During Christmas break of my junior year of college (2000-2001), I spent 2 weeks in Amsterdam with 3 boys. We were on a mission trip that turned out to be more of a trip than a mission, which was fine except for all the support I’d raised from family to get there and the embarrassment I suffered at the idiocy of the guy leading us. No, really, he was completely tragic. He’d spent several months in Amsterdam as part of his college cross-cultural requirement. One story he related made me shake my head in disbelief: A coke dealer came up to him and solicited him for a deal. This guy’s response was, “No, man, I’ve got Jesus; he’s the best drug there is.” The dealer was taken aback and said, “Where can I get some of that?” Something else he told us made me drop my head in utter shame: he said anytime he said or did something that wasn’t received well, like he spoke out of turn, or didn’t fit with the Dutch way of doing things, he’d just say, “It’s ok, I’m an American.” (*Right, because that’s like a free pass for being an asshole. No wonder the rest of the world hates us. Sadly, this attitude is not unique to him.)
–A short aside: the other day I got behind a truck with a bumper sticker in the back window. The sticker was shaped like a large Jesus fish, striped with the American flag. It read, “Not just American/Also a Christian.” Many of you will understand why I found that so bothersome; probably more of you will be offended that I was disgusted. Perhaps I’ll write about it some day. Or perhaps you’ll just have to let go of that offense and forgive me for being right.–
Anyway, we were in Amsterdam through New Year’s Eve, and I’ve never seen a crazier mess in my whole life. Everyone was drunk; everyone was high; and everyone had fireworks. The streets were completely packed, a city-wide party. We wound our way through the crowds back to our hostel, holed up on the roof and probably prayed in the New Year like good Christian boys and girl.
The next fall I started my senior year. I thought I might like to do the whole New Year’s in New York thing, watching the ball drop in real life just once. Of course, September 11th put a damper on that plan (not to totally make light of the tragedy). So, instead I asked my new boyfriend (of 3 months) Daniel if he wanted to go to Amsterdam for Christmas break.
Being at a Christian college does a weird thing to dating relationships. Everything is distorted, like you and your hunka-hunka are giant balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Everyone else doesn’t really matter; what’s going on below really has no significance or appeal; the serious nature of loving is blown completely out of proportion. Suddenly, the goal is to get from point A to point B without losing all your hot air. Daniel and I knew we were in this sort of pressure-cooker situation and realized that neither of us wanted to pursue a relationship that wouldn’t stand the stress of finishing college and fighting our way into the big, bright future, and then sustain itself in the big bright (and often dark) future. We didn’t know where our paths would lead, but felt the constraints of time if those paths were going to lead us to the same place. We were young and stupid and couldn’t see past the ends of our noses.
So the obvious solution to proving this relationship was a 2-week trek though Holland. We figured if we could handle 10-hour trans-Atlantic flights, international customs and train schedules, a language barrier and gypsies, backpacking and stinking, ordering and eating unfamiliar food, trying to find somewhere to sleep each night, paying for and using public restrooms not up to health and safety standards, and being 100% out of our comfort zones, that we might just have a chance at surviving life together. We left the day after Christmas.
Amsterdam is a lovely but oppressive place. We packed our bags and split after the second day. We took trains and trams all over the place and pretty much fell in love with the country. The city of Utrecht was one of our favorites. We had dinner at a great pub, met some lovely British travelers, stayed at a comfortable bed & breakfast, and woke to the bells of the Dom Tower. On our way out of town, we decided to tour the Tower and the Cathedral of St. Martin.
Oh, by the way, the Dom Tower was constructed before America was even discovered (construction completed in 1382).
At some point we found ourselves in The Hague and realized how close we were to a beach, so we got on the tram and headed to the North Sea. We arrived in Scheveningen (say that 5 times, fast), a small town right on the coast, on New Year’s Eve. After watching some guys play soccer on the snowy beach, we saw the sun set on 2001. We ate packaged peanut butter crackers and watched awful television in Dutch until we crashed early. The next morning we were up with the sun, and, after a creepy breakfast with the hotel manager, we were out the door. We headed straight for the ocean, completely unaware of what we were about to see.
And how could anything have prepared us for this?
Every year, thousands of people run into the North Sea. Like, ten thousands. It’s the wickedest polar bear club around. So, we show up on the beach, and they’re giving out these ridiculous bright orange hats. We had to get a couple, even though we had every intention to not participate in the naked dash into the sea. Someone told us there was a cash prize for whoever stayed in the longest.
Well, that’s the story of the hat, I guess. The rest of the day was pretty historic for us, too. We went to see The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater. The film played in English with Dutch subtitles, so I had no idea what Arwen and Aragorn were whispering about until months later. We payed for the movie tickets with Dutch Gilders and were given Euros back for change because January 1st, 2002 was when The Netherlands converted their currency to match the EU.
The next day, Daniel’s friend Jeremy joined us, and we took off for Paris for 5 days before returning home. Thinking back on that trip, I believe we made a good choice. Being together 24/7 for that long and in those circumstances was a real test on our blossoming romance. We got angry with each other, we had to constantly admit ignorance and defer to each others’ preferences, we saw each other tired and hungry and grumpy, we saw each other entranced and in awe, Daniel constantly sacrificed and gave me the bigger half of whatever we were eating, we faced the personal matters of immediate bathroom needs and very stinky socks . . .aren’t these the things that love is made of?
So, yes, I still have the hat (we gave the other one to Cholle). Mostly it sits in the closet and reminds me of that really great time we had, but sometimes I wear it because there are moments when it’s the warmest thing I’ve got, and there are also moments when I don’t want to get shot in the woods. And there are moments when I need help remembering who I am and where I’ve been. So maybe I’ll start wearing it more.
*It wasn’t until writing this that I looked up UNOX, the company that sponsors the running into the North Sea, and whose logo is on my hat. It’s a fucking sausage factory. Thank goodness nobody here knows I’m advertising for the lowest thing on the food chain.