A strange thing happened yesterday.
It wasn't the downpour of sun shower. It wasn't the appearance of our canal bathed in artificial lime green floodlight. It wasn't even the subtle sound of a quiet junkie stumbling his hallucination down the street.
It was the exaggerated silence piercing my ears from the street around the corner from us.
There wasn't a single kuh-bzzzzzz from a single scooter cruising the street. Not in the morning. Not in the afternoon. And most bizarre of all, not in the evening.
If you live in a place long enough, you experience good-byes of various sorts. Knowing and being known are the sweet ingredients in parting sorrows. And this autumn has turned into a smorgasbord of separations. What had become comfortably familiar shifted in recent days in three distinct styles. Three distinct levels of permanency.
At first, you wouldn't think that having part of the red light district spilling into your postal code would be something you would miss once it went away. I never could've guessed that hardly-clad ladies who spent their days peering out of windows would become friends, or even acquaintances. After moving into this neighborhood, I spent the first month wondering where to place my gaze as I passed by. But before long, I learned that smiles, waves and nods were welcome. And that any dog of ours was as good as theirs when they'd step out of the window and hand over fistfuls of treats.
These women remembered birthdays. Brought gifts to newborn babies in the neighborhood. Used their direct lines to the police if anything looked suspicious. And in the case of one woman, became as caring a neighbor to us as any we've known.
Amsterdam is condensing the prostitution into the centralized Red Light District, one small street at a time. From what I understand, there will be design and artist offices filling these places around the corner.
I can't say that I'm entirely sorry about that. Simultaneously being who I am while wishing for continuing opportunities for prostitution would be an oxymoron. But this is indeed a departure.
I gave hugs to my friend as she cleared out belongings from her window and asked her to keep in touch. She biked away and turned the final page of this chapter.
It's a rare thing to get a photograph of a red light window. But not when the curtains are closed and the lights are dark.
Beds and cupboards from red light windows waiting to be picked-up by trash collectors.
One afternoon, shortly after we moved to Holland, I followed a herd of women into a meeting of AWCA - American Women's Club of Amsterdam. A world-renown organization, the American Women's Club aims to help transplanted women in various countries all over the globe make connections and learn how to adjust to life in their new home.
It was in the midst of this crowd that I first learned what women in my situation are branded. (And no, the title doesn't go something like The Woman Who Loved and Supported Her Partner Enough to Make New Roots in a Foreign Place)
The term coined for us (drum roll, please)...
The Trailing Spouse.
Yes, it's true. Not meant as a slam, but simply as a fast way to identify who plays what role in ex-pat coupledom.
I left that meeting before the first drop of coffee hit the bottom of the first little porcelain cup. These ladies all seemed perfectly lovely, but I didn't want to do my new life like this. Surrounded by other branded souls seeking community in a place where the first tie that binds is that awful title.
As good fortune would have it, I came to the notion of studying Dutch at the perfect time.
Six months after the meeting of the draggling dames, I signed up for a one-month intensive language course. One that would end up taking over 60 hours per week of my time (culminating in a final exam that would weigh on all of us like our ability to keep on living depended on passing).
It's a funny thing what happens in a classroom of people from all over the globe trying to learn a language so they can make a decent go at life in a new country. There's a bond that is unique: at first, it's understanding wrapped in a fragile little package. Vulnerability, uncertainty and identity crises are obstacles that you must become comfortable with. But then, you can share some of life's one-of-a-kind experiences with this small audience of fellow ex-patriates who become your family.
I ended up forging what would become the closest relationships we have in Amsterdam - and the network that would bring even more wonderful relationships into view - all from the seed of a few good friends met in language boot camp.
But there's also an underlying current to these relationships. If you have friends who moved here under the same pretenses that you have - namely, under international work contracts - there will mostly likely come a day when they have to go back home. Like Clara waking up from her dream of the Nutcracker, the blown-up experiences of learning with your friends how to manage in a foreign place start to shrink to miniature to allow room for the "real life" that awaits in the Homeland.
Last week, Andre and Aurelie left for Portland to return to Nike's American headquarters. The night before they boarded the plane, their 14-month old daughter Aisha said "Lynn-nn" for the first time.
And two weeks from now, dear friends and parents to our godson Aleisi will be headed back to Boston, from whence they moved five years ago.
We will see them all again, for sure. But the Hutchinson-Sheldon residence will be licking the wounds made by their absence for months to come.
Amsterdam will be a different place for us and many without them.
"Greetings, class. My name is Rindert Meijer. Today is the first day of History of Jazz...taught by me. The date is the eleventh of September, 2006. This date probably sounds familiar to you....mmmmeeeeeeeerrrrrr - KA-BOOM. That's right, folks. Today is Nine Eleven."
(Oh no, he didn't. Really? Maybe he doesn't realize he has an American in his classroom. Seriously, who the hell is this guy?!)
This was my introduction to Rindert the first day I sat in his history class at the Conservatory. His initial memory of me would probably be the bulging incredulous eyeballs peering back after he made this comment.
I mean, really...I can appreciate a good edgy joke like the best of them. But making a joke about the Towers? That's pretty dang bold.
In the weeks and months to follow, I would come to know Rindert as a sensitive genius. Loaded with information. A Dutch man with a deep-seeded hankering for American music. Quick to dash off high decibel boogie woogie to accessorize a point.
By the end of the year, I considered Rindert one of my favorite features of days spent at the Conservatory. More than a few times, while he rolled a cigarette, we'd banter on about musical culture in America. Or about his love for two specific American offerings: men's bar soap and Dixie brand cups.
Last year, it was a no-brainer to include Rindert in the line-up of Canvas events. I just wanted Rindert to come to my house and just...well...just be Rindert for an hour for an audience of 50. He was graciously receptive. And for the price of six bars of Dial and a 20-pack of imported plastic cups, he agreed to be the lecturer at the History of Rock and Roll night in January.
And everyone loved him.
Working together on Canvas sealed the deal. Rindert became a caring, wonderful, brilliant, funny and yet intensely inward friend who would always stop to ask me how Dave and I were doing.
A few weeks ago, I saw Rindert at school after a few month summer holiday. We chatted about this year's Canvas line-up and how I would love it (as would the others who came) if he'd make a return appearance and talk about the music of New Orleans. We were to keep in touch by email in the coming weeks to make plans.
As usual, Rindert made a few darkly humorous comments about how, had he ever gotten married, a wife probably would've required him to take better care of himself. He had basically spent all summer holed up in his apartment reading, watching tv and eating things he shouldn't.
This was another thing about Rindert I learned. As seems to be the case with so many of the people who make people laugh the most, I think he was lonely.
But humor can smoothe out the rough edges of any human existence. And far be it from me to question it in Rindert.
I left for Nashville a week after that, during which time Rindert emailed and said he had an idea and I should call him right away. I didn't have the right chance to give him a ring, so I figured I'd call him when I got home a few days later.
I found out yesterday that two days after Rindert sent me that email, he died alone in his apartment. He had a fatal heart attack.
I've never been good at good-byes. But then again, who is? And it's funny how varying degrees of separation can conjure similar emotions. When someone goes, they take with them the future...however casual or however intimate...you had envisioned with them. And you have to mourn.
Walking by an empty window.
Starting over with new friends.
Saying a permanent good-bye to someone who mattered to so many. Who mattered to me.
This, the food of being human and the sweet sorrow of separation.
(Rest in peace, Rindert. We miss you.)