I was always going back to Amsterdam in the spring. Twice in the 90s and 20 years later with the kids. I’d fallen in love with that city for its architecture and vibe, a playhouse for the senses. The glossy nautical finish they put on their homes and front doors, the tidy look of things. Tall windows and slushy canals, the Dutch peddling groceries on their bikes and the look of cool they wore. I wanted to live there but never could so the times I visited I went big.
And it was the fourth time I went alone, the year we lived in Germany. Just a short flight from Stuttgart and a train ride from Schiphol and I was checking in to that sleazy place I’d rented within walking distance to everything, at the heart of it. I could do anything I wanted but couldn’t the time before, with our kids.
So I set out to roam the streets and remember what I could from the past. My first time in Amsterdam my girlfriend didn’t like the coffeeshop scene so I’d gotten a discreet cookie to go and we’d rented mopeds, but mine got stuck in high gear and didn’t brake right. Then a year later returning with my college roommate Mike, buying beer glasses from the bartender, both of us have them still. The most precious things we keep hold meaning for only us, and it’s so things we surround ourselves with as time takes all the rest.
It was coming on spring and the nights were growing mild. I had a meal and found a neighborhood bar that served local gin, scoped out the smart shop, did my research on truffles since Amsterdam had outlawed mushrooms on account of a French girl who’d jumped off a bridge. It wasn’t the English as much as the French who kept screwing things up for other tourists. I took half the recommended dose but still got in over my head by the playground where we’d taken the kids our last visit. Another young dad pushing his kids on swings, me transported back in time doing the same. The past was dead and I was all alone and that’s how it would be for always. I felt the tug of it pulling me down and had to lift myself up, had to give myself a talking to. Went back to where it all started and ate at a cafe, then to bars and restaurants, eating a full meal every few hours or so. Ended the night in my room with notes written by strangers on beer coasters like a deck of cards spilled out when it was time to head back to Schiphol.
Then I tried going back to that time on my last visit, a business trip. Rounding street corners and remembering the look of an intersection from that time or a previous one, they all jumbled together. On that trip we’d flown into London then down to Munich and back to Amsterdam in less than a week. My first international business trip at age 48. I stood on a rooftop with my colleague and cameraman looking down as the evening church bells tolled knowing this would be my last visit for a while. All I had were memories and photos, things I’d written, what others could remember too. The city was the same and always would be. It was like the playhouse we had for our kids and put in the attic, you could go back for a bit but couldn’t stay forever. And that’s why I wrote memoir, I had to believe my life meant something more. Like any kind of faith you have to believe without knowing.