I was twenty years old when I learned I could be alone and strong at the same time.
I was volunteering in a Christian youth hostel in Amsterdam, Netherlands, after travelling Europe for three months. In some ways my upbringing had left me naïve and vulnerable. But the year and a half in Europe — most of it in Amsterdam — gave me a much needed education.
Amsterdam is a beautiful city, and in 1978 it attracted tourists for art, flowers, architecture, drugs and sex. Yes, at that time it was the end of the European Opium Trail, which started in Kabul, Afghanistan. The city also had one of the four largest Red Light districts in Europe, vying with Copenhagen, Rotterdam, and Hamburg.
In Amsterdam, this meant sex stores and houses of prostitution all over the place in the “District” as it was often called, which was part of the downtown core.
Unlike in the U.S., street walkers were nearly non-existent, the lowest of the low. Prostitution was legal — as long as they worked within a building. They also had healthcare and were taxed.
(That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems—human trafficking was a problem then as now. Not all were there voluntarily or wanted to remain. In fact, a woman I worked with founded an organizations specifically to help women get out of the trade and into mainstream work.)
But as a Dutch friend of mine explained, the Dutch were always looking for a way to make and save money, hence the characteristic architecture of narrow, tall buildings from the days when they were taxed on canal and street frontage. The country also had become a center for illegal trade in nearly anything someone considered valuable, as long as the “upstanding people” didn’t have to encounter it. (see note at end)
For me, with the hostel located just inside the District, it was a challenge to walk through it every day. The brothels were easy to spot. They actually had red colored porch lights! Most had street windows too large for the 200-400 year old buildings they were in. And mounted on each side were truck-style side mirrors. A woman would be sitting in a chair in various stages of dress — rather, undress — and keeping their eye on the foot traffic. (Cars weren’t allowed in this old part of town at that time.) If a possible customer was spotted, they would pose in the window to try to draw him in. In the heat of the summer, fully naked women would stand in the open doors. But when I went by, the woman might be munching on an apple and reading a magazine.
The sex shops, as I think of them, offered toys, live sex shows, and more. Their windows were covered in suggestive graphics that prevented looky-loos. Hashish and other dealers would also stand in doorways when weather permitted, seeking customers.
The reality was that these establishments comprised less than half of the overall businesses and residences of the area. There were wonderful falafel shops, restaurants, a pharmacy, doctor’s offices and other businesses in the neighborhood. But for the first half year or so, I didn’t see most of them, being so anxious as to not attract the wrong kind of attention or see something that I didn’t know how to handle.
The night came when one of our government residents entered the snack bar and announced to the staff that he had swallowed all of his pills. He then sat down at a table and set the bottle in front of himself.
We had a handful of residents whose stay was paid for by the government. Young men between jobs without housing, one was seeking asylum. Often they were incapable of living entirely on their own and either transitioning from or to some other sort of government housing. Our ability to provide meals and our closed door policy for security gave them all a relatively safe place to stay.
So when Garrett (all names changed) made his announcement around 9:00 pm, there was some panic among the staff. John, the staff member who knew him best, had gotten married and returned stateside. The guy scheduled for night watch had to be there for security. The other night watchman was on vacation, and everyone else was too young or too new.
I sat and talked to him for a bit, trying to learn what his medication was and what it was for. This was long before you could Google anything, and other than that he had mental issues (duh!) I learned nothing. After consulting the on-call manager, I agreed to take him down to the hospital, a thirty minute walk at the end of the canal just west of us.
As we left the bustle of the neon and crowds of the district, it became dark, except for the occasional streetlight. I was 5’ 1” and maybe 130 lbs. But Garrett was 6’ 3”, and big. No one in their right mind would mess with him, right? I tried to keep him talking the whole time, antenna out for any indication that he might go berserk or pass out, and also to keep my own fears under control. The trip was uneventful.
We sat in the waiting room two-and-a-half hours. Finally, someone came to talk to him briefly in Dutch and Garrett rose to go with him.
“Is he going to be OK?” I asked.
“Oh, he will be fine, but it might be a while. You don’t need to wait.”
I called the hostel and let them know I was headed back.
Now after midnight, it seemed even darker than before. My wood-heeled clogs were loud on the cobblestones. I paused for a minute and looked around. And prayed. I was afraid, and yet…. I had lived in this neighborhood for seven months by now. I had as much right to be here as anyone else. This was my neighborhood.
I stood straight, head high, and began to walk. And I looked around.
My neighborhood, I repeated silently as my path crossed a man’s. Every right to be here, as I made brief eye contact and nodded at another going the other direction. As I entered the District proper, I even managed to nod at a couple of girls in their windows. (And yes, I prayed silently the whole time.) I made it safely back and was let in by the night watchman.
“Nope. Just a long wait.”
Once Again Into the Fray
Later that summer, I had just seen my fiancé off at the train station, when a man approached me and tried to strike up a conversation. I tried to act disinterested. No luck. Told him I was engaged. Didn’t work. We walked around the rail station, me trying to ditch him, and he continuing to cling. I certainly didn’t want him following me home! Finally, I agreed to a drink at the station restaurant.
Not half-way through my Coke, I stood up and said quite loudly, “Thank you for the Coke, but I really have to go,” and barely kept from running out. Yes, I drew stares. That was the point. I returned to the hostel by the most direct route. Safely.
In a self-defense class a couple of years later, I learned that opportunity assailants look for the timid, the non-aware, the ones trying to hide, and the ones projecting fear, because they are less likely to put up a fight. No, attitude is not an iron-clad suit of armor — one of the instructors of that class was later attacked on her own balcony. But it does help.
Twenty years later, I was vacationing in the Four Corners area of the U.S. Southwest. Tired of no one being able to travel when or where I wanted to, I went alone. I’d camp for 2-3 days, then hit a motel for a hot shower and real bed. When in town, I’d check in with my mom and give her my expected itinerary for the next few days.
One night, I pulled into a forest service campground. One or two sites were already occupied, and I drove through looking for my own. I got out of the car and looked around. Something just didn’t feel right, so I got back in the car and drove on. The next campground was just as isolated, just as sparsely populated, just as dark. But I didn’t have the same feeling, and spent the night there.
A couple from Texas that I met later that week couldn’t believe I was alone. But I was having a wonderful time.
The Takeaway: I have seen and experienced wonderful things that I never would have if I didn’t go alone.
Another twenty plus years later, I still often travel alone. My husband is usually working when I have the chance to go on a vacation. He also works out of town quite a bit — even several states away — so to visit him I must travel alone.
The rules have changed a little bit. I carry a gun now (licensed). And cell phones make checking in with him so much easier. I’m pretty good at being aware on the road, not as good around town when home. (for example, see here)
I won’t say I haven’t done some stupid things when alone, but I’ve done stupid things with others, too.
In the end, as the saying goes, “Shit happens.” But we can minimize both the occurrences and the effects through preparation, situational awareness, and attitude.
Alone doesn’t mean you have to hole up and never do anything. Alone doesn’t mean you have to be paralyzed by fear. Alone can mean being aware of your surroundings, even seeing and hearing things you wouldn’t if distracted by others.
Yes, alone can be scary if you aren’t used to your own company.
But also, alone can be where you find your strength.
Note: While on a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight that year, the in-flight magazine had an article about an ex-merchant marine who had started his own “home-style” call girl service, where men could experience the “comforts of home”, so to speak, in the women’s own residences. The husband of one of the women thought it was a great idea, because his wife could earn some extra money and still be a housewife.
About the same time, the city of Rotterdam decided to purchase some waterfront property to rent moorage for houseboats and some adjacent buildings that could be occupied by the sex trades. Seems the businesses were creeping into nicer neighborhoods where they weren’t welcome. This was seen as a great revenue stream in addition to the taxes already assessed.
I can’t tell you what Amsterdam is like today, other than the photos tell me it is still beautiful!