It’s easy to feel lost in the big city. That’s the thing that makes thinking of Norwich as a proper city difficult, no matter where you are you never quite manage to feel lost. Maybe it’s the quaint, middle-class, traditional, atmosphere or maybe it’s the un-ironic self-proclamation as ‘a fine city’ upon your entry. It could even just be the fact there aren’t any prostitutes tapping at you from behind fluorescent red glass doors. It’s not just the endless cobbled streets and winding canals that make Amsterdam such an easy place to get lost; you could have a map, a compass, an iPhone, two sherpas and a licensed tour guide, and you still wouldn’t be blamed for not really knowing where you are. Although, that could just be the drugs.
Probably the best way to describe walking along the alleyways of the city’s infamous red light district is like some dystopian future where sex is a service no different to getting a haircut. Parents lead their children by the hand past glowing windows with a distinctly continental ‘no big deal’ attitude. We bemoan the objectification of women in our society, but this is surely something else entirely. When half-naked women shine out on either flank as you stroll down a dark and narrow street, parading their bodies and trying to usher you in with a not-so-subtle rattling of the door, it’s not difficult to view them as a product – a commodity available for a couple of hundred Euros.
Defenders will tell you that the legalisation and regulation of prostitution has a positive effect, decreases human trafficking and limits the excesses of the sex trade. This may very well be the case, there’s no denying that it makes it easier to keep watch over the dark aspects of prostitution. Nonetheless, there’s something inescapably odd about reducing this to a business. There are no niceties involved, no upstairs lounge fit for comfort. Just a quick glimpse through the glass reveals a small room containing nothing more than a mattress, a sink and a curtain she pulls across the see-through door so the public can’t watch; that’s a separate service entirely.
The commercialisation of sex and drugs is probably one of Amsterdam’s most striking attributes. Bulldog, the ‘Wetherspoons’ of coffee shops, sells you factory produced pre-rolled joints in cardboard packs of four with a little logo on the front and ‘Bulldog’ written down the side of each one in green writing. It’s surreal, but in some ways this consumerist approach can be comforting. Not having a clue how to roll or how to straighten out when you’ve smoked it too fast – orange juice, incidentally – isn’t met with ridicule but with understanding and advice, these people want to sell you this stuff and laughing at people who don’t know the difference between hash and skunk doesn’t make a sale.
This isn’t a city to ‘find yourself’, it’s one to lose yourself, but with such an immersive culture, that’s not such an awful thing.