When we leave Germany, the vines growing up my mom’s house have lost most of their leaves and her courtyard has a battered look to it with all the dead and the dying lying on top of each other — ‘that’s why they call it fall,’ mom says. Goodbye takes longer than any of us wanted it to but by 4, we’re at our friend Laurent’s house in France in the kitchen with a glass of red wine watching him brown meat. There’s something about the French, or maybe it’s just Laurent, that makes simple acts of cooking look magical, how he stabs the lamb and flips it with a two-pronged fork and just spools the salt out without measuring it, uses a tea kettle to add water to the broth.
We dismantle our things in the driveway because we’ve packed for a three-month road trip through the UK in the winter and tried to go lean, but it’s hard, we can’t bring our three-month bags in with us everywhere, especially in Amsterdam where we’re on the fourth floor of an old apartment — and Dawn and I are both rattled from the gravity of it all, me sometimes doddering, groping at my pockets and complaining about needing to relax which is funny, since I haven’t worked in almost a year now.
But a five-hour drive to Amsterdam takes closer to nine and comes as expected with accidents and detours, navigational problems and the device finally leading us right smack into a pedestrian zone after dark, insisting we go across a narrow bridge over a canal that looks like it’s meant just for pedestrians, near collisions with people on bikes who appear like it’s a video game, none of them with lights, you just have to jerk the wheel and commit — but when we get here at last, to Prinseneiland, an outer ring of the old town, I’ve got a big bottle of Belgian blond I bought at a rest stop near Bruxelles and an hour to get to the supermarket before it closes: just go over the bridge under the railroad tracks and turn right, the woman says.
In the morning the Dutch lady who’s taller than me, covering for her friend the landlord who’s gone to Italy to pick olives, says I don’t need to be afraid to drive over the bridges and smiles in a way that could be maternal or perhaps flirting, or maybe it’s just me.
When I warm the stove in our apartment it smells like someone cooked weed in it, and I have to play with the light and plumbing fixtures to master them before anyone else does, and a bath sounds good but when I get inside, there’s a smell like the one in my mom’s laundry room that creeps up, a peat bog of sphagnum moss de-gassing that’s just the way things smell down there, for however they manage the waste and the water.
The neighbours downstairs introduce themselves and say we’re too loud, it’s an old warehouse loft space and they can hear everything, but I’m too tired and polite to care or be a dick about it and just apologise and make small talk and say we’re from Seattle, ask the woman her name but immediately forget it, it’s Dutch.
We have a view of the canal below and the soft, pink-orange street lamps that reflect off the water and make the clouds glow at night, giving everything a milky look after dark, good for late night brooding.
All the Dutch women remind me of our painter friend Barry’s wife Tineke, the rings around their eyes like the canal system’s concentric loops you can get lost in, their skin like Marsepein — and all the guys wear scarves on their bikes and have that permanent, dangling cigarette — they ride with the grace of geese going in and out of each other, some on cell phones and steering with one hand, some with young children on the handlebars or girls riding side-saddle on the back, none of them in helmets.
Dawn and I walk our kids into town toward the train station and realise soon it’s kind of weird to have your kids here, which I knew going in, having been here twice before, never having considered bringing my children to what feels like an adult amusement park — later, needing to have a chat about legalised weed and prostitution over lunch which Dawn executes in a way I never could and makes them trust and feel good about it, which they should, but stigmatises me and has me biting the tips of my moustache hair through lunch, prompting me to excuse myself for some fresh air and go outside to enquire where I could buy pre-rolled joints, if they still do that here for tourists because I heard in Germany they’ve stopped, with all the Americans ruining everything — and it becomes clear right away that’s just a rumour and everything’s going to be alright.
I write my grocery list on my palm and Dawn and I split up, and I have a seat outside a café with a beer to people watch, and try to relax: taking note of my valuables, double-checking where everything is, writing in my notepad and thinking I probably look like a writer sitting here writing, trying to just be a part of it, wrapping my bag around the chair leg, adjusting my watch to the church bells.