Vriends Voor Eeuwig (Friends Forever)

In between lost luggage and lost iPhones, I am thankful (truly, utterly, beyond words thankful) that I still have: 1. my laptop 2. the internet. Because this means I can: 1. work & pay for this trip 2. reserve a ride on the Amsterdam bike taxi to dinner.

Too scared of getting lost and wasting precious time without GPS to guide me, I Google Amsterdam bike taxis and Skype in my reservation to Voidtke. A Polish mountain biker, and while he bikes me down the most picturesque streets he can find, we talk of epic bike rides, bike-induced scars (see exhibit A: my legs) and crazy crash stories. It’s my personal slice of heaven. Bike adventures talk.

When we reach the  streets of beautiful Jordaan, he waves his hand like a magician (as he has picked up — and laughed at, but still seems pleased with– my tourist exuberance and childish delight with the way things are in Amsterdam). I give the requisite “oooohhh” and clap my hands with excitement. It’s gorgeous. He teases me but I can tell he’s happy I’ve enjoyed the trip through his adopted home. I get his number on a slip of paper, for the return trip, and the invite to join him and the guys mountain biking in Poland, if I ever make it out that way. (Who knows?!) Then he gives me two more slips of paper with his number. In case I lose the first two as I’ve lost my iPhone. (wink!)

Then I’m ringing the bell of the Amsterdam home of Marco Menato. It’s THE home-cooked dinner and conversation I’ve been waiting for since first thinking of a layover in Amsterdam the winter before.

Marco is a former colleague, a senior executive and one of those people with a resume of international achievements that should have placed him worlds away me at the time, on every possible aspect – and yet Marco is also one of those people, and former colleagues, who is completely approachable, encouraging, and inspiring with his stories and passion for life! A childhood split between Italy and Africa, continents traveled, languages spoken and adventures I could only dream of. A general “likeableness” that exceeds all other human beings I have ever known and the innate ability to transcend corporate nonsense with natural ease. (Those who know Marco know it is never possible for a dull moment or the absence of a smile to exist in Marco’s presence.) Quickly, Marco was one of those people I grew to respect and adore during my corporate tenure as a eager, work-a-holic 24 year old, finishing a full-time college degree honors program at UW while oscillating between a demanding, full time .com job. It goes without saying that I looked forward to Fridays like nothing else. Work done, Susan Littlefield and I would pull out the blender, tequila and margarita supplies  (all stashed in my cube “bar”) for happy hour in the affectionately named “Better Off Dead” conference room. When Marco arrived, the party started. Inevitably, laughter followed. And, hopefully, a story.

Eventually, Marco leaves us for a better job in Britain. I remain afloat through one after another corporate revolution. I start to rise through the ranks, but not without sacrifice. And then the moment when I make my move. (“Money isn’t everything, but it can be nice. So everyone’s watching–what are you going to do, Iverson? Snowboard the rest of your life?” The serious question about my career makes me smile, because up to that moment, I had never been so certain what I was going to do… And last year I managed to get 30 first class powder days.)

Five years evaporate in a second when I see the same, brilliant, smiling Marco standing before me. The hug of a dear friend. It’s like nothing has changed. He introduces me to Christine with words I find astounding. Like an angel-in-training, then. Now I’m pleased to see how she’s grown up to be the graduate version.

It blows my mind to hear these words, about me. Like someone showing you a photo, from years ago…and parts of it are familiar, but others are totally not at all what you’d expected or remembered. But there it is in front of you. Past and present colliding in an Amsterdam living room, miles away from the office park in Renton that brought us together, over ouzo and bongo board contests. I laugh away my watery, sentimental eyes.

A home cooked Italian meal. Fresh. Perfectly cooked. Delicious tastes of an old family recipe as the sun sets across the green canal and colorful Dutch houses and we talk, for hours, over a glass of red wine. Marco, his wife Christine and I.

I find out more about Marco’s life in those few hours than I’d known in the years we’d worked together. Starting a new life in Seattle, walking home from the London Tube the day of the bombing, finding old friends on Facebook, finding a new richness in life that exceeds all corporate achievement.

And like the wonderful, curious mentor & teacher that he is, Marco listens to my story. How it is that I’ve ended up traveling for 5 months, the why, the where, the how…interspersed with the utterly unknown. Marco and Christine provide both advice and encouragement. Astounding, much-needed, heart-warming encouragement. And for the tenth time that night, I’ll raise my hands to my face (Are you kidding? You’ve read that book too? You’ve heard of her too? You know about that project, too?) when it turns out not only does Christine have a graduate degree in global food policies (making her one fantastically interesting person to talk to about food, coffee,  and trade as I’m diving into the details of these topics with new interest) but has also read or is planning on reading all the books on my list, of late. This whole time, this entire winter when I was traveling down my little rabbit hole of books — in between early morning powder runs and late nights of work at the cabin — how funny to travel half the globe and find out another was doing exactly the same. Even when you think you are alone, you are never alone. It’s amazing to share ideas, books, sources, thoughts, laughter…

Over a shot of anise flavored raki, I try not to think how much I admire and adore my friend more than ever because of the way it makes my eyes water. Instead I think of how we promise to meet again in Greece.

Walking to the tram, together, in the quiet Amsterdam night, is like heaven. Laughing and talking. I don’t want it to end. And I know, already, that when I try to write about what this dinner and these personal conversations meant to me, I’ll butcher it, horribly. Sometimes there really are no words.

And I know I will never be able to describe the happiness I felt. To see my friend, Marco, again. But this time, in love. The happiness that lights his face and eyes, is brighter than anything I remember. It’s not the sickening love. But teasing and humor and adoration. It’s the kind of love that is fun to be a part of. The love of friends and partners. It’s the kind that I adore. I never knew until that night that it took a massive heartbreak for Marco to get there. For all the encouragement and advice and kindness, what I will remember most of that visit is the light, happiness of his face, as they stood together, waving to me, (and cheering me on), as the tram pulled away.

I sit quietly, listening to the wheels turning. A mechanical ghost, rattling through the dark to familiar streets and sights I can name (Tropenmuseum! Oosterpark!). So strange to be somewhere completely new, yet feel so at home.

I wish the conductor good evening and good bye in Dutch, crossing streets without need of a map, down lightly graffitied corridor, to my home, in the light of a bright Amsterdam midnight.

Een Wonder (A Miracle)

I think a miracle has happened. You are one very lucky girl. The taxi driver found your phone will return it to me this afternoon.

Jumping up and down. Henrie! Henrie! Henrie! I knew he’d come through, I knew it! I mean, I’d hoped. I mean, I wasn’t sure—but I just had this feeling that he’d come through!

Henrie laughs. At first I say it will take a miracle. Then I see this driver…I have his number so you can thank him. (wink)

HENRIE! But thanks, I should thank him, he didn’t have to do any of this. I can’t believe it!! I had hoped. He seemed like a good man…but…

I text a heartfelt, overjoyed “thank you” to the number I’m given on the way to the Van Gogh museum, there’s just enough time before dark to make. I’d promised myself that was the one thing I absolutely had to do on this trip and thankfully the place is open until 11 on Fridays.

It’s Friday and I leave tomorrow. When the last of my stuff is re-packed, I head out. I never did dig out the big camera for some good Amsterdam shots, something about it is wearing to me right now. So I don’t force it. I tell myself I’ll come back someday, and maybe I will…for now, I pull out my iPhone and have at it.

Finally an hour to tourist, I skip through the entrance, only to be met by a stone-faced guard. The museum is open until 11…but she points to the ticket office, that closed 5 hours ago, a minor detail not mentioned in any of the online “Friday night with Van Gough” promotional material. (Because, yes, I had to double-check if I had set myself up for my own rejection.)

Can I just give you the money?

No. You need a ticket.

I snap a bitter shot of the exterior—I suppose I got to see the museum, just not the inside…this time…

It’s onto Perpignon, France, by way of a cheap little flight that puts me back in the UK for two more hours, tomorrow.

When Henrie comes to pick me up, as excited as I am for what comes next, I’m still a surprising mix of sad. As time has flown so fast, it feels like we’re merely rewinding back to the airport after only a day or two: I realize it’s been a comical trip of things I didn’t get to: from Van Gogh and Anne Frank to dinner at Pato Negro to renting bikes….and on top of that, there is just some bit of sorrow about leaving a familiar place (and my now dear friend Henrie–with all his own real estate investments, construction, and school projects–who still patiently helped me through plane delays, lost luggage, lost phones….when he could have just as easily shrugged his shoulders at my sorrow).

So I drown myself in deliberate denial. I refuse to say “Dag” (goodbye) but just see you later! Instead, we hug and joke about what I will do when the next “disaster” strikes…and how I will expect him to “save the day” in the Sahara or Pyrenees or wherever I run into problems requiring a miracle, next…

And, as I settle into the most uneventful plane ride of the trip: I thank god that life, despite all our best efforts, does not work out the way we think it will…or should…or I doubt I would have ever found my way to London, to meet a coffee fairy, for lunch. Or an Italian dinner in beautiful Jordaan. Or be here right now, flying to France, watching clouds swim beneath me, wondering how all these things, people, lives intersect.

There are so many things I didn’t do. But thinking back, I think I did the things that were most important. I pick up my pen and start to draft the bit about my Amsterdam dinner with Marco & Christine…and the clouds continue to swim beneath me.

American Girl

I drop the money for the fancy hotel within walking distance to the airport so I take no chances with my freshly re-scheduled 7 AM flight.

Knowing I’ll be traveling in the morning, I work through the night (between over-priced snack-bar raids) as a gold-orange UK sun sets and reflects over the massive, metallic airplanes that sit, grounded, outside my window. Up early, I still end up running to catch my next flight after getting caught up in security, nearly losing my passport (so on…) but of course, it all works out, and gives me time to trade stories with the two bearded, trash-talking Brits in ripped t-shirts and tight jeans, who are on their way to Poland for a Metallica show. To my surprise, they’re in awe of the “office” in my backpack and after answering all their questions and underscoring how hard I do work to make this kind of travel happen, they still love it. When it’s slow through customs, they bust out with made-up songs to the “American girl” that make me (and those in earshot) laugh. The customs agent, however, asks who my friends are. I reply that I just met them.

But they are singing songs about you?

Yes. [I look back. They both wave.]

Shakes her head as the stamp clinks down on the page, 24 hours after leaving Amsterdam.

I leave my friends to wait through the longest taxi queue ever. I’m too exhausted to risk a train ride and an incorrect transfer or any further delay. I just want 3 Reinwardstraat, alstublief.

45 minutes in the hot sun later, in line with Italian and German business men who agree to speak English and I listen to intimate details of technology business discussed by representatives from opposite ends of the continent, I’m starting to wonder if I made the right call. Finally, it’s my turn for a black Mercedes. I walk towards my car to the totally attractive blond haired, blue-eyed man in a full-on suit and blue-green tie. A perfectly timed gust of warm whips at my shirt, and blows my hair and scarf into movie-perfect swirls. He towers over me, which is an unusual–but not unpleasant–travel experience for me, firmly takes my bag from me, steers my hand to the open door where I collapse into the air-conditioned leather of the backseat. In the instant the door closes–heat disappears, business talk and jet plane noise evaporate. And, like the perfect accomplice, he hops into the front seat and speeds from the airport onto the highway, listening to trashy hip hop (my international weakness): Katy Perry’s California Girls.

My head feels too foggy to make polite conversation, my mouth too tired to do more than smile. But this is what people do. They don’t force themselves to speak another language. Make polite conversation. They just sit. So I just sit, take a deep breath, and slowly close my eyes. Exhausted. Devastatingly tired. Unsure. On all fronts….except for this car ride. This right now. His well-practiced hands steer us, speeding gloriously faster, racing through traffic and sunshine, at 150km per hour. I feel perfectly safe. Protected… Taken care of.

It’s a strange feeling.

I don’t want to talk, but he’s full of questions now: where was I going? why did I come back so soon? how long do I stay, what do I do? Have I been to California?

The day trip to London, the missed flight, the missing luggage, the bumpy start….somewhere in there is a photo show, a hope, a desire to do something different–something good, I was born in California but I could never live there again….my head spins with tired aches. He listens through his rearview mirror, compassionately. We agree it’s just the adventure of travel. And sometimes it’s tiring.

He teaches me the words for “left” and “right”. I confidently tell him where to turn to turn next, to get me to Reinwardstraat…only to get it wrong, time after time as he laughs and speeds through the next intersection.

Finally home. I fumble through my purse for Euros as he parks the car.

He helps me with my bag and wishes me luck and good travel. It is a good thing you are doing, he assures me. I can see he means it. Sun flits through trees. Blue-green eyes sparkle. Bicycles ting as they whiz by this little road in Amsterdam.

I keep thinking if this were a movie, this is where the dashing taxi driver would take me in his arms and kiss me. And tell me everything is going to be alright. Just because it’s one of those kinds of moments. When you’re broken and someone comes along adores you anyway. And makes you feel so safe and warm and happy. For no logical reason.

But logic does kick in. How many fantastic men have I met in the last year, back home…how would this ever…sigh…

So instead of impulsiveness, it’s a heartfelt thanks. I assure him I’ve enjoyed just being in Amsterdam and best part of these ups and downs is how many kind and amazing people I’m meeting. It’s actually been really good. But yes, a little less drama would be nice…

I climb the stairs and watch him drive off.

It takes about 5 minutes before I pat my pockets, then my purse, then, I’m tearing up the apartment. S#$%.

iPhone.

I must have left it in the backseat when I was looking for money. I shouldn’t, but I feel deflated. Feels like I trade one piece of security for the surprising loss of another. There goes my alarm clock, my gps, my dictionary, pictures of my only day in London.

And once again, I am emailing Amsterdam savior:

Henrie, you will not believe what I just did….

 

What?! It will take a miracle to get that phone back. But we will try…

Oranje (Orange)

I sit at home the entire day waiting for my backpack arrive. I do not want to miss this. And when it arrives, it’s gl-or-i-ous! One massive check off the list. I’m so short on time these days (working, researching one trip in tandem with another, as one is unfolding right in front of me each day, barely keeping ahead of my itinerary, Skyping with Ethiopia contacts after one fortuitous meeting puts me in touch with some really amazing people…but must save the story for later!) It feels like it’s all hitting me at once, it’s not bad–just busy, surreal, captivating…and utterly exhausting. While I begin to formulate backup plans to get clothes and the techie stuff I’d spend months in the states locating, I couldn’t imagine I’m starting this trip without the giant gold earrings my little sister gave me my last night at home…

But when all hope is gone. My prodical bag (after a week in Denmark, without me), returns! Seeing bits of things familiar to me, around Henrie’s apartment, feels like bits of familiar sunshine on an otherwise drab week. That night I fall asleep, with dreams of wrapping up work early tomorrow and heading out with my new friends to explore Amsterdam, finally! Sniffle. Cough. Then, sleep.

Sometime, in the middle of the night, I wake up, head pounding, throat aching, feverish and wrecked. Maybe it will go away.

In the morning, I stumble to the kitchen for water and ibprofin, the 15 foot walk leaves me gasping at the air. Oh, hello, asthma! It’s the sure sign that I’m sick, my physically-induced asthma (which generally hides on most of my mountain bike rides and cold, back-country hikes!) just appears from nowhere when I’m sick. Temporarily triggered for utterly silly things, like climbing a flight of stairs….or talking… It’s not been a huge deal….except the whole part about not breathing. When they caught it in the 6th grade, I described it as blocks of cement, or a giant elephant sitting on my chest.

And…on cue, somewhere in the distance, there’s a off-tune, repulsive honnnnk…silence…honnnnnnnnnnk. What is that?! It sounds like an elephant, trying to sing…on the second honnnnnnnnnk, I decide it’s really just dying. Pillow over the head. I decide that it’s horrid. This is how I’m going to go down, wheezing and listening to a tuba die a horrible death, in the pastoral Holland countryside. I groan, cough, laugh. More asthma. Wheeze. I can hear Loren voice commanding, “Stop laughing, Hoya! HOYA!!!” But the tuba keeps honking–unfortunate, unmelodic moments–I keep wheeze-laughing. What did he say in New Orleans: It is what it be! And THIS will be my memory of Amsterdam, bad tuba, asthma, being hopped up on cold meds and vitamin C (crunch. crunch, crunch. wheeeeze.) Despite all my good intentions, I traveled around the world to get sick. Honest disappointment. Then acceptance. Bring on the vitamin C! (Crunch, crunch, crunch. Sniffle. Cough.). This is the trip that will forever be affectionately referred to by what my dear friend Molly accurately termed: “Amsterdam, by window seat.”

Then, I’m staring at the results for quick flights to London, for a day-trip, now departing in less than 48 hours. For a second I think about not going, as I crunch more vitamin C like bitter-orange candy from a little brown and yellow bottle. (What was the recommended dosage on these things anyway? Drie per dag? Pffft. That’s silly. Silly Dutch! What do they know — they built their country below sea level. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Now’s no time to be all conservative about vitamins in the land of recreational drug use–let’s get on with this getting better. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Sniffle. Cough.)

I must get better by Monday, at least enough to get on that plane. I must get to London.

“Confirm Reservation”. Click. Done. Back to lay down, dragging laptop behind me…

In a daze, I send a few long, quasi-coherent emails trying to answer what I think I’m doing on this trip. All that comes out is a jumbled mess of dreams and half-formed ideas. I go back and delete any blatant encouragement to visit. They’ll have to find own reasons to pack and leave. I don’t want it to be because they feel me pulling them. I don’t want the reason to be me. Besides, I have work on this trip that I have to do, who would be crazy enough to find that intriguing?! But good god, I sound half-crazy. Or just bored. Trying to find ways to make travel, more than travel, post photos, post words, repeat. Are you really going to send that?

Hit “Send”. Click. Done.

And I’m really done for the day. I rest, enjoying what I can of my first real day of hot, summer sun, pouring through the window, I try not to think of the luxury of wandering Amsterdam, exploring its museums and scandalous corners, with the masses, as stately hollyhocks and arching mock-orange bloom for the first time this year, on such a beautiful day. These will be plenty of time for that later.

And, instead, I lay in my bit of lingering fever that makes the warm day warmer still, wondering what will happen next as I listen to Reinwardstraat outside my room, the trains sighing to stops, the people dining at Pato Negro, the ding-ding of bicycle bells, until I pass out in a vitamin C induced coma.

Alstublief…Dag! (Please…& Goodbye)

Early mornings start to blend with late nights. I live, simultaneously, by two clocks: my laptop tracks standard Seattle working hours and an iPhone alarm set to Amsterdam time tells me when the markets are precipitously close to closing for the day. And often, I use a third clock to figure out east coast hour of a present client.

It’s 9PM Amsterdam time when I realize I haven’t made it out all day. (The wonderful/tricky thing about Amsterdam is light doesn’t really fade until 11PM and even then it’s deceptively light & bright.) I bold down the stairs with my iPhone and scarf. I wander through Oosterpark, as hundreds of green parrots dart through the golden-rose-hued sky, flapping and squawking as they settle in the equally green leaves of massive, old trees.

Without a camera or a Dutch dictionary silently announcing “tourist” upon my arrival, I am consistently mistake for Dutch throughout this trip. Everyone told me they wouldn’t bother to speak anything but English. Instead, here I am, replying to complex strings of conversation with a simple, awkward: “Alstublief, Sprek’t tu engals?” more often than I could count in a day.

But walking is fun. There’s no purpose. No need to be understood more than utter surface level. So as people greet me or explain in passing, like one of their own. I nod and smile, sometimes laugh, to god knows what they say to me. But it all sounds nice.

When I believe the coast is clear (or when I just don’t care how elementary I look), I pull out my iPhone with the Dutch app. It’s awesome. One tap of the finger and you can read the word and hear a native speaker say it, over and over and over again.

“Alstublief” she says.
“Alstublief” I say, again. Again. Again.
“Dag” she says.
“Dag” I say….and wave to no one to try to cement its meaning.

And so I go, down the streets of Amsterdam, having delightful, repetitious conversations with myself. Testing my greetings on unexpecting passersby as I see fit, with fairly good results.

I’m proudly counting (and re-counting) my steps out loud, een, tway, drie…, when he jogs past me. We both wait at a stop sign, when he pops his earbuds out. Listens. Then, to my surprise, “Do you speak English?” (in accented English).

I’m so flustered by my native language after such a lovely Dutch stroll, I just laugh and spit out, Ja! I mean, si! I mean, I do, yes!

This is how I meet Camille. A twenty-something Swiss, working for two months in Amsterdam. He’s just arrived and hasn’t had time to get out. I haven’t either so we start to walk together, alternating between practicing Dutch through my little app and checking iPhone’s GPS (because conversation leaves us wonderfully disoriented).

“Alstublief” she says.
“Alstublief” we say dutifully back to her. Then once to eachother, in mock seriousness. Again.
“Alstublief” she says.
“Als—“ I say
“Shhhhhh!” he says “I want to hear her say it.”
“She’s saying Alstublief!”
“Yes, but your American accent is messing things up!”
“ALSTUBLIEF!!!” mock horror covers my face! But I oblige and bite my American tongue next time she says it. Camille thanks me with a serious “Dank u”.

We pass through increasingly quaint alleyways that open to a large cobblestone square, decorated with neon signs. Camille stops. Points. And turns to me: The red-light district. This is the red-light district…I’ve never been to one before, ever.

I’m waiting of the punchline. But that’s it. His announcement. It makes me laugh. Oh! Well, glad I could be your first?! I mean, what do you say?

It’s getting late, and we turn around, satisfied to have made it to Amsterdam’s core. Though tired, I keep a quick pace, I know I have a pile of work waiting and will be up past 2AM working. We try to make plans to continue the exploration but I’m 100% non-committal. I must work hard this week.

No fun?

Not right now….I’m afraid, no.

I try to describe working in a cubicle for the last 10 years. A desk where I felt I spent more hours working than at home. Taking a break to stare out my picture window and my Mt Rainier view and the IKEA sign that somehow always gave me the idea that the mountain was sponsored by the Swedish. The day I realized the real cost of chasing titles, when it finally – dramatically – cut into my mountain biking and snowboarding routine. And the day I realized I had to live my life, and do some things differently. And with a little luck, some failures, some hard-earned successes — it’s worked…so far. I work hard, sometimes probably too hard, but I love what I do and what it gives me: the freedom to travel, write, photograph, explore.

I don’t describe to him the day I pulled on my damp wetsuit and hopped on my old, orange longboard, Sherbert, and paddled out, alone, on my favorite break, on a dreary fall day. How, more than any day ever, I felt so insignificant against this immense, living thing I floated on. How struggling to push myself through to the other side of powerful, sea-green waves, I tried not to think of how my heart pounded. How I looked over, then, and saw a little duck, bobbing 15 feet from me, like a toy. How it was even tinier than me, yet ducked under the storm without hesitation….and popped out the other side. How the song lyrics from the drive in drifted back through my mind, “Don’t be scared of anything, at all. Everything you have is all you need…”

The Oregon coast ebbs away and I’m standing at a cross walk with Camille. Your life, he says, I think you are living the life as they say. You are doing it right.

It catches me so offguard. Really? REALLLLLLY?

Yes, I think you are living the life. How many other people could see and do what you’re doing, and still work a job they like.

I work a ton, look at me stressed to take a walk tonight….I’m starting to really wonder that I’m not doing this right.

What?

This. It’s been a bumpy start. I’m wondering if it was crazy to just pack and leave for months at a time to travel around, alone, never settling, what if I never stop going… What am I doing? What if my missing backpack is a sign that I shouldn’t be doing this?

That’s expected, though. It will work out.

It’s easy to say when you’re not doing it.

Maybe. But you will do it.

He’s confident. A buoy. A fearless little duck, swimming, beside me. Both setting adrift in the wild cosmopolitan sea we share for just this evening. And I’m more appreciative than ever I stepped outside tonight for my Dutch practice, because I feel again, this restored sense that I can do it…Whatever it is… And when I get home late that night, I’ll jump up and down when I get the message from Henrie that my wayward backpack has been found, and will be returned by 6pm the next day by Hermann, whom Henrie says is a very good man. I couldn’t agree more. Back on track.

Camille and I split up at Linneaustraus and Reinwardstraat. He *thinks* he knows the way back to his flat, but isn’t sure. It might be a long night, he smiles.

You’re not scared? You have no idea the name of the place you’re staying. The road. A phone number, anything?

It will be the adventure.

“Dag” he says.
“Dag” I say, with a wave. We make plans to do this again, but I’ll be too busy that we’ll only trade emailed apologies.

Een, Twee, Drie! Gemakkelijk! (One, Two, Three! Easy!)

The next week I work.

A lot.

No one wants to hear this part. I know. It’s not exciting. But it’s part of the plan. It’s my deal with myself and is the only way to make the “work-cation” succeed. Work must not suffer, or this life of extended travel, the mortgage back home, the plans I have for the future, crumble. But something more than work it taking its toll. I’m getting sick. Four damp days in Amsterdam, trying to time trips to the daily massive open-air market between rain showers, but inevitably always getting caught in a downpour, returning with shivering arms and cold, wet feet and a half-hearted smile as I sit down to work through my jet-lag with tasty slices of jamon serano, creamy gouda, a daily ration of four sweet meljbroodie (a sweet, milky bread which I know I’m spelling this wrong, Help?). I originally intended to buy
three, but the breadseller laughs and points to the sign, it’s 4 for 3 Euro). The only problem is I can’t count past three, in Dutch, yet. Een, twee, drie. Then shrug my shoulders to demonstrate I have no idea what the hell comes after three.

He laughs, as the market swirls by us, the selling & buying, and we both count on fingers like grown children: vier, vijf, zes, zeven, acht, negen, tien!

Gemakkelijk, ja?

Ge…ge….gem….? (I sound like I’m about to hurl a hairball trying to imitate him.)

Gemakkelijk. Means “easy”.

Ohhhhhhhhh, ja! Ge…ge….ge… (We practice saying it together, both sounding like we’re about to hurl a hairball, to the enjoyment of passersby.)

Gemakkelijk, ja! (Finally, it comes out! Enter my new favorite Dutch word yet: gemakkelijk)

We trade waves and “dag”‘s (bye-bye!) and I head further down the market in search of vitamin C, another massive bottle of mango juice and the most amazing, tiny red strawberries. I replenish these daily, at the Turkish store with the grim grocers who take about three days of repetitive mango juice purchasing before they remember me and start to warm up, finally a smiled “goedemiddag”s, which turns to honest curiosity and jokes as it becomes our mutual daily routine to stumble through another purchase in a mutually non-native shared language, Dutch.

Then back out, between clouds, to navigate the market. Between the hours of 10am and 4pm it’s flooded with people, of all sorts. I love the market. Whenever I get antsy, I walk down and join the stream of utterly colorful people from all corners of the world, descending on this little street. There’s no stereotypical person. Only people, of all shapes, sizes, colors, languages. It’s the south Rainier Valley of Amsterdam, I think, for both people and food. And I feel right at home. Traditional Dutch fare paired with Vietnamese pho, Turkish pizza, and then I see it, a tiny neon sign that maybe I am on the right track afterall: the tiny Indonesian warung less than a block from my flat.

Groen (Green)

I wake to a bright light of a new day and such an intense squawking of a thousand green parrots that’s so loud, in a daze, I first look around for a native alarm clock hiding in one of the night stands. Then realize. Stare at the green parrots, yes, parrots, darting from ancient tree to ancient tree. Grab ear plugs leftover from the airplane, looking for one minute at the single shirt, folded on top of my blue jeans, and an otherwise empty house. As foam gently expands through my eardrum, the bird chorus fades. I fall asleep.

The next time I wake up, there’s a buzzing. Once. What is that? There it is again? Oh Henrie. Henrie! We were supposed to walk over to the ATM to get the rest of the money for my deposit. Keeping him waiting again…

I stumble from bed, throw my only possessions, and run downstairs with more profuse apologizing.

He cordially asks about my night, points out the Pato Negro, and teaches me my first lesson in Dutch. Jaywalking.

The one thing you should know.It’s universal really. But the Dutch have upped the ante and mastered the concept. Not only do you cross a stream of alternating car traffic there’s trains, trams and a ceaseless stream of bikes.

Henrie tells me seriously. Green you go. And red….it means stop, except…

A line of six little red “walking men” light the way.

Sometimes, when it means “go”.

It’s like playing old-school frogger on my dad’s three-color IBM. We hop from little median to little median, like little lily pads of safety, in between flurries of life-killing traffic. Few (read: no one) wear bike helmets, so it really could likely cost someone’s life as we all dart across the road, disregarding the alternating red and green signs and signals, on our way to somewhere else.

Regen! (Rain!)

Parking is hard to find. The closest we can get is still blocks away. We get out in a cold, pounding Amsterdam rain. (Not the sunshine-kissed tulip fields I’d imagined.)

Instead, we run and laugh, in spite of the foul weather, my little laptop bag in hand, picking my way through rain, through my first foreign night. It always seems to rain the first night. Without even thinking I start digging for the words in a new language and (to my utter shock) say the words: “Hujan! Dingin hujan!”. It surprises me. It’s not four years of Spanish. But, Indonesian. After one month, I default to Indonesian now. Really?

Oh, dear Amsterdam. Where to start in Dutch? Two more blocks down her brick sidewalks, sandaled feet soaked with each step, shivering in the unexpected chill of the dark night, like my first night in Indonesia…except, there is no winding dirt path stretching far off the tiny road, there are no messy mud puddles to skirt, no cow standing between coconut trees (no “sapi! sapi mandi!” followed by Ani’s laugh when she sees I’ve just put my two new words “cow” and “shower” together after spotting, from the porch of my new Indonesian home, the man throwing buckets of water on his disinterested cow)…

Climbing the sterile, concrete corridor three flights to a comfortable charming, one bedroom flat with wireless internet, coffeemaker that will filter all the grinds out before I take a sip (Oh, the luxury!), the string to pull in the corner of the kitchen that turns on the dishwasher, the map I’ll carry with me for two weeks. Before he leaves, I don’t (or can’t seem to) ask Henrie the word for rain, in Dutch.

Then I’m alone.

There’s nothing “familiar”. No rice padi teaming with gurgling chorus of a thousand mad-frogs to fall asleep to, no afternoons counting to ten and naming the sun, moon and stars with Oka’s grandsons, no accidentally swiping at the bits of “holy” rice stuck to my sweaty forehead after a day-long ceremony, no nankat-fruit soup at a tiny, dirt-speckled warung, and no old woman hacking at the steaming babi while we crunched on bags of lampang while I try again to pronounce the word just right….

Stomach flips. I feel something like homesickness. But not for Seattle, but somewhere else.

When did those unexpected moments started feeling like home. I resolve to stop the dangerous comparison, or I’ll miss out on what’s here before me, now.

Before passing out under a white-downy comforter, I lean out, on the metal rails of my balcony in the not-quite-dark night typical of cities, listening to row upon row of charming Amsterdam sleep, between heavy, mechanical-sighs of a midnight tram.

I’m realize I cam completely starting over. Why am I here, again?