I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse.
I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.
– J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010
First impressions are sometimes deceptive. Amsterdam has proven that to me–twice.
My husband Tom and I recently spent the better part of two days in this capital city of the Netherlands as an elongated layover en route to our primary destination of Cyprus. I was ambivalent about the stay in Amsterdam, in part because it was such a “fly-by” visit, with the location itself determined for us by the airline’s flight patterns. I have never liked a lack of choices and only recently have realized what a “black and white” person I can be. Anything other than all or nothing makes me uncomfortable—if I can’t have a smorgasbord, I don’t want a canapé.
And I had to admit to myself that the circumstances surrounding my first journey to Amsterdam contributed significantly to my uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for exploration on this jaunt, however abbreviated. My recollection of this small and quirky city played like a cloudy and grainy home movie in my mind’s eye. Casting my memory back, I saw Amsterdam in sepia tones and through a gauzy filter, with a cast of sad and disenfranchised characters with empty faces drifting by aimlessly. In my reverie, these gray and hazy images were accompanied by an imaginary soundtrack of melancholy music, nostalgic notes squeezed from an accordion.
No, these musings were not the result of magic mushrooms or hash brownies from Amsterdam’s cannabis cafes, although my first visit there was most definitely an attempt to escape reality.
On September 11, 2001, I hip-checked the door of my Santorini digs and dumped an armload of packages onto the table in the quarter’s small living room. I had worked up a sweat making the uphill trek from the shops of Thira to my tiny apartment built into the cliff face in the village of Imerovigli. I splashed my face in the kitchen sink, grabbed a bottled water and the remote control and sank into the cushions of the sofa in front of the T.V.
In one of those odd instances of vivid clarity about a particular moment in time, I distinctly remember feeling an exuberant sense of awe at my independence, and the recognition that I was in a foreign land alone and enjoying my own company. I hadn’t been to Europe in almost 15 years and this was the first time I was so far from home solo. With less vacation time than me, Tom had begun the return journey the day before; I wouldn’t be saying goodbye to this Greek isle until the end of the week. I was deliciously pleased with myself, feeling very much the Big Girl.
I flicked on the television and CNN filled the screen. It was 3:00 p.m. in Santorini and 9 a.m. in New York. I saw the plane crash into the tower, the smoke and flames and felt the panic of the broadcasters who found themselves describing the scene in shaking voices. It would be some time before I knew what airline fleet the plane belonged to, its origination point, and whether Tom was on it. Like much of the rest of the world, I was about to enter a surreal twilight zone that seemed to tilt the planet on its axis. My instant of joyful crystal lucidity had turned into murky menacing lunacy.
Almost 24 hours later, with phone lines the world over snarled with people trying to contact loved ones, Tom was finally able to reach me, calling from Brussels. He had been halfway across the Atlantic when the pilot announced over the P.A. system “America is under attack. We are turning the plane around.” Connecting with him, a profound wave of empathy for what he had been through washed away my own fear and self-pity, and made way for a deep, immense surge of gratitude that he was safe.
My hastily-rearranged journey from Santorini to Athens to Brussels was a blur of fear, grief, and sadness punctuated by moments of acute self-consciousness about my nationality. I realized I had taken for granted my identity as an American. My newfound uber awareness of myself as a U.S. citizen provoked visceral reactions within me to what would have been ordinary every-day interactions 48 hours earlier.
In my hyper-vigilant state, the most prosaic of events took on monumental meaning, capable of eliciting electric jolts of terror or heart-melting pangs of thankfulness. On one end of the spectrum was my physiological reaction to the tabloids spilling from newsstands, three inch bold-faced headlines screaming in languages I couldn’t understand, with only the word “America” recognizable to me. On the other end of my emotional Richter scale was the warm quiver I felt when a chambermaid impulsively reached out and gave my hand a compassionate squeeze of solidarity in response to a greeting. I had never really recognized how anonymous you can be when you are moving from one place to another, and yet there are always those small moments where an exchange of some type is required, and can have an untold impact.
Tom met me at the airport when I eventually reached Brussels, and we fell into each others’ arms, both of us sobbing with relief. We held each other and cried for a long time, our faces streaked and bodies heaving with the release of pent-up myriad reactions to the proceeding events and days apart.
The airline had housed Tom in a low-budget hotel on the outskirts of Antwerp; as Tom has said many times since, a great destination if you are a diamond merchant. The tiny room was already cramped with just his belongings. While I had traversed more than 1,500 miles over the past few days to reach him here, my convoluted trek had kept me busy and focused on each ensuing leg of the journey. Meanwhile, he had been holed up here with CNN as the network broadcast relentless re-plays of the attacks and ongoing reports on its aftermath and the role of al-Qaeda. With it clear that flights to Boston would not resume in the next couple of days, my need-to-be-needed and take charge persona kicked in. I proclaimed to Tom “We are outta here! Let’s go somewhere fun, let’s go to Amsterdam!”
The next morning we were on the train, rolling across the flat landscape. It was a “local,” making numerous stops along the way, its cars filling with a diverse assortment of leisure and business travelers. Four young Arab men in their early twenties boarded and shoved their gear in the luggage rack across from ours, plopping down in the facing seats across the aisle. They boisterously laughed and teased each other and intertwined arms and legs in an open expression of affection among men that is common in other parts of the world. Feeling miserable myself and suspecting Amsterdam wasn’t going to change that, I begrudged these fellow passengers their joy and felt suspicious and angry thoughts creeping in.