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Down to Earth

Postcard from Amsterdam

By Irin Carmon

AMSTERDAM—In typically shameless Amsterdam style, the Prostitute Information Center is nestled just across the alley from Oude Kerk, one of the oldest churches in the city, in the heart of the Red Light District. I’ve come here to interview Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute who runs the information center, for a sidebar in Let’s Go: Amsterdam 2004, but she’s a bit busy.

The website is down, and she’s been on the phone with her webmaster all day.

While I wait, the souvenirs on sale are distracting enough: pamphlets on buying and selling sex in Amsterdam, t-shirts and figurines, reports on sexually transmitted diseases, bulk-pack Durex condoms charmingly renamed Beneluxe for regional promotion.

A couple comes in, their teenage daughter in tow, and buys a t-shirt. Majoor, gauntly cheekboned and businesslike, cups the phone between her ear and shoulder to take their money.

The next customer to the drop in center is unmistakably American, and by the accent probably Midwestern. His face is scrubbed to pinkness, his white hair combed over meticulously, and he laughs like an attack: nasal and whiny. Majoor sighs—the website is stubborn—and gets off the phone to take his question.

“I’ve noticed,” he begins, “that in those red-light windows out there, the prostitutes tell you that you have only ten, fifteen minutes.”

“If you’re lucky,” she says, smiling a little.

“Well, what if I want someone for longer?”

“Longer?” she says.

“Like a lifetime.”

She purses her lips. “I don’t understand.”

“Let me tell you my story,” he says. Americans always want to tell their story. His is fairly dull: wife left him, has a grown daughter, wants more children. “In order to do that, I need to find a woman who’s still of childbearing age—in her thirties. I’ve tried mail order bride services, but mine ran off on me. Can you help me?”

Mariska is polite but firm. Her smile is tight. “Sir, everyone wants someone to love them for their whole lives. You’re not going to find it in the red light district. This is an information center for commercial sex.”

“Well,” he says, “I know you don’t go to a gas station and ask for a Rolls Royce, but maybe the gas station attendant can refer you to the Rolls Royce dealer, right?”

His laugh attacks the room again, shrill and unembarrassed, and he tries once more. “So do you know where the illegal Eastern European women hang out?” The more desperate, the better.

“No.” She looks at him squarely, and he, still sniggering, has one question before departing: how might one identify which prostitutes were up for S&M? Did they have different colored lights in their windows? They don’t, she says; look for leather costumes.

At the end of six weeks in Amsterdam, I’d hoped nothing would shock me—in fact, it was something of a goal. I had a sense that there was something inherently judgmental in shock at the spectrum of humanity. I’d decided that interest was a more appropriate stance—one that didn’t moralize and didn’t pretend to a categorical normality.

It was a difficult line to walk, since I still felt there were many things reserved for outrage. But consensual human sexuality just wasn’t one of them, at least not in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, where you could be faintly surprised at just how many quirks and kinks could be satisfied, but were more taken aback by how sanitized and touristy it was.

Watching a man trying to buy a wife—a breeder, more accurately—made me queasy, cemented some of my suspicions about how some men are taught to regard women. But I could file it under the category of life experience, transmute it to racy anecdote status. This is what we’re supposed to get when we travel, right—good stories and a broadened horizon? A cultivated sense of nonchalance?

At Harvard, the unflappable attitude is easy enough for most to cultivate, or at least affect, because even the most sheltered pretend to world-weariness, and because, more charitably, the scope of human experience is fair game under academia. But within this paradoxically insular world of cosmopolitanism, where many spend far too much time in privilege and classrooms and offices, being experienced with this world is often incorrectly conflated with being blasé.

As for myself, rejecting the eastern seaboard internship circuit for one summer isn’t terribly revolutionary in the grand scheme of things, and it’s true that the concept of “real world experience” smacks of a little condescension. But leaving Cambridge for a job wandering around in drug-vending coffeeshops and smartshops and wading through brothels and sex shows—it beat my summers chained to the computer. To drink absinthe, behave brazenly and rudely to strangers in bars; to play mindgames with thieving landlords; to hop trains and planes solo, to abandon compulsive scheduling, at least for a time—it taught me something that despite an abstract knowledge of it, still managed to come as a shock: Harvard is not the entire world.

Irin Carmon ’05, an associate magazine editor of The Crimson, is a literature concentrator in Quincy House. Her months of crisscrossing continents are about to wind down, but not for long.

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