The Grand Illusion: Private Jets, Private Schools, Private Lives

Private jets, private schools, private lives. Private is the mote money buys. Private, in the new American economic reality, means transcendence. Transcendence, in American Philosophy, once the hallmark of reading and learning, contemplation and the labor to find the self amongst the many, self-reliance, can now be bought. Private means mobility, the ability to move through space unimpeded by the harangue of the less fortunate. Private means not having to dirty one’s hands — or soul — with the problems of the many — unemployment, hunger and poverty, ill-equipped schools, the malaise of hopelessness. Private means hope — the hope that I will gain while others lose. To live in private means that others will not.

In To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining Up for Private Jets, Christine Haughney reports that, “Now, even as the economy limps along, more of the nation’s wealthier families are cutting out the car ride and chartering planes to fly to summer camps. One private jet broker, Todd Rome of Blue Star Jets, said his summer-camp business had jumped 30 percent over the last year.” Why hang with the rest us? Just sidestep all of the garbage. Why have long waits when it’s more efficient to simply fly over all of it — the heat, the stifling highway stops and their smelly bathrooms, wet floors, loud hand dryers, tolls and people that still can’t tell the difference between an E-Pass lane and a cash lane.

“At Sullivan County Airport in Bethel, N.Y.,” reports Haughney, “roughly 40 percent of recent flights have carried families heading to summer camp. Officials at Laconia Municipal Airport in Gilford, N.H., and Moultonborough Airport in Moultonborough, N.H., reported similar numbers.”

Are these the jets Obama is talking about? Are these the perks the Republicans don’t want to give up? Are the Republicans — and the Tea Party — fighting to ensure that  Private becomes a strong and permanent demarcation in our society, a new social order, one that travels on private jets, attends exclusive camps, followed by elite private prep schools and colleges? Sure we’ll let in a few faces that aren’t like ours, just to look as if we’re into multiculturalism, but please, private is the perfect way to travel through life hassle free.

This new Private world order is forcing us to adjust, re-evaluate, tread lightly since money is power and power can be wielded against anyone, for any reason, and if you’re one of the less fortunate, then, well, you may get screwed. “The popularity of private-plane travel is forcing many high-priced camps, where seven-week sessions can easily cost more than $10,000, to balance the habits of their parents against the ethos of simplicity the camps spend the summer promoting.”

From the budget negotiations and the drama around the debt ceiling, to the hiring of specialized tutors for prep school darlings to ensure entry into elite institutions, to tax shelters and the readily available servicing of any whim, any desire provided you have the money to pay for it — see DSK, for instance, ironically a part of the socialist party in France — what we have here is a view of the other side of the looking glass. We’ve come through, like Alice, to another world. In this world, the majority is left out; in this world, transcendence still means sweat; in this world, though, for just a few, transcendence can be purchased — as can politicians and the perks that go along with the buying of souls.

In this new world order, Private means a loss of empathy; it is the loss of a humanity. Private is synonymous with a false sense of self; it is a skewed view of the world; it is an illusion, the grandest of all. Private is the false belief that one can buy out of suffering, a moral high ground that abdicates responsibility for one’s actions. We’re in deep do-do.

L’Avenir in Provence

Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who gave us deconstruction, says that the true future is that which is to come unannounced — l’avenir; that is to say, the future we plan for with schedules, programs and calculations is only but a piece of the future. The programmed future is foreseeable. L’avenir, instead, comes to us unexpectedly. The Other arriving without us having foreseen it. The unpredictable is therefore true, the truth, the real future.

Out to Lunch

We — Nina and I — planned a week in Avignon, in Provence, France. We arrived from Amsterdam on the TGV as scheduled — a smooth 6hr high speed ride, a quiet ride. We made our way from the gare to the Centre Ville without a hitch. The taxi let us out at 35 rue Louis Pasteur, our pre-arranged studio — so we thought.

Hidden inside of every plan — perhaps at the center — of every schedule and calculation, as if waiting, perhaps even dormant though anticipatory, with one eye open, is the consternation, the sudden jolt, the fire that spews from a dragon’s mouth when the unknown, that which we did not plan and foresee, suddenly overwhelms all space. L’avenir. This is what happens when you realize that 35 rue Louis Pasteur is not the studio apartment you rented, rather it’s a family home. Where are we? What happened to our plans and calculations? Whose world did we enter?

When you find yourself in a place unknown, you come to realize that you’ve entered someone else’s reality, someone else’s sense of what’s to be.

On the other side of the looking glass, standing across from number 35, there we were, two people, suitcases and backpacks in a future we did not plan for. We were out of sorts; we didn’t have the calculus to compute its logic. It was too foreign, the signs not yet evident.

A condition of l‘avenir is the disruption of all logic. Illogic, when aggravated by the adrenaline that ignites when between what was to be and what will be, creates the most dastardly images.

We were ripped off. We’re homeless. What do we do now?

On long trips, mishaps are expected, particularly if one goes abroad and tries to engage a culture. There is anticipation, desire, want. In that moment where the anticipation is supreme, it’s easy to forget things. While still in the states, I forgot to set my cell phone to *228, ensuring cell service in the EU (that was resolved with Verizon’s online help and I got cell service a week and 1/2 into the trip). I had no cell service — I did have WiFi — in Avignon. Perhaps this was the American beginning of l’avenir for us — a small mistake, on the surface, that grew in magnitude, starting a chain of challenges, unknowns to come.

Stranded on 35 rue Louis Pasteur, communicating with our landlord — something previously done online — was key. I left Nina behind and went looking for a phone. Near the center of the center ville I found a phone in a place that sold time on computers and telephones. I called the landlord. No answer, only a voice. I left a message with our predicament. I waited and called again. Nothing. I walked back to Nina, a 5 minute walk at a clip, and reported. We could tell what each other was thinking: where would we stay the night? In July, you see, when the festival in Avignon is going on, rooms are booked solid. There are no rooms. Shit. We were sweating in the stifling Avignon heat.

Are we sure we’re in the right place? Double check the paper work, a folder I always carry as back up that contains reservations, addresses of important locations, names. It’s the right address. No, it’s not. It can’t be. No studio here.

On my third call, the landlord answered. He was standing on 30 rue Louis Pasteur, waiting. He had evidently given me the wrong address. Ah. Ah. Voila. But that was the beginning of the unknowns to come.

While some of us vacation and get away to actually get closer to ourselves, understand ourselves in more intimate ways to better understand where we have been and where we are going, in this case, meeting up with our landlord, in the confusion, we neatly slid into his conflicts, the problems with his world. This move completely disrupts any reflection that one may be moving towards. We were thrust into the machinations of our landlord’s uncanny world.

Dragging our bags 100 or so meters to 30 rue Louis Pasteur — literally 100 meters because the street numbers converged at 1 at a plaza and began again — the landlord, Francis, explained to us that the studio apartment we pre-paid for had no water. It wasn’t ready. He then told us that he booked a room for us in a B&B 15 kilometers away in Cavaillon. Would that be okay with us?

In the hot, ugly orange and claustrophobic studio apartment on the street level in Avignon’s center ville — heat you could cut with a knife and dank — a B&B with a piscene was a welcomed solution. And since this was unforeseen, said Francis, he threw in his vehicle so that we could get around Provence until the apartment’s water was returned to order. A day, he said, and everything would be fine. Nina and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders: what choice is there?

We were being lead, not leading. Like life, a journey or reprieve away from the usual requires that you succumb. That’s the thing about l’avenir, I think — at some point succumbing to the presence of the Other is necessary. Which involves trust — trusting that you’re in some sort of whirling pool and there’s no way out. Instincts even become something one questions. You have to trust that the schedules and formulations you’ve previously done are pliable enough to adjust to the new world you find yourself in. Ironically, this doesn’t distance you from your introspective journey, rather it brings you closer to yourself and, most importantly, to the person you’re traveling with (here, traveling is of course metaphorical, as in traveling through life’s strange journey).

The B&B in Cavaillon was glorious. We were given the prize room — a suit with private bath and AC. It overlooked the courtyard on one side, the luscious back of the house and pool on the other. George, the owner, was a delight; he spoke English very well, too, and helped us with our French. He provided an itinerary of where we should go in the Lubéron valley region. And we breakfasted on homemade prune and orange jams, croissant, and fresh breads, fresh squeezed orange juice and strong coffee in large cups — almost the bowls one sees in French movies.

L’avenir can bring fortune. We adjusted quickly, and off we were to the villages in the Lubéron. George was our host for two nights. But as much as George is the consummate innkeeper — gracious, affable, kind and considerate, finding comfort and happiness watching his guests relish in his leisured country life in Provence, Francis is harried, non communicative, and overwhelmed with his role as an innkeeper and, he told us, landowner of apartments in Paris. George tries to live a life whereby planning, scheduling and calculating are privileged — thus when l’avenir inevitably overwhelms all other considerations (such as Francis putting out an S.O.S. to all innkeepers in the area asking for any room, any room at all to house these two travelers I’ve made homeless), he is ready — or at least better able to determine options amidst the consternation caused by the unknown, the uncanny quality of the unforeseeable. Francis lives in l’avenir, a life spent reacting to the unexpected; it is a life taxed by the unknown’s voracity, thus it’s not your life, but, rather, the conditions that rear when no plans are exacted. It’s a life of putting out fires since l’avenir is always smoldering — until ignited: plan after plan always in an ongoing deconstruction of the unnatural state of un-grace that defines Francis. Where George is grace, Francis is chaos.

In my experience, age now 57, humans are two: graceful or not. Nothing else. From this grace, or the ungrace, stem a whole host of realizations, understandings and complexes about life itself and how to lead it. The graceful do not succumb; they are pliable. The non-graceful, for them, life is always difficult; it comes with difficulties first, not beauty. For the non-graceful, exacting beauty and wonderment from life is almost impossible. It’s always dark. The graceful always find light somewhere, soft, rounded corners, not edges. The un-graceful is edgy. Simply moving in space is hard; being with people is hard. Listening is nearly impossible. It’s as if in the un-graceful, narcissism has been disrupted, where the graceful is assured of his narcissism. Again, as Jacques Derrida says, there’s no such thing as no narcissism, only degrees of narcissism.

Francis’ 18th Century Inn, I’sle sur la Sorgue

On the third night we were scheduled to be in Francis’ B&B, which is in I’sle sur la Sorgue, the most delightful town, the antique capital of Provence, boast the locals. Through the center of the town streams the Sorgue, it’s source up the mountain a ways in the Lubéron. But as delightful as the town is — and we, Nina and I, will return here; it suits us well — that is how un delightful Francis’ B&B is.

We were greeted by 2 barking dogs — a Doberman, old and stiff, and another nondescript dog, a cross between an ant eater and a Siberian husky, a small one. This dog smelled like no other I’ve ever smelled before — urine, sweat, dirty, all in one odiferous mass of energy that rubbed up against your legs. Lick. Lick. Lick. His thick hair was wet and gave off an odor of sewage. In the pebbled courtyard, several dog poops signaled danger. And in the deep July heat of Provence, the courtyard was steaming with the animals’ remains of their day.

What kind of unforeseen worlds can come from conditions like this? In George’s world, we were let into something soft, something that said that attention to our wants was nurtured; in Francis’ world the signs suggested that we had entered into the place of the unforeseen, a place inhabited solely by the affinity to problems Francis and his wife, Cathy, seem to have. This world is selfish. Guests are, at best, secondary, and a kind of despair becomes the organizing principle. Gestures are heavy, labored. Small things, such as breakfast, are not celebrated as a time to get to know one another, as it was at George’s, rather it was haphazardly thrown together.

Sitting in Francis’ and Cathy’s living room and dining area, both of which smelled of dirty dog and urine, the animals circling, discussing our future stay and constant movement without our luggage, still in the non-working apartment in Avignon, Nina and I, separate and then together, came to parallel conclusions about how to live these days. We adjusted. We traveled the Lubéron. We dreamt about a house here, a house there, the children, embraced our unforseeable future and the time we have together, fleeting, and dug into our senses.

We had to — the apartment in Avignon never came together. We ended up wasting a day traveling the 40 minutes or so, in heavy traffic, between I’sle sur la Soruge and Avignon so to then wheel our bags, finally, out of the apartment and back to the stinky yet beautiful 18th Century inn. By that time Francis had flown the coop: mysteriously one morning he left before sunrise, leaving his wife and the housekeeper to fend for themselves. And did I mention that Cathy is in a cast up to her elbow? Yes. Croissants were left in paper bags, bread placed in a basket, coffee left in a carafe for us to tend — that was breakfast. But we gracefully made our way, had a glorious send off in I’sle sur la Sorgue — dinner at La Romantica restaurant, glorious, followed by Pastis and red wine as we listened to a very funny rock band that played American Muzac. The town was full, celebratory, as it should have been on July 14, France’s day of celebration for its incredibly powerful history.

The lesson of l’avenir is simply — and with difficulty — to try to find grace in the unforeseen, the uncanny, since this is what’s being asked of us — to find the grace that lies within in our grasp, that beauty that belies resistance and is always already there inviting our deconstruction, our way of prying ourselves from what is not natural so that we don’t have to feign a naturalness that is not existent anyway. This is the story of our unexpected stay in Avignon.

Amsterdam Redux

She said, “You Americans, you live to work.” She let it sink in, her eyes wide, a grin across her face. “The Dutch, we work to live,” she said.

The simple, straightforward statement the landlady of our Oud Suid apartment, Marnie, uttered gave me pause. We work to live. What distance those who live to work must travel to reverse how we engage the world.

In Amsterdam, at a very young age, a baby in arms — no, let’s start this again, better yet: in vitro the child begins to enter the rhythms of the culture. It comes to her through the mother as she pedals gracefully, back straight and head upright. She negotiates the trams and the pedestrians, the traffic lights and, most dangerous of all, the tourists, always an unpredictable menace whether on foot or on a bicycle.

This is Amsterdam

By the time the child is one, her hair curly and blond and her skin is butter fresh and can sit upright without help, she moves from a pouch held over the mother’s shoulder, where the child has been cradled in her trek across Amsterdam for some time, to a seat straddling the bike’s crossbar. Perched like a lookout on a ship’s tall mast, the child takes in her world — the intricate web of bicycles coming and going almost effortlessly, the unifying laws of humanity that enable this choreography to blossom as if it’s somehow a spirit laying just beneath the surface for the child that the mother compels forth with her always steady pedaling. The wheels turning and turning rhythmically, balanced and subtle. The child learns this grace before the child can even say a word, utter a complete sentence, learn about more institutionalized versions of grace. Before the child has a full idea she can grasp and articulate — an I want thought — she has already apprehended the gospel of Amsterdam’s intricate dance.

Before the child can reason, she is already Amsterdam; that is, before she can lay claim to her beautiful blue eyes, control the contour of her curls, she is Amsterdam first. She has become before she becomes; she is both who she imagines she is and who she’s been imagined to be. The history of Amsterdam is in this handing over of its elegance and nature, quietly but resolutely, parent to child on bicycles. Eventually the child straddles a smaller bicycle, head proud, back straight, the handle bars arched like a curvaceous”U”, the edges that loop towards her held in her hands. She has learned to solo. She is safe in the stream, a songline unifying all in Amsterdam — rich, poor, foreign, and different working in unison so as to not compromise the flow, the energy. If you’ve allowed Amsterdam’s vibe into your sense of being, then you know that from this point, on this bicycle, the child has learned grace, pride and manners; she’s learned to be honest and direct; she’s learned to speak with confidence. It’s then that the child can say, with conviction and without reservations, I am Amsterdam.

I Am Amsterdam

I am Amsterdam, the perfect logo seen all over the city is simple, clean and direct. And it’s no wonder since this logo has come to life in the culture that practically invented advertising and design in the mid 1600s. I am Amsterdam points in two directions: back to its history, the Golden Age that created wealth, stability, art and culture by devastating the weaker countries and colonizing the spaces on the map still uninhabited by men with gunpowder, building a world order through violence and oppression — the methods to come that would likewise build other great powers; and it points forward to the tolerance and affability that, out of necessity, has grown out of the bleakness of the Golden Age as a way to embrace others with humility, the different others that want to come to its northern port and see for themselves, experience possibilities, experience being left to one’s devices to survive without judgment. Experience the patience and tolerance that is a natural outcome of having to compensate for creating a magnificent culture from conquest and colonialization, slavery and oppression, great violence and violations of human rights. The Dutch feel the weight of the anvil on their backs; they are responsible for their history and their destiny.

Amsterdam Revisited

I revisited Amsterdam this past week and spent Easter Weekend, along with countless Spaniards, Italians and Germans, in the early spring sun. Last time I was in Amsterdam was in June of 2008 and I went alone for a conference. This time I went with my wife and we lived in a delicious and charming apartment in the Oud West, on Douwess Dekkerstraat, owned by the artist Patty Schilder.

Oud West Apartment --looking toward Farmers Market

Oud West Apartment --looking toward Farmers Market

From our balcony, looking out over the Buurtcentrum De Havelaar, we gazed at the Baarsjesweg Canal, especially beautiful in the evening when the sun sets and the large barges slowly make their way up and down after a long day’s work. Two blocks away, in the early morning, the farmers market gathers steam. Here, the true ethnic diversity of the Oud West comes alive–Middle Eastern women in their hejabs argue prices with their favorite vendors, breads and cheeses abound, fish and meats, too. The color and smells and sounds are soothing, seductive. There is no excuse here for not eating right. The food is fresh, beautiful. The difficulty is in buying only what you need, something the Dutch are very good at doing, it seems.

Oud West Apartment looking toward canal

Oud West Apartment looking toward canal

The difference between this trip and my last one is the bicycle. The only real way to experience this culture is on the bike. Though a modern tool, the bike is the heart of Amsterdam. Many consider Amsterdam “the biking capital of Europe.” Amsterdam bikers have the right of way, not pedestrians. The flow and energy of this city is dependent upon how well the biking moves the energy along. The Dutch are great bikers, they weave in and out of crowds, move effortlessly through traffic, grinning or smiling and never (apparently) frustrated. This is Amsterdam. I’ve seen youngsters txting and biking, talking on cells, with passengers, children, sometimes two, one in the rear, the other up front. Much of Amsterdam’s life happens on the bike.

Biking in the north

Biking in the north

We rented our bikes from Bike City. The added bonus being that the only hint that this is a rental is written in small, elegant print on the black carry bag on the handlebars: Bike City. Otherwise, the bikes were like all others. Most rental bikes are loud reds or yellows and have huge insignias. Would you want to call attention to yourself like that? We didn’t. We found the best bikes to rent are the 3 speeds with hand brakes. They’re comfortable and sturdy. Our first trek took us through the city, to the ferry landing behind Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station, and up through the farmland of the north country all they way to Slot Ilpenstein. We biked through pasture land, in and out of canals. Sheep nearby. The famous Frisian horses, too. And we managed a glimpse of some drafts.

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam

From that day on, we rode everywhere, including another “out of the city” day trip to Haarlem, a municipality and a city in the Netherlands, and also the capital of the province of North Holland, the northern half of Holland. The bicycle lends for a particular order to things, a graciousness and decorum we like to call civilized or civilization. It’s interesting because if one examines the history of the Netherlands, we see that this living has come at great human cost. Many fell to the strength and power of the mighty Dutch will. The rise of the Dutch Empire is extensive and dramatic. Out of this, comes Amsterdam, an important port city and center of commerce. What we see in Amsterdam today is a result of this history so as we ride through the city and sit comfortably in cafes adjoining canals, we have to weigh the awesome power that began somewhere around the 1540s and that conquered so much. To the victor belongs the spoils is quite evident in Amsterdam. These spoils are Amsterdam’s gift to humanity. But these spoils also bare an awesome responsibility that Amsterdam’s inhabitants are trying to understand. The story is complex.

Perhaps this is why we can describe Amsterdam as an incredibly important human experiment that’s ongoing. And just maybe, this is why the moral structure of this great little city is experimenting with an unbound secularism founded on an unprecedented egalitarianism, which, in turn, depends upon freedoms of expression and a tolerance for difference. But this is the idealized version, the romantic view. It’s not surprising, then, that when the world is exhausted by the constant chimes of terror, from the Netherlands explodes the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. It’s also the place where Theo Van Gogh, the great-grandson of Theo van Gogh, the brother of painter Vincent van Gogh, was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim extremist, after van Gogh, with collaboration from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, released the Anti-Islam film Submission.

Middle Eastern Women in the Oud West, after shopping

Middle Eastern Women in the Oud West, after shopping

Amsterdam is not without controversy. It is an extraordinary diverse place; however, diversity brings contention, even among the most enlightened. When differences are thrust together, the potential for an explosion is always present. Before 1965, the Netherlands were totally a monoculture–all white Dutch and no threats. This changed with a very liberal immigration policy. Effectively, the society is now segregated. On the streets, we can see the diversity, but where it counts–schools, neighborhoods, business and so on, we don’t see it. There is resentment that what Dutch culture was is no longer–this is true. The monoculture safety net has been taken away. Now the struggle is different, particularly on religious grounds where the Christian and the Muslim, along with the Jew, have to live side-by-side in a society that is increasingly secular.  What is Amsterdam turning into? What is it becoming?

I wonder whether Amsterdam today is the “new” Al Andaluz? It has the makings.  Why not, why can it not be the “new” place where the three central religions, Christians, Muslims and Jews, live in relative peace and harmony? Only now we are called upon to protect the Muslim, not the other way around as it was when the Muslim protected the ahl al-dhimma (the people under protection). Maybe the tides have turned, though the challenges and the conflicts are as they were in the period between 711 and 1492. What we don’t want is the devastation and the destruction brought about by the Christian King in 1492–in the name of God and love! Al Andaluz was a beacon of learning, and the city of Córdoba became one of the leading cultural and economic centers in both the Mediterranean basin and the Islamic world. Why can this not be the fate of the Netherlands, Amsterdam leading the way?

The Amsterdam I see today is in transition, in flux, pained by both its past and its future. But it’s how it negotiates its day-to-day where the mystery and awe exist. The seeds of tolerance are there–a young Muslim woman on a bike or a Vespa waiting for a light to change and waiting next to her is a tall Dutch blond, also on her bike, and they look at one another and smile. This is the new Amsterdam.

So perhaps the Dutch are such great bikers because they have been learning to negotiate obstacles all along. Whether by conquering territories for their wealth during the time of the Burghers or changing from a monoculture to an ethnically diverse culture, they have been challenging boundaries–national, ethnic and tribal, as well as economic and educational. Amsterdam could be the first small city that will evolve–or not–according to how well it enables those who reside in the margins of life to exist without threat; where once there was a singular uninterrupted culture, as is evident in the architecture and the museums, now there are only threads that are struggling to keep humanity together. And holding these threads are exiles. Amsterdam is a perfect example of a city of exiles, of histories that come from colonization, and newer ones that come along because they have been following the great human migration for survival, for subsistence.

Bikes, Canals, and their Bridges--the web

Bikes, Canals, and their Bridges--the web

The Amsterdam of tomorrow will be built on the shoulders of mindfulness and tolerance. And if successful, Amsterdam, as Al Andaluz before it, will hold a noble place in the continuum of great histories that have given humanity, even if for a moment, a ray of hope that we can live together and relish in our differences.

Preliminary Notes from Amsterdam, 2008

I arrived to a picture perfect Amsterdam—cloudy and misty, a cool breeze. This gave a mythical quality to the juxtaposition of dark green canals and the colorful homes—whites and beiges and a black with purple—along their edges, some seemingly growing right out of the water. The homes are erected tightly side-by-side. Some homes lean a bit forward (it was learned that it was easier to hoist furniture this way), others sideways enough to notice. All homes, from their rooftops, dangle pulleys attached to very ornate arms that are beefy enough to sustain the weight of furnishings raised into apartments. Going inside with furniture and up narrow stairs or in one and two person elevators just can’t cut it. Furnishings must go into a home through the very large windows. The houses are very narrow; this is because at one point, homeowners were taxed according to width.



By 2PM (14:00 hrs) of my first day, the sun was out and the breeze only occasional. There always seems to be a breeze here, sometimes gusting into a strong wind that can last several minutes. The leaves rustle violently. The canals kick up a bit. Most people ware some sort of jacket because in the shade it can get cool—and every café has plenty of shade.

The sun magnified the multitudes on the streets; it was like a spot light. Droves and droves of people form all over the place. Enumerable languages everywhere: all the European languages, but a lot of Spanish and Italian; Arabic, Turkish, Greek and so on; likewise multitudes from Asia and South Asia. The restaurants reflect this. For every language there is a restaurant. I counted 5 Argentinean restaurants, though I didn’t try any because, well, I’ve eaten the food there. Why compromise? Amsterdam is an amalgamation of cultures and systems and beliefs.



Amsterdam is a peculiar, pleasant human experiment—old world and new, the citizens appear to have found a soothing aesthetic. It’s a laid back approach to labor; it’s not laid back in the sense of an Argentinean “piola,” don’t worry, tomorrow it’ll be better. No, this a particular soft energy applied to the comings and goings of life. There is constant movement in Amsterdam. It’s visible in the walking, bicycling and traming (electric trams).

The main roads have a lane for the tram, which requires tracks since they run on overhead electricity (the lines web the city). Next to the tram lane, on either side, are the auto lanes and the bike lanes, which sometimes come into the sidewalk as well on one side so as to not interfere with walkers and strollers (that’s me). It’s all rhythmic, ruled by understanding, tolerance and patience—the bell of the tram announcing it’s near so that walkers and bikers get out of the way; the constantly ringing bells of the bikers weaving in-between walkers; the low purr of the walkers and café dwellers.

The Amsterdam biker is quite experienced. They flow through crowds effortlessly on variations of English racers ringing their bells—watch out. Never hostility uttered at anyone. The Amsterdam biker is apparently negotiating a deeper melody. Some bikes have a front extension that looks like a small dingy. This is for kids and groceries. No one wares a helmet. It all works.

Along some streets and in the plazas, they’ve gone one up on the French: in front of the first line of tables in many cafés they’ve taken to placing chairs, side-by-side and facing out theatre-like and, well, the whole world is your stage. Sometimes this row of chairs is along the back against the wall of the café. This is very interesting and I think a sign of Amsterdam’s pleasantness; that is, Amsterdam’s allure, beyond its architectural, historical and artistic beauty and magnetism, is in its understanding that the human condition is very complex and that this complexity requires an open admission that in order to even approximate harmony, tolerance for our needs and desires, as bizarre as these may be sometimes, needs to be accommodated. Amsterdam is accommodating. The underlying ethos is to not make waves.

This is evident in the energy on the streets, first—the way machine and humanity and environment interact in soft ways. It then extends to extremes—from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, the orthodox to the most liberal, even if this is on the borderlines of the bizarre. Amsterdam is a very interesting human experiment that has grown and evolved along these canals.

Houses Out of the Canals

Houses Out of the Canals

Can society, small as it is here, tolerate extreme needs and differences? Can displaced persons from all over the world, some from places marked by war and devastation, come together and simply live together and in this form manifest something for tomorrow?

The Politie (police), many very young, patrol the streets on bicycles. They’re dressed casually—a white shirt with insignias, dark blue combat pants and boots, radios and guns (some don’t have guns). They work on containing the excitement in certain areas, as in the Red Light District, and weave in and out of the center of the flow of the crowds looking for any sign of potential eruption that would require defusing. This is very uncommon, though; most of the time their presence is enough and people go on about their merry business.

There are the boisterous men, young and old. These international and diverse bans walk throughout the city but are most evident in the Red Light District. These bans span cultures; some are intermixed, diverse. Most are working class kids looking for kicks. The most annoying are the English and the Americans. Boy can they drink, particularly the Brits. It’s not enough to drink for them—you have to we wobbling down the street yelling and screaming. The American youths follow a close second to this. These groups don’t raise any problems; they’re contained within their own worlds. If anything the harm they might do is to themselves. But even this gesturing is understood and not threatening, seen as yet another group—the immature, testosterone confused man needing to obtain some sort of image to conceal vulnerabilities.

The Red Light District

The Red Light District

A lot is tolerated here—and maybe this is something to learn from. While church bells mark the hour to God, men stroll before bikini-clad women standing provocatively in small booths, as if mannequins on 5th Avenue in New York. The booth is strange, it’s both a calling forth, an advertisement, and a complex gesture towards the womb since it too represents a type of protection. The women open their glass doors slightly and whisper to men and strike their deals. Some booths, the more daring, sport 2 women. It’s a bizarre and very strange world. In-between this very open admission that the oldest profession is alive and well—and supported by Mastercard and Visa, state healthcare and inspectors, and government—are cafés, beautiful homes, fantastic shops, bookstore and restaurants. The blend is incredible. You have to ponder it a bit and take it in it’s so grave.

The coffee shops are the smoking places where marihuana, Ti, and hashish are available in various forms, including brownies; it can be bought and used in the café or taken out on the street or you can light up at a café on a canal.** There are stores, too, that specialize in seeds and mushrooms (psilocybin). All these places are full and occupied by various types—all above the age of 18: old timers, young, in-between, middle aged groups, women alone, men alone, all cultures are evident in the cafés. Starting the day with a double espresso and Big Bubba’s Cheese brings a whole new meaning to ‘starting the day.’

Naturally, this kind of openness brings in “the other,” the hard drugs—coke and heroine sold, in whispers, by Africans on the street. This is totally illegal, of course. But we know from experience that once one form—alcohol and pot—are tolerated, even sanctified, then “the other” will creep in. Perhaps this is a challenge: if you’re going to go this far, why not go all the way? What else will that bring from the narrative of unintended consequences?

The atmosphere in the Red Light District is interesting. Families, kids, young and old travel the streets; however, “the man” is obviously the dominant force. The essence of this area is male. This is obvious to anyone walking across a canal bridge and on its edge is a urinal, sometimes two. These urinals are open to the world; that is, they are porta-lets with only small holes to satiate men’s immediate need. On any given occasion you see several men, one per open toilet, pushed in so that digital video cameras don’t end up catching a glimpse of their one unique problem in life and cast it to the world via Google. (This is a culture under constant surveillance, cameras everywhere; this is something I’ve seen everywhere I’ve been—everyone is being photographed and filmed by the state.) Nothing like a good pee out in the open among the crowds after that double espresso.

For women, there is no such comfort.

I love Amsterdam. I believe it has to be and that we have to try and understand what this means to us. I love the city’s energy and tolerance. But it’s a stark reminder of how complex and perverse we humans are. The entire world is here. What really comes through is that humanity really lives in one very old system. On one end of the spectrum, the state apparatuses and the ideological apparatuses; then gentrification, the push for humanism and environmentalism, a good life with just enough “things” coupled to an aesthetic that is earthy. And on the other end, the need of some to work out insecurities, vulnerabilities and confusions in more edgy forms. Very often, the two worlds synthesize, are side-by-side. An old system laid bare and supported quite well by business and government. It’s a vertical system without seeming to be so, a fascinating slight of hand.

But in-between the canal boats slowly making their way, people jubilant, and in-between the shadows that are always available to us in such extremes, even when gracefully melded together as they are here, are the children. These are the kids that are being towed by parents—everywhere; and the young alone on the streets. You wonder what they see; you wonder what it is we’re saying to them about how they are to live. And then, for me, the most challenging image is how young some of these young girls in their booths are—younger then my college age daughter. How is it that some can only find the oldest profession as a way through life? I was left with that thought. It hangs heavy.

Church in the heart of the Red Light District

Church in the heart of the Red Light District

In all, I believe in the Amsterdam experience that may find you listening to church bells while staring at a Jamie Lynn Cyberskin Vibrating Doll. There is quite a lot to learn from this experiment in humanity. Maybe al Andalus was something like this—tolerance alongside broad accommodations made to differences, yet beyond the surface structure of liberty and equality, there is a highly structured, vertical society—the rich and the poor, and everything in-between; the ideological class and the state class; labor; artists. And all this supported by the globalization of money that enables but a few to control both ends of this same equation. This is the oldest system: comoflouage the hierarchy with tolerance for the many vicissitudes that will undoubtedly arise. It’s a good means of control.