Monday, June 25, 2012

Europe - The Second Harvest

The proposal was simple enough. A job offer as producer-director at the public television station to begin in three months. My response was quick and clear. After volunteering at the station for over six months and moving up the ranks as floor man, cameraman, audio man and overall gopher, I gladly accepted their offer. Then I told them I’d return in three months to take the job.

The next day I gave my notice at the Public Health Department and bought a plane ticket for Amsterdam.

No real reason to stay home. I had grown tired of writing PR releases in public health. I wanted to return to Europe to make up for my sad venture the first time around and there were no female enticements for me to stay. And, of course, I had never made it to the South of France.

Why I thought this second trip to Europe would end up better than the first a year earlier, I have no clue. Just a gut feeling that this time I had a better idea of what to expect in a foreign country. I knew which foods to eat for sustenance. I was determined to make more of an effort to get to know people.  I can’t say I was more mature, just more ready.

Like running a marathon, one never quits. It’s not an option. I had to return to Europe and make this trip a better experience than the first one. I had no other choice.

I can’t remember why I ended up in Amsterdam. Probably because my first brief stop there the first time had wetted my appetite for the unexpected. And I remembered hearing all those tales of a city running rampant on sexual freedom, the arts, new music and strange coffee shops. Wonderful tales being magnified by bar stool poets I knew back home. It was like some strange mysterious force was pointing me in that direction.

Nothing much has changed in forty years. To get ‘there,’ you still exit the train station, cross the canal bridge and turn left. I remember exiting the train station, backpack instead of suitcase this time, and following those simple instructions, I found myself in the Red Light District.

For reasons then unknown to me, the girls immediately began speaking in English.
There were bargains galore that afternoon but I didn’t have spare change or the courage to venture under that red light bulb in the entryway. Two gorillas on the corner watched my every move. But they had nothing to worry about. I was more tentative than I was curious, more scared than I was willing. (Oh my gosh, she isn’t wearing any underwear).
They seem so friendly. (Does she really like me?) I quickly learned just to look and move on. Talking to the girls only invited the gorillas to move closer to me.

Coffee shops were more inviting. If you wanted the good stuff you had to ask for it. I just wanted a light roast and my obligatory muffin. Most of the smoking was sequestered out back where the strange looking people gathered. I sat in a corner with my book and kept repeating to myself: ‘Seriously! You’re not in Minnesota any more.’

The first of my wonderful friends just appeared in the doorway the next afternoon. John slowly perused the room, spotted me as an American, (how did he know?) ventured over and sat down next to me. John said afterwards he always wanted to talk to an American his own age to find out more about America. He guessed by my jeans, boots, and plaid shirt that I probably fit the bill. All that was missing was my guitar.

John made it clear, that unlike a lot of other Europeans, he loved America. And because I fit that demographic, I became his defacto translator and sounding board for all things related to America. We talked world politics, the arts, movies, popular music, his home in Amsterdam and anything remotely considered American.

As he peppered me with questions about my homeland, my chest swelled. I pretended to know what I was talking about. And apparently my limited knowledge of anything political wasn’t enough to dissuade him from continuing our conversation late into the night.

Question: How could something like the assassination of RFK and Martin Luther King,
                 happen in your country?
Answer:   There is no sane, reasonable answer for that question.

Question:  What do you think of the general strike in France?
Answer:     Say what?

Question: What do you think of the war in Vietnam?
Answer:    I did my time, stateside not overseas, but I feel for the soldiers over there,
                 just doing their job.

Question: What did you think of ‘The Green Berets” starring John Wayne?
Answer:    Seriously?
Statement: Just kidding!

We met the next day and took up Trivial Pursuit/America style where we had left. I had a new best friend in Amsterdam and was feeling very good about my stay in the country. We (John and I and some of his buddies) took in canal rides, long bike rides, crashed a couple of black light parties and even hit a couple of the more notorious coffee houses that favored noxious weeds and strange brews. I stuck to my black coffee and John just smiled at my timidity.

John lived in a third floor flat above his parents place. His grandparents still lived on the first floor after being there forever. It was quite common for extended families to share multiple flats in one building. John’s flat was on a canal and was a spectacular spot for watching people, water and bicycle traffic.

John was an artist extraordinaire. He was just trying to break into the business when I first meet him. He could draw freehand, portraits, pastoral scenes and dabbled in photography on the side. I still have a cache of his pictures of Amsterdam, circ. 1968. The man had talent.

I remember John was tall, always had a beard and a smile and a wonderful personality. He loved practicing his English on me day and night. His taste in music was superb. We shared a love of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, CCR, Cream and, of course, the Beatles. How could we not connect?

I remember we hung out in Amsterdam for probably a week. Then he introduced me to another fellow who also wanted to practice his English. John’s friend and colleague was named Ronald. John had originally meet Ronald when he drew up Ronald’s wedding announcement.

Ronald was an interesting anomaly. He was in his late twenties, had never held a real job and had no interest in finding one. He was on government assistance and perfectly comfortable with his situation. As someone rather hungry, I couldn’t understand that attitude but I accepted it for what it was; someone else’s life, not mine.

John hinted that mental health issues had prevented Ronald from getting any kind of meaningful work. Despite his intelligence, Ronald had an anti-social bent about him that prevented him from being a part of any organized endeavor. So he and lived happily as an essayist, a potter, a housekeeper and a devoted father to his daughter.

John and I and Ronald spent a couple of afternoons in some pub, debating the war in Vietnam, the anti-war movement, politics in America (I passed on that one) and other topics of general interest. It was like a debate / humanities / logic / and history course all wrapped up into one elongated discussion that went on for hours. My brain was numb when we finished each evening.

After spending several afternoons at some pub with the pair, Ronald surprised me by asking if I’d be interested in spending some time with him and his family so he could continue practicing his English. Let me see? Free lodging, a stack of rock and roll records, and great Indonesian meals. I jumped at his invitation.

Ronald lived with his wife, Felixia and their daughter in a two bedroom flat outside of central Amsterdam. His public housing project looked no different from any of the other housing units around. And Ronald had no qualms about living there. It always fascinated me that Ronald never aspired for better things. He was content to let his wife work part time while he dabbled in his various interests. I still don’t understand that concept.

While Ronald was very intelligent, high-strung, quick to overreact and famously curious, his wife was just the opposite. A perfect counter-balance for her unbalanced husband. Felixia was originally from Indonesia. She and Ronald meet in Amsterdam and despite their cultural differences, family resistance and lack of financial support, they married and thrived.

Felixia was the anchor in the family. She was forever patient, understanding and devoted to her husband and daughter. She loved her Ronald despite all his faults. And she was a great cook, tolerated high volumes of Rock and Roll (until bedtime for the baby) and our being out most evenings until the pubs closed.

Ronald and Felixia’s wonderful generosity, social charm, sharing of their home life and our late night intellectual musings were like a banquet for my soul. It was all so new and glorious.

Felixia and I cooked and cleaned and took long walks into the countryside with the baby. Her broken English more than compensated for my lack of Dutch or Indonesian mastery. When Ronald came with us, we’d talk foreign and domestic politics, family (I had little to add there), love, the war and an assortment of other subjects as our whims might unearth.

One time we went to a huge park that had an exact replica of the Rotterdam Harbor in miniature. Ronald pointed out details that no one else would have ever seen. The baby loved running around, pointing at all the miniature buildings and ships.

Other times we’d go back into town and explore various shops and food stalls. Ronald knew just about every coffee shop in town. Felixia knew most exotic food stall vendors by name. I just held the baby and followed them around. I was part of the family and loving every minute of it. Occasionally we’d hook up with John and his girlfriend and spend the evening in some pub someplace alongside a dark canal. It was hard to imagine that just weeks earlier I had been working in a television studio half a continent away.

We’d almost always listen to rock and roll at home or in some pub, honoring the greats of America and abroad. I even discovered a couple of favorite groups from the Netherlands. A steady beat and solid bass are universal. Even lyrics in Dutch, once translated, can carry meaning to the uninitiated.

Their daughter (wouldn’t you know I forgot her name?) was my first exposure to a young child other than the cursory social exchanges I had with my new nieces and nephew. She was bright, energetic and full of life. She was so loved that I wanted to grab at part of that affection for myself. It almost didn’t seem fair that such a young child could be so loved.

I remember they let a babysitter and I take her out one afternoon. We played in the playground, went for ice cream and fed the ducks at the local pond. Her parents meet us by the schoolyard where we were watching kids flying kites.  It was unconditional love on her part. I hadn’t felt that before with another person and it felt so good.

So for an all too brief couple of weeks, I was a part of Ronald’s family. Total uncon-ditional love and acceptance. It was wonderful. For a young man who grew up in a single parent household devoid of love and affection, it was a wonderful eye-opener. And some-thing I knew I wanted in my life in the future. Someplace, somehow, with someone.

Upon my return to the states, I was struck by the ease with which I could rent an apart-ment, buy a car, get a job and put money aside for savings. It was so unlike my new European friends who had to struggle for years just for the down payment on rental housing.

In retrospect, I was a fool not to stay in touch with John and Ronald. Together, we all just let our communications start to falter and finally fade away. Like so many other young men back then, and probably still today, I was more focused on myself than others. At the time I had no idea of the blessing I’d just been given.

What a wonderful legacy I could have passed down to my kids if I had kept in touch with John, Ronald, Felixia, and their daughter. Friends abroad to share life stories and world events. A broad sweep of continental issues to share via Skype. I should be so lucky today.

We all make mistakes in life. That was certainly one of my biggest.

I suppose I can take solace in the fact that I still have their images on a digital disc someplace and if I want to return to Amsterdam, circ. 1968 I can pull it out and gauze at my computer screen once again. But it certainly won’t be the same.

I can still see (in my mind’s eye) all those wonderful faces and rekindle those fond memories of finding family, for the first time in my life, in a public housing project on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

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