The slightly disconcerted concierge (why did I want to go nowhere special she wondered with her expression) had advised me to take the No. 24 tram to Olympiaplein. The problem was her instructions to me on where to find it weren’t clear, and besides I couldn’t remember what she had said.
I was standing a half block from my hotel, the Rho Hotel on the outer perimeter of Dam Square, clutching my bright pink umbrella against the wind and rain and under that, covered in a grey-blue soft plastic poncho my mother had insisted I take from her the last time I was in Phoenix. Together they kept me mostly protected from the downpour. But I was pretty sure my shoes — the only pair I’d brought on the trip — would soon be soaking wet. I was sure soaking wet shoes would be the last straw before this traveler’s back broke, taking from me whatever vestige of hope I retained to right my sinking ship. (LOL, the delight — in hindsight — of mixing metaphors! to edit out or not. Not, I decide.)
the wet, grey mornings turned to sunshine by afternoon each day I was in Amsterdam!
I debated with myself — Should I ask someone for help finding the tram? Go in search of No. 24 myself without asking for help? Or head back to my hotel room? Man oh man, I wanted to go back so bad! Part of my reluctance to ask for help was that almost everyone in Dam Square looks preoccupied and moves at breakneck speed, all going somewhere. Or no where, but avoiding eye contact as if they were going somewhere, important. The day before I’d stood lost on one street corner, not far from the Central train station, two blocks and a million miles away from my hotel and asked one person after another, about ten people in all, if they spoke English. Most rushed past as if my next request was going to be for a hundred Euros. Eventually one person stopped for a minute to help and point me in the right direction.
Part of my problem with the Dutch is that even those who speak English have an accent that’s hard for me to understand. They also have a tendency to give incomplete directions and expect me to fill in the blanks. Seeking justification for a return to the hotel, I reasoned no one would hold it against me if I chose to have a “down” day, a day of rest after a day that included two assaults, a ten-hour flight, and the schlep of my suitcase and self from the airport onto the train and then over the cobblestones for several blocks, under-dressed for the unexpected cold, and frankly, well, miserable.
The Rho Hotel lobby and my sweet little room in Amsterdam
That morning, my second day in Amsterdam, I wanted so badly to turn back out of the rain and into the dryness, warmth, and quasi-familiarity of the Rho Hotel. I’d been there almost 24 hours. Relatively speaking, the Rho Hotel felt practically like an old friend. But I knew I had a scant total of 48 hours to be in Amsterdam before heading to France, and only 24 of those 48 left.
Maybe that’s why I pushed myself to go in search of the tram. I don’t know how I managed to find it. I might just as easily have found the tram for Timbuktu and gotten on and arrived there. The way things were going I wouldn’t have been surprised. Instead, a small miracle! I found the No. 24 going in the right direction.
I sat by the window, looking out but also anxiously observing and trying to make sense of the electronic sign that announced the upcoming stations. Soon an older woman (but probably younger than me) got on and sat next to me. Her face was lined; I read her expression as not that friendly. However, I noticed she kept glancing my way, with my little pink umbrella dripping in the crack between my seat and hers. Feeling her curiosity, finally I said, Hello, and asked if she lived here in Amsterdam. She said Yes, and then we shared a brief conversation. Mostly she told me how much the city has changed, how quickly it’d grown, and how there are now too many people. Right before she got off at her stop, she told me that the biggest problem is that the immigrants are rude, especially, she said, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Arabs. I nodded with a concerned look that I hoped read as sympathy and didn’t belie the judgment I mostly felt. I wondered just how xenophobic she was. I could see the multi-ethnicity and crowded-ness of Amsterdam. I imagined collisions of social and cultural misunderstanding inevitably would happen and mostly negatively impact those who wanted the old, familiar ways of doing things.
I still had several stops until Olympiaplein. But now I have to go back a few weeks. I have to tell you that the writer, Dani Shapiro’s husband, Michael Maren, was suddenly and very recently diagnosed with a serious cancer. I don’t know what kind or how bad, but I knew it was serious from the way Dani wrote about it on Instagram and suggested that her followers begin following him as well. Dani and Michael live in Connecticut, but Michael, with his new cancer diagnosis, needed to be in NYC to receive a number of chemotherapy treatments. In between infusions, Michael ventured out in the world, walked, took photographs of the people he met, talked with them, asked questions, and made connections. He posted these deeply heart-felt and brilliant mini-essays and photos on Instagram. They were/are exquisitely beautiful. I felt privileged to follow him.
I’d met Michael when my friend, Fern and I went to hear Dani speak about her latest book, Inheritance, A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, at Book Passage in Corte Madera this past March. We arrived early to get good seats and happened to run into Michael who was in the empty seating area too while Dani was over in the bookstore cafe with Sylvia Boorstein, who she’d soon enough be in conversation with in front of all of us. I said hello and told him I recognized him from pictures Dani had posted on Instagram. He was the nicest, most humble and friendly sort-of-famous person I’d ever met. Fern and I talked to him about being nurses at San Francisco General. A couple of weeks before I’d given Fern Dani’s book for her birthday. She’d read it quickly, and discovered a glaring error which should have been noticed and corrected before the books were printed, but clearly the editor had not known that Valencia and Mission Streets in San Francisco run parallel to each other and therefore Dani, as she had written in her book, could not possibly have been standing at the corner of Mission and Valencia near the popular vegan restaurant, Gracias Madre. Michael graciously received Fern’s feedback. We were both impressed with him.
I’m going to tell you what this story about Michael and his cancer and going out in the world to take pictures and talk to people has to do with me, but first I have to remind you of Part 1 of this story a few days ago. I was traumatized by two rather minor but no less traumatic sexual incidents on my way to Amsterdam. Frankly, I was a mess. Since I posted what happened on Facebook, I’d received all kinds of good and well-intentioned advice. Unfortunately not only did I feel unready to take in any of it, my inability to be more “positive” and get over my bad feelings only served to increase my feelings of inadequacy and bleak outlook.
As I sat on the tram, I thought of Michael. I recalled his Instagram posts, his clear seeing and kindness. In my head, I heard myself say to my self: You’re scared and uncertain how to be and what to do. It’s ok. BE that. I imagine Michael might have said something like that to himself as he wandered the streets on New York City. My voice continued. Be like Michael. Take pictures. Talk to people. Especially ask questions. BE open. I thought: There’s no where I have to go. Olympiaplein is a random destination. I needed it to help me choose a tram, a direction, but it didn’t matter when, or even if I arrived. When I asked myself what I was most interested in, it was the people. Not the tourist destinations. Who were these people, these people whose country’s name I barely knew? Was it Holland or The Netherlands? I didn’t even fucking know the difference between Holland and The Netherlands, whether they were one and the same, or different.
I started imagining what if I didn’t need to fix anything about myself? What if I sat there in my seat and allowed my fearfulness, my aloneness, my lostness, my bruised self? What if I hung out with myself as I was, as I am? Maybe I was short on positivity, but I was still curious about others and myself. I wondered what if I spent the day without an agenda except to BE and take photos if I felt inspired to, and talk to people, ask questions, if and when the opportunity arose? To pay some kind of curious gentle attention to arising opportunities!
I said hello to the next person who sat down next to me, another older woman. I had stopped suffering. I felt excitement arise in me. I asked her what it was like to live in Amsterdam.
Part 3, next time of Two days in Amsterdam.