Thursday, September 20, 2007

We Didn't Have a Name for It Then

A long time ago, my sister and I arrived in Amsterdam the night before New Year's Eve. We had thought we would easily find a hostel or cheap hotel--in fact, I think we just planned to stay at Bob's--but no go. People laughed in our faces. No reservation the night before New Year's Eve? Forget it!

We stood in the square outside the train station, wondering what to do. If worst came to worst, we could always spend the night in the train station, we figured, and then go back the next day to England, where my sister had a cozy dorm room (we slept head to toe in her very narrow bed, and cooked in the communal kitchen where everyone had their own shelf with their own national food).

Then I saw a man with a big backpack emerge from the station and walk purposefully across the square. I figured he had a place to go, so I went up and asked him if he could suggest a place to stay. It turned out that he was not the tourist I'd mistaken him for, but an Amsterdamian returning from a chess tournament. He, too, scoffed at the idea of finding a place to stay the night before New Year's Eve, but he followed his scoff by inviting us to come stay with him until we did find something.

Somehow the chess tournament made him seem safe. Plus, it was a long time ago and we were young. Truly, we hesitated barely a moment before accepting his offer.

He lived in a squat in an abandoned hospital. A bunch of young people had taken it over, and by then it was a fairly reputable squat that also housed a youth center and an organization that sent bicycles to El Salvador, among other things. His flat was an old operating room with 20-foot ceilings, tall windows, and granite ledges. He slept in a loft and my sister and I slept on the couches. He loved Siouxsie and the Banshees.

He insisted that we could stay with him as long as we wanted, but we did try to find another place the next day, New Year's Eve, and then we gave up. That night his friends invited us to a vegetarian New Year's Eve dinner--I think he had a date--and we ate the traditional New Year's Eve olliebollen with them, and then went out into the streets where people set off fireworks all night long.

I think we stayed there, in the hospital squat, for almost a week, visiting the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank house during the day and falling asleep at night to the sound of Siouxsie and the Banshees. I meant to send him some bootlegs when I got back to London, but I never did. It's one of the things I regret.

This NY Times article on couch surfing made me think of that time. Our experience certainly proves their philosophy, and yet there's something to be said for unorganized serendipity.

[Go ahead, click on that Times link, whenever you're reading this post, and say "so long" to Times Select!]

No comments: