“Finally, a familiar face!” Catherine exclaims, “I was so stressed today that I actually went into a church and lit a candle!”
I am the opposite of stressed at the moment. I have been passing my day drifting through the streets of Amsterdam, getting lost in cheese stores and watching the locals breeze past me on their bikes with shopping bags or small children in their little seats on the backs. After I tire myself out from my aimless wandering, I take the tram to Leidensplein square where I lie down on my jacket and people-watch.
I cannot understand anything that the people are saying as they are speaking in Dutch. There’s a tall young man who is throwing a tennis ball as his black Labrador darts across the green to retrieve the ball. Another young couple is nearby and their toddler, who is waddling along, falling down every few steps, stumbles over to the dog and picks up the tennis ball. For a second, I’m afraid that the dog is going to bite the toddler’s hand off to get the ball, then I remember what good instincts these animals have and I watch as the Lab assumes a completely different demeanor and gently, slowly extracts the ball from the child’s hands with its mouth.
The wobbling toddler chucks the ball toward me and totters after the dog as he bounds toward the light green ball. Gripping the ball in his clutches again, the dog wags his tail furiously, which gets his whole body swiveling back and forth. The kid squeals and claps her hands together in a motion which requires her entire chubby arms in order for her hands to meet in the middle of her body. The show they’re putting on for me is so charming that I decide to snap a few pictures of the dog and the kid together until the tall guy comes jogging over.
The dog’s owner, who is actually pretty cute with his dark brown hair and sparkling eyes, kind of just smiles as me, and I think that he must not speak English, but I say hi anyway.
“You are tourist?” he goes.
“Yup, I’m a tourist alright,” I say, “I’m from the States. I work in France, just visiting the Netherlands for the weekend, actually. This is a lovely country” I say, although I’m not sure how much he understands.
“Amsterdam is beautiful,” he says, “You should go to the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum,” are his parting words before collecting the tennis ball and tossing it away for his black dog to chase.
Whatever your troubles are, be it classes, your job, the future, Amsterdam is the place to go to escape and to gain a bit of perspective.
“We weren’t sure if we were allowed to smoke a joint outside in public, so we asked a cop. He says to us, ‘Yeah, go right ahead.’ There’s nothing to be paranoid about here.” says one of the boys.
Now Catherine and I are sitting at the hotel bar on our last night, and within five minutes of taking a seat, some touristy-looking American guys have started chatting us up. Sometimes I’ve wondered how people can tell that I hail from the Land across the Pond just from a half-minute conversation, but watching these boys, I realize the distinction is pretty obvious. Even disregarding the clear difference in accent, they lack the aloof demeanor that I would normally observe in a group of European men. They’re just friendly, well-meaning boys who want to talk to some cute girl tourists. I wouldn’t even call them men even though they’re probably in their mid-twenties.
The boys are telling us how they’ve been traveling together in Europe for three weeks and tonight is their last night. My friend Catherine and I have just met in Amsterdam for the weekend while we’re both staying in Europe.
“We’re tired, we’re just chilling here tonight,” Catherine and I keep saying as these boys are ordering more rounds of beers. Don’t get the idea that we aren’t the type of girls who like to go out and have fun. We’ve had a pretty busy day. Of course we had to check out all the cute, little vintage-y boutiques. They have all different Dutch brands here! No way could we have missed out on such a unique shopping opportunity.
But it is our last night.
Who knows when we’ll be back here again?
When in Amsterdam, we say as we’re taking shots out of an “I heart Amsterdam” shot glass that Catherine bought in one of those tacky, made-in-China tourist boutiques. We’re gearing ourselves up to hit the town.
We arrive at Amsterdam Centraal station and we’re walking out into a black sky ripe with silky stars and the raw sense of uncharted territories. It’s a different side of Amsterdam than the city we’ve explored during the daylight hours, and this side of the coin is even more alive with youthful possibility. The first thing we need to do is drink some more, so we find the nearest bar.
One of the boys, Ryan, orders a round and halfway deep into our beers, someone gets the idea that we should walk through the Red Light District. Because it’s part of the Amsterdam experience. I walked past part of it the other day and it was no big deal. It just seemed ridiculous, laughable even, some of these women dressed like Victoria’s Secret runway models when their figures are nowhere near that caliber. But apparently this isn’t the most sought after part of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, according to Ryan.
“So there are better ones somewhere else?” I say.
“I wouldn’t say ‘better,’” he goes, “experiences are all subjective.”
“But there’s a more ‘high-end’ area?” I clarify, “Like the Chanel of the Red Light District.”
“Oh, you could definitely say its more high end,” he tells me.
We’ve started off in the thrift stores and H&Ms, we slowly progressing through the Nordstroms and Saks until we stumble into the Chanels and Louis Vuittons. Now its weird. These women are intimidating as they intensely glare towards their male admirers. They peer out seductively from under their shades of heavily made-up eyelids, trying to solicit the men in a mating song without words. They do look like Victoria’s Secret models.
I don’t know what to do and I slowly start to notice that Catherine and I are the only other females in the horde of admirers spotting the sides of the canals. It’s like when you go into one of those outrageously expensive boutiques: you look at all the clothes and pretend to consider them as the sales person keeps the façade of offering to help. But she knows that you aren’t going to buy anything.
“How much do you think they charge?” I muse, glancing at Ryan.
“My buddy asked one of them and he said it was 200 euros for a ‘full service’.” He responds. Yeah, I think, your “buddy” did the asking.
“That’s it!?” I say in disbelief, “That’s so cheap.” This certainly wasn’t the high end I had in mind.
“Depends on your perspective. It’s cheap for someone like you,” he shrugs, “But this is their profession.”
Now we all stop and watch as a man who is walking by the windows pauses and starts talking to one of the girls. She has blonde straight hair and large, pretty eyes and her “uniform” is baby blue. She looks like a Malibu beach Barbie doll. If you removed her from Amsterdam’s Red light district she could have been the high school cheerleader type or one of those sorority girls galavanting around in her greek-lettered sweatshirt.
“What do you think’s gonna happen? Is she gonna convince him to go in?” Ryan, says to me as everyone else’s eyes are still glued to the exchange taking place.
Convince him? She’s standing in front of the street wearing lingerie. She has to sweet talk her clientele too?
The man’s back is to us so I can’t read his expression, but Barbie doesn’t break her character as she gently murmurs something into his ear. She smiles politely, professionally, bobbing her head in a mellow rhythmic nods. He’s just another customer. She may as well have been a customer service representative dealing with peoples’ demands and complaints all day. She could have been selling him a pair of socks.
“I think so,” I answer, “She seems professional, and she’s cute. She’s like a ‘girl-next-door’”
My words hang in the crisp air, as everyone catches what I have said. They start to cackle hysterically.
“What?” I say. Watching this woman interact with another person somehow gives her a human appeal. It’s hard to explain. It’s like when you go to a play and the actors all come out after the show or when you see a celebrity buying toothpaste at the drugstore. She’s no longer just a prop displayed in the window whose purpose is to allure gawking tourists and to “service” them.
We gaze back across the black canal. The client slowly shrinks away from the orange glow of the windows, back into the throng of anonymous faces brushing past. Another client will be along soon enough so it doesn’t matter. The girl turns and saunters back through the door, climbs onto the platform and arranges herself in her window once again. Illuminated by the glow of fluorescent lights, she turns to her audience on the street, poised to make eye contact with someone else. Any ability to sympathize with her has melted away now and she’s a faceless piece again, a little prop in the show that gets performed over and over again each night.