James (namelessnobody) wrote,

Day 5: Lille to Amsterdam

With the strike over, we’re now free to escape to Amsterdam only a day behind schedule (I say schedule, but this is not really the case, since most of this trip is to be made up as we go along). We step off the train, and after scouring the station for coin-operated phones (they’re almost all card-operated phones these days), we decide we’ll have more luck looking around outside. Within seconds of doing so we’re swept up by one of the many local hotel/hostel shills, who guides us through the sea of people to the booking desk of his hotel. Within a few minutes we’re spreading out in our new quarters, a stone’s throw from the Red Light District, a couple of floors above a bar and right beside a terrace crawling with pigeons that were constantly (and violently) on the make.

We arrive in the mid-afternoon, and the clouds overhead threaten imminent rain, so we don’t have a tremendous amount of time to explore before sundown. At one point we exit an alley and find, down the road to our left, a magnificent two-towered red brick structure dominating the streetscape catches our immediate attention. We’re drawn towards it, and on our way there it begins once again to downpour. Cursing our luck, we pick up our pace and hope that whatever the place is, it will be kind enough to allow us to shelter ourselves from the rain, if only for a short while. We arrive there and find out, to our infinite surprise and embarrassment, that the exquisite piece of architecture is in fact, the local mall. We hunt around for an hour (during which time I find a fancy little black notebook that now holds the narrative you’re reading), grab a bite to eat and then head back to the hotel to get ready for our foray into Amsterdam’s most famous tourist attraction.

Even with the foreknowledge of Amsterdam’s sex and drug policy, walking the streets near the Red Light District is quite an experience. People from all walks of life mix freely here, from the penniless junkie desperate for his next fix to the elderly affluent couples gingerly perusing the S&M boutiques. The streets are typically packed, slowing traffic to a crawl, to the point where one could listen in on the haggling between window queans and their customers, if only one spoke Dutch. Proprietors of sex clubs stand outside their establishments, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting to passersby, offering ‘special deals’ in a variety of languages. In the background, reminiscent of the stereotypical New York City of the 70’s, pimps oversee their windows, talking casually amongst themselves but never taking their eyes off the action for very long.

The atmosphere here is somewhere between that of a giant party and a grocery store; there are generally two groups of people: those looking to procure their goods (be they carnal or pharmaceutical) and those here to enjoy the nightly show, reveling in the saturnalia.

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