June 26, 2015
This happened in a café in Amsterdam.
There was giggling. There was mild screeching. There was even, I regret to say, a brief scrabble under the table to facilitate the transfer.
We were in a state of relief and benevolence. Relief, because we had given our first choral performance in Amsterdam. Benevolence, because my friend Helen was recovering from a foot injury. The cast she’d been wearing for weeks had only just come off and the whole area – leg, ankle, foot — was still tender. Standing on a hard floor in a cold church and singing for an hour hadn’t helped. Neither had the long walk to a café after the concert.
By the time we sat down and ordered the first round of drinks Helen’s convalescent foot, laced into a vaguely orthopaedic oxford, was swollen, red and puffy around the ankle. Assessing the damage, it occurred to me that Helen and I could swap shoes. My feet are bigger than hers and I was wearing slip-on ballerinas with padded insoles.
This seemed a brilliant solution.
Did I mention we were a little tipsy?
Sober, it might have occurred to me that Helen’s comfort in a pair of oversized ballerinas was, ipso facto, contingent on my discomfort in footwear a size too small.
Even worse, much worse, Helen’s vaguely orthopaedic oxfords did not match my outfit.
I was wearing a fitted black dress, mid-length, a leather jacket and lacy tights with my black ballerinas. The dress for singing, the jacket for edge, the tights and ballerinas for, well, prettiness. A touch of grace. The vaguely orthopaedic oxfords – chic on Helen – distorted the effect. Wearing them, I went from genteel biker girl to strict KGB operative: Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love, with her mulish expression and a switchblade embedded in the sole of her brogue.
It was not the look I’d been going for. It was jarring and borderline freakish. This bothered me.
But this was before I discovered the Amsterdam Factor.
The Amsterdam Factor is a phenomenon that creeps up on you, takes you by surprise. It snuck up on me when we left the café and went off in search of culture.
After all, we were in Amsterdam: birthplace of the Dutch Golden Age, capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a port city steeped in history and art, trade and finance.
And the first piece of culture we encountered, the very first one, was the Amsterdam Museum of Prostitution.
This was housed in a tasteful canal-side mansion. There was a dignified plaque by the entrance.
We went in, but we didn’t stay long, just long enough to check out the pictures hanging in the lobby. These were photographs of a few of the museum’s exhibits, the coming attractions, if you will. There were photos of handcuffs and pulley devices, photos of men in partial animal costumes and a few shots of very competent-looking women in masks and thigh boots. What was strange was the overall tone, the ethos of the joint: it was matter of fact — tolerant, casual and dissipated all at the same time. Studying these images, it dawned on me that what I was wearing –vaguely orthopaedic oxfords wedded to a leather jacket and a fitted dress – was absolutely fit for purpose in Amsterdam.
In a city with one of the most jaded sexual palates on earth, the incongruous and jarring is not just the norm, it’s a necessity.
The unaccustomed is actually the customary.
That’s the Amsterdam Factor.
And it’s not just the obvious erotic displays in the red light district, women in underwear gesturing to you from inside lit-up booths: the startling, decadent invitations are everywhere, usually when you least expect them. Making our way from the Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum, from cultural point A to cultural point B as it were, Helen and I passed a small grocery store. There in the shop window, laid out between a stack of Pringles and a pyramid of Diet Cokes, was a sexual device so complicated, so abundant in possibilities — parts springing from it, holes and gashes cut into it –it seemed to speak to every conceivable carnal taste. The shape of a torso with the bulk of a carton, it was hard to know what to call it.
We Instagrammed it to Helen’s husband.
He texted us right back.
Let’s just call it a kind of chair, he said. An unusual kind of chair.
He was half right. A kind of chair, that would do as a description, but in Amsterdam, there was nothing unusual about it.
May 20, 2015
I blame Amsterdam.
The prospect of going there, and singing there with my choir was very exciting. I’d never been to Amsterdam. I was in such a pleasurable tizzy about the whole thing that I organized a special travel outfit to mark the occasion: a ladylike dress, a belt, tights, boots, spring gloves, leather jacket (my daintiness has its limits), bracelets, earrings and a silver doo-dad to keep my hair in order.
In retrospect, I can see it was way too elaborate. Not for life – it was fine for life – but it was terrible for modern day air travel. I’d completely blanked out the reality of airport scanners and trace detection portals and uniformed personnel coming at you with wands and beepers.
I was too caught up in visions of cobblestones and canals, and gabled houses with adorable window boxes, and what it would be like to walk, very solemnly, past Anne Frank’s attic. As I mentioned, I’d never been to Amsterdam before. This despite the fact I’ve lived in Britain for two decades and Holland is ridiculously close by jet, one of those quickie flights where you’re still trying to open the bag of airline nuts, going at it with your teeth and the plane’s already starting its descent into Schiphol Airport. Up, down, you’re there. That’s the reality.
It wasn’t the first reality of the day. When I walked into Heathrow and saw the stack of plastic trays on the security line, my little fashion bubble burst. It dawned on me that I’d dressed for a completely different era of air travel, and that almost everything I had on, had to come off. Boots, belt, jacket, jewellery, the silver hair doo-dad — all of it unzipped, unbuckled and peeled away in a fair imitation of the world’s worse strip tease.
I padded through the X-ray machine looking like I was wearing a beach cover, my ladylike dress, minus the belt, demoted to what my Grandma Lena would have called a shapeless schmatta.
What ever happened to airports?
When did they turn into glorified bus stations?
They used to be so glamorous. Romantic. Mysterious.
They used to be the setting for women in cunning hats and three-quarter length gloves dashing lightly into the arms of men who looked like Gregory Peck. All the men wore suits, with very white shirts.
We all know what happened, why it is that airports have come to acquire the charm and efficiency of a hospital waiting room during peak flu season. What happened, of course, is the awkward marriage of two contrasting isms: egalitarianism and terrorism. Today, flying is far more affordable for far more people and it affords far more opportunities for a lunatic with an agenda to render the experience deadly.
But knowing that is one thing; accepting it is another. And the night before I went to Amsterdam, draping my clothes on the bedroom chair, I was still pretending that a flight to a foreign country was an occasion, as opposed to an ordeal.
The cabbie who drove me to the bus did, in fact, look a little like Gregory Peck.