It doesn’t hit me how rude the Parisians are until I get to Amsterdam and a woman smiles patiently at me when I ask for directions. I want to know how to get to Damrak, a street that, as it turns out, we are standing on. She apprises me of this fact without any judgment. This is radically unlike Paris, where when you ask for help, they look at you with disdain and incomprehension, like you are standing there making armpit farts.
Despite the Dutch helpfulness, I’m hopelessly lost. Amsterdam is laid out in circles, like Dante’s Inferno, so if you stay on the same street for long enough, you end up back in the same place where you started, no closer to the Van Gogh museum than when you first set out.
I settle for a visit to the Amsterdam Sex Museum. It’s a sort of filthy musee mechanique, with mechanicals roughly wanking one another off or showing you their genitals, and apocrypha like old-timey condoms or two-thousand year old carvings of people giving blow jobs.
What I love best at the Sex Museum is the old photographs. Photography was invented in nineteenth century, and people immediately began documenting their junk: a photograph from 1870 shows a man with an enormous Civil War beard inserting his semi-erect penis into a woman who looks like Kathy Bates. There is a look of dreamy calm on both their faces. In another photo, this one from nineteenth-century Russia, a nun flogs the bared bottom of a saucy peasant girl with some tree branches. The photos are beautifully preserved; someone cherished them.
My love for naked photos is long-established. When I was fifteen, I posed naked for some friends who were doing a photography project for school. I remember those photos emerging from the darkroom, and it was like seeing what I looked like for the first time. I loved those images, and I like to believe that the photos still exist somewhere, my teenage body spread out in the snow, making bare-ass snow angels. Something had opened up in me, in front of the camera. I wonder if the women in these photographs felt that power too, the power of showing yourself. Could they have guessed that these pictures would be collected, hoarded, hidden, that they would eventually migrate from private hands to end up behind glass, valuable things that they are?
The most crowded room at the sex museum is the fetish room. It’s interesting how regional fetishes are, and what they reveal about a culture. According to the museum’s smeary informational wall-panels, the world can thank the United States for all the anal sex in pornography; the write-up posits that this is due to American feminism and the sexual revolution, resulting in more non-procreative types of sex. (Here I must note: my love for anal sex has nothing to do with my feminism. Never do you feel more like you have handed over the keys to your body than when somebody is in your ass). The next informational panel proclaims that Americans love bondage, so what does that tell you? No sooner do we get our freedom than we go looking for someone else to take it away.
It’s not the pot or the prostitutes that leave me feeling Amsterdam’s otherness, it’s the small differences, like the fact that the iced tea is carbonated here, or that French fries are served with mayo. After dinner, the smoking-hot waitress brings over some kind of Dutch lollipop that is filled with, I believe, baking soda. In front of the royal palace in Amsterdam, there are the same costumed photo-op Mickey Mice that populate Times Square back home, but here they are joined by Freddy Kreuger and the Grim Reaper. It’s a weird place. If Amsterdam were a person, it would be someone’s little Goth sister, the one that says smutty things to try to shock you. I buy a vibrator at a Christine le Duc, a store where an elderly British woman is walking around shopping, and she asks my advice on a toy she wants to buy; do I think it will be good for her clitoris? I love that I look like the kind of stranger to whom you would pose this question.
I buy other things here, like anatomical drawings labeled in Dutch: a spine, a human heart. Below the bones and tissues, the Dutch word for dissection. I have to restrain myself from acquiring the skull of an ibex I find in an antiques store; how the fuck would I fit it in my carry-on bag?
My bag is getting heavier. This whole trip has been about minimal baggage, but it’s impossible not to accrue at least a few plastic magnets along the way. And of course, I buy gifts for Sketch, selecting a Rembrandt etching from Rembrandt’s actual house, because Sketch should be here. I can picture him in perfect detail, standing in front of Rembrandt’s easel in his boots, being so much cooler than every other man I meet.
But then, Amsterdam doesn’t promote the kindest view of manhood. I watch the men bro-out all stoned in the square, pretending to shove one another in the canal, taking pictures of the prostitutes in the windows in the Red Light District. How do the women feel, behind the glass? Does the window make them feel safe, or does it make them feel cut off, like a chicken breast in the butcher’s window? In the lights, their lingerie glows. I try to catch one woman’s eye, but her gaze slides around me with a practiced evasiveness. She is working.
I meet up with some friends at the Dam, a monument that looks like a huge phallus. “Amsterdam is so cool,” I enthuse. “It’s like the Brooklyn of Europe; it’s like Bushwick with canals.” To which my friend laughs, “You know, we can drive to the actual Breukelen, that Brooklyn was named after.” And we do, and I buy strawberries there; there are cows, and horses with names like Peter. I love Holland.
Reluctantly, I leave Amsterdam and head back to rude Paris, to meet a French dude I met online. He has an umlaut in his name, which impresses me. If I told you his name, you would agree that it sounds like the name of a sea monster. We will visit Pigalle, the Parisian red-light district for people who like their smut lame and sad. After Amsterdam, it is disappointing, mostly sex shops peddling cheap, flammable-looking lingerie and racks of porno dvds for people who don’t know about the internet yet. There is, of course, the famous Moulin Rouge here, but all the tourists waiting for the show are sexless middle-aged white people in Euro Disney rain slickers. They want to tell people that they saw real Paris cabaret, but so far as I can tell, to find real burlesque here you would need a time-machine. Much like New York, Paris is a city that has lost its keen edge.
I try telling all this to my date, the Umlaut. He smiles the way a monkey does, baring both his upper and his lower teeth, but I kiss him anyway, feeling nothing. The only bolt of desire I feel is when I ask him to say something dirty to me in French, and he growls a bunch of French I don’t follow in my ear. The only word I catch is salope, which I know means whore, at which point I consider taking him home, because that is how I am wired. According the fetish room in Amsterdam, I am not alone in wanting to be called names in foreign languages.
But I go home without him. We had escargot for dinner and I am obnoxious with garlic, and I want to be alone. Solo, I keep trying to find my way; I will refer to the map a hundred times, I will count the canals I cross, I will look for landmarks. I will find a way to chart a straighter path through all these circles, to find my way at last to a different spot. With any luck, there will be a fizzy iced tea waiting for me at the end of it.