It is a threatening, overcast day when I step out from Amsterdam’s central station into the beating heart of the world’s foremost adult playground. I only have a day here and after dropping off my luggage and waiting in a seemingly endless queue to get a reservation for my next train that day has turned into an afternoon. Not wishing to waste any more time, I follow the main street leading away from the station into the complex menagerie that is Amsterdam.
Before it was once, well, Amsterdam, the city- located in the tiny knob of a country known as the Netherlands-was renowned primarily for its trade value to the continent and for being home to an impressive array of world-class museums. While the latter is certainly still true, you’ll find everything from the Van Gogh museum to the Hermitage here, this accomplishment has of late been eclipsed by other less “regal” attractions. I needn’t run through the list of these, even if you’ve never been to the city you likely already know what they are. In which case you better understand the predicament I now face as I stand at the mouth of the city, the red light district on one side along with a row of “coffee shops” and a sign on the other pointing the way towards one of the more popular museums. I’m flung into an eternal battle between mind and flesh, each pulling me in separate directions as I search for a place in which I might satisfy both, while still remaining true to my vow of knightly chastity (and desire to stay disease free).
The solution to my dilemma is illuminated by the blinking red lights over the next doorway, the tiny sign heralding the three-story building behind as “The World’s Oldest Sex Museum.” How the museum’s operators were able to determine that they were the first to open a building and charge people to view a collection of what essentially is nothing more than medieval (and modern) pornography, I don’t know, but being in famously tolerant Amsterdam I’m tempted to believe it. In any case, having never taken one of the several opportunities I’ve had to visit such a place I pay the Four Euro entrance fee and go in.
The museum is full of giggling teenagers likely straight from their human sexuality class and young couples who wouldn’t normally strike me as the museum going type but, as I notice moving from exhibit to exhibit, this isn’t exactly your typical museum either. Museum displays range from the interesting, sexual rites in Ancient Babylon, to the plain odd- a Thai man famous for having a 13-inch penis and who is named something accordingly absurd like Wang Ding Dong. I consider the discomfort such a “gift” would bring to my daily life and wonder for some moments how Mr. Dong deals with such issues, by not wearing pants? So it would seem based on his photos, the only conclusion I can then draw is that he’s perhaps living under some government exemption.
I wander through a collection of plates with erotic images inscribed on them, to photos taken from “private collections” that one imagines were intended to remain private, to a somewhat disturbing exhibit on the “timeless” practice of Sadism and Bondage. “Remember,” a sign below some disturbing photographs of men and women bound and gagged reads, “Sadomachochism is intended by participants as nothing more than a game.”
Whether due to my taste in games being decidedly more of the board game variety or something else entirely, I feel the sudden need for some fresh air so, passing some lovingly framed issues of Playboy and Penthouse magazine, I make my way to the exit.
I have a difficult time wrapping my head around such naked displays of open sexuality in large part because I was brought up in what is arguably, after the Muslim world, the least likely country for such a display. In America, such places would be restricted to certain areas in less frequented parts of the city; in Amsterdam such places ARE the city. I don’t condemn the up-frontness of such an essential part of human life, that being of course sex, but to not have the evidence of it hidden away in back alleys and impoverished districts is something my mind has a hard time adjusting too. But perhaps it shouldn’t. Maybe this is where such places ought to be, in the middle of tree-lined tourist shopping districts. As far as the more absurd types of bizarre sexual behavior, this is the city after all where anything goes, for better or for worse.
While contemplating this, I settle back into the window seat of the next departing canal boat tour. The tiny vessel’s captain mentions offhand that an average of four cars a week accidentally plunge over the canal barrier and I wonder what could distract a driver enough to overrun the barrier and plunge into the yellowed water of the river below. But of course I’m not taking into account that this is Amsterdam, city of distractions, where a prostitute or your favorite soft drug can be scored within the nearest city block. No further explanation needed.
Afterwards, on my way back from the dock, I pass by a brilliantly colored sign announcing “Holland’s Best Fries.” The long queue would seem to endorse this claim and, seduced by the smell and the sight of the thickly sliced potato wedges, I suddenly find myself in line. Reaching the counter I find myself unprepared when the salesgirl asks what kind of sauce I’d like. I realize like we all do at some point in our lives that I’ve missed something, something very important that could have haunting ramifications later. In this case it seems “something” is a very long menu located on the opposite side of the other, more prominent fries menu that allows you to choose a size. Sauces range from the simple, mayonnaise, ketchup, to the infinitely more complex: Thai curry, barbecue, special American, sauerkraut, over a dozen choices altogether. I’m instantly reminded of a recent study I read. The study takes participants from twelve different countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, Russia, etc. and gives them the choice of two ice cream parlors. One offers only ten flavors, while the other offers fifty. Which would you choose?
In the case of these twelve countries, all with the exception of one chose the parlor with just ten flavors. Which country went the other way? You can probably guess… The United States. Even Switzerland, the country whose citizens vote more than any other country in the entire world, an average of seven times a year, don’t want all the additional choices. I can now understand this, standing in nervous contemplation, overwhelmed by the plethora of sauce options offered to me. When it comes to sauce, or dare I say ice cream, fewer options is preferable. Why get flustered over having to choose between something as insignificant as Thai Curry or Creamy Mushroom to dip your fries in? Do we really need the additional stress in our already hectic lives? As someone who is naturally indecisive, I don’t know what I want… ever. It doesn’t matter if I’m choosing between sauces for greasy fries (but no trans fat!) or where to go to graduate school. I’m a stuttering, bumbling mess, repeating the names of the sauces from the menu hoping, as I often do in such cases, that the counter girl will jump in and save me with a personal recommendation. No such luck. Instead she taps the register, lips pursed to conceal what are surely gritted teeth until panicked I blurt out the last choice I read. “Chili sauce!!”
A moment later I’m holding in my hand fries that I deem to be truly Holland’s best and, as of now, the only Dutch fries I have ever had. That doesn’t stop me from moments later going back and getting the sauce I decided I really wanted all along, Tartar.
Of course being in Amsterdam I can’t help but stop in one of the many coffee shops that line the polluted canals like oil covered beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.
I find one that looks like a kind of travel agency and walk in on a conversation between an older Frenchman and a young tattooed man behind the counter. The Frenchman wants to know what kind of marijuana would best grow in his pretentious French soil and, as the two discuss this, I glance down the list of available products. I’m immediately surprised at just how many varieties of hemp or hashish there are, the description written next to each name with words like “earthy” or “a hint of lemon.” With such flowery descriptions, I’m not sure what kind of “coffee shop” I’m actually in. I have no idea how to tell one variety from the other and as the young man behind the counter brandishes bag after bag of each from various drawers I realize that I wouldn’t have even the slightest clue as how to smoke the thing. Besides, through the window my eye has just caught a sign for a Danish chocolate chain with an attractively Spartan name, “Leonidas,” which makes me decide that what I’m really craving is something entirely different so, abandoning the wealth of hemp options, I exit the little marijuana tourist office and head across the street to something I do know-chocolate.
The Red Light district in Amsterdam, despite multiple attempts by other cities to emulate it, is still remarkably unique. Where as Hamburg and Frankfurt have very distinguished red light districts, noted in detail on their respective city maps, with Amsterdam you just kind of stumble upon the Red Light district unintentionally- or at least that’s what I did. Walking down a semi-busy street bordering the canal while happily devouring the Straticella Ice Cream or “glace” I just purchased, one of only eight options, I notice the first glass window with a semi-nude female behind it. Her eyes are quick to meet mine and as she does she beckons me with a finger in the “come-hither” motion perfected from a lifetime of experience, or perhaps one too many Marilyn Monroe movies. Oh grandmother how you’ve influenced our artificially sexualized western world…
Famously distant non-relatives aside, I put an especially high value on eye contact and hers kind of throws me. When someone you don’t know, or even perhaps that you do know, makes eye contact with you it generally becomes a kind of Russian roulette, who will blink first? In America eye contact is viewed as something reservedly more intimate than the Dutch view on sex even. This may explain the American habit of wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day. Or perhaps that was also borrowed from icons of the silver screen.
For once, I am the first to shift my gaze but I console myself- does anyone really have the inner strength to stare down a Dutch prostitute?
I look in the next window, expecting another woman clad in lingerie. Instead my eyes fall on a young family sitting down to dinner, the mother busily tucking a napkin beneath a little boy’s shirt collar. This, not the sight of women standing only in underwear behind glass windows, is enough to make me feel uncomfortably voyeuristic, peering into little hidden moments of a family’s private life. But this is Amsterdam, and privacy here has a more distorted meaning than even the Facebook definition. So it is that upon coming to the next window I am relieved to see not a family but another woman. She’s attractive enough, blond, with blue eyes and a far away look. She could be the girl next door- if the girl next door liked standing in front of her window in nothing but red lingerie.
A sudden sharp cry and the sound of groaning from the next room make me move timidly on. To my surprise these gasps and moans emanate not from one of Amsterdam’s notorious brothels but from a pub sandwiched in between two of them. Inside, I quickly discover what the commotion is about.
It’s June, the World Cup is in full swing and the Netherlands has just allowed the opposing team a goal. All alone here in the city of distractions, I had forgotten about the euphoria currently engulfing the continent in the form of the World Cup but in this moment I’m reminded, realizing that even in Amsterdam, people have their priorities in order. This may be one of the only cities in the world in which prostitution and soft drugs are legal but despite all this soccer still commands the populace’s attention, even if the populace is free to smoke a joint and have sex with a prostitute while they watch. The site of so many occupied windows back down along the street tells me however that this isn’t what most are doing. Perhaps the women of Amsterdam’s Red Light District should think about installing a satellite dish in order to appeal to more clientele. Instead, when the streets have emptied of potential customers, they sit on their stools and flip open the latest edition of the local paper, checking out the stock market or the latest International news. It will only be a matter of time before the game ends, the pubs shutter their windows and the world returns to the way it’s always been. When it does, the women of the Red Light District will be waiting. The thought of this more than anything else highlights to me the fact that this really is the world’s oldest profession. Standing here, one eye on the mob inside the pub and the other on the girl in the next window as she flips through the Business section, I realize the truth of that last word in particular. Profession. A job like any other only, instead of selling perfume to tourists at the counter of the nearby mall, these women sell their bodies. I’m not sure whether I like it or not, but that’s beside the point in Amsterdam.
This is a city famous for being tolerant, tolerant even of intolerance, as the 2004 murder of Anti-Islamic filmmaker Theo van Gogh attests to. This tolerance can be amusing and oftentimes hilarious, as the presence here of a sizable shop devoted entirely to the sale of vibrators shows, but the subsequent lack of action by the Dutch Parliament following the death of the aforementioned filmmaker shows the danger of such widely applied “tolerance,” a disturbing potential for ruin inherent in a society that doesn’t just openly display sexuality but flaunts it, even in its stranger forms.
Good, bad, and sometimes ugly, the one thing we all can agree on when it comes to Amsterdam, city of distraction, is that there isn’t any other place quite like it.