I was losing interest, quickly, on my drift for our class project. Leaving the greenery of Westerpark, and the gravel walkway along the small canal for the busy residential/commercial street seemed like a wrong turn to me. Yet, as I stood on the sidewalk taking photos of a decorative flag, parked bicycles, and a small corner restaurant with scaffolding, things changed. A small, attractive, dark-haired woman came out of the restaurant and strode towards me purposefully. I sensed her protectiveness for the restaurant. She had an air of strength about her, a woman who faced her challenges in life. I found out quickly that her name was Sebal and that she was the proprietress. Her family had owned the Abante Café Restaurant for nine years.
She wanted to know my business, and I assured her that I was not with Amsterdam’s building department, nor was I any other threat; I was a student from the University of Washington, and I was working on a class project. Immediately she became curious, warm, and welcoming. She invited me to sit at one of the quaint outside tables and rest, and she would bring me a beverage, anything I wanted — her treat. I was pleased to be the recipient of a much-needed respite from my long walk. What I had previously felt was a wrong turn onto this street was actually turning into a fortuitous event.
Sebal brought me an espresso and a small cookie to enjoy while she talked with me about herself, her family, and what being a traveler far from home is like. She was so open, sharing with me that she grew up in a family-owned restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey. Her parents still lived in Turkey and owned a seaside restaurant on the Aegean. She told me about her brother, who taught German at the University of Amsterdam and also worked in the restaurant with her, her husband, and her son. She introduced me around, like I was a dear friend, to all her family members who were working that day.
Then Sebal told me she knew what it was like to be far from home as a traveler, to experience the joys and pitfalls of a journey. She related to me a bad experience she had recently while traveling in Berlin, and how this had been a heartfelt disappointment that colored the rest of her time there. She believed that a traveler’s opinions of a place could be easily altered with one bad, or one good, experience. She wanted to make sure that I had a good experience in Amsterdam at her family restaurant, so that I could share my story, a good story, with others. Sebal turned my drift from dreary to sunny that day. She gave to me a pleasant memory that I carried home. On my drift, I relearned that each of us has the ability to make or break an experience for a fellow human, abroad or at home, with one act of kindness.
Buddha in Dam Square
As the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, let your heart be untroubled by judgments and let your kindness rain down on all.
My drift was done, and as a result, I had many photos, poems, and picked-up trash-treasures to somehow curate into a project. I envisioned a collage, but I had so much to share that I knew I would need a very large board or canvas as my backdrop. I checked the art supply store near Dam Square and cringed at the cost of a canvas. I searched for a poster-board, and I was disappointed with my findings. Then I remembered an inexpensive home décor store that I had visited once named Xenos. Winding through the narrow cobblestone streets in the area off Dam Square, I found the shop again. Reminding, asking myself to have an open mind to the possibilities inside, I entered and started my search.
Soon I found a large canvas printed with an image of Buddha, and it was on sale. Standing in front of it, I couldn’t help but smile; after all, I did ask myself to have an open mind. It was very inexpensive, the right size, and I didn’t even need to finish the edges, as the canvas wrapped around the frame and had a nice black finish. It was even shrink-wrapped in thin cellophane, to keep it protected, so I knew I could get it back to the Student Hotel on the tram without damage. Buddha was perfect for me, so I grabbed him and checked out.
As I walked out of Xenos, the unpredictable Dutch weather turned against me. If you have heard the saying, “nothing is wetter than the rain in Amsterdam,” believe it. I was wearing shorts, flats, and a sheer blouse — yikes! In a moment of pure genius, I thought to raise Buddha over my head with both arms. Providence was indeed shining on me, and I was protected from the rain by my canvas. With a totable shelter, who needs an umbrella? Making my way through the crowds of people, I saw them repeatedly look at my canvas, then me, then the canvas, and step aside. I was parting the crowds in Dam Square with Buddha.
My tram stop shelter was already full, and I stood in front. After all, I had my own shelter and didn’t want to take up room that someone else needed to stay dry. Standing in the rain, protected by Buddha over my head, I saw people smile and point from the trams going by. I smiled in return, not feeling the least bit silly, though I am positive I should have. I had not been there long when a man with a camera approached me, and though we didn’t speak the same language, I understood as he indicated he wanted to take my picture with Buddha. I nodded my assent and said “cheese” for the photo.
Once my #13 tram appeared, I boarded with Buddha, and not knowing where else to place him so that he wouldn’t take up a much-needed seat, I ended up facing him out the window. As the tram made its way along through the streets of Amsterdam, I saw people look up in surprise at the window, smiling, laughing, and some even waiving as my Buddha canvas and I went by. What a joyful rainy day it turned out to be. In opening my mind to the possibilities of finding an alternative for what I could not afford, I afforded myself the opportunity for a wonderful experience. It will always make me smile to think that out there somewhere in the world is a photo of Buddha and I sharing our moment together in Amsterdam at a tram stop in the rain.
Roos on the Tram
Wearing orange shoes with silver bee charms that I really liked, I once again found myself heading from Dam Square to the tram stop. Running to catch the #13, one of my shoes fell off. I stopped to put it back on and of course missed the tram, darn it! However, in missing my tram, I witnessed an attractive older woman exit from its front — not the normal place for a passenger to exit. I heard the tram driver saying something to her in Dutch, and his tone was not pleasant. She sat down in the tram stop with a dejected air about her. The temperature was in the low 80s, and the humidity was off the charts. I was wearing shorts, a sleeveless top, and had my hair pulled back in a tight bun to try to beat the heat. She was a doll in her long-sleeved dress, short heels, and her hair up in a neat bun.
As I stood next to her waiting for the next #13 tram, she spoke to me in Dutch. I replied to her in English, and she switched at once. She said to me that I looked Dutch to her, something I had heard frequently while in Amsterdam. We struck up a conversation about the heat, the humidity, and the tram I had missed due to my shoe. She told me she had asked the tram driver for help and he had rebuked her. She had no cash and her debit card had not worked in the nearby cash machine; it was Sunday, and since the bank was not open, she was in trouble. When I had heard the driver speaking in a loud, ugly tone, he had been telling her to “walk like everyone else who does not have money.” Her name was Roos, pronounced like the flower “rose.” She was seventy-six years old, and inside I cringed at the thought of this frail, little old lady walking in the heat and humidity, as she had further to go than I did.
She hesitantly asked me if I could loan her money for the tram fare and she would mail it to me after she resolved her debit card issues. I did not have small change, just large bills, but since we were going on the same tram, I offered to pay for her when it arrived and get change from the driver. The #13 came along again and I swiped my OV Chipkaart for myself and then paid for her. Roos followed me into the tram and sat beside me like we were dear friends. She was clearly delighted to be with someone. She said she was surprised it was a tourist, a stranger, who was kind to her. She said she found me more Dutch than the Dutch, that I reminded her of how people used to be in Amsterdam, friendly with one another, but that that was in the old days, not anymore. I listened as she told me that in her mind the change in the behavior of the Dutch had taken place with the creation of the European Union.
As she talked, I could not help but think that the change she felt in how people interacted with each other was due to something else, something that many elderly people, women in particular, experience. They go from being respected and appreciated by society for their beauty and role as mothers, to being rejected and marginalized due to their frailty and past-prime looks. They are no longer worthy of respect and kindness from strangers. Elderly women become a private burden for their families and a public embarrassment to be shunned. I looked for myself in her story, in her face, as we rode along on the tram and I listened.
Her story was one of adventure, travel, joy, pain, loss, loyalty, caring, and discouragement. She could have been one of the women who in Amsterdam’s past would have found refuge, maybe in the Begijnhof, an inner-city sanctuary for women. Instead, she was living in a subsidized apartment, trying to help her daughter and son by caring for her grandchildren. She explained that her English was so good because she had lived in Florida for ten years, working. She’d loved swimming in the ocean every day. She had taken good care of herself, ate healthily, and enjoyed the life she had there. Then she told me about one of her children, a son. When the news came that her son had AIDS, she moved back to Amsterdam and cared for him until he died. Then Roos stayed on in Amsterdam to care for her other two childrens babies as they were born, and was still here. Her beautiful blue eyes were shining with unshed tears as she shared her life story with me.
As we approached my stop, I told her I was getting off the tram soon and it had been my pleasure to meet her. She was insistent that she pay me back, that she was not a person who had unpaid debts. I told her repayment was not necessary — she had brightened my day. I could not help but think of my mother while in her company. By paying her tram fare, I had been profoundly blessed, both with her company and her trust in sharing her story with me. As I rose to exit the seat we shared, she literally reached up, grabbed me by the face, and kissed me on both cheeks. My heart expanded to include her, the elderly women of Amsterdam, the women of the Begijnhof, past and present, all my fellow womankind in the world, a connection I felt all because of Roos. As I exited the tram, it was my eyes that were shining with unshed tears.
I’m in my senior year completing my Comparative History of Ideas major and a minor in Anthropology in the Summer of 2015. UW Study abroad to Amsterdam, The Netherlands in the Summer of 2014.