20 December, 2000
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Amsterdam 1997: White, Green, Orange
Amsterdam is a fairytale covered in snow. Huge flakes drift towards
the canals and turn cobblestones into cakewalks. The tramlines that
score the roads like haphazard filings are slowly obliterated by
the snow, renewed by the speeding, bell-ringing trams, then obliterated
again. The canals are frozen over, with wide swathes carved through
by the pleasureboats.
Icy air fills my nostrils and tautens my cheeks; my ears are full
of music from an organ-grinder; a comforting sizzling onion smell
wafts from the nearby herring stall. There are fairy-lights everywhere
as we walk to our hotel: on bridges, on stalls, on shopwindows,
front doors. Lights frame a slender slanting townhouse, creeping
up the sides and round the window. I turn and look back; from a
distance it resembles an Absolut bottle.
Later we lean over a bridge on Prinsengracht and watch a small child
on red skates learn to skate backwards, clapping his hands with
glee, exhaling smoke clouds like a tiny, happy dragon.
Some people glide through life like that. First kiss, first fuck,
first spliff - they whoosh past them with flushed cheeks and glittering
smiles, while others clash teeth and bite tongues, smoke oregano
and yukka leaves, and struggle to batter through iron hymens.
The glittery-smile group wouldn't be fazed by an Amsterdam coffee-shop;
after all, as the Rough Guide says, 'asking to see the menu is the
work of a moment'.
But the other kind, the bleeding-tongue, Oxo-cube-in-clingfilm kind,
well, they'd loiter outside for half-an-hour with trembling stomachs.
They'd blush as they entered, and fail to meet the barmaid's eye
as they purchased, and then they'd smoke, and collapse into giggles
till tears turned their mascara to Arabic script on their cheeks.
And that's our kind. So that's what we do.
The Red Light District is the prettiest thing. Its bridges are the
humpiest in all Amsterdam, studded with lights that shimmer on the
water. Its streets are the livliest, the narrowest and brightest.
Red is a misnomer: the neons range from fuscia to deep amber, and
each frames a beauty in underwear, from Latinas on Oudezijds Achterburgwal
to Thais on Stoofstraat. Or so I read in my guidebook, for I hardly
dare peek up through my lashes.
Jostling through the streets with 2 male friends to the whispers
of "live-sex-live-girls-suckyfucky-ecstasy-for-sex" from dark-eyed
men in doorways, I am reminded of visiting the Raymond Revuebar
in Soho to watch my friend strip. Though the stage is full of lovelies
in backless, breastless, crotchless sequinned dresses, a boy in
the audience cannot take his eyes off me.
Whenever my friend Frankie appears on stage she winks at us, and
my boyfriend and I give her an extra-loud whoopy cheer, and each
time the boy turns in his seat and stares, fascinated, at me.
Eventually I just want to grab this boy, just grab him by
his nasty yellow gelled hair, and twist his neck back round hard
and hiss in his ear "LOOK! ONSTAGE! REAL LIVE NAKED WOMEN! WHY ARE
YOU WATCHING ME????" But propriety gets the better of me
and I watch him watch me watch porno for the rest of the evening.
So now it's deja vue time on Oudekerkplein, as the voyuers stare
me out whenever I raise my gaze from the cobblestones. The passing
men watch me so intensely when I try to look in the windows that
I feel the tiny hairs rise on the back of my neck. I so want to
look at the Naked Ladies behind the glass. Why can't I look at the
Naked Ladies were my first fantasy. I was too young to know what
the sensation I termed "that feeling" was, but when I thought about
Naked Ladies in glass boxes being looked at by men, and at the same
time touched myself a certain way, I got "that feeling" like gangbusters.
And here in real live life are my Naked Ladies, and they are pretty,
and I can't look at them.
I suddenly want to be a man, and try to imagine what it must be
to be a man and go in and close the velvet curtains and just have
a girl, any girl.
"When my friends ask me about going to prostitutes", writes American
novelist Blake Nelson, "what am I going to say? That it's sort of
fun. A cheap thrill. Sort of sad. That their bodies sag. That they
are just people."
A dark-haired, sultry woman in white lacy underwear is waved at
by a group of her girlfriends. They knock on the glass of her glowing
red cage, grinning and saying hi, gesturing at their watches, asking
when she gets off work, and she smiles back at them. As she moves
she ceases to be a two-dimensional pornographic poster and becomes
a person instead.
But then the prostitute and the men who want her catch me looking,
and I stare down at the icy cobblestones once more.