Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Long Netherlanden Post

I am at peace with the world. Not only because today's theme is a megamix by Hoyt Curtin, creator of the soundtracks of the cartoon of our childhood (click here), but because I am so exhausted from walking all over Amsterdam I barely have strengths for anything but rest.

My first day was reduced to a very long walk around Amsterdam and its canals, trying to absorb as much of it as possible. As you walk its brick-layered streets, you will notice rows and rows of brick houses, some of them as narrow as an automobile, some of them leaning dangerously towards the street, all of them beautiful and cleanly designed, with big window panes and triangular crow-stepped gables arching towards the sky: most definitely a reflection of the country's rich Gothic past.

Notice the bicycles, they are one of the most popular ways of getting around!

Whether a building is 17th or 19th century, the style of building hasn't changed.

I am very particular about visiting places: I do not know what created the big touristic fever around the world; what made cheap, disposable souvenirs made in China be sold on every store around the globe, or what made tourists behave as mindless flocks of overpaying individuals. I do not really know, perhaps I do not want to know.

In the face of the busy touristic streets of Amsterdam, I decided to spend most of my time escaping from everyone –retreating to residential neighborhoods that, despite lacking the exuberance of the most trafficked streets in the city, had a shrivel of authenticity through the people that lived and worked in situ. I enjoyed the silence and calm of the quiet waters in the canals, or the furtive look of a by-passer on her bicycle. I even got a bright, coy smile from a beautiful local girl in an isolated alley; the kind of smile that locks the eyes in one brief second and truly makes you believe that words are an invented afterthought.

Mission: escape from the crowd and touch the heart of the city. Hard.

As it got dark, I let my mind wander; not like the hoards of wild, unshaven Spanish tourists reeking of their marihuana conquests. Sunset marked the beginning of a surrealistic experience: some metaphysical transpiration to New York City, to the future that awaits. Hundreds of windows, glittering on the canals, with the dimly lit sky cutting the silhouette of the tall scaled roofs... much like paintings, hanging high above the eternal dark, floating in front of me, peaceful, with the occasional scooter breaking the silence. Much like Corto Maltese talking to a cat in a Venetian patio, I was there, on my own, figuring what secrets fate held for me.

However, I could not elevate, I could not establish communion with the city. Those beautiful buildings, those ancient structures, stood to me no more significant than cardboard boxes without any people to make them meaningful. Never before I have felt with such clarity that the way we travel does not involve a change of backgrounds, but the consciousness of others. What is travel? Where does authenticity lie? What is meaning but the attachment of what we feel to what we see? Where is that meaning in this town?

Here, a moment of sweet melancholy about Newport, back in San Francisco.

An explosion of natural beauty in the middle of the gaudy Red Light District.

The next morning I woke in the most excellent bed of the hostel CocoMama, a real jewel for any traveler on a tight budget. I walked for thirty minutes to the central train station across the concentric rings of the historical Dutch capital, and took a swift ride to The Hague Central Station, were I met Tristan, a sympathetic petrol-head and most excellent, jolly chap (I use Briticisms very intentionally). We waited for a bus that never came, but we were soon picked up by Govert and Jurgen –two native Dutchmen, enthusiastic fans of the Mercedes W123- in a pristine 280CE and driven to the Louvman Museum, a relatively unknown collection of some of the most fantastic cars to ever be gathered under one roof on a permanent basis.

And thus, the A-Team theme resounded gloriously in my head.

How many crazy automotive enthusiasts can you count?

Prototypes for the "car of the people" by Mercedes and Volkswagen.

I would really do anything to pick up a girl on a date in one of these.

We drooled for three or four hours, and rested at the tune of good conversation in the museum's cafeteria. I invited the group, and, as soon as I went to pay with my credit card, I realized that I had an older model. The waitress, a cute African woman with a slightly bored look volunteered to show me her credit card, the newer kind, which had a chip. I was not only amazed at the antiquated ways of Wells Fargo, but at the kindness of this fine lady. She asked me if I was from around the area, to which I responded that I was living in the USA. Her eyes saddened but her smile raised, wishing me a good trip and cutting the conversation short. I returned to the table and we made plans for dinner downtown The Hague.

There I am, kneeling before the grand, magnificent Mercedes-Benz SSK.

Topics of our conversations throughout the day ranged from technical modifications to the W123, to survival techniques in the Sahara, passing through the condition of Amsterdam as an isolated bubble in the Netherlands, how long it takes to learn Dutch and near-death experiences. However, one of the topics I remember most vividly is the therapeutic power of working on one's own car in times of hardship. I was, however, surprised that the joy Tristan found in his car was harvested during the process, rather than the end result, when his project is finally done. In that instant I remembered the joy I experienced when I installed my radio on Newport, and how a grocery run became a full-blown afternoon driving in the sunset.

Jurgen took me back to Amsterdam, which gave us a great window of time to talk about his travels in his Saharagelber (www.300td.org), a wagon just like mine. I am proud to say that, much like it happened to me with Peter Hannan, creator of CatDog, my hero is now my friend.

The next day I took great advantage of the 6-hour period before taking my train back to the Schipol airport. There is nothing much to narrate here, other than I walked until my feet got sore and my back hurt. But I was happy, because at each step that I took away from the crowded chain shops of the town center, I saw more and more true locals, more true neighborhood businesses and real life snippets that are not forced or simply not realistic.

Who knows? Maybe my adventures will, one day, take me out to sea.

Gorgeous view of downtown Amsterdam, from the comfort of the Public Library.

While in the plane I got a massive headache, which did not stop me from fully realizing that would be my kind of lifestyle from now on. I am making a TV show in the Midwest, managing a design collective in Manhattan, have an open invitation to test drive a Mercedes SLS in Lebanon and one of my best friends might leave to film with an NGO in Congo. My life will be spent in planes and car seats, perpetually on ground that will move too fast to touch my feet. It will be scary, and it will be exciting. It will be something I will regret not doing. And it all starts in less than a week.

Picture taken the next day. Petit Suisse yogurt, by the dozens!

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