Amsterdam

 

Chris and I had stood on the side of the road leading north out of Rotterdam for half an hour, thumbs extended hopefully. A third thumb, much larger, had been drawn on a large piece of cardboard, and this was digitally added to our own. We’d noticed a blue Citroen headed the other direction, bearded face in the side window furtively watching us. He had turned around, stopped just abreast of us, and rolled down the window. Bloodshot, egg shaped eyes and straggly unkempt hair were the identifying features that drew our attention at first. (Think of every picture you’ve ever seen of Ginger Baker.)


Hey, man,” he hailed us - the universal greeting for any human being under the age of forty - “Where ya headed?


Amsterdam, actually,” I responded, perhaps a bit cooly. “Kinda the other direction.


Cool! I can go there!


Way too eager, and my radar slipped into gear. Chris and I looked at each other with shared suspicion, and regarded the poster child for Frances McDormand’s “Don’t Take Drugs!” campaign seated before us. “Mmmm,” I made indecisive sounds, “I think we’ll just wait for someone headed our way.


The bloodshot eyes began to spiral. I wondered idly if his name was Norman, or perhaps Charlie. No - he had no “X” carved in his forehead, and the real one’s in jail. This thought allayed my apprehensions slightly. “What’s wrong with you?” he shouted. “You’re hitching and you won’t take a ride?


My eyes rounded. “Ohhh, I sure have changed my mind now.” I turned to Chris. “Wattaya think? Can you come up with any reasons why we shouldn’t get in the car with this... guy?” She stared at me as if I were insane, which is certainly a possibility. I turned to the wacko in the car and grinned. “Naw - thanx anyway. Drive careful.”


Without a word he screeched off in a cloud of dust and exhaust, and we laughed long and hard. “There is such a thing as too much excitement,” Chris said, uncharacteristically. “If there was ever a ride we did not need - that was the ride.


Hitchhiking is an interesting avocation. In Greece we never spent more than five minutes waiting, and everyone who gave us a lift bought us lunch and went out of their way to offer assistance. Several openly wanted us to marry into the family and probably inherit the family business, quite possibly mate with the livestock. Similar experiences abounded in Italy, but there was usually a sexual subtext and everyone drove very fast. This is the one time I knew intuitively not to get in the car.


Less than ten minutes later, a classic green Mini Cooper came along, headed our way. Were you to take a thirty four wagon, call it a woody (reference to Surf City - Jan & Dean) and put it under a reducing ray, you would have a Mini Cooper - assuming it got forty seven miles per gallon. My whole heart went out to it, and - as if if I had called - the car pulled over next to us. The window went down and Holland’s answer to a surf rat beamed up at us: old Beach Boys tee shirt, frizzy blond hair, ear to ear grin. “Hop in,” he invited, the accent somewhere between German and French. I once read the Dutch were Germans who had undergone successful psychoanalysis, and that description was our new ride. He proffered his hand: “Pieta.”


I’m Cal, and this is Chris,” I returned. And at length: “Do you live in Amsterdam itself?


That grin again. “Just two blocks off the ‘Dam Square.” he laughed. “I know how funny that sounds to Americans. We could spend weeks talking only about cultural differences. It is in the heart of Amsterdam.


“What do you do for a living?” No idea why I asked this. It usually takes me weeks to get to this level of mundanity. (Sure, it’s a word. Rhymes with ‘humanity’.)


I’m into white face: I do mime. We have a troop that tours around western Europe.


“That IS cool!........I hear the Sleep-Inns are the cheapest places to stay. Does that sound like a good idea to you?”


Pieta tucked his head down over the steering wheel, hunched his shoulders and raised his hands, palms up. He raised his eyebrows, looking for the moment just like Harpo Marx: exactly how you would expect a mime to respond. We all laughed uproariously.


“Well, we are certainly open to suggestion,” I prompted.


He shrugged again. “You could stay at my place?


Oh,” I replied, momentarily taken aback. “We hadn’t actually considered that, but - thank you! So much!


Talk turned to music, as it so often does when I am part of the conversation. Pieta was a musician, among his other artistic attributes, and as opinionated as you would expect a musician to be. He was a big fan of Crosby, Stills and Nash, but of Crosby in particular. That alone was great glue for a budding friendship. He waxed eloquent concerning Croz’s use of open tuning and sophisticated jazz chords, and his unusual stream-of-consciousness song structure. No matter how certain of yourself you may be, it is always gratifying to be validated by someone who shares your point of view. He and I agreed that Graham Nash had always supplied the ethereal high harmony, and Stills was the early bloomer who had written great songs at an early age. Crosby was the adhesive of the group: he added the elusive harmony that held everything together, both the peacekeeper and the most abrasive and outspoken. Our musical influences were amazingly similar, considering we grew up four thousand miles apart. Beatles and Beach Boys formed the supporting structure, but where I leaned toward jazzier elements like Steely Dan and NRBQ, he was drawn to classical and prog groups like Harmony, or better known bands such as Yes, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Looking back, this was on the cusp of time when music became very compartmentalized: you were either a rocker or a folkie, black or white, disco or redneck. Fence straddling or cross pollination was heresy.


We parked near his apartment - a quirky upstairs single bedroom, with wide, vista-vision windows overlooking one of Amsterdam’s many canals. We dropped our packs and my guitar inside and left to explore with our native guide. When I find myself in new surroundings, I instinctively go for the nearest map. So, we wandered out the door to look for a map of Amsterdam, which was just down the street. (The map: Amsterdam could technically be considered to be the street.) A large tree offered shade, so we sat down beneath it to pore over the concentric rings that form the streets and canals of the city center. Once I had my bearings, Pieta led us hand in hand to the ‘Dam Square, where we watched in open mouthed amazement at the river of humanity flowing by.


   

Every single illicit pharmaceutical on the planet - and several possibly not of this earth - was displayed throughout the square. For a price. It had been six months since we altered our consciousness through cannabis, and the prospect made our minds water. Pieta did the actual negotiating with two young Dutch kids, who left us with the line “Tonight we go to the milky way!” The hash was sticky and gooey, potent enough even for me to smell.


And time ssstttrrreeeeaaaaaaaaaaccccccchhhhhhhhedddd out beyond comprehending or imagining. Sounds seemed to acquire mass and dimension, lights became as kaleidoscopes. The grin on my face was frozen in a kind of warm, anti-rigor mortis, and laughter seemed as natural as breathing. We stepped into a tavern to feel the comfort and security of walls around us, and were suddenly almost blind. Totally closed irises were suddenly jacked wide open to adjust to the minimal light, and we stumbled to the bar by braille. Contrary to popular opinion, Amstel - not Heineken - is the national beer of Holland. Not the light, wimpy version, but a full, robust lager. Not quite as good as Stella Artois - easily the best lager in continental Europe, in my opinionated opinion, and Belgium’s gift to the planet - but an excellent beer nonetheless. I ordered one for Chris, one for Pieta, and one for me, and we sat back to observe the brand new, sparkling world around us. The bartender poured the beer straight down into the glass - taking delight in the frothy top - beheaded it with a plastic spatula and splashed it down before us.


Two long haired Dutch guys sitting in a booth indicated we should come over and join them. It always struck me as funny how people will do things in foreign locales they would never consider at home - hitching, for example - but we obligingly wandered over and introduced ourselves. Lars and Gunter were mycologists, and their produce was proudly displayed for our enjoyment. Dirty mushrooms and beer will never become a suburban favorite, but it melts in your mind: not in your hand.


Shrooms should be consumed in a natural, pastoral setting, preferably one with which you are intimately familiar. Make a list of places, ranked by preference for psychotropic substance consumption, and a bar in a foreign country will be dead last, every single time. Introspection turned, like a knife in my hand, to full blown paranoia. And, while one of my favorite lines is “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” - there was nothing amusing about the experience. Pieta led us obligingly outside and down a side street to a canal. There we sat at the top of an arched foot bridge, dangled our feet over the edge and solved most of the world’s problems. The water in the canal moved slowly, like a living thing, beneath our toes. Several hours later, much more in control of my perceptive process, we stumbled back to Pieta’s apartment and slept the sleep of cadavers.


One by one we awoke as the sun penetrated the curtains. Pieta made coffee indistinguishable from motor oil, and we gradually assumed human proportions. Irresistibly drawn to the record collection, I eschewed the current popular favorite - Hotel California - and placed Billy Joel’s The Stranger on the turntable. Moving Out swaggered into the new light of day. (Years later, I heard Billy Joel talk about playing this song for the first time to his band: much more flowing, with a certain..lilt to it. His band responded: “You putz! That’s Neil Sedaka’s Laughter in the Rain!” I laughed till my stomach hurt.) Then the moody, atmospheric whistling that prefaces the title song rose seductively from the speakers (am I the only person on the planet that thinks this sounds like a French film?) before breaking into the aggressive, amphetamine fueled body of the song. This one of those albums that can recreate entire seasons of my life, completely intact. Maybe having no sense of smell has intensified the associative properties of music for me. We followed The Stranger with Gerry Rafferty’s City to City - another album that captures the last three months in Europe for me, probably much clearer than the original experience.


In Frieburg, my friend Gisela had graciously given me her guitar: a small Hofner with gut strings. The generosity of the gift, her friendship, and that magic name I associate with Paul McCartney had enchanted me. Not surprisingly, Pieta had a guitar, an unknown - probably Dutch - name to me. He freed it from the case and cradled it lovingly, as he would a puppy. Raising his eyebrows, he glanced my way. “Some Crosby?” he enquired.


I began the intro to Wooden Ships and he fell effortlessly into the lead. By an uncomplicated system of facial expressions and gestures we divided vocal chores, and he began to sing Graham Nash’s part (Stills’ part, to the uninitiated). It can be astonishing how funny a word like ‘understand’ can be when pronounced with a Dutch accent. I doubt if anyone would pay to hear us, but we had fun. I couldn’t resist the temptation to segue into the Lee Shore, Pieta supplying perfect harmony. He graciously applauded when we were done.


Pieta placed his guitar in it’s case and gazed at the ceiling for a moment. “I have to go away for a while.” He held out his house key to me. “Here are the keys: please take care of my little home.” He again glanced at the ceiling, obviously considering how to phrase what was to come.


Telepathically, I knew. “We will treat it as if it were our own,” I said as seriously as I am capable. Well...sincerely, anyway. I grinned. “We promise not to destroy anything - or at least replace it.


He smiled. “Good. Just what I wanted to hear.




We never saw him again. Four days we spent in his wonderful abode, venturing out into the strange new world of Amsterdam by day and night. Listening to his incredible record collection, watching boats glide through the canals, we rested and recharged the batteries of our collective souls. Wandering wide eyed through the fabled red light district and glazed eyed through the legendary drug bars/coffee shops, we decided Amsterdam was a colder AND cooler version of Venice. Finally we gathered our packs together and hid the key in Pieta’s preferred hiding place.


Our thank you note was addressed to “Our Mystery Benefactor”, and read, in part: “We have replaced the beer and wine with additions. We promise to pass it on! Come visit us!” I included the name and address of my most stable friend, Phil.


        Pieta - if ever you should read this: I hope your life has been as wonderful as mine!



Pass it round, one more time....” (DC/Page 43)



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