This time of year I get pretty nostalgic for pretty much anything. The Germans have the perfect word for it: sehnsüchtig. From sehnen– “to yearn for” and suchtig– “addicting.” All together we get the ever-so-romantic adjective of “being addicted to yearning.”
So I got nostalgic for traveling, and then I looked through old journals and anecdotes from some of my early trips out of the country, and found that in those travel journals I wrote mostly about my memories of home. There really never is any simple satisfaction, I suppose.
My cooler-than-cool younger brother just got back from Amsterdam, and I certainly hope he spent less of his time day dreaming than I did when I was there. So, for giggles, here’s an old journal piece from the last time I was in Amsterdam.
“Ijburg,” I said. The man behind the glass shield just laughed. “I mean …Centraal Station.” We were at Ijburg, the last stop on the 26 tram. I passed him my 2,40 Euros and, with an embarrassed resignation, took a seat by the window.
Rainy days in Amsterdam are so different from rainy days in Seattle, I thought, but could not think beyond the frustrations of the day to my support my observation.
At the station, I stepped off the tram and pulled my hood over my head, relentlessly pushing my wet bangs away from my eyes. Centraal Station is always teeming with people, but somehow the rainy days made the insatiable crowd more overwhelmingly vacant and domineering. I remembered a tale a boy once recounted for me; hungry ghosts, I thought, all I see are hungry ghosts. So I hurried by the vibrant accordion player and his trumpeter companion pinned against a wall by the mass of people. I stepped past wide-eyed backpackers and stumbled across the intersection of trams, knowing this specific spot was my least favorite crevice of the planet.
I followed Damrak, my pace quick and steady through the mélange of sex shops and tourist traps. I was still encircled by assorted faces and legs and arms and hands—some with umbrellas, some without.
Damrak turned without notice into Rokin. The voices of tourists faded into the sounds of trams rushing against their wet metal tracks and a woman’s boots methodically clapped against the cobblestone pavement with a beat that was just slightly off. Sex shops became coffee shops and döner kebab joints. Rokin crossed Singel and Amstel before it transformed into Vijzelstraat. I walked on the side opposite to the cinema where the night before I watched My Bloody Valentine through 3D glasses, and I felt my lingering horror and a maturing disgrace with my judgment at the time.
Cold and wet, with pangs of hunger, and still embittered by the lasting effects of that damn movie I continued. Herengracht passed, and then Keizergracht. I stopped under the striped awning of a forlorn café to check the map I had scrawled out for myself that morning. My blue ink scratches told me I had gone too far. I crossed the road, turned down a narrow side street, and eventually found myself at my destination. Lipstick-red Helvetica that spelled out F-O-A-M was my guiding beam of light, so I pulled down my hood and rowed my boat ashore.
Perhaps if I wasn’t still loosening the buttons on my jacket I wouldn’t have gone down the wrong stairwell after entering. Perhaps if I wasn’t alone someone would have pointed me in the direction of the start of the exhibit, rather than the end. Maybe if I had learned Dutch I could have read the signs. But my jacket was too stiff and wet, I was entirely alone, and I know hardly a word of that linguistic anomaly some call a language. And so the second portrait I saw in the Richard Avedon exhibition at FOAM Fotogalerie was not of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic smile, Andy Warhol’s scarred stomach, or any number of artists whose portraits were more familiar to me than their works.
Instead I met eyes with the portrait of a bare-chested, bald man with only a minor expression on his face. His body—pallid and glowing against the white background—was shrouded by bees. I stood before him rain-drenched, resentful of the day’s circumstances, and still unable to admit my own likeness with the masses of hungry ghosts. The shock of the bees and the unnervingly slight expression on the pale man were aesthetically wasted on me until I read the words below. Beekeeper. May 9, 1981. Davis, California.
I had to look twice, and then a third time, but it was still there: the hallowed writing on the wall. Davis, California. Then, for the first time, I felt the man watching me. I looked back. I spied the photographer’s reflection in the eyes and recognized the scenery behind the man with a camera: the landscape I knew so well. I thought I saw the navy silhouette of the mountains from the hollow of the valley, and I could have sworn to have seen the shape of the fields along Russell Boulevard in the spring. There I saw it—the playfulness of shouts and hollers around the town’s sulfuric fountain, the succulence of the peach from a weathered palm in the Saturday market, the vivacity in the dance of moths under her doorstep lantern, and the roundness of all the molecules that together compose a place, a home. Somewhere, in the acuteness of his eyes I recognized the surface of the world as seen from my dreamscape.
In the solitude of my own flight from familiarity, I recognized the contour of the world I would never, could never leave behind, as it is not mine to lose.
When I left the gallery the rain had stopped. On my way back I found comfort in the cadence of the city—its shadows and echoes, its lines and curves that cast the landscape of dream and memory for someone else. I found myself in a palace of memories I did not own and therefore could not see. I followed the tram lines through a labyrinth of translucent narratives, and I held tight to a timeless and unconditional nearness to home.