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On a sunny afternoon, I walk to the Jordaan—a quirky neighborhood on the west side of Amsterdam. There I knock on an unmarked door between a cafe and a laundromat. The door opens, and I find myself staring at the striking bronze face of Marion Bloem.
She smiles and ushers me into her studio, which is all abuzz with people and motion. A photographer is snapping portraits for a coffee-table book about famous Dutch novelists. Between poses for photo set-ups, Marion fixes me a cup of tea. When the shoot finishes and the photographers have left, we drag two chairs out onto the sidewalk—next to the laundromat—and sit down and start to talk, still sipping at our mugs.
I'd first e-mailed Marion a few days before. A Dutch acquaintance had suggested that, as a renowned novelist/artist/filmmaker, Marion might be an intriguing Amsterdammer to chat with. And she is. At first, we discuss Marion's ongoing political project, which is eating up all her time right now. She's trying to raise awareness about asylum-seekers who are in danger of being deported (you can read more about her efforts here).
This leads us to a broader discussion of the Moroccan ghettoes growing on the far side of Amsterdam and about the reactionary xenophobia that's been brewing all over the Netherlands. The country has been inflamed in the past few years by the anti-immigration bluster of politician Pim Fortuyn (who was eventually assassinated); by the death of filmmaker Theo van Gogh (who was stabbed and shot in the streets of Amsterdam by a radical Muslim); and by the more recent assault on a gay American couple (who were beaten by a group of Moroccan men).
It's all quite depressing to think about. I'd built up Amsterdam in my mind as a progressive-thinking paradise—a perfect escape pod when I decide I can't hack it in the United States any longer. But it turns out the legendary Dutch tolerance (for soft drugs, prostitution, homosexuality, euthanasia) does not extend to immigration. Perhaps Moroccans are not gezellig?) The bottom line is: This country has its problems, too.
While I'm in the midst of getting bummed about this, Marion's son suddenly roars up to the curb on a motorcycle. He pulls off his helmet, gives his mom a big hug, and checks in with her on some family matters. Moments later, he hops back on his bike and speeds away.
When he's out of sight, Marion turns to me and asks how old I am. Just as she'd guessed, I'm almost exactly the same age as her son. (Incidentally, Marion is 53. And a smoking hot 53, I might add.) Somehow this link changes the mood between us and turns us down a more intimate conversational path. We throw politics out of our minds for a moment and begin to talk about ourselves. Marion tells me about growing up in Amsterdam as the child of Dutch-Indonesian immigrants. She tells me about a fight she recently had with an American friend, who'd been visiting with her here, and how normally this man is quite agreeable but he'd been riled up from smoking a little pot that day.
Our conversation meanders through a mellow afternoon. The hipsters at the outdoor tables next door drink midday beers. The thin, northern-latitude sun shines down on all of us. And I am becoming smitten. This gorgeous European novelist has welcomed me, for a few lazy hours, into her fabulous European life. And my God she is so sharp and cool and captivating.
It comes time to wrap things up so she can bike to her next appointment. But as we lug our chairs back inside, she asks if I can come back later in the evening for dinner—her husband will join us, and we can all go grab a bite together. I suppose I must have awoken some motherly instinct within her, my traveling alone in a foreign city and perhaps reminding her obliquely of her son.
I leave Marion and the Jordaan and I walk the canals to Museumplein. Here I find a spot to lie down in the park, on a grassy slope. A small Dutch child is cartwheeling down the hill, showing off for his dad. A young couple discreetly tokes on a joint, and the sweet, herbacious smell wafts across the lawn to me. I take a nap with my backpack as a pillow and the sun as a blanket.
When I find my way back to Marion's studio a few hours later, her husband, Ivan, has arrived. He has gray hair, a black T-shirt, and worn-out jeans with loafers. We chat as Marion finishes up some work on her computer. Ivan is himself a novelist, like Marion, but he's also a doctor and a university lecturer. He describes for me some fiction he's written, based on health missions he's been on in dangerous corners of the world. Then Marion is ready, and we stroll a few blocks to a restaurant by a canal bank.
There we eat and drink red wine and talk for another few hours. They ask me what I plan to do with the rest of my time in Amsterdam. I say I might take a train to the seaside. Or perhaps eat some psychedelic mushrooms. Marion says I should take the mushrooms out in the dunes, by the beach, where she promises I'll have a beautiful experience.
The tables around us have emptied out. The sky has slowly faded to a strange, agate half-light. We're pouring out the last drops of wine, laughing at something, and it hits me: I'm living the European dream. I have climbed the gezellig mountain, and the view is fantastic. This is how my life should be, always.
We have slices of apple pie for dessert and then say our goodbyes. I wander over a footbridge, through the streets of Amsterdam, back to my hotel, back into my life.