"You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours ... or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx." — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
It was morning in Amsterdam, and the pool was open, so we rushed downstairs in our swimsuits to warm our tired muscles in a jet-filled tub. Alas, there was no tub. There was a steamroom, though, and that was just as good, but alas, the steamroom was broken: it had no steam. Doubly disappointed, we settled on the pool, which was a bit chilly but felt wonderful, and we swam a few laps and went upstairs to shower and then checked out, returning to the airport and catching a train from there to the south of Amsterdam.
We'd arranged for another apartment in Amsterdam, something a little more affordable outside the city center. It was maybe a half-hour stroll from the southern train station, Amsterdam Zud, so we exited the station and hooked a left and instantly—like, within seconds—fell in love with everything Amsterdam was and is and, I hope, will ever be.
My lexicon of quasiaesthetic appreciation is fairly limited; I basically use the same dozen words and just rotate them around, beautiful and lovely and marvelous and wonderful and pleasant and magnificent and great and gorgeous, then usually lovely again, and it's a tired and elementary way of communicating the terrific things I see on my travels, but I lack the mastery of anything better, so for now let's just ignore the adjectives and say that within our first afternoon in Amsterdam, here are the things that were wonderful in every understanding of the word and all those overused words like it; here are the things that made Amsterdam so utterly __________:
At the train station, there was a parking lot of bicycles, and those bicycles stretched for stories upwards and hundreds of meters in every direction outward, just great glints and glares of steel on sun, rims and wheels of every size and shape (well, no, mostly circular), and hardly a car in sight, just bikes and bikes and bikes. We walked past all the bikes as bikes rolled past us, more cyclists arriving at the station or leaving the station, and we followed those leaving into a park, not because we had detoured through a park but because it would have been impossible to get to our apartment without passing through a park, and in that park were so many more bikes and the most delightfully diverse collection of cyclists atop them, old ladies in their skirts and little kids with their training wheels and train conductors already dressed in their crisp white uniforms; there were entire families with picnic baskets and young'ns in tow and couples holding hands as they pedaled along, there were couples riding tandem too, of course, and all of these people, so beautiful with their serene smiles and bright eyes, coasted calmly along paved pathways, dedicated bike lanes for bikes only, bikes and the occasional scooter that would zip by with care, and were any of these cyclists to tire of pedaling—which wasn't likely to happen given those perfectly flat paths—why, they could just pull over to any one of the many picturesque canals or meadows dotting the park, or were they to fancy a bite and find themselves without a picnic basket aboard, they could then detour into that spacious outdoor eatery, that one over there, so spacious with its long oak tables and umbrellas overhead, and there they'd find themselves waited on by three beautiful Dutch women with equally beautiful demeanors, who'd serve them fluffy homemade bread and rich olive oil and delicious local foods and ciders.
Well-fed and well-rested, they, we, you, could continue on to the free outdoor pool, ringing with the laughter of all ages that sunny Saturday, or further north to the calm canals, rings and rings of them forming tight concentric circles around the center, each dotted with adorable rowhouses and boutique shops and cafes, so many cafes. The smell of cannabis fills the air everywhere you walk, but there's no risk about it there; no, it seems the only danger in amazing Amsterdam would be stepping into the street without looking both ways ... it's so quiet, nearly devoid of cars and all, that you forget about the hordes of Hollanders cycling silently along. You get used to it quickly, though, for they're everywhere: it seems all of Amsterdam is on bike, and the bikes fill not only that train station from earlier but every last bit of the city, tracing the rails along every last bridge, sometimes chained and sometimes sitting there innocently, trust and good faith in others seemingly enough to keep them safe from theft.
Yes, all of this was lovely, all of this and so much more: the Museumplein with its sprawling lawn and kids crawling all over its giant "iAMsterdam" sculpture, the museums themselves with their awesome art, that girl outside the Stedelijk who sung amazing opera so beautifully and audibly it seemed impossible that she not be supported by speaker, and all the unleashed dogs running freely, and the cropped trees and the quaint quiet of all of it, and oh, did I mention the bicycles?; yes, all of it was lovely, marvelous, wonderful, all of it was all of those things.
Here's a word: gezelligheid. I'd first read it years ago in an essay about what makes Holland so special; it's a Dutch word that finds no counterpart in English but the best approximation of it is "cozy conviviality." It is, in a word, the very essence of Dutch life: "Heh-ZELL-ick-hide; clear your throat on the ick and you’ve pronounced the organizing principle behind all fine things in the Netherlands, a definition of the Dutch psyche itself," the author writes; "Picture the warm yellow light of a small cabin on a winter’s night, occupants laughing inside over fondue. Or a mellow afternoon in a little bookstore with your partner, rain drizzling down the windows. Or that funky little neighborhood bar where you and your friends always sink into the same booth and laugh over the same jokes." Gezelligheid.
We, those Stateside, we don't really live gezellig; we work and breathe something different: industry, maybe, the cult of efficiency ... ah, progress! Progress is our word, and I'm sure if you translated it to Dutch it'd come out as something like "the mindless and aimless pursuit of more," not pejoratively, just as it is—it seems the Dutch care only about the truly practical matters, like keeping the sea out of their living rooms and the canals out of their cellars, and once that's taken care of they're happy to just sit back and relax and take this great and rare thing called life in, to revel it its reverie and make the most of its passing moments. They seem to strive for a certain joie de vivre, and us maybe just a de vivre, a sad acceptance that, as the ever-insightful comedian Louis CK puts it, "we never really attain happiness, we just sorta become pretty satisfied with our devices, and then we die."
You feel the gezelligheid in the air around Holland—mixed in with marijuana, of course, but it's there nonetheless (or maybe all of gezelligheid is just one giant contact high?)—in the same way you feel arrogance and ambition in the air around Washington. It's inescapable and pervasive, and so it works its way inside you if you're not careful, and in this case there's hardly a reason to fight it, so by the first or second or definitely the third day you become gezellig too; you find yourself content just wandering and being and and wanting nothing more; and in a city like Amsterdam, what more could you want?
You approach an intersection. Two tall Dutchmen stand and wait. Across the way, a little red man flickering in an orb says: do not walk. But you look left, and you look right, and you see no cars ... and what's more, you hear no cars, and Holland is so flat that you're sure there are no cars coming up over the hill. You want to walk. Everything about your constitutionally-guaranteed pursuit of happiness pretty much demands that you seize this golden opportunity to gain an extra few seconds back in your day and capitalize on this fortuitous lack of congestion.
And yet, the Dutchmen do not walk. They stand and they wait, and you feel as though it would be almost ... culturally insensitive, yes, that it would be offensive to their very way of life for you to break form and walk. So you wait too. And then, the little red man goes on break, and a little green man takes his place, and he says: thanks for being patient, now come on over. And the three of you do just that.
It's not that the people of Amsterdam are subservient to their drivers, the way we Americans are. It's not that they don't walk because they fear a jaywalking ticket, or a speeding sedan smacking them onto the cement ... it's just, what's the rush?
And cars do it too. You're on foot, and you approach a crosswalk, but the drivers don't do everything in their power to cram their great metal box between you and the other side, they don't almost run you over in an attempt to keep moving before you force them to a stop. No, they halt well behind the line, and they smile at you as you cross. Gezelligheid, gezelligheid. What's the rush?
We walked a lot, and we ate and we drank, and we read a little and talked a bunch, and that's most of what we did during our four days together in Amsterdam: we found gezelligheid, I think, I hope, and we swam in it.
We saw a few things: the Stedelijk Museum that first evening, the sprawling Vondelpark during a long picnic, a canal house being printed with some new and amazing technology. We dodged the rain when it came for us and we got a little wet nonetheless, we walked the streets on Saturday night and Sunday night and dipped into street parties wherever they were, which was all over: rowdy dance in the middle of the road over there, a giant projector casting Ratatouille with cozy armchairs and tall beers over here. We found a nice lesbian bar with a nice bartender and she told us about living in Holland, about what she liked and what she didn't, about where to find good bikes to rent and where to bike. I watched Abby piss in a plant on the way back to the apartment, because that's what we had come to, and I judged her harshly because my bladder just happened to be empty that go-around.
And on Monday night, we concluded the whole magnificent affair with a spectacular show. Years earlier, when Abbilyn and I barely knew each other, back when the thought of us spending three weeks in Europe joined at the hip seemed unthinkable, back when we were just colleagues with a few shared interests, she'd recommended a musician that meant a lot to her, a man by the name of Joe Henry, and I'd given him a listen and loved what I heard. And as time passed my love of Joe Henry grew to match hers, and in my more stressful moments I'd find such solace in his somber, solemn songs, and in my happier moments I'd find bliss in the very same, and my only regret in coming to love his music is that I'd never hear it live, for he toured only rarely, never for money but only when he felt he had something new to say. Thus, nothing could have come as more welcome news before my departure—other than Abbilyn's accompaniment, of course—than to learn that Joe Henry was coming to Europe for a few months as well, that he too was traveling through Spain and Norway and Denmark, and Holland, and that he was performing at all them, a rare and an awesome opportunity.
I bought two tickets to his Amsterdam show on June 9th, and for a long while that was the only checkpoint in my otherwise unplanned three months; people would ask where I'd be and when and I'd respond, "I don't know, but I'll be in Amsterdam June 9th."
And there I was, in Amsterdam on June 9th, Abbilyn's last night in Europe, the very best send-off after our three weeks together. We ate a delicious vegan dinner and hurried to the venue before doors opened and found ourselves occupying two excellent spots up in the balcony of the small, intimate venue, and some time later Joe Henry took the stage and thanked us all for coming.
The set was a dream, a perfect acoustic mix of old favorites and lesser-known tracks and a few works off his new album, made all the more magical with the accompaniment of his son, a wonderful brass player in his own right. It felt surreal to hear those songs, "Monkey" and "Our Song" and "Odetta", tunes I'd pumped through little earbuds hundreds of times before, from the mouth of the man himself, and his gentle banter between the ballads, histories and motivations and inspirations of each, couldn't have been better.
The show ended, as all great things must, and Abby headed to the bar to settle our bill while I sat on the steps and watched Joe and his son, who'd entered the lobby, meet and greet with fans. I always feel a bit silly in these moments—eager to introduce myself and thank someone for their contribution to the great canon of art and inspiration, but knowing from my tiny house experience how taxing it can be for introverts like us to keep at those conversations, one after another after another, hundreds saying hello and thanking you and asking you the very same questions for a tight, invisible hour, leaving you feeling all hollowed out inside at its end—so I instead stayed on my stoop and watched Joe and Levon Henry handle the crowds with grace and warmth, thank them for coming, and for their kind words, and for everything, and then Abby returned (I only realized later she didn't know she'd passed right by them) and we left for our apartment, our shared room for one final night.
On the way back home through those dark, quiet streets, I pulled up Abby's itinerary on my phone; her flight was leaving the next morning, but she wasn't really sure when. 11:15, she thought. She was right; the flight did leave at 11:15. I was impressed: much as I love her, much as she'll probably scold for me good-naturedly for writing this, I haven't always known Abbilyn to be the most observant traveler when it came to flight logistics.
Once, we'd planned a trip to California, just a week driving up the coast to San Francisco. It didn't pan out: the government shut down a few weeks earlier and some conflicts arose and we chose to cancel the whole thing, but Abby never got around to canceling her flight and woke up on the morning of October 17th with the sinking realization that a plane she was scheduled to be on had left that morning, her seat empty and paid for.
Another time, we flew to Austin for the wedding of two good friends. She booked her flight first—she always books early, oddly enough—and forwarded me her confirmation, and as I worked to book mine, something didn't seem to add up. I called the bride and made sure I had the wedding day right—Sunday, yeah?—then called Abby and informed her, with an exasperated sigh, that she'd booked a flight that flew out 4:15PM on Sunday afternoon, a short fifteen minutes after the wedding was set to begin.
There were other times I wasn't around for: the time she had twelve hours to kill in New York before her flight left Newark, and somehow she nearly missed this one, or the time she arrived at the airport in Baltimore, like, six hours after her flight left with another departure time mistakenly lodged in her head.
So, all these airport anecdotes under her belt, it was quite something to have seen her arrive promptly in Milan three weeks earlier, and to see that she even knew exactly what time her flight was leaving. There was just one problem: it wasn't leaving the next morning.
Of the two ways this could have gone, she'd thankfully flubbed it for the better: she didn't miss a Monday flight, she was just really early for her Wednesday flight. After an initial minute of panic, we realized there really wasn't anything to panic about. Amsterdam would have her for another twenty-four hours, and beyond needing to find a new hostel for that last unplanned night, the extra day was actually something to celebrate.
So we did. We spent it the same way we'd spent the rest of the weekend, just having a calm, quiet time, and the next morning, I ushered Abbilyn to the airport with a heavy heart, sad to see her go but glad that we had gotten another twenty-four hours together in Europe.
I left her at the gate. We embraced and said our goodbyes and I thanked her for the wonderful company, and also for taking some more of my things home with her, and watched her turn and shrink down the deep corridor of Amsterdam's airport, out of sight for the remaining two months of my European adventure.
I'd never traveled with someone for so long before, at least and especially not so continuously, nearly every waking moment for twenty-three straight days spent by their side. I'd worried about that magnitude of company, how my introversion would cope with it all, how compatible we'd find our pace and our interests and our travel styles. But those fears were unwarranted, I'd quickly realize: Abbilyn was a perfect companion for those three weeks, perfectly comfortable traveling as rough and as rugged, always up for exploring a ruin or walking fifteen miles an afternoon or pissing in a crowded alley, perfectly patient with my terrible jokes and my insufferable idiosyncrasies. I was thankful to have had her with me, and I'd miss her dearly as I set off on my own.