When I was 24 I went to Europe for the first time with a friend that I lived and worked with up North. Mazz and I landed in Amsterdam; he was keen to catch up with a girl he’d met in Bali the year before. This was just before Christmas and we left the Australian summer to arrive in a city that was white with snow and 18 degrees below zero. We’d never seen snow before and we sat in the cab from Schiphol airport hardly able to blink or take the smiles from our faces.
We stayed at this little place called the Schmidt Hotel but before an hour was up we were in the streets of Amsterdam bracing against a freezing breeze down streets like we’d never known before. We picked up the snow and threw it at each other, sent postcards home saying, “There is snow everywhere.” We were like kids.
That night, in our small room, we lay on our beds and drank Heineken beer. Even now, that taste takes me straight back to that night. A church bell rang and we leapt up looking out the window as if we could see the sound of it. Mazz explained how the cold air made the peeling so crystal clear. I didn’t listen; I only knew that it was beautiful. “You’ll be telling me how Rembrandt made his paint next,” I said but only gently.
I read the words on my green Heineken can. “It says this beer won the Grand Prix of 1886,” I say. “Bullshit,” Mazz says, “Where the fuck would they put the wheels?” and we laughed, not because we were drunk on beer but because we were drunk on Europe already.
In the morning, while Mazz still slept, I crept out into the dark streets and watched the shopkeepers setting up. I heard the unfamiliar sound of footsteps in snow. There was a smell of coffee and cigarettes in the air. I pushed my white breath before me and I realised that I had never seen my breath before. I was alive and for the first time I knew it. There were chocolates in the windows and people smiled at me politely. They had red cheeks and tufts of blond hair that escaped from under their woollen caps. I am alive, I thought, and I will never forget it.
Years later I was in Amsterdam again but by now I had seen a lot of the world. Mazz was married; I hadn’t seen him since the wedding two years before. It was summer. I found myself in a non-descript part of the city in a non-descript street and there in front of me was the Schmidt Hotel. I was tired from walking and stopped in the street as a picture of me and Mazz flooded back. I looked up to the window where we had stood looking for the sound of bells. Nothing was the same as I remembered. The hotel and the street had become mundane, its shops plain, its people now solemnly bent on lives of which I was not a part. I walked quickly away.
This was all a long time ago. My life is different now. I no longer search for the joy of the exotic or stand breathless in unfamiliar weather or long for views unseen. I search for pieces of the everyday – my daughter’s hand in mine as I cross a road, my son sleeping, and the old smell of a new book. I look for the minute signs of life now, for the big spaces between events, or maybe just for signs of me. Now I no longer need to go over there to find that I am here. You know, once not far from where I live, I saw an orange train passing silently through a yellow field of canola.