Two of my buddies -- a married couple out of US Embassy Sarajevo -- are working on an art project in which they're attempting to get a photo of people standing in front of iconic local scenery from every country in the world, holding up the equivalent of about twenty bucks in local currency.
The two of them are probably my most Bohemian friends in the Foreign Service -- she herself spent a year on a Fulbright studying the cult-like underworld of the Venezuelan beauty pageant industry, and he was the genius behind last year's "31 days, 31 jack-o-lanterns" project. Knowing them is refreshing: the Foreign Service is long on lawyers but sadly short on artist-types.
The places I'm going to on this trip are slightly out of the way and by extension lend themselves well to their project, and I was excited to join in: Iceland and Malta aren't exactly Congo or North Korea, but it does take a certain determination to get there. I figured I'd snap a photo in every country I made it to, and if that turned out to be their first photo from, say, San Marino, then all the better.
I arrived in Vienna, my first stop on this trip, and promptly forgot to take a photo.
I was determined to do better in the Netherlands. I wanted a quintessential Amsterdam photo, a variation on the theme of sex, drugs and fries with mayo. I went to the Red Light district. I was ready to take some pictures.
I want to pretend that six years with State hasn't turned me into a stodgy bureaucrat. I like to think of myself as laid-back and West Coast, easy going to a fault, though the people who know me find that risible given how ridiculously high strung I am. ("West Coast?" one of my actually West Coast friends said. "You're, like, SO buttoned up East Coast").
Buttoned up East Coast or not, I still think of myself as a grungy backpacker type, a position that was validated by my buddy in Vienna who referred to me repeatedly as a dirty hippy. I actually loathe hippies (I think of them as the willfully unemployed -- and no, you can't have a dollar, go wait tables like I did when I was your age), but I can see where she's coming from since I'm traveling for three weeks but only carrying two changes of clothes. I thought I'd fit right in with the other unwashed people in the Red Light district and this whole photo project would fall right into place.
Good god I loathed the Red Light district. I, Mr. No-Fun from the Embassy, felt like I was surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of potential American Citizens Services cases, people who could stroll into the Embassy at any time with no money or documents, no recollection of where their hotel is, and a pending court date for wanton theft of munchies-type food. I wanted to grab the people around me, glassy eyed from the coffee shops at 11 a.m., and shake them by the shoulders and tell them not to lose their passports.
My distaste at the roaming hordes in the Red Light district dovetailed with an assumption, innate and unshakable after six years at State, that all female sex workers are the victims of human trafficking. Even in a city as well-regulated and up-and-up as Amsterdam, it was all I could think of. I had to fight the urge not to ask strangers if they needed help in contacting the Embassy of their home nation.
I also found, when surrounded by the chronically high in the market of sin, that I was unwilling to ask anyone -- "hey, can you hold this twenty bucks for me?"
I grit my teeth and bought an order of fries with mayo, a food product that formed the staple of my diet in Amsterdam. I held the fries at arms length with a twenty Euro note wrapped around them, snapped two quick pictures with my ungainly camera -- one with the fry stand as a backdrop, the other next to a "dancing girls" sign -- and then bolted.
I vowed to do better in Copenhagen.