Old men in Birkenstocks and tunics walk the streets of Amsterdam. People like these congregate in great numbers along the main shopping streets and smoking alleys. Even though weed is illegal but still allowed, many tourists come to this city to taste a brief thrill of overt liberalism. Consequently, many tourists visit the same places and take the same pictures. I feel like this city is overrun with foreigners; the beaten path is every path, and there’s hardly an angle or street corner that hasn’t been repetitively photographed.
It is so difficult to be original – or as close to original as possible – here for that reason. I would step away from the crowds into a quiet alleyway, one lined with flowers and bikes, and someone would be quick to follow. I take a picture of a docked boat with flowers on it with a cathedral in the background, and an old woman rushes up to take the same one. She and her husband then spend a good hour following me around, taking identical pictures from identical angles. I scowl at her and she smiles that devious smile of a small child who knows she’s doing something wrong. All this might just point to the sad realization that I’m no more original than anyone else.
There’s a sector of the city just east of the central station that has many Asian restaurants and groceries. I stumble upon a hole-in-the-wall Thai place that has bar seating along a glass window. As I inspect the menu next to the door, an American smiles at me and says, “it’s the best”. That’s enough for me to enter.
I sit down along the bar to people-watch; there is also better lighting for food photography. This American begins to speak.
He says that he works for some Internet company, enabling him to live abroad in northern Italy. He came to Amsterdam to see the movie Prometheus. Apparently it wouldn’t appear in Italy until October and he just couldn’t wait.
He adds that work is slow right now, so to pass the time he has taken on Italian standup. He’s done two shows already: “the second one was much better”, he gleefully adds.
Then I wonder, what were the chances that I’d run into an eccentric expat in Amsterdam? Likely very high. Expats and travelers alike meet new people constantly. Like Internet identities, they can be anyone they want to be just by telling you that that’s what they are. You’ll never see these strangers again; they can continue to bridge that gap between dreams and reality while you’ll leave thinking you’ve met an expat standup comic who had a terrible first show but, goshdarnit, he’s getting better! It’s the perfect remedy for bruised egos.
Is this American actually an amateur comedian in Italy – should I believe him? Whether I believe it or not is irrelevant simply because it cannot be proved or disproved. If he is lying, I do know this: it’s easy to feign originality in a city that has none.