Turn on the Red Light
As a college student studying abroad in Europe, it is all but a requirement to travel to one of the most famous cities in Europe, Amsterdam. In early October, I began scouring the internet for good deals. Unfortunately, Amsterdam is not the easiest or cheapest place to get to, so we had to settle for 110 pound round trip on KLM, a Dutch airline, because none of our trusted budget airlines had flights. As much as Will and I have enjoyed traveling alone together, we hoped to try and get a bigger group to go with us on this trip, so, with the magic of e-mail/Facebook, we were able to get together a group of six of us: Me, Will, our Canadian friend Dylan, and three other fellow Butler students, Jenna, Kristi and Kellin.
We had booked our tickets well in advance, and eagerly awaited this “end of the year trip” in late November. It came as quite a surprise to all of us when the day we were set to travel rolled around, time having simply flown by. So after a an antsy anatomy class before heading off, we all met up for the bus to Glasgow International Airport.
We made it through security without a hitch and made our way to the gate, to find that aside from a few janitorial workers, not another soul was in the terminal.
- Empty Terminal…
Granted we were there a little early, it was still slightly odd… We didn’t mind too much and chatted about what we were going to do once we got to the city. However, as time for our departure drew nearer and people began to trickle in, we were informed that our flight was going to be delayed an hour and a half, having left Amsterdam late. Since we still had about an hour to our scheduled departure anyways, we decided to wander the airport shops and grabbed some food at a restaurant.
After filling our stomachs we headed back to the gate and found that our plane had finally arrived, but that one of the landing lights was broken and that our flight would be delayed another 45 min so that the engineers could check on it. After 45 tense min, we received the wonderful news that the light had been fixed and we would begin boarding immediately and be off on our way to Amsterdam!
The flight was relatively short and we made it to the airport and through customs without issue, however we made the mistake of just jumping on the first train we saw leaving the airport, and ended up heading about 15 min in the wrong direction before we were able to hop off and head back the right way. With the help of an elderly Dutchman, we were able to get directed back to where we needed to go, and even got helpful directions to our hostel once we made it to the Central Station.
- Central Station by Night
After wandering half asleep through the streets of Amsterdam, we finally made it to our hostel at about 3:30 in the morning absolutely exhausted. We had originally intended to go out and explore a bit that night, but we all agreed it would be better to just get some sleep and attack the city the next morning.
We awoke at 9:30, just in time to grab our free breakfast of pancakes and then we were off to explore the city.
- Famous Amsterdam herring- generally eaten raw and whole. Never did get around to trying one myself unfortunately…
- Amsterdam Canals
- Dam Square
- Dutch Royal Palace. Beautiful isn’t it!
- Dutch National Monument
Will has a friend that is studying at a school just outside of Amsterdam and he took a train into the city to come and show us around a bit. We met him and a few of his friends in the Dam Square, the main square near the city center and Red Light District. While they went to a restaurant to get a late breakfast, they showed us where we could find some of the famous Amsterdam coffeeshops.
Coffeeshops are one of the most famous attractions in Amsterdam for tourists because they serve a very particular kind of coffee, namely marijuana. Though we didn’t learn this until the next day on our free New Europe tour, it is a common misconception that marijuana is legal in Amsterdam. In fact, it is not even decriminalized as its is in some other cities/states. In Amsterdam, people live generally by three rules. A person can do as they wish, as long as it is 1. good for buisness, 2. does not harm anyone else and 3. does not intrude or impede upon the rights or pursuits of anyone else around. In the 1970s and 80s, Amsterdam had a very serious problem with hard drugs such as heroine and cocaine. The drugs created vast problems for the city and its inhabitants and forced the police to focus the majority of their energy upon controlling this specific issue. In turn, they began to turn a blind eye to other less dangerous drugs such a marijuana, that if used properly, did not seem to harm anyone else. In this manner, marijuana essentially became accepted by the police who turned a blind eye to it, as long as it still continued to follow the three unspoken rules of Amsterdam. If you were to go up to a police officer today and say “Officer, officer! A man is selling marijuana in that shop and there are a bunch of people just sitting in there smoking! You have to do something!” He would most likely look at you like a fool and say “Pish posh. That’s a coffeshop” and walk away. It has become a very accepted thing in the city and as long as it remains a harmless industry it will continue to flourish. But if you do go to Amsterdam, keep in mind that if you want a real coffee, go to a cafe, NOT a coffeeshop.
We went inside the Bulldog coffeeshop, the oldest in Amsterdam and had a look around. It was an interesting cultural experience and having satisfied our curiosity, we went back out and sat by one of the many canals and enjoyed each others company and the wonderful weather.
- The Bulldog
The canals of Amsterdam are one of the most distinct characteristics of the city and are a huge part of the Amsterdam experience. Again, we didn’t learn this until our second day on our tour, but all of the canals have always been a major part of the city. They are all man made and every three days a system of locks creates a current that completely replaces the water in the canals so they don’t get dirty and stink like the ones in Venice. All of the canals were incredibly picturesque and I couldn’t help snapping a picture each time I saw one even though after awhile they all began to look the same and made navigating the city quite a challenge….
- Canal in the Red Light District
In the above picture you will also notice an amazing array of bikes, and you can’t talk about Amsterdam without talking about bikes. Bikes are the main source of transportation in Amsterdam and the number of bikes actually outnumbers the population by about 3:1. Bikes line all the streets and ruthless Dutchmen and women swerve in and out of people, ringing their bells to alert oblivious tourists of their approach, and if you don’t move, they WILL run you over. On our tour, we learned that the canal water consists of three layers. The top layer the water, and the bottom layer, the muddy bottom. But squished in between is a layer of…. bikes. Every year roughly 20,000 bikes are thrown into the canals. Barges with giant claws then scour the canals, pulling up discarded bikes which are then washed, repaired and re-sold to the people of Amsterdam. Quite and efficient system!
Anyways, after Will’s friend has finished breakfast, he led us back through the city to the Dam Square, a very roundabout way, through one of the narrowest streets in the Red Light District.
- Narrow street in the Red Light District. Little did I know what I would see down this alley… I just thought it was cool how narrow it was!
As it is commonly known, in the Red Light District, prostitution is legal and there are women working 24/7. All of the prostitutes in Amsterdam are private entrepaneurs, pimping having been made illegal in the 80s, and any girl 18 or older can begin work as a prostitute. They come in all shapes and sizes and we learned the next day that the oldest prostitute in the city is 87 years old! The way the business works is that the women essentially sell their time, generally 50 euros for 15 min and the way that time is spent is negotiable. The women are very serious about their work and don’t take lightly to being made a spectacle of. I had heard from friends who visited Amsterdam in the spring that if they see you taking a picture of them they will either throw a cup of their own urine at you, or else come out and take your camera. Needless to say, I made sure to keep my camera deep in my pocket when walking the streets…
We were caught completely unaware as we were led up the narrow street and were slightly shocked when we began seeing scantily clad women in windows lining the streets, tapping on their windows at us as we passed. I had always had sort of a naive view about the whole Red Light District, and when I finally saw it for myself, I was very unnerved. Seeing the desperation and almost sadness in the faces of the women was very upsetting. For them it is only a way to pay the bills and you can see in their eyes that they are not entirely proud of what they do, but for most of them it is the means to a better life, many of them immigrants from Russia and nations of the former Soviet Union.
Once we finally made it back to the square, it was now almost time for us to think about getting some lunch, so we separated from Will’s friends, who didn’t really want to do the touristy stuff we wanted to do, having been to Amsterdam many times before. After lunch at a pizzeria, we made our way to the Rijksmuseum, one of the largest and most famous in Amsterdam.
- Heineken Brewery. We didn’t take the tour because it was a bit pricey…
Unfortunately the museum was undergoing heavy renovations and we were only allowed entry in to a small exhibit, despite having paid the normal entrance fee of 12.50. However, what we could see was still very interesting and enjoyable.
Once we had exhausted our artistic analysis of the exhibit, we headed back out to further explore the city but were met with dreary, cold weather. None of us were entirely equipped for the sudden change in temperature, having dressed for the warmer weather that morning. We all decided to head back in the direction of the hostel, not know that in doing so we were just missing the famous I AMSTERDAM letters just behind the museum…
We wandered the streets back to the city center, stubbling upon the Amstedam Winterland that was loaded with little shops, games and carnival rides.
We met Will’s friends there and joined them for a warm drink and conversation inside a local cafe. They had to leave after a couple hours to catch a train back to school and when we left it had already gotten dark so we figured it best just to head back to the hostel. After showers and a change into warm clothes, we headed to the hostel dining hall for a free dinner.
Our hostel, Shelter Jordan, was actually a Christian Hostel and every Friday night they sponsor a free dinner and devotional. We eagerly joined them, looking forward to a free meal and meeting other people in the hostel. Will, Dylan and I sat at a table with a lovely Dutch couple who were the parents of one of the hostel workers, and the most fascinating man I have ever met. His name was James and he was a journalist originally from London. He wrote a travel and culture column and it was his job to travel the world and write about the places he visited. He had quite literally been everywhere in the world and it was fascinating to hear all of his stories in countries ranging from South Africa, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Russia, Kasikstan, India, Nepal among many others and virtually every country in Europe. He had just been transferred to an office in Amsterdam for two years and he was staying in the hostel just until he was able to find a place of his own.
The food was delicious, fajitas, and the company fantastic. After dinner the six of us sat down to a game of Clue before heading out for the night, having been told that people don’t head out for the night until at least 11 o’clock. Quickly realizing how boring a game Clue is, we abandoned the game and Will and Kellin took turns playing songs on a community guitar in the common area. It was nice and relaxing after a day of walking, and once it got a little later we were ready to head out for a night on the town.
We made our way over to the Red Light District and hopped around to a variety of bars and pubs, soaking in the atmosphere. We didn’t stay out long, only till about 2 until heading back to the hostel.
The next morning we awoke about the same time and began packing up, Jenna, Dylan, Will and myself having to change hostels that last night. After breakfast we split up, us guys going on the New Europe free walking tour, and the girls taking a canal cruise tour. We met our guide in the Dam Square, a young Australian named Jeremy, and began our 3 hour tour. We learned a ton about the city and its history, a lot of which I have unfortunately forgotten or already described. Jeremy was great and wonderfully enthusiastic having perfected his delivery and I enjoyed this tour even more than my New Europe tour of Munich a few weeks before.
- Outdoor Urinoirs
- Urine Deflector. In Amsterdam, one of the biggest complaints locals have about the many tourists that come to visit and enjoy the Amsterdam nightlife is public urination. In an attempt to alleviate this, the city installed the above outdoor urinals scattered about the streets and the metal urine deflectors in the common corners where tourists would be apt to urinate.
- The Old Church right in the middle of the Red Light District. In the past, churches were very corrupt, essentially selling “salvation tickets” to sailors who had indulged in the Amsterdam nightlife and prostitution.
- The highest point in Amsterdam, a whopping 1.6m above sea-level!
- Remnant of the main gates of the city which was once completely surrounded by a wall.
- Headquarters of the East India Trading Company, the first multinational corporation, which made the Netherlands a world superpower and economic giant. The company unfortunately went bankrupt in the late 1800s.
- The narrowest house in Amsterdam, just over 1m abreast at its widest point.
- As part of our tour we got a sample of some famous Dutch cheese. The Dutch eat lots and lots of cheese at a young age, and it is thought this is why they are so tall as a general population.
- One of the few grassy areas in Amsterdam.
- The only remaining wooden building in the city. After a great fire, virtually the entire city was rebuilt. This is why all of the streets and buildings have the same brick, Victorian architecture.
- Dampkring, the most famous coffeeshop in Amsterdam. Five time winner of the Cannibas Cup and set for a scene in Ocean’s 12. The poster is part of a marijuana awareness campaign started by Dampkring to help increase education about the effects of marijuana and how to enjoy “Amsterdam Coffee” safely and responsibly.
- The Triple X, Amsterdam city symbol. It’s origins are unknown, however it is ironic that a city known for it’s Red Light District has a symbol XXX….
After our tour, we met back up with the girls and headed off to one of the most famous sites in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House. Since it is so popular, we had to wait outside for a bit, but we passed the time taking a few pictures.
- Anne Frank House
Similar to the concentration camp of Dachau, the Anne Frank House was a very enlightening and touching experience. Though slightly somber as one would expect, it was incredibly insightful and again made the events of the Holocaust and the struggles of the European Jewish population very real. The museum was incredibly well done and taste full and did a wonderful job of portraying what life was like for the Franks living in the Secret Annex. However, one thing that I thought the museum did an excellent job of expressing was that yes, the Franks are a very well-known Jewish family that went into hiding during the rein of the Third Reich, however they were by no means the only ones. There were hundreds of families hiding all over the continent, many of which survived with the help of caring friends. It was a wonderful experience I won’t soon forget.
After our tour through the exhibit, Dylan, Jenna, Will and I figured we should head off to our new hostel to check in and drop off our backpacks we had been lugging around all day. We debated walking, however since our new hostel was on the outskirts of the city and actually off the edge of the map we had been using to get around, we decided to take the tram to get there. Thankfully we did, because it was at least a half an hour tram ride, so the walk would have been unbearable.
We checked in, showered and warmed up and then went out to eat before heading back into the city center to join Kellin and Krisi for a pub crawl that the New Europe company had advertised. Drinks in Amsterdam were incredibly expensive as we had learned the night before, around 5.50 euro for a pint, as opposed to the 3 pounds we were used to, so we figured the most economical night out was with the pub crawl.
We had an absolutely fantastic night, traveling around the Red Light District to 5 bars and pubs and ending at a club. We met lots of great people, many of them students like us studying in Europe and just on a weekend trip to Amsterdam. We stayed out until about 4:30 in the morning and ended up having to catch an expensive cab ride back to the hostel because the trams were no longer running and we missed the bus back out to our hostel. Nevertheless, we made it back to our beds by about 5 and slept until roughly 10 in the morning when we had to check out and begin our journey back to Glasgow.
Our journey home was an exhausted dream, and we all happily greeted our warm flats and showers. Unfortunately I couldn’t revel too much in the comforts of home because I had an essay due for my Scottish Literature class the next day that I needed to edit, as well as studying for an anatomy quiz on the abdomen. As hard as it was to motivate myself to work after such a great weekend, I did not regret my trip to Amsterdam and loved every second of it. I know I say it at the end of every trip blog, however it still rings true. It is amazing to me how at home I have begun to feel here in Glasgow, and as my return back to the states draws nearer and nearer, I know that my departure will be one of the most bittersweet moments of my life.