I was very excited about having my first visitor in Holland. Since I had only been in the country for a short while myself I had not had much of a chance to do a lot of the more touristy things yet. Showing someone else around seemed like a great opportunity to do so. It was also great because the visitor was Neil, my best friend from College who was also very excited about visiting Holland.
Museums, art galleries, canal trips; There were so many cultural things that we could experience. Neil even suggested that we see a show which I thought was a brilliant idea. However, when I suggested that I knew where we could get our hands on a couple of discount tickets for a wonderful Dutch production of The Sound of Music… he seemed slightly disappointed. Neil had something else in mind.
And so one summer evening, after only three months of living in Holland, I found myself standing in front of a box office window asking a man who was wearing more fake gold then seemed advisable for two tickets to a show where the main cast had a much more ‘limited’ wardrobe.
As we entered the slightly seedy looking auditorium and took our seats on the edge of the centre aisle I continued to wonder how I had let myself be talked into this situation. Apparently it’s one of those things you, “have to do when visiting/living in Amsterdam.”
The first act we witnessed involved a young lady inviting various audience members up on to the stage to eat a banana. This in itself might sound quite innocent. In fact, it probably sounds very considerate of the young lady to take a personal interest in the audience’s daily vitamin A intake. Sort of like when they used to have milk breaks in British primary schools to insure that the children grew up with healthy bones. It was an invaluable service.
However, I had to question the way in which she chose to feed said banana to her group of male volunteers. It was very questionable from a nutritionist point of view. For starters she was lacking in any clothes and was ‘holding’ the banana in such a way that I believe any qualified gynaecologist would highlight as ‘medically ill advised’ despite any healthy properties the food item claimed to have. Most of the volunteer men on stage didn’t seem to mind though. I took it upon myself to feel embarrassed for them and sank deeper into my seat.
This was followed by several other acts I will never be able to remove from my brain no matter how hard I try and after a while it was time for the young ‘nutritionist’ to do her act once again.
She’d obviously not had much luck locating her clothes yet because she was still naked as she stepped off the stage, started to walk down the centre aisle and began her search for a new group of volunteers. It was just as I was starting to wonder which poor souls would be embarrassed on stage this time that she suddenly locked eyes with me. Oh no! Then she was not only looking at me but she was walking towards me too… and smiling. Oh no! Oh no! I tried to sink even lower into my seat hoping that I would suddenly become hidden from view but it didn’t work. She was still coming towards me. I started to panic. I didn’t want to go on stage and I didn’t think she would accept, “No thank you. I just ate,” as a good excuse. As if in slow motion I saw her hand reaching out towards mine (in a way that did not seem to give me much room for choice) as she stepped closer and closer.
I had no idea what to do. I was gripped with fear. I was nervous about talking to girls at the best of time. What the hell was I supposed to do when a naked one approached me with a suggestive fruit? My only hope was that Neil knew what to do. He always knew what to do in these kind of situations. Anyway, he got me into this bloody mess. It was really up to him to get me out of it. He should be the one being dragged up on stage. Not me.
A quick look at Neil told me he didn’t have a clue what to do either. The same look of fear was looking back at me as I looked into his eyes. More and more people were starting to look at us. Then suddenly, through our shared fear, it became clear what Neil and I had to do. There was only one thing we could do really. We ran like hell!
Unfortunately we couldn’t simply run out via the central aisle. That route of escape was already blocked to us by the naked woman holding the banana who was now standing right next to us. No. We were forced to run in the opposite direction, through the audience. We tripped and stumbled our way passed the other people sitting in our row as we scrambled over them with wild determination for escape. I can’t remember at what point we stopped running but I’m sure we were outside and across several canals before we did.
I don’t care how bloody important fruit is as part of a balanced diet.
“Excuse me. Do you know where the red light district is?”
It was the kind of question I had gotten used to being asked in Amsterdam a lot. Usually it was asked by tourists with a look of cheeky excitement in their eyes who didn’t care if people will judge them. However, it had taken this gentlemen five minutes of silently standing at the same tram stop and several glances in my direction before he had cautiously made one last final check that the coast was clear, shuffled over the few steps towards me and quietly asked his question. It was as if he was worried that the police or his mother might be listening in.
We were quite far from the red light district, almost on the other side of town to be exact (Leidseplein). For a moment I wondered if he had been walking around Amsterdam for several hours, trying to build up the confidence to ask someone for directions. I informed him of the best way to get to the red light district and he thanked me. Our brief conversation had seemed to reach it’s natural conclusion so I continued to wait for my tram.
There was a short pause. “Do you know how much it costs?”
This was a new one. No one had ever asked me for a price comparison before. I don’t know why I let myself be dawn in to the conversation but rather than simply saying ‘no’ I started to make guesses and hypothesise that it probably varied depending on what services were being requested and how much the girl looked like Scarlett Johansson.
He nodded as if he was about to start taking notes. There was another short pause as he looked from side to side again. Then he asked a question I was really not expecting. “Do you know how it all works?”
Did I know how it all worked? I thought the question about the price had been strange but this was a whole new level. I didn’t know how to respond at first. Either this fellow thought I seemed like the kind of chap who paid regular visits to the red light district and was deeply familiar with the correct etiquette and protocol of such matters. Or he thought I was a pimp. It was probably my own fault for trying to guess prices and making myself seem like an expert in his eyes.
I also wondered just how much detail he wanted this information in. Was he simply asking about how the business transaction and exchanging of money worked or was he actually asking how ‘it’ worked? Did I have to explain about the birds and the bees? The physical mechanics? The ins and outs (as it were)? This was suddenly turning into the kind of conversation I was not expecting to have until I had children of my own. Should I try to explain to this gentlemen that sometimes when a man and woman exchange a lot of money they have a special kind of hug?
I decided that the best course of action was to not make any more guesses and told him that I had never been to the red light district myself. This had the effect of making it sound like we were discussing summer vacation destinations.
He seemed very disappointed by this, looked at his feet and then suddenly seemed to realize just how strange the conversation had been. He looked at me again and nervously shuffled away as if he was afraid that I would re-tell the conversation to his mother. I wonder if he ever found the red light district.
The following takes place between 11:30pm and 11:35pm on a street in Amsterdam near central station. As I attempted to unlock my bike I was approached by a tourist with a strange smile on his face who seemed to want directions and a bit of a chat. English politeness and the inability to get the lock on my bike open forced me to take at least some part in the bizarre conversation that followed.
(Suddenly approaching with a grin)
“Excuse me can I ask you a question?”Me:
(Realizing I can’t easily get away as I fiddle with my bike lock)
“How do I get to the red light district from here?”
(Grinning some more)Me:
“Um… it’s in that direction, past the tourist boats, through the streets until you see lots of red. You can’t miss it.”
(Pointing in the general direction of the Red Light District)Tourist:
“Thanks… Hey, can I ask you another question?”
(Somehow making his grin even bigger)Me:
(Starting to wonder where the line of questioning is going to lead)
“Are you British? Scottish? Australian?”Me:
(Cutting him off before he can list all the English speaking countries he knows)
“Yes… er… I mean British”Tourist:
(Shouting in a cheer and suddenly put’s his hand up for a high five)Me:
(Deeply confused but returning his high five and guessing that he is British too or just really likes British people)Tourist:
“I just split up with my girlfriend so I’m going to… you know…”
(Pointing in the direction previously indicated and smiling)Me:
“Oh. Ok then. I hope you meet someone nice.”
(Quickly leaving before the conversation gets any stranger)
If anyone ever told you that they started their weekend by going down to Amsterdam’s red light district you might get a very strange impression of how they spend their Friday nights. There is a natural association that comes with a statement like that. So if I told you that last Friday night I was walking through the famous sex industry area myself with a case of beer under one arm you might think this is about to turn into the kind of bizarre story you don’t want your children to read. However you would be wrong.
I was in fact on my way to a normal house warming party that just happened to be in the red light district. One of my friends had recently moved to an apartment that over looked the area and had decided to throw a large party.
The location was an interesting conversation point and the apartment’s large floor to ceiling windows gave great amusement as party members took it in turns to strike sexy poses in view of passers by on the street below. Those who noticed gave us strange looks that were either puzzlement due to the weird sight that greeted them or a curiosity about how much we cost per hour.
The house was also just across the road from one of the red light districts famous live sex shows where tourists can watch two people on stage getting very friendly with each other. Any awkward silence at the party was suddenly interrupted by a loud announcement of, “live shagging,” as the doorman outside tried to tempt another group of passing English tourists inside. Anyone who did not realize the voice was coming from the open window might have received the wrong impression of the party and got worried or started searching rooms excitedly when they heard the voice suddenly announce, “girl on girl action.”
It was a fun party but as the night went on the worst thing that can happen at a party eventually transpired. The alcohol supply started to run low. People were visibly worried (and drunk). The party was in danger of coming to a slow dieing end. Drastic action had to be taken so a friend and I took it upon ourselves to bravely stumble into the outside world and search the red light district for more alcohol based supplies. It was not an easy task but eventually after much hunting we found a place that would sell us what we required. We returned to the party victorious and triumphant. Everyone was happy. Everyone was inebriated. We had saved the party. We were heroes.
At least we were for the short moment it took everyone else to realize what we had not. We had just bought non-alcoholic beer.
I’ve already written about one of Hollands well know vices, the drug culture. There is of course another vice which the country is very well known for. Something that brings a particular kind of tourist to certain shady areas of the country to indulge themselves in special ways. Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m going to talk about windmills.
Alright. I’m not really going to talk about windmills. I’m going to talk about the sex industry in Holland. Holland has a very open view towards sex and prostitution is legal and regulated in most cases. If you want to see just how open the dutch view towards sex is (or you are on a stag night) you will find no better example then the Red Light District in Amsterdam. It is a network of alleyways containing hundreds of tiny one-room apartments where prostitutes wearing just underwear or bikinis offer their services from behind glass doors. Its also a place where you can find live sex shows, peep shows, sex museums and shops that sell the kind of toys you wont find in London’s Hamleys. Amsterdam has the most well known Red Light District but a lot of towns have there own versions as well. Its also not unusual to pass a sex shop in the main street of some towns.
If you come from a more reserved country the red light district is the kind of place you have to see to believe. In someways it is a tourist sight seeing attraction and that is why a lot of tourist go there for a game of Eye-Spy-Ho. Even my parents want to have a look around when ever they visit (at least that’s what my dad tells my mum). I’ve seen other families walking around there too to see if all the stories they have heard are true. However it is still a sex industry area and has its seedy side. You will often see men lined up out side prostitutes doors waiting for their turn and illegal stuff does still happen.
I had a look around a few days after I first arrived in the country (and I’ve only ever looked). It was a time when I still looked very much like an out of place tourist so as I walked down one of the alleyways all I heard behind me was doors opening and calls of…
“Hello English boy.”
“Over here Ginger boy.”
“Hi red head.”
…I just kept on walking.
When my friends come to visit from England they also want to do a bit of window shopping (even the girls) because like everyone else they can not believe it until they see it with their own two eyes. This is how I ended up going to see one of the live sex shows. This might sound very seedy and in someways it was but in others it was quite an eye opener. I don’t mean that I finally found out the true story of where babies come from that night. I mean I was surprised to find out the place was more high tec then some normal theaters I have worked for in the past. They even had a revolving stage and a lighting set up which would make most bands envious. Not all the clientele were brown rain coat wearing men either. Again there were a lot of tourists and couples who just wanted to see the show for the novelty/curiosity factor.
As for the performance itself? Yes, there really where two people on stage having sex and sometimes just a woman alone with more of those toys that are not stocked by Hamleys. Some of the performers looked very bored as if they were following a script which they had done a thousand times before (which is probably just what it is like for them).
Part of the show was interactive as well. There was the woman who fed a banana to a member of the audience but she was not holding it with her hands or even her feet. There was a scary moment when she almost picked me and a friend out of the audience but we sank very low into our seats at that point.
If you are ever in Amsterdam the Red Light District is one of those places you have to see just so you can say you have seen it. However, don’t take any photos unless you want a very angry prostitute trying to take your camera away (cameras are banned in the area).