On March 11, two days before my birthday, I flew to Amsterdam for what would be eleven days in Europe, my very first time. I selected two cities beyond Amsterdam to explore: Utrecht, a university town 30 miles southeast of Amsterdam, and Paris. Europe invites the possibility of seeing its major sights on a single trip, à la “backpacking through Europe,” a rite of passage straight from America’s young adult folklore. But already under the assumption that I will inevitably return, I chose to tighten the focus on Holland with a jaunt to Paris. In retrospect, I could have easily spent the entire time in either country, or any single city, and I suppose the lesson is to never underestimate the enthusiastic heart’s capacity to explore. I took photos when I could, alternating between DSLR, disposable and iPhone, and wrote when I could, either in my trusty navy Moleskine or the Notes app on my phone, furiously tapping as I wound through Shakespeare and Company not once but three times. Before I revisit such notes, photos and souvenirs (simple items like a postcard from the Ann Frank House, bookmarks from the Van Gogh Museum, tattered train tickets), a couple of unpolished photos and likewise corresponding notes may capture a spirit of the trip that is likely to fade from overthinking.
I write this from a window seat on a train traveling from Paris to Amsterdam. Under a low gray ceiling, scenes alternate between swaths of bare winter trees with tip-tops made invisible by fog, fields of green and brown in equal measure, anonymous farms, and urban relics like graffiti, billboards and pedestrians before and after each station. Birds appear in all directions and begin to race the train, though they soon forfeit to dance up and away to a place gravity forbids. I sense magic when listening to songs from my own canon of favorites as the landscape flies by, especially when that landscape is new and that song has such fitting lines as, “I quit casting hooks off the California coast we held so dear.” California, now an ocean and continent away. I have driven the 500-mile stretch between California’s northern and southern ends countless times, a feat that has skewed my perspective of travel. I am accustomed to traveling far while very little changes. Now, I sit on a train that traverses three wholly unique countries – Holland, Belgium and France – in a little over 300 miles. Borders feel especially arbitrary when countries live in such close quarters. Soon I will arrive in Amsterdam Central only to race to another train headed for Utrecht. Simply because this trip began in Holland, returning after two days in Paris feels a bit like going home. Understand I’m prone to attachment.
I write this from a window seat
in Café Pieper in the center of Amsterdam. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet plays familiar notes in this 17th century café, and as the two make an undeniably perfect pair, the conclusion is that certain things are indeed timeless and stunningly so. Floorboards creak loudly with each new customer, and the espresso machine whirrs just as often as beer is poured. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman cling to each other in the far corner. To my left, a couple sits with a dog that they quickly report is 15-years-old and deaf; to my right, two shimmering blondes talk as quickly as their hands fly. Upon hearing any foreign language, my mind seems to fill every word, sound and syllable with deeply profound meaning, as if to emphasize, Listen to all that you don’t know! Outside the stained glass windows, there is a canal with cars and bikes wrapped tightly around its perimeter, which strangely does not diminish the canal’s beauty. Instead, beauty emerges from the bustle, timeless and stunningly so.