Until last week, I’d never been to Amsterdam, but I’d heard about it. More bicycles per capita than any city in the world. Lots of tulips and windmills. The Red Light District. Legal marijuana.
I was intrigued, so I decided to add the city to my European itinerary.
I took a red-eye flight from Portland and landed in Amsterdam at 7 a.m. I took a tram downtown, and got off at the stop that was supposedly near my hotel. The little streets and alleys tangled together and I got a little lost — which would’ve been fine except for the fact that I was lugging a heavy wheeled duffel bag that has all my clothes for the next 4 months.
I eventually found the hotel, checked in, dropped my bag in the room, locked my passport in the safe, and walked ten minutes to the center of town.
It was truly beautiful. Amsterdam has as many canals as Venice — who knew?
I walked through cheese shops, where they had gouda cheeses as big as a car tire. They also offered cheese samples flavored with ingredients like truffle oil, pesto, and red pepper.
I only had about 36 hours to see the city, so I signed up for a pass that let me have unlimited rides on a boat that wove through all the canals, and unlimited rides on a bus that drove around the city.
I rode on the boat as it meandered through the canals, and I got to see all the main sites and hear more about the history of the city.
Then it started to rain, so I hopped on the bus and saw more sites.
When I’d taken the full boat and bus tour, I got off and stood on the street corner, wondering what to do next.
One of the things Amsterdam is famous for is legalized prostitution in the Red Light District. I decided I wanted to see it.
I’m really good at reading people, and I wanted to go to the RLD because I wanted to look into the eyes of the women who sell their bodies to see if they were dead inside, or if working in the (legalized) sex trade made them feel more powerful.
The Red Light District is a few blocks away from the main square. There aren’t any big signs pointing the way, so I used my smart phone’s GPS to find it. True to its name, there were store fronts with red neon signs, and smaller doors with red lights on their porches.
Women sat on chairs in the store fronts, separated by sheer curtains. Based on their fishnet-covered legs, I could tell that the women were different races, ages, and body types.
I walked for two blocks, glancing at the legs in the windows, trying to find the courage to look the women in the eye.
I reminded myself that I was only there to check on these women. To see if legalizing prostitution gave them more dignity — or less. To see if they were experiencing shame, or if legalizing their work diminished their shame.
Just look them in the eyes, I told myself. And then you’ll have your answer.
But two blocks later, I turned onto a side street and started walking back to the main square. I didn’t make eye contact with a single woman. I didn’t look into their souls to see if they were dead or alive. I didn’t find out if legalizing their trade made them feel more or less shame.
Because legal or not, the bottom line is that no little girl grows up dreaming about being a prostitute. No woman wants to be used as an object. No one’s dignity is enhanced by a tryst or a one night stand.
So I walked away from the Red Light District whispering a prayer for the ladies in the windows.
I walked away without looking into their eyes to see how they were really feeling.
Because I didn’t want to know.