It was late Sunday afternoon December 2nd when the train I had boarded in Best arrived at the big Amsterdam central station. The mostly clear skies in Best and across the Netherlands had given way to more overcast as we neared its capital city. The two hour trip had been uneventful but otherwise kind of fun, enjoying the view out the window of chaste, white and wintry Holland, plus enjoying the mouth feel of the gooey, cheddary, grilled cheese sandwich that Hugo’s girlfriend Femke had made and wrapped up for me. And I had to give it to the Dutch, their trains were the prettiest I had seen in Europe, all bright yellow on the outside with slashes of red forming abstract designs on the sides. And unlike yesterday’s train from Munich, the compartments, at least my compartment, was toasty warm.
Coming into the city, the train tracks had already crossed a handful of its iconic canals, and finally there was a view of the huge man made Ijsselmeer (Lake IJssel) to the north just before we came into the station. I would learn later that it was the largest “lake” in Europe, having originally been part of the Netherlands’ Zuiderzee bay, but had been separated from the bay by a 32 kilometer dyke in 1932 and became a freshwater body filled by the Rhine river. All these views were very exciting, particularly from my cozy train compartment, and took my mind off my homesickness.
The coming into a big city on the train drill was now totally familiar to me. I immediately headed to the information booth and tried to cobble together some German, if not Dutch, to ask where the Christian youth hostel was, though not knowing the German word for “Christian”. I queried the middle aged woman behind the counter, “Wo ist die Christian jugendherberge?”
She looked at me a bit quizzically, then replied, “Die Christliche jugendherberge?”
I nodded and she began to point and rattle off directions in German. I had learned in these last nine weeks in countries where I did not speak the language to ask for directions in sort of an iterative process. I’d head off in the direction indicated by the first person queried for a block or two, then asking a second person and follow the direction they pointed out, and so on until I got to my destination (or got completely lost). After the initial useful directional indication, I was listening to her whole unintelligible spiel just to be polite.
Sensing somehow my lack of understanding of what she was saying, she paused, and then asked me, “Do you speak English?”, and after my affirmation proceeded to give me much more understandable directions to the hostel. Turned out it was little more than a kilometer down the street along the picturesque Brouwersgracht Canal, the streets and structures all gleaming under the dusting of snow, with cars parked along the street and cute little houseboats parked on the sides of the canal itself. It occurred to me that even if I had been teleported here from my hometown without any sense of context I would totally be able to guess where I was. Yes Venice also had canals, but they had a very different look than these. Amsterdam’s were broader with real streets on either side lined with clean brick townhouses, while Venice’s were narrow often not even a sidewalk running along them and the brick structures of buildings looking dark and stained, like they had been submerged for years in water and just recently risen out.
The hostel was a three-story brick building just off the canal with an inscription above the second story that read, “TOT HEIL DES VOLKS” which I learned translated in English as “the salvation of the people”. The young woman at the hostel check in desk introduced herself, in English with a Dutch accent, as Greta. She looked in her mid twenties with big blonde frizzy hippie hair, the requisite headband between her untamed mane and blue eyes, gazing at me through round metal rimmed glasses, like Janis Joplin or John Lennon would wear. With a big shiteating Janis Joplin grin that I found irresistible, the next thing she said to me, before taking care of any business, was that I had pretty curls and lovely hazel eyes. She answered my questions with a super friendly informal style where it almost felt like she was hitting on me, or actually, like we had already slept together several times and were intimate carnal comrades. She told me that the hostel was an easy walking distance from the Anne Frank House and a bus to the Heineken brewery, both with daily tours. When she had finished checking me in and answering my questions, she moved on to verbally seduce the next person in line to book a bunk for the night.
The first two locals I had met here spoke plenty of English, and I would find that most other people I encountered in the city did as well. Even more than that it was like the whole city was focused on my well being. On my walk to the hostel suddenly a cab on the other side of the street was honking and the driver had rolled down his window and was gesticulating in my direction. I was mystified what was inspiring him to do so until I happened to look behind me and see that one of my gloves had fallen out of my jacket pocket onto the sidewalk. I finally picked it up and waved to him in acknowledgement. How about that?
I climbed two flights of stairs to the male bunkroom, a huge square room with a high ceiling and windows on one side looking down to the street and on the opposite wall looking down into a narrow alleyway. I noticed that despite the cold outside, several of the windows were open, and then noted the distinctive smell of burnt tobacco and hashish in the air. I found my numbered bunk, the upper of a wooden bunk bed with a built in ladder on the side. I unshouldered my big pack and hoisted it onto my little rectangle of real estate, deciding I’d head back out to scope out the immediate neighborhood for a grocery store and anything else useful before it got dark.
I did not make it back to the stairwell before a guy sitting in a small circle on the floor with two other guys and a young woman, without even introducing himself or asking my name, asked me if I wanted to “smoke a bowl” of hashish with them. Wow, I thought, Amsterdam was truly Amsterdam, living up to its reputation as the dope capital of the Western world, people openly smoking hash in a youth hostel, a Christian youth hostel even.
I thanked him but declined and said maybe later, telling him that I wanted to find a grocery store before it got dark. In that melodious stoner drawl (which has been imitated to humorous effect by so many in the decades that followed) he said there was an “awesome” market just down the street and that I was probably wise to not go there high because I would be tempted to buy everything in sight. It was like a Cheech and Chong routine, the young woman next to him, mostly hidden under her own huge mane of hair, obviously also pretty fried, saying to her comrade, “Yeah… like you did last night!”, the four of them smoking hash together all laughing.
As yet still unfried myself, I successfully found my way to the market and managed to purchase only the necessities for dinner and breakfast the next morning – bread, cold meat, cheese, dried fruit, and of course yogurt – avoiding the chocolate bars and Hostess Twinkies and returning from my forage as the street lights began to turn on in the twilight. I noted that groceries here were about twice as expensive as they had been in Spain, having just spent 11 Dutch Guilders, around four dollars U.S. I also noted that Greta winked at me as I ran the gauntlet by her desk to the stairwell and back up to the bunkroom, as if she was acknowledging our jointly planned sexual encounter later.
I had thought to buy a second baguette of bread, and when I found the same foursome still sitting on the floor I sat and joined their circle, still passed on a toke from the pipe, for now at least until I got more the lay of the land, but ripped an end of the long skinny loaf and passed the rest around the circle to my comrades, who each gratefully ripped off their own hunk and ate it between tokes. A pair of Canadians, Burton and Gwendolyn, an Aussie, Angus, and an unlikely Kiwi who introduced himself as Butch. As we munched on my communal baguette, we traded travel stories as a sort of icebreaker, it was notable and duly noted that we had been to so many of the “same fucking places” – The Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Pitti Palace in Venice, boats down the Rhine and Mosel, and even the Swiss heaven itself, Grindelwald. The only thing I came up with that no one else had done was Oktoberfest in Munich, the others had not been in Europe as long as I had. Also spending a half hour, alone except for the docent, in the Sistine chapel.
The stoner foursome decided they would venture out to check out a supposedly cheap place to have dinner, recommended by flirtatious Greta below, and they invited me to accompany them. I was really tempted to accept, knowing now from my hostel experiences in Switzerland and Italy that my fellow backpacker cohort was a great source of connection and camaraderie, and probably the best cure, or at least medication, for my ever lurking homesickness. But I was still feeling kind of under the weather, and also very concerned about my budget, with nine days still left before my flight home on December 11th, so I thanked them for the invite but declined. Still torn, I figured that by tomorrow, when I anticipated getting my boarding pass for my plane flight and should also be able to nail down the cost of the train to the Hook of Holland and boat to England, I would be a little more free with my remaining money. And perhaps if there had been an unattached young woman or two in the stoner foursome I might have damned the finances and gone with them, but Gwendolyn and Burton were obviously a couple, and he and the other two guys were not the lure four stoned female types might have been.
I had already done my daily math exercise of checking how much money I had left, how many days I had to go, plus how much of a reserve I still needed going forward. The biggest unknown expense at this point, now that my rail pass had expired, was the cost of the train and boat to get me back to England, and whatever bus or train fare I would need to get around my last week. Having bought groceries and paid for the hostel for the night, I had four $20 travelers checks, plus about 35 Guilders left, about $12 dollars U.S.
I also realized I was tired and drained of energy, having spent the previous night sleeping fitfully on the train plus spending the morning with Hugo and his family in Best having my own sort of catharsis. It had been liberating to acknowledge and let go of those feelings, but fatiguing as well. I craved a good night’s sleep, and I thought I best eat something and then crawl into my sleeping bag and go with that very primal urge, it having been quite the long day.
As I sat on my upper bunk munching on my bits of dinner I got a fresh whiff of tobacco and hash. There was a group of my cohort off in the far corner of the big room, five of them sitting on lower bunks of two bunkbeds facing each other, passing a joint, one tuning the strings on his guitar between tokes. He started in singing, the others, male and female voices, joining in for the chorus. It was Cat Stevens’ song “The First Cut is the Deepest”…
I would have given you all of my heart
but there’s someone who’s torn it apart
and she’s taken almost all that I’ve got
but if you want, I’ll try to love again
baby I’ll try to love again but I know
The first cut is the deepest, baby I know
The first cut is the deepest
My psyche still raw from my little breakdown in front of Hugo, Femke and her kids earlier that day in Best, that last line of the lyric struck home somewhere deep inside me. The goosebumps shivered up on my forearms and the tears began to flow from my eyes. The first cut is the deepest. I realized that I too had been deeply cut, wounded, a wound that was apparently not healed, and that that was probably where much of my continuing shyness and timidity was coming from. I continued to struggle to be that precocious loving sexual “let’s get naked together” soul that I was born to be, remembering that awful incident in third grade.
I had confided in my male classmate Joey that I had a crush on our classmate Mary. A crush so intense that I wanted to get naked with her, that “I’d pull down my pants for Mary”, as I explained it to him. Fucking Joey for some reason I’ll never understand ratted my ardor out to all my classmates, including Mary and our teacher Mrs Rood as we gathered by the classroom door to go out to recess. I was mortified, and Mrs Rood pushed the knife deeper in the wound by calling me up to her desk later and telling me I shouldn’t say things like that, and I felt like some sort of sexual deviant…
I still want you by my side
Just to help me dry the tears that I’ve cried
Cause I’m sure gonna give you a try
And if you want, I’ll try to love again
But baby, I’ll try to love again, but I know
The first cut is the deepest, baby I know
The first cut is the deepest
The five of them singing the song with such energy and passion had touched my wound and made me realize that after eleven years it was still fresh and nowhere near healed. The tears continued to flow down my cheeks as I sat on my upper bunk, feeling like that seven-year-old again, unnoticed by the five of them or the several other people in the bunkroom. There was some solace as they sang that, hearing their voices singing as if they knew the pain, it occurred to me that I was certainly not the only one, and as the mantra I had adopted goes, “Life goes on”. But those eleven years of so much life gone on, so many romantic opportunities missed or bailed on, I still had told no one of the incident. And I knew I had to get past it somehow, to be the person I was meant to be.
The intense wave of emotion finally played out and I finished eating and put my head down on the little nylon bag stuffed with my down jacket that I used as a pillow. As I closed my eyes my mind raced at the implications of what had just been revealed to me. I promised myself that I had come far enough now that I could share my secret wound with someone, sometime hopefully soon, and finally make my peace with it, and try to put the whole thing behind me. For an hour or so I lay there considering all my friends back home, which one might be the right one to tell, and exactly the words I would use to tell them. It was only extreme fatigue that overcome my mind’s urge to keep spinning on this topic all night.
I awoke the next morning with the initial sense that I might be missing something, but there was no breakfast like in Grindelwald that I had already paid for and might miss the opportunity to eat. I had had a good long sleep, more than twelve hours actually, and with the releases from yesterday’s epiphanies, the one in Best and the one here sitting on my bunk last night, I felt lighter and unburdened, and was grateful for that, optimistic even. In eight days I would have done it! Completed my full odyssey through Western Europe and returned home the triumphant traveler. And perhaps a transformed one too, with at least a better idea of who I was, the baggage I still carried from my childhood, and hopefully a renewed and more focused intention to make peace with and let go of that baggage.
I did have important business to attend to today, determining the means and how much it would cost me to get back to England. There still were a number of guys asleep in their bunks, and though the light coming in through the windows indicated another gray day, it was also bright enough to indicate we were well into morning, though without a watch or other means of telling time, I could not confirm this. Gwendolyn, Burton and Butch were in a quiet but animated conversation near my bunk with hostel staffer Greta talking details about the tour of the Heineken brewery. I noticed that the two guys were still in their t-shirts and underwear, which was typical backpacker sleeping wear, given most of my cohort and I did not want to use any of that precious space in our packs to carry specialized sleep gear that could not alse be worn during the day.
Burton saw me sit up in my bunk and called out to me, asking if I wanted to join them taking this morning’s tour of the brewery. Greta was conveying that it was drizzling, and the wait for the brewery tour would be outside in the elements, so make sure we brought our rain gear. We should also leave in no more than ten minutes in order to ensure we got a spot on the day’s tour. I had slept in my white briefs and t-shirt as well, and suddenly realized I would have to climb out of my bunk and rummage through my backpack for my pants with all of them watching. But given that, I also did not want to appear to be shy, or more prudish than my male comrades in front of these two young women, particularly foxy Greta.
What I really wanted to do was join the conversation in my underwear as well, in front of the two young women, but the shy part of me resisted. I thought to myself, what was I afraid of? That someone would make some sort of sexual joke with me as the focus, and I would respond in a way that would somehow reveal that I liked being looked at when I was naked, and the others would think me some sort of sexual deviant and shun me? My imagination with its worst case scenario was all so far fetched that the fear of appearing prudish triumphed, and I swung my half naked body out of bed, dropped from my upper bunk to the floor and joined the conversation with my own penis and balls an obvious package under my briefs like my two male comrades. Gwendolyn and Greta took no notice, at least initially, with Greta finishing her explanation about where to go and what to do to be able to take the tour.
It felt so liberating for me to stand there in front of them, the guys and the women, as nearly naked as I guess one could get away with in this situation. Greta, with her flirty proclivity, had been playing it cool during the conversation. But when we three guys headed back to our bunks to wriggle into our jeans, she said to Gwendolyn, “Look at these cute dudes in their knickers… I love this job.” And she laughed and sauntered out of the male bunkroom.
Pants and raingear on, the four of us ventured out into the cold rainy day all in our ponchos joining with other clusters of our larger cohort staying at the hostel and making the same pilgrimage. I guess for young adult backpacker types on a limited budget but with the boundless longing for free or cheap beer, this was a must do. Our iconic big hair shrouded under the hoods of our ponchos, we all looked like a gaggle of colorful aliens, some blue, some red, though more than half of us were either green or orange, the latter my poncho’s hue.
We made our way up Willemsstraat across the metal drawbridge over the narrow Lijnbaans Canal, lined with small houseboats and other small boats mostly buttoned up with tarps for the winter. Then there was a jog in the road and over the much larger Singel Canal which formed a semicircle around the center of the city as part of Amsterdam’s signature crescent shaped floor plan. The wide canal was lined with four-story townhouses on either side behind trees with bare winter branches. I enjoyed looking at the endless variety of small boats tied up along the canal, imagining what the interior spaces of each might look like, and how cool it would be to live in a houseboat in this very friendly and politically progressive city, with its legalized hash and prostitution.
Across the canal at the Nassau Quay it was just a five minute wait before the city bus pulled up and maybe fifteen of us poncho’d aliens shuffled aboard, wrestling in the close quarters of the bus to get at our coins under our raingear to pay the fare. The coins in my own pocket still included a few Swiss and German ones along with a majority of the current Dutch specimens, from guilders and half guilders down to five cent pieces. The small denomination Dutch coins were physically small as well but had a nice heaviness to them and they made a great clinking noise against each other or when spilled out of your hand onto a hard surface. I had been keeping a collection of coins and was looking forward to getting home and sharing the visual and visceral joy of a palmful of the metal currency of each country I had visited.
It was a twenty minute bus ride along the curving canal to the stop by the brewery. The locals on the bus looked at us like familiar oddities and I imagined a regular rider on this route would get their daily dose of foreign young people coming from the hostel with their blue jeans and big hair. Our various wild manes were on display in the sheltered confines of the bus as we removed the hoods of our ponchos and let, what David Crosby identified as our “freak flag”, spring or tumble out in all its varieties, as catalogued in the opening number of the musical Hair…
Long, straight, curly, fuzzy,
Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen
Knotted, polka dotted,
Twisted, beaded, braided
Powdered, flowered and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghettied
When we shuffled off the bus there were already a couple dozen other of our long haired backpacker comrades standing outside the brewery waiting for the tour, most probably from other hostels about town, along with a few more conventional tourist types with their umbrellas and much more subdued and kempt hair.
The first part of the tour through the various stages of the brewing process I found it impossible to understand the guide above the ambient noise of the place, though he was trying his best to explain everything in both Dutch and English. Lacking the narrative thread, what was most striking were all the wild smells of the various steps of the process. The sweet earthy smell of the sprouted grain being dried and ground down in the “malting” process. The various pungent smells of the further process steps – malted grain mixed with hot water to create a sugary “wort”, the careful boiling of the wort to create the specific flavoring of the beer, and finally the adding of yeast to the cooled wort to stimulate the fermentation process. Having not eaten any breakfast, after about a half hour amidst that varied olfactory assault, I was beginning to feel kind of queasy and even nauseous.
The second half of the tour in the bottling plant was a much different experience. I was closer to the guide and could better understand what he was saying. And the whole bottling assembly line was a wild visual and even auditory experience. Watching all those thousands of green bottles shoot along the conveyor belts, split into many parallel paths and then shot full of beer and carbon dioxide, capped, and then the separate paths merging into one quivering river of filled and capped bottles, eventually slotted like bowling pins into cases for transport and sale. All this in the overwhelming din of thousands of bottles clinking against each other.
After the bottling plant, the much anticipated third act of the tour was the tasting room. Free glasses of beer served with cubes of cheese and even Cheeto-like cheese curls. It was 11 AM and I think it was breakfast for many of us. I and my four comrades sat at one of the long rectangular tables scarfing cheese cubes and curls and all downing our limit of five one-third liter glasses of the delicious brew. After the first few glasses, we started to laughingly note those among our larger cohort in attendance who looked to have had smoked hash prior to the tour and were now “seriously fucked up” as Butch noted.
Butch was quite the unique character. From New Zealand, English speaking but with chocolate colored skin, attended private school with mostly white kids, but his parents were Samoan. He was visually striking – tall, big boned, tattoos all over his arms, and wore his long frizzy black hair in two massive pigtails that exploded from the sides of his head above his ears. It struck me that he and fellow Kiwi Trix, she who who had befriended me on the train from Rome to Florence, and was herself striking with her thick hair gathered in five pigtails like stalks and her green green alien from outerspace eyes, would make a stunning couple.
He seemed hellaciously smart, was always bubbling over with energy, and had an honesty and acid wit that was at times a kick and at others discomforting. When I had first introduced myself after I joined the circle with him, Burton and Gwendolyn last night, I had on my two-inch heels, and he referred to me as the “low spark manster Coopenstein” (“low spark” based on Stevie Winwood’s song, “Low Spark of highheeled boys”) which had tickled me and endeared him to me. Now surfing the buzz from the beer, he had referred to Greta, with her curly hair, round rimmed glasses, and precocious sexuality, as “Yuicy Yanus Yoplin”, as the Germans and Dutch pronounced the “J” sound as a “Y”. He said that at his private school he was the only “brown boy”, but he was so big that he made his class look multiracial in the class picture. He pontificated that all us white people were delusional if we thought we’d still be running the world in the 21st century, that the non-white people of the world were in a majority and that the “global village” was going to make it ever harder for the “white elite” to continue their “colonization of the rest of us”, going forward. These were indeed heavy political thoughts, but he threw them out in passing with a wink and a grin that was very disarming. And he was the first to admit his own “economic privilege” that allowed him to go to an elite private school and take this extensive sojourn through Europe, saying his parents had done well for themselves “working for the man”.
As we all got more beer in our bellies and more alcohol juicing through our brains, Burton challenged Butch on the concept of privilege. Burton said that where he lived in Canada, it was definitely “what you knew” rather than “who you knew” that led to being successful. Being white might be at best an “ephemeral advantage”, but if you couldn’t “cut the mustard” you were no better off. His take was that the black people where he lived in Windsor had their opportunities, they just had to commit themselves to take full advantage of them. He said that he and Gwendolyn had worked hard and long for every penny they were spending here in Europe.
Butch’s grin while he nodded at what Burton was saying bordered on turning into a grimace, and I could tell he had heard this argument before from other people. In response he said that he did not know Burton and Gwendolyn’s world well enough to comment, but in his world in New Zealand most of the white kids he knew were pretty clueless of their built in advantages from being part of the “ruling tribe”. Sure everyone had to work hard to succeed, but the white kids had at least “a few more cards in their deck” to play as needed, and if they fucked up were more likely to get a second chance.
Gwendolyn and I had been just interested spectators in this discussion up to now, but Butch turned his gaze on me and asked for “the manster Coopenstein’s take”. I was kind of caught by surprise by the question, having been happy to be in listening mode since I wa still feeling a little under the weather, and I said that I needed to ponder all this before I responded.
My own ideological guru was my “feminist aunt”, my mom’s good friend, Mary Jane. She was more likely to talk in terms of “male privilege”, but I couldn’t imagine she would be antagonistic to the concept of white privilege as well. As always a wannabe radical more so than a real one at this point in my life, I had not really confronted the concept of my white privilege. So I decided I was going to be with Butch on the privilege argument, it was more consistent with being that radical person I imagined myself to be. I decided I would hedge it a bit and not take full ownership of the position, and finally commented, “My mom’s best friend Mary Jane is a radical feminist and is always talking about ‘male privilege’, so I imagine white privilege is along those same lines.”
Burton glared at me and forced the issue of ownership of that view of things, asking me if I in fact agreed with Mary Jane’s assessment, and if I had truly experienced white and male privilege for myself. I was not comfortable being in these crosshairs at the moment, and though I responded with a yes, it came out kind of tentative. In that male sparring style that I always found discomforting and generally refused to engage in with other guys, Burton called what he took to be my bluff and said he needed an example.
At this point, Gwendolyn finally chimed in, and whether intended or not, came to my rescue. She reminded Burton that his parents had unconditionally supported him traveling in Europe, while her parents had only been okay with her doing so because they knew she would be traveling with him. Burton threw up his hands and noted that that was just the “reality of the world we live in”. Her eyes twinkled triumphantly, he had essentially made her point, she nodded and said “yep”. I could see him struggling for a counter, but he either did not come up with one or decided not to fight with his girlfriend. The conversation finally moved on.
Before we left, I bought Heineken t-shirts for myself and Angie. I decided I would wear mine, all new and clean on the plane back. Then when my mom and brother saw me at Detroit Metro Airport, I’d be in full hippie backpacker regalia – jeans, hiking boots, and my Heineken t-shirt. As to the second shirt, there might have been a bit of a passive aggressive agenda there, reminding Angie of what she had missed by not continuing the odyssey with me.
All donned again in our alien ponchos and full of cheese and lots of beer, we left the brewery and were back out in what was now a full blown cold rainy day. Feeling deliciously buzzed and sated by the vibrant conversation with my fellow travelers, plus unburdened from yesterday’s epiphanies, I said goodbye to them and decided to head off on my own and walk the two and a half kilometers through the center city back to the train station to sort out my passage back to England.