Beyond cheese, tulips, wooden shoes, and windmills, Amsterdam is also known for it’s tolerant policies with regards to prostitution and soft drugs. The Dutch have taken a unique approach to fight hard drugs and human trafficking. I learned all about this on the various tours of the city I took. My traveling companions and I took a walking tour of the city, a canal tour of the city, and yet another walking tour just specifically in the Red Light District. We examined the city from every angle possible and learned a great deal about this beautiful place.
Our first day in Amsterdam we joined the free walking tour run by New Europe. If you ever find yourself in a major European city, look for these tours. They are free, well run, and highly entertaining. Anyway, we met at Dam Square around 11 am to start the tour. Our guide was energetic and humorous as well as educational. We began the tour in the Red Light district. Before actually entering this neighborhood our tour guide advised us to keep our cameras in our bags. Apparently the working ladies in the windows do not appreciate photos and have a laundry list of responses to even seeing a camera out. If you are lucky the woman will step out of her window, grab your camera and toss it into the canal. Some women will throw high heeled shoes, sex toys, or possibly even urine at you. Not really wanting to smell like urine or have anything that resembles the male anatomy thrown at me, I kept my camera tucked away for this portion of the tour. We wandered through the streets past the windows with scantily clad ladies standing in them. I just kept thinking, “Normally at 11:30 am I’m thinking of a second cup of coffee. The thought to hire a prostitute rarely enters my mind at this hour.” The red light district looks like any other part of town, only with the addition of ladies in the windows. This part of town is clean and has beautiful canals that run through it. We even find ourselves at a beautiful church right smack dab in the center of the Red Light District. I guess back in the day, the sailors needed to be forgiven for their sins too. We get some information about how the Red Light District works, but I’ll elaborate later.
The tour continued into the Jewish Quarter. It looks remarkably new compared to the rest of town. Our guide tells us about WWII and how this part of town became abandoned after Jewish families fled or the Nazis detained the people living here and sent them to concentration camps. It became a literal ghost town. The winter of 1945 was one of the coldest in Holland and reparations from the war had not yet started in this country. The Jewish Quarter remained largely abandoned so many people used wood from the floors, furniture, ceilings in these buildings to keep their homes warm. This part of town was not rebuilt until the late 1960’s in which it was supposed to look very modern. Now it just looks like something built in the 1960’s. We did learn many interesting facts pertaining to the Netherlands tolerance for all religions and therefore it had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. This conversation lead into the not only the country’s religious tolerance but also their tolerance of many other issues.
At this point our tour guide began to comment on the legal status of soft drugs (i.e. marijuana and other natural substances). The sale and consumption of Marijuana is actually illegal but not punishable in the Netherlands. Which seems silly to even write. Basically, the government allows licensed coffee shops to sell 5 grams or less of marijuana to customers so long as they don’t advertise, serve alcohol, serve minors, and don’t sell hard drugs. The government then taxes these businesses so they are actually making some money off of people smokin’ doobies. So strange. Our guide informs us of the reputable coffee shops that will sell you “good product” and warns us to stay away from anyone selling anything on the street. I’ll have to say this is definitely the first tour I’ve ever been on where pot recommendations are given verbally as well as marked on our free maps. Only in Amsterdam.
The tour continues throughout the city and ends at Anne Frank’s house. We tip our guide and decide to go wait in line to go inside the museum. It’s actually very well done. There are a few short videos with Anne’s father speaking and some of Mr. Frank’s employees. As we wander through the house it is quite a sobering experience. None of the rooms are furnished any longer, but you can begin to picture the two families living in this small space. It seems unimaginable that they could see out the windows but were never allowed to go outside. If you find yourself in Amsterdam the Anne Frank Museum is quite worth it. On a side note, I’ve never seen a more interesting gift shop. They basically only one item, Anne Frank’s Diary. I’ve never seen so many copies written in so many different languages.
The next day we venture off to the Van Gogh museum in the morning. I’ve never considered myself to really appreciate modern art, but this museum was fascinating. The man painted in so many different styles. It was amazing to see how his techniques progressed. The museum also does a good job of telling a story about his life as you view his work. Although, it’s kind of depressing when the last sentence you read after viewing all of these masterpieces is, “And then he shot himself in the chest.” Way to go Debbie Downer. . . I was just starting to appreciate art.
After Van Gogh we decided to see the city by boat and bought tickets for a canal tour. It was interesting because all of the facts that were given about the city were stated in four languages. First in Dutch, then German, then French, finally English. I was a bit jealous that my French Canadian friend could here the tidbit of information moments before me. We learned that as the city grew more canals were built along with the expansion of the city limits. We also learned there is a housing shortage in this city so many people live on house boats in these canals. Some of these boats were quite fancy with little floating patios out front. Others looked like the boat had been dredged up from the bottom of the canal and forced to float again. I can almost picture these boats struggling to stay afloat.
The next night we took a guided tour of the Red Light District. Once again, our cameras were filed away so to avoid any trouble with the working gals. So before the tour begins we get a little lesson how this business works. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands but streetwalking is illegal. So ladies must pay to rent a room or work out of a brothel. Pimping and trafficking is illegal and these laws are strictly enforced. Work permits are not issued to be a ‘working lady’ so all of the women in the windows are EU citizens. Health care is provided and once again, the government does tax these services. (Is it sad that prostitutes in Amsterdam have healthcare but I might not come February???) Anyway, ladies rent a window with room attached for an 8 hour shift for about 100 – 150 Euros. The steep prices for window rentals is supposedly to keep drug addicts from getting into prostitution. Women who have the money to rent the room are thought to be more likely to be clean since they can manage their finances. From there ladies sit in the windows and try to entice potential clients. They get to call prices and who goes into the room. They can say no to whomever they want. There are panic buttons for the girls by the door and by the bed. When a panic button is pushed, more than likely other girls come to the rescue even before the police. Our tour guide tells us he’s seen men who’ve broken rules and have been severely beaten by the prostitutes. . . he bets they wished the police had arrived first. Ok ok ok – it’s strange that it’s legal. Especially when we are walking around. We walk past window after window with girls in their underwear. I find myself smiling politely with each window we pass as if to say “I’m not judging, I’m not judging.”
Our guide also tells us about a conservative group trying to shut down the Red Light District. They are buying windows and placing mannequins in the display with something called “red light fashion”. Apparently the group has bought so many windows up that there once were 700-some odd rooms to rent and now there are only a little over 235 left. We are told that the buildings that are bought are only used to place mannequins, much like the Macy’s store windows at Christmas. Remember that there has been a housing shortage in Amsterdam, so this seems like a huge waste of space. We are told all of these facts about the conservative group aiming to shut down the district and go against Amsterdam’s historically tolerant approach. I find myself secretly hating this group. It’s as if I’m watching some sort of Disney movie and I’m routing against the Cruella DeVille’s of the world. And then I think to myself . . . am I pro-prostitution? I’m not sure. There isn’t a clear line in my head. In someways this system seems safer for the women who are involved. If it was illegal prostitution would still exist. . . and most likely without the protections and rules in place here. I am torn. It almost seems sad when our tour guide says that the Red Light District wouldn’t exist in 5 years time at this rate. I’m not planning to advocate prostitution as a possible career choice to the young girls of the EU, but for some reason I’ve decided this system is ok. Maybe you just have to go take the tour for yourself.
Finally we head to explore a few pubs in this city. Nothing was exceptionally extraordinary by my standards, but we did find one place that I just loved. It was called De Zotte and was a cute little bar serving over 100 Dutch and Belgian beers. This bar was off the beaten path, away from the loud tourists of the Red Light District and Leidseplein. The beers were great and cheap and the people there were friendly. Being in this cool little spot made me think of alot of my friends and family who would have loved this place just as much as me. I pictured us sitting in there for a few hours, trying different beers, and talking. If you find yourself in Amsterdam, yes check out the ladies in the windows, yes visit a coffee shop to see with your own eyes people who are comfortably smoking pot above ground -in public – and not in their parent’s basement, walk along as many canals as possible, but seriously visit this pub. I think it was my favorite part.