The Backpacker April 17, 2012
Unforgettable ... a canal in Amsterdam. Photo: Getty Images
The scene opens in a campsite just outside Amsterdam on a cool day. It's been one of those mornings after one of those nights. Amsterdam is always manic when you're looking after a busload of Australians, trying to make sure they have a good time while trying to make sure they don't get arrested.
I've been cooking breakfast for 30 aching souls in between hurrying them into packing up their bags and their tents and their lives and getting onto the damn bus on time. It's not going well - the queue for bacon and eggs is short; the queue for the shower block is long. It's mornings like this you forget things.
There's a thought gnawing at the back of my brain that I can't quite identify and I don't have time to think about because we're leaving in 10 minutes and where the heck is everyone?
We leave late, of course, heading south for Bruges a good half-hour after we should have departed.
The wheels roll, the bus heaves, 30 travellers fall instantly asleep and I could still swear I've forgotten something. Oh well.
Fade in to a perfect afternoon in the Jordaan, the cool part of an already cool city. Amsterdam is at its best when the sun shines, when people drag their whole living rooms out onto the cobbled streets and everyone else heads to open-air cafes and bars to soak up rare rays.
I've just been strolling around the place, taking in the charm of narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants, when I come across yet another open square next to a canal. People are laughing and chatting on wooden benches outside a little cafe.
I take a seat, have a look at what everyone else is eating. It seems like apple pie is the favourite, so I order one with a coffee and devour it, then sit back and enjoy the sun's warmth. It couldn't be more picture perfect, more serene ...
Fade in to night-time in the Leidseplein, the bustling centre of all things evening in Amsterdam. There's fun in the air, from the burble coming from the pavement bars to the crowds gathered around the busker juggling a football. This is a city that thrives on hedonism and the feeling is taking hold as the hour slips into single digits.
Officially I'm supposed to be working, back on the bus tours, but my group has disappeared into the city's nefarious nooks and crannies, leaving me to soak things up solo. Suddenly, however, one of the passengers appears out of the night.
"Ben, you gotta come help," he says. "Jess is struggling."
Jess is in the Bulldog, a justifiably notorious establishment. All those things you've heard you can get up to in Amsterdam? The Bulldog has most of them on a printed menu. Jess is slumped on a chair in a corner. Sigh. I put an arm around her waist, heave her to her feet, start helping her up the stairs to get some fresh air. She looks at me like she's about to say thanks, then grimaces a little bit. Then she throws up on me.
Fade in to the Vondelpark, a huge expanse of green in the middle of Amsterdam. There are groups of friends sitting in circles here, sharing food and a few laughs. Joggers and roller-bladers do languid laps through the trees. Dogs bark. Bicycles ding their bells.
I'm on one of those bikes, an old Dutch-style thing, the type of single-geared beast you'd only consider riding in a pancake-flat city. The sun is out again. My pedals are turning, the wind is whistling. Freedom.
This, I'm thinking - this is what life is all about: the simple beauty of a bike to explore one of the world's great cities. The joy of a day spent in cobble-stoned, canal-sided heaven.
I love Amsterdam. Some cities just seem to click with you and Amsterdam is my city. Most people think of it as a den of sin but it's so much more than that.
Everything that happens to me in Amsterdam seems unforgettable - I can play the scenes back in my head like some kind of jarring Tarantino film. The good and the bad. The campsite, the apple pie, the Bulldog, the Vondelpark. Then there's shopping for cheese at the Nieuwmarkt. A stroll around the Van Gogh museum. A close shave with a tram. Beer with lemon at a canal-side bar.
What a city.
Fade back in to the tour bus on that last morning. We're rolling along somewhere near the Belgian border when the penny finally drops, when I remember what it was I was supposed to do. What I've forgotten in the rush.
My washing. A whole load of my clothes is still hanging on a line far away in a campsite just outside Amsterdam.
In a way, it's not such a bad thing. At least it means I'll have to go back.
Which city has clicked with you on your travels? Post a comment below.