“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”
The first time I took the Eurostar was back in 2001, when Claire and our other various high school graduates went from London to Paris. I don’t remember much about it, other than how it went dark when we entered the Chunnel and thinking “Oh what pretty green hills and OH MY GOD AM I UNDERWATER NOW?!”
I took the Eurostar again from London to Amsterdam, via Brussels. I hadn’t been that excited for a commute since I first rode the Shinkansen in Japan back in 2006. Trains are my favorite form of transportation. Faster than cars, slower than airplanes, and all the beauty and calm lost amongst the others. If you’re American [or Australian] then Europe is especially beautiful by train, because it’s the closest you’ll ever get to stepping into an actual storybook. All those backdrop settings you read about in fairytales by Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm just come to life, even more so for me because I know all of those stories by heart. It sounds dreadfully romantic, and Australia and America are bloody gorgeous countries, but it’s just something about all that green…it looks like it would smell sweet. Anything in Australia that’s green [or red, or yellow, or blue] just looks like it will kill you…because it will.
This time, it was grey, overcast and lightly raining. The train went so fast that the raindrops slanted at a complete horizontal across the window, and aside from the occasional babbling of the self-important film producer sitting next to me, inside it was silent as winter. I’m sure it sounds cliché to talk about rolling green hills again…you would think I’d have come up with better adjectives and nouns in the past 15 years, so I’ll just say this: it’s more beautiful than I remembered.
Amsterdam feels like a song. Not a song you can stream on Spotify. Amsterdam feels like an old, scratchy song that occasionally goes to loop on a record player. That’s the first thing I thought when I stepped out of the Station, so that’s the music I listened to. Amsterdam felt like watching an old black and white movie of a city that shouldn’t exist anymore, but does…and it exists with copious amounts of weed and sex workers.
Amsterdam felt beautiful, and moody and a little at odds with the rest of the world. Amsterdam felt like Nina Simone’s blues sessions. Amsterdam felt like “Do I move you?” and “In the dark” and “My man’s gone now.” Sometimes, when the sun decided to shine and I got lost between the canals trying to relocate a bakery I had passed before without properly committing the address to memory, Amsterdam felt like “Sinnerman” – quick-paced and vibrant. Sitting in the middle of the plaza in front of the National Monument on Damstraat, eating churros smothered in Dutch chocolate, watching pigeons steal food and young lovers kiss, Amsterdam felt like “Feeling Good.”
Walking through the Red Light District at dusk, Amsterdam felt like “Blues for mama.” As it got darker, and the crowds became leerier, The Red Light District switched genres completely and felt like “Our ride to the rectory” by Team Sleep. It felt like a place that doesn’t belong to women who don’t work in the sex trade. People opened up their windows high above and shouted down to you, beckoned to you, made offers to you that were meant to be enticing but felt, to me, laced with an underlying disdain, bordering on hatred. No doubt because I was a tourist, not a customer, and they didn’t owe me an ounce of respect. One couple, half dressed, tits hanging out, threw a dildo at me from their window. It bounced at my feet and I kicked it into the canal where it bobbed pathetically down stream and disappeared between two houseboats.
The women behind the glass wore latex underwear and leopard print bikinis with pleather boots. Well, some of them did…some of them wore school-girl outfits, edible bikinis, fetish costumes…some wore animal heads. I saw a woman in lacey black lingerie and a horse’s head, galloping back and forth on a broomstick in the narrow space of her room. They were young, old, fat, skinny, black, white and every shade in-between. They danced mechanically to music I couldn’t hear and stared you right in the eye as you walked past, their faces illuminated by the red glow of the Christmas lights lining the display. If you’re a tourist, they stick their tongues out in suggestive manners and press their bodies against the glass, throwing your classist disgust right back in your face. They know exactly who the tourists are – the ones that came to silently judge them or, in my case, the one with the camera bag bouncing off of her hip. Dead giveaway.
Out of respect to the sex workers, I didn’t take photographs of them…unlike many others. They didn’t appreciate that. The title photo is from a Google search.
Sex workers are understandably kinder to the people who came to spend money. They take their hands and caress them as they enter the buildings, laughing at what they say or smiling alluringly.
After dark, the tourists are meant to scatter, but instead we loiter at pubs [some of which are quite good] and take in the full neon-list spectacle as men enter and leave the buildings, tucking their shirts back in as they disappear between narrow cobblestone streets. Because it’s summer, the sun doesn’t set until around ten, but when it does finally go dark, the entire district lights up bright red like it’s been set on fire, and we bask in its unceremonious glow.
It’s an appropriate vibe.
If I’m being honest with myself, Amsterdam felt a little bit lonely. It’s a city both modern and classic, but it’s missing something of depth. The character of the city felt skin-deep, from the people to the architecture. Sure, the Dutch are insanely tolerant, but not very accepting. They tolerated the tourists, and the fanfare, and the spectacle…but they also removed themselves entirely from it, like something foul-tasting you push to the edge of a plate until it falls off. Sure, you have Renaissance-era buildings and their distinctly chiseled facades, but they’ve also been gutted from the inside out and fitted with wifi, shopping malls and weed shops.
Speaking of, I thought the locals would be more discrete with their drug consumption. No.
No, no, no.
Everyone smokes weed in Amsterdam. Shop keepers, doctors, lawyers, primary school teachers, pilots, preachers, nuns, sex workers, engineers, cops, house wives, businesspeople and café owners. I saw a tall blonde Dutchman with a severely angular face in a tailored suit and shiny leather shoes cycling through the canals with a spliff hanging out the side of his mouth. He puffed on it casually from a street corner and winked at me as he rolled on past, nearly crashing into another cyclist, and not perturbed about it in the slightest.
He might have been heading to [or from] a board meeting for all I know…or running one.
Not soon after arriving, I realized that “Coffee shops” were not what I thought they were. On the outside was the letterhead and the signage, on the inside was lava lamps illuminating dark corners, glowing felt cannabis posters, reggae music and an entire coterie of “special” brownies, from white chocolate to dark. The people of Amsterdam are true connoisseurs of their craft. In a town so small and antique, you’ve never encountered so many different ways to get fucked up. There were pot cookies, brownies, drops, lollipops, twizzlers, chocolate drops and candy canes. I felt like I had stepped into some weird adult version of The Gingerbread Man…if stoned Dutchmen with dreadlocks had written The Gingerbread Man.
Even while riding in the taxi from the station to my AirBnB, the driver asked me why I had chosen Amsterdam as the second city in my trans-European adventure.
My response? “Culture, I suppose.”
He retorted cleverly with: “The kind of culture you can smoke, or the kind of culture you can snort?”
SIDE NOTE: The truth is, I chose Amsterdam because it has a large English speaking population, proximity to all the places I wanted to go, a rich tradition of art and a ton of money. I wanted to know if it would be easier to live and work there than in London.
The taxi driver dropped me off in North Amsterdam, where I was staying at an AirBnB run by a widow named Lia, and her sidekick, six-month old shaggy floor-mop, Dodi. I don’t know how old Lia was, but she had amassed a wealth of artistic accouterments in her home, adorning every space on her walls, her cupboards and windowsills. I saw the pictures on the website, but they didn’t do it any justice. She had Japanese sumi-ink paintings and ceramic plates of of fat, rosey-cheeked children with gold trim. Her cabinets were stacked with fine crystal plates, bowls and goblets…GOBLETS! So packed within a small space that they almost looked randomly placed when, in fact, they fit perfectly where they were. Everything fit perfectly where it was. I can’t imagine how many years it would have taken to create this multiethnic ecosystem of clever craft, but it was gorgeous. If a house has ever been an expression of its owner’s personality, this house was Lia, her life, and her love all in one place.
My room looked like a Van Gogh painting, the one of his bedroom in fact. The walls were purple and I had a single bed with a yellow pillow and comforter. The ceiling cut at an angle, like it collided directly with where an attic would begin. I had a window that opened and overlooked a green hill with flowers that were most fragrant at night.
In the mornings, Lia served exquisite breakfasts. She presented an assortment of fresh, buttery pastries, smelly Dutch [and French] cheeses, cured meats, dark crusty breads, fresh fruit, muesli, sour Greek yoghurt and boiled eggs [which she served within a woven sheep casing, to keep them warm!]. She sat with me and the other guests, sometimes it was a friendly Austrian entrepreneur named Lisa, sometimes it was a student from Princeton named…I forget his name.
We spoke about travel and love and loss. Her dearly departed was a doctor, her doctor, who fell madly in love with her while struggling to end an unhappy marriage with his first wife.
“He told the best jokes and made the funniest faces,” she told me.
Lia recalled how she would walk past his office, and he would catch her looking at him unbeknownst to his patient, and give her funny faces that made her laugh hysterically, even as she discussed them now…decades later. I loved Lia. She belonged in a storybook with her overly-rouged cheeks and her dimpled nose. She sat out on the back porch in her bathrobe, amongst her flowers, and smoked flavored tobacco from a pipe, sometimes cigarettes, looking at nothing while Dodi terrorized hairbrushes at her feet.
She moved like a time lapse, or an image that kept fading, flickering in and out of focus on a projector screen. I asked her if she ever felt lonely, because I did and couldn’t explain it completely. She seemed genuinely surprised at my question. “I’ve been loved enough,” she replied.
That seemed perfectly fair.
While I normally try and abide by the whole “When in Rome…” philosophy, I simply had no desire to try pot. Besides, all the seedy un-showered men beckoning to me from the doorways of their shops felt like a violent encounter waiting to happen. That’s the thing about travelling on your own as a woman…every recreational activity is an exercise in calculated risk.
If I go to this club on my own, what are the odds that I’ll be battling off men and their hands all night?
If I smoke this pot, what are the chances that it’s laced with something else and I’ll end up reciting songs by the Grateful Dead in a chicken coup in Eindhoven by the end of the night?
If I accept this drink from this stranger, what are the odds that I’ll end up face down in a puddle behind a dumpster, nude and raped?
Because as any woman who has travelled by herself knows, any man who tries to talk to you, can’t be immediately trusted. That’s why I tend to approach them myself, if I want to. This way, I catch them off guard and take control of the situation.
On the flip side, meeting people while abroad can be a wonderful thing, because it heightens the experience of travel like good food and good music. Sure, it all plays into this “fantasy,” but it can also unlock a part of yourself that’s more open when removed from the every day pressures of work and responsibility. I find that I’m more myself with people while abroad than I am when I’m home. I’m not stressing about deadlines or balancing social politics. I’ve shed that skin completely. It’s when I come back and become re-immersed in the banality of a life I don’t want that I become a true stranger to myself.
That’s the deception – that when we’re travelling, we’re “in a fantasy,” and when we’re home we’re “normal.” I would argue it’s the other way around except, depending on the condition of your life, it can feel like more of a nightmare than a fantasy.
Somewhere between my first and third day in Amsterdam, between Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum, I decided to go back to London after Berlin. My freelance jobs had been pushed back, and another extended, freeing up my time to re-examine the feasibility of living in London and work from a place more pleasant than cold, dark Melbourne…plus, I have to be perfectly honest, I missed Greverley. I missed them a lot. I missed talking to Beverley about food and Greta’s lateral thinking. I missed Beverley’s funny foreign accents and Greta’s memorable one-liners. I missed watching them bicker, and watching the bickering devolve to bantering. They are two of the wittiest, smartest, funniest and entertaining people I’ve ever met, and they love each other ridiculous much. Being around two people who love each other as much as Beverley and Greta love each other makes me feel…bandaged. As in, healed. I don’t think they knew the full extend of it, but I felt pretty broken by the time I boarded the plane from Sydney to London. I was happy, I was thrilled, I was excited…but I was also an emotional pulp of my former self…all nervy and on-edge, balancing anxiety attacks with feelings of complete hopelessness. A miserable work life will do that to you.
I texted them my idea and they responded enthusiastically, so I changed my flight. There was no need for me to end the trip any sooner than I had to.
Meanwhile, outside of Jennifer’s head…
I really wanted to get away from the tourists. They didn’t venture out any further than two streets away from the station, which had the highest concentration of drugs and crap food…well, crap food if you’re not stoned, I guess. Every corner had a pizzeria, but the thick, doughy, smothered-in-unnaturally-orange-cheese pizza that shone like plastic beneath the heat lamps. There were kebab shops run by bored shop owners who smoked blunts outside in their dirty aprons and pomme frites stands, which lined up tourists by the dozens, serving freshly cut potatoes smothered in thick mayonnaise from a paper cone.
I searched far and wide for a restaurant with a menu articulated by words instead of neon images. I stumbled upon a chique, dimly-lit nook called Stout. It was run by smartly dressed twenty-somethings with sharp faces and the customers were fashionable and attractive. I sat at a table for one, next to an American man and [I assume?] a Dutch woman, eavesdropping shamelessly in on their conversation where he attempted to articulate his dismay at having received a paltry 20,000 Euro bonus the year before. I realized then that Amsterdam was probably a very expensive city in which to live.
I ordered chicken poissin with chorizo galette, spinach and an apple reduction. Heaven. My waiter was young, with a blonde goatee [what is it with the Dutch and their goatees??] and flirted with me between taking drink orders from surrounding tables. He was very young, and I recognize an afro fetish when I see one. I told him I would pass.
Over the coming days, I explored further. I wandered into a suburban café where I befriended the owner who looked like Sebastian Koch. He wore his hair slicked back and had delicate spectacles which hung round his neck by a gold chain, and he had a pocket watch tucked neatly into his vest pocket. When I sat down with my maps of Amsterdam, he parked himself in the chair opposite of me and struck up a conversation. He asked me what took me so far away from the tourist strip of the city, and I told him that I wanted authentic Dutch food. He fed me veal crochettes with mustard dip, rye bread, and a small crisp salad. For dessert, he suggested poffertjes, tiny Dutch pancakes covered in powdered sugar and salty butter, which I had with hot chocolate so thick it ran down my throat like syrup.
It’s at this point that I should reveal that I had another show in Amsterdam, a burlesque comedy show. I was MCing a bracket in-between sex performers and saucy strip-teasers. I was told that I would have to dress the part, which I anticipated would come in the form of a vintage corset with French-lace stockings and ruffled underpants. So, in-between discovering new and interesting ways to fatten myself up, I burned calories among the cultural delights of Mueseumsplein, inhabited by the world famous Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. My years of studying art history came back to me in waves, and I marveled at all the Dutch masters who painted pictures of saints and demons like liquid porcelain on the canvas. These paintings, though centuries old, have a life about them that is missing from contemporary realism. I have no idea what it is, whether the vibrancy of the paints used or the technique of the time, but you will never see anything anywhere else like it. It’s better than the Renaissance. It’s better than the Baroque period. It’s an art form since gone entirely extinct…and it’s been mummified in the weed capital of the world.
This is me photographing myself in an antique mirror within the Rijksmuseum.
I wandered the halls of the museums while listening to Nina Simone. Her piano-work on Sinnerman, coupled with seeing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch for the first time, was nothing short of sensory overload.
And I prayed between verses that I had been active enough to still look attractive for my cabaret performance.
I knew pretty quickly that Amsterdam would be a good city to visit, maybe less so to live. It was charming, but small, far too small. A lot of Western European countries flourished after the war, finding their own way to relate to the rest of the world. Germany owned manufacturing. The UK became a finance beacon and a military superpower. Scandinavia took on energy, education and gender equality [show off]. The Netherlands…have weed [and a rich heritage of design, but you know…meh].
Aside from that, Amsterdam is a city that seems ambivalent to growth, maybe even a bit resentful of the concept. It’s a place that’s perfectly happy to exist, but not to triumph. The Dutch are liberal, but also extremely rigid. There is a strict point of separation between the Dutch and the tourists, where none ventures to assimilate with the other. Even within the Dutch community, there’s a strict border drawn between the ethnic Dutch and the Dutchmen and women of colour. It was all very bizarre.
While many people were friendly and intrigued, I received more than a few glances of disapproval through sharp, beady eyes and muttered words beneath breath, and it was mostly when I ventured to the local spots. Speaking of, if you put German, Swedish and English into a blender, along with a shot of espresso and a drop of LSD, you would have Dutch. It is the most incomprehensible language I have ever heard; with words so long and consonant-laden you would think it should only exist within the pages of a novel about hobbits.
Still, the city is undeniably gorgeous. It belongs in a snow globe. I would love to go back at Christmas, and sit again in the plaza in front of the National Monument to re-observe the city, its fowl and its lovers, covered in snow. Even with the smell of weed drifting through the air, it feels like stepping back in time.
I hate the smell of weed. I’m not against it as a substance. I was thrilled when Colorado passed the use of recreational marijuana in the states. But, to me, weed smells like dirty gym socks that have been fermenting at the bottom of the laundry basket all summer.
It was the worst when I rode my bicycle through the Red Light District, where I met with the Madame running the comedy burlesque night for a costume fitting. Unfortunately, I got my dates confused and showed up to the venue one day early. She, “Lissett,” didn’t mind, and offered me a ticket to watch that evening’s live sex cabaret instead at Casa Rosso, which I accepted.
[SIDE NOTE- “Lissett” asked me what I do for a living and I told her I was a writer. She asked me if I would write about her and I said I would. She asked me to change her name, so I have].
Normally, tickets would have cost around 40 Euro [Approx. $80 AUD] so I couldn’t really refuse even if I wanted to. I wanted a Dutch experience, and I was being handed one free of charge. Casa Rosso is a large venue, it’s clean inside and gets packed after dark. I sat close to the front, but was warned against using my camera, so I tucked it beneath my seat. The show was as you’d expect – S&M, latex, bondage, whips, feathers and very high heels. There was dance, music and song. The main part of the act was an intensely choreographed sex performance between a man and a woman, where they wielded their bodies like weapons at times, and finely tuned instruments at others. They used sex toys for penetration and performed orally on one another in a way that was more comical than erotic…but you did get the distinct impression that they really enjoyed what they were doing.
To call it ‘voyeuristic’ would be an understatement. I found it utterly fascinating, entertaining and fun…but by the end, I was completely turned off from the idea of sex. What I enjoyed was how having a sex industry like this probably reduces the taboos around sex exponentially, and facilitates a better conversation on sexuality, desire and the human body…which I appreciated most of all. The performers looked like ordinary people. They weren’t surgically enhanced. They weren’t smothered in fake tan. The men were slightly round, and slightly skinny, but still very attractive. They had dark hair on their chests and grey hair on their heads, great butts and large, erect penises. The women were beautiful, and looked like they ate sandwiches sometimes. They had cute bellies and small, pointy breasts, and large hips with dimpled butts and large breasts that sagged a bit with wide nipples covered in sparkly pasties like disco balls. It was a celebration of the human body as it actually is, not as portrayed by the silicon injected roid-ragers flexing at The Arnold Classic.
Everyone enjoyed themselves, the dancers included, and afterwards I joined them for a drink. They asked me what I thought about the performance and I managed to stumble my way through a semi-literate response, which I imagine they found quite amusing. The truth is, I was raised in a strict, conservative, Christian household where my parents tried like hell to convince me that sex before marriage would turn me into an undesirable trollip. So if I appeared shocked, it was only because I can’t believe how far I’ve come [or should I say ‘strayed’?] from that thought process. How are the mighty fallen?…or is it, how are the mighty arisen?
We left the venue and sat along the canal where they smoked pot and drank Belgian beer that smelled like wine. I had a glass of Chardonnay. It was getting late and I was exhausted, so I left them to migrate. I learned very quickly that The Red Light District is not the best place to be after dark if you’re a woman alone. Men, over-stimulated and chemically enhanced become even more brazen than usual and treat any woman passing by like property, no longer interested in who’s working for it and who isn’t. They grab and grope, make vile comments and crude gesticulations. Their faces, tinged with red neon glow, turn already garish looks of desire into something particularly nefarious. I got lost and I was tipsy, but managed to find my way to a bakery where I bought some poffertjes to soak up the booze. I become completely disoriented at night, and without Wifi, self-direction becomes even more hazardous. Eventually, I wandered back into the city square and found the tram heading back to the station, but because my card was empty, I just followed the tracks back by foot, rubbing my hands together to warm them up. Amsterdam isn’t that big. It didn’t take that long.
The next night was my performance night, 1 June. I had miraculously retained some shape, despite all my previous attempts to masticate myself into a diabetic coma. I went from shop to shop looking for a corset. I was going for something between sexy vixen and brutal dominatrix…but the only corsets I could find left me looking like a damn cupcake. Pink, periwinkle, lemon yellow…they looked like corsets picked out by a pedophile. I had left my search too late, and the clock was ticking. The kind of corset I wanted required a fitting further head of time, and cost a lot more than I had hoped to spend. So, I branched out, and went with two lacey jumpsuits – one red, one black, one long, one short. I borrowed a pair of large, black platform pumps [from one of the transgender performers, none of the women had feet as big as me] and teased my afro out as large as it would go.
The crowd was English speaking, drunk and rowdy. I knew they wouldn’t respond to my clever jokes about race and gender…but they would respond to jokes about the differences between Donald Trump and a massive dildo…
Who wouldn’t respond to that?
I’ve never performed in such skimpy attire before, but it was a bit…liberating. It’s all about what you believe, isn’t it? If you walk onto a stage in a red, lace jumpsuit nestled firmly up your ass, and look like you believe in yourself, then the audience will love you. If you walk onto the stage in a red, lace jumpsuit nestled firmly up your ass and look like you’re about to piss yourself stupid, the audience will eat you alive. It just so happens, I’m very comfortable in a red, lace jumpsuit nestled firmly up my ass telling jokes about Donald Trump and dildos. Who knew?
One of the acts that went up was a couple with a t-shirt cannon, but instead of t-shirts, they fired dildos. DILDOS. What is it with this city and rubber penises?? The crowd laughed and dove for them as they came flying out, holding them up in triumph like Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans. It was all well and good until I got hit right in the eye with a big pink one, so hard they had to temporarily stop the show.
So when I got back on stage, I knew I had to liven the crowd back up. Naturally, I said “What’s the matter? You look like someone just got hit with a giant dick in the face?”
That was the best audience response I’ve ever received…
[SIDE NOTE – Later, Robin Hood (oh yeah, he’s still around) referred to it as “Winged Willies and the Angels of Amsterdam” which I quite liked, and told him I wanted as a title. He demanded 60 per cent].
Afterwards, the performers and I gathered on stage for a bow and we got a standing ovation. Lissett bought everyone shots of tequila, which I declined, and we sat around talking about burlesque, comedy, art and sex. It was truly one of the most European conversations I’ve ever had.
“What’s the secret to great sex?” I asked one of the S&M performers, ‘Cosette.’
“Do it with someone you hate,” she said.
Damn…that’s some real talk right there.
At the end of the night, people took home lovers with whom they had not initially come. Their eyes were liquid with desire, and they settled on who was ready, willing and able. I was none of those things, so we hugged and kissed goodbye.
I changed into my jeans and t-shirt and made my way back to Lia’s house. I had the time of my life in Amsterdam, but it was clear to me that opportunities were few unless I wanted to work in financial services or sex work. Neither appealed. The town was sleepy, but lively, small, but vibrant and very multicultural for its size. Still, I felt like a life there would be overshadowed with boredom once I had exhausted the museums. Four nights was long enough.
I was happy to be leaving the next morning for Berlin.