Thursday, March 8, 2012

Casual Leave

My seat on the train to Amsterdam was in a little cubical by a window with a great view of the countryside. Across from me was a middle-aged German who spoke better English than I did. He wanted to talk about the Cuban missile crisis which was just then going on and about the Berlin wall and other politically charged matters. My orientation to service in Germany had included a unit cautioning us not to engage in political talk with citizens, so I kept smiling and changing the subject. He finally took the hint and began to ask me about myself.

“Where are you from?”

“Arkansas.”

He looked blank. He could not find that obscure state on his mental map. “It’s by Texas,” I offered.

“Ah, cowboys and Indians!” Then he went into a long thing about the Chickasaw Indians that he had learned in school. He expected me to know more about the subject than I did, I think. My notion of Native Americans at the time had been formed by movies and his comments on the cultural aspects of Chickasaw life were alien to me.

I was so glad when the train rolled into the Amsterdam station. Even though I had no idea about lodging or transportation, I was looking forward to escaping the strained conversation and entering into the Holland I had heard so much about. Not long after I stepped off the train, a taxi driver stepped up and said to me, in English, “Need a cab?”

“Yes, I guess, unless there is a low priced hotel in walking distance.”
He replied, “I can take you to a bed-and-breakfast that has weekly rates and a vacancy. It is near the flea market.”

I said fine and he drove me to a delightful little home on a friendly-looking street. An elderly lady greeted me and told me the rates in American dollars. I was shocked at how low the price was for a week of sleeping and eating breakfast. And they had a great breakfast every morning: ham and eggs, rolls, jams and jellies, and great coffee. The old couple ate with me and a few other guests each day and I began to feel like family. That’s the way they wanted their clients to feel.

My leave in Amsterdam involved that dwelling place and a lot of walking and sight-seeing, just by myself. I tried pickled herring for the first time, gazed long afternoons at the boat traffic on the canals, met a Ben Franklin look-alike who told me people need their hair for proper brain function. In other words, I had an unorthodox vacation there in a foreign city, at 19 with no agenda. It was memorable.

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