How I nearly lost my leg in the red-light district


HERE, AS PROMISED last week, is the second and final part of my report on the fact-finding mission I took to the Netherlands this summer to increase international understanding, a cause that -- as the great humanitarian Florence Nightingale so often pointed out as she toiled among the sick and wounded -- is tax-deductible if you write about it.

My topic today is Amsterdam, which is the largest city in the Netherlands, unless it is not (somebody should look this up). Amsterdam, with its network of picturesque canals lined with rows of quaintly gabled townhouses, is one of the prettier cities in Europe; it's also one of the most compact, which means that you can set out from your hotel on foot and, within minutes, be struck by a bicyclist going 127 miles per hour (2,038 kilometers centigrade).

This happens because Dutch people of all ages actually use their bicycles for transportation, unlike Americans, who, once they pass age 15, use their bicycles mainly as housing for spiders. The streets of Amsterdam teem with whizzing bicycles, sometimes carrying two or even three people, who often are holding packages, smoking cigarettes, talking on cell phones, applying makeup and generally behaving very much like motorists on an American interstate highway, except that the Amsterdam cyclists go much faster. I'm not saying that a Dutch woman cyclist carrying two small children and a sack of groceries would win the Indianapolis 500, but she would definitely finish in the top five.

As a thoughtful concession to pedestrians, the Dutch cyclists all have little bells on their handlebars that make a cute "cha-CHING" sound, which serves as a friendly warning that you are about to die. As a tourist in Amsterdam, you quickly become conditioned to react to this sound. A fun prank would be to take a bicycle bell into a crowded Amsterdam cafe and ring it; all the tourists would immediately dive to the floor.

Of course, some of them might already be on the floor, because one very popular substance in the Netherlands is beer. The Dutch produce a lot of excellent beer, which natives and tourists alike consume in large quantities, in a courageous and unselfish humanitarian effort to keep this low-lying country from flooding. And beer is not the only substance that people ingest over there. The Dutch have a very open-minded, live-and-let-live philosophy about what consenting adults should be allowed to do, such that certain parts of Amsterdam make Las Vegas look like West Point. You can see businesses openly selling sex, drugs and -- most shocking of all, to Americans -- French fries with MAYONNAISE.

Nevertheless, you feel perfectly safe in Amsterdam (except for the bicycles). In fact, one popular tourist activity is to go to the famous red-light district and take ganders at the extremely friendly women who sit in little street-level rooms behind display windows, kind of like cars at an auto dealership, but with less clothing. (Notice that I am tastefully refraining from making a headlight joke here.)

I was with a group of people (including, for the record, my wife) who decided to go see the red-light district. As we approached it, we were all looking around with great curiosity, trying to spot one of the friendly women; it was exactly like when you visit Yellowstone National Park, and you know that there are bears somewhere, because you keep seeing signs warning you about them, but you haven't actually seen a bear yet, so the tension keeps building up inside you.

And so when we came around a corner and suddenly found ourselves right next to an occupied display window, I -- demonstrating the cool urbanity that certainly enhanced the reputation of American tourists for suave sophistication -- pointed and yelled "There's one!" At the same instant, I walked into a metal traffic barrier, hitting it so hard that I thought I fractured my kneecap, although I of course did not seek medical treatment because I didn't want to have to explain to the medical personnel how I injured myself. This is exactly why health authorities say that if you're going to be messing around in a red-light district, you should always wear protection, in the form of knee pads.

But other than that one incident, I had a terrific time on my trip, which incidentally -- Internal Revenue Service, please note -- included a brief side trip to Paris. The Netherlands are lovely and hospitable, and Amsterdam is a lively and fun city, full of things to do. In fact, I'll confess that, while I was there, I took advantage of the permissive laws and did something that -- call me a wild counterculture explorer -- I just had to try. I am referring to French fries with mayonnaise. My advice is: Just say no.

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