Saturday, February 21, 2009

Amsterdam - Arnhem - Copenhagen (Pt. I)

Note to readers: This is the first installment of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, which I took in the fall of 1999. Other installments will follow at irregular intervals.
Hood the Heartless
Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted troublemaker) died, May 23, of 1999. When they made the summit of Mount Hood that morning, they say it was bright and beautiful up there.  You could see the coastal mountains off to your right, and to the left, the endless prairies that stretched off to God-knows-where. Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted troublemaker) had camped at the base of Cooper’s Spur and so to save time, they decided to descend from the summit via the same route, even though the sun had been softening the ice there all morning.  There were other climbers on the summit who heard Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted trouble-maker) discussing the descent: how best to get back to camp to retrieve their gear. Later, one of the other climbers said in the newspaper that he felt bad because he hadn’t thought to offer them a ride from the north face parking lot back to their base camp in the south.

Setting out
 I’d been walking around the house during the time since  Michelle (tormented enchantress) packed up and left. I took secret pleasure in all the little time bombs I’d find in old drawers or in the backs of closets: her old blue jacket, a card she’d made for me, a photo. I spent time ruminating on the impending deaths of Dad (strong, terrible captain) and Grandpa (angel-on-my-shoulder, wisdom speaker). But, May 23, 1999, Carey and Tena took that step into oblivion, and things changed.  That happened in May, and it was the “final straw.” It was the last piece of that perfectly appalling jigsaw puzzle I’d been piecing together for so much of my life. When it happened, I could see it all, right there in front of me. The new truth is this: There is no fucking justice. Never mind that Michelle (tormented enchantress) was four years gone, and I hadn’t found anyone to replace her, and both Dad, (strong, terrible captain) and Grandpa (angel-on-my-shoulder, wisdom-speaker) were very sick. And never mind that my career was stagnant and uninteresting and I was beginning to suspect that I might be wasting my life. The picture puzzle wasn’t complete until that thing up on Mount Hood. That thing that put it all in perspective; made all my anger and frustration irrelevant.

On the third day of Ahab’s mad pursuit, Starbuck cried: “Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou that madly seekest him.” I suppose it is best, for Melville’s sake, that it was Ahab and not me. If it had been me, the Pequod would have come full about, and sailed back to Nantucket, denying the world a climactic conclusion. But smiling, saintly Carey was my Starbuck. And, to my credit, I heeded his admonition: any would-be Ahab who demands a fair shake from the Universe is going to end up dead.  In spirit, at the very least.

“You never do anything halfway,” said Andre, (smirker, social instigator). I never could decide if he looked more like Karl Marx or Christ. He was right, of course. Even when I speak, everything comes out with the weight of my soul behind it; a family heirloom from the strong, terrible captain.

“You’re envious,” I said, grinning. He smirked. I’ve always liked how we can do that, communicate like that.

Andre was wrapping my glassware and packing it into boxes. Two of my brothers were there too. Eric (meticulous German) and Calee (please-all, be-all). There were others, too. We were packing everything into a truck. All of it. All those things that I’d noticed while pacing around the house, waiting for someone to replace the tormented enchantress.  We banished the time bombs to the dumpster.  No more waiting.  It was time to take action.  Back to Nantucket lads! Turn this tub around! Forsake the Great White Whale!

I left the cats with Mom (blesséd mother) and took a flight to Amsterdam in September.

Amsterdam: raunchy, wild, dignified, solemn, frightening, kind, reassuring, threatening. Filthy canals, furtive junkies hanging out under bridges, Anne Frank’s house (sad, lonely prison in evil times), streets full of guitars and songs, frightening sirens behind plate glass windows, beckoning, calling out to that beast inside. Few can endure the honesty of their gaze. Every tongue you’ve ever heard; it is there in abundance. And, please, don’t say “Dankë,” say “Dank U Wel.” I spoke to every face I could see.  I hugged my guitar close.

In Vondel Park, I met Carl (friendly, bearded, good-old -boy) the singer-songwriter from Ohio. We played for each other and sang together. Juan Carlos (noble Spaniard) and Andres (hard corners about the mouth) were at the hostel where I had reserved a bed, right off Dam Square. They liked that I spoke Spanish.

Given that we were in Amsterdam coffee shops were everywhere. Acrid smoke, beers and cigarettes. Lights! Music! Action! Juan Carlos and Andres were still going strong when I stumbled back to the hostel.


The next day was the same, and so was the day after that. Somewhere in that temporal fog of guitar and beer and marijuana and cigarettes (Lights! Music! Action!) was the Van Gogh Museum.  Each painting with its thousands of tiny strokes feathered reality, made you realize that the very concept of reality is just unfathomable. When you saw those paintings you wondered how Vincent had seen things.  You wondered how strange his world must have seemed, with his tenuous grip on sanity loosened by the ravages of syphilis.

There was the Rijksmuseum, which reminded you that these people living here in this northern clime really do have  the long winter darkness upon them all the time. They never forget it, not even in the summer, when it is so hot and humid that anything more than a shamble is an effort.  So many of the paintings in the Rijksmuseum were stark visions of clarity in a morass of darkness; faces jumped out at you from black vestments and shadowy backgrounds, haunted and haunting. Rembrandt (beggar, genius) made me feel like that. I remember thinking, “Genius! Now for a beer,” and setting out to find Juan Carlos (noble Spaniard) and Andres (hard corners about the mouth), the acrid smoke, beers and cigarettes. Lights! Music! Action!

I busked in Dam Square, as I had vowed to friends back home that I would. Got nothing for my effort but a pity guilder from another guitar player that wanted to know if I’d had to obtain a permit. Shrug that one off. A vow fulfilled and now liberty to play and not worry about it.

There was the English fellow I met in the hostel bar; he’d just  motorcycled back from Moscow. He told a puzzling story about traversing the No Man’s Land between the Ukraine and Russia. Trapped between outposts of armed guards who wouldn’t let him go forward (Ukraine) or back (Russia) because his papers indicated that he wasn’t supposed to leave Russia for another three days and that, therefore, his papers weren’t in order. He told me he wouldn’t be going back soon.

On to Arnhem. Easy enough. Streetcar to bustling Centraal Station, whip out the 60 day Eurail pass, find the train, thanks to the helpful, sympathetic ticket seller, who could see that I was new at the whole thing. A quick hop on the train, and then I was in Arnhem.
I knew about the bridge already. I knew about Monty’s crazy gamble, with its complicated and risky timetable. Monty, who was already looking forward to his graven image near Westminster Abbey; already seeing himself standing next to Lord Nelson (captain of captains). I knew about the Red Devils (tough, dogged, duty-bound Brits) getting isolated in the city blocks around the bridge, and the SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) that turned the screws on them while they were holding on, waiting for the Shermans to come up from the south. The SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) turned off the water and killed duty-bound Red Devils as they went to the river. I think Eisenhower (diplomat in war) had his doubts about the whole thing, but he had to go along with it because it was Monty’s plan, and the alliance was so fragile. So the Red Devils died or gave up, and the SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) kept their boots on the Dutchmen’s throats for a few more months.

The bridge was long gone when I got there. The Allies bombed it later. Sent it burning into the Rhine, because they didn’t want the SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) to use it if the Allies couldn’t. It had been replaced with a new bridge after the war. There was a little park around the city-side terminus. A few anti-tank guns, a German tank destroyer, and Sam (leathery, jocular, proud), who took me and the other tourists around and told us how it had been back then. He said he and his father had seen the parachutes in the sky that September.  His father said, “In an hour or two, Sam, we will be free.”

A sad story, that. But the sun was shining when I was there. And I’d successfully completed an intracontinental commute, so I was feeling pretty good. I went to the graveyard out by Oosterbek where they’d buried so many of those duty-bound Red Devils.  I took a nap in the shade of the tall beeches that marked it off.

When I awoke I walked back into town to wait for the night train to Copenhagen. I ogled and flirted with beautiful Dutch girls while I ate dinner. I played guitar on the sidewalk until the girl in the ice cream store at my back came out and asked me to stop. Then came Pineapple Man.

Pineapple Man, from San Francisco, had been touring with his band. But mid-tour they had a terrible breakup because, as Pineapple Man said, "The drummer’s girlfriend was such a bitch.” He regaled me with stories about the road, and drunken busking in Amsterdam. Swarthy and suspect, but friendly enough. That was Pineapple Man. The train came soon after we spoke.

Pineapple Man
You’ve got to admire those Germans. If the schedule says 8:03, you’d better be on the train by 8:00. I had to change trains somewhere just inside Germany, I can’t even remember the name of the place, but I was excited to be there, in Germany. That’s where Grandpa’s (angel-on-my-shoulder) people (part of my people) were from. So I said to the conductor tentatively, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” To which he replied, “Nein,” and stalked off without waiting. It pissed me off, so I followed him and said, “Copenhagen?” When he ignored me I walked in front of him and said, “Copenhagen?” He stopped, stamped his foot and barked, “Copenhagen! Ja! Track Thirteen!”  Then the conductor, fine Prussian officer, Nietzsche’s übermensch, walked around me. I found it, Track Thirteen. I got a sleeper all to myself, which was good, because my snoring had been going full tilt lately, like some hibernating Ice Age behemoth.

There were many of my fellow backpackers on board too, Colombians, five or six of them, that were going to Stockholm. “Estocolmo,” dijeron. Nelson (youthful idealist) was from Brazil, and so was Martin (compassionate soul). But Jason (dread-locked hippie camper) was a North American, like me, except that he was from Massachusetts. Nevertheless we were all Americans, in the general sense. So, the four of us agreed to see Copenhagen together.

That’s where lots of things happened. Copenhagen. That’s where we found the huge pot plant growing in front of the youth hostel, well-tended, beautifully forthright, bespeaking an open culture and a people that have good priorities. Copenhagen was where we rode the perfectly clean and safe modern city buses, with their hydraulics that raised or lowered the buses to accommodate passenger embark and debark. Copenhagen, where we got a good look at those Danes, with their strong cheekbones, their flawless skin, their beautiful blond hair and gray or blue eyes, and their white-haired, precocious bairns. None of us had ever seen so many beautiful women. They were an open-minded people, most of them. Maybe not the proprietor at the guitar shop who watched us like a hawk when we came in and found ways to let us know that he didn’t really trust us. When we left he was angry because we’d knocked into one of his guitars by accident. The guitar wasn’t hurt.  Still, he wouldn’t accept an apology. But most of them, sure, they’re open-minded.

Martin (in front), Nelson, author, Jason (middle row), Cannabis sativa (back)
Prices were steep. Nelson (youthful idealist) and Martin (compassionate soul) were unhappy about the (roughly) 25 (American) dollars it cost to stay for a night at the hostel.      

Those two. Nelson, tight with his wallet, spoke Portuguese (he was from Brazil, yes?), English, Spanish, and was working on French. He was tall and handsome, a lover in the way that Hemingway was a lover. (He was from Brazil, yes?) Nelson and I went all the way through Scandinavia together. Fine, fine young man. Wherever he may be, I know we’re still friends.

Then there was Martin, heart full of pure love for humanity, and eyes full of love for beautiful women, with spectacles that showed how smart he was, because he was smart. He had a scant beard covering his jaw. Both Martin and Nelson had those eyes that South Americans have, deep, dark, warm, moist, and honest. But they were different from Jason (dread-locked hippie camper) and me, the North Americans, when it came to money. They were different about women, too. Jason and I both winced when they whistled at the Danish girls with their high cheekbones, beautiful blond hair and gray or blue eyes. They couldn’t understand that wolf whistles are only okay in Latin America or Italy or someplace more Roman.  But, hey? Who’s to say what’s right? You know? 

To be continued...


Eclectic Dilettante said...

Your experience with Amsterdam was quite different than mine.

After 4 days, husband and I came to the conclusion the city is gray.

The buildings are gray. The streets are gray. The sky is gray. The canals are gray. The people aren't real friendly nor are they rude. Gray.

Shus li said...

Fascinating story, and a really unique (parenthetical)writing style, which is quite enjoyable to read.

My feet itch.