Wednesday, 20 December, 2000
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?

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.

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