Even though I didn't spend much time in the Red Light District (maybe next time if my girlfriend doesn't come with me I can do a more elaborate report...just kidding), I was surprised that most of the women standing behind the glass were really young and actually beautiful. And while many of them seemed to enjoy their work (or at least were good at faking it), others looked a little, well, like they were trapped behind a wall of glass. Another surprise came from finding the streets full of American college kids yelling things like "Dude!" and "Y'all!" That definitely ruined the magic of Amsterdam for me for a bit, at least.
At this point in the trip it was time to do some laundry. If you'll recall, I already have experience doing laundry in another country, so this wasn't a big deal, but it gave me a chance to explore outside the city center. I went to a great laundromat by way of Amsterdam's public bus service and the attendant was so nice that he basically did my laundry for me without charging extra. With time to kill, I then decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood, happening upon quaint bakeries, drug stores seemingly frozen in the 19th century, and coffee shops serving up delicious espresso...among other things.
Fun story! I was a little too early at the laundromat for my laundry to be done, so I sat on a lovely bench made mostly of elastic rope, so it was pretty comfortable. A few minutes after sitting down, a woman rode up on her bike, locked it up, and walked right up to me on the bench...except stepping to the right to open her apartment door at the last moment. My girlfriend noticed her look at us a little strangely so she asked, "Is this your bench?" In perfect English, the woman replied, "yes, but you are welcome to sit there as I just can't lift it through my door."
We smiled and offered to help her put it inside, but she explained further that it wasn't that she couldn't lift it, but rather that it literally wouldn't fit in her apartment (apparently it was for her office studio in another part of the city). She then showed us how she had threaded a bike lock through the elastic rope and onto a metal pipe attached to the building. We thought that was pretty clever, but she explained that the only reason she locked it is because, "if not locked up in Amsterdam, everything is gone." Rather poetic, I thought.
While the Red Light District, the canals, and Anne Frank's house are all things everyone has to experience at least once in their life, I think the defining character comes from Amsterdam's obsession with bicycles. Riding a bicycle helps to form a bond with the streets, the community, and to those riding around you. We saw grandmas pedaling around with wicker baskets full of groceries, couples riding tandem, and little kids (without training wheels) zooming around so elegantly it seemed like they may have been on a bicycle moments after being born.
Word of warning: it will feel like a real-life game of Frogger when you first start wandering the streets, so have your wits about you and listen for the bells!
Tomorrow: The Newbie Traveler in Bruges!
[Photos: Andy Miles]