||[Jan. 15th, 2006|10:01 am]
The heart of the Red Light district was home to me and T. for three days. Our hotel was on Oudezijds Achterburgwal, amongst the old canals of Centrum. |
On the journey from Schipol Airport to Centraal Station we sat upstairs on the double-decker train then took an early morning walk to our hotel along the cobbled streets of this ancient section of the city.
We had breakfast at a greasy spoon then went exploring. There were a few working girls on display behind the windows of their booths even at that hour, but generally speaking the streets were pretty sleepy and quiet. By the middle of the day unkempt men were starting to shuffle along the alleys and collect in small groups on street corners. T. was keen to drop into one of the coffee shops and I think the first one we went to was Hill Street Blues. We bought coffee and T. lit up his first joint of the trip.
It was cold of course, but not unpleasant. There had been some bicycle riders out and about in the morning, but by the afternoon there were lots of them, rushing this way and that, and I quickly learned to listen out for their little bells. We passed through Dam Square, with its WWII National Memorial, several times over the three days, and I was amazed at the sheer number of bicycles chained up in this square, many laying one against the other like rows of tipsy dominoes.
Sitting upstairs in Rick's Cafe on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, T. smoked marijuana while I drank scotch & coke (each to his own), then we had dinner after dark when the old district was really coming to life.
We thoroughly explored the Red Light district, leaving no cobblestone unturned. On the streets we were offered cocaine and ecstasy wherever we went by slovenly black men. The dealers sometimes worked in isolation, but were often clustered in little gangs on the street corners or down the narrow alleyways. In fact, my hotel window overlooked one of their prime spots. The hotel's 24-hour bar was at ground level, and my room was on the second level up, looking out into the very narrow alley. The mouth of the alley was just to the left of my window, with the canal just beyond that. Directly below me was a small gang of men doing drug deals all through the night, and slightly to their right I could see working girls in the windows of their red-lit rooms.
As far as I know the street dealing is illegal, but even though we saw cops on bicycles from time to time, the little gangs were pretty much left alone. I did see a couple of female police officers walking along late one night and I pointed them out to T. They were stocky girls and looked quite formidable with their big truncheons and handguns on hips. No doubt they could have earned a fortune moonlighting in some of the fantasy parlours.
Quite late on our second night we walked past a man who started setting off fireworks on the corner of a street beside a canal. He started with a huge pile of the smaller ones that go rat-a-tat-tat like a machine gun. Giggling away to himself he let another pile of them go, then he started setting off the skyrocket ones that shoot high up into the sky with a high-pitched whine before exploding with an almighty bang, sending bright sparks everywhere. The smell of the gunpowder from the smaller fireworks hung in the air and was quite nice, but by the time he set off his second skyrocket T. and I were wondering why the police hadn't turned up. There were hardly any people around as we were a little bit out of the tourist area, but there were tall narrow buildings all around us. We walked on and left him to it.
Even though our hotel had advertised breakfast as part of the deal, we went out to eat each morning. Their "breakfast" was laid on down in their threadbare and chilly basement and consisted of a big plate of sliced sausage meat covered with gladwrap, a coffee machine that almost tore a gear trying to cough up half a cup of something lukewarm, slices of bread to be put in the malfunctioning toaster, and a pile of those little margarine and jam packets that you need a chainsaw to open. I sat there for a minute and watched the attendant trying apologetically to get the toaster to toast the bread, then I bade him farewell and went upstairs to tell T. we were going out for a Full English.
I made a point of visiting Anne Frank House, and T. came along with me even though it hadn't been on his itinerary. I read Diary of a Young Girl many years ago, and it was amazing to visit the warehouse and offices, go through the secret door behind the bookcase, and look around the living quarters in the annex where Anne hid with her family and friends from 1942 till their betrayal and arrest in 1944. This was the highlight of my trip.