Dear Amsterdam (A Love Letter)
I am writing you from a picturesque town in the Guatemalan highlands, surrounded by ruins and volcanoes. It seems befitting, in that sweetly incongruous way which brought us together 10 years ago, that I would be celebrating our birthday in a landscape so contrasting from your own. Although I do not expect you to remember much of the details running through our days and nights together (you contain multitudes, after all), I wanted to let you know that I am still thinking of you, of us, of the blood we shared and the gifts you have so generously bestowed upon my heart.
I find it difficult to picture the man who first saw you one August day a decade ago, two suitcases in tow, greeting old friends who kindly assumed the role of hosts to an unnerving shindig to which I still felt uninvited. What was I doing there, with you? I was a nobody, a cauldron of apprehension under a heap of curls, smiling wide-eyed at your worldly beauty while trying to disguise trembling fingers.
You must have noticed it. Why else would you be so kind to me? I brought you very little, and nothing you hadn’t received before from countless others, all constantly arriving at your door, pleading for nourishment, love, a better chance at life. Yet despite my failings you showered me with compliments and rain, held me close to your dewy skin, whispering comfort and easily diluting the tragedies of my past, until one day you felt like home, and my visit turned into a comely exile.
I could say that I reinvented myself within your arms, but that would imply a change too great to be true. Closer to reality is perhaps that you allowed me to be all of my selves, unafraid of shedding skin after skin, collecting masks only to shatter them, changing tones and colors according to your moods and mine. I cloaked myself in your essence and ran, lusting after the new, the foreign, the magnificent other.
There is too much I want to tell you, to thank you for. This letter will not be enough, and I write it fully aware of its limitations. How could I put into words all that has gone between us without coming across as a sentimental fool? You will sigh at my clumsy attempts to define you and what you mean to me, but at least allow me this confession: although our existence is defined by the crossroads we meet, I am unable to see my life sundered from your path.
Huddled beneath the stars, I loved your kindness, your curves (so sinuously seductive), your touch whenever I fell, the icy grip of your winter, the unpredictable bloom of your summer, the serpentine course of your veins, flowing nocturnal under lighted bridges which I crossed repeatedly, breathless and drunk.
Most of all, I loved being lost in you. There is no other silhouette I recognize as deftly as I do yours, no other body I surveyed for so long and with such abandonment. Yet I persistently blurred the lines of your margins, seeking serendipity and solace. Do you remember my breath while I cycled alone through Vondelpark in the wee small hours, cold with insomnia or heartache? How silent you were then, how soothing your slanted streets. Adrift in you, I could finally let myself be forgotten, be washed away in speed and vertigo.
Although many of our radiant moments took place during the chiaroscuro of your daylight, I loved you mostly in the nighttime. Yes, your glow felt exhilarating when the clouds parted (I will never forget that first Queen’s Day, sitting outside on Prinsengracht, watching you sway in orange), but darkness suited you best. Dressed in moonlight, you became a labyrinth of shadows and euphoria, elliptical in your motions and protective of your mysteries. But just as your crooked buildings loomed over the invisible trail of my bicycle like tree branches in a grim fairy tale, so did the misty umber of your topography become luminescent, lit up across dark water, beaming under the orb of Westerkerk’s tower, my lighthouse of countless wanton nights.
As evening descended, I remember your breadth during Museumnacht, when I first joined the masses scavenging for your treasures; I also remember entering the Ship of Fools, anchored north; and I remember the smoke inside Paradiso’s kleine zaal, so often visited it became almost a second home; and I remember more: winter by the windmill and a table full of vikings, ordering another round of Columbus biertje, rain lashing at the Brouwerij ‘t IJ’s windows while the rugged tail of a white rat swung atop an old fisherman’s shoulder; dancing elated at Winston, when all was new and decadent; sitting by the fireplace at the Vertigo cafe, where the old film museum used to be; fresh paint on my sneakers at the squat houses toward IJhaven, before Jamie Oliver and yuppie buildings came along; awkward whispers inside the houseboat; madness and natural affinity with the Spanish crowd; untold cinematic sessions at The Movies, Tuschinski, Kriterion, and even more with Jeffrey, witnessing Onibaba‘s delirium and the contagious ebullience of Themrock at the Nieuwe Anita, or leaving OT301 after Tarkovsky’s Mirror, shaken to the core and humbled by genius; starlit walks by the canals of the Jordaan and the cluttered streets of De Pijp; binge-watching Deadwood whilst gorging on takeaway Italian food; a cozy celebration, followed by unnerving discussions of Twin Peaks, which strangely segued into lover’s spit; meeting friends at ‘t Smalle, forever a favorite; laying cards at Festina Lente, digging into psyche and other incertitudes; dinners at De Reiger, listening to the floorboards creak; drug and wine-fueled sybaritism on Prins Hendrikkade, packed inside the tiniest of rooms; glancing through Modern Art when the Stedelijk was at the Post-CS building, feeling the ceiling shake to the techno beats of Club 11 upstairs; New Year’s fireworks, watching your sky blaze from a rooftop close to the Milky Way; dawn breaking while accompanied by the tears, the passions and the laughter of the Magyar.
And when a new day dawned more memories come rushing in: Saturday mornings at the Noordermarkt, buying fresh bread and meeting the bookseller who looked like a Van Gogh painting, all fiery red beard and sweet blue eyes; tennis matches at Westerpark while the sun shone and the Dutch hollered as their team scored another World Cup goal; cycling to Sloterdijk for the duration of four songs; reveling in appeltaarts and mint tea at Winkel 43; by Museumplein, the squalor of Schiele and the bloodlust of Caravaggio in the afternoon; trying to find recognizable faces scattered around the summer grass of Oosterpark and Vondelpark, bottle in tow; the intimacy of Nieuwmarkt’s hangovers, upstairs at Latei with Jack the cat and a beautiful enigma; climbing the red windows of the Moskito, preparing for another day of guerrilla filmmaking with Federico; autumn leaves lining the path through Rembrandtpark, the most fortunate commute; browsing through Peruvian trinkets at Mercatorplein; snow falling on our garden’s rose bushes; taking the ferry to the former NDSM shipyard, to hug Alexi and taste the best pizza in the whole wide world; leaving home soaked, dashing trough Rozengracht drenched, arriving in Dam Square nearly drowning; Christmas with William, whom I love as much as I do you, waking up to champagne for breakfast and the deliciously pungent smell of rum cake; the daily sprint by Anne Frank Huis, and later on wondering how many photos had been ruined by the blistering blur of an expat madly in love with the city; that festive day when the Siberian sang about death’s cool hands and the Icelander sang about baking cake. “Achoo”, it went.
Yet I forget so much now…
I forget the cruelty of your seasons, the loneliness following the continuous departure of friends, the guttural rasp of your language, the sometimes maddening rudeness of your people, the tastelessness of your produce, the equanimous way you called me on my bullshit.
Yes, our time has been perhaps embellished by distance and the mercurial nature of memory, but the fact remains: you let me in.
Do not think I’m unaware of the secrecy in your heart, of the doors you lock and the levees you build, of the unbreakable ice you shape so that only few can discern your sadness, your ache of being entirely without roots. You are guarded of your emotions, so you throw the mere visitor off course, sending packs of them careening through red lights and wax museums, urban torture chambers smelling of Big Macs and congested semen.
How foreign you seemed whenever the tourist hordes descended upon you, surging from Centraal Station towards Damrak, anticipating a couple of days of sexual antics or mournful attics or walking through an Anton Pieck postcard or tasting herring and cheese or disappearing in a puff of Cannabis sativa smoke or watching sunflowers inside white walls or waking up and smelling the tulips.
How familiar you seemed whenever the wind blew bitter through your open avenues, rain pouring down mercilessly, turning tram tracks into slippery death traps and bike lanes into flooded pink rows of desolation as an entire city’s worth of frenzied gametes remained miraculously steadfast, whereas I unwittingly emulated Bas Jan Ader, forever falling.
But you let me in and cleaned my bruises.
Even when I left you, first to visit your neighboring sisters (Paris, Berlin, London) and later across continents in search of childhood geographies, I’ve never felt unwelcome upon my return. You greeted me open-armed, back into your fold, your collection of faces enlightening my life. When I think of you I see them all: the happy Hungarian, the Scottish ballerina, the Italian maestro, the Czech Cinderella, the Nordic artists, wordsmiths and Satyrs, the Canadian chef, the Dutch hymns, the Spanish dancer, the North-American cinephile, the Uruguayan martyr, the Slovenian shepherd, the native New Yorker, the Portuguese minx and a barrel of laughs, the English swirl and spice, the German Tarot reader, the Mexican domino effect, the whale tickler, the Brazilian curls, the Macedonian paradox, the French puissance, the Chinese aloofness, the sweet-scented charm of the Malay, all the architects of my Amsterdam life, cruising along a restless brook of memories.
I write you then to thank you for what you’ve given me. You were my home, my dollhouse, my harbor. Surrounded by the murky masses and absorbed in the reckless exuberance of my youth, I remained unscathed as long as I lived within you.
I write you also to apologize for leaving so abruptly and not being in touch more often. To address this fault of mine, I’ll borrow Simone Weil’s words: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”
I love you, Amsterdam.
I love you even if we spoke different languages, and I never wanted to learn yours.
I love you even though I never cared to know your country.
I love you even if I still feel my bones rattle with the recollection of your incessant rain.
I love you with the ardor of a man who never expected to love.
I love you even if you never gave a damn about my southern sentimentality.
Until we meet again, I’ll be thinking of you. Promise.
P.S. Thank you for taking care of my rusty bike during those 9 years we shared. I took it wherever I went, repeatedly abandoned it overnight in shady neighborhoods, left it unlocked more times than I could remember, but whenever I woke up it was always there; perhaps not in the same place, maybe displaying a few more dents, occasionally missing a pedal, but there – where I needed it to be.