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By Vincent Abbate


Five years ago, one day after Ajax had won the European Cup, I bummed a ride to Holland's capital with a group of raucous young Germans I'd never met before. A big red soccer celebration was in full swing when we arrived, a true block-party atmosphere, and after two or three feel-good Budweisers at a sidewalk café, I decided to hang with the boys for the weekend.

Before I'd realized my mistake, we were all booked into a shabby and overpriced hostel smack in the middle of the red-light district. Six of us shared one room and a roach-infested bath. We knew little about the city apart from its reputation for sex, drugs and perversion - and if you stick to the rosse buurt that's all you're gonna see - so we stumbled from pizza place to ATM, past the half-naked girls in windows to inevitably land in a coffee shop. The pot-selling kind, where the others lit up and I watched.

Never much of an inhaler, I followed a hard "no thanks" line most of the way. Then, not wanting to seem like the prudish American a lot of Europeans think we are, I bowed to pressure in a dark bar full of Bob Marley posters and ordered a hash-laced brownie, a.k.a. space cake. The portion was recommended for two. I had some catching up to do. A half-hour later, my tongue was twenty times too large for my mouth, and I spent the rest of the night in bed trying to get it to fit again.

The trip went downhill from there.

Five years later - older, creakier and not nearly as stupid - I felt ready to try again. I wanted to meet the beautiful Amsterdam people are always raving about. The canals, the architecture, the museums.

This time, with Mambo along, I figured my chances were better. Mambo goes on most of my road trips nowadays. She's a neat, slender, no-nonsense cat who keeps me grounded, keeps me company and keeps me out of mischief. And you need a friend like that if you're heading to Europe's #1 den of sin. Mambo's not one for smoking hash, so I knew we'd save a lot of time there. Ditto for the girls in windows. Her bathroom sessions are short and efficient, she eats any roaches or mice she sees and, frankly, she's got more insight into people and places than most humans I know.



We pulled into Centraal Station late on a Saturday afternoon. After a brief discussion, we decided to head to the hotel by tram.

Amsterdam Tip #1: if you've recently suffered a nervous breakdown or don't like computer games where the object is to run over people, avoid the tram. Between the mobs of shoppers inside the streetcar, the woman with the tricycle, the chick behind me shouting into her mobile, and all the near misses I witnessed as the #5 shot up a narrow street only natives can pronounce (try "Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal"), I was freaking.

Typically, Mambo took it all in stride and, once inside our hotel room out near the Rijksmuseum, soothed me with her purring as we chilled out to some TV. Hmm. Amsterdam is cool, but it is not calm. Don't let the sub-million population fool you. Drivers ignore crosswalks and the cyclists all zip along as if training for the Tour de France. Look four times before crossing any street. Double that if you've had anything to drink or smoke.

Once I'd recovered, I spread the brochures I'd grabbed at the station across the bed and let Mambo choose a restaurant for the evening. She stuck a decisive paw at the leaflet advertising Puri Mas. "In the mood for rijsttafel, are you ?" She nodded, rubbed against me and leapt to where I'd left the room key.

The rijsttafel, though Indonesian, is about the closest Amsterdam comes to having a typical meal. You get two sorts of rice and twelve or seventeen or twenty-two different dishes to go with it. While I did the vegetarian menu (the peanut sauce was some of the best I've tasted), Mambo scooped out every last morsel of chicken, pork and fish they put in front of her. By the way she kept smiling : I could tell she liked the service at Puri Mas, too. Rijsttafel for two put a pretty good dent in our budget and started me thinking about tax write-offs. But hell. You go on vacation, you spend, right ?

The weather cooperated on Sunday, our first full day in the city which, incidentally, was founded 700 years ago when a dog threw up. (You can look this up.) We began with a stroll through the Vondelpark, Amsterdam's most centrally-located green. Amsterdam's like Venice. Water is everywhere. But grass ? You head to Vondelpark or out to the suburbs. The park's a haven for cute kids, cyclists, dog-walkers, duck feeders . . .

This chilly Sunday I was warmed by the site of a young lady named Sarah, who was teaching a group of locals the basics of inline skating. I even photographed her, thinking her face in my story might give me an in with her later. It's a good face.

But Mambo was on edge. Too many dogs around. While I was busy consulting with Sarah about moving to Amsterdam to enroll in her course, an Alsatian sprung from his leash got hot on Mambo's tail. My cat's quick, but I had to intervene with a boot to the side of the dog's head. That ended our stay in Vondelpark.

We swung past the nearby Van Gogh Museum to check the lines (there are always lines) and continued past the glitz of the Leidseplein (Hard Rock Cafe, Lido Casino) toward the neighborhood known as de Jordaan.

Amsterdam Tip #2 : visit de Jordaan. It's the eye-opening quarter which'll excite the dreamer in you, the place you'd probably want to live if you were moving here. Not far from the center, it's got all the grace with little of the distracting commerce. 17th-century gabled houses. Houseboats tied up along the Prinsengracht. Funky second-hand shops where I found a copy of Newsweek from 1965 and an original of Elvis's GI Blues LP.

You'll also find fewer people speaking English here, which I tend to like in a foreign city. The only American we ran into was a pushy New Yorker who looked like the Big Lebowski. He kept hounding us to take his picture. So we did.

Wanting a break, Mambo and I stopped in at a neighborhood pub on Nieuwe Lelie Straat, a so-called brown café. There I ordered my first glass of jenever. Jenever is a sweet gin drunk neat from a shot glass filled to the rim. Tradition says you lean over the bar to take the first sip without using your hands. Before I got that far, my neighbor on the next stool gave me Amsterdam Tip #3 : you're gonna try jenever, choose the old, not the new, variety. He said it was "softer". And soft it was. Not anything like the rocket fuel a friend had told me to expect.

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