The Ideal versus the Actual


It’s easy to idealize our Amsterdam years. Marci and I were so full of youth and ambition when we moved. We truly learned how to be a family, there in the Netherlands. And I suppose it often felt idyllic because it was a beautiful country. Amsterdam was — and undoubtedly still is — a beautiful city. The photo above is real: my Amsterdam-born daughter, toddling in a field of flowers on a bright spring day. Still, that’s the ideal, versus the actual.

Our Amsterdam years were also hard years. I’m tempted to say “soul-crushing.” But “soul-shaping” is probably more accurate. Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope. Our decade in the city, from early-2003 to mid-2012, produced a lot of tears… broken hearts… arguments… moments of terror… and counseling sessions.

The vast majority of our time in Amsterdam was somewhere in the middle. Not the highest highs or lowest lows. So, I think one of the best windows into this sort of murky middle comes from something I posted to my blog in March of 2005. I titled the post “Tram Lijn 7 – Richting Flevopark – 22:49,” which just means “Tram Line 7, in the Direction of Flevopark, 10:49 PM.” It’s a sketch of the actual, versus the ideal. What it felt like to live through that time period, now twenty years in the past. So, to keep my reminiscence honest, I’m going to repost the piece here:

Cityscapes - Linnaeusstraat wide

Tram Lijn 7 – Richting Flevopark – 22:49

The tram rumbles to a stop in front of me, offering an escape from the billowy sheets of soft spring rain. It’s on-time, and I’m pleased to be on my way home late this Wednesday evening, riding tram line 7 in the direction of Flevopark.

I’m surprised to find the tram so full, though I am still able to find a seat a bit toward the front. A glance throughout the tram reveals dozens of strangers facing each other with cold, casual stares… two teenage girls, speaking a valley girl dialect of Dutch… a middle-aged Lebanese man with a thick, black moustache… an old Chinese woman with a red “Dirk van den Broek” bag… a scruffy-faced man in a black leather biker’s jacket, gazing absently at the emergency exit signs while petting his small dog’s sleek white fur…

The interior of the tram is bathed in flourescent lights the color of skim milk, illuminating the human condition. It is a tram full of Elenor Rigbies. All the lonely people– where do they all come from? All the lonely people — where do they all belong?

As we approach the crossing over the Amstel River, the tram slows to a crawl. Nice and easy over the slightly jagged tracks where the drawbridge separates… The moment of pause comes at the middle of the bridge, offering an impressive vista of the rain-soaked city. The delicate ancient church towers of the Zuiderkerk and the Oude Kerk off to my left; the stout silver “skyscrapers” of the Amstel business district off to my right; and thousands upon thousands of golden windows, row upon row in the tightly packed houses spanning the space in between.

The soundtrack in my head switches to Ray Charles singing “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?,” a song from an old friend who never returns my messages anymore… And as I return the cold, casual stares of these familiar strangers in the tram, I am gripped with a sense of sadness. I realize that I am lonely, too. I understand that no one in this sea of humanity is capable of offering the companionship and completion for which I truly yearn. We’re all looking for something that cannot be found on this tram. A higher level of discourse is required, a transcendent comprehension of completion and companionship. Do they understand this, too? The man with the dog? The old Chinese lady? The tired Lebanese man? The chatty teenage girls? Or is this truth so inescapable that it’s incomprehensible?

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