I’ve fallen apart in Amsterdam. I’ve fallen apart in most of the cities I’ve visited. Vegas, Gryon, Seattle, Dublin, Auckland. Vancouver. A lot of these cities started as one thing and became another, and that second thing they became made me sad, and angry, and bitter. I tried to overcome that sadness and anger and bitterness by playing the tour guide. When you’re in Amsterdam, you’ll want to go to this restaurant and order this dish and listen to this song as you stare out over the canals. I offered this advice, to whomever would read or listen to it, as part of an effort to reclaim those cities. Because I thought I’d lost them.
These cities started out brand new. I visited Europe for the first time at the age of 28. When 12 a.m. on January 1st, 2008 tolled, I was on a random street in Berlin, having just disembarked from a tram too choked by revellers to get us to our intended destination in time. Our group included my then girlfriend, her cousin and mom, plus friends of ours. We took to other streets in Brussels and Amsterdam to celebrate in equal measure over the course of that trip. It was fun and stressful and formative and new. Especially new.
Over the last decade or so I’ve watched new things suffer a sharp decline. The girl in Berlin broke up with me. People break up, young people especially. They doubt themselves, doubt their partners, doubt the soundness of their decisions and the strength of their commitment and their capacity to care for someone. I’ve been young and broken up with people. I know it happens. But I was old (enough) when the girl broke up with me, and though she was young (enough), and I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, I was. It was the kind of deep-down humbling surprise that hits you when you think you’re old enough to master surprise. At 30, I found myself single, and old (more than enough).
I was also heartbroken, and I sought out band-aids. One of those band-aids was Europe. I visited Europe three times over the course of three years, for long stretches. I went back to Amsterdam. I went back to Brussels. I went back to Dublin and London. I stared their former newness down. I felt numb on their sidewalks. I felt eaten alive by memory. I returned again and again. I wanted to be the traveller, the one who went out into the world by his own choice rather than against his will. I wanted the newness back. I wanted control.
I got older instead, and so did the places. I thought that becoming more familiar with a place like Amsterdam would revitalize it for me somehow. Instead, I mostly moped around, on some level regretting every moment I spent alone, bearing witness to some building or restaurant that formerly held such hope and promise. If only I hadn’t done The Thing that Caused Me to be Broken Up With. If only I hadn’t made The Mistake. If only I could have seen it coming. I would have said something different, acted the way I was supposed to, shown the proper amount of enthusiasm. All of this would still be new instead of a broken, old thing.
Over the past week I played tour guide. Samantha has never been to Europe; I showed her places I’m now long familiar with. I was looking forward to it. But it amounted to a weird kind of temporal displacement that made me anxious and sad. I thought that seeing Samantha experience a thing for the first time would make it new again. But that isn’t how it works. The old things are there for good. You can’t do anything to change them. And when you’re as nostalgic a person as I am, that can blacken a part of you inside for a time that seems far longer than rational.
I tell Samantha I wish I’d experienced new things with her from the beginning. That isn’t how it works, either. We’re products of our successes and failures. The only success I currently have any power over has nothing to do with building a time machine to insert Samantha at the beginning of all this. It has to do with tending to the needs and wants of the person I love. I’m not sure I was always good at that. People are selfish when they’re young, and can continue to be so even when they’re old (enough). I’m no different, but now I have a little perspective on the matter.
My good friends Matt and Kim moved to Amsterdam about seven years ago. When they left Canada, I was a different person doing different things, and so were they. They picked up their lives in Toronto and flew across the ocean. Since then, they’ve called two different countries home, and married each other. A year and a half ago, they had a daughter. Samantha and I met her on Saturday. When we came down the spiral staircase from upstairs our first morning there, she pointed and smiled, overjoyed at seeing a brand new thing happen for the first time.
The world is too large for me to control. It’s too large for me to be broken as badly as I think I am sometimes. Today I sat on a bench on a steep hillside in a small German town along the Rhine with Samantha, who told me that the oldness and sadness and broken-heartedness of Europe wasn’t my fault. I looked down into the town, at ships I’d never seen and tower bells I’d never heard before. I looked into her eyes, and noticed for the first time that they were coloured like islands. And I thanked her for showing me the way.