Rotterdam Coffeeshops

Rotterdam Coffeeshops
Observations by Andrew Looney, December 2009

Most people know that marijuana has effectively been legalized in Amsterdam. What many people don't realize is that this is the policy everywhere in the Netherlands, not just in Amsterdam. Dutch "coffeeshops" are found in cities all over in Holland, just as bars are found in every city in the rest of the world.

Having been to Amsterdam several times before, one of my goals for this trip was to finally get out of the coffeeshops of Amsterdam and into the coffeeshops of a different Dutch city.

I chose Rotterdam because it's well removed from Amsterdam (with several other Dutch cities lying in between), and because I liked the idea of visiting a modern-looking city. Much as I love Amsterdam's historic beauty, my analogy about "visiting the future" works better in a more contemporary city, and since Rotterdam was heavily bombed during WWII and constructed anew thereafter, it seemed to fit the bill.

To begin with, the amenities were decidedly limited in the Rotterdam coffeeshops I went to. By comparison, when I got back up to Amsterdam, I found their coffeeshops to be even more lavishly decorated than 5 years ago, often with better food options than ever before.

Rotterdam coffeeshops, on the other hand, were all pretty plain and offered few refreshments other than "coffee." I never saw much besides cans of soda and a few packages of candy. (I'm not even sure actual coffee was available in all of these "coffeeshops.") Amazingly, I was unable to get a hot chocolate in a coffeeshop until I got to Amsterdam.

Some Rotterdam coffeeshops are so minimal they didn't even have a smoking lounge (or at least, it wasn't open while I was there) and are strictly take-out joints. (Har har.)

Signage was another area filled with those "little differences" that make travel so much fun. In Amsterdam, one of the many restrictions the government uses to restrain the growth of the coffeeshops is a law that forbids them from displaying pot leafs in their windows and signs. Amsterdam coffeeshops are not allowed to advertise, and are not permitted to display their menu of cannabis offerings except when a customer specifically requests it. It's all about obfuscation, which is why they're euphemistically called "coffeeshops." Being more explicit about what's really going on inside is regarded as promoting the activity, and that's where they draw the line. That's why, in Amsterdam, you have to look for those official green & white "Coffee Shop" signs. But in Rotterdam, pot-leaf logos are not forbidden. Neon pot leaf signs were common, and sometimes rather zany, like the one shown below from Coffeeshop Nemo, where an anthropomorphized cannabis leaf is seen smoking a joint.

But for me, the difference that mattered most was the clientele. In the coffeeshops of Rotterdam, everyone is from Rotterdam. Amsterdam on the other hand is a more international city, and much more of a tourist destination.

The word "touristy" is generally a disparaging one, conjuring up all the negatives associated with tourism, and I've certainly heard it applied to Amsterdam: "it's overrun with tourists" and "the coffeeshops are mostly for the tourists" etc. But to me, that's part of the point, and part of why Rotterdam was slightly disappointing. Lots of tourists may be a drag when you are a local, but they're great to be among when you yourself are a tourist.

When I go to a coffeeshop, especially if I'm traveling alone, I enjoy meeting new people and getting into philosophical conversations with strangers. This is a lot harder when everyone is a local speaking in a language I don't understand. On the other hand, it's easy to start up a conversation with a fellow American traveler (trust me, we are easy to spot) while sitting in a coffeeshop in Amsterdam, particularly since there's always such an easy topic to start with: "Isn't this place amazing?"

But I still managed to strike up a few conversations with strangers in Rotterdam coffeeshops, and I even got into a game or two along the way.

My favorite moment in Rotterdam was teaching a stranger I met at The Act to play Fluxx using a copy of the Dutch edition of the game. It was quite enjoyable, since I had the added challenge of figuring out what the Action cards did. (It's easy enough for me to understand all the other card types from the symbols and icons, but the Actions can be pretty mystifying in another language.) I had to keep asking my opponent what various cards did!

But my favorite moments of the trip happened in the coffeeshops of Amsterdam, with a much simpler game I call "Guess What I Do For A Living." I got to play this a couple of times with groups of American college students, who were visiting Amsterdam during their European travels.

One thing I didn't see much of in Rotterdam was the franchise phenomena, which is gradually emerging in Amsterdam. Since no new coffeeshops are being allowed to open there, and existing shops can only be sold to family members or other licensed coffeeshop owners, independently-owned coffeeshops are gradually being converted into new locations of the most successful coffeeshop micro-chains. For example, I noticed the following buy-outs since 5 years ago: Blue Velvet became a new Greenhouse location, Pink Floyd has become another Dampkring, Chocolata has become Abraxis Too, and Old Style was in the process of becoming another Rokerij. (The most disappointing change was that La Canna was converted into something other than a coffeeshop, since that prime spot is now lost forever as a coffeeshop location. I shall miss playing Homeworlds on that awesome second floor window ledge...)

Anyway, I was expecting to find that some of the biggest Amsterdam coffeeshop chains, such as the Bulldog, would have locations in other cities, but except for a Sensi Seeds outlet, that didn't seem to be the case in Rotterdam. Plus it seems like the coffeeshops in Rotterdam are mostly all independent businesses.

One final difference I noticed was a total lack of merchandising by the coffeeshops of Rotterdam. All of the major coffeeshops in Amsterdam sell souvenirs like lighters and T-shirts, but I couldn't find anything like that in Rotterdam. But again, that shouldn't really be surprising, since Amsterdam is a tourist city and Rotterdam is not.

On my next trip I intend to check out the coffeeshops of Haarlem and perhaps The Hague.