Dec 16, 2008
red light christmas
When I was fourteen we moved from Guilderland, New York to Amsterdam, Holland. We lived in Amsterdam during the holiday season of 1986. My parents enrolled in a 'Discipleship Training School' before they moved on to Germany to work as missionaries. In September 1986, we flew People Express Airlines to Amsterdam. A guy named Jan picked us up and we rode in a bright orange van that was remarkably cube-like from the airport to our new home. Looking out the window, I was fascinated by the ugly cars and trucks I saw whizzing past us. At our new home, a building dubbed 'De Poort,' we were assigned three rooms. De Poort was basically a dormitory with meeting rooms. My younger sister, Bethany, and I shared a small room that fit our bunk bed, a dresser, a desk and not much else. My brother, Grant had his own room of the same size. My parents were given a larger corner room with two twin beds pushed together. Their room doubled as our "family room" by default because it was the biggest. Other families shared the hall with us. We all shared the toilets and showers across the hall. I was fascinated by the toilets. They weren't at all like porcelain bowls. They were more like porcelain shelves. Why on earth would they make toilets with shelves for the poop to land on? I contemplated that question many times in the coming months. This was certainly a strange new place. When I looked out my bedroom window, I could look out and see huge ships docked in a bay and a canal running down the street. Amsterdam was full of canals lined with house boats. And everyone rode bikes. We called them "Amsterdam Bikes." They were black and ugly. So ugly that no one would steal them. Stolen bikes were a problem, that's why people had ugly bikes. Everywhere there were bikes. And dutch girls in skirts riding side saddle on the back of ugly bikes while tall dutch boys pedaled with big smiles. And baskets on bikes full of groceries and flowers. And there were dogs were everywhere. On the cobblestone streets. Inside the stores. Even inside cafes. Dog poop was everywhere too. After we lived there for a couple weeks, we would laugh and say "you know who the locals are. They're the ones looking down as they walk along the street." All the tourists looked up at the sights and then stepped in dog poop. It made us feel like a local to say that. There was a cafe across the canal from my bedroom window that I liked to go buy candy at. This cafe had the biggest assortment of gummy candies that I had ever seen. That's where I learned to like black licorice. Even now, every time I eat black licorice I think of that little cafe with red and white curtains that sold gummy candies and served coffee and beer. I had my first taste of coffee one night when a bunch of the younger DTS students were hanging out in a lounge on one of the floors at De Poort. The coffee wasn't that bad. It wasn't that good either. There were a number of kids who went to DTS right out of high school, so some of my parents' classmates were only three years older than me. One guy, Chris, looked like a seventeen year old Jesus with brown shoulder length hair and potato sack type ponchos. Except he'd always sing 'Witchy Woman' and 'Hotel California' when we were doing dishes. I don't know if Jesus would have sang those songs. Maybe. We each had jobs at De Poort and I always liked working in the kitchen. Especially when Chris sang. Besides the shelf toilets and house boats and Amsterdam bikes, another thing I was fascinated by was the chocolate sprinkles that they put out at breakfast. We ate our meals in the lower level of De Poort in the dining hall that looked out on the courtyard. Each morning we had our choice of plain yogurt, bread or corn flakes. The chocolate sprinkles were supposed to be for the yogurt or the bread. When I first saw the chocolate sprinkles, they reminded me of the pellets from a bunny I once won at an Easter Egg hunt in Brookings. I tried them on the buttered bread and they were very good. I tried them in the plain yogurt and they were not so good. I don't think anything besides lots of sugar could make plain yogurt taste much better. Every week we'd have "De Poort Soup" for one of our meals. Basically De Poort soup is all the left overs from the previous week thrown in a pot with some water. Somehow the De Poort cooks always made it taste palatable. Sometimes now I'll make a De Poort Soup or a De Poort Casserole. It's not always palatable. That year I was home schooled. Well, I was sort of home schooled. I taught myself and my parents gave me my tests. But I wasn't very self-disciplined. Instead I drew pictures of the row houses across the canal. I browsed the Missionary Closet for free books and fell in love with Louis L'Amour. I taught myself to knit with discarded yarn I found in the Closet and knitted Grant and Bethany scarves for Christmas. I roamed the streets of Amsterdam. I did everything but my school work. Until my principal started threatening to expel me. I wasn't really sure how that was going to work, but I tried to apply myself. We were in Amsterdam during the Christmas season and New Years. Each of the YWAMers had to sign up for different Christmas outreaches in the city. My mom and dad signed us up to go Christmas caroling to the prostitutes in the Red Light District. We only lived a couple blocks from the Red Light District, but we pretty much avoided it. YWAM had a cafe in the middle of the Red Light District that we volunteered at a couple times. It was pretty cool to see what God was doing in the middle of such spiritual desolation. And to see the YWAMers serving the down and out. When it was time to go Christmas caroling we were told that we had to look at the women in the windows. We usually looked down at the street when we went by their windows. But this time we were told that we had to look into their eyes. So, we practiced "Feliz Navidad" and once we knew all the words we bundled up and sang to the prostitutes. When I looked in their eyes, they were actually smiling. Some of them were crying. I don't think they got many groups of people coming around to sing Christmas carols to them. We were treating them like people, not merchandise. I hope that they felt God's love through us. That Christmas we almost didn't have Christmas. We didn't have much money. My parent's only had $300 pledged support. But Grant went and bought a small potted evergreen. We made some ornaments. We went "shopping" at the Missionary Closet. I made everyone presents. I gave my parents a picture of the row houses across the street, and Bethany and Grant got their scarves I'd been experimenting on. Grant's scarf was a little short because I ran out of yarn from the Closet. That Christmas I got some shampoo and some knitting magazines published around 1967. I loved them. That Christmas in Amsterdam was one of my favorite Christmases to this date because it was about love, not about presents. We hardly had anything, and yet we had so much.