written Saturday 14 June 2003
|Vignettes: an evening in Amsterdam|
My first visitor from America. John, whom I've known for 24 years, happened to have a flight out of Schiphol the next morning and an evening to kill. We haven't seen each other for months, maybe a year, and after my quick train ride from Bussum station, right there, in the lobby of the Swissotel...there he was. Surreal.
Here are a few vignettes of the day.
Much beer + long walking = a need for...relief. At one point we avoided commission of the dreaded Dutch crime of "wildplassen" by my happening to know of "openbare toiletten in the Rijksmuseum area. When you've reached a certain state of distress, otherwise innocuous signs like this one jump out as though a beacon were shining on them and a band playing under it.
I had to nag John over and over that you never walk in bike lanes, or even cross them without looking down them as your life depends on it, which it does. We cheated death from the Dam to the Rijksmusem and Concertgebouw, back north to the Red Light District, up and down Kalverstraat, and back across Rokin for dinner. When our light turned green at Rokin a pair of girls rode their bicycles past us, quite illegally through not dangerously fast, and a kindly old Dutchwoman swatted one of the girls' hands with a rolled up paper. That was perfect, because...
...it further supports my miniature but growing conviction that a distinguishing characteristic of the Dutch is that they Love Rules but Hate Authority. I offer this picture ("rijwielen" is bicycles, "plaatsen" is to place, "verboden" is...well, you get the idea) as yet more evidence.
Dinner at the Indonesian restaurant on the Rembrandtplein, and then at an outdoor cafe on Rokin: "tweemal kopje koffie en tweemal armangac." Sitting at nine o'clock in the evening under a blue summer sky, we talked and admired two small dogs, quiet at the feet of an older couple who eagerly downed large beers. John remarked at dogs in a restaurant; it didn't seem odd to me, and I asked him to consider that Dutch dogs were better behaved in a restaurant than are American children, so which should be allowed? In Dutch the waitress asked this couple if they had been walking around Amsterdam a long time-- and Ja, they had. John and I caught up with our last news as the sky dimmed and the traffic thinned and quieted. The waitress came back out to the couple, carrying two hand-painted porcelain bowls of water. She crouched and set one before each dog. They looked up to her with big eyes as they lapped. John sipped and nodded: "This is the way life is supposed to be."
I left him at the hotel, uncertain when I would see him again. Caught the 21.39 train at Amsterdam Centraal and we started east to Bussum. Just before Weesp, the train slowed and then stopped. I expected an Intercity express train to go by in the opposite direction, but instead a conductor hopped down and across the other tracks to a narrow path alongside and a child's bicycle laying in the middle of the path. He looked ahead towards Weesp and shaded his eyes against the setting sun, back to the west from which we'd come. He looked across the polder. There was no child anywhere. A train came in the other direction, slowed, stopped. The engineer opened his window and talked down to our conductor. The sun set as they talked. The engineer talked on some kind of phone, and our conductor picked up the bicycle and came back on board. The bells rang, the doors closed, and train traffic resumed in and out of Amsterdam.
Off the train. On my walk across Bussum to my apartment, the air was cool, and I was tired enough to sleep, and I was thinking: nothing speeds your feeling at home in an new area faster than showing it to a visitor, showing it to him as your own. I climbed the stairs, pulled a beer from the tiny fridge and climbed the rest of the stairs. I watched the sky darken from my high window, breeze in my face. For now, yes--this is the way life is supposed to be.
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