Amsterdam: Sex, drugs, and… tolerance

Warning: this post contains graphic information about the sex industry in Amsterdam. I apologize to those who may find it uncomfortable or offensive, but I felt that learning about it was important to understanding the culture. Read at your own risk.

I got marvelous sleep last night, and today was vastly improved from all the others in Amsterdam. I should have tried that sooner. I went to bed just after 9:00 last night and slept late (9:30) because the walking tour didn’t start until 11:15. Not a single one of my 5 roommates woke me up when they came into the room. Well done, guys!

At the hostel breakfast, I sat down across a guy eating alone and struck up a conversation. As it turns out, Michael is an American studying abroad in Paris. He’ll only be there for one day of my Paris trip, but he offered to show Carson and I around if we want. His friend Nick soon joined us, and we had a nice chat about our Amsterdam experiences so far.

They were both leaving this afternoon, and hadn’t really planned everything for the day yet. I told them about the free walking tour I was going on, and it was pretty much the perfect timeframe for them. We decided to go together and met back in the lobby at 10:45.

I’ve gotten much better at navigating Amsterdam public transit and we made it to the meeting point at the National Monument with no trouble at all. There, our 3 hour walking tour commenced. As someone who loves tours, this one was great. I knew it would be great the moment we met our guide. Our guide is a thin, pale, redheaded Irish man named Mark McSomething with that attractive Irish accent.

The sun was shining, too, and it was a bit warmer than yesterday. Apparently Amsterdam is usually all rain. Much like England, the local freak out when the sun is shining. Everyone immediately floods outdoors.

As you can imagine a three hour tour would be, ours was very informative and entertaining. We started off with a quick run through the Red Light District. This was a little surreal. Call me naive, but until yesterday, I hadn’t associated Amsterdam with the sex industry. All I’d heard about was the weed.

The first thing we passed was the Condomerie. Now, the tour didn’t stop, but I made a mental note and came back on my own. It’s bizarre and hilarious. It’s full of hand painted condoms, shaped and painted like everything from Dutch Windmills to international monuments, assorted animals to every single character of the Simpsons. Of course, as I overheard one shopkeeper say to a couple looking at the display, “You can put it on and have a laugh, but they really aren’t for protection.”

Now, I come from a conservative catholic community where sex is rarely talked about, and from a conservative country were sex work is never seen and seldom heard of. So, I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised by the Red Light District in Amsteram. At 11:15 in the morning on a Sunday, almost all of the street-level windows were occupied by women in lingerie.

I guess what I was surprised about was the openness of it. You didn’t go to like… a club, or into a dark alleyway. It was just all along normal, every day streets. There was a kindergarten literaly between two sets of windows.

I was also surprised at how beautiful all of the women were. My only real image of prostitutes before know was Charlise Theron in Monster. Maybe it’s easy to be beautiful when you’re only wearing lingerie and people are too embarrassed to be caught looking closely unless they’re looking for sex.

It was all under the shadow of a large Catholic Church. Now, as I learned, a session with a sex worker usually lasts about 15 minutes. These days, they time it with a musical playlist. However, they used to use the church bells, which chimed every 15 minutes.

The church was also useful to the sailors that frequented the area. Holland has always been the home of sailors. The country had the first international business, the Dutch West India Trading Company, which was also the first company to sell shares. Basically the birthplace of capitalism as we know it. But, as I was saying, lots of sailors. They would go visit a prositute, then go to the church to confess their sins and buy indulgences. About 25% of sailors died at sea, so they didn’t want to go off on a journey after committing such an offense and risk going to hell.

There was a small problem with this system. Occasionally, sailors would be on a very tight schedule when they visited Amsterdam. They would arrive at, say, 5:00 PM and leave at midnight. Well, the church wasn’t open at midnight, but the sailors didn’t want to risk their immortal soul… And the church didn’t want to lose their money. So, the church began to issue pre-indulgences. Sailors would go in and say, “forgive me father for I am about to sin,” the priest would ask what he intended to do, and then pre-forgive him. It got so bad that there was even a price list made up, so the sailors could find out what they could afford to atone for before they confessed… and then went out and that’s what they did.

I had already decided that I was taking the separate Red Light District tour that evening, so I wasn’t too sad when we moved on after about 20 minutes. I knew I’d be back.

We saw the old Jewish quarter. It is entirely modern now and very strange. The last winter before the war ended was one of the coldest on record. The canals of Amsterdam froze, and there was no way to get food or firewood into the city. By that time, the Allied forces were in mainland Europe. Information about extermination camps had spread, and the Amsterdam people realized that their neighbors were not ever coming back. The houses were disassembled bit-by-bit, even the poles used for the foundation. When the poles are removed, the rest of the structure collapses. When the Canadians liberated Holland, they thought that street had been individually bombed.

They gave the reconstruction project to the students of architecture in the city, and the result is… What you’d expect. The locals call is “legoland on acid.”

The rest of the tour covered things such as the front-tilting houses, the National Monument and the Royal Palace, the “coffeeshops”, a free sample of Dutch cheese, the widest bridge in Amsterdam, the narrowest house in Amsterdam, the various canals, the Dutch passion for ice skating, some Catholic Churches, the Anne Frank house, and the general attitude of tolerance of the Dutch.

The latter part was more or less the theme of the tour. According to Mark, the Dutch basically have three criteria for things they’re willing to overlook:
1. Is it discreet?
2. Is it hurting anyone?
3. Is it good for business?

This attitude historically can be seen in the case of Jews, Catholics, weed, prostitution, health care, trade, and many other instances that now escape me. But let me run through some of the more interesting points:

After the Reformation, Catholicism was banned in the Netherlands. However, they didn’t want to kick out all of the Catholics. They had money and it would be bad for business. (The same can be said for Jews during other times of prosecution that they suffered throughout history, up til WWII). So, to be discreet, they built discreet churches. There’s a nice little museum I would have liked to visit called “Our Lord in the Attic,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a Catholic Church in the attic of a house that can hold 200 people and has the second largest organ in the country. On Sunday mornings this was not discreet, but everyone looked the other way.

Marijuana is also technically illegal. Today, right now. At this moment. Buying, selling, smoking, and consuming marijuana is illegal in Amsterdam. I know, I was just as shocked. But the last arrest was made 35 years ago. They decided to look the other way, because 40 years ago, thirty percent of the population was addicted to heroin. The cops couldn’t focus on that problem if they were dealing with harmless stoners on a park bench. Today, the heroin problem is down to less than five percent.. So that’s good. Also, less Dutch people per capita smoke weed than most other countries in the world. They have succeeded in making marijuana boring. Well done, Holland.

If you were raised by an accountant like I was, this whole things raises a few questions. Especially considering as business minded as the Dutch tend to be, how could they miss out on taxing this multi-billion dollar industry? The entire city of Amsterdam stinks of it. Well, dad, you will be happy to know that they do pay taxes. There are basically three catagories of income tax, the last one being literally translated to “other sources.” So, that’s what coffee shops pay.

I also learned where I could go to get coffee. I am an avid coffee drinker. When in new cities, I like to relax in a coffee shop in the middle of a busy day to recharge and people-watch. Here, however, I’d been too afraid I would accidentally go to the wrong place and accidentally somehow order pot. I’m just not interested! I was happy to learn that you can tell which places sell weed because they name will start with a “c”–coffee shop. The Dutch word for coffee is koffee. Places that sell real coffee will spell their name with a “k,” and a cafe will always have coffee and beer.

At the end of the tour, my friends had to leave to catch their flights or busses. I started talking to three other young American girls. Two were named Elizabeth, and I don’t remember the third. We all tagged along with the tourguide to a place that sold traditional Dutch food, where we ate lunch.

The nice thing about eating with people is that you get a chance to try more things. We ordered three different dishes and shared them all. The cheese pancake was amazing. We also had this dish I can’t remember the name of with a meat ball and mashed potatoes that I loved. The last thing was beef croquettes, which they seemed to like much more than I did… But it was all really delicious. I was glad to have the chance to try Dutch food. Apparently the reason I hadn’t been able to find any before is because it’s not generally served all year round. It’s too heavy, so now it’s usually just eaten in the winter.

The girls headed off to see more of the Jewish quarter. I hung around with mark and met some of the other tour guides. There was a really nice guy from New Jersey who studies music, and he seemed pretty interested in KC. It was a nice way to spend some time before the next tour I was taking, since there wasn’t really enough time to make it to a museum before it closed, it felt like a good day. Again, the weather was gorgeous.

When everyone dispersed, I headed back towards Dam Square and the red light district. I decided to walk around a little more on my own. It seemed like it would be a different experience than in a big group. It was still just really surreal. You’d see men leaving the windows and think, “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID!” To me, they were just as interesting as the women in the windows.

I had a Dutch ice cream, then realized I should eat dinner before the two-hour tour that started at 7:00. I was near Chinatown, so that’s where I headed. I charmed the young man at the restaurant into giving me tap water (yes, that’s the real reason today was such a good day!) and my whole dinner was under €6. Now that’s a victory.

I was a little disoriented when I left, and was panicking that I wouldn’t find my way back to Dam square in time for the tour. Fortunately, sorting out all the different language groups and payment methods held them up for a few extra minutes and I caught them with plenty of time.

People on this tour were generally friendlier. I started talking to a girl from northern Ontario named Rochelle, who was traveling solo for the first time. There was another woman from Kansas City (actually OP, Kansas) on the tour traveling by herself named Jana, and a friendly kiwi to boot. The tourguide was named Mattie. She was really sweet, but I felt a little like I got more information from Mark that morning about sex work in Amsterdam than I did from her.

We did learn more about exactly what we would do if we wanted to engage the services of a sex worker. When you see a girl you like, you knock on the window. She opens the door and you negotiate the price, length of time, and specific services. The usual business is a “suck and *uck,” 15 minutes, €50.

They are freelancers. They rent the windows from the building owners, usually paying between €75 and €150 for an 8-12 hour lease. Since the official legalization of prostitution in 2000, there are no more pimps or brothels (mostly, although there are probably still a few problems.) They’re allowed to reject any customers: they just pull the curtain closed and lock the door. If anything dangerous starts to happen, there’s a button in each boudoir that activates a very loud alarm. The first responders are the neighboring sex workers, followed quickly by the red light district security, and then by the police. Don’t mess with these girls.

If you try to take a picture (and this I learned from Mark on the earlier tour) they will come out and chase you down the street. Apparently they can run real fast in those stilettos. They will break your camera and/or throw it in the canal. Most windows don’t have bathrooms, so if they haven’t already used it on some drunk jerks being disrespectful, they’ll throw it on you. No photos.

Now along this tour we learned about the different areas of the district. We walked through “tranny alley,” saw the “elite” section where the most in-demand girls were, saw the best places to buy porn, to buy vibrators, and of course saw the famous Condomerie. We also learned a little about the general history and evolution of sex work in Astersam, where to go for sex shows and peep shows, and her own experiences when she went to all these places (alone, because none of her friends would go with her) for research to do this tour.

I sincerely considered going to a sex show tonight. I decided against it pretty quickly, though. As much as I’m all for getting the cultural experience and going outside of my comfort zone, there are some things you can’t unsee. Maybe when I’m older… Although I don’t forsee myself coming back here any time soon.

That concludes my trip to Amsterdam. The rest of the people in the tour went to some bar that gives out a free shot to tour groups, but the Rochelle and I headed back to our hostels because we both wanted to have early morning. It’s her only full day in Amsterdam, and I have a flight to catch.

She complained about how far out of the way her hostel was and I told her how conveniently near the train station mine was, with trains running between it and Centraal Station every few minutes. Funnily enough, I saw her in the lobby about half an hour later. We’re staying in the same place, she just took the bus.

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5 thoughts on “Amsterdam: Sex, drugs, and… tolerance

  1. Interesting.

    Did I ever tell you about my trip to needle park in Zurich? (Speaking of things that can’t be unseen). The Dutch made the right choice.

    • It is tulip season, so there were gorgeous flower beds all around the city. Unfortunately, by the time I realized that there were bus tours out to the tulip fields, I didn’t have enough time left. That would have been a sight to see!

  2. Hilarious!!! I just want to bring to your attention why your hostel in Amsterdam is different from your hostel in Scotland….In Amsterdam your room mates are stoned, in Scotland they are drunk… Much milder crowd!!! LOL!!! So proud of you for braving the Red Light District!!! Such a great blog post!!! xoxo

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