Have you ever looked a prostitute in the eye before? Square in the eye, as if there were nothing unusual about the experience? Well, I have and it was the emotional climax of my solo vacation in Amsterdam.
Now, first of all, nothing happened to me. I just want to get that out of the way to begin with, because when you tell people that you’re going on a trip by yourself, they often think something happened that made you want to run away to escape. Something like a strangely-timed personal crisis—“too old for a quarter life crisis, too young for a midlife one”—or losing your job or some other deep watershed moment that would make for an ideal blog post for your mom to email to you with the subject line “PLEASE READ”.
But then you tell your friends you’re taking the better part of a week in Amsterdam alone and suddenly everyone acts like you told them you’re going to follow Phish for a year, only taking time off to attend Burning Man with a bi-curious ribbon dancer named Skye. You can practically see the visions of a hedonistic, weed-fueled, totally legal sexual walkabout dancing in their heads.
In reality, I was going to be in Wales for Thanksgiving with my family and had some extra vacation days to burn through. I’d never been to Amsterdam before, so it seemed like a good time to check that off. I wasn’t looking for a lost weekend of excess and I definitely wasn’t looking to find myself. Something in between lost and found, I guess.
After I landed at Schiphol and made it through customs, I hopped in a cab where my elderly driver sang along to “Like a Virgin” playing on the radio and kept it going even after the song ended. It was a sufficiently weird way to start my trip.
I checked into my hotel, which looked like Hogwarts by way of the Lower East Side, where I received several written and verbal warnings not to smoke in my room. Dually noted. So much for a freewheeling marijuana party back at Room 215.
I decided to hit the town and see what was up on a Sunday night in Amsterdam. I almost immediately got lost. Without my phone and no cabs in sight, I looked for the only two beacons of comfort for Americans abroad: a bar or a McDonald’s. As it turned out, the Golden Arches appeared to me first. And it was in that McDonald’s Muntplein that I had another of what would be many confusing interactions with locals, when a group of Dutch men began yelling at me from the next booth, as Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” played over the sound system. Were these Dutch men threatening my life? Were they hitting on me? Does Holland only get the gayest American pop songs of yesteryear? I left the McDonald’s that night with more questions than answers.
On Day Two, I decided to get most of my obligatory museum visits out of the way so I could move on to more important things like drinking and buying weird clothes (what up, Four Pins). Since you probably don’t care so much about this, here are my two-word reviews of all of the cultural institutions I visited:
-Anne Frank House: Real small!
-Rijksmuseum: Real big!
-Stedelijk Museum: Artsy art!
-Van Gogh Museum: Skipped it!
The entire time I was wandering around the city, I was also looking for the right “coffee shop” for me. I settled on one called Super Skunk, because it was near the Anne Frank House and I felt like that had just the right amount of historical gravitas I was looking for in a marijuana dispensary. It’s telling that the majority of people I clocked going in and out of coffee shops were foreign tourists or shifty-eyed men by themselves (myself not included), which added up to some really divergent and not at all chill vibes for a bunch of people who like smoking weed so much.
After the second white person with dreadlocks and two groups of fratty bros walked in, I opted for the comparatively bright environs of the Heineken Experience next. I love Heineken and I love Experiences, so it seemed like a no brainer. Everyone there was really nice, and they had a stable with horses on site, which is unexpected when you’re alone and drunk and didn’t read any of the signs that said “STABLES” with arrows pointing that way.
Day Three started out very promisingly with a great breakfast, an even better boozy lunch and sales at a few stores I stopped in. I was on a deep discount high when I decided there was no time like the present to make my way to the Red Light District, since the present was midday on a Tuesday.
The thing about the Red Light District that’s jarring is that it actually is kind of beautiful in an old European way and they even have some upscale restaurants and nice shops that have moved in amongst the seedier spots. I think that’s what I was thinking when I passed the first group of windows with their infamous red lights illuminating an exceptionally narrow street. Window after window was empty as I looked in, until I came to one in which I was face to face with a prostitute, separated by only a pane of glass as though I were looking at a live mannequin in a store window.
I don’t pretend to understand all of the ins and outs of the social implications of prostitution, and I definitely don’t know this girl’s individual story, but the experience of staring at each other for what was probably five seconds, but felt like an hour, was chilling and made me feel emotions that almost led me straight back to Super Skunk. Is she sad and desperate? Is she happy and also making a lot of money? I have no idea, but at that point she looked angry, so I kept it moving before I caused an international incident.
Feeling feelings is not my favorite thing, especially on vacation, but that run-in with a daytime lady of the night really made me one-up Rich Homie Quan and feel multiple types of ways. I went back to my hotel for a bit and watched the UK version of Jersey Shore, called Geordie Shore, and realized that the world is full of fucked up things and crazy people, and we all just have to keep doing what we’re doing and striving to be the best we can be and—dammit—I guess I did find myself a little bit. And dammit, I was still drunk from lunch.
The rest of my trip was comparatively emotionless, filled with a lot of beer, both ingested and spilled all over myself at a Hanni el Khatib concert. I also made friends with a British couple named Lloyd and Tammy, who invited me to a sex show with them. I declined and headed back to my hotel, getting lost again on my way home.
Steve Dool is a writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.