I went to Amsterdam in February, which was actually the reason I started this blog but I am very good at procrastinating and haven’t gotten round to writing about it until now. It was super fun though and I have some snazzy pictures to share too.
After what seemed like everyone and their toy poodles had ventured to Amsterdam I was pretty eager to see it for myself, so I went with MUGS (Manchester University Geographical Society) after my exams in January. Now, the company that we booked it through (not naming names but it rhymes with INVASION) promised a whirlwind of reasonably priced, glorious shenanigans which would be worth the 15 hour coach journey from Manchester to Dover (ever heard of Hull?) to get the ferry to France and then drive all the way back up to Amsterdam, before being told that we couldn’t check into the hostel for 5 hours and would therefore have to spend most of the day wondering around the city with greasy hair and yesterday’s knickers.
This was still fun though! We explored the eastern part of the city where I narrowly avoided getting mowed down by several bikes and that sweet cannabisian fragrance followed us wherever we went. Naturally we headed to the Red Light District for a lunchtime stroll, which was a strange experience to say the least; the girls were all standing in these weird window displays beckoning us to come in, and strange men were inviting us in to see live sex shows or something of that nature. One friend who’d visited previously has described it as ‘classier than you’d expect because the girls are well treated’, but I disagree- I don’t think prostitution can ever be described as classy, and none of the girls that we walked past looked remotely happy to be there.
I knew vaguely what to expect before visiting, but it still shocked me that the scene was so transparent, shameless almost, and a readily acceptable aspect of Amsterdam’s culture. Obviously the District is geared towards tourists (I didn’t see any locals hanging around there day or night, apart from the workers), and the whole thing just seems very forced and undignified, despite guides describing it as a symbol of Amsterdam’s ‘honesty and tolerance’. Similar Red Light Districts in the UK, such as Manchester’s Canal Street which operated until it’s transformation in the 1980s, or London’s Soho, which has now been reduced to a tiny area on Brewer Street and continues to be steadily regenerated, have been made illegal and continue to be policed and restricted. Plus, I don’t really see how Amsterdam can pride itself on its attitude towards prostitution when just recently a girl from Newcastle who thought she was being offered a job at a nursery in Amsterdam was actually trafficked there as a sex worker (see the article about sex trafficking in the Manchester Evening News 13/03/14).
The decriminalisation of the actual act of prostitution should not make the pathways leading to it any less apparent or any more acceptable. A common misconception is that Amsterdam’s Red Light District is well regulated and all the women are there by their own choice. This is simply untrue, and Amsterdam’s sex workers are not experiencing the ‘liberation’ that it suggests; it is far from glamorous, and is only driven by the tourist attraction it is packaged as. An interesting conversation I had with my flatmates about trafficking also revealed that it is happening right on our doorstep, with links made to criminal gangs based in areas as close as Longsight and Rusholme (read this article for more information). To sum up, sex trafficking is a really big issue, so don’t be under the illusion that Amsterdam, the UK or anywhere else is exempt from it.
Here is a happy picture to lighten the mood!
After the Red Light District we experienced an authentic Amsterdam ‘café’ (ahem, the Bulldog) and went to the Sex Museum (also a weird experience, let’s just say the whole trip was pretty unconventional).
The next morning we visited the Anne Frank Museum, which was even more moving and harrowing than I thought it would be, mostly due to the videos at the end which included one of Otto Frank (Anne’s father) as he spoke about returning home to find out that his entire family had been killed at their respective concentration camps. If you go to Amsterdam, GO TO THE ANNE FRANK MUSEUM. I would argue that this is the most important (and certainly informative) place to visit. After that, we walked around a lot and discovered the prettier parts of the city (though regrettably we only set foot in Vondelpark for about 8 seconds whilst trying to find the IAMSTERDAM sign (which we did! Look look look below!). Because we were poor we explored the shop of a fancy museum but not the museum itself- it had a nice selection of art books for sale though. Also, the Amsterdam trams (Amstertrams? Oh dear) are super duper efficient and give you great views of the city.
That night we went on a bar crawl around the Red Light District and ended up getting a coach to a strange club which contained only a handful of very intoxicated Dutch people dancing probably too provocatively under the circumstances. We got a taxi back to find a too-drunk boy from another university at the wrong hostel who was definitely too-drunk to get home himself. I don’t know what happened to him. Anthony also forgot to put a cup under the dispenser when trying to buy some nuts and spilt them all over the floor. I can’t remember whether he ate them or not, and so concludes the trip.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Amsterdam. Everyone that I spoke to before I went said that they loved it, so maybe my expectations were just a little too high. Also there was a lot of construction work going on around the main square (the one with the massive stone ice-lolly statue? Not quite sure what it’s supposed to be) so I think that marred the prettiness of it too. I really enjoyed exploring it though and the people I did so with were pretty rad, which I think is the most important thing. Beyond the tacky tourist attractions is an interesting and genuinely cultured city which I would recommend you visit if you have the chance.