i am looking out at the north sea from a great ship about ten decks tall. i am on the stenaline ferry, a six hour boat ride from hook van holland (“the corner of holland”, near amsterdam) to Harwich, England. a few hours ago i left amsterdam, a city in the netherlands (the netherlands is also known as holland and people from this country with at least two names are called dutch, as is their language). it is overcast and a little chilly and there is a furious wind in my face and my hair. the ocean is choppy; “white caps” i think they call them, dot the surface of the water. i have never been on a boat this large and i have never been on a boat this far out at sea. i am sitting alone on the top deck on a blue floor near a row of round windows. if i were to cast myself over the edge right now, it would take days for anyone to notice and my body would probably never be found. i am the only one here but occasionally a mother or father and a kid find their way up the stairs and are so impressed and frightened with the force of the wind, the vastness of the sea and the speed of the boat as they look out over the rail that they laugh or smile and pretend that they will blow away, confronting the power of nature with their body and feeling their smallness although maybe they wouldn’t say it like that.
friday i was greeted and hugged heartily near the train station in amsterdam by tom and tim, two handsome bachelors in their late twenties. thomas and tim are the kind of guys who can flirt with anyone, talk with anyone, and get anyone to smile from old ladies to pretty women to bus drivers and taxi drivers. tim is a rock star. “i have led the life of a rock star,” he says. when you have a story about waking up in an alley somewhere in south america with no clothes on and not remembering exactly what happened, you have truly led the life of a rock star, despite not having played an instrument. thomas is also charismatic but more quiet, and the two have a dynamic which is hilarious, sarcastic and playful. they are the most american europeans i have met, having a free-spiritedness and idealism that evokes california. before leaving their spacious, contemporary apartment in white shoes and big sunglasses tim says “let’s rock and roll baby” with a conviction that overrides his dutch accent. this is the culture of amsterdam and in a lot of ways, i fit right in.
friday night we sat on the porch as tim grilled out and made some fancy salads and we drank heineken beer, which is brewed in holland and very popular there. thomas and i spent a lot of the night (and the weekend) sharing music for each other. in his room he has shelves with thousands of CD’s–complete discographies and b-sides and rarities ranging from groups like bone thugs and harmony to sting and mew. in europe i guess you would have to be a big music fan to have discovered albums from a relatively unknown songwriter from Ohio like me. thomas has been here in the netherlands following and supporting my work since the first independent albums i did with SWIM right out of high school. since then i went on to sign a deal with MCA records under universal umbrella, and somewhat coincidentally thomas went on to work for universal records, which is i guess the best place to work in holland if you are such a big music fan. between thomas’s connections through universal music and tim’s job as a sales rep for cocoa cola, they never wait in lines and can get into any concert or show or bar in town for free and often drink for free too and we may or may not have done just that. basically, if you are traveling to amsterdam thomas and tim are the exact two guys you want to stay with.
on saturday we went to the van gogh museum where i saw one of the best collections of post-impressionist works i have ever seen and for once on this european adventure i felt just slightly more knowledgeable than the locals, although i was excited to see a painting by van gogh that included the side of a house where thomas’s mother was born. traveling to these places and seeing the art where the artists lived and worked their legacies become much more real for me and i feel more directly connected. or as one of my painting instructors told me, it will make me feel like more of a part of the “continuum of painting”, which is a good way to put it.
after the museum i took a personal scooter tour of amsterdam with tim. they call amsterdam the venice of the north because of its network of canals. it is a beautiful old city and easy to travel by public transit, scooter, or by walking although i think scooter is the most fun and now i want one for myself. we went to vondel park where there were hoards of beautiful teenagers and twenty-somethings strumming acoustic guitars, playing bongos, and sunbathing as the smell of marijuana floated on the hot air. amsterdam is usually cloudy and rainy but it was beautiful and mostly sunny for me all weekend.
then tim and i made the obligatory visit to the red light district and saw window after window of beautiful girls for sale. these girls are not the crack-heads we have back home in the dark corners of cincinnati at night. this was in broad daylight and the amsterdam prostitutes look like sports illustrated swimsuit models. they stand around looking sort of listless and bored but smiling slightly. many of them are paying their way through college. this is the oldest job in the world and in amsterdam it is quite profitable and well regulated. red light district is one of the safest neighborhoods in the town. the police do not want any trouble there and the pimps and girls don’t either, so regular patrols and lots of cameras limit theft and violent crimes to almost nothing. all of this seems quite surreal for a someone from a country founded by puritans. tim and i spent about twenty minutes walking through the neighborhood going over the regular moral arguments for and against prostitution or at least for its legalization which was a good way to keep our minds occupied and to avoid looking at the merchandise too much until we scurried back onto the scooter reminding ourselves of our beautiful girlfriends back home.
after heading back to the apartment and eating tim’s delicious thai curry for dinner (a recipe which i will take with me back home), we hopped on a train and headed downtown where i played an acoustic show at a place called the waterhole, a medium sized bar with a good stage in a lively area of town. the waterhole is made to look somewhat american or british. the interior is weathered wood and rock posters and random things nailed to the ceiling and the walls, creating an overall aesthetic that is part CBGB’s and part Friday’s restaurant. i felt very at home there. even the very british sound guy was cranky in the way that most american sound guys are until they hear you play and realize you are actually good. toward the middle of the set, more and more people began coming into the room where i was playing. by my last song, i began stepping off stage but the crowd applauded and wanted an encore, something i don’t think i have never experienced at a solo acoustic gig. for the set i played a cross section of solo material new and old, some july for kings songs. for the encore i played “futureflies” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “dancing in the dark”. i wanted to have something upbeat and very american in my back pocket just in case, and it is a good thing i did.
later that night after visiting a lot of tim’s cocoa cola clients we hit the local FEBO stand. FEBO is a chain of fast food restaurants in and around amsterdam which are basically giant vending machines with fried foods instead of candy and gum. you put your money in and you open a glass window the size of a shoebox and retrieve one of many fried snacks. i suppose there are actual human beings that are preparing these fried objects and putting them in the windows for your retrieval but i have no actual evidence of this. as usual i trusted the judgement of my local escorts and was handed a frikandel and a croquette. they were both quite good. only later did i discover that one of them may or may not have contained cow eyeball or horse-meat. they do eat horses in holland but only occasionally.
we all slept soundly that night feeling a bit like rock stars which is a good way to feel and a feeling i only get every once in a while these days.
the next morning we had breakfast which consisted of breads and toppings and ontbijtkoek, a dutch spice cake which i said is “pretty good but we would only eat it for christmas and stuff” although they eat it for breakfast all the time in holland. that day we went to the beach, a beach thomas found online that claimed to be the “finest beach in holland” and once we arrived and saw the sand and felt the sun and everyone seemed happy we figured that maybe it really was the finest or certainly among the finest. tim who is a food enthusiast and proud of the local dutch cuisine and also a bit of a sadist led us to a herring vendor. a dutch specialty is souced herring which is essentially salted raw fish served on a paper plate. with diced raw onions if you are lucky. traditionally, you take the fish by the tail, suspend it above your face and lower it into your mouth for a bite. repeat until it is gone. even grandmas eat it this way, as i learned from a sign on the side of the booth featuring a smiling grandma suspending a herring a few inches from her wrinkled mouth. but i had mine the sissy way with a toothpick and onions and it was kind of gross but i ate all of it as we all laughed at the ridiculousness of the dish and probably at the faces i was making as the slimy pieces touched my tongue. thomas abstained completely. tim ate his in the proper dutch manner and loved every second of it. i was impressed.
that night holland lost the world cup as i stood in an orange hat outside a bar with all the locals. it was an ugly match and a shame and that’s all i’m going to say about that.