by David Small
I watch a boat catch fire and burn until firemen shoot it with water hoses from both sides of the canal, extinguishing the flames before it reaches other boats or trees. A crowd has gathered but nobody applauds.
I dip french fries in mayonnaise. Except here they don’t call them french fries.
I’m sitting in the sun at Hannekes Boom, a bar and grill on the water near the train station. I’ve been in Amsterdam two days. I’m at a picnic table with colleagues. We laugh and drink beer and eat Dutch bar food and I think this is a great start.
I’m half-asleep and stuck in a bad dream cycle about work, trying to ignore the vibration of my building so I can sleep a little longer before accepting the reality of the day. I’m grinding my teeth and will have a headache when I wake up.
I’m dancing at the Congo Club with hundreds of people pressed against me jolting and grooving. I explain to a blonde girl where I’m from, then tell her I’m tired of my story. Tell me about you, I say, my lips nearly touching her ear.
I search “how to use a bidet” on my iPhone. It’s my work phone and after years of being paranoid about them monitoring my activity, I throw caution to the wind.
Soldiers with assault rifles stand guard near the turnstiles I walk through on my way to work. I wonder if this is the new normal.
I’m drinking Turkish pour-over coffee with cardamom because that’s all they sell at the night shop in Ghent, Belgium, where I’m staying alone at an Airbnb. The owner of the apartment moves furniture upstairs. He is a psychoanalyst. I consider asking him to come down for a quick session.
I’m Christmas shopping on Haarlemmerstraat. The sun is setting. I see a murmuration for the first time. The black mass of starlings swirls and bends like liquid in the sky, disappearing behind a row of houses on the canal, then reappearing right on top of me, so close I duck, the sound of their wings clapping against each other like rain.
Belgium scores a third goal against Northern Ireland in the 2016 Euro Cup. The room erupts. Everyone on their feet. I high-five strangers. The Dutch are not playing in the tournament, having failed qualify for the first time since 1984.
The unignorable smell of rotting rodent grows stronger in my apartment. Amsterdam has a rampant mice problem, but I’ve only seen two in my place. I trace the smell to the radiator by the window but my neighbor yells at me from the street, invites me out, and I leave it for another day.
Sinterklaas parades through the streets on a horse with dozens of black-faced Dutch throwing tiny spiced cookies at us, their version of Santa and his elves. Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) represents slaves or freed slaves depending on who tells the story. Some say it’s racist. Some say it’s tradition.
It's King’s Day. Drunk people fill the streets wearing orange, the color of the Royal Family. Men piss openly from boats into the canals. Women don’t but wish they could. There's music on every corner and a guy who looks like Lionel Messi sells nitrous balloons for two euros—wah wah wah. Everyone says it’s the quietest celebration in years.
A dollar bill falls out of a cardboard box where I keep old letters and other sentimental things. The currency looks foreign and doesn't seem valuable.
I’m on a canal tour boat with my mom. She tells three large Canadian women, one with a broken arm, that she’s visiting her son and tells them about my job. You can hear in her voice that she is proud of me.
It’s my birthday. You’re supposed to bring your own cake and people come by your desk and eat it and wish you a happy birthday. I don’t tell anyone. I bring no cake.
I pet a black cat as it walks along the bar past my beer. Every bar and restaurant has a cat, which seems insanitary but then you have to ask yourself would you rather see a cat or a mouse?
It’s Liberation Day, which marks the end of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. I'm at a festival in Westerpark, dancing to techno music with friends in a huge crowd. It is warm and sunny. People drink Heineken, always Heineken, and take various uppers. Someone points out the fact that there's no security. There’s no need, even with the alcohol and drugs and a thousand people. A guy accidentally sets a girl’s hair on fire. She doesn’t notice until I put the flames out with my hand.
My clothes don’t fit. I’ve lost a noticeable amount of weight. People ask if I’m okay. I say it must be stress, loss of appetite, and all the walking and cycling. Other Americans have lost weight too, I say, knowing that I don’t look well.
October is here and it’s already winter. Autumn didn't show. Everyone assures me the winter will be long and dark.
I can’t find my bicycle in the three-story garage by the train station. I had another miserable day at work, where I couldn’t feel more like an alien. It’s been raining for weeks. I question my decision to move here. Then the rain stops and I see my first double rainbow.
It’s 4:00 a.m. A Dutch girl I met only hours ago plays Eefje de Visser on my stereo and translates the lyrics for me. When the rain fell I went to you ... you hadn’t said hello to anyone that day ... you’d put everybody on mute ... let’s hope we don’t have to be brave.
My right palm is bleeding just above the wrist. Half of my handlebars broke off three weeks ago and I’ve been riding around with just the left side, successfully until now. There’s enough blood to be concerned. I consider stitches. In the bleeding hand, a new set of handlebars.
I find the goodie bag I received at the Expat Center 10 months ago. Inside is The Essential Guide To Living In The Netherlands. I read it for the first time. “To newcomers, Dutch society might seem open and informal, but some complex social rules are at play. Ostentatious behavior is frowned upon, egalitarianism is valued and Dutch people ‘like to be as normal as possible.’ The Dutch saying ‘just act normal, that's crazy enough’ is an anthem against eccentricity.” Portland’s anthem is “Keep Portland Weird.” I am torn.
I’m at Zaanse Schans, a little village where old wooden windmills and little Dutchy cottages are well-preserved for tourists. My sister, her husband and I take pictures and suspend our disbelief that this authentic. The sheep, the actors in traditional dress, it’s all staged but we decide still enjoyable. We pass a cocoa factory walking back to the train, and the air is made of chocolate.
After work I visit the “Expat and Tourist” doctor for my registration appointment. It looks like a private investigator’s office. There are no white coats. Nothing is sterile here. After the visit my boss calls to cancel my business trip to Portland. I find a bar. A stranger explains Buddhism to me.
It’s 3:00 a.m., and I’m dancing at an Alice In Wonderland–themed New Year’s Eve party in a church. Actors perform scenes from the movie on the altar. It’s all innocent and fun until, out of nowhere, two hares perform a live sex act with Alice and a carrot. In a church.
I’m signing the guestbook at the Anne Frank House. I write: It's impossible not to wonder how different your life might have been had you simply been born at a different time, in a different place. Someone else wrote: Now I know why I fought at Sword Beach.
I’m arguing with a beautiful Italian girl. We’ve been dating on and off for a few months. It’s not working out. I worry that I’m again confusing lust with love or letting another good one go.
I’m at the arrivals gate at the Amsterdam airport. The Europeans reunite with kisses and tears and long embraces. Sisters cry. Fathers kiss sons. The Americans shake hands, pat shoulders, perhaps a brisk hug.
I’m sitting alone at a large farm table in an 18th century barn converted to a family home, with one room let out as a bed and breakfast. Wood beams meet thirty feet above my head to hold up the steep angled roof. It couldn’t be quieter. No hum of electricity or cars or any modern noise. Not even the creaks of an old house settling. This place was done settling a long time ago. I’m in Maastricht, the southern-most city in Holland, 409 meters from Belgium. The owner left me here alone to write. I explain myself to the ghosts of former tenants who have sat in this same spot over the past two hundred years. I am from the future, I say, where we enjoy and worry about things you couldn’t begin to comprehend. We use machines to do even the most basic tasks like reading and writing. This one is called a computer, and it ruined everything.
Tonight I will take the train back to Amsterdam. Two hours. I will clean my apartment and tomorrow I will go to work. Except I have a new job working again with writers and designers. I’ll likely travel soon to our headquarters in Portland. I want more than anything to drink a Northwest IPA and eat a real sandwich and feel the stillness of a lazy city around me and dive into the Washougal River at my favorite spot, resurfacing to hear the familiar laughter of my closest friends.
Before I leave, I take photos of the old farmhouse to share with them later, or maybe I’ll never look at them again. I leave the key next to the guestbook. It’s nearly full with entries dating back to 2010, most in Dutch. “Just the escape I needed,” I write. I close the book, check that I haven’t forgotten anything and shut the door behind me, in no hurry to get to the train station but eager to get back to Amsterdam.