The song of myself is a crude souvenir

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.

Categories: Memoir, writing

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23 replies

  1. Not Amsterdam, but there are a couple places I’ve been that are forever changing me with each recall. I latch onto this line: The most precious things we keep hold meaning for only us” – and that meaning evolves with time (I suppose I mean with maturity?)
    Great post. Too bad you don’t still have all those coasters with notes on ’em. But now you’ve recorded their significance!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do have the coasters! Can’t make much sense of them, seems the bartenders all used them to jot down recommendations for places to go, all of them in cursive…those long Dutch names. Did you get some snow? Must have been exciting, not too hard on the home I hope? Thanks for reading Jazz, glad you could relate. Recall and meaning are funny things, and don’t necessarily go together.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Snow, yes – 6 inches of fluffy stuff quite pretty – topped next day by sleet – Labrador’s feet crack through with each step (quite a racket!) Tomorrow we begin a slow return upward above freezing – frozen slush everywhere. Meanwhile, we do have electricity thus heat (many do not) but as of today, no water. Back to primitive camping practices!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I was wondering about that power sitch for you, I have some family down there I was texting with yesterday. No water sucks! And that camping novelty quickly loses its charm. I can picture your lab cracking through the sleet and snow!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Your song of self will be a gift prized for the rest of your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice! Thanks Jeff, good use of that word “prize.” I love words that double as verbs and nouns!


      • And as a transitive verb: *to press, force, or move with a lever.* My stovetop espresso machine came with instructions cautioning me to never ‘prize’ the pot with the handle. I thought this occured due to some misunderstood language barrier between Italian and English. It stuck with me and I thought about it every time I unscrewed the pot. . Two years later I looked up prize

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha ha nice one! Yes it’s a good word. I thought it had an “s” in it originally (like a lot of English words we switch up in American English) but I’ll knock it off now. A good word.


      • …looked up prize and found that it made sense.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. …and found that it made sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Amsterdam – same, same, only different. It’s an old city made for the young (at heart). It changes slowly and it takes a long view to see the differences.

    I still have fond memories of your third trip. Hopefully, I will be back there this spring.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Been trying to take a trip back in time this week as my boots crunch the snow. Trying to force it to feel like it did in Poland, walking back from the grocery store with bread and sausage and beer. Or in Columbus, trudging the dogs around the block. It’s not working — that was then, this is now, and the twain don’t seem to want to meet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As my boots crunch the snow…been thinking about you and wondering! Wow, a good thing gone bad perhaps by the sounds of it, I’m sorry. I like how you express the struggle over the “twain,” suppose it’s there and not at the same time, a funny thing. I’m at my friend Brad’s cabin and it’s snowing, we just watched Captain Fantastic and were talking Siddhartha. Life goes on, bra…


  6. Somewhere, I hope, there is a coaster-sized photo of me to be found standing next to a self-portrait of Vincent in the van Gogh museum; a portrait that might have been a portrait of me.

    A wonderful city, brought to mind again by your recollections.


    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s lovely David! What a cool reflection there. And gosh I love that place too, more so upon these occasional reflections. Always in spring for some reason. Happy we could share in that together! Thanks for “going there” so to speak, hope the new lockdowns are going okay, if one can say such a thing. Odd, that…but we’ll get through it. Thank you for reading.


  7. Lockdown going pretty well here and hopefully well enough for us to slip away for a holiday drive along our ‘Great Ocean Road’ (in a week’s time). It won’t be remotely like Amsterdam … but I won’t be complaining.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. And in the coming week I have four visits to make to absolutely charming and generous, but socially isolated clients.
    What a life, even from behind a mask!
    Cheers to you, Bill.


    Liked by 1 person

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