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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gimme Shelter – Amsterdam Day 1

After disembarking from the ship and a brief, but serious, grilling by NL customs, I was on the morning commuter train headed towards Rotterdam.  Pictures are provided on Facebook.  A transfer to Amsterdam Central at Rotterdam and I was on the final leg of my journey.  I met a man who was on his morning commute and we had an interesting discussion about mankind’s apparent desire to overtake every square inch of the planet.  He is concerned that people in his country are not leaving enough land alone.

Next, I met Jason.  He is from New Orleans, but he went to speech coaching to lose his accent so he could fit in better in Amsterdam.  He is one of the owners of the Freeland Hotel, where I am staying.  As I mentioned, the place is tiny.  Amsterdam is a city that is quite literally…packed.  I should say packed and stacked.  No square inch is wasted.  Again with the machine-like efficiency.

When I got to the hotel, my room wasn’t ready and it was drizzling heavily.  I dropped my backpack, detached my daypack to keep with me and headed out to the Van Gogh museum with my new windproof umbrella.  It wasn’t very windy.  I’m sure it will come in handy someday.

If I could sum up Van Gogh, I’d say he was the Jimi Hendrix of pointillism.   It was interesting to see his early work, before he started using very small brush strokes.  I don’t think Van Gogh is the best pointillist in history, but Jimi isn’t the greatest guitar player of all time either.  However, nobody had done anything quite like what they did before they did it.

After the museum, I had lunch – goat cheese, walnuts, honey and frieze’ lettuce on a wheat roll.  Yummy!  (yeah, yeah – not good for my cholesterol, but I probably walked five miles today.)

By the time I fumbled my way back to the hotel, fatigue had gotten the best of me.  A two hour nap fixed me right up.  I cleaned myself up and changed into some moving around clothes and headed back into the city.  For the longest time, I just wandered.  Amsterdam is primarily a giant tourist trap.  They even have a wax museum.  No self-respecting tourist trap would be without one.  I won’t bore you with details of my physical observations.  There are real lives being played out in Amsterdam – I’ll be talking about some of them shortly, but most of what you see is a money-making deal perpetrated on foreigners .

Being a foreigner, it seemed only fair that I pay homage.  Several friends had mentioned I should visit a place called the Grasshopper.   It has three levels (actually four, but two of them are for drinking).  The top is a restaurant, the middle a bar and the lower level a coffeeshop.  For those who don’t know local terminology, a coffershop, for some unknown reason, sells cannabis products.  Well, I decided to start at the top and work my way down.  The restaurant is an Argentinean steakhouse.  There are a zillion of them in town, so I figured there must be something to it.  Still trying to figure that one out.  I met two guys from Argentina in the basement – Paul and Manu.  They didn’t know why there is so much of their native cuisine in town either.

Before I got to the basement, I had a beer.  I was alone in a crowd.  It was somewhat of a relief to finish my beer and go to the basement.  The nice thing about not having a lighter is it provides a good excuse to encroach on someone else’s privacy.  Paul and Manu spoke very good English as did literally everyone which whom I attempted to communicate.

On my way to discovering the Grasshopper, I passed a monument that looks like a giant penis.  Actually, as I later learned, it is a monument for the local Jews that died in WWII.  Something told me it would be an interesting place to hang out later.  I was right.

On my way back to the monument, a thought crossed my mind:  I was seeing the city through the eyes of a tourist.  I was turning my head here and there, trying to take in all the sights.  What would it be like to see the city through the eyes of a local.  I realized if I lived in town, I would not be looking around except in my immediate perimeter.  I started doing that and saw the city for the first time for what it really is: a tourist trap.  I lost interested in seeing the city from the tourist’s perspective.

At the monument, I first met a young man from Nigeria named Clifford.  Next, I met a Somalian rapper named Issa, who has lived his whole life in Amsterdam.  His dad moved to America and he has visited Minnesota, but he prefers Amsterdam.  It is his home and he knows how to move and shake on the streets here.  He should – he lives there.  Some nights quite literally.  I also met a fellow countryman of my friend Ghassan (aka Feter McBlues), named Omar.  Omar left Fallujah in 1982.  He has been living on the streets in Amsterdam since.

I have encountered many homeless people right in the streets of Ann Arbor where I live, but it’s always apparent why they’re there.  The people I met at the monument were different.  They were very intelligent.  I was speaking to them in either their second or third language and we had some deeply philosophical discussions about the world and America’s role in it.   I met a guy from Kenya and a young man from Romania.  They are all a little more than disappointed with the way the U.S. uses its power on a global basis.  The Romanian almost started to cry when he recounted the human rights breakdown that followed the U.S. led breakup of the Soviet Union.  He felt our government did nothing while chaos ensued.  Maybe if Clinton had been in power, we would have helped.  Who knows…he certainly intervened in Yugoslavia when it fell apart.

I do not fool myself into believing that these people hung around me because of my great wisdom and harmonica playing (okay, maybe the harmonica playing helped), but they did a hell of a job holding my attention and I bought Omar a couple beers (which cost .50 euro each versus 3 euro plus in the bar) and shared some of my leftover hash with some of the other guys in exchange for their company.  It was a much cheaper evening than if I had done the tourist thing, and I would have been alone.

On a musical note, in addition to some freestyling, Issa also sang some Somali songs for which I was fortunate enough to be able to provide musical support on the harmonica.  I would like to go on about some of the discussions we had about life, the universe and everything, but at two pages long, this post has probably already overstayed its welcome in your life.

Tomorrow, I will make some more stories.  Today, my world expanded – just a little.

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