On the run in Central Europe

When I arrived in the Netherlands over a week ago, I stayed in a massive building which was first a 16th century cloister, and after the dissolution of the Catholic Church here, it became an orphanage. My friend Edie was doing an art piece there and when she told me about it and said, “Think The Shining” I thought she was joking, but it’s pretty right on.

In its last manifestation, the place was a mis-managed and ill used art space. For several years students had abused it as studio space. There were four of us in this massive building. The place is so large that the first time I went to take a shower I went through 5 hallways and down one flight of stairs and up another, through 7 other rooms and I still didn’t find it and instead ended up right back in front of my own room.

I say was because the place is no more. There was talk of the potential remodeling, but no one could give Edie or Bob, who was brewing the beer for her art piece, any information about when it would start. The people who run the artspace (and I use the term loosely) were suspiciously out of the country while all this was going down and their line was that the work would be minor and contained in one far wing of the building. This is most ridiculous and hostile “artist residency” I have ever come across. I am furious, dismayed and depressed at the treatment of my friend Edith Abetya, whose work deserves an international audience and whose treatment here has been criminal.

Tuesday arrived, as did the developers who began at the main entrance, shattering the glass-walled foyer and tearing out the dry wall. They were going to gut all the internal walls and remove the shower and front entrance, and yet the people running the residency insisted Edie and Bob continue to stay there. It has a certain Kafkaesque absurdity to it. We had to flee, as Edie pointed out, like the nuns centuries ago. We left Hotel Mariakapel in a cloud of dust and showers of broken glass.

My initial intention was help Edie with the installation, to write a bit, research potential agents/publishing options for the completed novel and kick around ideas for the next project. But what’s happened instead is a kind of whirlwind tour. We took off to Cologne to drink beer and try to relax and maybe find a way to laugh about it all. That’s where I am now.

Before arriving in Cologne, we spent a few days in Amsterdam, wandering around, eating space cakes and dodging bicycles. It was pretty heavenly. It felt a lot like a kind of ancient San Francisco, or maybe I should say I felt the same way about Amsterdam as I did about SF when I visited it as a teenager– with a wide, happy hope– someday I will live here— Maybe it is a cliche to be an American falling in love with Amsterdam, but it is a bustling place scored by water, softened by the drift of pot smoke. We avoided the red light district so the city seemed to me relaxed, civilized and whimsical. So unlike London. That I should land in a place like London and not Amsterdam is evidence that the universe thought I needed a kind of tough love. And I suppose the Labyrinth still has lessons to teach me. The challenge of London is not just to love it, but to get it to love you, and with all humility, I may be winning at that.

But I’m relieved to be in Germany now. I can’t really generalize about the Netherlands from one little town, but Hoorn was a drag. The people of Hoorn are starers. Stop-in-their-tracks, turn-around-as-you-walk-by, jaws-agape starers. For some stupid reason I thougth a lot of the Dutch countryside would be like England’s– full of friendly eccentrics or bemused urban transplants. Or, hell, I thought the villages would be hippie enclaves where Lengendary Pink Dots type bands were squatting in old farm houses. Instead, it feels a lot more like Door County, Wisconsin circa 1985. Except Door County had tourists.

As we were leaving Amsterdam several days ago, we walked toward the train station, stopping in a small market to pick up some snacks for the train ride back to Hoorn. In the doorway behind me, a kind of junkie version of Neil Gaiman stood, cradling a black cat in his arms. He said something to me that I didn’t understand, squeezed past me and I watched him put the cat, heavily pregnant, down in the back of the store, slap some money on the counter and leave. The cat wandered slowly out and looked for him, but he had vanished. She sat down and waited patiently, and I looked around for him. He had abandoned her. She let Edie pet her and for a moment we entertained the idea of taking her back to Hoorn with us. She looked us over, eyes like big green beads, knowing on some primal level that we were plotting to take her to a god-forsaken village in the wet countryside, and she was an Amsterdam kitty, bastard master or no. Her tail straight and flicking at us, she took off.

I’ve been thinking about her. About the narrative I imposed on her to make it bearable: the paradox of a restless soul with a willful love of place, and the blessing of feral fecundity in a careless world.

The bells of the Dom call the hour.

3 thoughts on “On the run in Central Europe

  1. As the 68 situs said “Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!” Thanks for the excellent updates. You must convince Edie and Bob that this is fodder for some future work, rant, or rampage: either way, you all have to make it your own.

  2. “hippie enclaves where Lengendary Pink Dots type bands…” I found that very, very amusing since my sole knowledge of the Netherlands is derived from Play It Again Sam Records.

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