British Invasion: Traveling through lovers and prostitutes

Dear Shaun,

I scrubbed myself clean of expectations this time.

For last time, circumstances had prevented Paris from getting its fair shake. I had been 16, new to Europe, carted there on a high school trip, then carted around France in a big old bus. No country should be seen in this way.

This time, unshackled from an unnatural connection to an American tour group, the city was free to come alive. And it did.

People call Paris the “City of Light and Love.” It’s a tourist-friendly slogan, to be sure, slapped across oversized T-shirts and flyers advertising discount walking tours — “Just meet me in the alley over here, beautiful, I’ll show you the way.”

But the city embodies this moniker, as opportunistically as it may have been chosen, in what seems like a deep and natural way.

Outside the tourist-drenched areas is a city of artists, intellectuals and painters. It’s a city of PDA. Hearts chalked on the sidewalk, people kissing on the Metro. It’s a city where an entire bridge has been devoted to lovers, who write their names on locks, fasten them to the bridge and toss the key into the Seine. (This concept has been aped in countless European cities looking to model themselves as “romantic getaways.”)

(Photo Courtesy of Shaun Fitzpatrick)(Photo Courtesy of Shaun Fitzpatrick)

I know I don’t need to tell you this, Shaun — you know. We were there together. We shared many “Paris moments” on our trip — one that, we remarked time and again, we’d probably repeat exactly if we returned to the city with lovers.

But I guess this correspondence has become more than a letter to you — it’s a love letter to Paris. From an American girl just trying to get her bearings, thanks for a great six days. See you again soon.



.  .  .

Dear Emily,

I also want to write about expectations, but I’m going to take this in a slightly different direction. The week after I left you and Paris, I took a trip to Amsterdam. My expectations were the obvious: drugs and prostitutes. I’m not going to talk about that first because my mom reads this (hi Mom!), but I do want to talk about the Red Light District and how it totally turned my view of prostitution on its head.

I grew up, as most in the States probably do, seeing prostitution as a completely black and white issue: Prostitution is bad. The girls are being exploited. The men who visit them are perverts and pigs. I was totally comfortable with this view, and it made perfect sense to me. I grew up in a household that promoted strong feminist ideals, so the idea of a woman selling her body to make ends meet was horrific to me.

In Amsterdam, however, the view of prostitution is completely different. In the Red Light District, the sight of women in bikinis dancing behind windows was totally normal, even at 2 in the afternoon. The Red Light District itself wasn’t at all what I expected, either: Besides the prostitution windows, it was also filled with apartments and restaurants and even, mind bogglingly enough, a daycare. Not exactly the seedy underbelly of Amsterdam that I was imagining. By night it looks different, of course: There are more girls in the windows (about 300 prostitution windows exist in Amsterdam right now) and the streets do indeed glow with red lights. But the streets aren’t lined with just men looking for the best six minutes of their life (which is, we were told, the average amount of time a customer is with a prostitute); it’s also filled with normal citizens going about their day.

What really struck me, however, was the way the people of Amsterdam view the prostitutes. Our tour guide was quick to point out that they were independent business women: They rented out their windows, made their own hours and decided what clients they would and wouldn’t see. They didn’t see themselves as victims, and didn’t want anyone else to either. That’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around, but in a good way. This is the first time I’ve seen something in another culture that’s making me question my own views. And that’s what study abroad’s all about, right?