Red Letter Day in the Red Light District

(Don’t read too much into the title, I just can’t resist some good word play)

Having tired of all the pesky planning and the obstructive language barriers that comes with international travel, we decided to visit Amsterdam with a tour group. We crossed over to the continent via ferry. I was delighted to see the famous White Cliffs of Dover next to the English harbor. Interestingly, to cross the Channel to France, we were never asked to get off the bus or show our passports to anyone (crossing back to England was a very different situation). After a rather queasy trip on the ferry, and several more hours driving across France, Belgium, and finally the Netherlands, we finally arrived in Amsterdam. Since we were with a tour group, we were able to take a break from hostels and stay in a real hotel, specifically the Westcord Art Hotel. We were told to request roommates, as each room holds two twin beds. To our surprise upon entering the room, we found two twin beds… pushed together into one large bed, but each with its only sheets and blankets. Our shower was also only hidden by half a sheet of glass (offering little to no coverage from the rest of the bathroom). My friend Kristin and I laughed about the new steps our friendship would be forced through this trip.

At 7:00, our coach bus took us into the center of the city. After devouring pizza, we set off in search of the infamous Red Light District, which we found all too quickly. For any innocent who does not know, the Red Light District is the hub of legal prostitution in the Netherlands. I was rather interested in locating the Blue Light District (basically the Red Light District but with men), but no such luck. I was curious for purely academic reasons, of course. They take the red lights  very seriously, as all the brothels were marked by neon red lights and scantily clad women in the windows. It was rather awkward and difficult walking as I tried desperately not to make eye contact with anyone. There was also the constant smell of that wacky weed, marijuana, in the air. “Coffeehouses” could be found absolutely everywhere, although these windows were too obscured by smoke to see inside. Our tour guide had advised us that when looking for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate to make sure we were in a cafe, not a coffeehouse. Despite the rampant houses of ill repute,  I was surprised that I never felt unsafe in Amsterdam. You would think that with a bunch of drugged-up tourists running around, multiple strange, unsettling things would be happening on the streets. But I never felt frightened or pressured, which was a pleasant surprise in such a liberal city.

The next morning, after a delightful continental breakfast (including the first pancakes I had in months, although the syrup was glorified sugar water), we were whisked off in our coach bus to Edam and Volendam, villages on the outskirts of Amsterdam. In Edam, which is famous for its cheese, we were blown away by the pungent odor of cheese in numerous shops. Thankfully, it tasted rather better than it smelled. In Volendam, there were many tourists shops, including one where I got to try on wooden clogs (I’d prefer Crocs for comfort wear). We returned back to the city a little after midday, at which point we made our way straight to the Anne Frank house. The Annex where the Franks and several other Jews hid from the Nazis for several years during the occupation of Holland. I read the Diary of Anne Frank when I was in middle school, so I had plenty of context for the visit. The house itself was exceedingly narrow. At that time in history, Dutch families were charged taxes based on the width of their homes, so many people built up, not out. The entrance to the Annex was separated from the main house by a bookcase serving as a door. The original bookcase still stands, guarding the secret hiding place. When Otto Frank first donated the house as a museum, he made a request: that the interior remain unfurnished. It makes sense from a practical view point, but I wonder if Mr. Frank’s request came from a more emotional place.

Immediately, I was struck by how small and cramped the Annex was. I cannot imagine living in such a tiny space with nine other people for two and a half years. Written on the walls were quotes from Anne’s diary, as well as photos recreating what each room would have looked like while the families were living there. There was also a room containing Anne’s original diaries. It was surreal to see that famous red and white checkered cover in person. It is so heart-breaking that a young girl who was so similar to how I was at that age never got to live her life, and never got to see that she did fulfill her ambition: becoming an author and influencing millions of people.

After leaving the Anne Frank house, we walked to an outdoor flea market where I purchased a stroopwafel. Stroopwafel is a Dutch cookie, rather similar to a warm, cinnamon-flavored Italian pizelle. I was enchanted. After, we hopped on a boat tour of the canals of Amsterdam. The boat driver informed us that although Amsterdam is referred to as the Venice of the North, it should be the other way around as Amsterdam’s canal system is far larger than Venice’s. That night, we ate dinner at an Italian restaurant once again, as we were all craving pasta. We ran into an issue, however, an issue which is also the subject of my latest international rant: tap water!

We have run into issues with ordering water in the past. In Germany, when we ordered tap water at the schnitzel restaurant, we were given sparkling water. Personally, I do not care for sparkling water. The bubbles make a usually effortless experience rather stressful, especially as I had to pay two euros for water I didn’t even drink. In Italy, when we asked for water, we were given Pellegrino: similar problem. In Wales, we were given tepid tap water without ice, as the British are apparently allergic to cold beverages. Now, in Amsterdam, when we asked for specifically tap water, the waiter simply answered “No.” So, broke college students that we are, we went without a beverage for our meal. The pasta bolognese was delicious, however, so I did not miss it. We spent the next few hours wandering the city before calling it a night, buying a few bottles of wine, and retiring to the hotel for movies (we watched 3:10 to Yuma and The Parent Trap… we are an eclectic bunch).

The next morning, we set out early for the last stop on our trip: Bruges, Belgium. Bruges is known as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe because many of its medieval buildings still survive to this day. As an eye witness, I can verify that Bruges does not disappoint. It felt like we had stepped into the mini Christmas village like the one my grammy and grampy Ravita set up on their window seat every year. There was even a skating rink set up in the main square. We ate shawarma for lunch (perhaps not the most authentic Belgian lunch, but we are on a budget and it was delicious) and Belgian waffles for dessert (slightly more authentic). We spent the remainder of our time hopping between chocolate shops. In one particular shop, I had the most incandescently delicious Bailey’s Irish Creme truffle. It tasted like white chocolate and caramel and heaven. We were called back to the bus all too soon to complete our trip home.

Although Amsterdam is mainly known for prostitution and marijuana, I found that the city is so much more than that. Its legalization of practices other places outlaw is not a sign of its depravity; it is a sign of its toleration and faith. That is what Amsterdam is all about. It accepts  people of all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and religions with open arms and without judgment. There was a monument erected beside one of the major canals dedicated to all homosexuals who have suffered persecution for who they are. It is fashioned out of pink marble and carved into a triangle in reflection of the pink triangle Hitler forced homosexuals to wear during his reign of terror. I thought it was a lovely commemoration of a people who have suffered so much for their right to love whom they love. Despite what judgment others pass on any group of people, Amsterdam seems to be a city that would accept anyone as one of its own. That is what I will take away from this trip, not memories of nights in a coffeehouse. Tolerance is Amsterdam’s true distinction.


Comments are closed.