Antwerp was a city of many firsts for me: my first Rubens, the first time I tried fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup, my first Red Light district.
One warm, summer evening, when we were both living in England, my brother asked me if I wanted to tag along with him and two of his university friends, Steven and Hans-Georg, on a road trip from the East Mid-lands region in England to Antwerp, in Belgium, for a couple of nights. I was 21. I put clean underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, one change of clothes and a hairbrush into a small bag and threw it into the car with the rest of the stuff. We drove across border control onto the ferry at Dover and at some point, many many hours later, were parking in Antwerp. I probably would never have visited the gorgeous city if it wasn’t for local Belgian Steven wanting to see his girlfriend, who worked at the Sofitel hotel in Antwerp.
My memories of my time spent in that city are few, but distinct. I remember being in awe inside the hallowed, deeply Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, which has four large Rubens paintings inside it. I only learned much later that Rubens, the famous 17th century Baroque artist, lived in Antwerp and had his home here. Now, if I ever returned, I’d visit his house and amble through his gardens.
We didn’t visit any museums or such, being poor university students (I was an undergrad and they were post-grads) we preferred to see what we could for free and save up for a nice meal and drink somewhere before we spent the night somewhere warm and cosy. Steven’s girlfriend was able to get us a couple of rooms for an overnight stay. I do remember enjoying my first taste of fries parcelled up in a brown paper cone with dollops of mayonnaise on top to dip into. That was my first experience of a ‘fritkot’ (takeaway fries shop).
Not far from the cathedral was the town hall and an impressive statue of Silvius Brabo, a mythical Roman soldier who supposedly ripped the hand off of a giant that was tormenting the locals here and threw it at him.
I do remember strolling along some canals and insisting on visiting the red light area after drinking lots of fruity Jenevers and getting quite ‘happy’ on them.
I’d never seen anything like it before. Sandwiched in between the usual dimly lit residential streets was Antwerp’s red light district. Prostitution is legal in Belgium, which means that the woman have access to some protection and can exercise their rights if they dare to. But nothing quite prepared me for the reality of streets lined with box windows, where young girls – some probably still teenagers – were dancing and twirling in said windows and men were cruising down the street in their cars, yowling at the girls. It brought a whole new meaning to the word window-shopping. I had been the one who insisted, so the guys kind of formed a protective cocoon around me as we walked down the street. Almost at the end of the street, when we were in the clear, the guys broke away and walked ahead. Just then, a curvy dark skinned woman reached out for me from a doorway, wrapped her hand around my wrist as I walked past and tried to pull me towards her muttering something with a smile on her face. I pulled away and ran towards the guys. I thought it was ironic that walking down the street I thought I might be accosted by men, but it was a woman reaching out for me that had scared me.
Still, if you do visit Antwerp, the Red Light district is something to behold because of how organized it is. However, don’t be fooled by its glitzy lights in the windows. They’re still covering up the sheen of sixteen year old girls wearing tired old faces.