Day 5: The Friend Zone


I stand in the airport, with everything I own on my back.  The building is spacious but I’m constricted by a blur of commuters that brush past me like ghosts. Familiar smiling faces on advertisements shout at me in Dutch and remind me exactly how far I am from home.  In my right hand is a crinkled and worn ticket stub that I can’t stop staring at.  “Iceland Air – Reykjavik to Amsterdam: 07:15.”  My last scheduled flight.  And I’ve arrived.  I am absolutely, unequivocally, free.  And I can’t even breathe.

My hand constricts around the bristly paper, and my lungs inflate.  With a sudden burning sensation, I release the ticket from my grasp and it flutters casually into an empty trash bin, completely unaware of its own significance.  There are no more flight or train bookings.  I don’t even have a hostel reservation.  I can do literally, whatever I want.  I can go, wherever I want.  All my hard work and lack of planning has been successful.  I’m here. There is such a multitude of possibilities that all I can do is simply drop my bag and stare vacantly to the future.

What the hell am I doing?

Time passes.  Eventually a teenager approaches me with a twitch in his eye that matches his step and tries to sell me novelty Simpsons condoms.  Who doesn’t want to think about Bart as they’re doing it?  The encounter restarts the ol’ grey matter, like kick-starting an old engine.  I get rid of him and I’m left only with questions.  What do I do now?  What do I need?  What comes first?  How do I get to the city center?  I take out cash from an ATM.  That solves the first problem.  A question at the information desk tells me there’s a metro I can catch that goes straight to the center.  I turn around and the entrance is embarrassingly obvious.  Problem two: check.  On to problem three…

The Royal Palace in Dam Square

The train ride into the city gives me some time to look through my guidebook and find a couple names of places to stay.  I’m determined to keep away from the city’s sex-tourist lifestyle, (except for a few curious strolls), but nonetheless, a hostel on the rim of the city center catches my eye.  One simple phrase: “If you spend much time here, you’re sure to get laid.”  What can a 27 year-old guy on a drought do?  I jot down the address and close the book.

My own hypocrisy doesn’t escape me.  But with girls involved, a little hypocrisy is to be expected, especially on route to, shall we say, “a romantic encounter.”  Hell, I don’t even want to write the word.  Sex.  It’s always been a mostly undiscussed topic in my household, and even amongst most of my, let’s admit it, somewhat nerdy friends.

Back home my friends (the ones that were a little more successful with the ladies) would occasionally take me clubbing to try to meet some people.  So I’d go, I’d find a pretty girl, make eye contact with her, and fairly often she would make eye contact back.  And then…  I’d self-sabotage.  I would think maybe she wants to be alone, or maybe she’s tired of having dumb-ass guys come to hit on her. So I’d keep my distance and I’d tell myself I’m doing it for her sake.  It never even occurred to me that I rarely come off as a typical dumb-ass guy.

Perhaps even worse, if I was in a situation where I was forced to interact (with a friend of a friend for example), not only would I tell myself she doesn’t want to be bothered, I’d tell myself it’s better for her if I just go straight for the friend-zone.  After all, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience her with an unwanted come-on.

Thinking about it, maybe the main reason I decided to pursue this round the world dream, is to get some much needed confidence.  To start fresh and do a few things differently.  To change.  And what better place to start than Amsterdam.

I have to say, when chance chose the Netherlands as my first stop, my first thought was that I got off easy.  Somewhere like North Korea, or Sudan was just as likely.  But I’m starting to realize that a trip to what some would call the sex-capital of the world, might be far more difficult for me than avoiding a little gunfire.

A tourist boat floats lazily down a canal

The first bullet headed my way, comes in the form of a blond I see on the streetcar.  She has freckles and she’s got a bag with her too.  I watch her as the canals and old churches squeel by and I wonder how some people find it so easy to approach strangers.  I think of going over to say hi, but my tried and true excuse for not trying rears its ugly head again.  I cowardly stay in my seat and when she gets off, I still have one more stop to go.  I kick the back of the chair in front of me.  I just dodged that bullet with far too much effeciency.

Or so I think.

To find my hostel involves some backtracking along the tram’s route and it’s further than I expected.  Even so, after a long, cold winter in Canada, the sweat on my back is a nice change of pace.  I finally spot the hostel’s sign obscured by trees in an alley and to my surprise, find the same blond with an older woman at the check-in line in front of me.  “You’re the guy from the streetcar, right?” She says.  And just like that we begin to converse.  How do people do that so easily?  Her name is Tess.

She’s in a private room and traveling with her mother, which more or less means I don’t have a prayer.  My consolation prize however is the last bed in a shared 6 person dorm.  Tess and I plan to meet up later that night but for now, we go our seperate ways.  I leave the lobby with images in my mind of five beautiful, friendly, and single girls sharing the same room.  Possibly involved in a lingerie pillow fight of some sort.  I try not to get my hopes but every second out here is an opportunity; a chance for something great to happen.  Or not.  Maybe my room will be filled with old dudes, or maybe I’ll meet the girl I’m going to marry.  I can’t know until I open that door.  My anticipation climbs with every stair; one foot after another.  Three flights late I’m full to the brim.  I hesitantly enter my room, possessed by a feeling that could only be described by the very best of trashy romance novelists.  Five, early-twenties, English… males. Will my luck ever change?

Narrow street in Amsterdam city center

I throw my stuff on the last empty bed.   Naturally my bag is too big for the locker, and the lock I brought from home wouldn’t fit the damn thing anyway.  All I can do is grab my camera bag and hope hostels are as safe and crime-free as I’ve heard.   Time to hit the streets.

With nowhere to be, and no hostel to find, Amsterdam takes on a different light.  The magic comes out and I start to fall in love.   The monotony of a Burger King is spiced up by music and hustles for tips from a break-dancing streetshow.  Two tourists take photos like any other city, but that too is made unique by the smell of their joint, inconspicuously smoldering between two fingers.

The Doelen Hotel along the canals

Amsterdam has a series of water canals just like Venice.   They radiate out from the train station in circles like a great spiral.  I sit on one of the concrete banks next to a rack full of bicycles and just take it all in.  A seagull, rests in the murky brown water as a tourist boat drifts by.  A fat woman on board wearing a bright hawaiin shirt catches me in her camera sights, and a few others predictably follow her shooting angle.  I can’t help but laugh.  Tourists taking pictures of tourists.  It epitomizes this city.  As I sit, I hear English, French, Chinese and Spanish.  Where’s the Dutch?  It’s a surprise that the place can hold on to its beauty, despite being so overrun by foreigners.  Maybe that is its beauty.

Still, the realization gives me pause.  I’ve come so far from home, but am I really anywhere new?  For some reason I can think of nothing to do but head back to the hostel in search of a beer and a friend.

Tess meets up with me a little while later as do a couple guys that tend to get caught up in beautiful girls’ wakes.  One of them, a well-liqured New Yorker, thinks he’s got an in because he’s from the same country.  The other is a Brazilian rocking an awesome Spanish accent.  Desperation beads off of them like sweat under the summer sun and I promise myself never to be one of them.  I talk to her mother instead.  Nonetheless, despite being inherently aware of the two guys’ intentions, they’re actually pretty friendly, and all five of us let the evening drift by with a few Heinekiens and a little warmth overseas.

And even though, once again I’ve found myself in the friend-zone, I feel like I’m finally on the track to something better.  The adventure’s begun.  And tomorrow’s a new day.

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