“Where are you guys from?” asked another night-cloaked stranger with a foreign accent.
“The United States,” Christian bravely offered from the patio table at the bar we visited to decompress from a night walking the canal streets and red-lit alleyways of Amsterdam.
“Ah, you see, these are the Devil’s States. You’ve got the hookers over there. You’ve got the coffeeshops over there, and you’ve got every drug imaginable lining every street in between.”
The man lit his cigarette and began to leave us, before stopping to harass a man stumbling over cobblestones in some sort of visibly, obscenely altered state. Christian, Caleb, and I sunk into our chairs and sipped our drinks in silence before returning to our hostel two blocks away, some place vaguely named Amsterdam Centre Hostel on a street lined with restaurants.
Of our party of five travelers—including Sarah and Teresa—we three boys had to book our first accommodations away from the girls due to limited space at their hostel, a place called Shelter City Christian Hostel that seemed like a fairytale fortress of faith compared to ours.
Our reservation was made in my name; I am certainly a responsible young man who can put together travel plans, but my talents throughout our Eurotrip seemed to lend themselves better to on-foot navigation and, well, morale-boosting or cheerleading (circumstances depending).
When we arrived at Amsterdam Centre Hostel a day earlier, there was a man wearing a keffiyeh-as-fashion-accessory working the front desk. I ignored the red flag that immediately raised in me, mostly because I was exhausted from lugging my bags from train station to hostel on foot.
We checked in and the man branded me “the boss” of my three-man party with an oddly emasculating condescension that normally fails to strike me as anything other than obsolete, blockheaded, imbecilic heteronormativity. He then proceeded to provide us a summary of all Amsterdam had to offer that he laced with fine threads of overcompensatory racism and oblique bigotry—most bizarrely inferring, “you guys don’t like your president—because he’s black, yeah?”
I do not want to write about Amsterdam. I often do not bother to talk about Amsterdam when unspooling the tall-tale yarn that is my doe-eyed, heart-rending, awe-inspiring tour of the some of the world’s most beautiful cities. It was a sort of anomaly. I was terrified of it—mystified but shaking in my boots the whole time, feeling like I would at a raging Allston house party full of complete and total strangers shouting at each other in foreign tongues.
And so my impetus to process my experience there is perhaps even stronger. I have an overwhelming predilection for the precious, pretty, and near-perfect. C’est la vie, in my oft-tear-stained green eyes.
Sometimes, however, I can get bitter and indulge in a petulant knee-jerk reaction harsh and lacking understanding. Without adequate sleep or red wine (whichever comes first), my soft focus on this beautiful world begins to sharpen, and then I wake up in the middle of the Netherlands in a bunk above a Brazilian stranger whose shuffling around her travel documents at six in the morning.
Outside my window, the sun is rising, and it should be a beautiful day, as it so often is when the sun does that. I hop down from my bed and begin the day. Caleb is sleeping in, so Christian and I take turns washing up. We’re off to meet Sarah and Teresa to tour the Anne Frank House, a weighty historical site made even stranger by how proudly it boasts of its complimentary wifi access.
We wind up and down its narrow stairs in shared silence, thin antique air. The gravity of Frank’s story, an artful document wrought of her life’s tiny triumphs and devastating losses, weighs usas we climb into the attic rooms.
My shoulders stiffen when I quiet my breathing out of something vaguely resembling reverence. My eyes fall on the faces of my friends with as much attention as they do the sacred space’s restored details. Looking at them looking around, I feel a certain holiness between us. We’re young storytellers, deeply devoted to our craft, somehow here studying abroad to hone our skills so we can contribute to humanity’s storytelling tradition and pay homage to those like Frank who fiercely fought to tell their tales through incomprehensible hardship.
Our visit ends quickly and our day floats along on fumes of fuzzy freneticism.
We ate pizza at an empty Italian restaurant, looking out the window adjacent our table onto the street below. Amsterdam’s roads bustle with an endless parade of cyclists, all consumed by secondary activities like texting, smoking, and applying makeup, as they speed around the city’s canals and its many tributary thoroughfares. Our sole company was our host and waiter, a man who assured us he could only provide us tap water as our beverage because of the restaurant’s momentary ebb in business.
Later, with the midday sun high over Amsterdam, we settled to lounge on the grasses of Vondelpark. A shirtless satyr-like man serenaded stoners nearby with repeat renditions of the same three songs—his style a distracted, dialogue-disjoint drawl.
We ate Mexican for dinner near our hostel.
The sun had set and it was King’s Night in Amsterdam. King’s Night is comprised of the evening festivities that precede Sunday, April 26’s King’s Day, a national holiday that marks the date of King Willem-Alexander. The Netherlands’ tourism website rather accurately defines Amsterdam as “the world’s biggest street party,” for clarity’s sake. That is about the only thing one can see clearly throughout the dim-lit, deranged night and dissolute, debauched day of false (or at least fucked) worship.
Every other street was marked with a concert. Saxophones screeched over house beats and nationalist narration that swayed masses of the messed up; guitars wailed with the Dutch siren songs of dated metal bands that found rejuvenation whipping King’s Night crowds into hysteria.
The five of us ambled through the bacchanal. We crossed canals and wound serpentine streets as we explored the Red Light District. Our party found itself at odds with that which raged on around us. Once again, we found ourselves silent and confused, perhaps awe-struck and intimidated, and most certainly overwhelmed.
And we just walked and watched, odd American voyeurs all alone in Amsterdam at its most idiosyncratic and intense.
It was nearly too much to take in. I am a young man privileged with an education that illuminates corners of the world I may never have the opportunity to see. I am intelligent, sensitive, and searching. I was surprised by Amsterdam and the feelings of innocence, fear, and inexperience it filled me with.
Something about Amsterdam did not add up. To me, “the Devil’s States” could not sustain themselves as a functioning union—and yet it has, in its own way, for so long. Perhaps this is where my latent, repressed, and drastically diluted American exceptionalism reveals itself.
Could I, a self-proclaimed East Coast-elite, young liberal, aspiring to educated participation in the practice and preservation of our democracy, find myself at a loss for words when the so-called values and social mores of my country are so subverted? And with such seduction, such style?
The next morning, the sun rose over King’s Day in Amsterdam, and we lugged our bags from our Amsterdam Centre Hostel to the girls at Shelter City Christian Hostel before walking the streets to the train station. People were clad head-to-toe in the most lurid shade of tangerine orange imaginable—as if I wasn’t offended enough already. Apparently, that is “the king’s color.” Beerflowed freely from kegs parked on stoops. Party boats already blaring EDM floated down each of the city’s canals. From the canals to the streets, there was trash everywhere. The party hadn’t stopped, and wouldn’t for quite some time. At the train station, people arrived in droves from all over the Netherlands to celebrate King’s Day in Amsterdam.
The five of us, however, would go on to Prague and beyond.
Nearly a month later, sitting in my comfortable, affordable Allston living room on a quiet spring night in the City on the Hill, I keep company with unanswered questions.