Dutch Treat, Part 5
Matinee Walk in Amsterdam’s Red Light District
Today’s weather forecast looks promising for a walk through the neighborhood that has hosted the world’s oldest profession for 600 years.
|Lewis by iguana sculptures in tulip bed|
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We hope that guidebook author Rick Steves is more on the mark with his recommended walking tour of Amsterdam’s Red Light District than we found him to be about Delft during our daytrip there yesterday. He calls the area Betty and I plan to see today “the home of the most touristed hookers in Europe, with something to offend everyone. Whether it’s in-your-face images of graphic sex, exploited immigrant women, whips-and-chains, passed-out drug addicts, wafting pot smoke and urine smells, or just the shameless commercialism of it all, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”
We found Steves to be right on target with that summation of the Red Light District, as he nearly always is. The only lapse in his most worthwhile 2004 guidebook to Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels that we discovered was some out-of-date praise for the tourist information center in Delft, which the Dutch government had closed in a country-wide belt tightening.
Based on Steves’ commentary as well as other material, we decided to take in the matinee performance of the Red Light District. Nights, we were advised, can get pretty hairy what with pickpockets, drunk or drugged out tourists and locals. The compact neighborhood is in an ancient part of the city and within a short walk of the train station and other centers of tourist activity.
It seems that the Red Light District is on the “must see” list of a great many tourists. We found it to be both interesting and disgusting. I was amused a couple of weeks ago when a Sunday school classmate related as to how he and friends had somehow missed the district during a short visit to the city in between a long connection to an international flight at Schipol Airport. He allowed as how upon his return home, his father had asked him which way they had turned from the main drag, Damrack. When the son replied, “to the right,” his well-traveled Memphis physician dad said, “Oh no, it’s to the left.”
We rode the tram to the celebrated and vast Dam Square about noon, then walked to Amsterdam’s oldest canal, called Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Betty carried her cameras in a bag after being warned that beefy bouncers will sometimes rip film out of them if photos are taken of their “clients.” We also took precautions with our wallets and money. Being so early in the business day, we had no problems and encountered only handfuls of tourists who evidently were as curious and cautious as we were.
The Red Light District encompasses only a few square blocks. Oddly, expensive housing where upscale, young professionals live and supposedly co-exist peacefully with fellow citizens employed in the sex trade surrounds buildings housing commercial sex activities. The district contains dozens of shops selling sex paraphernalia and/or offering dirty movie arcades. There were several, tough-looking young men hanging out in front of one shop.
We didn’t notice any policemen. We read that there are small cameras everywhere. The cameras are monitored at a non-descript police station tucked out of sight. At the slightest sign of a disturbance or an alarm by the “neighborhood watch” crowd, the cops come a running. Like in New Orleans’ French Quarter, tourists are the lifeblood of the Red Light District and it is in everybody’s interest to keep them safe from harm and in the mood to spend freely.
Surrounding the “Old Church,” or Oude Kirk, are several squatty “window” buildings where priests and other church officials once lived and worked. Now, these buildings house small rooms where two thousand or more licensed prostitutes ply their trade. The rooms rent for 75 Euros per day for use during the day and 150 Euros for use at night. Each has a large picture window with curtains or blinds that are closed when a “customer” is being entertained.
It being so early in the business day and the fact that we just walked through a small part of the district, we saw only a half a dozen prostitutes standing behind their windows. Several were big enough to be pulling guards for the Chicago Bears. We saw one white woman, one black woman and four women who appeared to be of Indonesian descent. All wore very little. None were attractive, possibly because this was the day shift “B” team at work. A neighbor who visited the district several weeks later told us she saw some knockouts behind the windows late at night.
There was a man who looked to be about 35 who walked perhaps 30 feet in front of us and appeared to be interested in what the fast crowd calls a hookup. The prostitutes pointedly ignored us but flashed, gestured and smiled to the young man as he approached their windows. We don’t know the outcome. We read the going rate is 25-to-50 Euros for 20 minutes of service. Evidently patrons are required to use condoms. We were told by a cab driver than before the neighborhood's plumbing was hooked to a new, closed sewer system installed in the 1960s, toilets were flushed into a a nearby canal. The canal was so clogged with used condoms that the fire department had to pump water from long hoses immersed in a more distant canal to keep from clogging the machinery.
We didn’t make the stop, but only a few steps away is a store front called Prostitution Information Center, where the curious can ask questions and buy souvenir tee-shirts. Can you imagine wearing such apparel?
The free visitor guidebooks given out at Amsterdam hotels include several pages of classified ads for various escort services that provide chauffeur delivery of young women. Some promise sex with females aged 18-to-25; others offer various nationalities, SM mistresses and boys. The thick, city phone book includes large, display ads for some of the city’s brothels. Several offer weekend getaway cruises with young beauties on yachts, which I surmise attract oil-rich Arabs.
The tolerant Dutch prize their liberties, including the right to rent out their bodies for what they see as just another form of victim-less capitalism. Many of the prostitutes of Amsterdam are supposedly desperate, young women from Eastern Europe who quickly develop an addiction to the high lifestyle their earnings can buy.
Right in the middle of the “windows” section is the Princess Juliana School, which was established in the 1970s with the noble notion of blending very young children (newborns to age 4) from different strata of society, including the offspring of both prostitutes and yuppies who live nearby. Who knows, maybe it works.
The Red Light District is home to quite a few “Coffee
Outdoors table at Bulldog Cafe
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We were shocked when we walked by two heavy equipment operators smoking joints on the sidewalk while taking a break. When not smoking pot, the beefy men worked a crane used to dig out the path of a subway tunnel under construction beneath one of the city’s main streets. Evidently the Dutch think no more of smoking a joint than Parisians think of sipping a glass of wine with lunch, or Germans think of quaffing a beer with a pretzel. Back home, construction workers in their 20s and 30s have a group reputation for being notorious users of marijuana. Few projects would get built in American cities if aggressive drug screening procedures were followed.
As for me, I have never even experimented with pot although I have contemporaries who came of age in the 1960s who have tried it and, unlike Clinton, “inhaled.” My vice of choice is London Dry Gin.
The Dutch believe their experiment of allowing small amounts of cannabis to be used by adults in controlled situations works better that outright prohibition. As Steves writes, “a society either has to allow alternative lifestyles or build more prisons.” His guidebook makes the point that more than 700,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana use in one recent year. The Netherlands does not tolerate cocaine or heroin and supposedly has far fewer hard drug problems than does the U.S.
The stalls of the Flower Market adjacent to our hotel sell nicely packaged “Starter Kits” of Dutch cannabis seeds for 3 Euros. Each kit contains seeds, growing medium, a small container (pot to hold the pot) and instructions. Adult residents are allowed to possess three growing plants per person, not to exceed five per household. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, ”Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”
We did not visit the “Cannabis College,” a free attraction that promotes the positive industrial, medicinal and recreational uses of the drug. A pal back home, state Senator Steve Cohen, has introduced a bill in the Tennessee Legislature that would restore a now-expired law to allow cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to smoke marijuana. There are 10 states that allow such usage now, but a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the right of the federal government to supercede the states puts the whole issue in a cloud.
We also passed on “The Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum” and
any number of live sex shows advertised with gaudy posters in the Red Light
Lewis in Lotus Flower Buddhist Temple
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cultures into a tiny area.
Nearby is a well-visited attraction that proved to be our favorite spot of the day, the “Our Lord in the Attic” Roman Catholic Church.
Like Marijuana until the 1970s, for two centuries Catholicism was illegal in Amsterdam beginning in 1575 after the Protestant Reformation. The Dutch government seized the Catholic churches and other property. But in time, the practical Dutch quietly tolerated Catholics and their religion as long as the rites and rituals were kept out of sight.
Catholics who wanted to worship had to do so in private. In 1663, a wealthy Dutch merchant – Jan Hartman – built a secret Catholic church on the top floors of three town homes he owned alongside a canal in the middle of the city. The door to the church is in an alley. The church is about the width of four bowling alleys and seats 200 on three levels. An ingenious mechanism provides a “pop-out” pulpit, which closes up inside the altar.
We paid 7 Euros each for the self-guided tour, which was worth it. The sanctuary area is decorated like most Catholic churches of the era in Western Europe, with large paintings of Biblical scenes hanging on the walls and life-size, religious statues on display here and there.
Remarkably, the church is still in use. Masses are
Lewis in Our Lord In Attic Catholic Church
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Feeling somewhat cleansed of the sordid surroundings of the Red Light District by our tour of the church, we took a leisurely walk of about 1.5 miles back to our hotel. We walked along Damrack Street, the wide boulevard that bustles with restaurants, shops and thousands of pedestrians. Once back on the familiar ground of the Flower Market, or Bloemenmarkt, I had my only encounter with a rude Dutchman. He evidently is the owner of a liquor store a few steps from our hotel and doesn’t like Americans. I wish I hadn’t bought small bottle of Dutch gin, partly because of his hostility and partly because it tasted unpleasantly odd.
That evening, we had an excellent meal (best of the trip) in the brasserie of the Hotel de L'Europa, a five-star landmark that is owned by the Heineken family. The massive, stone structure is 200 yards or so from our hotel, and fronts a busy canal (of course). I had halibut served on a delicious pile of stir-fried carrots and bechem. Betty had some great beef cooked in a port wine sauce with mushrooms. We also had some wonderful lentil soup, one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted. Service was friendly and expert.