Friday, June 5, 2009

Weddings and Window Shopping...with a difference

It's been a pretty hectic month with one thing and another. Much of it filled with sunshine and fun. I think the Netherlands is starting to emerge from its gloomy winter. The bikes are sprouting grass and flowers, the terraces of the cafes and bars are all buzzing, and my students already look disgustingly bronzed (the joy of wifi means they can write their assignments outside...apparently!).

Along with a couple of colleagues/friends, Caroline from Ireland and Hana from the Czech Republic, I decided to complete my own 'academic' assignment. Our task was to sit the beer exam and graduate from the Beer Academy (read: walk out the door without falling over).

The Beer Academy sells over 100 different beers from all over the world (not to mention the whisky). We decided sampling over 100 might be a bit much and settled for a modest six. Trust me...six was more than enough! Some of the Belgian beers have an alcohol content of 12%...and taste like pop. We had a great night and all three of us made it through the door at the end of the night in a reasonably upright state...but then things started to go a bit wobbly! Negotiating bicycles, cobbled streets and canals can be a bit taxing when one is slightly under the influence! Still...we graduated and have the certificates to prove it.

The following week I flew back to England once again and enjoyed a lovely few days in sunny Yorkshire catching up with family, friends and former colleagues. My fourth trip back in two months was for a very special reason. It was to attend the wedding celebration for one of my best friends, Bee, who is now hitched to her lovely fella, Harry. Bee, Harry and their children looked fab in their stylish outfits and the whole event was really enjoyable. Congratulations to one very special family!

Last weekend was another long weekend here in the Netherlands - there's been quite a run of national holiays in the past couple of months! I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Amsterdam and was blessed with fantastic weather. I also managed to get a good deal on a brand new and rather fancy hotel in the south of the city. A former colleague of mine, Jude, was in Amsterdam for a long weekend so we met up and did a bit of exploring together.

We had a lovely afternoon exploring the markets and sampling the speciality food on offer in the trendy Jordaan area before heading over to De Wallen, the Red-Light District. Here, we joined a rather unusual walking tour around the area. Berna Meijer, who has a PhD in Prostitution of all things and runs tours on behalf of the Prostitution Information Centre, told us about the history and nature of prostitution in the area.

I'd wanted to learn more about what life is really like for the prostitutes following a documentary I saw last year.

The documentary followed two women from the Hampshire Womens' Institute who were running a campaign to decriminalise prostitution and legalise brothels. Their argument being that prostitution is one of the oldest 'professions' in the world and it isn't going to go away but it can be made safer for all those involved and affected by it. Their campaign was launched in response to the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 by the 'Suffolk Strangler', Steve Wright. Women who work in this industry are all somebody's daughter and, in many cases, sisters and mothers. Jean Johnson, along with the late Shirley Landells, toured a number of countries in order to research what was happening elsewhere and how the situation could be made better for the 8000 prostitutes working in the UK in order to campaign for changes to the law in the UK.

In Amsterdam, there are estimated to be 300+ prostitutes working in the De Wallen area during any a 24-hour period, the majority of whom are women. The district tends to be zoned according to the nationality/ethnic origin of the women and there is also an area where trans-sexuals are based. The profession is legally recognised by the Dutch authorities and prostitutes are required to pay tax. This is apparently calculated in the same way as taxi drivers have their tax calculated, based on a percentage of the annual tourism income received by the city. Prostitutes are self-employed although it is acknowledged that trafficking and pimping, usually by their partners, is a significant problem. As the prostitutes are considered to be 'legal', they are able to access healthcare services in the same way as other Dutch taxpayers. However, contrary to what I had thought, regular testing and health checks are not obligatory although there are many clinics in the local area.

Amsterdam's mayor is trying to clean up the area and, in 2007, the city closed down fifty windows - all owned by one man - and bought eighteen of his properties from him. The city plans to close more in the future. Many of the closed windows are now being used to promote a fashion initiative, Red Light Fashion in an effort to redefine the area. One of the properties no longer in use is now used to show those on the walking tour what it is really like behind the windows.

The property we visited had two windows over-looking the canal. Apparently, all the windows and rooms are always inter-connected with other windows and rooms for safety reasons. We learnt that the windows are always lit by two coloured and blue. The red is 'traditional' and associated with 'lust' and the blue is there to highlight the clothes, whatever they may be, that the prostitute wears. The prostitutes negotiate deals for their services based on an average time period of 15 minutes. They tend to charge between 30 and 50 euros for this. Rent for the window and room is charged per 8-hour shift and is usually between 100 and 150 euros a shift. I'll let you do the maths and work out who is really making money from this business.

The communal area with the windows in the property we visited was very hot and, as a group of about 15 people, we attracted quite a lot of attention. After listening to our guide for about 20 minutes, one woman decided to cut to the chase and asked, 'Where's the bed?' We were shown into one of the two 'bedrooms' which, to be honest, was much more comfortable than I imagined it would be. The decor was really quite smart and there were the obligatory washing facilities. We were also advised not to touch any buttons or switches as panic alarms linked directly to the police station were located all over the room.

Before leaving, I decided to experience what it was like to sit in the window for a few minutes as Jean and Shirley had done in the documentary. It was a strange experience and not one that I wish to repeat in my lifetime. Yes, I was propositioned. No, it didn't feel good. What it did do was help me understand a little bit more about what life is like from the prostitute's perspective. I think we have to accept that prostitution is something that will never go away and, as distasteful as the industry may be, perhaps regulating it is certainly a better and safer option for those involved than driving it underground and persisting with a system where prostitutes are forced to walk the streets.

On a slightly different note, whilst in Amsterdam I also checked out the Royal Palace on the Dam, one of Queen Beatrix's official residences. The palace is currently being renovated and will be open to receive visitors in June. If you go, you will be able to hear my dulcit tones describing the various state rooms and decoration as I've just done the voiceover for the English audioguide, or 'podcatcher' - to give it its official name. So...I wonder if that now means I can wear a plaque that says 'By Royal Appointment'? What would Queenie say though if she knew I'd been hanging out in the Red Light District's windows? Hmmm.