I’m not sure if I will ever go back to Amsterdam. On the one hand, I only spent one evening there so I know I missed out on seeing so much, and there was some incredible beauty in what I did see. On the other hand, parts of what I saw and experienced there didn’t really inspire me to return, and the abiding memory I have, the most powerful emotion I experienced that night … was sadness.
What did I love about Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is a beautiful city with its canals and bicycles and all round friendliness to those who just want to ‘wander.’
At night the charming historic buildings were beautifully lit, including the royal palace …
… the train station …
… any number of churches …
.. restaurants …
… and all kinds of other buildings.
It was winter so there was a public ice rink in the middle of the main square, yet the flower markets were still full.
What did I learn from Amsterdam?
The historian in me was interested in Anne Frank’s story, and one of my biggest travel disappointments of all time was arriving at the museum 45 minutes before closing only to be refused entry, despite my begging and pleading that this was my one and only chance to visit and that I was happy to pay full price to do a very quick tour!
I did enjoy some time wandering the streets of Amsterdam soaking up the atmosphere, although I have to admit there were a few places where that “atmosphere” left me a little light headed. But my strongest memory of that night is the sadness I felt; sadness both at what I saw, but even more at how those I was with initially responded to what we saw. I was with two fellow Aussies I had met travelling, two ordinary young guys, who knew I was a Christian and a pastor but couldn’t really get their heads around what that meant. But when we found ourselves wandering through the red light district, their first response was to apologise to me, because they assumed I was offended by it.
But I’m not sure that I was the right person for them to be apologising to for what they were feeling, and “offended” was not actually the right description for how I felt walking down those streets, seeing the women inside and the men drooling outside. I just felt overwhelmingly sad. I didn’t know the stories of the women we saw (or the men passing by), but I couldn’t help wondering who they were, how they got there, and how they were feeling. And what I realised as I talked to my two new friends was that they had simply not thought about those things. It had not crossed their minds to think about the women in the windows as people with stories, people with families and hopes and dreams and fears. And I was glad I was able to challenge them to think that way, even if just for a few moments. I haven’t seen those guys since we left Europe, but I’d like to hope that when they remember their night in Amsterdam, they remember being challenged to look beyond what they first saw in those red lit windows, and thinking about those women as real people with real stories.
Earlier this year, this powerful ad for Stop the Traffik was made in Amsterdam’s red light district, and it makes that same point.
And yes, I realise that some of the women in Amsterdam might say that they freely choose to do what they do. It’s not my place to argue with them, but I hope I am allowed the freedom to wish that we lived in a world where different choices were more attractive to them. And I certainly have the freedom to speak up for the millions of young women and girls who are forced into sexual slavery all around the world every year.
We left Amsterdam the next morning as the sun rose, and it gave me a glimpse of hope. Hope that maybe, just maybe, by being there and challenging someone to think about the deeper story of what they saw, there is the possibility of change in the future.