Monday, September 10, 2012

A Long Time Ago in the Red Light District of Amsterdam

It was mid-afternoon on a warm day in October of 1972. Amsterdam was filled with young Americans, Canadians and Australians vagabonding around Europe on $10 a day (or at least that's what the guidebook’s title said it could be done for).  My two college friends and I, neophytes in the realm of international travel, had just arrived to join this rite of passage. We had flown into Schiphol International Airport from Boston on Icelandic Airlines, which then, at $79 one-way, was the absolutely cheapest way to get from North America to Europe. Taking the train from the airport downtown, three wide-eyed, rural-raised 20-year-olds lugging heavy backpacks, arrived at the picturesque Centraal Station.
It would be difficult to imagine embarking on such a grand adventure with less experience, less preparation or less worldly wisdom. We did not know how long our meager funds would allow us to travel. We had no particular plans, no itinerary, and no contacts. And besides English, we spoke only high school French and a smattering of German words. Like lost sheep, we followed several fellow travelers who, reading a map and pointing in the direction of the main boulevard, seemed to know where they were going. We arrived at the main square of the city (fittingly called Dam Square) to find a large group of English-speaking young people who proved to be a never-ending found of information, some of which was actually reliable. We discovered that this location, adjacent to the American Express office, was where little-known travel secrets were exchanged, strangers settled arrangements to join together and share the costs of traveling and, most importantly in our opinion, departing travelers unloaded their no longer needed Volkswagen vans on unsuspecting newly arrived travelers. It was there, as the day wore on without finding the vehicle that would be needed for our lodging and transportation, that we begin to have an increasingly urgent concern: where to stay inexpensively while we searched for an affordable vehicle to become our home. Someone gave us directions to "The Shelter". But no one explained the gauntlet we would have to run to get there. 
Neither my friends nor I had ever seen anything like the red light district of Amsterdam. Signage depicted in graphic detail what at home would have been hidden inside plastic-sealed porno magazines placed high on the shelves of dimly lit corner stores. Barely dressed women displayed their wares unabashedly in crimson-curtained windows, daring each passerby to make eye contact, while others stood on stoops outside of brightly colored doors propositioning us in broken English. After getting lost (unintentionally) several times in the narrow, darkening alleyways, we began wondering whether we had been duped. After all, who would suspect a Christian youth hostel in the middle of what was perhaps the world's most famous "adult entertainment" district. But there it was, inauspiciously tucked away at 21 Barndesteeg Avenue. It became our safe shelter for the next four or five days. 
Ans, a young Dutch woman who spoke little English, worked at The Shelter for only a few months in the fall of 1972, but despite our differences we began a friendship which has lasted 40 years. As we sat around our kitchen table this weekend sharing stories that our respective spouses had not heard before, I recognized that this relationship was very special. Despite being separated by the distance of approximately 7250 kilometers between her home in Rockanje, Netherlands, and mine in Langley, Canada, this friendship has convinced me that, with some effort and reasonable expectation, relationships can flourish over a long time after only a minimal encounter. We have managed to get together only seven times in the four decades we have known each other, but each time the relationship grows stronger.

There are number of things that I have grown to cherish in this autumn season of life, when age and the limitations of Parkinson's disease seem ready to erode life's joy. One of the dearest treasures is that of old friends. It's a pity that younger people don't have old friends. They could use them. But old friends are more than acquaintances who exchange e-mails and text messages with acronyms such as BFF. Old friends look each other in the eye, whether filled with tears or fury, and know just what to say. They have observed each other as they would a river; shallow in the rocky places, deepest in swirling pools; rushing needlessly at times and quite stagnant on other occasions, but always both following and making its channel across the terrain of time.  Old friends know the seasons of the river's story, having shared the floods and droughts.

How could I have known that a providential meeting in that seriously located hostel 40 years ago would begin a friendship lasting all this time? It is true that old friends bring peace to the soul.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post, Bob. And so true, about the value of old friends. Having just traveled to Amsterdam this past year, this brought back the memories!