Monday, September 21, 2009

Amsterdam at last (Pt. XXV)

Note to readers: This is the twenty-fifth and final part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XXIV here.

A journey completed
Amsterdam was very different when last I had walked along her filthy canals. Then, the streets had been alive with merry-makers, laughter, summer bustle, happy, carefree nights. Lights! Music! Action!

Now it was mid-November: dark, cold November.

Sixty-some days ab ovo, I returned to faces that were drawn and long and grim. These Dutchmen know the North Atlantic winter. Life was less easy now. Tourists were gone . . . mostly. Though not all.

I found a lonely room with a broken bed not far from Dam Square: dingy and dirty and cold, but good enough. The time had come to face some things. Let Amsterdam reveal what it will.

Assured now of my European savoir faire, I sat cross-legged under stone sculpture in Dam Square, smoking a cigarette, watching with mild disdain a countryman . . . certainly an American . . . swinging his shoulders like a New World rube . . . the workout sweat-suit . . . the baseball cap . . . I was like that when I first came here. Now I am European to all eyes, with my stone cold stare and my inability to be impressed.

He was Ernest (forthright but wary), a 6'7" black man from Providence, Rhode Island, ex-military, in his middle thirties, built like an NBA power forward. He picked me out of the hundreds of gray people in the Square, walked straight up to me, nary a moment's hesitation, and said "Hey, man? You're American, aren't you?"

Smile I must, and smile I did. How easily shattered, that preposterous delusion. "Yeah," says I, still American to the bone. Another travel friendship was forged on the spot.

We started with Indonesian food for lunch. Ernest had three weeks in Europe and no agenda. "Where should I go?" he inquired. My immediate reply, "Budapest," was uttered with a certainty I can never explain. At that instant, sitting in an Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam, I knew that Ernest (forthright but wary) must go to Budapest. He nodded, recognizing the inexplicable conviction of my pronouncement.

From there, we descended together into seedy, lascivious Amsterdam: smokey coffee shops, labyrinthine alleyways, cold, damp stonework, and the stark, mercenary honesty of the sirens behind their plate glass windows. We were two Americans, reveling in the squalor and nobility of humanity.

Then, Ernest was off to Budapest, three-week Eurail pass in hand. We bid a mutual bon voyage.

Wilma (warm, smiling), whom I'd befriended in Rome, lived not far away in some small Dutch hamlet. I called her and we spoke, but could not muster the effort to reunite. No hard feelings, dear Wilma. Winter loomed apace. No need to venture beyond shelter.

And so, I was alone again in cold Amsterdam. I wandered wintry streets to return at night to my freezing room with broken bed, just off Dam Square.

I had completed a journey of almost 6000 miles, gathered in Viking fjord solitude, Prussian efficiency, and emerging Slavic dignity. I skirted through Alpine majesty, tracing the river's golden path across the valley floor from deific vantage. I descended, like ancient Hannibal into the realm of the Romans, saw their ruined cities, their broken pride scattered across Gaul. I experienced chic-humble duality of Spanish life by the Mediterranean. I endured insufferable arrogance, received astonishing kindness from the children of Vercingetorix. I sang for Belgians.

And yet, no succinct moral lesson could I discern; no distilled observation on humanity's condition. Just these generalities: people are basically good; sooner friend than foe; and a hand offered in friendship is most often the surest and best approach.

On November 16th, I took the train from Central Station to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol:  a journey completed, a lifelong goal attained. Now, should I die, I could have no reason to complain.

At the end of it all, I knew two truths. I knew who I was. And I knew who I wanted to be. And best of all, those truths were not far apart.

Note to readers: Thanks for taking this journey with me.

1 comment:

Ridwan said...

I have enjoyed traveling with you. A great feature of your excellent blog for sure.