Amsterdam has always been a magical, mythical place for me, a city of forbidden freedoms whispered about at home by daydreaming stoners with distantly-glazed eyes. I never thought I’d be here, but thanks to a little tech community volunteerism, Nokia has funded this adventure. I’ve just been elected to a council that will act as a proxy between the Finnish cell phone giant and its burgeoning open source developer community.
I couldn’t be more excited.
The civic efficiency is a marvel. At the airport I traversed easily from baggage claim to the train, where after a brief scenic ride I was deposited just blocks from the hotel. The scarcity of cars is amazing, but that doesn’t make pedestrian traffic much safer. Alan is so absorbed in GPS navigation that I have to grab his collar when a homicidal cyclist blows by.
When we return to the hotel after a day of exploring, I take note of the hundreds of bicycles parked out front.
Many are being loaded carelessly into some sort of dump truck, maybe abandoned too long. Or maybe, I think whimsically, to be distributed better across the city. I imagine an ad hoc bike loan system, where one two-wheeled conveyance is as good as any other and no one cares which one gets them from A to B. Drop this one off, pick that one up.
I wonder how accurate this is…
The conference is a blast, held at a repurposed coal gasification plant called Westergasfabriek. Remodelers have done an admirable job turning it into a conference and entertainment venue, and organizers equally adept at making it amenable for attendees.
For most of the event that’s all I am: a body in a chair, or a human fish fighting traffic streams between sessions. Most of the talks are over my head, but I’m curious and strain to understand. The diversity of accents tends to make that difficult.
I’m just a dumb American, I think, embarrassed. More on that later.
Nokia surprises each attendee on the first day with a handheld touchscreen computer, the N900. You’ve never seen so many happy geeks. Unboxing at lunch is like a massive early Christmas.
There’s a party later that night, but the music is so loud that many of us opt to stand in the drizzle outside. I’m the only one with an umbrella so about a half-dozen heads bump underneath it as we excitedly discuss our bounty. Gary is so fired up by the discussion that he dashes back to the hotel at one point, eager to add our suggestions to an app.
I drift through the rainy night, writing a song in my head that no one will ever hear.
Late that evening, returning to our hotel, my roomie Sanjeev and I are accosted by a couple of local women at a bus stop. They seem interested, but maybe it’s just their intoxication.
They ask our countries of origin, and Sanjeev replies Canada. I stay silent.
Good, says one drunkenly, because we fucking hate George Bush. Americans are so arrogant!
Sanjeev glances at me curiously, and I smile. Let her go.
Which we do, for some time, indulging her rant about uncouth Americans and how we think we own the world. I can’t argue with her. I don’t feel I personally belong in that category, but I understand.
I finally confess my country, and the most talkative one is embarrassed. I tell her not to be. I didn’t vote for Bush, either.
Sanjeev later observes that they were putting moves on us, and asks my thoughts. At this point I know my marriage is over, and I’m just going through the motions. I’m sure my wife is, too. Could I cheat? Is it cheating if the relationship is loveless?
That night it’s hard to sleep as I wrestle with this dilemma.
Saturday I am a minor celebrity, and YouTube infamy awaits.
The incoming council is presented to all attendees in the main hall, and we’re each required to tell a bit about ourselves. I just remember being nervous. I later watch the video in horror. How did I become so overweight? Why can’t I just relax?
The only saving grace is that the video lags badly, and suffers few viewers.
I resolve to get in better shape. To be more at ease.
The day shoots by.
Sanjeev had to go early, but as luck would have it, a friend from Germany arrives late and can use a bed.
He and I walk near-empty streets that night. He’s in the mood for some marijuana. I don’t smoke it, but I’m curious. We end up at a tiny herbal café, and he orders “Sleeping Beauty” on the server’s recommendation. We sit outside at a round ornate table and I watch him go mellow. We start talking about time and space, and continue all the way to back the hotel and into the morning. I awaken too early, and the other bed is empty. I later learn he was so moved by our conversation that he had to go ponder it in the great outdoors.
Maybe the weed.
The finale is Sunday, and after that, home. But first I must embarrass myself further. I have a ten minute talk prepared, and at the last minute an organizer asks if I can make it five instead, and give it during the lightning round. I’m too confident, still buzzing with alcohol traces and secondhand cannabis smoke. Sure, I say, and crack open my laptop to pare down the presentation.
The wifi is glacier slow, and my brain runs too fast. I’m certain I’ve pulled it off, mentally running through it and timing myself.
So when it’s finally my turn, I bound on stage and start tearing through it. I’m oblivious to the passage of time, until Dave signals that my bit is up.
I’m only halfway finished.
In mortified hindsight, I think of so many things to do differently. Rely more on pictures instead of text. Rehearse aloud. Ask to go last.
It’s a painful lesson to learn, in front of hundreds of people, but I do learn it.
Everything passed too quickly, though. I feel I’ve developed lifelong friends in these scant days. I want to wrap this experience up, load it on my shiny new phone so I can replay it. There’s just no way. I resolve that if I’m ever rich, I’ll put together social events and fly everyone in. No agenda, other than catching up.
Events come and go.
Friends are forever.