Amsterdam is in your head

A statue of a Dutch girl the way you want to imagine all Dutch girls.
A statue of a Dutch girl the way you want to imagine all Dutch girls.

Everyone in Holland is blonde. Tall. They have pale skin and slightly flushed cheeks from peddling their bicycles too hard. They speak perfect English. And they are unfailingly polite. That can’t possibly be true, but it really seems that way. In the same way that everyone in Paris seemed to be impossibly thin despite the fact that their food was great. It’s as if they just spent a lot of time looking at their great food and not eating it. Everyone in Holland or Paris is not one way. I know that. And yet still it feels that way.

A baffling sign is posted in English in the bathroom of our hotel in Amsterdam. “Please do not take a shower outside the bathtub.” The thought of somehow taking a shower outside of the bathtub had never entered my mind until I was warned not to do so. Now I’m considering why I would want to flood the bathroom floor by spraying myself with water outside the tub. It taxes my imagination. Who would want to do that? Maybe if I were super drunk. If they were just trying to cover all their bases, why stop at that one? “Management appreciates you not hanging naked women by their calves outside the hotel window.” “Thanks for not having sex with llamas on the fold-out couch.”

Along with its fabled Red Light District which features prostitutes who rent out a boudoir window to display their wares, Amsterdam has plenty of upscale museums. The Sex Museum. The Brothel Museum. The Torture Museum. It’s possible the Museum of Sexual Torture is still under construction. There are also coffee houses where smoking marijuana is perfectly legal. Because we were traveling with my son, we went to Nemo, a children’s science museum, where he blew gigantic bubbles and put his hands on an energy orb that radiated lightning bolts to his touch. And we went to the Anne Frank Museum, which was good to visit, but perhaps not as titillating as other places we might have gone.

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Amsterdam is in your head

Everything old is new

My wife Robyn and son Avery in a Stonehenge selfie.
My wife Robyn and son Avery in a Stonehenge selfie.

Druids would be nice. I mean, they don’t have to be chanting in a circle. They could just stare enigmatically from under their hoods as if they were in a trance. But no druids today. We are in the middle of nowhere. At Stonehenge. You’d think they could move Stonehenge a little closer to London. It’s way out there. Nearly an hour away. Also Stonehenge is roped off like a rock star. There’s an audio tour of Stonehenge. Of course, there’s an audio tour. How could there not be one? I wanted to climb up on the giant slabs, really get my mystical fill of the place. But did I mention it’s roped off? And no druids? I don’t mean to complain. I’m just saying.

The crazy thing is that we now know that Jay Z and Beyonce are following us on our European tour constantly trying to one-up us. That sounds paranoid. But you have to look at the facts. Our first stop is Paris where we take pictures with the Mona Lisa. Pictures quickly surface in the tabloids of Jay Z and Beyonce with their pictures taken with the Mona Lisa. Of course, they’ve managed to wiggle behind the security barricades to stand directly beside the picture. Then it emerges that they are in England. I’m sure they were able to lounge all over Stonehenge in their tour. They probably had high tea with druids on Stonehenge. The sons-of-bitches.

I am digging the history. We take a tour of the Tower of London. See the Crown Jewels. Very nice. Sparkly and all that. One of the guards called Beefeaters is marching around with a giant pike. My son Avery asks a great question. “Can a Beefeater be a vegetarian?” It’s a puzzler. He stumps me with that one. The queen is coming for a ceremony. So, we have to walk way around the tower to get to our boat. Great, first Jay Z and Beyonce are stalking us. Now the Queen of England is mucking up our travel plans. Plus, we can’t find a few of our touring party. Our tour guide is worried. “Where are the Beisendorfers?” she asks. Is that their real name? I want to ask. Wow! That’s an amazing name. I make a mental note to myself after the much-delayed Beisendorfers finally rejoin our group that whenever a member of my family is slow in leaving for an outing, I will use them in my complaint. “C’mon! Don’t be such a Beisendorfer! Let’s go!”

He looks like a beef eater.
He looks like a beef eater.

I’m having deja vu. Big time. I was in London once before as a sophomore in high school. My French class came in 1981. We were on a 7-day tour of Paris and London. It was supposed to make us more cultured, broaden our horizons. Kind of an epic fail. Much of the trip is a blur to me since I spent most of it trying to impress a red-haired girl named Rochelle who sat next to me on our giant tour bus. She was from Maryland, which sounded like an exotic place at the time. But isn’t at all exotic now. Nothing about the crown jewels or the Palace at Versailles or Mont San Michelle seemed nearly as exotic as Rochelle from Maryland at the time.

Continue reading “Everything old is new”

Everything old is new

Carnival of light and terror

IMG_6059You’ve been warned. Signs at every major tourist destination indicate Paris teems with pickpockets. In case you don’t read French, the signs are in English. In case you don’t speak English or French, a drawing of a figure with one hand in another person’s pocket and a big red X over that activity spells it out for you.

It’s clear you’re about to fall prey to Parisian thieves. Sly, slender French fingers with incredible itches twitch nervously between victims who mill innocently about at the Louvre as they try to get the perfect angle for a selfie with the Mona Lisa using the full extensions on the ultra nerdy extender arms attached to their cameras. Nimble hands work deftly through taut back pockets at the top of the Eiffel Tower as visitors cranes their necks to make out a cathedral down below. At the top of the Arch D’Triumphe, the Eiffel Tower glitters in the distance while stolen purses recede quickly down the Champs Elysee.

There’s something about unruly cities. Edgy. Scruffy places. It lends them a mystique. A sheen of mystery and romance. Anything could happen at any moment. We felt that way when we lived in New York City for two years, but only for about the first two months of that time. The feeling faded quickly as we kept not getting stabbed, raped and robbed as we roved all over the city. And it seemed lower Manhattan had gotten incredibly dull and boringly secure before we got there and no one had bothered to tell us. The real danger zones and fierce artistic creativity had moved to Brooklyn. But Brooklyn was already starting to lose its edge with gentrifiaction. So was Harlem. You had to go to The Bronx to feel like you’d been somewhere really off the map where dragons prowled the dark and the next big creative thing was boiling to the surface under the pressure of poverty and desire.

Coming into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport, I noticed graffiti lined the roadway. Graffiti is a sign of urban unrest. Recent graffiti artists in New York City making the transition to respected artists making money from their craft are just another sign that the City that Never Sleeps is losing its edge.

On a segway tour of Paris, we learned that most of Napoleon is buried at the Cathedral of Two Domes. But a vital part of him was taken by an English doctor who performed his autopsy and eventually sold at auction. It now resides in New Jersey. Say what you want about Napoleon, but he never lost his edge. You can’t remove his mojo postmortem.

We like Paris this way. A little edgy. Dangerous. Of course, we don’t want anything bad to happen to us. Just the possibility that it might is enough. After working our way up ten thousand steps to the top of the Arch D’Triomphe, we took in the magical view. Then I stopped inside a gift shop. (There is always a gift shop. Even the 911 memorial had one.)

The book I bought in the gift shop was “Paris, the Secret History,” by Andrew Hussey. In the introduction, he noted that the English artist Ralph Rumney likened Paris to the “corpse of an old whore.” That seemed harsh. Hussey summed up the beauty and danger of the city saying, “Paris has always been a carnival of light and terror.”

The worst that happened to us during our brief visit was that we paid way too much for mediocre food at an outside cafe on the Champs Elysee and overtipped the waiter who lied convincingly about service not being included on the bill when it definitely was. We felt a pang of regret when we realized our mistake. But the incident left no lasting scars.

I picture a thousand frustrated French pickpockets cursing our plane it leaves the runway for Amsterdam. “Zut alors,” they shout. And “merde.”

Carnival of light and terror

The fashionable darkness of Paris

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The world is in fragments. Pieces of meaning scattered here and there. So much nonsense in the main. We pick up a single spark of meaning and try to connect it with the larger blaze. Sometimes we hold a stray ember that is quickly snuffed out. And the darkness is all.

These feelings likely stem from arriving in Paris today. In our hotel room, we cannot manage to turn on a single light. Many switches. None turn on a light. Is this a new thing in Paris – a fashionable darkness? The concierge pops up with our luggage. He explains that putting the hotel key card in a slot on the wall produces power throughout the room. Suddenly, there is light.

Watching television in the hotel room is an adventure. Robyn listens for ten minutes. “I understood the words “Ebola” and “Facebook,” she announces. “And that’s it.” But she studied Spanish. The burden of understanding is mine. After two years of high school and one year of college French classes, it’s clear to me that the French newscaster has just announced that using Facebook will give you Ebola. Or something.

I knew we were in trouble before we arrived. That’s why I picked up a French phrase book back at Dulles. It proved chuck full of useful expressions ranging from the mundane to the catastrophic. On a egare mes baggages. “My luggage is missing.” Also, by the way: On m’a agresse’. “I’ve been mugged.”

There’s the helpful request: Il me faut une ampoule. “I need a light bulb.” And the aggressively inappropriate: Est-ce que je peux allumer un feu ici? “Can I light a fire here?”

I imagine asking Frenchmen everywhere I go in Paris: Can I light a fire here? Robyn giggles along before she catches herself. Then she rolls her eyes. “Why wait until we get to Paris to become ugly Americans?” I ask.

This trip was supposed to be different from the one I took with my high school French class as a gangly 16-year-old boy from the outskirts of civilization – a few miles down the highway from rustic Salisbury, North Carolina. (A town that boasts nearly as many church steeples as stop lights.) I was going to be the mature traveller, steeping myself in French culture. Finally redeeming myself for that pimply outing decades ago when I was too young to absorb the elegant manners and culture of Paris. Oh well.

C’est la vie.

The fashionable darkness of Paris