Gone Back to the States

Although I don’t regret moving by any means, I often say that Amsterdam would be 100x better if I could transplant all of my favorite people there.  Sadly, no one seems willing to support me on this mission.  At least not yet.  But one good thing about leaving a lot of people you love behind is having the opportunity to appreciate them even more when visiting.  My time in the States is quite short, with only two weeks split between nyc and chicago.  So on this visit, I have had to soak up as much love as I can as quickly as possible.  And not knowing when I will see many of them again makes this visit that much more critical.

This July visit was planned before my one-way ticket to Amsterdam was even purchased.  As soon as my dear friend knew the date of her wedding, I knew my return to the States would be planned around it.  Shortly after that, I found out my sister was expecting her third child, who would be born in March.  Two visits wouldn’t have been possible.  So the priorities of this July visit were baby, wedding, and friends.  And since my Mom is in Chicago, it only made sense to tack on an extra leg to the midwest. 

I arrived at JFK on Tuesday evening and was immediately greeted by a funky wave of humidity.  And having left behind a 70-something degree situation in Amsterdam, this was less than pleasant.  Then after about a 25 minute wait, I was on the A train headed for Manhattan.  As if no time away from the city had passed, the familiar smells of day-old piss and body odor made me feel right at home.  Five semi-talented boys attempted to entertain the car for a couple of stops by jumping around and dancing, a loud family of four shared with all of us the happenings of their day, and a stinky lady passed through only briefly, but left behind her odor for many stops to come.  I already missed the independence and odorlessness of my bike rides.

The reunions and couch surfing began immediately.  Late-night chats, lunches, dinners, drinks, desserts.  And somehow, I’ve managed to see most people I have on a priority list.  My niece made a special trip into the city from jersey to meet me, wearing the cutest little outfit and accompanied by my sister. We had most of a day together while my sister worked.  The following day my friend’s wedding was perfectly gorgeous and full of love, giving me my fill of good friends, tasty food, alcohol, and dancing (my favorite combination of things, by the way).  And it’s been nonstop since then.

The whirlwind tour will continue with some more family time before I head out to Chicago in a couple of days.  In the meantime, I’m sitting in union square park, waiting for my next date.  Almost every bench is filled, as the lawn is “temporarily closed.” An insane number of temperamental drunk people apparently use the area as a meeting spot at this time of day.  And the noise of the traffic is only slightly shielded by the fighting drunks and a little girl crying. Once I see all the people I love, I’m ready to get back to the parks and (my) lazy days in Amsterdam.

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Prince…among other producers of awesomeness

When I heard that Prince would be performing in the Netherlands, of course I knew I would be there for at least one of the shows.  Other than my guaranteed presence, I didn’t know anything about the context of the performances.  Would it be a European extension of the Welcome to America tour?  No clue.  But obviously it didn’t matter.  As you know by now, Prince could show up in a bathrobe, perform karaoke Backstreet Boys, and I would cry tears of joy from the very back row of a stadium.  The context really didn’t matter.

But it turns out the context was almost as cool as Prince himself.  The North Sea Jazz Festival is an annual weekend of incredible music in Rotterdam.  Each day offers an unreal line-up of artists on separate stages.  So not only must you decide which day(s) to attend, you must also sketch at least a loose schedule to be sure you get a taste of everything you want to see and hear.  Prince closed-out each day of the festival – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Since I could only afford one day (and barely that), I chose Sunday, with the hopes that he would save the best for last.  The other artists scheduled for that day would be a bonus.  But honestly, I didn’t know who else would be there until after I purchased a ticket.  Some of the artists from other days who I sadly missed were Chaka Khan, Janelle Monae, and Esperanza Spalding.

So Sunday in Rotterdam.  It was going to be tricky.  Prince wasn’t scheduled to finish until 1:30am (the earliest of all three days).  And since I don’t know anyone in the city, I thought about staying in a cheap hotel for the night.  That was going to be expensive and likely a hastle to get to after the show. So I decided I would either rely on a combination of taxis and night trains to get me back to Amsterdam after the festivities were over, or commit to partying all night until I could return home in daylight.  As it turned out, sometime during Snoop Dogg’s performance, I decided it would be an all-nighter.

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I arrived at the festival a little bit after 5pm.  The main stages were all indoors, which seemed unusual.  It felt like a mall of live shows, with arrows pointing to the various “rooms,” for the performances.  Everyone carried around little schedules for the day, listing at least eight options for any given time.  Music poured out from every which way…to the right, in the back, upstairs.   Lesser-known bands  (all high quality) performed  on smaller stages outside, which felt like refreshing transition spaces between the big shows.  Anywhere I walked, at any time in the day, I could find something new, and likely exciting.

In addition to the music there were food and drink stands all over the place.  But to purchase anything, I had to hand over a wad of cash to get tokens, the only accepted currency throughout the festival (a stroke of capitalist genius).  I turned in token after token for beer, dutch pancakes, and apparently some other stuff.  Because by the time I reached Prince, I had to purchase more tokens.

The first main performance I saw was Raphael Saadiq.  And it was a legitimate, 1.25 hour show.  I pushed my way toward the front and danced along with the equally hype crowd.  Brilliant. The next big one was Tom Jones.  I didn’t stay for the middle of his performance, as I was distracted by another band outside.  But I did return just in time for him to close with his version of Kiss, which felt fitting.  I danced like I was the biggest Tom Jones fan in the room, which I can assure you I was not.

Snoop Dogg was next in the same spot.  So lots of folks just waited in the hot venue for him to come.  And perhaps to everyone’s surprise, he started on time.  Rage opened up for him.  I was happy to see her and her afro puffs, rockin’ on with her bad self.  Warren G was also there.  And of course they did a Nate Dogg tribute.  Tall Dutch people in front of me prevented me from seeing everything.  So I’m pretty sure I missed some scantily clad ladies doing whatever it is that they do.  But it was for the best.  I enjoyed the music without having to see everything.  And I danced to the point of exhaustion and sweaty discomfort.

Oh, and then there was Bootsy Collins!  He’s a legend who I imagined I would never see perform live.  But there he was, in all of his funky, sequined glory. At this point, I was just so thoroughly entertained, it almost didn’t matter that Prince was starting in 30 minutes.

But yeah right.  I had to leave Bootsy early.  On my way out, I grabbed a piece of apple pie and briefly stopped for a jam session happening in the hallway.  But then the pie and I made our way over to Prince’s venue, almost in a jog.

I fear I’ve already gone on too long before getting to the best part.  Shoot.  So the show wasn’t nearly as flashy as the stateside version.  He started off with ballads on a barely lit stage.  And then we got a bunch of the classics, as he gave a shout to those of us who understood.  And I have to say that was most of the crowd, an incredible crowd of like-minded lovers of Prince.  Two encores later, it was 3am.  He left the stage.  But about 25 percent of the crowd refused to believe it was over.  We shouted, chanted, and banged on chairs.  But when they finally took away the mics at 3:30, we accepted that he was long gone.

I took a taxi to an after party, with the hopes that I would dance down a soul train line with Prince and Bootsy. But no such luck.  But I did hear some more live music that kept me going until after 5am, at which time I was completely faded.

With incredibly sore feet and blurred vision, I walked to the train station in daylight. And I rode the train back to Amsterdam with grown-ups who were starting their Monday morning after full nights of sleep.  But as crazy as I must have looked, and as exhausted as I was, it was a perfectly fitting ending to one of my favorite days in the Netherlands.

The Queen’s Party

Amsterdam has a reputation for being a party city.  In response to telling them I was moving here, some people (mostly those who don’t know me well) would offer an assuming glance, as if to say, “I know what you’re going there for.”  And you can tell by the gaze and stammer of the tourists.  They come here with the expectation of playing with alcohol, (hopefully soft) drugs, and sex workers.  And from the looks of them, most of them seem to find what they’re looking for.

But for the most part, everyday life isn’t this way – at least not the everyday life I live and observe.  Folks ride their bikes to work, take the bus to the grocery store, walk to the park.  The public library is always so packed that I have to check multiple floors before I can find an available computer.  And you’ll find people having a beer or glass of wine before you’ll find them taking shots or frequenting coffee shops (the weed-selling type).  Not to say Dutch people don’t party.  They definitely party.  They’ll party hard until 6 in the morning – and it can be fun.  But not everyday.  Unlike the tourist approach, the party ends at some point.  There’s far more balance in the lifestyle than the reputation would have people believe.

Well, except for last week, of course.  Everyone went crazy last week.

April 30th was Koningennedag, or queen’s day, celebrating the queen’s birthday.  I know what you’re thinking – “wait, isn’t one of the (many) things that you have in common with the queen the fact that you’re both born on January 31st?”  And yes, you’re correct.  Queen Beatrix was indeed born on the 31st of January.  But her mother, Queen Juliana, was queen first.  And her birthday was April 30th.  So Beatrix, like the kind-spirited aquarius she is, decided to keep the official queen’s day on her mother’s birthday to allow for better weather and plenty of outdoor celebrating.  So every year beginning the night of April 29th, all of Holland turns into an orange garage sale/dance party (the national color is orange stemming from the Orange-Nassau royal family).

Orange flags and balloons were hung from restaurant doors and windows.  Other places hung signs that read “Gesloten Koninginnedag” (closed queen’s day).  It felt exciting before it even started.

So in order to fit in with the rest of the country (locals and tourists alike), I joined the festivities.  Beginning on Friday night, I rode my bike to my friend’s house in South Amsterdam, which is about 30 minutes from me – at my pace.  She, her boyfriend, and I headed to an outdoor party in Rembrandtplein, which was maybe  20 minutes toward the center.  Normally, nighttime streets are pretty quiet, with no traffic and a few bike-riders.  The party is only obvious when you arrive.  But on the 29th, the bicycle traffic was insane.  As we got closer, the crowds multiplied and were more intoxicated.  Everyone was happy – most people wore orange.  One woman fell off her bike in the middle of a busy intersection, hopped up to drop the bike on herself again, and laughed the entire time.  Other people swerved through the lanes, shouting and singing enthusiastically.

Now at this point, although I have become 100x more comfortable on my bike since my earlier day debacles, I would like to remind you of my humble beginnings.  As the drunk people multiplied, I was facing more traffic and more chaos than I ever had before.  So although I was laughing and smiling on the outside, I was freaking out.  I could get away with a few screams disguised as happy shouts.  But I was happy to finally park the bike and walk the rest of the way to the party.

We ended up on the street of the club hosting the party.  A stage was set up for djs and performers.  It was packed with a great crowd and the music wasn’t bad.  We stayed for awhile then walked a bit to another party.  And as I considered meeting another friend at the Rich Medina party that was happening another 20 minute bike ride away, I assessed I was already pooped by 1am, before most people were barely getting started.  I felt a combined sense of being lame and relieved as I rode out of the madness.

But then I rode right back in the following afternoon to meet some classmate friends.  Every street was lined with vendors selling things, including some people just selling – and eventually giving away – junk from their homes.  Everyone freely smoked and drank their substances of choice.  Yummy, fried food was everywhere.  And most importantly, I think, there was a different party, with a different vibe no matter where you turned.  The entire city was a party.  Even the canals were filled with party boats (my plan for next year, by the way) blasting disco music.  So we walked from one party to the next, our ultimate destination a party in a parking garage (although, due to its misleading name, I thought it was going to be a park).  And I shared in the free-flowing substances each time they came my way.  It was delightful.

Well, until I was exhausted (which didn’t take relatively long).  We took a break for a bit by some water, went to a couple more parties, had some pizza and wine, and I was done.  Hopes of sticking with my initial plan to party into the night were not so regrettably squashed.  Once again, I proudly hopped on my bike and rode away from the orange madness.  I was asleep, like a rock (passed out?), by 11.

Happy belated birthday to the queen…she sure can party!