Every once in a while, RAFH includes guest posts from world travelers and explorers. Today we have a story about Amsterdam from US-based Jessica Willingham. You can read more about Jess below, and if you want to submit your travel story you can do so here.
I sit in a drizzling, dark rain in Amsterdam, watching pink lights pulse in the nightclubs. I can make out bodies swaying, friends laughing, and Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” pouring into the street. I love that song, which seems to be playing everywhere lately. My heart burns with absolute jealousy.
Damn it. I think. I need some friends.
I’ve been traveling through Amsterdam, alone, for the past few days. Traveling alone is ideal for a curious, insatiable, neurotic extrovert like myself — I get some time to quiet my mind, interrupted only by the occasional conversation with a total stranger. Wrinkly, petite women in messy, bright lipstick guided me from bus stop to bus stop. I rode the train with an incredibly handsome, green-eyed man while he asked me all about America and our elections. He carried my suitcase for me. An Italian girl with an afro and freckles walked with me to the Van Gogh museum, and we cross paths again in front of Sunflowers, sharing the space silently. Sometimes, strangers are my favorite people.
So on my last night in this amazing city, I’m sad to be alone. Every time I’m in a pinch while traveling by myself — lost, confused, exhausted, hungry — as soon as I think about what I need, what I need will appear. Manifestation, huh? We’ll see, I think to myself. If manifestation is real, I’d really like some friends to spend this last night with.
I spend the next 20 minutes in the rain. Nothing. I turn to walk the two blocks back to my hotel, defeated.
“Excuse me, miss!” a man’s voice called out from behind me, with a block to go. I whip around and must look like a deer in the headlights (or just a lone woman on a dark street) because the tall man in a black leather jacket immediately throws his palms up, and shuffles in place.
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” he says in a smooth British accent. “But I think I’m lost. I was wondering if you knew where an Irish pub is?”
I come a little closer to him. He’s very tall, north of six foot, handsome but not attractive. His blue eyes are warm, like worn denim. I get a good vibe as we hem and haw over landmarks and cardinal directions.
“The one I’m looking for is in the Red Light District,” he says. He smiles, a little mischievous, and I decide this is it. I had walked all over the city and knew exactly how to get to the district. I offer to walk with him, if he’d like. He seems delighted, and we take off. I learn that his name in Andy, he’s 28, an underwater mechanic who travels often, and usually alone. This is his last night in Amsterdam.
“I’m not going to the district for what you think,” he offers, red rising in his cheeks. He tells me he’s just out for a good, old fashioned strip club, and I throw my head back to laugh. The district is a place of ill repute, no doubt, but it’s nothing like New Orleans or Las Vegas. Not by a long shot.
We’re crossing the clubs when a skinny, doe-eyed girl stops us to ask, in a thick French accent, if we are local. She has Apple earbuds dangling in between loose, black curls. Her pupils are huge, and I know she’s stoned. I say we aren’t from here, but I may be able to help her.
“You’re not from here, so you won’t know,” she snaps. I raise an eyebrow and counter that I might. Try me.
“I’m looking for the Red Light District,” she says. Andrew and I excitedly explain that we are headed in the same direction, and now it’s her turn to throw her head back and laugh. She has beaming, bright white teeth and I like her immediately. Soon we’re all acquainted and off in the same direction — not quite linking arms and skipping down the yellow brick road, but I think I am the closest to that scene as I’ll ever be. Her name is Kyla, 19, and she’s traveling alone. It’s also her last night in Amsterdam.
It seems I’ve manifested some friends.
We walk and talk for what feels like hours, laughing and making fun of one another. There’s a friendly rivalry and good-hearted teasing — plenty of material to go around between a British, an American, and a Frenchie. It’s drizzling again and Kyla hoists a scarf over her head, muttering a pissy “ooh la la” under her breath. Andy and I bust up laughing — we’ve never heard the phrase spoken seriously in conversation. Kyla’s English is sparse, but she finally understands our amusement.
“It is like, what you say? Shit,” she explains. Andy and I vow to adopt “ooh la la” in our lexicon. We spend quite a bit teasing her about her sassy French attitude — faux scoffing and growling. She loves it.
“In Miami,” she tells me, “all the women are like Beyonce.”
She shimmies her shoulders and hoists her nose into the air, closing her eyes like she can already feel the hot sun on her face. I laugh and disappoint her, but we spend some time talking about music and Jay Z. I guess they’re the closest we have to royalty, according to Andy and Kyla. All they want to know about is Jay Z and Bey, what Miami is like, what New York is like, and what the women look like.
Andy imitates Americans, yelling “get off the frickin’ street!” and inserting “frickin’” into every sentence. His cadence is spot on, and I double over in laughter. I didn’t realize Americans we’re so fond of the word. We jump on the topic of drinking, and Andy is quick to tell me what he thinks about our drinking age. Kyla darts into a bodega for rolling papers.
“I was 13 when I first drank a beer,” he says. “Sure, I’ve been drunk before, but it was usually because I was genuinely having a good time. Not because I was trying to prove a point to my parents or teachers or friends about how cool or grown up or fearless I was for drinking a beer.”
I agree wholeheartedly. We’re never allowed to do anything fun, I say, a bit of a throwaway comment.
He side eyes me with a lustful, wolfish grin. “You get to shoot guns.”
My jaw drops and I shove him in the shoulder, and he tumbles backward with me after him, both of us breathless with laughter and embarrassment.
“TOO SOON!” I yell at him, and now his palms are facing up again in surrender. “Way, way too soon!”
He concedes as Kyla joins us again. We’re almost there. After a beat, Andy asks why I think America is having so many issues related to race and violence. My earlier reaction interrupted his gunslinging, American cowboy fantasy. I suck in air — I am exhausted already, because I’m always trying to understand what’s happening and I feel like I’m never any closer to an answer. I feel entirely inadequate. What if I’m the only American he gets to discuss this with? What impression will I leave?
I glance to Kyla to see if she’s listening, to invite her into the conversation, but I know her English isn’t good enough to follow. She’s jamming to her music, oblivious. Andy is looking at me with open and honest eyes and I can tell he genuinely wants to know. We are all curious, traveling alone, and obviously insatiable for the world. There seems to be an unspoken agreement among travelers that, in the name of knowledge, any question goes, and I have a feeling that grace is freely extended here. I decide to do my best.
“I think…..You know….America was, is, this great experiment,” I begin. “I think we started this country and had all these ideas, just 240 years ago, and we’re still deciding if we can walk the talk. We wrote the Declaration of Independence,” I give him a playful nudge here, “and, I think, we truly believed that all men are created equal. But somehow, we’re still deciding what that means, and for whom. You know, the rest of the world had thousands of years to work it all out amongst themselves. No matter what we’ve accomplished, we’re still a young country. We’re still trying to create a more perfect union. We’re still trying to decide if we can do what we set out to do.”
Kyla is bee-bopping to the music streaming through her earbuds, while Andy chews on the inside of his cheek. His brow is furrowed now, and he’s shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket.
“I’ve never thought of it like that,” he says. I give a single nod, wishing I could have been more eloquent or helpful.
We walk in silence for a bit, until Kyla asks “Is it true? That uh-mer-eeee-can schools don’t teach geography?” and we’re all laughing again.
We arrive at the strip club, and Andy pays the way in for us ladies. He requests a spiced rum from the bar and I smile. Sailor boy.
This is not an American strip joint — the women are fully nude and porn plays on big screens above the bar. Andy is wide-eyed and boyishly euphoric. We get to watch this for free!? he asks, and we howl with laughter. It’s 3 A.M., and he has time for a single dance. I tell him to hurry up, but he hushes me, saying he needs make a wise choice if it’s the only one he has tonight. I humor him, because I’m sure the poor guy has been out at sea for far too long. By the look on his face when his chosen dancer arrives, I am right.
When we leave the bar, the Red Light District is dead — no more groups of bashful boys standing in the glow of red lights, daring each other to pay up for 15 minutes of fun. Instead, groups of friends dangle their feet off the canals, passing beers back and forth from brown paper bags, laughing and recapping the night.
Kyla wants to roll a cigarette, and in very broken English she asks for my help. She needs my hand, she says. We duck under the dim, solitary light of a closed corner store. Andy stays out on the street, standing in the rain, still elated by his spiced rum and single dance romance.
I hold the white paper in my flat palm, while Kyla fishes tobacco and hash from her pockets. She sprinkles in the sweet, tangy leaves and then begins the arduous process of picking apart the sticky stuff, rolling it into tiny balls between the pads of her fingers, and dropping them into the mix. It’s cold, and there’s little light. We are huddled nose to nose to protect the goods from blowing away in the wind. Every breath out is each other’s next breath in.
“What, um, are you?” she asks, turning big brown pupils to me. It’s silly, but her soft, glassy eyes remind me of a Jersey calf. They’re beautiful, disarming, and distracting. She doesn’t notice me staring as she fumbles over words. I wait for her to work out the translation in her head, but my face betrays complete confusion. She tries again.
“What is your….” She’s really struggling now, and lost in deep thought, gestures to her face. Immediately, pink rises beneath her caramel cheeks. She’s embarrassed. She averts her eyes and begins rolling hash at warp speed. I know what she’s asking.
“What is my race? My ethnicity?”
She nods firmly, up and down many times, keeping her eyes glued to the task at hand. I try not to laugh — not at her, but at being asked at all. I swallow the urge to make a joke, knowing it’s probably in poor taste to begin with and likely lost in translation.
“My ancestors came from Ireland,” I say. “My great-great grandfather came to America. I guess that makes me 1/16th Irish.” Kyla doesn’t react, but continues to roll. Waiting. I wonder now if blood quantum is a uniquely American way of measuring who you are.
“I’m also pretty sure I’m Native American,” I say. “Indian,” I clarify for her.
Andy’s voice comes from the street, “We thought so.”
This is the answer Kyla was looking for, because she smiles and nods in a way that says her questions are over. Kyla licks the paper’s edge, rolls it, and smiles at me. We’re good to go.
We continue talking, laughing and walking as the darkness lifts into the pale, weak light of early morning. I can’t stop thinking about Kyla’s question. How could they so obviously see what I manage to overlook every day? I think about my sister with the high cheekbones and brown summer skin. I think about her friend, Young, who is Nottoway, and loves to tease her. Cheekbones don’t lie, Young always says.
My family has always lived in Indian Territory. While generational stories maintain that we are Native American, I haven’t been able to verify it. I grew up with friends who are a quarter, half, or even full Choctaw, Chickasaw or Cherokee. My husband is Cherokee, which we know thanks to a census record. His family started claiming “white” around the turn of the century. If my ancestors were Native, and intellectually I know they are, they, too, cooked census and government forms to pass as white until all doubt fell away. I don’t know if they were hateful racists or just piss poor farmers trying to do whatever it took to get by. Maybe a little of both. Now, more than ever, I wish I knew the truth.
We arrive back in the square where we met as the sun comes up. I’m back to the beginning. Music is still thumping in the clubs, and all three of us turn to face each other and exchange pecks on the cheeks. I ask for picture of us together, because I can’t help it, but Kyla buries her face in her hands and mumbles something about her skin.
Andy reaches out and touches her elbow.
“You’re beautiful,” he says softly, earnestly.
I am suddenly, deeply grateful that of all the people I could have met, I found them. We all found each other.