Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Amsterdam Reflection

            Tonight, Rembrandt is green. The gaudy neon light from “SMOKEY’S” casts an eerie alien glow over the statue of the somber Dutch artist. In his namesake square, musicians playing melancholy 90’s ballads and larger than life interpretations of inebriated cartoon characters battle for your attention. The dewy grass and granite benches serve as a makeshift concert hall with better acoustics than any given American club, and the audience leans in and hangs on every note. There is hardly any chatter, only the palpable feeling of rapt attention.

In the hour and a half I’ve been here, I haven’t heard a single song that wasn’t in English. While the canals and narrow staircases serve as a constant reminder that you aren’t in Kansas anymore, Amsterdam’s culture appears to be in danger of slipping away. From the McDonalds dotted along every street to the signs touting “English subtitles!” outside of the movie theaters, it’s hard to ignore how much America has outright invaded this city.

            The talent du jour has peppery gray hair that whips around his face in the harsh wind. He plays with eyes shut, head bowed, completely immersed in the music. As he wraps up another soft rock hit, a gaggle of 20-somethings rushes up to him. They shove a member of their party forward, who whispers something in his ear after throwing back an exaggerated glare at the group. He nods; they clap and giggle. He dedicates the next song to Alicia (this elicits a squeal from a tall blonde wearing a headband adorned with two bouncing plastic penises). It’s her hen night, says the musician. I recognize the opening chords to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and lean back on my bench, inhaling the smoky-sweet scent that wafts through Amsterdam.

            The girls keep their arms around each other and sway to the beat, belting out the lines they know, and grumbling when they don’t. As the musician hits the chorus, a man emerges from Smokey’s carrying a water bottle with a fabric flower inside of it. He stumbles to the middle of the pavilion and splays out on the ground, enduring the harsh stony stare of Rembrandt. The new centerpiece extracts a hat and places it on the ground, ready to ask the pre-assembled audience for their patronage. He then takes the makeshift flower vase and balances it on his head. He isn’t in it for comedy, far from it. His intent expression informs the crowd that this is his modern performance art. He lies still, awaiting the judgment of these critics and philosophers who have so freely given their approval to the musicians of the Square.

            A quick burst of light illuminates the square. Alicia has taken a photo of the vase-balancer. He leaps up and races towards her, hat extended, demanding she pay her dues. She shrugs and makes an exaggerated empty-pockets gesture. Apparently the last of her euros tipped the guitar player, still faithfully strumming amidst the chaos.

            The performance artist isn’t satisfied with Alicia’s excuses, and raises his voice. She recoils, and a few people make motions to rise from their benches. The musician hits an odd note and stops abruptly. A bouncer from a nearby club materializes in the square and pulls the penniless artist aside.

            They have an animated discussion involving a lot of exaggerated hand gestures. It culminates in the vase-balancer screaming, “If you don’t speak English then don’t TALK to me!”

            I feel a pit in my stomach. It’s the distinctively unpleasant feeling of being ashamed of one’s own country when abroad. I flash back to the co-eds in Ohio State sweatshirts discussing last night’s club at Anne Frank’s house; the Hawaiian-shirt clad couple snapping pictures in the red light district. Perhaps the man was from Texas? I remember hearing a twang in his voice. I briefly wonder if I can play it off as if I am from Canada. My horrified expression must betray me, as the man next to me leans over and makes a comment in Dutch that sounds sarcastic.

            “Spreekt u Engels?” I have butchered the simple Dutch phrase, I gather from his smirk.

            “Sorry,” he laughs. “I said, I wonder why they haven’t jailed him already. That crazy guy comes around here all the time.”

            “Oh, God,” I breathe a sigh of relief. “I thought it was another American tourist giving all of us a bad name.”

            The man gives me a world-weary smile. “Americans don’t need him to do that,” he says. “You already have it.”

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