The next morning, a canal cruise beckoned, and our English audio guide pointed out the sights and architecture of the city as we drifted along its many man-made waterways. As we later learned in the Amsterdam Museum, this city is an architectural and engineering marvel! Were it not for strategically placed poles under buildings and carefully constructed dams, much of the city would be under water. We also learned at the Amsterdam Museum (a well-crafted, very digestible historical account of the city’s history) about the town’s legacy of leniency and its embrace of diversity. From gay marriage, to prostitution, to drugs, anything was and is permissible in Amsterdam long before it was acceptable elsewhere. The “provos” (provocateurs) of the 60s give San Francisco’s hippy counterculture a run for their money.
I had mixed feelings about visiting this area, so like any good researcher, I read some articles and arguments on both sides. I perused a report on how the legalization of prostitution was in fact a good idea because it brought mankind’s oldest “job” into the light and enabled regulation of items such as healthcare. On the other hand, I read another argument about how this industry encouraged human trafficking, particularly of women from poorer countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Feeling ambivalent, my ethnographic curiosity got the better of me, and we set out to wander the streets filled with women dancing in the windows under the red lights…except they weren’t dancing. Actually, mainly, most of them were texting. And most were dressed in what would be modest swimsuit wear on some European topless beaches. The streets at 11 pm were not lined with lewd and sinewy men, but rather with tourists, many who giggled their way through some of the oldest and most architecturally beautiful streets in town. The Red Light District, like Amsterdam itself, felt like a series of paradoxes, inconsistencies, and embraces, all bathed in the glow of magnificent row houses and historic waterways.
Other sites that we made it to included the Rijksmuseum – a very, very large art museum that featured many Van Goghs, Rembrandts, and Vermeers. I, on the other hand, preferred to escape from the Gallery of Honour to those collections hidden in the attic and basement, spending most of my time looking at fashion through the centuries and the modern and postmodern installation art. While strolling through Vondelpark (and trying not to get too much of a contact high from all of the pot smokers in the gardens), we stopped to watch a modern dance solo concert, marveling at the attentiveness of the audience and their consistent applause. Perhaps, my favorite outing, however, was to the Concertgebouw performance we attended, which featured the Dutch National Orchestra. Playing classics from the movies to the Dutch meant playing a lot of music first intended for ballets that were later featured in movies. We thought that the lead woman was going to be a singer, but instead, it turned out, that she was our Dutch narrator. Not speaking a lick of Dutch and also having the honor of actually sitting in the choral section behind the orchestra, each time the actress cracked a joke, we looked at each other and laughed aloud with the rest of the audience…even though we had no idea what the joke was about.