Thursday, March 10, 2011

Caution: you may have a strong opinion about these topics!

Amsterdam is full of contrasts. It is has 214 rainy days per year but has the highest bicycle commuting rate in the world. It is home to some of the world's great works of art and to display windows featuring prostitutes. You find Anne Frank's powerful story of the Holocaust housed down the street from shops where marijuana can be purchased from a menu, alongside coffee, juice and sandwiches. Amsterdam will make you react, and if you let it, it can also make you think.

Pragmatism appears to be a hallmark of the Dutch people. They seem to recognize that morality cannot be legislated, and their laws deal with reality. Prostitution exists in every country and every culture in the world; according to history, it always has. We may not like it but it is a fact. And it is a reality that does not seem to be diminished by legality. If the alternative doesn't curb the problem, could it be better to legitimize prostitution as an industry, regulate it for the safety of all who are involved and collect taxes to support such regulations?

Another reality: people use drugs. Some of us use them to wake up in the morning, or to relax in the evening, or to take the edge off a stressful day. Coffee, alcohol, and tobacco are legal drugs in much of the world. Marijuana is also on that list in the Netherlands. It is hard to describe how normal and low-key the coffee shops are in Amsterdam. They are in tourist areas, shopping districts, residential neighborhoods. They look and feel like cafes. Unlike bars, they are quiet. Many are well-lit and cheerful. Some close early (like 7 PM) out of courtesy for their neighbors. The people inside look no different than the people outside. They give no evidence of being low-life addicts. By all appearances, it seems that people are just as capable of using marijuana responsibly as they are of using alcohol or caffeine responsibly. And there is no need for drug trafficking, organized crime, gangs, black market. As I watch the death toll rise daily in Mexico as a result of drug wars, I have to wonder if prohibition causes us to lose more than we gain. Over 3,000 lives lost in Juarez alone in 2010.

These are big, big issues and can be deeply divisive. They are rooted in our cultural, religious and political beliefs. But I think it is worthwhile to acknowledge that there is more than one way to handle them and that some issues might not be as simple as right or wrong. If we cannot change the nature of human beings, then we have to choose if we want to live in a society whose laws are based on realism or idealism. And would we still feel that way if our beliefs were in the minority?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The practical Dutch and the talkative Italians

While staying in an Amsterdam B&B, we met two women from Venice. Over breakfast, we mentioned that we had been there recently and had experienced the flooding of the city. One woman said that, while it is a beautiful place to live, many residents are leaving Venice because of the high cost of living, lack of jobs outside of tourism and the constant water problems. At this point, our host jumped into the conversation and enthusiastically offered that the Dutch could build dykes and dams to control the water and save the city; after all, they're the only reason the Netherlands isn't under water. To this offer, the other woman replied that the Italian government has been discussing many possible solutions over the last several years but still has not made any decisions. Our host worried that when they finally finished talking things over, Venice would already be sunk. "But at least we'll have had a good discussion," countered the Italian woman.

After breakfast we really laughed about this exchange. Then we wondered- what character traits are Americans known for? Good ones? Bad ones? Quirky ones?