BANGALORE: Amsterdam is like a mysterious package that materialises one fine morning at your doorstep, courtesy a secret admirer. At first, you are sceptical and a tad bit scared to open it but then curiosity gets the better of you. With a slight tug, the strings come undone and the flaps swing open. Upon peeking in, you find a deluge of items - some are alluring while others are repugnant. Outwardly discordant elements sit side by side as if they have silently signed a peace treaty. It is strange how pieces of historical and cultural importance like the Anne Frank house and the Van Gogh Museum do not seem to turn up their noses on spectacles of raw carnality at the Rosse Burt (red light district) which brims with kinky sex museums and peep shows. On the contrary, the two snuggle in disconcerting harmony.
The Dutch capital encompasses two identities. Much like a yin and yang pair, it exhibits an undisguised dichotomy. On an impromptu girls' trip, I struck up an acquaintance with both facets. By daylight the first mien presents itself — beautiful, unsullied, and pristine. A handful of classic Dutch signatures can be found sprinkled generously all over - a filigree of capillary-like canals, gable roofs atop multi-hued canal houses, beautiful tulips in full bloom, towering windmills feeding power to the city, intricate blue and white Delftware and elegantly painted wooden shoes called clogs. Then there are the ubiquitous bicycles which make the city look like a sea of two-wheeled contraptions. Chained nonchalantly to side rails, ridden breezily on cobbled streets and lying despondently on canal beds - they are everywhere. Coming from a country where bicyclists languish at the bottom-most rung of the food-chain, it is refreshing to see them rule the roost here.
Amidst all the mayhem of 21st century routine, on Prinsengracht Street stands an ordinary looking 17th century structure which in fact houses something extraordinary. In the 500 square feet back house of this building, a 13-year-old named Anne Frank and her family hid from Nazi persecution during the dark years of World War 2. Squeezing my way through passages that are a claustrophobic person’s worst nightmare, I can only imagine the plight of those who spent two years cooped up here. Every page from Anne’s diary comes alive in the sombre confines of the rooms behind the bookcase. Her recordings can be summed as ramblings of an average teenager, yet they stand apart because a shadow of impending doom hangs heavy on each syllable. Even though she wasn’t fortunate enough to survive the war, she unknowingly achieved an elusive state of eternal existence through her journal.
The setting sun slowly and horrifically transforms a portion of the city (Rosse Burt - the red light district, to be precise) into a giant, seedy, back alley brothel. Through a lacy veil of hashish smoke that descends upon the threadlike lanes, I see the harmless looking bicycles from a few hours ago turn into out-of-control bikes. Packs of boorish men from all corners of the world crowd around red-rimmed windowpanes and leer sleazily. Curious to know what force of nature can lure men into window shopping, I hone in and find a rather unsavoury answer. Women strike sultry poses behind each of these shop windows. The tableau they present is both repulsive and pitiful at the same time.
How does this image titillate the masses and not make them cringe instead? Is it acceptable to treat another human being, irrespective of gender, as an object on sale? The knowledge that there are government agencies protecting these women from abuse is slightly placatory but it does not make the picture less murky. Adding to the shadiness are dubious characters peddling tickets to live sex shows and packets of magic mushrooms. Not wanting to be left behind, souvenir shops too try to milk the raunchiness and are stacked with trinkets that conform to the libidinous theme. And sure enough, as the night progresses, their business flourishes.
Here in Amsterdam, for every Van Gogh museum there is a polar opposite sex museum and for every Anne Frank house there is a ‘House of Sin’. It is for visitors to decide which one is yin and which one is yang for them. As for me, the experience has been a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
There was a dash of classic Dutch ‘hygge’ owing to lunches at lovely canal-side cafés, leisurely strolls and shopping for pretty Delftware. On the other hand, to balance it out there was a bitter aftertaste as a consequence of witnessing flesh trade for the first time at such close quarters.
Preeti Sharma is an MBA and enjoys travel and creative writing. She blogs at www.preetisharma84.blogspot.com