I have one distinct memory from my many visits to the odd city that is Amsterdam.
I had spent the better part of the last week spending my days and nights purging out small amounts of food that I had managed to stuff in my mouth. I was on my daily walk from my bed. I was so sick that I hadn’t the energy to emerge from my dingy stinky hostel for the past week. But fortunately I had the fortitude to go outside for one attempted meal a day knowing that I may die otherwise.
The daily walk involved me going to one of the expensive American burger joints a few metres from my hostel in the red light district. I’d eat the highest calorie deepest fried piece of shit I could find, throw away the half of it I couldn’t stomach, then head for the canals.
It is hard to recall what I believed the red light distract of Amsterdam to have been like before I visited. Perhaps I imagined a seedy part of town, with dim lights dramatising the fringes of society. A place that felt a little edgy. Maybe even dangerous.
In fact, the only scum that frequent Amsterdam’s famed district are drunk western backpackers in search for a cheap suck and fuck. Although the majority of people are just curious onlookers. On the edges there are burger and pizza joints, souvenir shops selling bland drug and sex related trinkets. Coffee shops blaring shitty music and selling joints for five euro each. The variety on the menu at such establishments full of entendre and innuendo.
Many of the women knocking on their windows and smiling are simply stunning. Most are sitting on chairs in their underwear, tapping away on their phones. A sign and the times and the place. I always felt a little sorry for the men that would scurry on inside behind those glass doors. It is one thing to pay for sex, it is another to solicit it from someone who finds it so inevitable that they are on Facebook while negotiating the price.
But on this particular night I was lucky. The snow was falling and the streets were near empty. It is cold and I was shaking uncontrollably. Women enclosed in glass cages were knocking away to get my attention on what was clearly a quiet night. I arrived at small bridge and leaned on the hand rail. Dozens of swans were swimming in the canal. The snow covered edges of the water diffused the red glow coming from the windows on the bank. It would be the only time I could describe my surroundings in that area as beautiful. But it was breathtakingly so.
A fun park for sex and drugs. That is how I would describe that place on a regular night. It may be one of the only places in the world where it is socially acceptable to do a pile of drugs, pay for sex and engage in a whole load of debauchery. But it is important for people to remember that. This area is just a fun park for sex and drugs. Nothing more.
That is what is kind sad about Amsterdam. The place is beautiful. Rings upon rings of canals surround the city centre. Buildings are crammed together in a way that appears totally unique. The place has so much history and art that you won’t have time to experience it all. But this is what it is renowned for.
Red light districts are always peculiar places. I distinctly remember walking past groups of men scoring and shooting up metres away from cops on Elbestraße in Frankfurt and living Barbie dolls groping men in public on Reeperbahn in Hamburg. In Paris juveniles run riot while every kind of shifty activity goes on around.
Yet Amsterdam’s red light district, perhaps the most famed in the world, is rather vanilla. Visitors are cleverly herded off in to the area where they spend all their money before leaving. Good for people watching shameless tourists and taking in the weirdness. And not much else.