Amsterdam feels like a place where things happen and people remember. Walking the streets of Eindhoven with way too much luggage on my back felt more like a story I was living in rather than my actual life. I suppose travel can evoke this same feeling anywhere, not just the Netherlands. Though I’d argue that setting makes a difference and no one builds a great set like the Dutch. Amsterdam felt the same, only bigger and with ten times the crowds.
The train dropped us off at Central Station in the morning. The first thing we did was pack two small backpacks with all the essentials for the next three days and stow the rest of our luggage in a locker. Thank god too, I was seconds from collapsing under the weight of those bags.
We were nearing the end of our trip by this point. We’d already walked more miles than I can count in more countries than I’d visited in my whole life. When you’re young you become a new person every day. Any moment is enough to change you and I’ve found that incredibly exciting. At 20 I’m more settled, but anything major can still shake me. Amsterdam marked 39 days abroad for us and every single one of them left me different in some way or another.
Justin and I walked out of the station into Dam Square. The weather was chilly but not cold (a nice change from sunbaked Italy) and the sky was grey. We had backpacks slung across both of our shoulders and our best walking shoes laced on our feet, by now fairly dirty. It was time to scuff them up somewhere new.
Amsterdam is a strange city for a number of reasons. Not the least of which are the 11 million poles that support the whole city underground. It seems Amsterdam is one major natural disaster away from crumbling apart and floating piece by piece down it’s canals and into the Atlantic Ocean. I’m sure Californians can imagine. If I didn’t have such faith in the powers of Dutch design I’d be worried. Fortunately, the only real natural risk facing the city is sinking. Interestingly, Amsterdam is only one of many sinking cities. New Orleans, Singapore, New York, Tokyo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Miami, Venice and Mexico City are only a few of the world’s sinking cities. It’s easy to imagine the lost city of Atlantis might also have been one. It’s very possible it could have sank into the waters, disappearing forever when the world was still young.
There’s no immediate danger in sinking, at least not for most. The city of Jakarta has been consistently losing 7.5 cm for years. In 2007, a fairly common high tide triggered a massive flood as a result. 76 people were killed and nearly 590,000 made homeless. Fortunately, no such threats face the Venice of the North, at least for now. Should the water level rise by 2 feet (0.6 meters) by the year 2070, it faces the risk of inundation. The city has an efficient flood defense mechanism, but storm surges pose risk to its people and billions in assets.
Justin and I wandered the city without aim. It’s my favorite way to experience a new place for the first time. The city is built around the canal system. Three major canals (Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht) divide the Central Canal district into nine little streets, each different. Driving a car is strongly discouraged in the city. The streets where they’re allowed, mostly by the canals are always packed with them. I never once dared to J-walk. I suppose it’s the small number of roads that causes the constant traffic. It’s how most of the city is. The population has been growing for hundreds of years, but the city itself has stayed more or less the same. It’s too much and not enough to go around. Sidewalks, though regularly sized, sure don’t seem to be with the high volume of foot traffic that never stops. Getting anywhere in a hurry requires a significant amount of weaving.
But the worst are the bikes. Dear god, the bikes! I see them in my nightmares, always zooming out of nowhere and nearly running me over. It’s never their fault. In Amsterdam, it seems the right of way belongs to the bikers. If you’re in the way and don’t know it, prepare to be hit because they’re not moving. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to hit people. For all I know running down clueless tourists could be a popular Dutch past time. Maybe they keep score.
I’m not used to staying constantly vigilant. Dodging angry Dutchman takes a lot out of you. Justin and I took a train to the campsite around 6 p.m. the first night. We had taken on the city and the city had won. We needed a break. Thankfully it was close. The waggonette’s weren’t nearly as nice as the hotel, but there were beds with blankets and we had it to ourselves. However they weren’t very good at keeping out the cold. At night my teeth chattered. Have I mentioned how cold the Netherlands can get even in the summer months? I’d tossed my blanket on the ground when we first arrived then later saw a tiny spider crawl in and never come out. Needless to say, I left it there and slept in my warmest clothes until it got to cold to bear. Let me tell you, we all have hidden reserves of courage. I hopped down from the top bunk and grabbed that blanket, spider or not. I shook that blanket out so hard I woke Justin up and probably our neighbors next door.
We checked out at 10 a.m. There were no rooms available that night. So we packed up all of our stuff and said a last goodbye. It seemed like we were the only Americans at the site. Most campers were native Dutch. I felt like we’d stumbled onto the road less traveled by typical tourists, a difficult task in such a heavily visited area.
We bought croissants and fresh fruit from a grocery store for breakfast. Here’s another tip I’d strongly recommend, check out those grocery stores! I’ve said it before, Amsterdam is expensive. Eating out will add up. The price of groceries however, stays more or less the same wherever you go. But I don’t just recommend them for the price, the food itself is better than the food I found in any of the other grocery stores we visited in Europe (which was a lot). This may only be personal opinion, but I do believe it’s at least the best selection for broke travelers without a kitchen. The selection of snacks, chips, bread, drinks, candy, fresh fruit and anything else you might want is unparalleled and all delicious. It may partly be the design of the stores as well. They’re clean, well organized and never unpleasant to look at (once more thanks to Dutch design).
By midday, we headed to the Old Church in the heart of the Red Light District for a free walking tour. There’s tons of daily free walking tours to choose from in Amsterdam, and most other European cities. We found Free Dam Tours (I highly recommend them) online and reserved a spot for the 1 p.m. tour.
We struggled to find the meeting spot at first, wandering the area for at least 10 minutes with no luck. We even gave up hope and went to get fries (a Dutch specialty) when we ran into the tour by chance and hopped on.
Our guide was a student at the University of Amsterdam and had grown up in the city. She was tall, pale skinned, Dutch girl with long curly brown hair and an an unwavering smile. We started out walking through the Red Light District. Justin and I had walked through it before and I was glad it wasn’t my first time. I’d expected it to be more like Paris’s Red Light District, with sex shops and creepy men, but other than that indistinguishable from any other area. As for hookers, I pictured scantily clad women who walked around in heels and talked to men through car windows. Women who were most likely prostitutes, but potentially not.
I was wrong, and boy do I wish I’d looked it up beforehand. I thought I was fully comfortable with sexuality and the human body. I could say penis, vagina or any other anatomical word without a flinch. I’m a supporter of free the nipple. I believe nakedness shouldn’t be shameful. I support sex workers. Turns out none of this predicted who I would react to Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
It consists of a network of alleys containing approximately three hundred one-room cabins rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights. The doors are all new and all exactly the same, gray metal and clear, thick glass. Women wearing nothing but bras and panties stand at the windows and make eyes at anyone walking by. Sometimes they smile or beckon you closer with a finger. During the day most of the windows are closed with pink curtains drawn. Only a few women stand for passing tourists to gawk at. I wonder what they think of all the tour groups passing through. I wonder how it feels to be talked about by tour guides like just another popular local attraction.
When we first stumbled into the area on accident, Justin was the one who pointed out the windows. It doesn’t happen to me often but I was momentarily speechless. I didn’t know what exactly I was expecting but it definitely wasn’t that. I felt a hot flash of embarrassment. It was that same feeling I got when I first learned boys wanted to sleep with me. The type of embarrassment that I knew made my cheeks turn bright red. I realized I’d never actually seen a sex workers out in the open. I actually questioned whether or not I wanted to walk any further. I did. We both did. My biggest hurdle was figuring out where to look. When I realized the women in the windows couldn’t care less I felt less embarrassed.
Their rooms are a decent size, big enough for a bathroom, sink, vanity, dresser, and of course a bed. The windows were all on the ground floor of mostly three story, grey buildings. In the back of the rooms you could see shadowy stairs, at the top was always darkness. I could only imagine what went on up there.
The way it works is the women rent the window spaces for about 50 euros an hour. It may seem pricey, but the amount these women can make in an hour alone is shocking. I never knew how much some men will pay for a little action. Sex work is completely legal in the city and the police, not pimps, are in charge of keeping the women safe. According to our tour guide it doesn’t always work out that way. Sex work may be legal but it’s still a business that stays mostly in the shadows.
The main reason it was originally legalized was to cast off the veil and make it a genuine business. The hope was that this would not only protect the women, but lower crime rates as a whole. Of course, there would also be plenty of money to be made. As I’ve said, the Dutch love their money.
Amsterdam began as a trading outpost, and for a while it was the best in the world. This is significant for understanding their society. Amsterdam wasn’t founded to be a territory of another, larger power. They held no obligation to any crown or court. It wasn’t founded by a group of people seeking a land on their own, or fleeing persecution. It wasn’t founded by any church, or bound to any religious text. There were no major wars fought over the land at it’s beginning that would’ve forced the people together. The few battles that did occur were mostly by sea and involving pirates or other marauders.
Amsterdam was founded for one reason only, to make money. Little has changed since then. The city is a prime example of what happens when a society is driven first and foremost by businessmen. Honestly, it doesn’t seem all that bad. It’s a big reason the Dutch have always been a very open and accepting people. They don’t care what color you are or where you come from. A customer is a customer and anyone with a few bucks to spend is welcome. I felt that sentiment often. The Dutch are honest people, very straightforward. They’re the type of people who act like they’ve seen it all, and in a city like that they probably have. Of course they’re also a bit odd in their own right. It’s impossible not to be in a city like Amsterdam. I also don’t worry about offending any of them by saying this since I’m sure they don’t care a bit what I think of them, or their city. Above all the Dutch are a confidant and comfortable people, they don’t care what you think of them. In fact, they’re probably rolling their eyes at the rest of us for how much we all seem to care.
They have that type of confidence you get when you know something that no one else does. I wonder if they’re the same with other locals, probably not. They’d know it too. It’s the rest of us suckers, the tourists who only drop in for a visit that will always be naive in comparison. Our tour guide was asked asked at one point how she liked growing up in a city with legal weed and other drugs. She answered the question as quickly and easily as any other. There was no hesitation or hint of awkwardness when talking about her experience with drugs to a group of strangers.
“Nobody really cares about it. In our schools nobody thinks drugs are cool. I’ve been to a coffee shop before, but it’s not really my thing. It’s mostly tourists.”
She reminded me of a cool older sister or a senior when you’re a freshman, someone who’s got it all figured out. It’s the same way all the Dutch are. Maybe the most likely explanation isn’t that they all know the secret to life, but rather they know there isn’t one and that’s okay. It’s the knowledge that nobody’s got it figured out. Everybody’s just treading water in this world, trying to keep their head above surface. It’s a hard world with a lot of bad things in it. Who cares what anybody else does to get by. If you can figure out a way to enjoy life well it lasts, well maybe that’s enough.
It’s not a philosophy known only to the Dutch. But the Dutch seem to be the only people who all know it. I both envy and admire them endlessly for it.