en route to Amsterdam: June 26, 1991...
he two-hour ride with my angel, Hans, and his companions across the flat face of that country known as The Nether Lands - for the fact that much of it is below sea level - turned out to be little more than a comforting bridge from one unnerving situation to another. By the time I arrived in Amsterdam, on a local train from Hans' suburban village of Muiden, it was 7:30 in the evening and I had no idea where I would stay the night. Compounding the problem I had let my pocket funds dwindle to practically nothing. In Dutch guilders, my cash on hand amounted to about $6.50.
Yet, to my amazement, I wasn't feeling edgy or desperate. This was my first arrival in a major European city in such uncertain circumstances and it surprised me with a rush of adrenalin . . . I felt gloriously high as I left the railroad station and walked into an electric mix of inner city life: vendors, beggars, musicians, people moving at a jumbled pace, tumbling around and into one another - and bicycles, thousands of them. It could as well have been high noon from the carnival sense of action. But I knew it wasn't, and that I had better get busy on the telephone.
More than a dollar was slotted fruitlessly into phone calls before I fully realized that I had innocently picked the worst possible place and time for my "here I am" approach: an annual all-Europe meeting of Good Neighbors regional facilitators had just taken place here in Amsterdam, and every last local host had those visitors on their hands. None, at this point, could accommodate an ordinary traveler.
I turned to listings in the suburban area, starting with one in Haarlem who had been among those preliminary hosts, earlier engaged and afterward cancelled from London. She, too, had guests from the conference - two of them. But as we talked, she picked up the note of growing urgency in my voice - for it was now after eight p.m. - and finally decided she could somehow manage a third guest if I honestly didn't mind sleeping on the living room floor.
Getting out there took a train and bus fare, leaving me with just two dollars in ready funds. I had counted on finding a cash machine along the way, but no such luck. As I walked the last few blocks to her address in a pleasantly upscale apartment neighborhood, reflecting on how easy it had been to let my immediate solvency slide down to practically nothing, I was accosted by a pair of serious looking men in full-buttoned coats, who asked me darkly whether I was on my way to see a woman named Carty. I answered, with casual cheer, that I certainly was, and they braced me on either side, as an escort . . . like in a bad movie.
These were Carty's two guests, Georghe and Tom, having a bit of fun. Georghe, a chunky bear-like fellow with swept-back, greying hair and a twinkle in his eyes that he could hide at will, was from Romania and told me later that he was astounded by my breezy response to their intentionally menacing approach. Such inquisitorial intrusions back home, he said, were no laughing matter. Tom, whose own silvery hair had long ago abandoned the crest of his head for the creases of his countenance, lived no farther away than Amsterdam, but he and Carty had a personal relationship and regularly visited with one another. They were a surprising couple - he almost twice her age. But his vitality was such that a mere age comparison was meaningless.
Carty, herself, was a study in burnt orange: her short cut hair, her lipstick, a soft impression of freckles and the tones she chose to wear. Her small, compact frame made an attractive package of it all. She was a nurse, sharing with her teen-age son, Ruben, an upper-floor high-rise unit with a commanding view that stretched - as only in Holland - to infinity's horizon; half of it over a private balcony, seen through floor-to-ceiling glass, and half from the walkway that went by her kitchen window. Below and all around, arrayed like one of those diorama tableaux that museums love to display, the busy-work of a semi-rural countryside: delivery wagons scurrying up narrow roads alongside meandering canals, the rich green pasturage of dairy farms, pocked here and there with lazy grazing livestock . . . and even a classic Dutch windmill or two.
My first concern, after a reasonably comfortable night's sleep on Carty's living room floor, was a replenishment of cash. And almost as important, a trip to the Amsterdam post office, for this was my first scheduled mail drop. Carty provided me with transit scrip so I could be sure of getting into town and I found the ever elusive cash machine there without any further trouble. Then the mail, a fat little batch that I refused to open until I could find a table, with service of tea and toast, while I relished each piece of it. Along with the personal mail and the packet of next-stage maps and host lists, sent by Marjory from London, I found my new VISA card with its $1200 limit - presumably the end of my cash hassles. Presumably.
The rest of that first full day in Amsterdam was spent in search of some music tapes. Not just "anything cheap," as on my last morning in France, but a search for some very specific tapes I had reason to hope I might find here - recordings that I'd been tracking for many months. Indeed, it had assumed the proportions of a quest, like my Scotland search for Jim Hall's sister in Hawick.
THIS QUEST, TOO, started in Seattle. Before I ever imagined I'd be going abroad I happened across an album recorded in the mid-'80s by an Amsterdam group calling itself the Broken Dreams Orchestra. It was a mix of unusually appealing vocals on a selection of old American pop standards from the 1930s and 1940s with a central theme of loneliness and heartbreak - slow-tempo, melancholy songs like:It's the Talk of the Town, I Cover the Waterfront and the title piece, Boulevard of Broken Dreams. They were fresh arrangements yet they captured, as few reprise efforts ever do, the mood and idiom of those earlier times, with wailing sax refrains and the hauntingly sad accent of several young Dutch vocalists. I was charmed and fascinated, and I wondered if there were any other recordings by them.
At the time, I wrote to the New Jersey distributor, who thought there had been other albums but none were available in the U.S. I was given the name of a London distributor. I checked it out while I was there, but they had only the album I already possessed. They gave me a phone number, however, for the group's bassist and co-leader, Gert-Jan Blom, in Amsterdam. It was an old number - two years old, they said, and now two and a half. Still, it was enough to go on, plus the outside chance that the old recordings might yet be found in some Amsterdam shop. But that hope quietly died in an afternoon of roving and asking. I was told the group had broken up several years ago - like an old dream, perhaps. The phone number I'd been given just kept ringing; and the directory provided no further information.
Back again at Carty's, it was my last evening to get to know Georghe a bit better. He'd be returning on Friday to Timisoara, on Romania's west edge near the border of what was still called Yugoslavia. My intended routing from Budapest to Greece, through Yugoslavia, was looking riskier by the week, in the already simmering agony between Serbs and Muslims. The only travel-cheap alternative would be through Romania and Bulgaria, so I wanted to solidify this connection that had fallen into my lap by pure innocent magic. Georghe was Romania's GN coordinator, and he'd know all the hosts in the country.
He was wonderfully easy to know. He spoke English well and had a receptive attitude to everything under discussion, his bushy eyebrows rising with interest at each new idea. Tom and he kidded each other like they had been friends for years. But Georghe told me the situation in Romania, only a year earlier, had been so paranoid that he hadn't dared to let himself be known as a GN coordinator or host. GN travelers coming through were instructed to carry no lists with them. But that had all changed, he assured me, with the recent overthrow of Ceausescu and I'd have no problem going through the country. In fact, he insisted on a visit from me! I gave him a copy of my letter of introduction as a promise.
And then, after Georghe's departure, an unexpected blessing for a weary traveler. Carty was off to Amsterdam for the weekend with Tom - letting me remain there in the apartment entirely on my own. The the time at de Voorde, earlier in the week, had taken the edge off my exhaustion, but the relaxation afforded by private quarters is a gift of the gods.
I spent most of Friday exploring Haarlem, an amazingly clean little town, riven and ribbed with canals just like its larger neighbor, Amsterdam. I found a museum devoted to one of my favorite Dutch painters, Frans Hals, located in the very building where the old master is thought by some to have passed his last years, when it was a home for the aged and indigent. Being somewhat `aged and indigent' myself, I felt a sense of communion with the old fellow. Back at Carty's with some freshly purchased fish, I enjoyed the lately rare treat of cooking my own dinner.
That evening, trying Gert-Jan Blom's number again, I got a response. It was a voice in Dutch, of course, but no problem. Everyone in Holland, it seems, speaks English - but only if it is spoken to them, resulting in the odd effect of a language barrier that dissolves instantly with a word or two in English. It wasn't Gert-Jan Blom on the line, however. He no longer lived there, but I was given another number as a possibility. This one answered with a recorded message in Dutch; but the novel sound of a musical dog barking a tune in the background suggested that I had not lost the trail.
On Saturday, entirely enervated by the abundant luxury and this opportunity to live for awhile as if I actually lived somewhere, I didn't even take an intended trip to the nearby ocean beach. I spent the day answering mail. My sole interaction with the outside world was to secure a Monday host in Amsterdam proper so I'd be able to see more of the city and make a final effort to complete my musical quest - whatever could be done for it.
That evening, however, I got lucky. The melodious dog was replaced by Gert-Jan Blom, himself, and we talked for a solid hour. He was the one responsible, he said, for those orchestrations that were such delicious echoes of my youth. He told me the entire history of the project, from its genesis in his fascination with America's Depression-era big bands, to the group's initial success in Amsterdam, to the annual Festival of Broken Dreams that they invented as a vehicle for taking their music on tour across Europe . . . to the final 1987 tour that made it all the way to Canada - though never into the States. And he commiserated with me over the group's final dissolution. He was, himself, responsible for that, too. For Gert-Jan, the orchestra was a creative project, not a bid for commercial success; there were other things he wanted time to work on. I could easily relate to such priorities . . . though I wished he had only waited a few years.
The youth in his voice told me he had never lived in the times his music so richly evoked. Somehow, his sensitivity to the music itself had been sufficient for the re-creation of a mood and a reality long vanished, and I found this incredible. For his part, Gert-Jan seemed impressed that anyone - especially of the generation that could recall `the real thing' - should be so moved by his work as to undertake such a search for it.
There had been forty pieces in their repertoire. The album I already had was the second of four, and Gert-Jan felt the group had improved for each session. But he had no idea where any of those albums might be found. Our conversation went so well, however, that he offered to make me tapes from his own copies if I would come by to get them. My cup was not only full, it was splashing all over the place! I might cautiously have been concerned about the cost, I guess - he had said earlier that someone from Texas actually offered him fifty dollars for one of the unobtainable tapes. But the flow of our talk was so mellow that I didn't want to bring anything that crass into it.
On Monday, as rested as I could ever hope to be, I lingered long enough for a farewell breakfast with Carty, took the short trip to Amsterdam and found my way to the well-hidden third-floor apartment of my next host, Hennie. She had tea and cake waiting for me, and the enthusiastic welcome of GN people everywhere. I saw at once, from the sort of books that filled every corner of her quarters, that Hennie had scholarly inclinations, though she worked as a bookkeeper. Just like Marielle in Paris, I thought. But Hennie had a much more upbeat view of life, and her laughter rippled as easily as her words. We had an hour's worth of getting to know each other before I hastened away to the other side of town to find Gert-Jan Blom's residence.
He lived in a walk-up second-floor flat with huge rooms and high ceilings, a marvelous space for study and work - and just the rudiments of domestic life, for he lived alone. As I expected, he was only half my age, tall and rangy like a basketball player and sparking with the same warm enthusiasm about my having contacted him as he'd shown on the telephone. In fact, we simply resumed our discussion of the earlier evening and continued it for two further hours. But this time it was on a more personal plane. He told me of a ruptured love affair with one of the vocalists, and how the circumstances around it had made the heartbreak music a living reality for him at the very time the recordings were being made. He'd actually wept, he said, while some of those pieces were being recorded - and I could hardly help wondering if I had somehow picked up this subtlety in the music when I first heard it.
Then he gladdened my heart by refusing to take a single guilder for the tapes he had made for me. I had already come to terms with the likelihood of a price on them, and perhaps more than I could afford. I wanted this music! I walked the couple miles back to Hennie's apartment in a cloud of contentment, successful in this second quest beyond all my hopes . . . and made a point of giving $1.50 to the first down-and-outer who crossed my path, just to keep myself square with the gods.
That evening, just after dark and after Hennie had served world-class pancakes stuffed with bacon, such as none I had ever eaten in my life, she took me on a stroll of the canal paths. Cobbled walkways softly lit by the gentle yellow glow of street lamps took us along the quiet line of boats, of every size and vintage, bobbing an easy rhythm on the dark waters - the rising curvature of their uniquely Dutch hulls exquisitely suggestive of wooden shoes. Here and there, a waterside cafe, outdoor tables with couples talking softly as if the very quiet of such a setting had awed them into hushed respect.
These water-split avenues offer a sheltering effect at the same time as they feel expansive - a curious and unlikely blend of contraries. Leafy trees contribute to the effect, as does the seamless backdrop of Flemish architecture on either side. There is not a pause of space between these quaint old buildings. They lean tipsily forward, like sodden drinking companions playing loose with gravity, to provide hoisting clearance for the jibs that jut out from every high facade.
Up one of these shadowed avenues, Hennie took me by the Anne Frank house - now such a peaceful setting that it was hard to believe the desperate situation played out here a half-century ago, when a young girl was dragged from her attic seclusion of many months to become a martyr in the struggle with bigotry - a cause hardly less volatile today than it was then. The house has been turned into a museum. It was after hours; but the sight of a cash register inside this shrine seemed to tarnish it. I saw in that image a symbol of the subtle connection that has always existed between economics and bigotry.
I'D HAD THE FORETHOUGHT while at Carty's, to arrange for my next on-the-road host in the border town of Oldenzaal. It practically reached out from the map and grabbed me - a rare gap of unfinished motorway on the high-speed route to Berlin, promising several miles of hitch-hiker-friendly open roadway. Carty's Amsterdam friend, Tom, intrigued by my style of travel, said he'd pay my trainfare to Oldenzaal if he could ride along with me.
Tom was a sweet old soul - though he'd have had some suitably acid reply if anyone ever said it within his earshot. He took his fold-up bicycle for the day's outing, to pedal back home afterward. He was in pretty good shape for seventy-odd years - an interesting counterpoint to his almost saintly features. That bearded visage was unforgettable . . . yet strangely familiar at the same time. I had seen it a score of times or more, on one or another Renaissance canvas - a Titian, or a Raphael perhaps. Tom would be that old one standing off to the side, a sheet draping his shoulders, his brow arched in wrinkles, his soft, world-weary eyes imploring the heavens for a sign of grace.
But off the canvas he was sharp and vital, ribald in his humor and trenchant in some of his opinions. He gave some trumped-up excuse for his surge of generosity, and then when I tried to pay my own way he stopped my protestations cold with a single piercing question.
"How is it, Man, that you talk so much about the gifts of Providence, and then you refuse them when they come along?"
He was a retired teacher of languages and had no problem with English, except for that insistent affectation of "Man," which figured in every other sentence. A remnant of the 1960s hip travel crowd, I suppose, it reflected his unquenchable affinity for younger people, which was demonstrated in another way before our rail journey was done. Without half trying, he somehow engaged a college co-ed across the aisle from us in easy conversation. I could hardly help but recall my own ineffectuality with `the lady from Huntly,' of an earlier train ride.
We had a two-hour layover in the town of Hengelo, hardly six miles from Oldenzaal. We could have walked as easily as waiting, but the day had gotten hot, so we strolled instead to a charmingly peaceful shaded park - which turned out to be a cemetery. But it afforded us a quiet bench in the cool of trees and may have suggested the turn of our conversation, for Tom wanted to talk about life and death and the absurd belief "of some people," as he pointedly put it, in reincarnation. He was a rationalist, through and through, and a potent debater. I was hard put to justify some of my irrationalities, and found myself trapped more than once in our hour's talk. But then I should not have taken `de bait' to debate with a rationalist, in the first place. It was like diving in the water to settle a dispute with an octopus.
I made my stand on the equivalence of beliefs. "The pure fact of it is that we know nothing, right? We simply choose to believe one thing or the other."
"That is certainly a fact, Man. But why should you choose to believe the thing which goes against everything your senses tell you?"
"Doesn't it occur to you, Tom, that it might be the other way around: that we translate sense perceptions according to the very way that our beliefs tell us to?"
"And that, Man, is exactly why you have to be careful about what you're going to believe!"
"Well, hey, belief isn't something I just decide to throw over me, like a coat. It comes in the slow accretion of experience. It's not even an IT . . . a belief doesn't stand alone, it's part of a whole structure that involves all sides of my life and being."
"Still, you have to have a gate somewhere, where the line is drawn at what you leave in, and what stays out."
"Easier said than done, my friend. If you live with a truly open mind, the gate has no firm lock."
"Not true, Man. That is loose thinking, not an open mind."
He was cutting me to shreds. I had to get him looking at his own blind spots, not at mine. "Okay, Tom, okay. Admittedly, I keep my mind a little loose. I don't like a world limited by hard reality. My reality has soft edges and it lets me live in a lot more freedom by trusting what happens. Your insistent realism confines your adventurous spirit . . . it serves you like a pair of leg irons."
His unusually long pause at that suggested I may have touched home - though I had exaggerated a bit. I'd be hard put to match Tom's adventurous instincts in some respects - his ease at making conversation with coeds, to name just one! But he proved perfectly capable of meeting my metaphor, and one-upping me in the process.
"A point, Man, a point. But I can get farther walking in leg irons than on slippery banana peels."
ON THE MORNING of July 4th - not a holiday in these parts - I took to the open road again, after spending just a night in Oldenzaal with Rob and Anneke, a pair of teachers. One night was all that any of us could spare. I had only a few days, myself, to reach Berlin, and they were ready to leave for Bavaria on a week-long bicycling vacation with their children. The day was about as nice as July can offer: crystal blue skies, as I set out on foot along the highway to reach the stretch that had arterial stop signs. It was a half-hour walk, but once there I had my ride in ten minutes with a very young woman in a tattered, fully-packed old van. Ashka was her name, Polish, and she was going all the way to Lodz, in her homeland.
A slight, waif-like creature whose solemn, pale features seemed to contradict her evident youth, Ashka neither smiled nor talked much, though her English was quite good. It required first a border stop to change money and then a rest stop where we shared our various store-bought foods in a makeshift lunch, for me to learn that she had come from London and a possibly finished marriage there - she wasn't sure, yet, how it would turn out. She had taken this opportunity of delivering someone's goods, for a return to Poland where she could be alone for awhile and sort things out.
She was entirely wrapped up in her problems; but there was an elfin sense of humor and a charming laugh when these qualities managed to surface. I could certainly have gone the distance to Berlin with her, and would have enjoyed it; but I had one more agenda item far short of Berlin - a side-trip from Hannover. Just a modest detour, I thought, but of such things are life's surprises made.
Shortly after noon, Ashka dropped me at a service area outside of Hannover and I set off from there on foot toward town. A local bus came by and I clambered aboard, asking a single-word question . . . "Centrum?" The driver nodded, giving me a transfer and taking what he needed from my handful of coins. Where I was to transfer was a complete mystery that only deepened as we went on . . . and on. It was one residential section after another, looking for all the world like California suburbia. There were no cues from anything along the way.
Two elderly men across from me, one rather dour-looking, the other sporting a jaunty beret and infinitely lighter, were conversing in German. Presently, and quite unexpectedly, the cheerful one looked over and asked in perfectly good English about the lightweight sleeping-bag strapped to my pack. The ensuing conversation lasted all the way to a transit nexus, where everyone had to leave the bus. I knew, by now, this man with the beret and the easy manner was my angel. He guided me into a subway station and pointed me to the line that would take me right to the railway depot.
I emerged from the underground in the heart of town, to the rousing music of a big oompah-organ on wheels - marching music, so characteristically German that it seemed like a welcoming scenario, scripted for my arrival. I wanted to linger, but the morning was moving along and I had to reach a place called Steyerburg, 35 miles to the northwest. One of the Earthstewards at the Gathering had invited me to visit what may well be the largest collective community in Germany, a group of a hundred people who had been living together for five years. But to reach the tiny village called for three stages of transit: a train ride, a country bus, and then a further lift by someone I'd have to phone at the other end. By the time I learned all this at the ticket counter, I was having second thoughts. But Ashka was miles gone, and here I was.
I got the right train, to Nienburg, but missed the bus connection there in the confusion of trying to figure the German station pattern. I actually watched the bus as it boarded passengers and pulled out, without me - never realizing it was the one I wanted. Or that it was the last bus for the day. So much for trust versus banana peels.
Nienburg is smalltown Germany and I got nothing but blank stares when I tried to ask questions in English. I called the number I had for Steyerburg - after twenty minutes of fiddling with the telephone - and got someone who could understand me. He gave me directions for an alternative bus route, with a promise that I would be met at the other end of the line.
It turned out, naturally, after a half hour of bouncing through the countryside, that there was some ambiguity about where to get off the bus - and I found no one waiting where I alighted except three drunks who tried to entice me into their circle. I declined, of course, but could not make myself understood and finally had to walk away, to their cries of abandonment. I walked to find a telephone. Going into a place that looked vaguely like a country post office, I almost collided with a bearded young fellow . . . who looked at me in sudden, questioning recognition, and said he hadn't seen me get off the bus. Hey, hey - score one for trust!
Christoph, my Earthsteward connection, was on hand when we reached Steyerburg, and obviously surprised that I had actually come on his invitation. But he recovered nicely, and secured for me a nearby attic sleeping-space before taking me on a grand tour. I was quite amazed at what they had put together here. Once, long ago, it had been a residential camp for workers in a nearby Nazi munitions factory. Several dozen frame and brick structures at the heart of it were sufficiently intact for residence when the group took over, and others were reconditioned as more joined. A large, multi-level central building became their all-purpose community center - for dining, offices, stores, a children's school and an assortment of meditation rooms reflecting the multiplicity of spiritual paths within the group. Out beyond the central complex was extensive open land for future development, now being used for perma-culture crops and recreation.
I had seen large collective groups before, like the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon, but the singularity of this one was its freedom from ideological conformity. A full third of the group consisted of small children, and their welfare appeared to be the closest thing to a central focus. Christoph spoke of a steady stream of people seeking to join. But the community's prime concern, for now, was to achieve stability and cohesion before any further growth.
I was underway again the next day, after an extravagant breakfast put together by Christoph's friend, Katarina, who also drove me back to Nienburg on the rail line. But I saw no reason for going back into Hannover. It would simply delay the rest of my journey to Berlin, when the open road was the more direct route. I could be right on the autobahn in one easy ride (two, as it happened). In my haste, however, there was one small detail I disregarded: getting a sufficiency of cash.
It seemed unnecessary. I was sure I'd be in Berlin by mid-afternoon - only 140 miles, an easy shot on a major freeway. But early or late, it should make no difference. I had friends in Berlin and I'd be under no pressure for immediate funds. If anything went wrong . . . well, I had about eleven dollars in deutschemarks in my pocket, enough for almost any emergency. The week had gone well, thanks to Carty, and to Tom's assist on railfare. It cashed-out at $85.04, notching my average down another full dollar, to $88.20 per week.
Maybe it had gone a little too well. The time to be wary is when you're most sure of things. After all, it was Friday . . . with banks about to close for the weekend. And the open road is a great joker.
"...thought by some..." The only thing certain about Hals' connection with this building is that he did a portrait of the assembled almshouse regents here, in his 80s. The painting hangs here now - so the regents have been sitting in this building for 300 years.
"...so paranoid..." Three times, in Timisoara, Georghe was interrogated by police for his 'suspicious' hospitality activities. On the last occasion, in 1988, he was held for twelve hours, and then called in daily for more than a week for continued questioning.
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