I have been back in America for weeks now.
I never posted again after Brussels. Why?
The day I took the train out of Brussels, destined for my last stop on the Continent, I emerged from the station in Amsterdam and tumbled into a setting so surreal I thought I’d walked onto a vintage, post-nuclear-apocaplyse movie set: glassy-eyed automatons wandered through urban decay. Newspapers swirled in gusts of wind. Sun flickered off dust whipping round people’s hair and coats. Paper cups pivoted in half-orbs in the gutters scratching on asphalt—cree-ehsch, cree-ehsch. Bottles heaped corners filled with fast food wrappers.
And through it all marched the oblivious hordes.
I walked for blocks wheeling my suitcase, a furrow knitting my brows. “This is the dirtiest city I have ever seen.”
Why was everyone acting like this was okay?
I followed the directions I’d memorized to find my hotel hoping I’d walk out of a bad dream, but things only grew worse. Overflowing trash containers. Food rotting in gutters. Coffee cups blowing. Broken beer bottles.
I passed a woman a few doors down a side street sweeping the steps to her rowhouse and approached holding out the slip of paper with the hotel address. “Hello,” I said.
“You are close.” She looked up from the paper. “I can show you,” and she carried her broom to the canal street, pointed across water toward the next bridge. “There,” she said, “on the corner.”
“May I ask—” I hesitated. I did not want to offend her. “Why is the city so dirty?”
“I am so embarrassed.” She hung her head. “I am going away this weekend. I can not take it. Two weeks now. A garbage strike.”
We commiserated. Then I rolled my bag past another mountain of garbage to the hotel door.
The strike only grew more appalling in those first days in Amsterdam with the mounds of garbage bags turning into mountains, the stink filling narrow streets. Others reported rats, but I did not see any. Still, how could they not have been lurking in doorways and under bridges just ready for dark and the opportunity to forage?
The sheer weight of the garbage, coupled with the lack of wi-fi at the hotel simply made blogging during those last days difficult. Once I found my way back to Amsterdam—I took to leaving the city nearly every day—I had to sit on the bottom step of a spiral staircase outside the locked door of the hotel office to pick up a signal, a prospect that sounded unappealing at the end of the day.
And so, the clock ran out, and I boarded one last train, to Schiphol this time, and reluctantly left Europe to return to this life and the task of making a story from the raw material of experience.
And here we are today . . .
Below you’ll find a few more of my Trash photos from Amsterdam.
In the future I’ll post photos from my final explorations in Holland, the term my parents used when speaking of the Netherlands. But then I will turn this blog in a new direction. Memoir-on-the Road will continue to chronicle the places I traveled in pursuit of this story, but more and more I will look at the process I go through taking events and emotion, research and history and finding my way into a draft of a book-length memoir.
It will be a process of discovery and that seems a useful thing to share with others seeking a way to shape a tale from life lived, so check back in.