By Tom Robotham
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. ~ Mark Twain.
Whenever I feel the need to take a journey of some kind, I’m torn between two options: revisiting a place that I know and love, or going somewhere new. Last month, in the company of Jeff Maisey, the publisher of this magazine, I did both.
Our first stop was Amsterdam, where we stayed for a week. Prior to the trip I knew only three things about the city: You can purchase and smoke weed or hashish in coffee shops; it is home to a famed “red-light” district, where you can window shop for prostitutes and, if you’re so inclined, have sex for about 60 euro—and there are lots of bicycles.
All of this is true—but none of it really captures the essence of the city’s charms.
What struck me almost immediately was how warm and friendly the residents are. A case in point: On our first afternoon there, after dropping our bags off at our lovely boutique hotel in the Museum District, we went out for walk and stumbled upon an attractive establishment named Café Heuvel. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I knew it was my kind of place—small, a bit worn around the edges, and accented with an eclectic array of wall décor that had clearly accumulated haphazardly over the years: snapshots of regulars, old newspaper clippings, and several rows of framed caricatures, which I verbally admired.
“You have to be dead to have your picture up there,” said the bartender, Michel van der Vliet, with a broad grin.
There were only two other customers in the bar at that hour, and both were clearly regulars; one could tell by their relaxed demeanor and the expressions of contentment on their faces.
“Where are you from?” one of them asked.
We told him we were from Virginia and that we were both journalists.
“I know what that means,” he said. “You’re really with the CIA.”
Jeff explained that CIA headquarters is in northern Virginia and that we were from Norfolk, in the southeastern part of the state.
“Oh, near Virginia Beach,” the other regular called out from his window seat across the room. Talk about a conversation opener. I soon learned that he knew Virginia Beach because he had long ago taken an interest in the teachings of Edgar Cayce and had spent a fair amount of time at the Association for Research and Enlightenment. He and I chatted for a while about Cayce’s philosophy before rejoining Jeff and the other patron. Within an hour I felt every bit as much at home there as I do at the Taphouse, my favorite pub in Norfolk. That feeling was underscored when we returned the next day and Michel welcomed us by name.
The following night, after a somewhat surreal stroll through the Red Light District, we discovered another pub—Int Aepjen, otherwise known as The Monkey Bar, which we learned is one of the oldest in the city. It was quite crowded, but not uncomfortably so, and soon I struck up a conversation with a man about my age who was visiting from Germany for a computer-software conference. He introduced me to two of his colleagues, one from Italy and the other from France. Before long we were all seated together, talking and laughing like old friends.
When Jeff and I travel together we always visit our share of well-known tourist attractions—chief among them, in this case, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s equivalent of the Met, the National Gallery and the Louvre, though not quite as large as any of those institutions. We also took a ride on one of the canal boats, which is a pleasant way to see the city. Amsterdam is lined with canals, and boats abound—vessels catering to tourists, small pleasure craft, and houseboats.
Overwhelmingly, though, the city’s residents get around on bicycle. As I mentioned earlier, I’d known that this was a bike-friendly town, but I wasn’t prepared for the plethora of bicycles, which seemed to outnumber cars by a hundredfold, and were pedaled by people of all ages and walks of life: young parents, some with small children riding in front baskets; businessmen and women on their way to or from work; adolescents on their own, and quite a few elderly folks. Scarcely any of them wear helmets, in spite of the fact that many of the streets are narrow and shared by light-rail trams. Somehow it all seemed to flow. During the week that we were there, in fact, I never saw even a near-accident. More striking still was the absence of blaring car horns, which made for a peaceful environment at every turn. Trams, cars, bicycles and pedestrians all share the road with an astonishing degree of patience that one rarely finds in other cities.
It’s as if the residents have found the secret to happiness, organically, which explains not only the radiance of contentment but the welcoming environment for visitors from around the globe. Indeed, while the architecture, cultural institutions, restaurants and food kiosks reflect Holland’s rich history, Amsterdam is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in Europe. In addition to my newfound friends from Germany, Italy, and France, I met and conversed with a young woman from Brazil, who was bartending at a sushi restaurant, another from New Zealand who was working at the elegant American Hotel, a guy from Manchester who happened to be seated next to me at a bar, and, at another establishment, a fellow from Glasgow. In no other city that I’ve ever visited have I encountered such a broad array of nationalities in such a short time.
Due to a magnificent train station at the north end of the city—and the extraordinary efficiency of the rail system—it’s easy to visit not only other parts of the Netherlands but a wide variety of other cities in Europe. Within a few hours, in fact, we could have been in Paris—our next destination—via high-speed rail. That said, we’d already booked a flight, and after a week we took off for the City of Light.
AS MUCH AS I LOVED AMSTERDAM, I couldn’t wait to get back to Paris. For decades I’ve romanticized the city every bit as much as Gil Pender, the protagonist in the wonderful film Midnight in Paris. And, of course, there is a danger in that. Very often, it seems, what we romanticize in our imaginations fails to live up to expectations. I’d been there last year and loved it every bit as much as I did the first time I visited. Still, there was that lingering thought in the back of my mind.
As it turned out, Paris came through in spades, not only living up to my expectations but exceeding them.
The reasons I love Paris could fill a book, which perhaps I shall write one day, but certainly among them is its visual beauty. The richness of the city’s history is reflected in the well-preserved architecture, which for me—coming from a country of ugly strip malls, lookalike houses of cheap construction, and utilitarian office buildings that seem to express an outright hostility to the concept of beauty—is refreshing indeed. But it’s not only the majesty of buildings like the Louvre, or the quaint townhouses on cobble-stoned side streets that create this spectacle. It’s the fact that most of the buildings share the same light-beige or buttery hues. Curious about this, I did a little research and found that they are made of something commonly called “Paris stone.”
The distinctive stone, according to an article in The Independent, comes from a half-dozen limestone quarries in the Oise, 25 miles north of Paris, and became the stone of choice in the city from the 17th century onward. Among its appealing qualities is that it is soft and easy to cut, but paradoxically quite weather resistant. In recent years, the article went on to note, the worldwide market for the stone has skyrocketed. It has become especially popular among celebrities who are building mansions in Southern California. But no matter how many American mansions are built with the stuff, no city will ever be defined by it in the way that Paris is. The stone, apart from its durability, reflects the light of the sun in such a way as to enhance the warmth and beauty of the city, even under overcast skies.
Jeff and I walked about 8 miles a day while we were there, soaking in this marvelous feeling at every turn. But one evening stands out above all others for me. We’d ventured over to Ile St. Louis, and as we were returning over the footbridge to Ile de la Cite we came upon a street musician in the middle of the bridge playing a real upright piano that he’d somehow managed to wheel in from his van. His playing was virtuosic, flowing and lyrical, and as I stood there, transfixed, I gazed across the Seine, which sparkled in the fading evening light. The beautiful synergy of the music, the water, the architectural magnificence and the joy on the faces of people with whom I shared this moment was so powerful that I was moved to the brink of tears.
We heard lots of other music while we were there, not only from buskers of every kind but in a cozy and historic basement jazz club called 38 Riv—short for Rivoli, the street on which it is located. We’d come there expecting a tribute to Chet Baker but had gotten our nights mixed up—happily so, as it turned out. The club that evening was hosting a jam session with local musicians, all of whom were world-class. I’ve seen an abundance of jazz shows in my life, from Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note to Max Roach at L.A.’s Catalina Bar to Ella Fitzgerald at Carnegie Hall. This one ranked among the best.
The very heart of Paris, however, lies in its cafés, for it is there that one can most easily strike up conversations with Parisians and visitors alike. The weather, while we were there, was unpredictable—hot and sunny one minute and raining the next. One afternoon, after walking around the Marais District, we stopped in for a couple of beers and ended up stranded in a hail storm. It was serendipity at its finest. Stepping outside for a smoke under the awning, I started chatting with a fellow smoker (smokers are everywhere in Paris) and learned that he was a musician who’d grown up in Switzerland but had been living in Paris for 20 years. For much of my life I’ve been afflicted by shyness and a reticence to strike up conversations with strangers. I still am sometimes, depending on my mood and energy level, but this and other moments reminded me of how easy it is to talk with people in Paris. Parisians, in my experience, are the polar opposite of the stereotype that so many Americans harbor. Far from being rude, they are among the friendliest people on the planet. Back inside, I also chatted with a lovely young woman who turned out to be a producer of historical documentaries. Her passion for her work was so palpable that I was inspired to return to documentary-making myself.
I cannot even begin to count how many other cafés we visited. But it was a given that we’d return again and again to one in particular—La Fregate, just two blocks from our hotel on the left bank of the Seine. We’d discovered it while we were there last year, and it immediately became our favorite in the city, due to its lovely interior, great location across from the Louvre, excellent food and superb staff. Among the servers is Satten Utcheegadoo, whom we’d met last year. He remembered us the moment we arrived this time.
Satten grew up in Mauritius—an island in the Indian ocean, about 700 miles from Madagascar—but moved to Paris after college. It was a natural transition, as Mauritius (known as Maurice in French) was at one time a French colony. His work ethic is inspirational; he routinely works 12-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, but is always in high spirits. Fortunately for us, he took Friday evening off and treated us to drinks and dinner at another café around the corner, in gratitude for both our patronage and our friendship.
During the course of the evening, he shared his philosophy of life and work, noting his belief that we all have it within our power to create the reality in which we wish to live. He also had a lot to say about tipping. In Paris, unlike the States, tipping is not a given. You can leave no tip at all, and you’ll still be welcomed back with a smile. A small tip is generally appreciated. In spite of this, Satten told us that some Parisian servers expect tips. For his part, though, tips are something you have to earn by giving extraordinary service. He never falls short in this effort, but it seemed clear to me that the quality of his service is something that comes from the heart, not from a desire to make more money.
“The way I see it,” he said, “I’m here to make people happy. When you do that, the happiness comes back to you.”
In all of the conversations I had, no other remark more succinctly summed up my feelings about both Amsterdam and Paris—the latter, especially, which somehow feels like home to me. On my last evening there, as I lay in bed with the French windows open and white curtains billowing in the cool breeze, I began to feel rather melancholy; I didn’t want to leave. I shall return again soon, I hope. But in the meantime, I shall try to bear Satten’s comment in mind. In contrast to other cities, Norfolk often feels pretty stale to me—hyped-up rhetoric about the new “creative class” notwithstanding. To make matters worse, of course, there is the pervasive divisiveness and vitriol that characterizes life in these United States under Trump. None of that, however, limits our ability to live by Satten’s maxim. Thanks to him, Michel in Amsterdam, and countless other people I met—not to mention the extraordinary inspiration of two great cities—I have returned with a renewed determination to do my best to live with generosity of spirit and large measures of solace in the small pleasures of life.