Amsterdam has a reputation for being a very liberated city when it comes to certain vices. Prostitution and soft drugs are both legal, as any of the women standing in neon-lit windows and smoke-filled public parks can attest. But there’s another freedom Amsterdam offers that you might not be aware of: the freedom to urinate in public on nearly every street corner.
I just visited the city last week, and I was surprised to discover all the places where you can not only go Number One, but where you’re actively encouraged to go Number One. At any point in your journey throughout this city of canals and crooked buildings, you might notice a sign like this one pointing you in the direction of a nearby urinal:
Yes, the city actually commissioned an offical street sign to be made in which a man is emptying his bladder into the blue abyss. But what do these public urinals actually look like? The first one is the official “urinoir,” a spiral-shaped wall of forest green metal with an atrocious, unmistakable odor:
Having not used this one last week, I’m not exactly sure where all the urine goes. Most of the ones I saw smelled abysmal and had a distinctly darkened look to the nearby ground, so I’m assuming not all of it goes into any sort of hole in the ground. Most likely, there’s a small, easy-to-miss target on the ground that doesn’t do its job particularly well. Still, the metal wall has a somewhat classy look to it, and it at least offers some privacy, but that’s not the case for the other type of urinal you’ll encounter in Amsterdam:
Yes, those are plastic. Yes, those have no shelter from passers by. Yes, there are four places to go on each one. These take a certain level of guts to use. You’re given no protection from onlookers besides you’re own outward-turned back and glowing aura of shame. After drinking it up one night with a few locals and Brits, I actually used one of these devices. As someone who gets stage fright at a normal urinal, I was surprised how easily I was able to go despite being smack-dab in the middle of the bustling Leidseplein area of town. But I suppose a half-dozen drinks will do that to you. It was a pretty liberating experience doing my business in public, but before I could finish, a drunken Irish lady came up to me and accosted me for going in public like a damned louse. I promptly asked her what she thought these things were for, and after shaking, said sometimes when you gotta go, you gotta go.
That last platitude holds true for the ladies, as well. At one point, Amsterdam offered female-specific urinals that were completely sheltered from prying eyes. They look like this:
These rockets-with-no-wings were once used a place for the female gender to do their business in public, but they were all sealed off in the 1970s when they became a haven for heroin addicts to hole up and do their intravenous thing. Now these concrete pillars stand like relics from the past, a time when ladies could go in public without having to pay the 50 cents most bars charge to use their bathrooms.
But that’s par for the course, I suppose. The Netherlands’ right wing government is buying up much of the real estate in the red light district as a way of cutting back on the sex trade, and many in power are looking to tighten the drug laws. Amsterdam as you know it may not be the same in 20 years, but if there’s any justice in the world, it will still be a fine place to urinate in public well into your grandchildren’s twilight years.