Thursday, February 28, 2013

Coffee with Olivier

I traveled by water taxi on stormy days in Amsterdam. Rain pitter-pattering on the roof, the drone of tourist recordings heralding bridges or sites, and the voice of Sarah Brightman drifting from my Ipod. Despite the loose behavior one would associate with legalization of victimless crimes like prostitution or smoking marijuana, Amsterdam is surprisingly pristine. Canal waters were clear and grey reflecting the ambivalent skies, not dirty like the waters I've seen in China's Suzchou or Venice. While trolleys and cars were accepted means of transportation, bicycles were by far the most common. There were more bikes than people. In fact, the greatest hazard while crossing the street is being run over by a bike. Bicycles had their own lanes beside the sidewalks. The Dutch were fit due to the physical exercise exerted to get from place to place. Only tourists were obese.

At Amy's advice, I headed to the house of Ann Frank promptly at 9 in the morning, since later hours would engender massive lines. Unassuming from the exterior, aside from glossy life-size photos of Ann and her girlish script denoting the museum within. Upon entering, there was a model of the building which served as a store, and the Secret Annex, where the Frank family hid from the Nazis for nearly three years. Living quarters were minuscule, even by New York City apartment standards, tiny shoe boxes connecting room to room. They had an airless, claustrophobic feel and I could not imagine an inquisitive girl growing into womanhood, writing and dreaming and falling in love, cooped up with only a few feet of shared space. Suburban Americans hold the concept of space very dear. As mortgages became more accessible, their physical boundaries expanded. Nowadays, a 2000 sq. ft townhouse with three bedrooms is deemed "too small" for a family of four and having a child necessitates a mini-van, as those little darlings occupy so much space. Imagine six rooms with seven people, three hormonal teenagers, sharing about 500-600 feet of living space all the time. Even though Ann did write of feeling stifled, it made Peter's proximity even nearer and the escape into her diary all the more dearer. The Secret Annex's bareness and simplicity resembled prison cells. I began to see the human ability to adapt to conditions that were previously regarded as "unlivable." Viktor Frankl compared the human ability to endure hardship to a gaseous entity; it always swells to the size of the container. Deprivation of liberty certainly falls into this category, and I garnered new respect for Ann.

As I left, I saw a postcard of a window that has been boarded up, the only window in the Secret Annex. It looked out into the courtyard where trees were blooming in midsummer, and leaves were an evanescent green. This must have been what Ann saw. It was hope. It was the future. It was the life she would have led once the throes of Nazi domination ended. It was a life that was never to be.

Then I sauntered over to the Van Gogh Museum, whose mad genius compelled him to construe torturous sunflowers on the canvas and to cut off his own ear. Even his brushstrokes were violent, streaks thick with pigment and pain, vibrancy owing to the anger that seemed to ravage his soul. Perhaps art is less about context than emotion; I felt his brusqueness on my psyche long before I discovered his history of mental illness. Nonetheless, his work was breathtaking and I reveled in his misshapen flowers far more than his most famous piece, Starry Night. To me, Starry Night is less about emotion than illusion, staring through the orb of darkness with an eye for the surreal. As through a mirror, darkly.

One of the key features of Dutch Museums is that there are more native collections of artifacts than in typical European cities or any international metropolis with a sizable financial economy and appreciation of art, for that matter. While Paris or Rome or New York or Prague are famed for their museums, it has become a competition for a similar body of work. For example, each of these prestigious museums boasts a Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso, something by Da Vinci, etc. Unless one is seeking to view a specific work (yes, I have frequented the Guggenheim to view Picasso's Woman Ironing many times), one is ultimately looking at the same collection of artists everywhere. After a while, it all begins to look the same. In Amsterdam, I was able to see so many things that were uniquely Dutch.

Remember Olivier from Munich? He studied in Uetrecht, an hour away from Amsterdam by train, and we met up for coffee in the afternoon. Mint leaves were steamed in tea, an emerald green reminiscent of spring on this dreary day. Olivier was tall and hairy, with luminous eyes and sympathetic face. He seemed much older than me, even though I was a few years his senior. There was something about his expression that denoted a profound wisdom, and he reminded me of the way Jesus must have looked, with his careless abandon of materialism. We talked about politics. In the Netherlands, politicians are apt to be "plain clothes" men, to resemble your next door neighbor in their no-nonsense speech and manner. That was what the Dutch related to. Olivier praised American politicians for being "visionary,"acting with the panache of a celebrity, sporting designer clothes and hobnobbing with movie stars. I didn't know how to tell him so much of that was a media creation, with the wondrous aid of a teleprompter and a lot of make-up. Besides, Americans like sweet-talkers, men who make delectable promises and even more honeyed excuses for breaking them. In the Netherlands, politics was "rather straightforward," Olivier confided to me. In America, politics is anything but.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Amy and Amsterdam

When I returned to the hotel that evening, Amy surprised me with a birthday dinner along with her colleagues. Together we gorged ourselves on tasty Dutch cuisine. A carnivore at heart, I ordered stamppot, a heavy concoction of mashed potatoes, sliced carrots, and rookwurst, a delectable sausage. We also shared a serving of bitterballen, crunchy deep-fried orbs are battered in a breadcrumb coating and filled with a mixture of chopped beef, beef broth, and spices. As I bit into the core, hot juices exploded into my mouth and my eyes watered. Amy and I laughed about how bitterballen resembled xiao long bao, Shanghai soup dumplings. Asian girls in Amsterdam; she was Taiwanese and I was Vietnamese, both of us born and raised in America. We went to the symphony one night, and we shared glasses of wine over an exquisite concerto.

Friendship was like peeling away layers of an onion. Beneath her veneer of Princeton-educated reserve, Amy was sensitive, self-deprecating, and direct. She had an aversion to cell tower radiation, the same electromagnetic source as microwaves. She seemed to get headaches and nausea whenever the signals was too strong. She always asked me to turn off my cell phone or my IPOD. At first, I was skeptical. After all, this is the new millenium and it was rarer to find areas without wifi/cellular signals. Science has not really explored this.

Then I remembered my godmother who suffered from Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, and how using cell phones or being proximate to a microwave caused her pain. Amy shared that working in telecommunications, she was exposed to radiation for many years before she began feeling its affects on her body. When she did, the impact was potent and she now uses a lead cloth to insulate her space when she travels. It was a fine fabric that resembled a glittery accessory for an evening gown, the sort one could envision on a glamorous movie star.

So negative health effects may result from an overexposure to this kind of radiation. At what point does exposure become overexposure? I began thinking of 25 different wireless networks that penetrate my apartment everyday. Excess, the root of all evil in Buddhist philosophy, has also been the cause of many diseases of the human body. Diabetes, an excess of sugar. Obesity, an excess of fat. High blood pressure, excess of sodium. Depression and anxiety, an excess of neurotransmitters.

So yes, I became a believer. It was years before tobacco became linked to lung disease, or alcohol was linked to liver failure. Or maybe it was less about faith and more about friendship. About acceptance. Amy was dedicated to bringing to light the ill effects of cell tower radiation, building a website and writing articles about it. I applauded her courage.

My days in Amsterdam invariably followed the same pattern: exploration by day and soul-searching conversations with Amy at night. It was the perfect balance for me, freedom to follow my natural affinities and yet not coming back to an empty room. I had learned everyone was susceptible to loneliness and my sojourn across Europe taught me that we all need someone, at one point or another. Amsterdam was an exercise of moderation for me. Appropriate too, in the most tolerant city on earth. Amsterdam was a silver city to me, grey skies, iridescent canals, slate cobblestone roads. People were free to pursue their happiness, be it museums, cuisine, music, marijuana, or sex. There was no judgment regarding race or gender or orientation or social class.

While much of Europe is quite accepting of Asians nowadays, the Netherlands sports acceptance as a tradition. In the National Dutch Museum,I saw portraits of the early traders and owners of the East Asia Trading Company in the 1500-1600's. Their wives had Oriental features! Black hair, almond eyes with a prominent lilt at the edge, and golden complexions. In an age where interracial marriage was practically unheard of, here were wealthy, prominent businessmen who flaunted their Asian wives as equals, standing at the same height in portraits.

Only the Dutch.