Editor's note: This is the third story in a series of travel pieces on Europe. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first two stories.
Each time I've visited Amsterdam I have seen things that make me do a double take and smile. I'm not sure if it is due to the social freedoms of the city, the legalized marijuana and prostitution or the city's history of creativity and self expression, but a recent visit was no different. My quick two-day stay in this curious city with six friends, including one friend's parents, was a reminder to enjoy being myself and that I should never take myself too seriously.
My friends and I arrived by train from Belgium in the early afternoon. We jumped on a tram and headed straight for Rembrandt Square, where our friends and their parents had rented an apartment for a couple of days. After doing the math, it worked out cheaper for four of them to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of old Amsterdam than get hotel rooms. The area was conveniently located near many tourist attractions, including the Red Light District. And let's face it, tourists love Amsterdam's Red Light District. Whether it is to smoke marijuana legally in a coffee shop, peruse the unique wares of the surrounding shops or just straight up stare at prostitutes at work in their windows, there is something about this city of naughty pleasures that peak most people's curiosity. It's like making it socially acceptable to stare at someone who just tripped and landed on their face. Whether you approve or not, most of us want to know what it's all about, so after finding our friends apartment, we headed out to explore the beautiful city of Amsterdam and its famous Red Light District.
Red Light contradictions
What makes Amsterdam such a unique city for me is its somewhat contradictory feel. Picturesque canals intersect city streets lined with houses of traditional Dutch architecture dating back to the Renaissance period and 19th century neoclassicism with Medieval churches dotted through out. This was the style we saw as we walked through the Red Light District. Beautiful, Renaissance-period Dutch buildings lined the canal, with glass windows that revealed provocatively-posed prostitutes waiting for their next customer. Narrow cobblestone alleyways were lined with smoke shops, traditional Dutch cafes and live sex shows. A medieval church sat next door to a sex store and a high-end chocolate shop; across the street, amazing, thought-provoking graffiti decorated a brick wall. In spite of its name, the area seemed more hip than sleazy.
Walking through the midst of all this we saw a complete cross-section of tourists. Teenagers giggled nervously as they tried to sneak peaks at the working women, while men and women of all walks of life approached the prostitutes, curious about prices. Stoner hippies lounged in coffee shops alongside working professionals. Romantic couples browsed the sex shops alongside creepy looking men and uninhibited women. And all around them, the people of Amsterdam went about their work, business as usual. A young, attractive looking prostitute sat in her window eating a bag of chips like it was a sexual entity for the entertainment of herself and people passing by, while at the next window, another, slightly older, slightly bigger prostitute sat in her window smoking a huge joint and blatantly staring back at tourists as they tried to discreetly stare at her. Meanwhile, on the street, beautiful swans floated down the canals, right past pimps enticing tourists into their sex shows, and all the while, road workers re-cobbled the streets wearing traditional Dutch clogs.
Sex lessons and souvenirs
Amsterdam is also a city of museums, with more than 60 museums specializing in art, such as the Van Gogh and Hermitage Museum, Anne Frank's house, and then the more uniquely themed ones including the liquor museums, marijuana museums and, of course, sex museums. That is what I wanted to see. You'll find art and culture around the world, but where else can you see the world history of sex? So we stepped into a narrow, five-story building with a grumpy cashier (who had maybe seen more sex then she was ever going to get) for an education on sex. This was not just a big sex shop with dildos, dirty magazines and sex swings that made the somewhat modest (like myself) uncomfortable. No, this was a look into sexual art dating back to the middle ages and further. This was a history of some of the most famously sexual cultures in the world, including the Japanese, the Indians and, of course, the Greeks. There were also toys, gadgets and pornography, including pornographic cartoons, which were displayed in an educational setting that made us all feel comfortable gaping at, until we understood what we were looking at.
Amsterdam is famous for many things, but what they really do well, and what showcases their sense of humor perfectly, are the souvenir shops. These are some of the funniest, most creative souvenirs I have seen in a western country. There are the obvious clogs and marijuana paraphernalia. But there are also clog-style fluffy slippers next to really clever T-shirts, trendy bags and undergarments with phrases that you could really only get away with in Amsterdam. I will leave the rest to your imagination, but finish by saying visiting souvenir shops in Amsterdam had me smiling all the way to the counter.
Art in curious places
The next morning, after all my friends had left for their next adventures, I headed out to explore on my own, figuring I would let myself get lost in the city, taking photos by myself before my flight. Imagine my surprise as I wandered towards the outskirts of the Red Light District only to stumble upon a beautiful old church showing the World Press Photographers exhibit. So I spent my final hours in this beautiful city overflowing with creativity, happily wandering through a medieval church admiring the best work from the best in my photojournalism
As I boarded my flight back to the U.S., I smiled as I recalled a couple I had seen in Amsterdam who seemed to epitomize the city's character. As we walked through the city I had noticed two men, one who was black and bald with black-rimmed glasses walking a white dog. His friend was a white man, bald, with black-rimmed glasses walking a black dog. People sitting at a nearby cafe started to sing Michael Jackson's "Black or White": "It don't matter if you're black or white" as they walked by, and the pair smiled, seemingly comfortable and humored by their distinctly unique look and the effect it had on the people they passed. Freedom of expression seemed to bring out the best in this curious city.