Archive for November, 2008


Black and White

It’s snowing! Really snowing. No one can tell me it’s hail or sleet. There are big, air-light fluffs of ice spinning and swirling and decorating the sky in millions of white polka dots. The spindly black tree branches are now laced with a fine, sugary frosting and the houseboats on the canals are dusted in a thin layer of soft ice.

Everybody here thinks I’m crazy for getting so excited about the snow. But they kept telling me it wouldn’t snow in Amsterdam – or at least not until January and even then it would be hardly anything. This rather unexpected November downfall is, I’m sure, hardly anything as far as winter weather is concerned, but it’s something I have only seen a few times in my life, and to me it is magic.

The house is warm and the soft gold lights inside provide a distinct comfort against the cold, white tangled air on the other side of the window. It is Sunday and everything seems quiet. A white-gray sky cups the city – rooftops, black cobblestones, bridges, canals – in its solid, steady and seamless presence as I sit inside this tall, crooked Dutch house, watching the blur and listening to nothing.

I stare out the window and melt in the pure happiness I get from the knowledge that I didn’t have this in California.


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: The Whole World and Your Life

it tolls for thee.

I’ve been exceptionally homesick these last few days. Perhaps it’s just another familiar wave of culture shock that pushes you inexplicably down, perhaps it’s hormones, or perhaps the cold weather is already getting to me. The cause could be anything; what I’m trying my best to ignore is the possibility that the homesickness is caused by something real, something in me that truly believes I was happier in California and should not have given that up.

But I did, and I’m here, que sera, sera, and I’m sure soon I’ll be experiencing another blissful moment – the kind of distinct happiness you can only get when you’re far away from what you know, and you’re proud for knowing you’ve begun to fit in.

Though, regardless of whether I’m floating in elation or sinking in loneliness, what I have to do is be present. Wherever I am, that is where I should be. Not back in my freshman year of college, sitting on the cafeteria patio with french fries on plastic trays, new friends at my side, and the warm Orange County evening settling over me. Not in the backyard of my childhood home, swinging on the hammock with a fudgesicle dripping down my tie-dyed cotton dress, and a sleepy plane lulling overhead in the California summer sky.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s masterpiece about 4 long days in the Spanish Civil War and my most recent selection from the Boekenmarkt in the Spui, delivered to me a sharp reminder of this. I was going to say that of course Robert Jordan had greater reason to live in the moment than I do, as his life was in constant danger as a guerilla bridge-blower behind fascist lines, but I won’t say that. If we all waited until our survival was in obvious danger to really pay attention, then we’d miss a hell of a lot.

“And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it. Now, ahora, maintenant, heute [and, might I add, the Dutch nu]. Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.”

A whole world and your life. It does sound funny, but of course that is what it is. Every minute of our lives – every memory and every single forgotten moment – fits together like a puzzle, a painting, a great galaxy. They are now a whole. And that whole exists in its only possible form, with each successive moment adding one piece, one brush stroke, one star. They are fixed. Permanent. And the only thing to do is to fully absorb each new thing that comes along, because only what happens now, and now, and now can change the way the whole turns out. And that, of course, is what matters. Living in the nu.


What I Found in London Town

poetry on st. paul's domeI’m happy to say that I can now cross London off my list. To be honest, the only reason it was high on the list to begin with was that everyone told me it should be. I never felt the powerful draw to it that I’ve felt to, say, Paris or Ireland. I went because it’s London and it’s important – and because I have a cousin who is studying there and offered me a place to stay and a guided weekend tour.

And what a tour it was. I decided that with all the history and hype, London would be a great place for the ultimate tourist extravaganza. With a list of projected activities and some careful strategizing, Jessie and I did our best to see as much as possible in 3 days. While I’m happy with what we saw, I am also glad that there remains plenty yet to be seen – because after 3 days in London, there is now something deep within me saying, ‘Go back. Go back. Go back.’

We fit in most of the standard touristy stuff, though some we had to skip going inside, and if I give you my impressions on everything this would be a guidebook-length post, so here’s a brief list in no particular order with some thoughts thrown in: Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards (drowning in crowds and clouds of coffee breath), St. James’s Park (golden fall colors), Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square (woo theatre!), Parliament and Big Ben (I couldn’t stop singing “You Can Fly” from Peter Pan the whole time, also it’s gorgeous), Westminster Abbey (Poppy Appeal), Millenium Bridge (walking over the Thames was magical), Tower Bridge, the London Eye (20 euros to go up, no thanks), the British Museum (Rosetta Stone and mummies, check!), Tate Modern (Francis Bacon in a converted power plant is creepy), the Tower of London, British Library (best collection of Western literary treasures in the world – incredible), Shakespeare’s Globe (covered in scaffolding), Borough Market (delicious lemon tart), St. Paul’s Cathedral (attended a somber service in Remembrance of WWI), Piccadilly Circus, Charles Dickens’s House/Museum, ride in a double-decker bus, beer with fish and chips in a pub, and of course a quick stop by Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station.

Whew! Oh, and let’s not forget the theatre! First we got half-price tickets at TKTS in Leicester Square for 6 Characters in Search of an Author. It blew my mind. Read the review and please see it if it comes your way. The following day we saw a matinee of Spamalot in a successful attempt to balance out the heavy drama with a relentlessly silly musical. I would see a show every day if I could, but since these two have to hold me for now, I’m glad they were good ones.

Some art that I did not need to pay for – but that had the greatest impact on me – appeared in the form of giant words projected on the blue-lit dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral against the heavy charcoal night sky. We emerged from (I think) the Blackfriars tube station with another destination in mind, but immediately looked up to see “HANDS” looming over us in bright white letters. Each word faded to make room for a new one every minute or so, in seemingly total random order. Here are the ones my camera caught:


Some of these flashed across the dome more than once, and some words appeared in French, Spanish, and what I think was Arabic and maybe Hebrew. I can think of nothing else to call what I saw than a poem; at least that’s what it was to me. I stood there mesmerized, watching this enormous living public poem on a historical city landmark that at one point symbolized London’s survival, perhaps even the survival of good everywhere. Following my travel companion, I tore myself away but continued to stare up at the dome as we walked along the Thames. Every towering word dominated the city scape and, no matter how random, seemed to have some special, calculated meaning while at the same time subject to any interpretation. Quite like a poem; just huge and flashing in the sky over one of the world’s greatest cities.

I never did any research to find out what exactly the point was of the dome words and who was responsible. I think it had something to do with Remembrance weekend, but I actually prefer to be left in the dark, left standing on Millenium Bridge at night over the black water of the Thames gazing up in a trance at the lighted words, the lighted poetry in the sky.

And here is why I now love London and aim to return someday – it’s full of surprises. I wore my red poppy in honor of those who serve, said goodnight to Big Ben as a I made my way down the steps of a tube station for the last – and what seemed like the 100th – time that weekend, and took a train to the airport on Sunday night. Unfortunately, my flight was not until 7 am Monday morning out of Standsted, so I had to sleep at the airport as there was no way to get there from Hampton (where I stayed) early enough in the morning.

After so many tube rides and a hellish night spent in an airport with only linoleum floors and only plastic chairs, I was ready to be out of the hugeness that is London and back in the little Dutch city that I now call home. I’ll go back to London someday, but for now I’l search for love in the sky over Amsterdam.


Bring your Jukebox Money

an old favorite

It’s amazing the way music will follow us wherever we go. Certain songs will continue to appear in different contexts throughout your life, and in doing so will add to the catalogue of emotions and moments that will forever be attached to them. I encountered some such songs while out last night with my new Danish friend, Anne.

We first sampled the Mediterranean cuisine at a delightfully garish and kitschy restaurant in the Pijp neighborhood, moving on to drinks at a nearby bar and then some live music at Bourbon Street, a popular venue off Leidsplein.

The act of the night was a various collection of Europeans covering a various collection of popular American songs. Anne and I bopped along in appreciation with the rest of the crowd, but when the drummer kicked off with that familiar beginning to “Love Shack” by the B-52’s, I was immediately transported back to a Livermore High School dance.

This was one of those token numbers we could always count on, one that every Bay Area DJ hired by LHS would throw into the playlist. (Other dependable selections were “California Love” by 2Pac and Dr Dre, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” by Shania Twain, and Garth Brook’s ever-popular “Friends in Low Places.” Did I mention our mascot was the cowboy?) But “Love Shack”… this was a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. There was something strangely exhilarating about showing off our much practiced hormone-charged moves under the green and purple lights of the gym to a song that you might hear on your mom’s favorite radio station.

So I am standing there in this bar in Holland, Grolsch in hand and staring up at the “Bourbon Street: Amsterdam” painted on the stage upon which performs a band called GSI: Groove Scene Investigation (no, I did not make that up), but in my mind I am 15, enthusiastically thumping my hips in the air and flailing my arms about, eyes closed tight as I sing along, “everybody’s movin’ everybody’s groovin’ baby.”

When they play “Billy Jean” I am suddenly sitting on my knees on the floor of the multi-purpose room at Arroyo Seco Elementary School during the talent show. A boy in my grade—4th or 5th at this time, I can’t remember—is dancing on stage to the Michael Jackson hit. His name is Chris Walker. He’s black and lanky with a shaved head, everybody loves him, and he is hitting every Jackson move dead on. Myself and the other girls in our grade have rushed the stage as though witnessing a celebrity, and we squeal in admiration at every flick of his wrist, our eyelashes fluttering and our bony, tennis-ball knees growing red on the cold linoleum.

But I am actually standing in this crowded European bar, my feet growing sore in my leather boots as Anne and l subtly moving to the beat as we watch one of the band members move his fingers over his keyboard the way those of a monkey move over a soggy piece of fruit.

Later they play Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” I instantly recall sitting at our Dell family computer, a 12-year-old who has recently discovered Limewire—the free music-downloading program. I play Madonna’s powerful pop-gospel track over and over and over again, and in between AOL Instant Messenger conversations, my bare feet pound on our thick brown carpet as I sing as loud as my lungs can manage, eyes closed and with more emotion than I knew I had.

This emotion continues to materialize every time I hear “Like a Prayer” thereafter, including this summer when I rode in the passenger seat of my friend Sara’s car—full of recently graduated girls ready for a night on the town. We had our makeup on and our top buttons undone and Madonna and her choir rang out from the car stereo as we sped over the 110, the downtown LA lights rising and sparkling before us, full of glamor and promise. I danced and moved and shook and rocked as much as can be done while strapped in by a seatbelt. My ponytail and huge round earrings whipped about as I grew euphorically dizzy from the rocking movement of the car, the fast LA freeway traffic, and the sheer volume of our excitement.

And now here I stand, the neck of my Grolsch warming in my grip as I watch the fat singer on stage, probably Eastern European, with massive sideburns and a greasy ponytail, as a V of sweat develops on his olive-green polo shirt between his soft man-boobs and he shrieks out (rather well, actually) the high-pitched choir part that brings home the end of Madonna’s song.

As I watch the performance, I string these recollections along like beads on a necklace. And as each one fades as the music slows, I wonder: how did I end up here, now? It’s impossible to imagine where you’ll be, who you’ll be with and what you’ll be doing later in life, especially when you get so caught up in certain moments that you feel you may have actually stirred up your brains, but it’s nice to know that wherever you go, you can always revisit the places you’ve been with just a little reminder.

Just like a prayer, your voice can take me there
Just like a muse to me, you are a mystery
Just like a dream, you are not what you seem
Just like a prayer, no choice your voice can take me there


The New President of Europe…I mean, America.


As an American in Europe, I have been subject to countless inquiries and discussions about the recent election, both leading up to it and now that the results are in. The majority of foreign people I meet bring up the issue of the US presidency in one way or another, and usually investigate my views before deciding whether I’m passable for further conversation and association. When I walked into my Dutch class after the election, my teacher said, “So, Shannon, are you happy?” The room was silent. I said, “I am so happy,” and everyone chuckled approvingly, folded their arms and leaned back in their chairs.

I most certainly did not talk about politics this much while I was in the States. This is probably a combined result of the desire of people here to ask my opinion specifically as I am often the only American present, the ubiquitous hate for Bush in Europe, and their love for Obama. Whatever the cause, though, Europeans (and non-Americans in general, for that matter) seem just as invested as I am in the outcome of the election – the only difference being they didn’t put an absentee ballot in the mail.

For this reason, when my friend Charlotte from Paris asked me if I was disappointed that I couldn’t be in the States during the election, I told her no, that in a way it’s more exciting to watch it all happening from across the ocean. The results were announced somewhere around 5:00 am in Amsterdam, and not wanting to merely be lying in bed when the historical moment arrived, I went to an all-night election party. The event (one of many in the city) was at the Hilton and saw around 700 attendees throughout the night. There was American food – hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, ribs, and some very dry corn on the cob. For snacks they had pizza, popcorn, tortilla chips and french fries. I ate as much as I could to feel better about the 20 euro entry price.

I went to the party with my Dutch friend Eva and we chatted with a rather random selection of other Obama fans: a few other Dutch people, a German, another American, a guy from Suriname, and a few excitable Nigerians. As the night wore on, we watched Obama’s promising lead with each CNN update in between listening to the scheduled panel discussions. There was also a comedy performance by two American guys and some live music by a woman whom you might see in a cheap club in a sketchy Vegas hotel. I felt jittery and wide awake until my nerves settled, the wine started getting to me, and the clock neared 5:00.

The room was still full of eager onlookers, and though I did my best to keep my head from nodding and my eyelids from weighing down, the “experts” on CNN just weren’t holding my interest. But suddenly the numbers spoke and the official announcement flashed on the big screen – and I joined everyone around me in an eruption of cheers and applause. Eva and I hugged as though we hadn’t just met 2 weeks before, but rather had been waiting for years to share this with each other. The Nigerian men we’d been talking to started bringing us drinks, and we all watched with tears in our eyes as Obama accepted his victory and stood with his lovely famiy on the verge of history. It was a powerful moment – and of course the cinematic music added to the emotion.

After the American buffet breakfast, I bid farewell to my foreign friends, walked out to the dark street and rode my bike off in the thin rain. I didn’t make it home until 7:00 on Wednesday morning and had to get the boys out of bed at 7:30. For a minute I regretted going or at least staying so late, but I quickly remembered that I can sleep any night, but this – likely one of the most important historical moments that will occur in my lifetime – this was worth staying up for.

I lay on the floor of the play room that morning dozing as the kids played and jumped on top of me with squeals of delight. They were as excited about the election as the rest of us. I have seen first-hand the extent to which the rest of the Western world cares about US politics; it often seems as though they take personal offense to much of what goes wrong – on the way to the boys’ daycare, “Fuck Bush” is spray-painted on one of the building fronts. Every time I see it I wonder what kind of person who vandalizes property in Amsterdam felt so personally offended by Bush that they were compelled to deface these bricks? How did it come to this?

I am happy for the opportunity to view my home from an outsider’s perspective, and even happier to see that perspective begin to change. There is little to do now but wait and see if Obama pulls through – but I can confidently say that in this time of failed policies, closed minds and youthful apathy I am more proud than I may ever be to say that I voted.

And it only cost me a few minutes and one postage stamp – a 92 euro cent stamp with a picture of the earth in the shape of heart.


Just a Nice Day

by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Yesterday was a great day. It was the kind of day that makes me feel nothing but contentment—no, bliss—with my decision to come to Europe. Nothing really special happened, it was just a nice day in my new life abroad. After taking the boys to daycare I came home and got dressed to meet my new friend Eva for lunch. She works in restoration and conservation of ceramics and glass for the Rijksmuseum (national museum) in Amsterdam, and I got to have lunch in the fancy building where she makes her magic – she, and dozens of other creative individuals who spend their time making beautiful, centuries-old art even more beautiful than it was when they found it.

After lunch I used my museumkaart (an annual pass that allows entry into about 20 museums year-round) to pop into the Rijksmuseum and see the new and very hyped-up exhibit by Damien Hirst. It’s basically a platinum mold of a human skull that is completely covered in diamonds. It’s called “For the Love of God” because that’s what his mother said when he told her what he was going to do. The skull is dazzling, to be sure, but it’s more a business venture than a work of art—and a successful one at that.

Once I checked that off my list, I rode over to the American Book Center to buy a birthday gift for Marijke – the mother at the house and now like a cherished big sister to me—and peruse the used books. Happy with selecting a good gift, I then treated myself to a kopje koffie and an amazing date tart in one of my favorite cafes on Utrechtsestraat. Settled in by the window—the taste of grainy brown sugar in my mouth—it was all so pleasant that I couldn’t even concentrate on my book, but instead just sat there and melted into my delicious, colorful and oh-so-European surroundings.

On the way home I stopped at the flower stand on the corner to buy some birthday bloemen, then went to get the boys. We got home and made a lovely construction-paper card for Mama with markers, crayons and stickers before eating leftover lasagna for dinner. After this it was off to my Dutch language class. There’d been spatters of rain in the afternoon, but now the night was clear and cool. I coasted over the little bridge on the Amstel river—lit with white lights as it is every night—and looking at the many city lights reflected on the black, peaceful surface of the water, I couldn’t really believe that this is my routine. This is now the everyday.

I rode home from class under the black, empty and sparkling sky with Charlotte, a French girl I sit next to. We had a few laughs and made plans to go out for dinner the next night where her boyfriend works as a chef. I got to the house and heaved myself up the 5 flights of stairs to my bedroom, stopping on the way to have one of those nice talks with Marijke that always lasts longer than we both plan and always keeps us up past our bedtimes.

Up too late but for once not really concerned about it, I flopped into bed and took a deep breath. I was just about to open up my book when I noticed—out the top window of the pointy, angular roof of the house, the only window in my room that always remains uncovered—the moon, almost round and commanding the sky. It was as though it had placed itself there, in my window, on purpose.

Perhaps it was the rhythmic pumping of blood through my body, or maybe the rise and fall, rise and fall of my lungs as I lay in bed and let my breathing slow, but I could have sworn that the moon itself was pulsing, throbbing, breathing. The white glow on which it floated swelled and shrunk and swelled again, offering in complete and pure loyalty to light the sky with every incandescent fleck of its being. Here was promise of the most fundamental kind.

Then, out of nowhere, a single thick cloud moved mechanically across the rectangular window—like a stagehand was holding it out of sight and dragging it through the set for a special lighting effect. The moon’s light dimmed, shrunk off, choked, and I thought “Oh my god, this is a sign.”

But the cloud moved on as quickly as it had come, and the block of sky I saw out my window was once again still and clear, and the moon once again bright. And I realized—as I’ve been learning more and more—that with many things in life, luckily for us, this is just how it happens.


Better Listen to Alice

Lake Geneva

I floated through 3 days in Switzerland feeling both a warm, pure contentment and a kind of tired, blurry sadness. I arrived at the Geneva airport with the boys and their mother, Marijke, on Friday morning – taking a deep breath after my first experience flying with small children. We got on a train headed towards her sister’s home in Lausanne and I got off in the Geneva center where I did some exploring on my own before continuing on to meet the family in Lausanne later that afternoon.

I had no idea what there was to see in Geneva or how to get to it, so I got a map at the train station and found my way to the center where I just wandered around for several hours, stopping for chocolate more than once to refuel myself. It had been a late night socializing yet again with strangers and an early morning to catch the plane, so I was having trouble motivating myself to keep moving. Luckily, the beautiful lake was stirring inspiration to continue seeking out the loveliness of this famous Swiss city.

I spent some time with the dozens of swans and stared up at the huge jet of water that soars into the air in the center of the lake. The sun broke through the clouds and reflected stripes of color on the high mist of the fountain, glinting in the light against the green and yellow mountains behind it. Color like this, any and all color, always reminds me why it is I travel. Why I sit on planes and trains for hours and walk my tired feet over hard stones all day, often cold and often alone.

With this reminder, I kept walking, walking, walking and enjoying the French architecture and distinctly European feel of the streets. I came across the very center where the the streets become narrow alleys and the buildings become quaint and unique. Here I found St-Pierre Cathedral and climbed its tower for a panoramic view of the city under a jewel blue sky laced with flowery clouds. The patchy reds, browns and whites of the roof tiles looked like the rooftops of candy houses.

I then got myself some candy – tiny perfect chocolates – in a busy cafe on a main shopping street before catching the train to get to Lausanne. It was huge and full of people. I found a spot in the corner and sat there sipping my coffee and observing everyone around me, and I was the only person there alone. Not bothered by this, I sat back and let my feet rest and my hands warm up. Soon the people next to me left, and an older woman – round, red-faced and wearing all purple – sat down with several heavy bags and said something to me in French. “Je ne comprends pas,” I told her. “Ah, you speak English?” she said, “I was saying why do we women always carry so much?” Why, indeed. Her name was Alice.

She ordered a Coca Cola in a glass bottle and we chatted. She has two daughters who live in the States, and she said that when she walked in and saw me sitting there alone in the corner, she’d wished I was one of them. I thought, but did not tell her, that I wished she were my mother sitting there. “Are you homesick?” she asked. Yes, I am. “Soon you will feel that way for Holland.” That’s what everyone keeps telling me, I thought.

She’d lived in California for 30 years, but returned to Switzerland because of the strong emotional connection she felt to it. “What do you think of Europe? The people? The feeling?” I told her I like it here. “It’s a different life,” she said, nodding. And at that moment I wondered if truer words had ever been spoken to me by a stranger.

I sat there with her for so long that I missed my train. I finally asked her if I could take her photograph and told her I’d very much enjoyed talking with her. She said she felt the same. I had to leave her, so I held her hand for a moment, then stood up and blew her a kiss. The lines in her old face were curved and turned toward her smiling eyes. They were bloodshot and tired, but they were smiling. “Be happy,” she said to me as I walked off.

Moving through the door from the loud talk and clatter of the cafe and into the engine rumble and cold of the street outside, I realized I must have looked unhappy. And I thought I’d better listen to Alice as I wiped a tear from my cheek and waited on the curb for the next tram.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
November 2008
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