“In truth not belonging has become my belonging. It is the space I feel most comfortable in; too much predictability makes me chafe and struggle. I remain essentially a tourist, a traveler, someone who longs for new scenarios and new challenges. I yearn for the opportunity to unmake myself and then remake myself again just to see what the pieces look like when they fall…” -Tourist, Andrea Stuart, Airport (Madrid Barajas)
The view from your hotel window. You could be anywhere: the apartment block with lights lit here and there, a dentist surgery underneath them, the cat slinking between the parked cars. A kilometre away Barajas looms, its vast empty runways as well as its many buildings marking territory in the surrounding city. Airports: you could be anywhere, yet their purpose is to take you anywhere at all in the world. But there is promise in their nothingness, as there is seduction in anonymity.
You were meant to be taking this trip with a friend. The plan was to meet in Amsterdam; you traveling from your home in Madrid and her from her own in London. However, at the last minute she is stricken by a mysterious illness and so you decide to go it alone.
Amsterdam – Day One
Repeating patterns. It seems that every city you revisit you end up retracing your steps sin querer, like some kind of tourist manifest destiny. Thus you are landed in the central Amsterdam of six years ago (conducted there by a statuesque Surinamese bus driver. He wears sunglasses despite the greyness of the day and gives a sideways, scissory peace sign to all the other bus and tram drivers that pass him). Without design or desire you are staying on the same road that you stayed on in another life, in another identity. Places and streets you didn’t even know you remembered stumble into your path, eager to greet you and pull you further down their memory lane.
The point at which you find yourself in the third shop that you also shopped in six years ago, you decide it is up to you to stop history from repeating itself. You make a new rule: it is now forbidden to do anything you have done before, even if you like doing it. Irritatingly though, you keep being drawn to these ghost places. You spy a bar that looks cosy and inviting so you cross the street in order to enter it: you came here on visit one. You look left and see a pretty side street with flowers and a skinny canal that bends pleasingly to the left, so you take it. Halfway down you begin to recognise the bend: visit two.
You decide maybe it doesn’t really mean anything after all, just that you are attracted to certain things, particular aesthetics and nothing more. It doesn’t say of you that you are rigid and resistant to change. But you stick to the new rule anyway because, after all, you like rules.
Take a cue from Morrissey. Write idiosyncratic postcards home, Amsterdam inspired Haikus:
Hazy, sleepless day / The streets resonate through time / Disorient you
Where do I belong? / Where I was born, here, or there? / Not one place, but all/none* *delete as applicable
Wheels and water flow / Discordant with the language / Your steps fall in time
Houses with backs straight / The cobbles like sticks of gum / As the clouds look on
You find the perfect bar which is just the perfect amount full. It always used to feel more glamorous drinking alone with your well-chosen accessories (tonight, F. Scott Fitzgerald), but the truth is you can get bored of your own company. You are unlimited, you whisper to yourself. Except when you’re not. Later on that evening you find the answer to this boredom: have exactly two more drinks than you intend to, then you are more than enough for yourself.
Walking past a shop called The Otherist you finally discover your -ism! Being somewhere foreign naturally makes one think about belonging, the first question people always ask being ‘where are you from?’ How to respond, here in this third place? With the country you were born in, or the country you now live in? You ear searches for the cadence of Spanish over your native tongue, your eyes delight to hit upon an olive-toned face which suggests warmth to you, not just because of the connotation with sunshine (which is in short supply here). You shun the looks and behaviours of your own, the northern Europeans.
However, either way, happily you discover the best visa is your smile – the Esperanto of facial expressions.
A visit to the tulip museum. It is the most innocuous of places yet all you can think about is sex and money. You learn that just before the tulip market crashed in the late 17th century the flowers were valued at 100s of times the weight of gold. The right bulb could guarantee you a canal-side town house a few times over.
There is a quote from someone called Lelezari. He writes in the 18th century of the flower:
Curved as the form of the new Moon, her colour is well apportioned, clean, well proportioned, almond in shape, needlelike, ornamented with pleasant rays, her inner leaves as well, as they should be, her outer leaves a little open, as they should be; the white ornamented leaves are absolutely perfect. She is the chosen of the chosen.
Which sounds far too much like the description of a vagina to be a coincidence. This is taken from a piece called Acceptable and Beautiful. This makes you think that things haven’t changed much, men still want their women that way (as they should be) – with perfect flowery vaginas to boot – and their money too: quick and in vast and obscene quantities. The two things always go together it seems, sex and money, mulching together to become one and the same thing: power.
Somehow you find yourself in Brooklyn. Its namesake anyway, its precedent, located outside of Utrecht. Your very sweet host collects you from the train station and on the journey to the fairy-tale, canal-side house – perfect in its symmetry – where you will be staying, he tells you that he was born in the other Brooklyn, NY. He has lived in this ‘Breukelen’, the mirror, the ghost, the phantom limb for 50 years. He tells you a story that resonates with your own (that of falling in love with a place and a people), then pauses and adds: “There’s nothing to make you look away here.” You think what a beautiful sentence that is.
He and his wife are writers and art historians and they have certainly created the pastoral idyll. You read the guest book, it is stuffed full of praise, not just for the beautiful lodgings (in fact these seem almost secondary), but for the owners themselves; their kindness, their grace, their intelligence and urbanity. You had wanted to write something similar yourself until you read what those before you had said. You wish you could find new words for old sentiments, but then kindness surely never goes out of fashion, and can people ever tire of being told of their great and eternal qualities? Wanting to say something new about an old subject is just your ego, which makes you wonder if perhaps you really are a writer after all.
Day Six – Urecht
The time comes to leave the idyll. You are going to Utrecht. You leave as authentic a comment as you can muster in the guest book, but the truth is their grace makes you uneasy with yourself, reflexively it makes you interrogate you own flaws, but you are genuine when you speak of their warmth.
Warmth is something that you haven’t known much of for the past few days. This will be the fourth day in a row that you have been soaked through. It doesn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits, you guess they are used to it here, as you used to be, should be by nature, by accident of birth, or whatever it is that makes up a national identity. You are beginning to long for Madrid, for her dry, sharp cold, a cold which is guaranteed to be followed up by a dry and infernal heat.
In the toilets at the airport there is a flight attendant putting on her make-up and fixing her hair. She is tall, slim and blonde, like air hostesses of yesteryear. A girl rushes into the bathroom and starts to rummage through the bin next to you, it seems she has left part of her hen party outfit in there. She retrieves it and joins the tall blonde at the mirrors. You glance over to find that she is wearing an air hostess costume. You look at them both, the real and the pretend versions of each other, it makes you smile.