The Condomerie: erecting empowerment in Amsterdam

It was noon on a Sunday when I watched a twenty-something man wearing a tweed jacket and red Adidas approach a young woman behind the shop’s counter. He folded his hands on the glass surface and gazed up at the shelves mounted on the wall.

“I’ll take a dozen Earl Greys please,” he said. The young woman nodded. She returned a few moments later and dumped 12 condoms on the countertop.

“That’ll be ten Euro, please,” she said.

Out of context this scene could be a parody, but at the Condomerie, the world’s first specialty condom shop, it’s business as usual.

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I’ll take a dozen Earl Greys please

The latex treasure trove, located in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, has been selling condoms and advising customers about safe-sex since 1987.

The golden sign

The golden sign out front

Before its doors opened on Sunday, a group of people formed outside—peering into windows, pointing at brightly colored condoms strung across wires like holiday lights. Cartoon condoms with smiling faces and clown noses perched in the window display, welcoming in passerby.

The Condomerie is more than a business with an unusually stimulating storefront, though, said Theodoor van Boven, one of the shop’s founders. It’s erected a philosophy thrusting beyond novelty products and laughs. It’s an important institution in modern sexual history—dedicated to providing health-concerned guidance to ensure responsible, protected sex, he said. The idea is plentiful discourse leads to safe intercourse.

“We believe in openness, knowledge, and generating helpful conversation about sex,” said van Boven. “We’re safe sexperts at the Condomerie.”

A stimulating window display

A stimulating window display

The specialty shop was founded in the eighties by van Boven, Mirijke Vilijn, and Ricky Jansen. On April 10, 1987, the three friends sat in a bar in Amsterdam discussing AIDS, a disease widely pervading the thoughts and bodies of people since the start of the decade. It was clear that protection had become essential for everyone, said van Boven.

However, there were sparse contraceptive options available and insufficient sexual health information, Vilijn said.

“The only place to get advice was the pharmacy and they only sold Durex,” said Vilijn. “We needed more information and more choices.”

One month later, the Condomerie opened its doors. Vilijn said it quickly became a place people flocked to for information and choices—combining important ingredients of empowerment. Over the years, Vilijn said it’s upheld its pledge to advocate protection while furthering accessibility, and people still fill the shop every day. In fact, the Condomerie gets about 600,000 to 1.2 million visitors each year, said Vilijn.

A young woman flipped the “closed” sign to “open” and people spilled into the shop. Chatter and giggles filled the high, airy ceilings and people bustled about, curiosity guiding feet across the hardwood floors of the small space.

Ninka Lavir works at the Condomerie, and has been helping customers navigate this latex jungle for two years.

“Choice is important,” said Lavir, echoing the philosophy of the shop’s founders. Lavir said the options can be overwhelming, and offering educated advice is a central part of her job.

“It’s important you use the right kinds of products for your body,” said Lavir. She said she often gets questions about allergies to latex, sensitivities to materials in lubricants, and ill-fitting sizes.

The Condomerie boasts over 35 different condom brands, offered in nearly 10 sizes, and in a variety of materials, textures, thicknesses, scents, and flavors. There’s even features like glow-in-the-dark and vegan condoms, too.

“Everyone is different and it’s important to keep your body healthy,” said Lavir.

One size doesn’t fit all—but one price doesn’t fit all wallets either. The Condomerie strives to make protection available to all. You can get three condoms for €.59, 12 for €1.20, or even 144 pieces for €14.20.

“Practicing safe sex shouldn’t be expensive,” said Lavir.

Selling condoms doesn’t need to be boring either. There’s a five-foot multi-colored paper maché condom suspended above the left side of the shop. Underneath the sheath, there’s a glass case featuring novelty condoms—windmills, skyscrapers, the Eiffel Tower. It’s like Willy Wonka opened a condom shop.

“We sell nonsense and it’s very important,” said van Boven, who previously worked as a freelance cartoonist. He said they’ve applied the power of humor to the Condomerie.

“Jokes make serious matters more accessible,” said van Boven. “Comedy opens people up.”

At the front of the shop, customer Naomi Gartias, an advertising professional touring from Puerto Rico, peered into a glass case of condoms hand-painted to look like animals. She pointed out a giraffe to her friend, and threw her head back and laughed.

“We came in because it’s nice to see something different,” said Gartias. “It’s also a good gift for our friend. We thought we could make a laugh out of it.”

Strictly sexual decoration

Strictly sexual decoration

It’s evident in the faces of customers, the big eyes, pointing, and subsequent eruption of laughter, that the Condomerie achieved something it set out to do—make safe sex fun.

“Our very existence has erased the taboo of selling and purchasing condoms,” said van Boven.

The brightly colored latex may have initially drawn Garatias in, but she said appreciates the shop’s philosophy as much as its products.

“It’s a really good concept,” she said. “Protection is something that you should sponsor in every country. We’re from a country that is a little bit too puritanical and moralist and there are a lot of younger pregnancies.”

Although the Condomerie is located in a progressive country, in a city that hosts arguably the most open sex culture, Van Boven said there’s friction in government sponsored reproductive rights in the Netherlands, too.

The fight for sponsoring safe sex is still ongoing in most corners of the world, said van Boven. We’re all a bit too prudish when it comes to talking about sex, he said, and a more open approach would be beneficial to the world’s health. Sex is an enjoyable part of life and we should approach it from an empowered place, not an embarrassed place, he said.

“Everyone can use a bit more lubrication,” said van Boven.

The Condomerie provides that lubrication—from education, choice, and accessibility, it’s helping people navigate sex with a little more ease.

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A lot of choices here

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I take you to the candy shop

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I’m not really sure what to say about this one

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Funny story, I actually interviewed van Boven while helping stock shelves in the back of the shop.

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The Condomerie is located on the skirts of the Red Light District

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It’s also right next to a shop that sells edibles!

I got a little souvenir-- Vanilla ice ice baby

I got a little souvenir–
Vanilla ice ice baby

It's like Willy Wonka opened a condom shop.

It’s like Willy Wonka opened a condom shop.

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Type 1 diabetic pick-up lines

This is a work in progress—a lifelong task I’ve taken up. Some of this is original content and some I’ve stumbled upon in odd places. Oh, and yeah, a few of these have worked.

  1. “You’re so cute. I am getting hyperglycemia just by looking at you.”
  1. “You remind me of my needles…Because you’re ultra fine.”
  1. “So what’s your type?” “Type 1”
  1. “Strip for me? Test strip that is, I’m all out.”
  1. “You spike my blood.”
  1. “Looks like my blood sugar isn’t the only thing on the rise right now.”
  1. “Hey girl can you check your blood sugar? Cuz I would love to know your number.”
  1. “Baby my blood sugar is a little low, gimme some sugar?”
  1. “How about we go back to my place, I know a way to make your blood sugar drop.”

10. “What’s your number?”

You remind me of my needles, ultra fine.

You remind me of my needles. Ultra fine.

Munich: Reverence for life

I went to Oktoberfest in Munich a few weekends ago, and while my arms grew stronger from lifting massive glass mugs to my mouth, my mind grew stronger, too. At the bottom of a German beer, I found a new philosophy.

We arrived in Munich early on a Friday morning. After spending an entire evening in transit on German rails, we reached the city exhausted, dehydrated, un-showered, and hungry. So as the rational young travelers we are, we promptly headed to Oktoberfest (subsequent to braiding our hair in matching milkmaid braids).

Calling Oktoberfest a party is a gross understatement. I’m not even going to bother describing the world I walked into that hazy Saturday morning because no string of words would do it justice.

After marveling at the handsome German folk in their traditional Bavarian dirndls and lederhosen, and salivating at the scent of baking pretzels, we stumbled into a tent and ordered some beers.

Beer is comically large at Oktoberfest. You feel as if you’re in a cartoon—holding your glass mug with two hands to put your face into the beer to drink. My wrists were tired after three sips. But not only is the beer bigger and stronger, but it’s also very special.

Perhaps it was the mixture of my exhaustion, Oktoberfest innocence, and the effects of alcohol itself, but I felt amazing.

To borrow a phrase from German philosopher, Schweitzer, I felt a reverence for life. I discovered Schweitzer while reading my environmental philosophy homework this week and I feel that it applies shockingly well to my Oktoberfest revelation.

The original German phrase is “ehrfurcht von dem leben” and it translates to reverence for life. It’s not meant religiously, although the word connotes that religious tone, but instead it implies an attitude of awe and wonder. The etymological roots of ehrfurcht suggest a mixed attitude of honor and fear—which pretty accurately describes my feelings for German people at Oktoberfest, and really Oktoberfest itself.

But anyways, Schweitzer held the most fundamental fact of human consciousness is the realization that “I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live.”

At Oktoberfest, I felt this reverence—this awe and wonder for literally everything.

Schweitzer’s philosophy suits me. Except he had this revelation while riding upriver on a barge in Africa and I had mine while on a carnival ride at Oktoberfest. But, it still works.

Anyways, ehrfurcht von dem leben and from this point forward I’ll never hesitate to express my wonder for life.

Milkmaid brigade at Oktoberfest-- Caroline, Me, Amy, and Casey

Milkmaid brigade at Oktoberfest– Caroline, Me, Amy, and Casey

Amsterdam: Bitterzoet’s beats resonate with Dutch values

You gain a different perspective of a city after the sky turns dark and the neon lights switch on. The night creatures come out, new doors open, and your perceptions of time and people change. While in Amsterdam a few weekends ago, we ventured out after dark to see what we could find, and Amsterdam’s nightlife didn’t disappoint.

However, I’ve found it’s tricky as a traveler to seek out an authentic after-dark experience—the kind that’s equally thrilling as culturally enriching. It’s easy to trip into tourist traps. Flashy, cheesy places lure you in and empty your wallet with their fat cover charges. Then after you’ve waited in long lines, you finally get in, find the bathroom, and soon enough you leave feeling like you never left your home country. This is not an ideal way to spend an evening while abroad (or anywhere).

We got very lucky in Amsterdam, though. We sort of fell into a crevasse of the city Alice-in-Wonderland-style and landed in an atmosphere oozing Dutch coolness. We found ourselves at Bitterzoet, a small venue serving as a theatre, club, and concert space. It’s located close to the Jordaan district, an area in the city known for housing artists. That night, a DJ collaboration performed on the main stage. We were probably the only Americans there, amidst a diverse crowd of twenty-somethings speaking in Dutch and dressed in their best.

It started with a conversation about a bicycle (I know, how Dutch). We complimented the bicycle of a recent law school graduate named Kina, and inquired about bike safety in the city—for some reason we were incredibly curious about how to ride a bike drunk. We chatted for a while and she invited us to join her and some of her friends at Bitterzoet—she was heading over right then. Her friend was the event photographer, too. After a quick group conference, we said yes.

I was taught to never talk to strangers, but this lesson is bullshit (sorry, parents). Talking to strangers is a great way to solicit advice and information when travelling to a new place. Locals know best and are usually eager and happy to show you their city. I encourage talking to strangers. Just pick wisely and always be gracious.

Anyways, we arrived at Bitterzoet, paid a cover of a few Euros at the door, put our things in a locker, and headed to the dance floor.

I’m not a clubber. However, I love to dance. Like, I really love to dance. But the clubbing atmosphere has always slighted me. And by slighted, I mean disgusted me. I’ve been to a fair share of American clubs and a few in European cities, and I’ve never failed to get an unwelcomed ass-grab.

It’s funny, but it’s really not. Groping, catcalls, and even elevator eyes take away from my ability to enjoy myself because I don’t have ownership over my moves on the floor. Your body is objectified, that male gaze affecting every little hair flick, and subsequently your experience is robbed from you.

But in Bitterzoet I felt free. It was such a refreshing environment. I enjoyed every beat of every song. I moved and danced in my own world without having to worry about being approached or looked up and down.

People danced for themselves. It was not about performance or attracting someone, it was about being goofy and feeling the music and enjoying the way the beat jumped into your bones and made you move.

Bitterzoet vibrated—everyone thrived off of this almost electric current in the air. There was sense of shared energy and we sustained that energy until the early hours of the morning. We danced to song after song to unbelievably good beats—all while feeling completely freed of podgy patriarchal pressures.

It might seem silly to believe that one night in a club could be indicative of a city’s culture, but what I found during my evening at Bitterzoet clearly resonates with some of the principles Dutch people value in their lives—individual freedom, gender equality, and good clubbing.

Casey, Meg, and me with our new Dutch friend Kina at Bitterzoet in Amsterdam.

Casey, Meg, and me with our new Dutch friend Kina at Bitterzoet in Amsterdam.