April 4, 2005
A Good Start
I arrived in Amsterdam Saturday morning. I've slept on my bed in the Stayokay Amsterdam Vondelpark and on the hallway floor and my bed at The Flying Pig.
Amsterdam is disorienting. Once you are accustomed to the circular electrical plugs, the signs, and the various languages spoken, you have to accept the reality of prostitutes standing behind glass doors in hopes of gaining your attention and money.
And once you accept the reality of a Red Light District, then you have to accept the unreality of where a hit of the city's progressive politics can take you. I'm off the floor now, so I think that's a good start.
April 8, 2005
The Seasoned Pedestrian
When I first got here, I was looking and listening for cars and car horns. But it was the bikes and trains in the streets that were after me. Ring ring!
Amsterdam doesn't have violent crimes, but it does have pickpockets. So I walk with my hands in my pockets and spin my head around, taking after Chucky, to ensure I don't get hit by a bus, train, bike, motorbike, or car.
I am a seasoned pedestrian; I can cross any street in Amsterdam. I would get a shirt to prove it, but the shirts are made to prove that you've either been stoned, drunk, high, or perverted while here. Pedestrians aren't recognized as anything special, maybe because everyone gets hit eventually.
April 13, 2005
Dinner with a Stranger
After Amsterdam I stopped by Brussels for a day and caught glimpse of none other than Manneken-Pis, a small and fenced-off statue of a boy whose rock-penis sprays water perpetually.
On Monday I met a woman named Marie on the Metro in Brussels. At Central Station she enthusiastically helped me make my seat reservation on the Eurail to Paris. "I love traveling," she would say. While waiting for the train, she introduced me to a backpacker she had never met. His name was Israel, and the three of us sat together on the way to Paris.
Guidebooks and common sense tell you to watch out for instantaneous buddies like Marie, but her presence was simultaneously crazy and warm. Plus I could have kicked her ass.
Between my broken French and their broken English (Israel was from Tijuana, Mexico), we all managed to talk the whole way to Paris. Marie invited Israel and me to dinner at her place, and when we accepted the offer, she gave us her address, directions, and her door code. When Israel ate the chocolate she gave us on the train, I told him I'd pick him up at the hospital, mostly joking.
Israel left for Madrid Tuesday night, but after three hours of walking around the area I found Marie's apartment myself. I presented macaroons and Marie presented her brother, Maurice, and others: Frida, Bertrand, and Dominique. We ate pasta and salad for dinner and pear-almond pie (and macaroons) for dessert.
The conversation consisted of my saying something in English, repeating it in a language similar to French, and then Frida hearing me in English and translating my words to French for the others.
During dinner, Marie said it was the kindness in my eyes that led her trust me. I was flattered and pleased to have an answer for a question I didn't ask aloud, but I almost wanted her to be less trusting for her own safety. She's 54 and widowed. Actually, with a few kitchen utensils, her brother and friends could have kicked my ass.
April 18, 2005
Remember Your Hands
Speaking English in some parts of Europe is like driving in New York City: you'll only get to where you're going with perseverance. People will get impatient with you, and vice versa, but each of you will be right in only the context of your own perspective.
In France, the first question isn't "Where's the restroom?" -- it's "Parlez-vous anglais?" After that it's a chapter of Choose Your Own Adventure. Either you end up on the toilet or stuck at the register creatively rephrasing your question.
Fortunately, hands are multilingual. You can point, make gestures, and shape objects in every language ever conceived. There's room for interpretation when you point to your crotch, but they'll figure it out.
Before leaving America I was under the impression that there was a greater proportion of assholes in Europe, especially France, than elsewhere. I have been proven wrong. Not only have the people here tolerated the outcome of my truancy, but many have gone out of their way to send me in the right direction. The key? I've always brought my hands. And a dictionary.
April 21, 2005
Where Missing Socks Go
The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, states that "for many phenomena 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes." When applied to your wardrobe, you spend 80% of your time wearing 20% of your closet. Understanding the Principle can allow you beat it, leading to an efficient and utopian existence.
There are generally two types of backpackers: those who travel from city to city with their luggage on their back, and those who hike from mountaintop to mountaintop with their luggage on their back. All backpackers quickly learn to beat the 80-20 Rule when packing clothes for the road; if you need a tougher workout, you can pick up rocks along the way. It's virtually impossible to underpack.
I'd rather pick up rocks and eat them than do laundry, so I packed more socks in my bag than anything else. That's seven pairs of socks -- excessive for backpacking but modest for a sock collection. Already, somehow, I am missing one sock.
Don't waste your precious backpacking time asking rhetorical and trite questions such as who am I? Who are we? Why are we? You have the rest of your life to convince yourself that you might elicit an answer. Instead, enjoy your travel time by observing your surroundings and asking practical questions such as why am I carrying rocks? Why am I tempted to eat them? Where do missing socks go?
April 23, 2005
An Open Letter to the Person with an Upset Stomach at the Salvador Dali Exhibit
There's no doubting your stomach is upset as I walk toward "Muchacha de espaldas". I'm sorry it's upset, it smells painful, but did you have to eat first? Did your Madrid guidebook suggest that you sample the patatas bravas on the way to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia? If it said to plug your ass on the way up the elevator, would you do it? If so, have you read the 2005 edition?
Person with an Upset Stomach at the Salvador Dali Exhibit, if you have the foresight to carry a guidebook, surely you have the decency to expel the rest of your gas in the hallway. It is a modern art museum, but Dali's work is surreal enough to satisfy all of my senses. Thanks anyway.
Visiting from Chapel Hill, NC
[Styled after McSweeney's Open Letters]