amsterdam, back where it all started, sort of
May 22nd, 2009
It’s kind of fitting that I began my tour in England and ended it in Amsterdam.
Because I think the year I spent abroad in England when I was 16 really changed the trajectory of my life. Changed it so much that instead of going to college when I turned 18, senior year of high school, I pompously informed my parents I would be attending “the university of life.” A week after high school graduation, I took off for Europe on a one-way ticket, armed with a backpack, a Eurail pass, and my good friend from England, Rebecca. I figured I’d travel for a few months and live in the city I liked best.
That city was Amsterdam. I wound up living there for a year and a half. After New York, it is my favorite city in the world (though Paris is edging up there after the tour and I have soft spot for Mumbai). I’m pretty sure that it was the year in England, and the traveling after high school and living in Amsterdam, that somehow contributed to my becoming a journalist and a writer. I can’t explain it exactly. But I just know that living abroad tweaked the way my life was going, opened it up, made things that might seem otherwise impossible seem possible.
It’s been six years since I’ve been to Amsterdam, but I’m familiar enough with the place that when I got off the train, I decided to walk to my hotel. Unlike my first time here, I only got a little lost, which meant that instead of taking the most direct route to my hotel, the lovely canal-side Ambassade, where it seems all the writers stay (more on that in a second), I took the long way round, which kind of meant I inadvertently did a little this-is-your-life tour of Amsterdam.
I passed the street where the Dutch boy I’d fallen in love with when I moved here lived. He dumped me and then treated me kinda cruelly. He was first guy to really break my heart (made all the worse that I was thousands of miles from home and friendless when it happened), even though it retrospect, it was obviously just an infatuation. I was 18. What did I know?
I passed the Oude Leliestraat, where I shared a small apartment with my sister, Tamar, after she moved over to Holland six months after I did. She meant to stay a few months but fell in love with a Dutch guy. Hers didn’t break her heart. She stayed in Amsterdam eight years. It’s twenty years later and they are married now and living in Seattle with a pair of little blonde half Dutch kids.
Anyhow, then I got to my hotel and it was hard not to feel like, wow, it’s a long way from the cramped apartment on the Oude Leiliestratt, where I slept on a mattress on the living room to the Ambassade, where this was the room from lovely room.
And I had a little balcony. Here it is.
But what really made everything kind of crazy and surreal was when I was walking around the hotel after checking in—it’s a cool labyrinth of Dutch rowhouses that have been rigged together by maze-like hallways and steep staircases into a cohesive hotel—and I wandered into the library. There sat this very regal black woman surrounded by a group of men. She looked very familiar. Like a VERY famous writer. A HUGELY famous writer. I kind of gasped and backed out, murmuring apologies. But I wasn’t sure if it was this Famous Royal Writer. I mean you can’t just assume such things. But the next day, when I was with Margot and Patricia, two of the cool women from The House of Books, my Dutch publishers (here they are, Margot is the brunette)….
….I told Margot that I thought I’d seen a Very Famous American Author but was not positive. So while I was doing interviews (seven in a row, a lot funner than it seems), Margot asked around and yes, it was her.
And, Margot had talked to Toni Morrison’s publicist and asked if I could meet Toni Morrison, which was amazing because I never would’ve asked such a thing. On top of that, Margot had an English copy of If I Stay, which she handed to me and told me to sign for Toni Morrison (I keep calling her that because what else do you call her? Ms. Morrison? Too formal. Toni? No!) and though that seemed terribly presumptuous, I did it anyway. Because how often do you meet Toni Morrison when you’re both on a book tour at the same hotel?
I was pretty hand-sweaty before I was ushered in, but of course, she is a total pro and put me at ease and I told her about bumping into her the day before and how surreal it was and she was very nice and even let me be a fangirl and take a picture!
I presented her the book and she apologized for not having one for me and I was like “Please, I have A Mercy on my Kindle at home!” I’ve read everything she’s written. Song of Solomon is one of my favorite books. It was only after I left that I realized, OMG, I just touched a Noble Prize Winner!
Anyhow, the Amsterdam tour was wonderful and less hectic than Paris, thank goodness. I basically sat in a beautiful room and talked to journalists who all spoke English better than I did (I’m not exaggerating. I was a little addled by this point.) We had nice breaks for lunch and a little bit of shopping (chocolates for the friends who helped me out with Willa at home, and some other gifts) and the weather was sunny (all in all, the sun was out for most of the tour; it only rained during my days off). The Dutch title of the book, btw, is Als Ik Blijf and the cover is pretty stunning, I think.
My last interview of the day was with Pauze, one of the largest teen publications in the country. When the interviewer showed up, I was kind of shocked. Roel (rhymes with rule) was 17! He came in apologizing about his English, which was fine. His last question cracked me up, though it’s one I get a lot: What advice did I have for budding writers?
I looked at this 17-year-old who was conducting an interview for a national publication in a language that wasn’t his own and I was just amazed. And I said: “You can better answer that than I can.” I didn’t have it nearly so together when I was 17. I was getting ready to bum around Amsterdam, to be a maid in a backpacker hotel, to have my heart broken, to live in a series of cramped apartments and work a series of crappy jobs.
But of course, all those things had brought me here, to this moment.
And all of the things that have happened since would bring me back home to my family a day later, to a hot sunny day in New York City, a pile of cupcakes on the kitchen counter and to this sign hanging over Willa’s bedroom door.
An hour later I picked her up from school and got the hug of a lifetime!
It’s good to be home. And good to remember that other places in the world can feel like home, too.