Germany, The Netherlands

35 Tuesday

If you lay bloodied on a Saxon battlefield it would be for a Valkyrie that you scanned the sky. From astride powerful horses (or swans in some cases) the Valkyrie decided which dying warriors they would guide to join Odin in the hall of heroes, only these honorable men would fight alongside the gods in a battle at the end of time.  Between 772-804 near modern-day Bremen Germany, the Saxons fought the Franks and lost.  Shortly after Charlemagne, the leader of the Franks at the time, enacted a set of laws he titled Lex Saxonum and rendered the worship of Odin a crime punishable by death.  The Saxons were forced into Christianity and Odin was legally replaced as the central deity in daily religious practice.

Prior to leaving for Italy the year before I spent a month living in Big Sur California at an institute central to the Human Potential Movement.  Working during the days on the small farm which supplied  close to 70% of the food at the institute I was able to enjoy epic sulfur hot spring tubs hanging out over the ocean, hike in the Redwood forests on the property, participate in workshops and attend a wide variety of lectures.  One of the people I met during my time at Esalen was a middle-aged man from Germany that quickly became a good friend.  He was living in North Western Germany and I arranged to meet him in Bremen.  I spent a few days enjoying the German countryside by bicycle and catching up with my old friend.  It was like visiting home and I was able cook and bathe and sleep with a sublime sense of peace and safety that I hadn’t enjoyed since leaving Florence.

He agreed to drive me to Amsterdam where I would be catching a flight back to the United States.  Driving on the Autobahn we headed south for the city, enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the park and said goodbye. Perhaps the relatively small size of the city or the unusual personal freedoms, Amsterdam has such a relaxed atmosphere.  I spent the rest of the afternoon napping in the grass under a shady tree and walking along the canals enjoying the light filtering through the canopy and crashing into the gentle waves cascading behind boat houses as they motored along, floating Gardens of Eden from which to observe the world.  Until visiting Amsterdam I had never seen a houseboat.  The sudden awareness of this fact was like sliding out to a satellite-scaled perspective of  that moment.  Before setting out to explore Europe, I was prepared to have a grand adventure and definitely hoped for things I had never seen before.  I spent nearly a year planning my routes and budgeting my money and strategizing hypothetical scenarios.  I yearned for the mythic transformation that I expected once at the end.

Seeing the houseboat that afternoon was a revelation; my wings had unfolded long ago.  Barely perceptible, they had been stretching, drying and little by little I had been climbing out of the crystalline walls of my chrysalis. Returning to the boat hostel, I checked into a tiny room in their joyfully claustrophobic hull – a flight would be taking me home again in the morning.  Sitting on the roof of the boat, the sun infused the busy industrial traffic with a glory only available when acutely aware of the finiteness of the moment.  Barges dressed in sentimental gold floated by, I listened to music on my headphones and tried to chisel each moment into the pantheon of my memories. I stayed on the roof well past sunset and reluctantly returned to my cabin for my journey’s last night of sleep.  I would be returning to a sweet little house near the mountains to live with my dear friend, Elena.  I would enroll full-time in my hometown university and I would look for a job.  But for that moment I would soak up every little detail, every wave and every sound until I drifted off to the realms of the subconscious to assemble it all.

The next morning I arrived at the airport and luxuriously checked my pack, handing it over to the airline staff with gratitude.  I then bought a magazine with the last of my change and went to find a seat at my gate.  A few pages in there was an announcement over the loudspeaker, the plane would be boarding soon and passengers ambled around politely to make lines.  Apparently we were waiting to pass through a perfect line of  podiums leftover from a high school speech contest.  Approaching the podium, I realized everyone was being pretty seriously interviewed, nearly harassed.  It was the first time I had experienced this kind of interrogation while traveling and it was unsettling, as if there were some kind of invisible danger that only the airline knew about.  Scenes from pseudo-philosophical-post-apocalyptic action films kept surfacing in my mind.  After a 10 minute  face-off with the overworked, mostly-numb airline staff  I was finally allowed to pass on to the second round.

Seemingly in the clear I deposited my carry-on bag in a large plastic tray and sent it through the security screening without a second thought.  Completely oblivious to the fact that it was causing an uproar in the security ranks I stood at the other end waiting for it to resurface when I was approached by a seriously alert security guard.  He informed me that I was going to be escorted away from the gate. Unsure if the bad movie had stopped playing in my mind, I blinked a few times before I was led to a ‘holding area’.  Waves of panic starting to amplify, I anxiously began blasting questions at the straight-faced security personnel. A further 10 minutes of one sided verbal table tennis and serious looking woman returned  my bag and explained that they had discovered a canister of pepper spray. Like a pressure cooker, I released a loud  laugh and explained that I had forgotten that my father had given it to me before leaving the United States.  She did not share in the laugh, continuing, I added that I had traveled all over the place with it and never had any problems.  She turned to me flatly and explained that pepper spray is illegal in The Netherlands.  Somewhat naively I assured her that it was fine to confiscate it and that I was sorry about bringing into the country and that if I had known that it was an illegal substance in The Netherlands I never would have done so…Responding with a metallic frown she told me to please wait there, a police officer had been called and was on their way any minuteIt’s possession alone, she explained, warranted a huge fine and possible jail time.  A faint echo down the corridor, the loudspeaker announced last call for boarding and panic overtook me.  I was going to miss my flight, possibly go to jail and be in debt to the Dutch government for the foreseeable future…couldn’t they just throw the damn thing away and we could all move ahead with the day? Seriously, I didn’t know anything was illegal in Amsterdam.

I spent the next thirty minutes anxiously tapping and struggling to breathe at a regular interval, imagining my upcoming Dutch jail time when the clouds broke and I received what is often called a miracle.   The steely fortitude of the security officer apparently lost the battle it was waging inside her with the glowing benevolence and stood up, motioned for me to follow her, and opened the long-closed gate.  She explained with a heavy accent that pepper spray is a weapon and that I should not carry weapons around any city  and released me into the gaping mouth of the waiting airplane.  I swear I heard the sounds of heavy hooves thundering off  as she turned to leave- I had been chosen to continue on.


Belgium, The Netherlands

30 Amsterdam and BrusselsThe collapse of the Dutch tulip market in February 1637 has become a metaphor used extensively by economists ever since to describe financial bubbles, when asset prices diverge from intrinsic value to such an extent that the entire system disintegrates.  At the speculative apex of “Tulip Mania” a single  Augustus Semper tulip bulb was traded  at ten times the annual salary of a master craftsman. The social impetus for the mania and the resulting consequences to the Dutch psyche  have been well documented, although not widely discussed is the incredible creature responsible for the distinctive petal coloration of the previously prized flower.

Between 1920 and 1960 scientists carrying out experiments on tulip bulbs finally confirmed that the unusual coloration was due to a virus which entered the pant via the tiny jaws of aphids.  An insect familiar to agriculture the world over, the Aphid is an evolutionary expert.  Amazingly most Aphid communities are composed of almost entirely female  individuals.  In the spring the hatching aphids emerge and reproduce parthenogenetically (without a sexual partner) and then give live birth to other females which are clones of their mother.  The cycle continues throughout the summer until sensing the changing conditions the females give live birth to both males and females.  The males are born without wings or even mouths, reproduce sexually with the females who then lay eggs which are able to endure winter conditions to begin the cycle again in the spring.

But the most amazing insight into the Aphid world is their ability to produce telescopic generations; a female can develop live clones inside of her that are in turn also developing live clones inside of their own bodies.  The result is a kind of insect speculative-grade bond, one hungry ladybug comes along and all three generations are wiped out, but if successful the evolutionary efficiency of the original aphid is rewarded with twice the typical genetic material reproduced.

When my plane landed in Brussels I had two things in mind. First, I wanted to sample some Belgian chocolate and second, I wanted to spend the afternoon at the musical instruments museum.  After the evening of sleep-free contemplation in the Dublin airport, my first step was to locate a hostel, bathe and nap.  Probably due to the lack of rest, it took me longer than usual to navigate my way to the hostel I had chosen on the plane and my pack seemed to manifest a magnetic pull against every step. Ultimately I successfully used the shower, slept an hour, changed and found my way back to the incredible window display of a chocolate shop I had passed earlier.  Sacrificing my budget for lunch that day, I chose a select few pieces and left the shop with my treasure.  I love chocolate, so with something akin to a spiritual reverence I ate the tiny gems. Slightly levitating on a cloud of endorphins, I entered the graceful arch of Art Nouveau embellished doorway to the museum. For many years to follow it would be one of my favorite museum experiences.  The headphones each visitor is given as they enter react to sensors in the exhibits in such a way that I could hear the sound of the instrument being played as I examined the display.  Handcrafted instruments from every continent filled several floors of the open, light-filled building.  I left the museum reeling with inspiration and an overwhelming sense of the limitless-ness of human imagination.

After Brussels I took the train to Amsterdam.  Upon exiting the trains station a wave of hostel cowboys wrangled the crowd of started travelers.  Each offering a better price than the last and pushing flyers and coupons in front of me and trying to grab a hold of my arm or pack or elbow, what ever they could clutch and pull.  Shaking them off I was approached calmly by a pair offering a room on a houseboat.  I hadn’t thought of staying on a boat, but I was assured by the calmness with which the hostel was described and that it was very nearby.  I followed them to a side street leading behind the station and climbed onto the oscillating wraparound deck.   I was led down a hallway so narrow both sides of my pack drug along the walls.  The room I was given was equally claustrophobic but had a private lock to the door and place to store my things, I took it and immediately leaving to begin my explorations.

Amsterdam was very close to a perfect city, a balance of seedy rebellion and healthy intellectual living.  People with baskets full of produce glided around the tree-lined canals and bridges led into what seemed to be an endless array of markets – used books, clothing, tulips, furniture and food. The morning spent browsing and walking, I decided to try out an infamous cafe experience.  Choosing one that had an appealing layout opening onto the canal outside I approached the counter.  As if I were ordering a late or fruit smoothie, the attendant asked what I had in mind and began flipping through pages in the extensive menu.  Not sure exactly what it was I should request, I explained that I was headed to the Van Gogh museum and then to a Jimmy Cliff concert later that night.  After consulting the inventory, she returned with a small bag filled with intricately crystallized buds and a pack of rolling papers.  Next, she led me to one of their sun-drenched eggplant colored velvet chairs.

About an hour later I was walking again, this time through what seemed like a medieval stone tunnel leading to the museum. I was appreciating the cool darkness of the passageway when I heard it.  Somewhere between a string instrument and human tone, the sound echoed blending and mixing together to produce the most amazing harmony.  After a few mysterious minutes I came upon a trio of Mongolian throat singers.  I had never heard Mongolian throat singing and in fact at the time did not know that was what they were performing.  Mesmerized, I enjoyed their performance for nearly half an hour, bought their CD and continued on my way.

Van Gogh was an art obsession of mine growing up; as a teenager I was enthralled by his madness, his psychotic amorous obsession with a prostitute and of course the tragic removal of one of his ear lobes.   During my early teen years I interpreted his madness as passion, the kind that drives you to do great things and I admired it in a strange way.  Over the years I read more about Van Gogh and while I still delight at his dreamlike brush work and the intensity his work emits, I have come to understand the madness as madness.  Perhaps he was not so different from the Dutch speculators; feverish and obsessive 200 years before.  Much the same way the Dutch incinerated the resources of generations in the pursuit of one broken tulip, Van Gogh’s scrambling after light and landscape consumed everything in his life – including huge sums of his brother’s money.  Was a flower worth investing a lifetime of work? Was a painting worth investing the sanity of the painter’s mind?  Passing a beautifully arranged plot of tulips outside the museum, I stopped to look at them.   The tall flowers shifted in the breeze and I realized  both the tulips and the paintings were more like aphids than I had originally understood.