Part 1. The Intro
Why do people travel?
Why do we go places?
Right now, it’s a good question, because we can’t.
(Those of us not headed to “life essential” jobs each day, I mean.)
Speaking of which, two of my former photo students work at the local Smith’s Grocery store. I haven’t been there in three weeks, but I’m assuming they’re still at it, and hope they’re safe.
Big shout outs to Jason and Dylan! And to my father-in-law Mike, and sister-in-law Jemery, who are both Taos doctors.
The rest of us, anyway, are stuck at home.
Not going places.
And even though the uncertainty of it all makes it feel like this pandemic will be permanent, that’s not the way these things go.
Humans hate uncertainty more than anything else, which is what gave rise to monarchs and autocrats and totalitarians in the first place.
In China, for instance, as I have previously written, the depth of the bloodbaths that would occur under disorder caused many people to trade freedom for security, from certain Emperors to Mao on down.
Hitler came to Germany after the shitfuck of WWI and the Great Depression, (Please watch Babylon Berlin on Netflix,) and ancient royalty, from Egypt to England to Guatemala, has claimed to have a relationship with, and blessings from the divine.
So where we are now, with no clear answer as to how long “this” will all last, humans do lean into the hunker mentality. (Rhymes with bunker.)
But life will go back to some semblance of normal again.
It might be a different normal, like life was never quite the same after the Great Recession.
(You know I’m right.)
The Gig Economy, Uber, the permanent street class.
The first African-American President.
All of that came Post-Great-Recession.
Wait, I’m getting depressing again.
What I mean is, this scary phase will end.
And we’ll be able to travel again.
So, to get back on topic, why do we do it?
Part 2. The asshole
What kind of asshole writer opens a section with a question, and ends it with the same question, without ever answering the question?
So, here’s my answer.
I think we all love a proper adventure.
All of us.
It’s why we’re binge-watching all these shows and movies, and reading all these books.
We escape into the fantasy of adventure and drama.
Traveling to other cities, towns and countries, with different languages, foods and landscapes.
It is the hero’s journey.
It is the “actual reality” version of “virtual reality” that so many people like in their stories and video games.
(Minus the murder and mayhem, of course.)
When you’re out there, somewhere new, you never know what’s around the next bend?
How could you?
There is an inherent and proper romance in a great voyage, and somehow, even after the insanity that was #2019, I got to have a perfect, rambling, symbol-laden adventure in Amsterdam in February of #2020.
Though I am writing on April Fool’s Day, (just so you know,) I promise all stories told in this series are true.
And to be clear, I’m not saying I was James Bond, nor that it felt like my trip should be made into a movie or anything.
It’s just that it was MY movie.
And to relive it in my head right now, on lockdown, is kind of fun.
Part 3. Take my last Euro
When last I left you, I was departing the Jolly Joker, jet-lagged, on my first half-day in Amsterdam.
Saturday, February 15.
As an experienced traveler, I knew I was likely to need a bit of quiet time, and some food, to chill out before I hit the city hard again.
So I popped into a cute looking bakery/cafe, (they’re everywhere,) and got a bresaola, arugula, and fresh mozzarella sandwich, on fresh baked bread, with a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino to go.
(General advice, of the many munchies on offer in the city, including some with silly names, the bakeries and delis seemed to have the most consistent, high-end Euro product, that I observed.)
It set me up for the afternoon, looking out the my window on the shimmering canal, watching a spot of local tv, and getting a bit of jet-lag-rest.
Once done, I left the Hotel Mai for my first big walk.
Is it creepy that I could consult my iPhone now and see how long I walked that day? (5 miles. It only went up from there.)
I remember that I cut through Dam Square, headed West a block or two, and then and just let whimsy be my guide.
Twisting and turning through the canal ring.
There really are few better feelings.
Stop in a coffee shop and get stoned.
After a couple of hours, it got dark, and I realized I’d need food and another smoke.
I had 20 Euro left.
Coffee shop or restaurant?
There’s nothing wrong with having a smoke in the street, (except for the constant devil-wind,) so I opted to go with my grinding stomach.
Before me stood a Vietnamese restaurant with a cute name, Pho King.
Say it fast.
It was cash only, which meant my commitment was complete, because I was hungry, it was relatively early, 7 or 8pm, and I wanted to be done purchasing food for the night.
To say the place had a great vibe is not an undersell. It was small, but clean, and my spider-sense tingled that it was going to be good.
I asked for some recommendations, and the smart, young Vietnamese woman behind the counter said the Pho was the best thing.
She was serious in all the right ways, and after I made a few jokes, all the ladies behind the counter liked me.
“OK,” I said. “I’ve got only 20 Euro. You’re the boss, now. I’ll do what you say, and you can use up all the money, including a small tip.”
I looked at the menu.
I love BBQ pork bun, and there it was. The meat is served over cold, or room temperature, rice noodles, typically with shredded carrots and cucumber, with crushed peanut, and then you add a cold, sweet fish sauce, nuoc cham.
“I love that,” I said. “It’s my favorite.”
The young woman behind the counter shook her head no.
“No?” I said. “I can’t get that.”
She shook her head no.
“No,” she said.
“But you have my best interests at heart, right?”
“Yes,” she said. “I do. We’re gonna get you a Beef Pho, with all three kinds of beef. It’s what we do best.”
“Great. Fine. But I can’t have the BBQ Pork Bun. It’s my favorite.”
“No,” she said.
I was bummed out, but keeping the faith.
“But look. The fresh spring roll. Look at number 14.”
I looked down, took a second, the marijuana and hash slowing me perceptibly.
I read: BBQ pork, rice noodle, shredded vegetable, peanuts, dipping sauce. Inside the fresh spring roll wrapper!
I looked at the price: about half of what I was badgering her to let me order.
“It’s the same thing,” I said, “but in a spring roll, and cheaper.”
Meaning: I could have the soup, and the spring rolls for my 20 Euro, including a small tip. (But no drink.)
I asked for it to go, and again, she shook her head, No.
“No,” I said? “I can’t take it to go?”
“No,” she said. “You eat the spring rolls now, while they’re fresh, and I’ll pack up the soup for you to go.”
“OK,” I replied. “If you say so. Like I said, I’m in your hands.”
The spring rolls, when they came, were a meal in themselves, and as good as any version I’ve had. The bbq pork was sweet, and succulent, and I didn’t think I’d have room for soup later. (I did.)
Nor that I’d eat BBQ pork this good again that week.
But after I cleaned the plate, I said thanks to my new friend, and headed back out into the night with my goodie bag.
Pho King, 2 locations in Amsterdam, Cheap eats, Highly recommended.
Part 4: I have a question
Were any of you drunken slobs in college?
I know I was.
(Thank you, Duke University. You trained me so well.)
I used to sleep until 1 or 2 in the afternoon each day, if I could.
Not since then, not since the mid-90’s, have is slept until 1pm.
Until Sunday morning, February 16th, when my jet-lag, weed-hangover, and a properly silent hotel room conspired to let me sleep.
Long and deep.
When I finally woke up, rather than food, I needed some tea, and then a fresh smoke.
The Hotel Mai had opened only a week or two before I got there, so the rooms were properly fresh. With a no-smoking policy.
They had a tea kettle and a Nespresso maker included, with green tea and coffee replacements each day.
Very classy, this hotel. (I hope they make it…)
In addition to the no-smoking policy, the windows were sealed shut. Jimmy at the front desk said it was because the city had too many jumpers, tourists high on magic mushrooms, and made a law sealing the hotel windows up.
So out the door I went.
For a moment, I stared at the water.
Then, down to the Jolly Joker I went, and as always it was crowded.
I spotted a seat up top and sat down next to an young Indian guy, wedging myself into the corner of a wooden banquette.
Like Gerrit had the day before, I introduced myself, since there were open seats around.
He asked if he could use my lighter, which I’d bought at the local head shop. It was black plastic, and said I heart Amsterdam.
“That depends,” I replied.
“That depends?” he asked, looking at me like I had a hole in my head.
“Yes,” I said. “It depends upon your answer to a question.”
“It depends upon my answer to a question?” Again, he looked at me like I was a two-year old.”
“Yes,” I said.
“OK,” he said, “what is the question?”
“Do you love Amsterdam,” I asked?
“Do I love Amsterdam?” he said? At that point, he looked at me like I didn’t speak English. What kind of a stranger asks that question, in these circumstances?
“Yes,” I said. “Do you love Amsterdam? If you answer correctly, you can use my lighter.”
“OK,” he said. “OK. OK. Yes, I love Amsterdam. Are you satisfied.?”
I showed him the lighter, he laughed, and then I passed it his way, as he had just rolled a joint with tobacco and marijuana, as was the custom in the city.
(There were little rolling paper dispensers on the bar, like napkin dispensers in a traditional cafe, and most people took them.)
His name was Yogesh, he was from India, on a business trip that took him to Poland, among other places.
He was in Amsterdam to get high and have fun, more or less.
My kind of guy.
The bar man was playing Travis Scott.
And lots of trap music.
Things I listen to at home.
And there I was again, chatting up a stranger, listening to brilliant music, out in public, in a crowded, life-affirming, gorgeous, historic, European city.
Shout out to you, Amsterdam!
In the end, after an hour or so of chatting, we made plans to have dinner, but it wasn’t meant to be, as our timing was off.
So my final shout out today is to Yogesh, my erstwhile stoner buddy.
I hope he, and all of you, are safe out there!