i fought the law

Here at Webster University, the semester is split into two eight-week terms. Instead of juggling five classes at once, you take two or three intensive courses at a time.

In just over a week, my first term here will be over, and the work has really been piling up – nobody’s been doing much travelling. Pauline and I were getting cabin fever, though, so we decided to go hang in Amsterdam for a few hours yesterday.

We planned to scope a couple tattoo parlors, grab something to eat, and head back. We didn’t plan on Google Maps leading us into the infamous “Red Light District.”

It’s a well-known fact that prostitution is legalized, accepted and widely regulated in the Netherlands. Oddly enough, it was Napoleon’s reign that helped build the foundation for the system we see in place today; he mandated that workers in the sex industry belong to an early version of a union and undergo frequent check-ups to ensure the safety of their clients.

Sex tourism aside, the Red Light District is home to some 70 “coffeeshops,”  or places where marijuana can be purchased for consumption on or off the premises in small quantities – this equates to a coffeeshop roughly every 50 steps – each with their own unique atmosphere. Some boast trippy lighting and ear-shattering house music, while others are quiet and ambient, with comfy, upholstered booths and pillows. All of them offer juice, soda, coffee and tea, as well as light snacks like grilled cheese.

While overwhelmingly dominated by brothels and coffeeshops, another common sight is a “smart shop” – as psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms) was outlawed in 2006, fresh and dried mushrooms are no longer available. In smart shops, however, one can buy grow kits for these mushrooms due to a loophole – the spores don’t contain any psilocybin, so it’s legal to grow them yourself. Salvia divinorum and herbal pick-me-ups like ginseng and guarana are also available in these kinds of places.

The sheer self-indulgence of the district is punctuated by frituur and grillrooms, where pizza, fried food and smoked sausages can be purchased. It’s cheap and fast, which really just re-inforces the theme of instant gratification that’s so prominent here.

I wouldn’t say that the Red Light District really captures the spirit of Holland, but from the minute you arrive, you’re someone else – the angel on your shoulder disappears. There’s nothing like it.

We decided to grab a couple drinks before heading home to Leiden on the train. I guess our shoulder-angels hadn’t returned yet, because when we got to the train station, I asked, “Are we gonna buy train tickets this time?” in a voice that really said, “I’m not buying a train ticket this time.”

“Naaaaah,” Pauline replied, “I’d rather hang onto the ten Euro. They never check them anyway.” Which was true. I dutifully bought a ticket each time I wanted to use the train, and nobody ever collected them.

We felt pretty pleased with ourselves and settled into our first-class seats, watching the lights of the city pass our windows. I was exhausted, and full of beer and junk food. I had just closed my eyes when I felt a slight tap on my shoulder.

“Mevrouw?” (Miss?) It was a uniformed man. Eek.

“Allo,” I replied, and smiled weakly. I thought maybe if I smiled at him long enough he would go away.

“Uw kaartje,” (Your ticket?) he prompted me, holding out his hand.

I decided to play dumb American. “I’m sorry?”

He grimaced. “Your ticket.”

“Ohhh!” I reached into my back pocket and produced my ticket from that morning, which was clearly for the opposite route. I smiled broadly. “Here you go.”

He studied it for a minute. “No.” Gulp.

“Is that not right?” I asked cheerfully. I  pulled out my Webster ID. “See, I’m studying abroad in Leiden through an English university, and I thought–”

He pulled out a walkie talkie.

“Can I buy one from you?” I asked hurriedly.

“Yes you can,” he said politely, “and it will be accompanied by a fine of 36 Euro.”

I opened my purse. “I have a ten,” I offered helpfully.

After a short silence, he replied firmly, “When we stop in Schipol, you are leaving the train. You will meet me outside. Understood?”

“Okay,” I said meekly, and he walked to the next compartment. Pauline and I immediately began panicking.

“Should we run for it?”

“We’ll just have to get back on eventually!”

We stepped off the train as casually as possible and were immediately accosted by our friend in uniform. “We go upstairs,” he said, with so much emphasis on the upstairs part that I wondered what was upstairs. A police station? A jail cell? An alligator pit?

As it turns out, a ticket counter.

“These young ladies,” he said to the woman behind the counter, “would REALLY like to purchase tickets to Leiden.”

He saw to it that we bought them for eight Euro apiece. And then he walked away.

We barely caught the next train to Leiden, which was creepy and ramshackle, but we were pretty psyched to have been spared a fine, or worse, an arrest.

So in Amsterdam, you can get away with all sorts of debauchery, but you definitely cannot get away with train-hopping. Lesson well learned.

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~ by curiouskristie on February 21, 2010.

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