Persephone Abbott, musician and author, settled in the Netherlands. While living in Gouda, the city center inspired her to write an English language guide book to her neighborhood. Written as part of a collaboration, the guide without ads demonstrates a difference: it leads someplace. In this blog (started in 2007) she posts thoughts of an integrated foreigner and writer living in Amsterdam. Postings only once a week, mainly on Fridays.
Typical. As any national news site, the Dutch television online
news posted an item that would particularly appeal to their followers. “Belgian
King Goes by Bike” the title of the article said. Ah, the vindication that the
Belgian totem head of the small neighboring country would be reduced to cycling
to carry out his agenda. You can feel the pleasure of the Dutch readers
radiating that a. getting back to normal behavior in which everyone is subject
to the rain is worthy suffering for a good and healthy cause and b. that the
Belgian nation was undoubtedly a prone subject to the current economic crisis
in the form of the head of state being reduced to two wheels.
It wasn’t particularly interesting news but it was a topic that
would rotate office conversation.
“Here,” I was handed a book of Dutch poetry by the host at our last
concert. “Sings” was the title. I happen to like poetry and read far too little
Dutch poetry. I started in on it, and was serenaded by the melancholy of a reoccurring
rural freeway number and the futility of life. Why, the book wailed, why is
there life in this field that by far should be submerged by the sea, and what
are we to do? I felt that never again should I marry a Dutchman. The melancholy calling out
of the hopeless lost cause of the Low Land Lot was highly familiar to me.
“Try Italians,” I was advised. Actually I was contemplating joining
a cult. That’s a one-stop-solves-all-your-social-inadequacies-choice. No-one
would ever want to hear about your private life again after you join a cult;
people you know avoid you like ebola. I live nearby the Scientology
headquarters in Amsterdam.Sometimes I
stand across the street and watch what goes on there. Not much, the cuddly toys
in the upper windows offer little insight to activities there.“It’s something I am not proud of,” a woman
said to me at a social gathering, “But I did join the recruitment group once.
When I was quite young,” she added hastily. “We got sent to Los Angeles and to
get a half day off, we’d swap chores and cover each other’s asses.”I wondered how she got out. “Ja,” she scoffed
in her six feet tall way in that terribly Dutch manner, “In the end my father
got me a job back in South Africa and I never wanted to stick to the program.
Whenever I was sent out to talk to people, I just did whatever I pleased. Bars,
boys, whatever.” She shrugged her shoulders. It reminded me of the Dutch habit
of never studying for exams.If you can
pass a class on a 6 for a grade why try for higher? What’s the point of it all?
“You still don’t have a bike?” Outrage. No, in my last address I had
a bike on loan for a little while, but it had no lights. I didn’t want to get
fined so, barring one occasion, I simply never used it. “Tja!” an acquaintance
barely concealed her scorn, as if, “Go to Hema and buy some lights. Set you
back only five Euros.” She had a point. In the minds of the Dutch leaning into
the wind at one end of life’s futility gale, duty means fulfilling cycling
obligations. Doesn’t have to be a fancy bike, no, a grade 6 with cheap lights
strapped on by wimpy elastic bands will do nicely.
“Hey,” someone I know was tapping on her iPhone case making that plastic sound while she talked to me driving her point home, “Turns out that a
Dutch study has revealed that the majority bicyclists stopped between 1 am and
3 am had blood levels well over the legal alcohol limit.”
Could be, I was transporting myself to
Florida perhaps, where exotic animals block up drains. Maybe there was a snake
stuck in the shower drain. It is a highly unlikely scenario but still, a
definite solution to the problem. Remove snake, repair drain, everyone happy.
Do insurers here in the Netherlands cover the snake in the drain occurrence?
“You are not going to put this discussion
on FB in one of your infamous flowery formatted status statements!” This was directed at
me at midnight while descending from our train which had just pulled into
Amsterdam Station. There’s a great waiting room for the royals there, you know,
gold gilt and mosaic themed.Statues
glaring at you from the ceiling corners, etc. You’ve got to know to bait time a
bit or perhaps time baits you with a heavily symbolic over the top décor until
it seems a bit ridiculous. Either way, there had been a long discussion in the
train ride home from the Opera aan de Schie festival about all sorts of things,
starting from what’s the view of and from an upside down triangle. The triangle theme was not a successful
subject and led to some irritation facilitated by the hanging and uncomfortable
sensation that arose in our throats, the need to defend our IQ levels. A good
number of glasses of wine had been partaken post performances, and everyone was
still a bit wired on the adrenaline, wired from the fatigue of less adrenaline than before
the performance, and, ultimately, wired on the booze.
Instead of feeling the usually mutual love
post climax of the opera festival, we were sitting back in high school being
interrogated about our future capabilities stuck in uncomfortable train seats.
Were we focused on thinking the right way? Would we achieve greater heights
because our brains were then cajoled into thinking in the great Western
academic tradition? The logic of logic within the balanced three tips of a triangle?
Well, what I most enjoyed about Opera aan
de Schie this year was showing up with four ballet dancers. Okay, so the show
is not about me, I was merely a part of it. I’m not quite sure how I managed to
think about putting together an “Orfeo ed Euridice” with dancers.Most likely because the score by Gluck has
dances in it and at one point I nearly had an orchestra too, but it because of
budget concerns it ended up being a cast of eight. Four dancers, three singers
and a pianist. One of the dancers had been in the company of the Dutch National
Ballet and, retired, is presently teaching at a ballet school and was dancing
along with her students. I cut up the score and told the dancers to do what
they wanted with the options. They brilliantly filled in the story line so that
the singers could simply sing and emote with music while standing basically
still. When we finally rehearsed the two groups, singers and dancers, together
we had a complete show. This was an excellent result.The story is about love, losing it, finding
it, replacing it, endless wandering back and forth about what is true love and the
discrepancies of what is not and cannot, in the end, be called straightforward faithfulness.
The final conversation in the train oddly
enough mirrored the opera theme.The
revelations capturing the attention of our fellow passengers, one of whom could
not keep his eyes on his day old newspaper and instead followed the bouncing
ball topic between our small mixed group about the infidelity of men, the
natural unbreakable chain reaction of lust, the discussion rebounding between
the one man and two women in our group; the women’s distrust of the male sex
evident, their irritation at not being the sole object of desire, composed
disgruntlement as regal as the royal waiting room in Amsterdam Central.
The bag smelled awful. I had been regularly eating a lot of prepared
supermarket food up until now, such as that smelly salad that comes in bags.
Pitiful I know. Why not, you might ask, just grab or tote a sandwich for lunch
like most people? Sandwiches are the last thing I like to eat when given the
choice. Being gluten intolerant means that there are many gluten free bread
products available but all of them are magnificently inedible unless toasted. So if I toast four slices of gluten free bread
(the equivalent to two and half slices of normal sized bread slices) and smear
them with a lot of butter and something else tasty and moisturizing, they
become slightly appealing as a possible lunch option. But not by much. Now that I have an apartment with
total control over my own (unshared) kitchen and could pack lunches easily (the
entire vista of the fridge is mine), I have begun to be more resolute when
grocery shopping. Still, I backslid and over the weekend bought a bag of smelly
salad. It tastes awful as well and prompted me to read a number of blogs by people who categorically refuse to eat the embalmed comestible. Anyway moving on from the vagabond life of
apartmentlessness to getting more organized as I am now well housed, I rounded up a friend and neighbor on
my day off this past weekend for a marathon of walking about Amsterdam.
“Do you want an apple?” I asked as we stood in line on the
richest of the richest canals in Amsterdam to view the interior of a patrician’s
house. I had a gluten free sandwich in my bag as well.I wouldn’t dare offer it to anyone to eat. Instead
I thought he might like the apple. He wasn’t hungry.Nonetheless I fished the aluminum foil
wrapped bullet out of my bag.“See,” I
said tapping the unwrapped sandwich against my iPad case, “Rock hard.” It made
a hollow tapping sound.
I crunched my way through the snack.The crumb laden peanut butter goo (it’s
always a toss up: a lot peanut butter is needed to disguise the bread but too
much peanut butter leads to a brittle choking sensation) didn’t help to relieve my
thirst. I ate the apple too. “This used to be the dining room.” We were
standing in the back room of the Bartolotti House. The built in marble fountain
used to cool the wine exuded elegance, the epicurean themes hanging heavily on the wall. Feeling dehydrated, I fantasized that the water spout might be conduced to deliver instead a dark chocolate pudding, so rich in antioxidants, a perfect complement to wine. I could easily imagine the presence of many green bottles. Then, speaking of compliments, sometime in the
18th century a musician moved in and converted all the beautiful light and resonance into a music room.
Either way, it was a very elaborate and agreeable space overlooking a large
garden. Even 17th century the laundry facilities appeared quite charming under a skylight in the basement. All those off white colored tiled walls, their milky and pitted shining surfaces waving at me, were very
inspirational. I wanted to move in immediately.
“Mega water leak!” The note was posted to my front door. The
shop below my flat had found water descending from the ceiling.When I went to look, they had cleaned it up.
I didn’t have any extraneous water in my flat. Why hadn’t they unscrewed some
of the ceiling panels to look for the leak? This thought occurred to me several
times over the next few days, but what did I understand about the wicked ways of water?
The shop owner stood on my bathroom floor looking down, he
feet supported by the firmly cemented tiles. He was a sweet guy with a slightly
off kilter smile. “It will all have to come out!” he declared, “To fix the
water leak.” The building’s superintendent finally spoke up. “No.” Well, there
was some common sense talking.
We had seen three 17th century mansions. My
companion started saying things about Art Deco lines, his mind reeling from all
the Rococo. We marched over to Amsterdam’s City Archives designed by Bazel. The rooms reminded me vaguely of a house I had
once lived in when I was 5. It had lovely electricity switches.Not those abhorrent plastic splotches that we
now must accept but little brass switches or old fashioned twist notches with a
delicate line threaded through them to give a sense of dimension.
To continue the theme of near modernity we walked over to
the Grand Hotel, formerly the city hall up until the 1980's, and saw the famous first class wedding room for the well to do, filled with stained glass and
muted green wall murals. My Open Monument Day Partner in Crime was nearly
kicking his heels together with glee at the sight of so many straight lines and
geometrical patterns. One more visit, we mutually decided and afterwards sealed
our five hour six monument day trip off with a chocolate mocha treat in the
Bijenkorf looking out over Amsterdam under blue skies, complete satisfaction
plastered over our faces. We parted ways on the Spuistraat. There was still
half a day available; he went off to compose music and I thought about composing some poems
and this way we’d celebrate a great day out in Amsterdam back in our own spaces. What about the leak, you wonder? So do I from
time to time, but so far no further notice of rampant hysteria has been taped
to my door.
Open Monument Weekend (or Day depending on the town/city) occurs once a year (usually the second weekend in September) and is a national event.