It was 2007, I was 18 and the year had not been kind to me. I was living alone in a run-down house on Waiheke Island, New Zealand, with holes in the windows and ceiling.
All I owned were books, two guitars and a Pontiac firebird. My heart hadn’t yet recovered from the Rube Goldberg machine that was my first real relationship and I spent most of my time at the beach, daydreaming about sailing over the horizon.
Then I ran into an old friend from high school who told me that she (along with some friends) had planned a trip to Europe. This sounded like just the kind of shake-up I’d been looking for: a place where I didn't speak the language and didn’t know anyone. So I immediately sold my car for a fraction of its worth and got in on the adventure. Later that same week I was in Amsterdam, staying in a youth hostel on Warmoesstraat, just outside the red light district.
The hostel dormitory was rough and it seemed that the previous guests had gone out of their way to debase every stainable material, from carpet to mattress to wall. But past the grime, out on the balcony, was a view of one of the oldest streets in the city, all cobble and brick with flags strung roof to roof, fluttering in the breeze. After the sun fell away, our group stepped into the night, weaving through a weird combination of tourist families and drug users. Workers of both sexes signalled to us from behind the windows of blue and red-lit glass, and over the course of the night I was witness to things unsuitable for publication.
We arrived back at the lobby of the hostel, and were discussing the eccentricity of the locals, when my friend dropped to the ground, clutching at her stomach. She was sick: sweating buckets and in tremendous pain. I ran to the hostel receptionist to ask for help, but he started to panic, telling me how a drug overdose would be bad for business. I tried explaining that drugs were not a factor but he spoke limited English. In the end I convinced him to call a doctor.
The doctor made his diagnosis by gripping my friend and shaking her by the shoulders until I made him stop. He turned to me, wrote down a prescription on a slip of paper and gave me very detailed instructions of which pharmacy I would need to take it to. I didn't speak Dutch, so caught not one word.
I spent hours riding trams and asking for directions in a city I had only known for the better part of a day, meeting a variety of friendly weirdos and an equal number of locals, angry at me for being American—no matter how much I wasn't. I returned to the hostel and gave my friend her medicine then moved into the downstairs bar and relaxed on a seat by the window. A man walked over and asked me to join him in a game of chess. He set up the board and offered me a smoke from his corncob pipe: it was just what I needed. I thanked the man, took the pipe, and burnt myself on the hot edge, reactively throwing it out the open window into the canal.
Later that night I went up to check on my friend just as everyone else was settling in bed. She was feeling better but for some weird reason thought it would be funny to shout that I was pinching her. She drew the attention of everyone in the room, and they all scowled; what kind of monster would pinch a sick girl? She laughed, but I didn't see the humour—must have been the meds.
I was tired, my body was heavy and jet-lagged, it had been a long and unusual first day with no alleviation from the weird emotional distance I’d felt back home. I said goodnight to my friend, left the room and headed out into the streets. The National’s Alligator played me a theme through my headphones as I walked without purpose, a sponge of negative energy. I strode past Dam Square and the Palace, letting my eyes wander over the architecture. I walked past the canals where black water sat full of stars and wore the glow of blue and red neon, parting as a boat sailed by in silence, piloted by a turtle-necked, moustachioed man.
A Dutch version of ‘In the jungle’ spilled from the open doors of a karaoke bar and my mood lifted. I suddenly realised where I was, how everything had changed for me topographically, I just hadn’t taken the time to notice. I sat on the edge of a fountain, and opened up to my surroundings, noting that I had indeed sailed over the horizon I had gazed at in those stranded days on Waiheke Island. A couple rode by on bicycles, and the clatter of the night’s final tram echoed between buildings. I felt a little switch flick in my brain and I smiled, realising I had fallen in love with a city.