***I’m in Paris now. Have been for the past two days. Wrote some of this on the train to Paris and the rest just now. Paris has been inexplicably incredible. Must write about it soon. Life is happening so amazingly fast. But, now is the time to catch up on Holland!***
Arnaldo greeted me with the traditional Dutch greeting… three kisses on the cheek. It’s funny learning the differences. It Italy it’s two, in Belgium it’s one and in Holland it’s three. Arnaldo escorted me to his cozy apartment, not even a five-minute walk from the train station. Then, he took off for work. How open and unassuming! We knew each other for less than a half hour and he was entrusting me with his home. I can’t tell you how refreshing and encouraging it is to be out traveling and encounter person after person who chooses to have faith in people, in humanity, when the rest of the world is continuously battering us with reasons why we shouldn’t.
Left alone, I jumped online to catch up with emails and to call Julian, a colleague that lives in Holland. I met Julian at the Petit Le Mans in Atlanta, Georgia just a couple of months ago. I was wandering around the infield at the open road track trying to snag some good shots when Julian popped out from nowhere urging me to jump up on the fence to get better shots. I did and I got some great shots. Julian and I talked for maybe a half hour before we went our separate ways… not without exchanging our business cards of course.
It wasn’t until right before the trip to Germany that I thought I could end up stopping by Holland to visit Julian. At first, my plan was to simply do my work in Germany, visit a friend who lives there and then shoot down to Italy to visit old friends there. But, as I told more people about my upcoming trip, I learned that several of my friends would be scattered throughout Europe in December and I met Ben who was planning to take off for Asia… and that’s when my trip began morphing into an unstructured plan to wander around Europe and beyond via couchsurfing, trying to meet up with friends, colleagues and acquaintances along the way.
I think it’s safe to say it was kind of surreal for both Julian and I to have met just briefly a few months ago in Atlanta and then meet each other again just a couple months later in his hometown in Holland. So, I called him up, we met about an hour later and had dinner at a Cuban restaurant, Havana, near the center of Den Haag (or The Hauge). During that dinner Julian and I launched into a deep and thorough discussion about religion, God, life, morals, politics, values, standards, behavior, humanity… basically all the dangerous, touchy subjects one doesn’t normally strike up with a near stranger. Julian and I saw eye to eye on many things and we had differing philosophies on many others. We continually challenged each other, but not once did I feel attacked or offended. I felt that Julian considered everything I said, thinking about it, weighing it out. He truly listened and at times countered with rather challenging perspectives. I had met a match… one who could truly debate with heart without taking it to heart. And I must say I welcomed the challenge. When you meet people briefly, breezing in and breezing out, often, you don’t build up enough of a relationship to tackle such involved, heavy topics. It was invigorating to delve deep into such soul-searching topics with someone while I am poised at an inherently soul-searching time in my life… out on my own, entrusting strangers with my safety and well-being, learning just a little bit more about the different cultures I encounter. And that pretty much marked how Julian and I interacted with each other for the rest of my stay in the Netherlands. Rarely did we have a light conversation.
Later that evening, Julian and I met up with Arnaldo and his friend Henri… and they took me salsa dancing!! I LOVE Latin dancing!! I was rather rusty, but a fellow dancer, Leo, stepped in and walked me through the different steps and moves and by the end of the night I was beginning to fall back into my old rhythm. After such a long day of travel, hearty discussion and lively dancing, I certainly slept well on Arnaldo’s couch that night.
The next morning Arnaldo’s friend Maria (also a fellow couchsurfer) met us at Arnaldo’s apartment and we all went out for breakfast. Finally, I got to eat some eggs! In Belgium you ate sweet croissants for breakfast… that’s it. I was glad to have something a bit more substantial. I also tried these small, creamy pancake things, which are a traditional Dutch dish. I can’t remember what they’re called in Dutch, but they were delicious! After a long and relaxed breakfast we made our way back to Arnaldo’s. He needed to get ready for work and I was meeting up with Julian again to go explore The Hauge. Maria decided to go with Julian and I, so we left Arnaldo (wishing he could come with us of course) and went out to explore. We wandered around Den Haag seeing the European consulate, the Queen’s palace, the prince’s home, the royal gardens, churches etc… all the while Julian filling Maria and I in on some of Holland’s history and tradition. Maria is actually an Austrian. She has been working as an Au Pere in Den Haag for the past 5 months. She did already know a lot about the Netherlands though. Maria was a rather amiable woman always in an easy-going, happy mood.
We still had time after cruising around The Hauge so we headed to Delft, which Maria says is known as the small Amsterdam. And Delft was quaint and charming with little canals popping up here and there. While wandering through Delft we snacked on some warm, flat waffles filled with a sweet caramel filling… another typical Dutch treat.
Next, Jullian and I dropped Maria off at the home where she stays as an Au Pere and then he and I headed to the beach. It was a bit brisk outside, but the day had been a warmer one so we figured it wouldn’t be too cold along the shore… And there on the shore, the black beauty galloped with his black mane thrashing wild and free, highlighted by the sun’s final, soft, pink glow in a blue-gray sky. I wanted to catch the beast’s mane, spring up onto his back and just gallop off with him, wild and free…
But, I don’t think the Dutch women who were with him would have liked that, so I settled for simply snapping a few pics of the beautiful creature. I also caught a few pics of a flock of gulls and of the beach’s light, pink-blue glow before Julian and I stopped for a seaside drink. Of course, we fell right back into discussing deep, thought-provoking subjects.
Next, we picked up Maria again and joined her for a Thanksgiving dinner that she was invited to in a round about way through couchsurfing. So, yes, for those of you wondering, I did enjoy a hearty Thanksgiving feast! An American house sitting in Den Haag hosted the feast. The crowd was an interesting one though. A social worker, a lawyer, several economists. Other than the comically entertaining and friendly Serbian, and the soft-spoken, yet rather sharp and clever Australian, the crowd took a bit of warming up to at first. Some of them had some great things to say and share after they did warm up to me. Some of the others I didn’t manage to win over very much. I don’t think Maria and Julian got very far with any of them and they were ready to get out of there. We snagged Simon, the Australian (and Maria’s friend), and headed out to meet up with Arnaldo. We were greeted by a large group of couchsurfers when we met up with Arnaldo, all very warm and welcoming. But, I spent most of the time involved in a thorough conversation with Simon about travel. Simon has been all over the world and he had a handful of stories to tell and tips to offer. He really got me excited about the various places I plan to visit. I really hope everything pans out! Simon took off shortly after and the rest of us took off for another bar. I started feeling a bit exhausted from all the day’s activities though. So I was pretty low key and mellow the rest of the night. As soon as we got back to Arnaldo’s I hit the couch and was out.
I slept in Friday morning and Arnaldo cooked me breakfast. What more could a couchsurfer ask for?? Arnaldo was an incredibly easy-going and generous host. He wanted to chill out though for a bit, so he did not join Julian and I for our late afternoon jaunt to Amsterdam. To be honest, I’ve never had any desire whatsoever to go to Amsterdam. I know its reputation and I didn’t think the atmosphere there would have anything to offer that I would be interested in. But, everyone insisted that I couldn’t skip Amsterdam, so I decided to check it out and Julian offered to take me. When we arrived in the evening, I was starving so we immediately went to a Persian restaurant and had a good filling meal. Then, we just wandered the streets immersing ourselves in cosmopolitan business of Amsterdam. Bikers were everywhere. I really enjoyed seeing hoard after hoard swarm by… men in suits, women in fur-trimmed coats, dresses and high heels. I can’t wait to live in a big city and get around by bike! There was a one-man orchestra who was a delight to watch… his face really seemed lit with a love for making beautiful music. We watched two guys sizing each other up in an oversized game of sidewalk chess. A group of break-dancers performed stunts that left Julian and I baffled with how they managed to avoid breaking their arms.
Then it came time for me to finally decide if I would do it. If I would walk through the Red Light District and see it for what it was. I was struggling with whether I should or not. Naturally, I was curious. But, morally, I couldn’t help but think that going to see it would just mean I would be a part of perpetuating the sinful atmosphere by joining in the evil game and “gawking” at these women in windows, displaying nearly everything, waiting to sexually satisfy their next customer, casually selling their bodies. As I thought about it, several things went through my mind:
I didn’t want to be another ignorant Christian who tried to shut out evil and act like it didn’t exist. Evil will never go away if we ignore it and leave it to fester. And yes, for the record, I do believe such behavior embodies evil.
I didn’t want to go and simply gawk… I did not want to go and judge these women as if I were any better than any of them. I have my own evils… I am poignantly aware of that.
I wondered if it was courage, desperation or both that enables these women to so openly display their immorality. And, I wondered how many souls are ten times as ravaged and corrupted and diseased, but we don’t know about it because they’re covered in classy business suits and polished refinery?
***And this is where my battery died on the train, so I shrugged, and with nothing else to do, I read. The rest of this I finished later. Later, after I have had some distinct and amazing experiences in Paris, which I have yet to write about. But experiences and time that have influenced how I continue with this story.****
Finally, I decided to go see the Red Light District. As who though? Someone who was seeing it so she could change it? Or, as someone just going to gawk? I would love to believe I’m so noble… but, c’mon… who am I kidding? I’m kidding myself.
We walked. I looked. And really, what I saw didn’t shock me. I’ve seen plenty of ads and fold outs of nearly naked women splattered throughout American culture. Most of these women looked like carbon copies of these ads that I’m all too familiar with. Some women looked back at me. Some smiled as if they knew something I didn’t. Some didn’t look back at all. Some had their heads down. One eagerly invited in what seemed to be a regular customer. Both Julian and I were surprised at their familiarity. She an incredibly gorgeous young woman, he an older, rather uninviting looking man. Uninviting save the huge smile on his face. Not a smile of lust. A smile of familiarity and trust. A big, warm smile for a treasured friend. Her face was just as lit. Both were laughing heartily as she invited him into her room, or closet rather. A closet with a bed, a sink and a small vanity mirror.
I’ve read somewhere… that “every man who walks into a brothel is looking for God.” I think it was in Paulo Cohelo’s 11 Minutes. But, I’m not positive on that one. However, Paulo’s novel 11 Minutes is precisely about how a woman becomes the last thing she ever expected to be: a prostitute. It’s also about how she loses herself, and then finds herself again. That book, and its plot, wavered in my mind as I wandered around Amsterdam’s Red Light District. That book is also the book I’ve quoted on this blog and have not changed since I’ve read it, because I have found nothing else that strikes me so poignantly: “At every moment of our lives, we all have one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the abyss…” It’s rather incredible to see things come full circle in our lives.
Honestly, right now, I’m living in an incredibly stunning fairytale. But, I’ve certainly been in my abyss and I know it could be just around the corner again if I’m not careful.
So yeah. We wandered. I looked. Then we left. I think Julian saw how much “looking” affected me, before I felt how much it affected me. He kept looking at me as we walked away, asking how I was feeling, what I was thinking… then trying to strike up a conversation on nearly any other subject.
But, I didn’t have much to say at first… in my mind, I was trying to justify myself as something other than a gawker. And as I did, one rather interesting thought did come to mind…
I thought, Jesus walked among sinners and He invited them to His table. Thieves and prostitutes alike. So, I was doing nothing that Jesus didn’t do… ah, but that’s not true. I did not talk with these women. I did not share my table with them. I did not share my God with them. But… what if I did? What if I came to them, bought their time and then asked them to join me for dinner and lavished them with anything else they could want during the small window of time I had bought from them. What if I talked to them. More importantly, what if I listened to them. Well, then maybe, I would be more like Jesus. Hmmmm… it’s a thought. And it’s now something I’m very interested in doing. So… I now wait for the opportunity. And I am waiting with patience, without urgency. How could I not? This trip I am on now is a perfect testament to the truth that God listens to our deepest desires and He answers… but He answers in His own time. A time that is more perfect than we could ever have imagined. And in writing this I can help but let loose a small laugh as I think… all the while, He is lavishing us with gifts during the small windows of time he repeatedly buys from us, at such a high price. He is courting us, while we so eagerly and adulterously sell ourselves to other, false Gods.
I could not have just reasoned that on my own. I realized it only because I have been reading John Eldridge’s book The Sacred Romance. The book for which this blog, “Spiritually and Passionately Alive,” is named after. Yes, I am still reading it. I began it in May and I am still not completely finished with it. It’s funny. I value it so much. Yet, I only read it when there is possibly nothing else I can do. I’m on a train, my computer has run out of battery, I’m alone with no one to talk to… and then… I pull it out. I pull it out when God has paid me for a small window of my time and wants to talk to me. But, most importantly, He is listening. Because, my heart cries out over and over and over again when I read this book.
Julian and I walked by a seasonal ice skating rink… something that looked warm and inviting before. He tried to urge me now to go skating, but I could not. I had other things written on my heart. So, we stopped for some hot chocolate. We talked about family. We talked about God. We talked about prostitutes. I cried. We left.
Julian and I met up with his friend Peter in a crowded and posh bar back in Den Haag. Peter was incredibly warm and friendly. I am afraid I was a bit not, because I was simply feeling exhausted. Emotionally and physically exhausted. We left not too long after and met Arnaldo at his place.
On the way, by the way, we saw the Queen of Holland and the prince with his Argentinian bride leaving the palace. Julian said he’s never seen the Queen in the flesh before… he was impressed. So was I!
Arnaldo left to go out for a bit. Julian and I stayed. But, like before, I feel as if I was rather reserved and quite the opposite of warm and friendly. Sorry Julian. I was, again, emotionally and physically exhausted.
That didn’t keep Julian from picking me up early the next morning, waiting for me to finish getting ready, driving me to the train station, waiting with me for the next train because the one I planned to go on was sold out, and giving me a farewell look only a truly loyal and loving friend could give. I would have to honestly say my farewell to him was less. Just, less everything. And I feel compelled to write how much Julian affected me. Everyone has affected me so incredibly much. But, I feel as if I didn’t let Julian know as much as I let the others know. So, Julian, please know how much you’ve affected me and just how much I value your friendship. And… thank you.