There are parties and then there are parties in which one of the guests is standing in the corner caressing a dead mallard duck. Then again, this is Amsterdam and it’s sometimes hard to tell if one is hallucinating from taking too much … um, jetlag, or if, in this anything-goes city, people really do never leave home without their taxidermied animal.
I was visiting a friend in Amsterdam and we ended up at the opening party for the flashy new Andaz hotel there. The party, apparently, was filled with Dutch celebrities and some members of the country’s royal family. It was also attended by the mayor and the hotel’s designer, Marcel Wanders. There was a DJ spinning hip-hop and pop tunes. There were crazy (and apparently permanent) video art installations (like one of a girl jumping up and down on a hotel bed). There was great food. There were enough cocktails to drown in. But I just wanted to talk to the man with the dead duck.His name was Kees and his life changed at 5:55 p.m. on June 5, 1995. “That’s when this mallard duck” – he looked down at it lovingly and stroked its side – “crashed into a thick window in the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam,” he said. Kees went down to see what happened and saw the duck lying on its stomach in the sand. But here’s when the story gets real interesting: just then another duck – a male duck, also – flew up to the freshly dead duck and proceeded to have sex with it.
“It was homosexual necrophilia,” Kees said, again stroking the duck’s back. Kees brings the duck out to parties to raise awareness of – let’s say it again – homosexual necrophilia in ducks. This was one of those times when I thought I should be looking around for the hidden TV cameras. Instead, I bid Kees adieu and pointed myself straight for the martini bar.
I hadn’t been in Amsterdam for ten years. At that time, I did what one does on a first visit: I went to the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum; I took a boat around the canal. I even smoked some local “tobacco.” This time, I just wanted to wander. Not much had seemed to change – though the level of official prostitutes who work behind their glass doors in the Red Light District has declined (and it will go from 240 to 120 in the next couple of years). The liberal use of marijuana is still around, evidenced by the wafts of sweet-smelling smoke pouring out of coffee houses in the center of town; it was under threat recently but that threat has passed and the pipe will continue to burn until the next right-wing government decides it’s time to change things.
The next day I found myself aimlessly strolling around the center of town. Stopping in the Red Light District, I was more interested in watching the groups of guys, dirty smiles on their faces as they’d glance at one another, and the nervous solo men, afraid to look at anyone, patrol the neighborhood.
In the shadow of the Oude Kirk – built in 1306; it’s the city’s oldest building – and its tall Gothic tower, there’s a coffee shop. Pot plumes wafted out of the crevices of the doors and windows. Around the corner from that, a youthful prostitute with long brown hair – is she really 18? – stood in her pod, beckoning male passersby with her index finger. It almost seemed as if the latter two, the grass and the prostitutes, were mocking the former, the church, by nearly rubbing themselves up against it. Or perhaps was it the other way around? All three – pot, prostitutes and piety – have been around since humans began walking on two feet. In this way, they seem like a perfectly fitting triumvirate, almost as if they have a symbiotic relationship. Without one, the others would cease to exist.
Standing there, in the middle of this triangle, I almost felt compelled to gravitate to one of them. None, in fact, really interest me, outside of an intellectual curiosity. Instead, I wandered toward a shop I’d heard about: Stenelux, a store crammed with taxidermied animals – even ducks.