Amsterdam Update October 2015

by David Small

In some editions of J.D. Salinger's Catcher In The Rye, it looks like there’s a blank page in the back, except it’s not blank. On this page, upside down and barely legible you can read the text: "Sometimes, what I think is, you're supposed to leave."

I noticed this in a college English class when I was 18. The professor had never seen it before, and I asked my classmates to check their books for the mysterious text. Only a few others had it. I wonder if that phrase has stuck with them as it has with me. I wonder now if they would have agreed with Salinger, that sometimes, it’s just time to leave. Apparently I do. I leave. I'm a leaver. Or as Hunter S. Thompson writes in The Rum Diary, “a seeker, a mover, a malcontent.” I left Charleston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Barcelona and Portland. Odds are I’ll leave Amsterdam too. And, like Martha's decision to leave San Francisco, each time I leave behind a whole other life I could have lived.

Why do we make the decision to leave? Why do some make that decision over and over while others stay still? Are we running away from something or running toward something?

When I came back to the U.S. after leaving Barcelona, a friend needed someone to watch his cat for a few weeks so I went to Portland. I went there at a time in my life when I wanted more than anything to be still. To stay put. To not leave. I realize starting over isn’t what life is about, yet I only lasted six years there.

In this sense, Amsterdam should be the perfect city for me: it's filled with expats, people who left somewhere and found home here. I've been working too much to feel any connection here, but I already I like the city’s energy, something it offers in abundance. The truth is I need to be around people, even if I don't know any of them. That's another hard part of leaving—you end up surrounded by people you don't know.

Last Sunday, perhaps to remind myself it’s okay to be alone, I decided to get out of the city and take a break from all these unfamiliar faces. I picked a spot on the map and got on my bike. I'd be out half a day if I mapped it right. (I did not map it right.) I took the free ferry to Amsterdam North and found my way to the coast. In minutes I was in an area that looks how I imagined Holland would look. Small cottage-like houses. Uneven brick roads. Boats and docks and blond children with elf-like hats.

I passed a family working and playing in their garden. A giant man wearing actual wooden clogs said something to me in Dutch as I passed by. I couldn't tell if he caught me looking at his clogs or if he just says hello to everyone. I imagine most people there must know each other, one of the comforts of village life I suppose.


I rode for two hours along IJmeer, a bordering lake, which is part of a larger body of water but they name areas of water like land, or at least that's the best I understand it. Opposite the water are endless squares of green grass divided neatly by irrigation channels, roads ten feet wide and bike paths that connect the small villages and farms.

At first, it felt good to be out of the city, to be in nature and in near silence. I made eye contact with a sheep, watched ducks dive for food. I passed other cyclists and retired couples, but between villages I hardly saw anyone. Being away from “everything,” I started to feel lonely and anxious. What was I missing back in the city? What were my friends doing back in Portland? Where am I?

It'd been warm and sunny, but gray clouds rolled in suddenly and the temperature dropped. I'd skipped breakfast and was getting hungrier. There was nothing resembling a commercial establishment in any direction.  

I’d biked another hour or so when, in the middle of nowhere, I saw a food cart. There were about ten Dutch people there eating fried potatoes and strange meat-like items caked with mayonnaise. The gray-haired Dutch man in the cart conversed with all the customers. He seemed to be telling jokes. I wondered if he was from the area or had left somewhere to be there, frying potatoes for locals on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere. I ate his fried potatoes, dipping them in mayonnaise as the Dutch do. It was delicious. It was also the only thing on the menu I recognized. I really need to learn some Dutch.

The sun started to set so I decided to head back toward the ferry, which was about five miles away. I didn't have bike lights, and there were no street lights. My phone's battery was also dying. Fearing I'd be stuck and possibly lost in the dark out there alone, I rode faster. But I had to stop every ten minutes or so because the sky was on fire with color and had to be photographed. This, of course, killed my phone's battery. 


As I crossed a long stretch of farmland in looming darkness, unsure if I was going in the right direction, a man on a moped passed me, made a U-turn and stopped on the path up ahead.

"I fed you potatoes!" he said with a big smile and thick accent.
"Yes, you saved me," I replied. “I was starving.”

He explained that he'd passed me a while back when I was photographing the sunset over a field of horses. They were his horses, it turns out, and that was his farm. I told him I was from Portland, Oregon, and had to explain where that was. Not many people here have heard of Portland. I tell them they will in about five years.

He told me he'd been to New York, Huntington Beach, somewhere in Florida and Raleigh, North Carolina, where his brother lives. He asked why I left the U.S., my friends and family. I've been asked that question many times already, but I didn’t really have a good answer for him that day. I’d been thinking about the Salinger line, about leaving. I thought about quoting it but instead said something vague and thanked him for the potatoes. He was the only person I talked to that day.

As I rode back toward the city, I thought about the lives I might have lived had I stayed still longer and wondered if I might end up on a beautiful farm with horses and sunsets someday. Then I got lost, locked my bike to a post and took a long bus ride home.