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27 February 2005

e-mail to a Canadian artist pal about to go to the Netherlands for the first time

Hi Hi M*** --

Here, I'll tell you about the first time I ever went to Amsterdam. First I'd been to the UK where I felt comfortable with my language, and knowing a lot about it and its history. That was more than okay and everything but I wanted for the first time to pretend to be brave and go to the Continent. I hate planes and love trains and ferries, so I took the Harwich overnight ferry to the Netherlands, and from there a quick one-hour morning train trip to Amsterdam Centraalstation.

Of course I spoke no Dutch, and have utterly no family connection with the Netherlands, I had no friends or anyone I could phone and pretend was a friend, and knew nothing about the place except some of the Naughty Bits that get so much tabloid play.

Oh I am such a rube and a hayseed and a tourist and a gawker. I used to be embarrassed about that, but now I just gawk comfortably and if sophisticated people laugh, God bless them. But Centraalstation -- Jeez! what a totally thrilling place, EVERYTHING is going on there. If I hadn't got a grip eventually, I would never have walked away from it and found a hotel, I would have lived at Centraalstation for a month.

It was end of summer, a nice day outside in front of the train station and there were some very fascinating Inca musicians from Peru performing, and I watched them while I was standing next to this college-age backpack couple, and we started to chat. They seemed a little triste, not as happy as they should have been. They told me finally why they were unhappy.

They were London art students. When the term had ended, they had a summer's worth of mandatory homework. First they were supposed to go to Amsterdam and do the museums for a week, and then they were supposed to move on to Italy and spend all the rest of the summer among the art treasures of Italy.

They fucked up. They hadn't been able to force themselves to leave Amsterdam all summer. Now they had one week left to cram All Of Italy's Art Treasures into their eyeballs. And they were heartbroken that they had to leave Amsterdam.

I've still never been to Italy or Greece or Spain, or anything but railroad corner shortcuts through France -- and I feel embarrassed, even a little ashamed of that. Like the art student couple -- I just can't get out of the Netherlands.

I don't do prostitutes, but I do smoke That Stuph, but That Stuph, you can get it anywhere (and where can't you get prostitutes?), and it can't begin to explain why I've been back to the Netherlands seven times since, and have such a hard time going elsewhere.

I've been Elsewhere (Berlin to see U**, Prague, Scandinavia, Iceland, a lot of UK), and loved it all, but Amsterdam and the Netherlands -- it's just a mystery why and how it grips my mind and my soul so forceably and keeps compelling me to go back, and why I feel so sad when a year goes by and I'm too broke or stuck by circumstances to go to the Netherlands again.

Of the Visual Arts -- you will drown in beauty. Not just INSIDE the museums. You will have a hard time getting INSIDE the magnificent museums, you will be constantly distracted on every street and canal by the architecture, the colors, the centuries of adoring preservation. Practice in advance not to be angry or ashamed of yourself because you booked yourself a whole day inside the Riijksmuseum, but you never managed to get there, you blew the whole day drinking coffee and talking to people and gawking. Those are the wonderful days, really. The museums will always be there.

The sneaky thing the Dutch have done to me isn't Rembrandt or Van Gogh. They are CIVILIZED and long ago settled on a Permanent Plan of TOLERANCE for all. (Actually it's a Temporary Plan, an emergency war measure during their century-long war for independence from Spain, around 1500. After they got their independence, they were immediately going to rescind Tolerance, like every other place in the world, but they decided to let it go for another year and see what happened. They've just never got around to rescinding it, it seems to work so nicely for them, making them strong and prosperous -- and drowning in beauty for the eye and the spirit and soul.)

And they are SMART. There is No Violent Crime in the big cities, but there is an Odd Danger for tourists. There is a Car Street, and then a Sidewalk for Walkers, and then a Dedicated Bicycle-Only Lane, and if you don't watch your clueless pedestrian ass, a careening bicycle will smash into you. EVERYONE gets to work and around town on bicycles. If you're Bicyclish, cheap rentals are everywhere, it's a great flavor of touring a great city. (The entire nation is perfectly flat, a crummy old 3-speed will do perfectly.)

Oddly enough, the state religion, the Dutch Reform Church, are notorious, there and in North America, for being somewhat priggish and puritanical and scowlingly Calvinist -- it's a mystery why such a strait-laced culture could have evolved such a wild and wooly city like Amsterdam. (Haarlem's even whackier.)

But as you chat and read and ask, you see why. Like every other puritanical society, they tried Banning Everything, and that just led to violent pimps and corrupt vice squad cops and all sorts of nasty underground uncontrolled vices. The Dutch understand that, in a huge busy port city with thousands of horny visiting sailors with lots of cash, the same Human Stuph is going to happen anyway -- so they permit it, they regulate it, they tolerate it and shape it so there are no child prostitutes, the adult prostitutes have free health care and pensions, it's impossible to get unsafe sex, there are no predatory enslaving pimps, and the cops aren't enemies, they have a cop culture of helping people. Imagine: Like in kindergarten, the Policeman really IS your friend!

My town, Northampton MA, is quite famous as one of the Lesbian centers of the world. Our Mayor is an Out Lesbian, and we, like many other places, declare ourselves Welcoming and Hospitable to Gays and Lesbians.

But I've only been to one place on Earth that built a big-ass MEMORIAL STATUE and PUBLIC PARK dedicated to Gays and Lesbians -- Amsterdam. After the Nazis rounded up all the Jews and Left-Wingers and Slavs, they got around promptly to gassing homosexuals, and the Amsterdam Monument speaks to that suffering and sacrifice and holocaust. It's a HUGE tourist magnet.

A pal set me up with lunch with a former student of his in Amsterdam. She and her lover, when they were in their twenties, had multiple passports, they could have lived anywhere in North America or Europe, and they'd both seen lots of places. But they immediately settled in the Netherlands, which has legally recognized Same-Sex Marriage for at least a decade or more. Why screw around with other places that dick around with tormenting or insulting or bothering you with less? This couple is certainly not going anywhere else.

I'm a Jew. So's the Mayor of Amsterdam, his name is Cohen. Amsterdam has about 28 mosques. Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Atheists -- THEY ALL GET ALONG WITH RESPECT! It's The Dutch Way. I think it's Paradise, Utopia. Compare it to the Middle East. Same kinds of human beings, same difffering beliefs -- but people are neighbors in the Netherlands, not neighbor-killers.

It ain't perfect, lately they've been having some sad political problems, they're having their own fears about terrorists and the usual Fox News crap that scares people. But the Dutch Way is still Light Years of Tolerance beyond the USA, France, Germany (Berlin notably excepted), Austria, Italy. And I'm certain their electorate will swing back to Full Tolerance very promptly. Their memories of the Nazi occupation are still fresh and very bitter.

I finally dragged C****** to the Netherlands. She liked just about everything (despite her lifelong suspicions of people who won't speak English). But she's a gardener and went apeshit for the tulips. The entire county planted in nothing but multi-colored tulips (that was Holland's first Get-Rich industry) -- ride through it on a train, it is the most beautiful Human-Made Wonder you will ever see. The big Tourist Cliche is Keukenhof, a huge floral park in the middle of the Tulip industry. No matter how unenthusiastic you may be about hypergardening, a day at Keukenhof will just please and tickle you so.

You pulled my chain. I am So Sorry. But I do love the place so. And these things are Intimately Personal, so it may not happen to you as it happened to me. But I do hope you get to go soon, and I do hope you are touched and moved by some of the wonders that have touched me.

I'm so disgusted with my USA in recent times, I have a Scheme (wife willing) to try to move there, to expatriate there, at least to the end of our Conservative Scoundrel Times. The American poet Robert Lowell did his 1950s Right-Wing Scoundrel Times in Amsterdam. I'm a novelist -- expatriating, it's the thing to do! And the food is sooooooooooooo delicious! Have dinner at t'Zwaantje (The Swan).

Oh, btw, everybody nearly everywhere in Holland speaks perfect English. It's annoyingly hard to get them to speak Dutch to you. I'm good with lingos, but learning Dutch is double-hard.

So glad you like Vleeptron!


PS. I have an artist pal and I was deluging her with my love for the Netherlands, and she asked, "How is the Netherlands for artists?" Well -- my experience in the USA and I guess Canada is that trying to be an artist is sort of a lifelong torment or punishment or drubbing.
The Netherlands -- an artist is a Respected Person, mothers tell their little children to respect the Nice Art Lady, everyone understands that Artists are a tremendously important part of what makes a society Great. Amsterdam's arts and music scene is alive, vibrant, thrilling, spontaneous, authentic. If you want to dance and play your first night in Amsterdam, check out the Melkweg, the biggest hottest Performance/Art/Music joint. I saw Yoko Ono shrieking her lungs out there one night.


Anonymous J said...

I'm happy you feel this way about my hometown. I live right in the center of Amsterdam, but sometimes forget the freedoms I have here and get real cranky about everything. Usually it's the amazing looking Dutch blondes who save me out of every depression I happen to get in ;)

I've often considered moving out, migrating even, but the anonimity and acceptance have kept me here I guess. I'm a bit of a loner, don't smoke (no pot either), seldomly drink, do not visit the red light district, yet I love being here even though the air is getting way polluted..

One thing you should know and consider is the fact that we have a very high population density here. It nears that of Tokyo and places like that. About 10 times the density of France, a much higher amount of people living per square mile than in the UK, Germany, Italy, Canada, the US, you name it! So the result is that we HAD to be tolerant and accepting of each other to be able to even live with 17 million on such a tiny piece of the worldmap. I think much of its psychology lies in that. If you can't get along, you won't be able to be with so many in one place.

Anyway, loved your article here. I love the US too, in a way. I really like the language (much more than British) and your TV and movie productions, I get a lot of that thru the net for which I'm very thankful, because Dutch TV is generally boring and has to work with much lower budgets/funding. Something like 'Dexter' would not be possible to create here, and I love that stuff!

Peace, bro!


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