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Sex, Drugs and My Tweenager in Amsterdam

A father and son head to Holland for a weekend of bike-riding, noodle-slurping and conversations only Amsterdam could provoke

From The Wall Street Journal November 26, 2014. Illustration by Michael Byers

From The Wall Street Journal November 26, 2014. Illustration by Michael Byers

By Andrew McCarthy

“WHY ARE ALL those women in the windows wearing bikinis, Dad?”

We’d been in Amsterdam for a total of 20 minutes. We had just rented our bicycles at Central Station, crossed our first canal, and were lost.

“Oh,” I said to my 12-year-old son. “Um, those aren’t bikinis, Sam.”

In looking for a cheap Thai restaurant that my guidebook recommended, we had inadvertently turned onto Oudezijds Voorburgwal, the oldest canal in the city. Suddenly, Amsterdam’s Red Light district had us firmly in its clutches.

I explained our surroundings to my son with as much candor and restraint as I thought the situation and his age demanded. His eyes widened in astonishment; his head shook in disbelief; finally, his cheeks blushed with acceptance.

We had zipped over to Holland for a three-day escape in the middle of a family trip to Dublin. I’d been to Amsterdam before, although not in years. I knew it was an easy city to negotiate, one that felt far from home but also readily accessible to foreigners. A perfect father-son jaunt—exotic yet manageable.

I wanted my son to experience things that had moved me on previous visits— Vincent van Gogh ’s swirling color dreams in his namesake museum, the austere power of the Anne Frank House. And, yes, with a boy cusping adolescence, filled with questions and half-formed desires, but with a swagger that masked his ignorance, I thought perhaps some of the Dutch candor might inform him in a way that I, or American prudishness, could not. I had wanted him to glimpse the Red Light district—although it wasn’t necessarily the first thing I thought he should see.

We eventually righted ourselves and landed at Bird, a cramped storefront restaurant where tiny women in flip-flops cooked up large bowls of noodles. Thai hipsters served the food to a crowd of young Europeans and older Asians.

“We gotta come back here tomorrow,” Sam announced after one slurp of noodles.

We set up base at the upscale Hotel Pulitzer, a series of interconnected canal houses on Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s posher waterways. To my surprise, my nearly teenage son had no problem sharing a bed with me. Maybe that spoke to the flexibility that travel encourages.

Over the next few days we biked around the city. Sometimes I led the way, sometimes it was my son in charge. At Dam Square we watched a street performer taunt the crowd from his unicycle. (“That guy was kind of hostile, Dad.”) We rolled past the Rijksmuseum—Rembrandt could wait. In the hip Jordaan section we bought beads for Sam’s sister, and at the flower market along Singel canal, Sam spent an hour searching for just the right tulip bulbs to bring back to his mother. Only once, by lush Vondelpark, did I almost get my boy run over by a tram. (“You do realize I was almost killed just then, Dad.”)

We ate at fine restaurants like the trendy Caffè Toscanini (“It’s not as good as they think it is, Dad.”) and, of course, returned to Bird for more noodles.

As we walked through the restaurant’s door, Sam was greeted warmly by name, his order remembered. My son, more gregarious than I will ever be, instinctively knew the true traveler’s secret: Form routines in new places to quickly feel like you’re a part of the scene.

Several times we tried to get into Holland’s No. 1 tourist attraction, the Anne Frank House. I remember having a moving, solitary experience in the steep stairwells and cramped rooms years ago. But this time, the wait for tickets was never less than three hours long. (Note to future father-son trippers: Book online far in advance.) Reading my disappointment, Sam tried to console me—“It’s OK, Dad. I saw it in ‘The Fault in Our Stars.’ ”

One afternoon Sam paused before an example of Amsterdam’s famous “coffee shops.” Through the wide open doors we could see jars containing different varieties of seeds and marijuana buds. A pungent odor drifted our way. With as much disinterested disapproval as I could muster, I explained what went on inside. Sam nodded slowly.

“What’s that funny smell?” he asked.

“That’s the pot, Sam,” I said.

“Whoa.”

Out along the eastern docklands we found NEMO, a children’s museum filled with interactive science and tech exhibits. The magnetic and gravitational experiments held fleeting interest, but the top floor was crammed with teenagers—lurking, whispering, slouching against one another. The mood here was more intense; these displays weren’t mere kids’ stuff. One demonstrated French kissing with giant wagging tongues, another assessed a person’s appetite for risk by delivering random mild electric shocks (my son revealed a disquieting interest in this). And there was the “cave of sexuality,” where exhibits addressed almost every question that a young person might have on topics such as contraception use, sexual positions, body heat and self-esteem. There was an unashamed, welcome frankness to it all. My son grew quiet, making his way through the displays.

Afterward, he wanted to return to the Red Light district for another look. This time there was no nervous giggling. He was pensive as we dismounted and walked our bikes.

Finally, he spoke. “Do you think the women in the windows are competitive with each other?”

“I’m not sure, Sam,” I replied. “I think maybe they have some feeling of solidarity.” I had no idea if my son knew the meaning of the word.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I hope so.”

On our last morning the sun burned away a typically gray Dutch sky, and I persuaded Sam that an hour looking at paintings could be fun. We locked up our bikes outside the Van Gogh Museum. With the audio tour as our guide, Sam dutifully listened to descriptions of sunflowers and potato peelers. Near the end of our visit, I asked for his impression. “I like more realistic stuff,” he shrugged.

Cycling back to Central Station, we had one last stop to make. We detoured back over to Bird.

“Can you watch the bikes for a second, Dad?” Sam asked.

He strode into the packed restaurant. I watched through the window as he shook hands with the hip servers and hugged the diminutive ladies in the open kitchen. When he made his way back to the door I heard them urge him to return one day. I imagined my son searching Bird out again in 10 years’ time as he backpacked his way across Europe with his buddies.

“I found this great place with my Dad when I was a kid,” he would say. “It’s around here somewhere.”

THE LOWDOWN // VISITING AMSTERDAM WITH KIDS

Getting There: A number of airlines, including Delta, Lufthansa and American Airlines, fly direct from the U.S. to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

Staying There: The posh Hotel Pulitzer is made up of 25 interconnected 17th- and 18th-century canal houses in the old part of the city (from about $300 a night, Prinsengracht 315-331, pulitzeramsterdam.com).

Eating There: Bird is a casual restaurant near Central Station that serves excellent Thai food (Zeedijk 74, thai-bird.nl). In the trendy Jordaan section of town, Caffè Toscanini dishes out upscale, traditional Italian fare (Lindengracht 75, restauranttoscanini.nl).

Other Activities: The house where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis during World War II is an incredibly moving museum—but be sure to book tickets in advance (Prinsengracht 263-267, annefrank.org). NEMO, a science and technology museum for young people in a sleek modern building on the water, has an area that teaches adolescents about sexuality (Oosterdok 2, e-nemo.nl).

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