Amsterdam began with some degree of sturm und drang. Donny was to leave Paris on a later train than both Zack and me, so we headed to Gare Nord early in the morning. We had ordered tickets online, and later on I received a weird email from Eurostar with a bunch of numbers in random places: only by chance did I decide I would write them down, as we had a bunch of other confirmation numbers for our tickets, that all seemed like they werevalid and useful. Of course, when we arrived, the machine would only accept numbers: indeed, the random ones from the email which I had not told Zack about. Well done, Eurostar; well done, Michael.
Zack attempted, in vain, to convince the French ticket takers that his confirmation numbers were valid. Similarly, their system rejected his credit card, claiming that no such ticket was ever bought. It was a Royale without cheese sort of French calamity! We searched for an internet terminal: if we could check his email, it would all be fine. One of the information desk jockeys reported that no terminals would be up until 9 – our train left at 8:30. Nervous, and also feeling like I was culpable, I rattled off a series of harried, probably useless instructions to Zack before hopping on the train myself.
I entered Amsterdam wracked with unnecessary guilt, and was left further bewildered by the city. Where the signs and street names in Paris prompted vague memories from years of French instruction, the Dutch signage offered no nascent touchstones of recollection. Moreover, French offered a sense of exotic strangeness, an Other language close enough to English, sharing phonemes, but attractively arranged and chopping off the ends of syllables all over the place to make things fluid and fast and somehow debonair and haughty. Dutch offered more of a strange strangeness, a lilting, fun-house mirror German only familiar to me from internet memes featuring bizarre children’s shows. English was still common, but the Dutch came first, and it served to bewilder.
Zack and I alternated bookings to reduce paperwork, so I told the hostel that another person would come to check in under my name. I put down my things and set out for a while.
Amsterdam was not one of the cities I was gung-ho about: I certainly had a vague, ill-defined desire to go, but it was really a city Zack and Donny wanted. I knew little of the attractions, other than the obvious nightlife, and so I walked around without aim. There were bikes, and canals, and coffee shops (for the uninitiated: pot store), and innumerable sweet shops with grotesque swollen and slathered confections. Overwhelmed and utterly unsure of what to do, I got my bag and did laundry, reading beside my machine and watching a number of utterly confused Spanish twentysomethings attempting to operate the fancy Dutch laundry technology.
Zack managed to stumble across me inside the Laundromat, and we met later to actually eat and explore. We eventually met an American stoner, one who had quite clearly come to Amsterdam for the weed and just never left. Amiably, he offered to tour us around, and by nightfall, the first and last place to be was the Red Light district.
To be clear: it is certainly sexual, though not all that sexy. There are women in red neon boxes on ground level, on the first floor above the street and, somewhat pitiably, below street-level, waving up pleasantly from their dank basement hooker booths. As you pass, there are waves, the tinkle-tinkle of acrylic nails on glass, and cat-calls. The street is lined with tourists, many of them fratty, though I saw very few actual people actually approaching the prostitutes for their services. Occasionally there would be a curtain drawn and once, hilariously, a middle-aged man sidled up to a glass door, and the woman inside burst out, calling in a cartoonishly Eastern-European accent, “Seeeeeeeex?” One would assume, ma’am.
Our guide told us the basics: the standard rate for vanilla was €50 (I instantly balked: though I had no intention of getting a hooker, the bargain-hunting backpacker found great horror in such a price), anything else was considered a costly add-on gravy. Perhaps I was just ignoring the teeming business, as scores of the booths were still operational, though occasionally a few were taken over as avant-garde art pieces, or stalls displaying bourgeois fashion sets. It must be at least somewhat booming: something’s gotta be keeping those women in stilettos and Blackberries or they would just find work as bank tellers.
The main street of the district runs along a canal our guide called the Walls, and more than anything, a convivial, party atmosphere dominated. People drank and smoked and puttered their boats down the canal. Sex shops and strip-clubs and sweet shops were slammed, though the most successful business I saw was one living statue woman who wowed more than a few drunks out of their Euros.
The Red Light district of Amsterdam is erotic in the way that vibrating underpants or lollipop condoms are erotic: humorously, in parody, a clowning sort of sexuality drenched in neon and elaborate business management. It didn’t even feel that sleazy, because it was so Vegas-Disney, and because it was so obviously all work for the people involved. At best, this was just the boring day job for the women present, and on break-time, this is made vividly clear: the prostitutes chatter among themselves, squat on stools with cigarettes, and text fiendishly. They just look so bored.
By day, we found Donny once more, and tried to give him a version of the tour the American took us on previously. We wandered the canals, and I don’t recommend going anywhere near the Red Light district in sunlight. The harsh light of day does it no favours: the neon is off, the booths are lit by fluorescent or natural light, and the women of the day shift look ghoulish. The whole strip and surrounding area takes on a horror-vision of Eastern Europe, an ashy, colourless dystopia of sad-faced, track-laden women in darkened glass cases for your perusal.
We went to the brighter parts of the city in hopes of lightening our spirits. Awesomely, every establishment we entered had a sign in bold type, in multiple languages, declaring that there was to be no sleeping. It’s certainly a practical rule, though at first it caused me to imagine Amsterdam as a city in the midst of a narcolepsy pandemic. Our guide told us that the ultimate number of coffee shops had been reached, that pressure upon the Netherlands from the EU was causing the country to enact new limits. If any shop violated the rules, it would be shut down, and no new shops could be opened in its place. All the same, there was enough of them still around that the need for a nap was apparently very common.
If the Red Light district was filled with the frattiest of foreigners, the rest of the city was a grungy hippie haven. We saw a good number of Dutch locals, mostly people waifish, blond(e), and on bicycles (a note: the road hierarchy of Amsterdam is bike>car>pedestrian, and those on a higher tier will make this abundantly clear), but more commonly we saw pot tourists. I have never seen a greater concentration of white people with dread locks than I did in Amsterdam. It was every undergraduate English and Poli Sci class I have ever taken: disaffected youths in Che Guevara-wear, weighed down by mounds of unwashed hair, nearly sloth-like. There were people in every city I went to who spent most of their time in the hostel, but it was especially true of Amsterdam: the hostels we stayed in had smoking rooms, and there were more than a couple of people I saw who just took off their shoes, climbed onto a couch, and never left the whole day.
Without time or particular yearning to overzealously plan every minute, Amsterdam was a city where we actually relaxed, and it’s a city that does invite it. Life seems to be slower-moving, we were more northerly and thus not baking in our own sweat, and the parks were numerous and verdant. More than that, the parks allowed acoustic music. And sleeping. You have to sleep somewhere.
P.S. The photos in this post are particularly incongruous with the text because you can’t take pictures in the Red Light district. Pimps are apparently on-hand, and anyway, I am told that the prostitutes keep cups of urine nearby should anyone try to snap a photo. I strive for great internets for all of you, but a faceful of hooker pee is not something I’m willing to deal with.