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High art in the low lands

She has a metal ring through her labia. Yes, I am watching that closely.

16 mins read

You can never get silence anywhere nowadays, have you noticed?

Bryan Ferry, British singer, musician and songwriter

On Monday night, Sheryl and I spend some time after the second set talking. She lives here in Holland with her husband and son. It’s been 20 years, so she knows both the language and her way around the music scene. When I mention that I am staying across from the Concertgebouw, she says “Be sure to check out the free Wednesday concert at noon.”

So I stay in on Wednesday morning to do just that.

I have forgotten to change my breakfast order at the Bema, so it arrives with the same bad coffee. Oh well. I choke it down, send my “I miss you” emails, and take my time showering, dressing.

Although I get across to the concert hall early, the foyer is already thick with people. Most have full heads of gray hair, and the chatter is distinctly Dutch. The regulars. Retirees.

I stand and read Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It’s not the typical literature of my book group, but I am so hooked that when the crowd begins to push forward into the hall, I am reluctant to put the book away. I don’t really, so I find the perfect seat and continue reading with just the occasional lift of my head to scan the room.

The hall is massive, with majestically high ceilings and beautifully crafted detail. The stage is in tiers that climb to a central hidden organ whose ornately decorated pipes reach high above and behind it.

I am surprised though to find the tiers otherwise bare, missing the tell-tale chairs and stands of any musicians.

A door opens high on the right, and the audience begins to clap for the lone man descending the stairs. They quiet down, and he welcomes us with a joke. At least, I assume it’s a joke, as it is in Dutch and all I can understand of it is his body language and the audience’s appreciative laughter. He finishes, the audience applauds again, and then he climbs the stairs to sit, hidden, at the organ.

It isn’t until the room fills with organ music that I understand that no other musicians are coming. It’s a beautiful composition by the French organist Louis Vierne, but I am just too engrossed by the novel. I carefully turn the pages as to not disturb my fellow concertgoers, and I look up with each pause in the symphony as if it had my undivided attention…

The concert is over too soon, just thirty minutes of it before we are back out in the cold.

It *is* colder today, so my motivation to randomly walk about is low. I need to pick up another tram pass, so I hop aboard a passing one headed to the central station. But I am hungry for lunch, so hop off north of it… into the middle of tourist hell.

Oh the kitsch! Totes, hats, magnets, mugs, t-shirts, bottle openers, bracelets, bells and spoons…

[A side note to my mother: N-O]

And food food food. McDonald’s. KFC. Burger King. The glut of the mundane creates fierce competition for business. Restaurant workers call out to me directly to come here here here.

I’m ravenous but overwhelmed. I duck into an alley and find a quiet shop serving Chinese and Indonesian dishes.

What’s the better choice, I ask.

Chinese, says the Chinese waiter.

By the time I have eaten and made my way to the train station, it is too late to cross town for the museum. Besides, there’s postcards to mail, coffee to drink and books to read. Except I’ve finished Neverwhere and find myself with nothing but maps and the hotel’s complimentary visitors’ guide.

The nearest bookstore?

I accost a woman on the street. She’s short, dark-haired, in her 30s, and a real cutie with her glasses, jeans and backpack. I smile and play helpless. She stands close and runs her finger over the map. Merely asking for directions hardly warrants an introduction, but I consider it. Let it go.

Scheltema. She has to say the name of the store three times. She smiles, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

It’s within walking distance, and her directions are solid. It’s your typical box style bookstore: a Borders, a Dussman, and now a Scheltema. I thumb through a Lonely Planet guide to Amsterdam on a hard-as-a-rock chair that I had flopped into expecting some yield. There’s a lot I am missing without a proper guidebook. I drift over to the literature in English and enter an internal debate about having something weighty (Lolita or A Wild Sheep Chase or Life of Pi) versus something light (namely, another Gaiman novel). Guilt gets the best of me and I purchase a novel by a Dutch writer named Hans Maarten van den Brink. On the Water. I skip the higher priced Lonely Planet for an older and discounted copy of Let’s Go Amsterdam at a nearby kiosk. Little changes in city life in a couple of years. But just outside it begins to hail with a fury, and the sidewalk is quickly slick with ice.

I am cold and just want to sit with my new book someplace warm. I spy a bar in the basement of a colossal building. CafeCox. I buy a cappuccino and watch the hail turn to fat, wet flakes of snow.

It’s quiet, more a function of good design than the absence of people. There are plenty who, like me, are waiting out the snow. It doesn’t stop though, so I finish my coffee and search for a proper place for dinner, this one a recommendation from the guidebook.

The place is Balo, and all it serves is Indonesian cuisine. The prices have not changed at all since the guide was published. I have my fill on a heaping plate of beef, chicken and pork. (Yes, that was “and.”)

I toss back a beer and all is well with the world.


If you visit one of the women, we would like to remind you, they are not always women.

On the Red Light District, Gouden Gid’s Visitors Guide to Amsterdam 2006, p137

I am sitting on a stool in a kebab take away that is just too bright for the dark streets beyond. I am nursing another cappuccino and thinking it through.

Directly across the street is a ticket outlet for the Casa Rosso, a homegrown Amsterdam establishment known for delivering the “classiest” live sex show in town. I had read about it in the Let’s Go book, and decided it was a must see. Or a maybe see. Or maybe a don’t see. Hence the cappuccino and more thinking.

To get there, I first stop at the Prostitution Information Center. The Saturday before my arrival, they had coordinated the first ever Open House of the Red Light District. It’s election season, and the prostitutes are defending their turf against conservative political elements (who are no doubt among their best customers). The public response was absolutely overwhelming. About the Casa Rosso, the Amsterdam Weekly reported “By mid-afternoon, the hourly ‘dry-fuck shows,’ with partially dressed performers, had to be increased to every half hour in order to accommodate the long queues.”

Unfortunately, the PIC is closed for a private tour group when I arrive so I miss the chance to buy their pamphlet on the best spots.

Instead, I wander among the alleys. The canal views are still there, and even a large cathedral with a bell that sounds out the time. But ringing the cathedral are red-lit windows with the stuff of fantasy. Blond. Brunette. Slender with flat bellies. Round with thick thighs. White. Black. Asian. There are bikinis, thongs, heels and bare feet. But they are also real. On their cell phones. Brushing something from their outfits. Laughing into doorways to their friends.

But now I am nursing a cappuccino. Is it worth it to pay, I wonder. It’s a show after all, and the things that I like about sex—our fleshy shapes, our honest moans, the ouches of a too sharp bite or a sudden tug—will be something too choreographed.

At least that’s what I presume.

But I don’t want to presume.

I finish the coffee, settle the bill and cross the canal to the kiosk. The man who sells my ticket is the one who had drawn me back. I had passed plenty of places along the way, but I like him most. Middle Eastern and a big guy. But his good humor and sincere “I’ve seen it all” way makes him almost huggable in a teddy bear kind of way. I consider it a bizarre, but good sign.

He hands me my receipt and says, Have a good time.

The Casa Rosso is a small theatre. Most of the people there are men, Japanese, Chinese and Korean from what I can see in the near dark. But there are two couples. I am the only single woman.

I walk in just after Nicole has started her set. It’s just her, and she’s in some latex outfit. She doesn’t look aroused, she looks bored. And her eyes are not resting with the crowd but somewhere above our heads to the back. Maybe she’s concentrating on her cuing. The dance number reminds me of something from a cheerleader’s tryout. She slaps the pole with her whip. Strips.

The next act arrives in a nun’s habit from behind me. Her partner is on the stage and standing with legs planted apart under a black shroud. She climbs the stage to the figure, and strips out of her habit into a black latex bikini.

I guess this is someone’s fantasy.

Then she undresses the shrouded figure. Like her, he’s blond and long-haired. It’s not long before they are both naked, and she’s got him in her mouth. He’s semi-erect, no doubt from already having been at this for hours, if not days. She has a metal ring through her labia.

Yes, I am watching that closely.

But, again, they are bored with us. They are talking to each other, and I can see that they have the easy nature of people who have worked together long and well. The act is over when the music ends and the announcer asks for applause. We’re a generous audience, so we clap appreciatively. They wave, a bit self-consciously, before the curtain draws.

I won’t give you the, er, blow by blow of each act. But I will confess to dancing with Nicole on stage (they were asking for volunteers from the audience, and she asked me directly… twice… while dancing next to me in this really skimpy costume). It’s all a blur, but there was a guy in an ape costume, his hands cupping my breasts and then me eating a banana from Nicole’s raised and spread legs.

I did take a bow before taking my seat again. I do remember that distinctly.

But the rest was what you imagine a live sex show to be. A choreographed show. With naked people. Penises. Vulvas. Boy on girl. Girl on girl. (The latter gave one of our audience members a rise and the guy with the flashlight—there’s always a guy with a flashlight—had to tell him to put it away.) Lots of tongue. Lots of pounding.

Ohmygod. Someone ask me about the brother with the large… Or about the woman with the candle… Her kegels…

I left happy.


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