In America, we believe in "bank error in your favor," as it says on a Monopoly "chance" card. We believe in good luck, in getting away with it. In doing what you want with or without the law on your side.
In Amsterdam one does not.
At a restaurant, I made a small faux pas: a waitress brought me turkey on my salad when I asked for salmon. I pointed out the error. The cook added salmon on top. But I did not set the turkey aside: I ate it. Bank error in my favor.
Later that evening, I realized it must have looked vulgar to eat the turkey I'd pointed out as a mistake. Social decorum here would suggest that if the error meant so much that I requested it to be rectified, then the least I could do is leave the turkey aside. It is crass to have profited from their mistake.
I pieced this together reviewing tiny clues in body language. Social decorum here is subtle, but palpable.
Anybody in America can get drugs whenever they want. Just ask the cops who visit elementary schools to warn children away from drugs. Amsterdam's allure is not about access to drugs, which is what I assumed was the case before I visited.
Amsterdam is about the freedom to consume marijuana and hash, and then hang out. In public. Where lots of people can watch to make sure you're doing as you ought.
You can see a similar principle at work in Amsterdam's attitudes about graffiti. Beautiful graffiti decorates some old buildings in Amsterdam. Graffiti infuses new aesthetic energy into the old buildings, allowing them to reflect the people living in the city right now. That's a really different notion of history than, say, the Parisians'.
Amsterdam calibrates the tension between civil rights and social decorum well, but still, I'm American. I'm surprised when I smell marijuana at the train station, or when I walk by a mostly naked woman seated on a stool in her dark, tidy booth in the Red Light district.
At first I was unsettled to see prostitutes vulnerable in their glass storefronts, illuminated only by the red rectangle of light framing their stalls. I would try to catch their eyes and offer a smile or business-nod, but they almost never looked in my eyes. They didn't want my solidarity. They wanted another client.
Then I realized: these women are probably the safest prostitutes in the world. They are protected. They have a union. I'm a NTT [non-tenure track] professor. I do not have a union. Sometimes I sit in the dark in my little stall, grading papers late into the night, illuminated only by the rectangle of light flowing out of my screen.
Amsterdam is forthright about its pleasures and the social limits on that pleasure.
It doesn't promise that what happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam. It doesn't wink and look away.