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Amsterdam Part I: Red Lights and the Rijksmuseum

Flying to Amsterdam yesterday afternoon, it dawned on me how close the city is to London. Barely were we up in the air than we began our descent again. Yet as far as the two cities go, Amsterdam is another world. With all the charm of an old Vermeer painting, town houses line the canals side by side like ballroom beauties jostling for attention. Row after row of consistently elegant canals are uninterrupted by the blot of modernity, while in the canals a near perfect reflection provides a mirrored second city interspersed with ducks and houseboats. I love the way some of the houses lean forward (allegedly to hoist objects to the upper floors rather than brave narrow staircases) and others are formed of slanting, crooked windows, doors and roofs… In Amsterdam it’s hard to find a regular angle anywhere.

Vermeer, The Milkmaid (De Melkmeid) c 1658-1661

No wonder it left me feeling dizzy this morning. Or perhaps that dizziness was testament to our first tourist stop last night… The red light district. Now I know, heading straight to the sexy sector borders on the cliche, but as we arrived in the evening, and had time of our hands after dinner, a trip to the red lights seemed the obvious choice. At first we couldn’t find it. Catching sight of a red glow in the distance, we headed towards them only to find they were the neon lights of a pub. Ready almost to give up, we stumbled upon a tiny narrow alleyway also glowing red. Full of anticipation we crept down and suddenly, my heart skipped a beat as we came across a woman, in black laced underwear, leaning against the glass of a doorway, touching herself. Being ever the modest kind of male, I wasn’t sure where to look! It was so surreal to be faced so unapologetically with this display of sexual advancement. This initial alleyway opened up into a labyrinth of scarlet tinted shop fronts. There were countless prostitutes, someone for everyone, fat, thin, big breasts, small breasts, all on show. It became quite intimidating when, walking past a whole row, you’d hear plastic nails tapping on the window, gesticulating that you should approach. At the same time it was a fascinating display. The women each posed differently, some smiled, some scowled “seductively”. Some were coy, others all out sluttish. I felt almost embarrassed that I was treating them as a tourist attraction when they vied so hard for my attention, but they were certainly busy. We saw numerous gentlemen walking in and out, curtains of each window being pulled shut when the lady was busy, open again when a client left with a satisfied smile.

So in the end, after the initial collision course with this advanced outward show of sexual wares, I found the district enriching, adding to the Amsterdam experience. However I felt sorry for some of the ladies who were often faced with aggressive, loutish customers. And it was this element of the area that appalled – groups of men, often english thugs, ogling at the women right up in their faces, throwing insults, banging on the glass, showing outright aggression and a complete lack of respect to these women as human beings. Perhaps, after all, this is a problem with legalising prostitution. In allowing the profession to be advertised so publicly, it encourages men to so easily exploit the situation, to commodify women, to treat them as subhuman.

Red lights were superseded by the glow of a bright winter sunshine as we embarked on our first morning in the city today. Leaving our chic boutique base (the wonderful Hotel Estherea) to wander the western canals, we enjoyed coffee by one picturesque canal, and pancakes with banana, bacon and syrup by another. All canals led to the Rijksmuseum, which, despite undergoing major restoration works, has opened it’s most prominent masterpieces to the public in a very polished modern extension to the rear. The collection on show was still vast in breadth and I rather enjoyed the fact that this was a select exhibition – if this is only a small portion, the whole collection must be vast, and exhausting. Instead, we got to see all the important works, while retaining sufficient energy to get back go to the hotel. This included Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, which is romantic in a haze of dreamy light floating through a townhouse window onto the calm woman dressed in rich yellows and blue. The light and shade of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Nigh Watch, was even more dramatic, and the vast work was suitably installed as the climax of this impressive show.

Rembrant: The Night Watch (1642)

As the sun goes down over a chilly bustling city, the refinement of the city’s cultural offerings will again make way for the emergence of its prominent underworld. Staying open at all hours however are the multitude of souvenir shops, the likes of which we just sampled in their plenty at the Bloemenmarkt (flower market). We weren’t overly impressed with the rows of multicoloured clogs, wooden tulips, ceramic windmills or magnets of whores in windows (not one, I think, for my grandmother’s magnet collection) but not to be left out, I walked away with a pair of soft clog-shaped slippers ready to comfort my feet after a first thorough days navigation of Amsterdam. Sure beats the wooden kind. See you tomorrow!

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