably the most romanticized and fantasized about city in the world. That translates into practice too, for it is also the most visited city in the world as well. Deeply rich in history, art, and today – fashion, lifestyle, the city has been a trend setter for the rest of the world for centuries. Think art, and you think of Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. Think buildings, and you think of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and Eiffel tower. I can go on, but I am already sounding like I a reading out Paris tourism promotional guide. Its practically impossible to talk about Paris without going overboard in praising her!

No, I am not in the position to give a first hand report on the head-scarf controversy, though it didn’t seem to be a big issue there.
I could be wrong though. The first thing that struck me when I got here from Amsterdam was the lack of English speaking skills – Amsterdam spoiled me into believing that all Europeans speak better English than I myself. Another barrier, with those that spoke English or when asking about places, is the very different pronunciation in French. A lot of alphabets sound so similar in French – I wonder why designed a language that uses so little of their vocal facilities!

I have been told that many French who know English well refuse to speak it in France. Soon after I landed, a French non-English speaker attempted to give me the subway directions to my destination – he had to write down “RER” and “rue” because I wasn’t familiar with French pronunciation of “r”. The difficulty he went through explaining it to me in all French – its hard to believe he will go through this pain just for the language pride. I will dismiss those stories as another example of French leg-pulling that we all so very much like to indulge in.

I landed in Paris around 11pm, and reached my friend’s metro station about midnight. While getting out of the station, I noticed a pleasant-looking non-East-Indian girl in an Saree–a traditionally Indian dress. Its pretty likely that she is an Indo-phile, and if I am lucky, I may get her to show me a bit of the city. Besides, I didn’t have anything to lose – I can always pretend to have lost my way, always easy to do in a new place. I got out and followed her, semi-running to catch up with her. She must have been scared at the thought of kinda being chased on a very deserted street on Sunday midnight, for she kept looking behind her back. As I caught up her, she turned right into a street. I termed following her further as too risky, turned back, and headed towards my destination.


Ask me how it feels to be stuck in one of the prettiest places of the world as a tourist, but instead of going about admiring, spending one of the three days there running around the banks and shelling out a fortune talking to your bank in Boston. My credit card payments online hadn’t yet been processed due to the weekend, and I was stuck with my credit card close to the credit limit and my having practically no cash – whatever I had was spent on getting those phone cards, that in addition to ripping me apart, blackened my finger nails from peeling the code on them. If you ever see me with dirty nails, its not because I am untidy – its stupid Paris that you must blame!

In the hindsight, I could have spent the day walking through wonderful Parisian streets – but god knows who invented the word “hindsight” and gave us so much more to feel sorry or guilty for. Seriously though, there is lot to watch on the streets of Paris – shops and showrooms flaunting latest fashion products, cars, and anything that makes you look or feel cool. And there are buildings, pillars, capitals, statues, and gardens that are littered all over the city but diminished in stature by their sheer abundance – each of them such that practically any other city in the world would love to have it and gladly put it on top of tourist’s-to-see list!

Other than getting a crash course on International Banking 101 that day, there is only one other positive thing that came out – I saw a theater performance in arguably the grandest opera house in the world for free on the opening night. It was in French, and I didn’t understand a single line of conversation, but to my credit (or simplicity of French stories lacking Shakespearean melodrama?), I understood the story. And, in my battered jeans, t-shirt, and shoes, I got to hang out among the who-is-who of Paris, all impeccably groomed and dressed.

Let it be known to all ye travelers – no amount of travel book reading can replace the experiences of local resident in enjoying the best of a place. It was the Parisian friend of mine who know about the cheap student tickets to the shows in Opera house; it turned out to be a premiere night, the attendance was by invitation only, and since there were seats still left, we got in for free. All we had to do was to pretend we were students of some local Lecoq drama school – pretty easy to do if you don’t understand what others ask or say to you, and you are dependent on someone else to guide you and translate things for you.

My credit card balance was restored the next day, I was ready to do the normal touristy things. I began with Notre Dame Cathedral. It was impressive and huge, no doubt, but the lesson of the hour for me was not its grandeur, but the concept of renovating/ adding on to historical monuments. Let me try to explain.

I had thought of historical monuments as being almost untouched since the time of their construction – that was my idea of antiquity. But the cathedral, like many other monuments, had undergone many renovations since then, and as I write, was undergoing another one. It begged question whether its reasonable to start the age of the monument as when it was first built. The case in favor of making the monument look it was first built or envisioned of instead of letting it fall apart is strong enough.

The majesty of Notre Dame cathedral is easy to see, but to see what lay underneath, go underneath (sorry for being trite) to the archaeological museum. There you can see remains of walls that lay at the site from the Roman period to pre-cathedral times – man, that was too much history for too little land, sort of like Jerusalem having sacred places for about 70% of world population. At least, the Parisians managed to let all the history co-exist peacefully, even if they had to dig out space to do that.  As an engineer, it is disappointing to see how similar the walls 2000 years ago are to those in present times – no wonder the monuments from those times are still regarded as master pieces today, while no one will give a damn to the science or technological knowledge of those times!

There are comedy movies on lack of communication due to language mismatch. Something similar happened to me in the park behind the cathedral. As I stay there munching bananas (I had learned to do carry them around – food, like everything else in Paris, was expensive), an old man enjoying the sun on a bench, his hand and chin resting on staff said something in French that I didn’t understand, but by the way he said it, must have been something pleasant.
“No parles francais”, I tried to reply.
An attempt or two, later, I got the point across that I spoke no French, and he, that he spoke no English. Now, our conversation broke in a one-word question and answers, sort of what babies in early stage learn, or what George W. Bush is only getting to get hold of.
“Tourist?”, he asked.
“Oui”, I said.
“American?”.
“No, Indian”
He looked puzzled.
“Indisches”, I tried again, then immediately realizing that was Dutch, not French.
“Indien”, I said again, this time carefully.
He signaled me to join him on the bench.  He seemed to be nice, but I feared taking up the offer to join on the bench – it will be difficult to get up, and that would mean a few more minutes of this unproductive conversation. I made a walking signs with my fingers, mumbled something like “to go”, turned back, and left, avoiding looking at him again as his eyes followed me leave.

I am not an art connoisseur – in fact, I consider myself incapable of admiring art. But to visit Paris and not see Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo is like visiting MIT but not seeing the dome or the Stata center (in spite of all people may say, I say “Thank you, Mr Gehry”!) So, went my remaining 1 ½ days in Louvre museum and Museum de Orsay.

I was expecting to be lovestruck after seeing Mona Lisa, expecting to see her in my dreams when I get back the way I see Hollywood women. I felt a bit letdown – the small sized (stop giggling, I am talking of the painting and not anything about the figure depicted) painting, if I didn’t have a short wall all for itself, would have hardly stood out in the midst of large impressive paintings abounding around it. Someone next to me mentioned about how the woman’s bust the in painting formed a perfect triangle, and how Leonardo da Vinci regarded it was his only completed work, etc etc – but I preferred to move on.

Venus de Milo, on the other hand, was easier to admire – the three dimensionality helped. The subtle soft figure, the broad hips… maybe I will have dreams about the this sometime 🙂 Looking at other Greek and Roman sculptures, I made any etymological discovery for myself– the origin for the word hermaphrodite – its from hermes + aphrodite, or the son of hermes and aphrodite, who united with a nymph to get his bisexual nature.  Though not good enough a discovery to get me my PhD, I was, like the five year old boy who discovered that blue and yellow when mixed make green, proud of myself! Next stop, Museum de Orsay – art is much easier to understand if seen chronologically, looking at gentle evolution through different times.

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