By Beth Massa
Soggy bits of red paper everywhere. Hardly distinguishable from the remnants of decaying leaves discarded by autumn’s trees and disregarded by Amsterdam’s street sweepers.
“What’s all this red paper all over the place?”
“But why are there so, so, so, many firecrackers?”
“To banish all the bad spirits from Oud en Nieuw.”
Having visited many times, I moved to Amsterdam, intentionally for the rest of my life, on Jan. 6, 2007.
Upon arrival, I threw my suitcases into my temporary housing on the Korte Koningstraat and walked across the Nieuwmarkt over to ‘t Loosje, my regular bruin café, to meet up with my Amsterdam crew. They knew I was moving. They’d known for three years, since the first day we’d all met. So when I walked in for the first time not-from-out-of-town, it was no big thing. There were no cheers or applause or back-slapping hugs. Our gang celebrates in words, not in volume. We’re cool like that.
There was red paper stuck to the sides of my shoes that night. I scraped it off, tossed my shoes in the entryway, and went to bed, staring at the ceiling in disbelief that I had left my country for good. The fantasy was real, and it was for the first time — but only a brief time — terrifying.
A year earlier almost to the day, I quit my job and rented an apartment on Da Costakade for three months during the worst time of year — dark, cold — just to make sure I really wanted to live in Amsterdam. I looked forward to taking weekend trips to Paris or to shoot down to Cologne to visit my best friend. But I hardly moved.
Burnout wasn’t a thing where I had worked. You’d stare at your Outlook calendar, which was triple booked with meetings across every hour, all day, every day. You found yourself shutting the door to your office because you could not face having to ask your exhausted and resentful staff to do just a little bit more. You found yourself “underperforming” and then your body would rebel and then you’d have some sort of sudden, dramatic departure. We didn’t know burnout. We only knew failure.
But in that apartment, I would wrap myself in a blanket and stare out the large windows watching the snow fall and melt on the canal outside. Sometimes I didn’t leave the house for several consecutive days. In those months I discovered what I needed from Amsterdam, at that time and in that condition, and it was actually the best time of year.
My 70-year-old mother has been traveling to Europe regularly since 1985. Three years ago, she retired and moved from Seattle to South Bend, Indiana to be closer to her oldest friends and much of our family. She moved to an adorable Tudor in a historic neighborhood across from a park and around the corner from the University of Notre Dame. Her friends and our family were thrilled to have her back, after 20 years being so far away out west. And I was excited, too. It would be so much easier to travel to see each other, and I would get to see our extended family more. But I could tell she was restless. Last June, I asked her, “What do you really want?”
She said, "I want to move to Amsterdam. I don't want to just visit anymore. I've dreamed of living in Europe ever since I was a girl leafing through my collection of Time-Life books. I’ve tried to make a life here. I love visiting with my friends. I’m volunteering. I’ve really tried. I even do Zumba! But I’m bored. I want to move now while I'm young and active enough to enjoy my life in Europe to the fullest.”
After we had a brief mother/daughter squabble (“Why didn’t you just say this in the first place!” “Well I was waiting to be invited.” “Please don’t be passive aggressive, I can’t read your mind.”), I told her to go for it. She sold the adorable Tudor, pared down her belongings, and five months after that conversation over weak coffee at a strip mall Starbucks, I picked up her and her Shih Tzu, Tullymore, from the airport and took them to their new home.
She’d seen the apartment on Funda and through Skype. My mother has this gift for finding treasures where no one else is looking. How she found this perfectly cozy nest of a place, suspiciously affordable, right on the Herengracht, dead center in the middle of the Negen Straatjes, can only be explained by a brief, magical, Harry-Potteresque window, opening for only her to see, and only for a moment. It had been on the website for weeks. This just doesn’t happen. But it did, and we aren’t asking questions.
I staged the moment I would open the door for her to her new home. I’d closed the curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows, so I could grandly cast them open for that view to receive her. I installed a garish and exotic and ridiculously Alice-in-Wonderland oversized bouquet. She couldn’t speak. We had pulled it off.
What if the house doesn’t sell? It did. What if the movers don’t come in time? They showed up. And worst and most worrying of all, what if at the last minute the airline doesn’t let Tully on the plane? They hardly took notice of him. My mom, the worrier and the planner, could exhale. Deeply. Spiritually. Maybe for the first time in her life.
A few days later, we went to our favorite pizza place in town, which is right around the corner from her apartment, because everything is right around the corner from her apartment. As we hugged goodnight and started to part ways, I reflexively began to well up as I watched the back of her little body, huddled against the cold, walking away from me — just as she had done so many times in the past with a suitcase ka-chunk-ka-chunking behind her.
“This is weird! I want to cry because you are leaving! But I’ll see you tomorrow and the day after that!” She turned around and smiled at me, beaming. Happier than I can recall her ever being. “This isn’t weird, you’re weird,” she yelled back.
And so, she walked that night to her cozy apartment with the Cinerama view over the Herengracht. Her usual life, all her clothes, her dog, her housewares and picture frames, layered like vellum on top of her new life, is taking some getting used to. It seems unreal and it’s disorienting. But that is what I love about Amsterdam. The surrealism of the city never leaves, no matter what circumstances brought you here.
We’ve spent many hours these last weeks looking through her windows at the darkness pierced with a dozen soft spotlights — the theatre of Amsterdam streetlife performed on, in, and around a 400-year-old stage. Never changing, always changing.
The tall, reedy young man in a flat cap and suspenders with a strip of bow tie around his neck, unbowed, parking his car and hustling down the street. What’s he doing? He returns with a golden girl draped in a gold sequined flapper dress. They are going to a 1920s Christmas party. He opens her door for her, awkwardly. Ah! He almost forgot to open her door!
The residents in the apartments across the street. The generously proportioned older gentleman on the top floor flops his foot on the window sill to remove his dress shoes, then shuts the curtains, presumably while he disassembles the rest of his workday finery. The windows of the French cooking school steaming up from a crush of people more than the cooking — presumably there for an office party. The amber glow from the stained-glass windows of the luxury lingerie shop in the corner that gets almost no customers.
But mostly right now the rondvaart tour boats have us nearly hypnotized. A new one cruises by every 20 seconds. The people in the boats looking up, or sadly in too many cases, looking through a phone or iPad. Do we give them a show? We are each other’s scenery. We should pay them no mind. But we are new and giddy. Occasionally, I’ll stand at the window with Tully in my arms. When I hold him like a baby he relaxes so his head falls back over the crook of my elbow. The cameras go up. The people point or wave. The tour boats can roar to a stop. Powerful reverse thrusters hold the boats motionless. They stand so still so they can maneuverer impossibly through the narrow tunnels under the bridges.
Life in Amsterdam can be as mundane and routine as anywhere else. Jobs. Grocery stores. Traffic. Dentist appointments. But first and always first, Amsterdam is a playground you can jump in and out of whenever you like. We see it with a first-timer’s eyes all day as the tourists walk around in a fog of wonder.
Amsterdam is cool like that. It knows what it is, and what it has achieved. It has nothing to prove. And this Northern European city will awaken from its hibernation. Spring is coming. But for the next few months, my reunited family will roar to a stop. To watch. To relax. To recover. To wait. And to marvel.