As a foreigner, you’re constantly explaining yourself. When I meet people, they ask where I'm from, why I'm here, and what I think of Amsterdam. The first question is easy. Some politely pretend to know where Portland is, then admit they don't and I explain it's halfway between California and Canada. Some ask if I'm a student, and when I tell them I work here, that I graduated from college 12 years ago, they ask how old I am. I'm still not used to telling people I'm 35. It feels like a lie. I gauge their reactions. Some younger people say I don't look that old. I thank them and tell them I don’t feel that old. Some seem to express sympathy, and I don't know how to feel about that right now.
The last question—what I think of Amsterdam—I can't answer without hesitation. It's hard not to interpret the question as "How are you doing in Amsterdam?" I've been here four months, but I've been working too much to know the city, to live here. Right now I just work here. I do know it's beautiful and charming and welcoming. I know it's hard not to fall in love with every pretty girl you pass on the street. I know the men are well-dressed and have great hair or a strong jawline or both. People seem joyful and optimistic, despite the weather. I know it's getting colder and wetter and that I should work less so I have more energy to reap the many benefits of living here.
My current routine isn't quite what I'd envisioned, consisting mostly of work and exhaustion, with a few social activities and solo explorations sprinkled in here and there. I'm tired a lot, partly because I leave for a high-stress job at 8:15 a.m. and don't get home until 7:30 or 8:30 p.m., but also because I’m not sleeping or eating well.
You can find good food in Amsterdam, but you have to search for it. I didn't realize how spoiled I was in Portland. Mostly the food here isn't good, which was a surprise. There’s a lot of processed and packaged food, and the culinary bar is set low. They just don't seem to have a good understanding of how flavors work, though I'm told it's getting better. At work we have to eat at the cafeteria. The only other option is doner kebab at the train station. There are days I simply can't finish my lunch.
The best analogy I've come up with to describe it: Remember when you were a kid and you tried to cook breakfast for your parents on Mother's Day or Father's Day? That food probably wasn't very good because you didn't know what the hell you were doing, but your parents ate it and complimented you anyway because you tried. That's what it's like here.
I had a plane ticket to visit our Portland office this month and was looking forward to eating Thanksgiving with friends, but my trip was canceled because of budget issues. Instead, I ate lunch at the cafeteria with a few American coworkers I'd just met. A Thanksgiving-style meal was served. We ate it, and we complimented them because they tried.
The source of my sleep issues dates back to the founding of Amsterdam, which I learned all about at the Amsterdam Museum last week. I bought a Museumkaart (museum card), which costs 55 euros and gives you access to almost every museum in the Netherlands for one year. Possibly more valuable is the benefit of skipping the ticket lines, which can wind around the block. I've heard that people wait two or three hours for the Anne Frank House in summer. You could almost read her diary while waiting in line.
Amsterdam, I learned, was built on water. Nearly a thousand years ago some very clever and industrious men figured out how to tame the water coming from the IJ (pronounced "eye") River inlet. They built a dam to stop the flow of water, literally putting the dam in Amsterdam. Amster comes from Amstel, which is the river that lazily passes through the city and below my living room windows. In old-timey Dutch, Amstel means "water area." Not the most creative name, but I suppose neither is Portland, and the Dutch are in fact a literal people.
To build a city on water, you need ingenuity, laborers and piles, which are basically large wooden poles, like telephone poles, driven into the soft earth until they hit something hard enough to support a lot of weight. They are set about three feet apart and reach 10 to 20 yards below the surface. Without them this beautiful, tolerant and diversely populated city would sink into the mud, and yet many old buildings are doing just that. The forces of time and gravity have slowly overpowered man's ingenuity, as evidenced by the many sagging facades along the canals. Even with steel braces added later for reinforcement, the oldest buildings are giving way to nature. There are few right angles in a city this old.
Still, it's astonishing that hundreds of years ago people could build an entire city on stilts. This feat of human accomplishment is the first thing I think about every morning. Not because I'm obsessed with history or architecture, but because my building shakes me awake every morning.
The foundation on my street is so old and fragile that it shakes with every passing tram and truck. Lying in bed, I go to sleep with a soft, silent rumble from the trams passing out back. Imagine putting your mattress on a drying machine with the Wrinkle Guard setting on, so that it starts and stops every few minutes. I can usually sleep through those vibrations, but starting around 6:00 a.m., it's like a mule starts kicking that drying machine every ten minutes. That shaking is caused by trucks that pass on the road out front and jolt me out of sleep every day.
I've told Amsterdammers about this, and they tell me it's crazy and that I should move. But the relocation team at work, who helped find my apartment, told me that "shaking of the houses in Amsterdam due to lorry traffic is very common as the ground is very soft and the buildings are very old." Basically, suck it up or move yourself. Since finding an apartment in Amsterdam is like finding true love on Tinder, I'm currently brainstorming creative solutions, possibly hanging my bed from the ceiling.
I'm also trying to shift my thinking about the shaking. I've decided Amsterdam is a sort of reset button for me, a chance to refocus my energy on things I love. I haven't finished a creative project in years, writing or otherwise, which I've blamed on my fatigue issues and my simple lack of motivation. Stephen King gets up early every day and writes 2,000 words before his wife wakes up. I've always fantasized about having the discipline to do that. Could the shaking be Amsterdam's way of forcing me to wake up, both literally and figuratively? Wake up, David ... David! Wake the fuck up!
But alas, even with the built-in alarm, I lack the willpower to get out of bed. I remind myself that my father woke up before 6:00 a.m. for work every day for decades. My last girlfriend woke up every day at 5:00 a.m. to deliver bread around Portland. So I know it’s possible, but to me these are both terrible and amazing feats of human accomplishment.
I haven't actually convinced myself the city's weak foundation is a sign that I need to change, or that I can become a committed early morning writer. I haven't done it yet, but I hope I do. If I can't do it here and now, then where? When?
Besides being tired, I just haven't felt like myself since I've been here. I've struggled to feel grounded, like I can't find my footing. I know it's normal for expats to feel this way and that lack of sleep and alcohol make it worse, but I struggle with the fact that I haven't found confirmation that this whole move was the right decision. Like Meryl Streep in that Catholic school movie, I have doubt. Some days it's presence is strong, almost tangible. Other days it's not there at all, and I feel the high lottery winners must feel.
I know that things will change once I solve these sleep issues and start really living here. I will have more energy. I will learn some Dutch and meet more people and get used to being so far away again. I will take long and frequent vacations like Europeans do. I will start producing creative things and contribute to the energy of this great city. I will tell people with confidence and without hesitation when they ask me what I think of Amsterdam—I love it here.