I am from Montreal, and here, college is between high school and university.
When I was 18, I dropped out of college to be in a punk band.
I had been the singer and guitar player of a power-trio punk band for about a year and our very first show was quite a big success. There were about 125 to 150 people there. So we thought that we could make it as a band, the three of us. Since I was tired of everything that was related to school, I decided to drop out.
Of course, that didn’t sit well with my parents at all. And what my father did was something that changed my life.
One day, when I came back home – I still lived with my parents at that time – I found out that my father had sold my car. Of course, it wasn’t really my car, it was my mother’s car though I was using it almost exclusively. He sold it without telling me beforehand. That evening, he sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “I sold your car. Here’s the cash of the value of the car. You’re going to your uncle’s in Italy.” End of discussion.
At that time I was just about to turn 19, and the goal was to send me to Italy to live with my uncle, his two children, and his pregnant wife. And I was supposed to help with the kids.
It was obviously a test from my dad. He wanted to show me a couple of things. You’re not invincible, you don’t know shit about shit, you’ve never earned enough money to live, and arrogance will get you nowhere. You know, things like that.
With only about 2000 (Canadian) dollars in my pocket, I took a bag, put my clothes in, and went out backpacking. I set out to spend a couple of weeks backpacking Europe before going to Italy to see my uncle.
I stayed for a few days in Paris and, even though I had a couple of harsh interactions in the city, it was still a marvelous trip. It was my first time taking a plane and first time for me getting out of the continent of North America. And since French is my mother tongue, spending a few days in Paris was like stepping onto a movie set.
Travel Anecdote: On To Amsterdam
After Paris, I took a train to Amsterdam. And of course Amsterdam is not the same thing as Montreal or Paris. Now bear in mind that this happened way back before the invention of smartphones: I had no map; I had no idea where I was heading.
When I got out of the train, I gawked and looked around with my huge backpack, trying to find a place to sleep that night. A cheap hostel… or anything, really.
At the Amsterdam station, hotel runners look for gawkers with backpacks. Of course I fit the bill exactly, and one of them rushed towards me as soon as he noticed the complete look of confusion in my face and asked, “Where are you going? Do you need a place to stay? What are you looking for?”
I said, “I just need a cheap hostel.”
He said, “Come with me.”
And so I did. He walked quite fast, so I tried my best to keep up with him.
When I got to the hostel – a bar with a dorm room upstairs – I checked in, put down my stuff, and went back to the lobby. In the lobby, a young man, a little bit older than me, smiled and said, “Hi! How are you?” We had a bit of small talk and right away, he asked: “Do you want to go smoke a joint?”
Since this is Amsterdam, we went straight to a coffee shop, sat down, rolled this huge hash joint, and smoked it. We even had a beer right after that. It was around noon or 1pm when the guy I was with decided that he had something else to do. So he said, “I have to go. Good bye! Have a good day! Maybe I’ll see you later!”
I stepped out of the coffee shop at the same time as he did. It was a beautiful autumn day and the sun was out. And we were in the red-light district of Amsterdam!
I had nothing with me other than the t-shirt and a pair of shorts I was wearing, and a bit of cash, I decided I wanted to see more of the city. I started walking around. I looked around and saw the beautiful buildings of the old town of Amsterdam.
The famous brown buildings, leaning against each other, all crooked, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes even menacingly leaning forward, with their tops like mountain peaks, really caught my eye. I was really amazed and, obviously, completely stoned. I got out of the red-light. I walked, walked, and walked some more. I had no real idea what I was doing — because I really enjoy getting lost.
While I wandered around, amazed how beautiful the city was, and stoned out of my head, the tricky situation that I was in didn’t really come to me: this was the first time in my life that I stepped in a country where people didn’t speak either French or English, which are the two languages I master. On top of that, in Amsterdam’s old town, the streets all run in a half circle. The straight line of the half circle is the street of the train station. The names of the streets are all 10 to 15 letters long. And being stoned and tired as I was, in the sun, in a foreign land where they didn’t speak my language, I was amazed at the fact that all the streets looked the same. They run in a half-circle, and half of them are canals!
So at one point I started coming down from my high and thought, “Okay, let’s go right back to the hotel and lay down for a bit.”
So I started to get back to my hotel. As I walked back towards the red light district, I began to realize that I had no idea where my hotel was! And, in fact, I had no idea where I was in the first place. I could find my way back to the red-light, but I had no idea how to get back to my bed! Obviously all of my stuff was in the hotel and I had nothing in my pockets except a bit of cash.
I really started to get worried.
And marijuana has a tendency to induce anxiety. That surely can’t help in such a situation.
Having a rather pragmatic mind, I calmed myself down and thought of a rational way of figuring this out. The red light district can’t be that big. And there can’t be that many bars that have a hostel on the first floor. Boy was I wrong…
I decided to enter hotels one after another, and start up north and work my way down south, doing every street. I got in every single hotel that had a bar as a lobby and that looked kind of run-down, like the one that I checked in.
So I walked in. “No, it’s not this one.”
I walked in another one. “No, it’s not this one.”
Then I realized that every single bar and coffee shop in the red light district of Amsterdam is also a hostel! There must be about 200 of them!
I passed in front of a few hotels and thought, “No, these can’t be it.” I passed in front some more and thought, “This one? No, I checked this one before. No; this one? It can’t be it. No; this one? Not that one.”
The confusing street names and the consistent look of the buildings started getting to my head.
I practically did this until I was out on the edges of the red light district. Then I turned back to try again and entered the same hotels I had entered 15 minutes before.
Out of despair, I pulled my hair and looked skyward.
A homeless black guy came up to me and asked, “What’s going on? What do you need? Why do you look so stressed?”
I told him, “I’m completely lost. I have no idea where I am. I have no idea where my hotel is. And obviously all of my stuff is at the hotel and I don’t want to lose my stuff.”
He said, “I know who can help you.”
I followed him because I was desperate, young, naive, and didn’t know what was going on.
It turned out that he was an honest man. He took me to some sort of a Christian hostel in the red-light. Of course he asked for a couple of euros for his trouble.
And now I know because I looked it up: the hostel he took me to is called Shelter Hostels Amsterdam.
When I got there the homeless man introduced me to the hotel’s receptionist. I told him my problem and he gave me the equivalent of the yellow pages. He told me to call all the places and ask them if I was in their records.
So I started calling hostels and asked, “Is there someone by that name at your hostel?”
Hotel receptionists refused to answer the question. I tried to explain to all of the people I spoke to that I’m asking about myself. “It’s me. I need to know if I’m at your hotel or not. It’s me! I’m that guy!” Most of them didn’t even care. Of course, they were completely confused and thought that I must be another fucked up stoner. Some of them asked, “Why are you calling it about yourself?” One receptionist even said, “Are you the police? No, you’re not the police? I’m not giving you that information!”
After trying for about an hour, I realized this course of action was doomed and that the nice Christian receptionist’s idea was not going to work. It was about 7pm so I decided to get out of the Christian hostel, thanking everybody.
Then I started to walk as far as I could from the red light. I was thinking – in my blurred, panicked, confused mind –that I was not in the right neighborhood. This is a big city, I thought, and there can be more parts of town that look like this one, and so I must have been looking in the wrong part of town this whole time. That was the reasoning that came out of my tired, half-stoned, on-the-down mind.
I had walked as far as I could when panic really set in. I sat down on a bench. I remembered that I was quite hungry because it was now around 9pm and the sun had set. But I told myself that I would not eat until I found my hotel and my stuff; that there was no way that I was going to enjoy anything until I found what I was looking for. I was basically punishing myself, pushing myself in a corner, panicking and making everything worse.
So I sat on that bench and pulled my knees to my chest. I hugged my knees as hard as I could and bobbed back and forth for a moment. I was wondering if I was stupid enough to have had lost my luggage in a hostel I can’t locate anymore. I was wondering how I was going to explain this to my father. “I was too fucking stoned and forgot to take a flyer in order to remember where my bed was.” What an idiot! What an absolute fucking halfwit jackass shit-eater! I cried on the bench for a little while.
I tried to calm myself down, and told myself that everything was going to be alright. After all, there’s always tomorrow. Right? Gathering myself, kicking myself for being so weak, and trying to breathe and get back to life, I saw, right in front of me, a bar with a couple of people inside. I got in. I sat at the bar. I ordered a beer. I was obviously distressed.
The man at the bar asked me, “What’s wrong?”
I told him that I lost my stuff, I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know where my hotel was, I had no idea what the hotel’s name was, and I couldn’t find it.
The man behind the bar said, “I know who can help you.” Also sitting at the bar – the only two other customers – were two ladies. They were dressed in pink-latex tops with super high heels. The first one had “Fuck Me” boots. The other one had a lot of make-up on her eyes. They asked, with thick Eastern European accents, “What’s wrong kid? What’s going on?”
I said I was completely lost and retold my story.
They asked, “How old are you?”
I answered, “I’m nineteen.” I wasn’t even 19 at that time.
They were quite amazed at my young age. They were claiming, wailing even, “I can’t believe that you’re out by yourself here! Why did your parents allow you to get out by yourself in Amsterdam?” And they added that they were going to help me.
They asked me to come with them. I followed them, more and more inclined to let anyone help me, even though it could have ended up quite badly. Being naive can sometimes save you from evil. They took me right back to the red light district. Once I was in the middle of Chinatown, the heart of the red-light, however, they said, “Okay, we have to go. Bye, bye!” They simply left me there.
So I was stuck in the red light district by myself again. I had no clue what to do next.
I hadn’t eaten, I was tired, the sun had gone down, it was about 10pm, the prostitutes in the windows began their shows – knocking on the window to attract the passing men’s attention, pushing their tits together, sticking their tongues out, flicking their fingers towards men’s crotches, showing their butts in their tiny bikinis, even slightly opening the door to speak to some of them – and the red lights on top of their doors tinted the whole neighborhood. There were people smoking joints everywhere, drunk Englishmen who’d spent the day drinking Heineken and watching football, crazy Irish girls on bachelorette parties screaming and dancing in the street, stag parties of Germans walking around with a case of beer in their hands, crusty punks panhandling, strange twitching people walking around looking suspicious, some standing on the corner and whispering ” coke smack viagra, coke smack viagra, coke smack viagra”…
A couple of weird-looking men stared at me. From the side, a child came up to me and asked, “Are you looking for something?”
I looked at her and I thought for a second, “She’s probably 14 and she’s most probably a prostitute.”
I walked around some more and a couple of shops that had been closed in the afternoon were now open. I noticed that some of them seemed to be selling things I didn’t know. “Head shop” was written on the sign. I noticed magic mushrooms.
Sitting on the floor, next to the head shop, I noticed a couple of homeless people panhandling.
Someone walked right up to me, eyes wide open, staring into my soul, and said, “Charlie! Charlie! You want Charlie? I have Charlie for you!” I understood, much later in life, that he was selling cocaine.
I completely panicked. I sat down and I put my head in my hands. I wondered what to do.
Another woman came up to me asked, “What’s wrong kid? What’s going on?”
I took my head up and looked at her. She must have been 30 or 35 years old. She was most probably homeless as well. I told her the story: I was lost, I didn’t know what happened, I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know where my hotel was, I had no way of finding where my hotel was.
She told me to stand up straight. She looked at me in the eye and said, “We will find your stuff and your hotel. I will stay with you. We will enter every single hotel in this city until we find it.”
Her confidence gave me courage. I told her that I tried this strategy before, but that I was ready for another round.
We walked all the way back to the station, me and her, and started doing every single bar that had a hotel. We did maybe 10, 15, or 25 of them. It was now close to midnight. I had been out of the hotel for almost half a day looking for my stuff, panicking. I was starving.
And once again, we got to a quiet street. No prostitutes, the smell of weed didn’t permeate every brick we stepped on, and the streetlights were decidedly keener on the eye.
We got to another bar that had “rooms” written next to the sign. “That can’t be this one because we’re too far out of the red-light district”, I said. “No, it can’t be this one. We’re too far out.”
She said, “I don’t care! You’re going to go in there and see if it’s what you’re looking for!”
So I got in there.
The feeling of relief I had when I saw the ugly sports bar I had seen about 12 hours ago is quite indescribable. It felt like my blood lost a couple of degrees within the same second. I felt like dropping to my knees. I felt like crying, but couldn’t. There was a feeling of having the weight of the world coming off my shoulders.
I came up to the nice homeless lady, half-crying, half-laughing, and said, “Yes, it’s this one!”
I tried to take her in my arms but she pushed me back and said, “Now can I have a reward for what I just did?” She wanted 50 euros worth of pot.
I gave it to her, of course. I was extremely happy. I was ecstatic. I gave her the weed. She left and I never saw her again.
Keep your wits at all time in Amsterdam. There are plenty of dangerous people. There are plenty of drugs. There’s sex everywhere.
There are as many legal prostitutes are there are illegal prostitutes. There are as many legal drugs as there are illegal drugs. And there are as many customers for the legal things as there are for the illegal things.
Be careful if you end up taking different drugs, mind alterants, or hallucinogens. Even things like cocaine and ecstasy might not be what they claim to be since they’re sold on the black market.
But this lesson also taught me that there are a lot of very good people out there, including the two homeless people that did all they could to help me. Don’t forget to reward good deeds…