Read part one, Traveling is Easy, Life is Hard, first.
It’s been more than six hours since takeoff. Clayton and I are intently watching the sleeping guy sitting next to me, chin touching his chest, gingerly balancing a plastic cup of Coke on his lap.
“He is going to drop it now.” I whisper, chuckling.
The cup tips over for a second but then straightens back up as soon as he inhales. Although we are amused by our neighbor’s beverage acrobatics we are mostly jealous and impressed by his ability to sleep through the ten hour flight. Absolutely all of it. We both sigh. I am not sure what to expect once we land in Amsterdam. Due to missing our trans-Atlantic flight, we get only half a day, instead of a three day visit, before we have to catch a flight to Romania.
An hour later, my neighbor is apologizing profusely as sticky soda drips down on my knees. He is mortified but shortly after I reassure him that I’m fine he is back to sleep with a grateful smile on his face, holding an empty plastic cup for the remainder of the flight.
I enjoy sharing seats with people coming from different backgrounds. Hearing their stories, when they are up for sharing, is fascinating. And in all my experience New Jersey Jim gets the prize for the most “interesting” encounter. I was eighteen at the time, never having flown before, a village kid plucked right out of a farm community of less than two thousand people in Moldova following her dream of studying classics abroad.
The little tv’s on our flight from Ukraine to New York weren’t working and my neighbor was both frustrated and bored. This resulted in the blonde, blue-eyed flight attendant being showered with colorful names when she couldn’t fix the problem. He talked in a thick accent I’d never heard, which I would later discover was New Jersey. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before he noticed me quietly sitting beside him part way through the flight.
“They’re all b—–s!”, he explains excitedly as he places professional photos of himself on my tray table. “I get there and they want the money upfront before I even see Svetlana. When I refuse they tell me I would never see her, so we exchange her address for the cash. I went to see her right away but she wouldn’t even let me in her f—–g house! She says her mother is sick. Come in a week, she says. First of all her English was better than I expected, but she looked fatter and older than when we chatted on line. I’m a nice guy so I tell her I’ll come back in three days. In three days I come back and no one answers the door. I come back the day after that and every day, you know, for like a week, pounding at the door. Nothing! No one answers. I call the agency and they don’t pick up either. When I finally reach them through my contact in the US they tell me Svetlana didn’t like me. I was rude and aggressive with her. So the deal is off. I mean can you believe this s–t! She met me once through a half cracked door! I thought I was bringing home a wife. I am going to look like a f—–g dumbass to my friends. They didn’t even give my money back.”
The photos he sent his not-to-be wife show a balding guy in his fifties wearing levis and a red polo shirt, tightened under his pot belly with a brown leather belt. He is posing with a high school graduation smile, his arms folded across his chest and some fake greenery behind him.
“I’m a good looking guy, I got money, I’m pretty nice, and I’m American. What’s she got: long legs, blond hair, no money, and a one bedroom apartment she shares with her mother.”
“Look at her.”, he points to the flight attendant. “She thinks she’s hot stuff. I bet you she lives with her mother too.”
“Are you are coming to the US to get married?”, he asks, winking at me.
“No sir.” I respond proudly. “I’m going to college on a scholarship. Also, I’m not interested in American men. I have a boyfriend.” I say the last part boldly staring him in the face.
He stares back at me unblinking. I shift in my seat uncomfortably, but without averting my eyes. Finally he breaks out in thunderous laughter and holds his hand up. “I’m Jim by the way.”
The airport in Amsterdam is gigantic. We finally find the lost and found office and emerge dragging our camping gear behind us. “This is going to be fun.”, I think to myself. Before we got our lost luggage we had been confidently walking through the airport carrying our ultralight backpacks and looking like, I thought, one of those well seasoned travelers. Now we are stooped over, sweating profusely, and moaning as we lug the large parcels from each opportunity to rest to the next.. A few people eye us sympathetically and I want to explain the mistake that occurred when we missed our flight. “I’m a better planner than this guys”, I mumble to myself.
“Taxi?” Clayton asks half jokingly as we are navigating the train schedule.
“No! We can do this!” I respond with inappropriate enthusiasm more for my own sake than his. I am the one lagging behind. I read that taxis in Amsterdam are very expensive and I mapped the route to our hostel ahead of time.
“We just need to take the subway and then switch to the train. Easy!”
Half an hour later as we wander through different platforms between trains and subways and my back starts to ache from the weight I am starting to think that maybe a taxi would have been more sensible. I try to keep a brave smile on my face. I wasn’t brought up in a culture that likes to give up. I would rather pass out than admit defeat. After asking a few different people we are finally on the right platform en route to our hostel. We both breathe easier.
“I’m sorry sir, your reservation not valid since you didn’t show up two days ago, and your room has been given away”, a pretty receptionist behind the counter at our hostel informs us briefly. I don’t take this well sternly asking to see the manager immediately. Clayton gently pushes me behind him. I have a tendency to get fiery in situations like these which stresses my even-keeled husband greatly. I cross my arms, and join our bags on the floor. Moldovans are hot tempered and expressive. It’s the latin blood. Sometimes after overhearing a conversation between my mother and I Clayton will ask me what are we arguing about. “Ha! Arguing? I am telling mama what I made for dinner.”, I would respond giggling at his puzzled expression.
We booked and paid three nights for this hostel a month ago through booking.com and opted for the non-cancellable reservation because it was cheaper and we never dreamed that we would miss our flight to Europe. The Student Hotel West is conveniently located across from the tram and railway stations so we can get downtown in ten minutes. It’s a beautiful, modern campus-like hostel with lots of cool amenities geared toward young people on a budget.
Clayton is trying to explain that since you can’t cancel on a non-cancellable reservation, you therefore cannot be penalized for not canceling. Just as I stand to intervene again the manager shows up. After ten minutes of going back and forth about whose fault it is that our room, for which we had already paid, is not available, they finally give us a new room. I flash them an icy smile as they hand us the key. We would later discover that they charged our bank account for this new room as well. They refunded us once we followed up with them.
Our room is very clean, quite comfortable and modern. The shower pours water all over the bathroom floor but that is standard in European hostels. Although this is a hostel they do have single rooms, which we prefer if we can afford it. I am a very light sleeper and if anyone snores I lie wide awake all night. Thankfully my husband doesn’t snore.
We are utterly exhausted even though it’s only 2 pm in the afternoon, but there are two reasons that force us to stay up. One, we only have one afternoon to explore Amsterdam, and two, in order to adjust to the new time zone we need stay up till normal bed time.
An hour later we emerge showered, groomed, and feeling much lighter without our gear in tow. We both have dark circles under our eyes but our spirits are high despite the rainy, cold weather that seems to be getting worse.
Downtown is even chillier and by now it’s raining pretty hard. We walk across the grey looking canals and quaint buildings, occasionally ducking into a church or cafe. We had planned to just walk, walk, walk till we dropped. We wanted to pack as much in as possible during this afternoon. Two hours later my jeans are soaking wet, and water is dripping down my back despite my rain jacket.
A restaurant with a beautiful view of the city looks warm and inviting. As I am staring at the menu, I realize that the gluten and dairy free dishes are not in our budget. After some deliberation I settle on a plate of carbonara. If I am going to cheat at least I am going to eat my favorite combo – creamy bechamel sauce and linguine pasta tossed with glistening pieces of bacon. Clayton opts for a pizza. We start our meal with digestive enzymes and end with activated charcoal to help digest of the sinfully delicious food we never eat anymore due to my digestive problems with wheat and dairy. The rich food leaves us in a stupor and we spend the next hour enjoying the view and secretly wishing we were asleep in our hostel.
The weather is terribly gloomy. The jetlag and glucose-induced lethargy amplify this feeling to oppressive proportions. In a final effort to salvage our outing we make our way to the Red Light District. I have read about it and I thought this could be an interesting cultural experience.
The streets are littered with garbage and the canals peppered with cigarette butts and plastic bottles. A few women wearing provocative lingerie are standing in front of old looking storefronts. Their boredom and fatigue covered with a thick layer of eyeliner, lipstick, and foundation. I am not sure what I expected to see – maybe a lively, colorful scene of Chaucerian debauchery.
We walk back downtown and find a small bar that has available seating. It seems like most tourists are hiding from the rain in these cafes and bars. We are so wet that we steam the place up. I try to order a hot toddy and am met with severe confusion. The bartender says we seem cool and he’ll play us whatever song we want on the soundsystem. We write down “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver, one of the first songs Clayton played for me when we first met, and hand back the piece of paper to the bartender. After an awkwardly long time at the computer, he puts on an unfamiliar cover version.
I sway in my bar stool as the music infects each table with an appropriate dose of melancholy. Oh Amsterdam. Ever since I read the Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade I have wanted to see this place. Because I’m from the eastern block, I wasn’t even allowed to enter the Netherlands until very recently. They were afraid we wouldn’t leave, and their concerns were legitimate. Moldova had none of the luxuries of western Europe, and struggling to become something, anything after the failure of the Soviet Empire, my people left Moldova in droves. I left too but I told myself I was different. Unlike the rest I was going to come back. I just wanted to see the world and get a good education. Whenever security saw my light blue Moldovan passport, they would squint harder and start asking more questions, then relax again when they saw my Student visa to the US. A document that was very hard to acquire.
Now here I am, ten years later, sipping a beer in a bar in Amsterdam with my American husband. New Jersey Jim would get a kick out this. He knew more about my future than I did, or wanted to accept. I’m now carrying a dark blue American passport in my wallet, planning to visit Iceland, Spain, and Greece too. The number of visas I needed to apply for: zero. It feels bitter sweet. America is my home now and over the years I have come to love both its strengths and its weaknesses. Moldova is where my spirit was born, it is my heart ache, my sadness, and my joy. Memories trample each other flooding my mouth with salt so I stop them. That’s all I can say about my country today.
By 8pm I start to get a migraine from the lack of sleep. We can barely keep our eyes open so we head back to our hostel defeated. We will have to visit Amsterdam again some other time when the weather is lovely and the time is right. Tomorrow we have to press on to our next destination: Bucharest, Romania.
Read part one, Traveling is Easy, Life is Hard.