TFT Exclusive Excerpt: Rachel Shukert on Why Amsterdam Doesn’t Change
In Everything is Going to be Great, the new, hilarious book from TFT’s Rachel Shukert, a young actress jumps aboard a traveling theatrical production to experience one impossible-to-forget “underfunded and overexposed” Grand European Tour. Below, an exclusive excerpt, on her (mis)adventures in the oh-so-futuristic and socially rigid Dutch capital.
Amsterdam doesn’t change. You can go years, even centuries, without setting foot in the place, and return to find everything precisely as you left it, an immaculate shrine, like the untouched bedroom of a long-dead child. You enter a building through a three-hundred-year-old door, gleaming with fresh lacquer, and glance upward to see a crooked little chimney with the year 1634 still scratched cleanly in the clay; you gaze out at the canal, at the fleet of wooden sailboats clipping calmly through the water, and you wonder for a moment if the modern world has been nothing more than a dream, a frenzied parade of ideologies and massacres and useless things for sale, passing vividly and blood-soaked through the mind’s nocturnal eye and forgotten at the first light of dawn.
But look a little deeper and the march of time is evident. The outdoor markets are no longer filled with apple-cheeked milkmaids and bewhiskered herring merchants bellowing lewd songs over the percussive thud of the cleaver, but with harried-looking women in hijab shepherding small tribes of dark-eyed children through the crowded stalls of fish and flowers and fruit. The streets are lined with kebab shops and tanned, glistening men with leather trousers slung low on their hips. Turn a corner, and the skunky pungency of marijuana masks the scent of rain and sewage that veils the air. The half-bared breasts of an Eastern bloc teenager are pressed against the windowpane of a breathtaking seventeenth-century building, as a group of bleary-eyed youths in LSU caps dare one another to the lick the glass over her pierced nipple.
There are elderly people on the street: old men drinking small glasses of warm beer in unfashionable cafés, shriveled women painstakingly negotiating their wheeled baskets of shopping over the uneven cobblestones. They still look sharp, despite their age. Not for them the glittery sweatshirts; the soft pants the color of melted ice-cream; the whimsical, childish raiments that make Granny and Gramps look like a pair of hideous balding babies left in the bathwater for a hundred years. The elders of Amsterdam are dressed in plain skirts and pants with zippers; neat cardigans and wool neckties. Some shuffle along stiff-backed, others with the waddling gait of a worried toddlers, and you can just infer the outline of an orthopedic corset or a sodden adult diaper lurking beneath the tasteful armor of tweed and wool. The inside may be rotting, but outside, all is dignity; quiet, unbending dignity. The old people are like the buildings that way.
* * *
Where the Fuck Am I? A Guide to Dutch Street Names
Amsterdam can be an impossible place to navigate.
First of all, the streets in Amsterdam are oriented around a ring, as opposed to a grid. While this may be all very well and good for morally equivocating, sexually ambiguous Europeans, a red-blooded, patriotic American used to honest concrete concepts like “east” and “west,” “north” and “south,” “good” and “evil,” “with us” and “against us” will have a hard time, particularly as said American will almost certainly be stoned out of his or her mind.
The nice thing about circular streets is that you’ll always get where you’re going eventually; the hard part is going the right way around. It can make the difference between a journey of five minutes or one of two hours. (At least as I mentioned, you’ll be stoned, which takes the edge off. Until it starts to rain and you wish you were dead.)
The only truly foolproof way to get anywhere is ask a native for directions, which they are usually happy to provide. But this too poses a difficulty, because the names of Dutch streets are, to a native English speaker, completely impenetrable. Like German, Dutch uses compound nouns, and a street name can easily have more than twenty letters, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is completely fucking ridiculous. While embedded in the street names are clues as to their nature and positioning–straat for “street,” gracht for “canal,” eerste for “first,” tweede for “second,” etc.–unraveling their mysteries would require one to actually learn to speak Dutch. I considered doing this, but a four-week language course proved prohibitively expensive and essentially useless, and I already have a college degree in experimental theater, thank you very much.
Therefore, the best solution is simply to pronounce the unpronounceable by substituting the unfamiliar words with familiar English look-alikes. The results are informative and often amusing.
Reguliersdwarsstraat is the main drag of Amsterdam’s gay area (which basically encompasses the entire city except for the Muslim neighborhoods). It is often referred to as “Rue de Vaséline” by locals. However, in the place-name argot of Rachel Shukert’s The Grand TourTM, it becomes: Regular Dwarf Street
You see? Reguliers, a difficult word involving several epiglottal stops and no small amount of phlegm, becomes the eminently manageable word “regular.” Is there anything more comforting that the word “regular”: with its pleasant symmetry, its happy promise of placid intestinal activity? Dwars, meaning “side,” as in a side street, becomes the charming little noun “dwarf.” And finally, straat is anglicized simply to “street.” Reguliersdwarsstraat = Regular Dwarf Street.
Of course, as this is a dwarf street, there must also be just a plain old Regular Street, which there is! Reguliersstraat.
I think you’ve got the hang of it. Here are some more samples to get you started. Remember, be creative, and don’t be afraid to sound stupid! Everyone thinks you are anyhow, so you’ve got nothing to lose.
Leliestraat Lily’s Street
Leliedwarsstraat Lily’s a Dwarf Street
Laurierstraat Laurie’s Street
Laurierdwarsstraat Laurie’s a Dwarf Street
Eerste Laurierdwarsstraat Errr, Laurie’s a Dwarf Street?
Weteringplantsoen Watering Plants, Son
Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal New Side for Burgers, Y’all!
Oudezijds Achterburgwal Old-Time Actor Burgles All
Warmoesstraat Hot Mess Street (an apt description)
Kamperfoelieweg Camper Following
Kolpinstraat Klonopin Street
Rustenburgerstraat John Ratzenberger Street
Huidenstraat Houses Street
Meerhuizenstraat More Houses Street
Korte Meerhuizenstraat Even More Houses Street
Funke Kupperstraat Fucking Couples Street
Pettenstraat Petting Street
Pienemanstraat Penis Man Street
Uranusstraat Your Anus Street
* * *
In the mornings, after breakfast, I liked to linger over my coffee for minutes, writing in my journal or going over the folding laminated street map Jeroen had given me before I timidly ventured outside on my daily rounds. The apartment was near the Albert Cuyp Markt, a permanent outdoor market that went on for several blocks, and every day I walked though its entirety, buying a packet of olives or a couple of sour pickles to munch on as I ambled past the plastic tubs of poppies and periwinkle, the huge round cheeses that emitted a waxy glow like the rays of an alien sun, the silvery prawns and fat herrings staring glassily from beds of finely crushed ice. I especially liked the sweet stall, where wedged between mounds of dried apricot and shards of creamy nougat were several trays of three-dimensional chocolate penises in a variety of sizes and shapes. Some of the penises were milk chocolate with a white chocolate glans; others had white shafts, the tips coated a troubling deep brown. The penises stood erect, curving forward eagerly on the haunches formed by their molded scrotums, the smaller ones arranged carefully in front, an eager choir preparing to burst into song. Once I saw a frazzled-looking young mother snatch up one of the larger penises and thrust it roughly in the mouth of her wailing toddler. The child’s sobs subsided immediately.
It occurred to me that if my acting career failed (a possibility that seemed more likely with each passing minute) I could instead travel the world, taking artistic photographs of sexually suggestive foodstuffs… I would record the consumption of reindeer testicles among the Sami people of northern Finland and traverse the Amazonian jungle on the trail of a mythical fruit that oozed a clumpy red fluid and was fed to native boys as part of an initiation ritual; I would compose a penetrating (if you’ll pardon the pun) essay accounting for the popularity of the misleadingly named ladyfingers at the kiddush following a ritual Jewish circumcision. I would then amass all this material into a glossy, expensively produced coffee-table book, which would sell a million copies and make me rich beyond my wildest dreams.
It tells you something about me that, in the case my acting career proved a failure, my only contingency plan was to publish an international bestseller. I’m sure that you are already aware of this. I just want you to know that I know it too.
* * *
In truth, with each passing day, more and more of my time was devoted to my fantasy life, which had always been rich but was quickly becoming all-consuming. When I had first arrived in Amsterdam, I considered joining one of the language classes organized by various government agencies and community centers to help recent immigrants integrate into Dutch society. I fantasized that the experience would be very much like Dear John, the 1980s sitcom starring Judd Hirsch as a recently divorced man deeply involved with his support group. I invented a colorful cast of characters. There would be a smooth talking British playboy, a friendly Australian lady-pothead, a couple of Italians in billowing patterned shirts who would shout dramatically and inexplicably burst into tears and were also gay boyfriends to each other, and a heavily veiled Muslim woman who would shock and delight us with explicit references to her rich and varied sex life. We would meet in a brightly lit classroom decorated with inspirational posters of kittens and with disembodied hands holding flowers, and presiding over us would be our teacher, a lovably humorless Dutchman called Marcel who wore funny glasses and could never find a girlfriend. His ineptitude with the opposite sex (and his subsequent crippling loneliness) would be a source of great mirth for our class, but we would do what we could to help. Fatima, the veiled Muslim woman, would give him tips about esoteric sexual maneuvers with evocative names–the Flatulent Pita, the Hamid Karzai–which she claimed were commonplace in her country and expertly administered by her never-seen husband, a successful real estate broker called Jamal. At the mention of such exotic perversions, Marcel’s funny glasses would steam up (a running gag), and he would have to wipe them with the end of his tie. Trevor, the suave English playboy, would be constantly setting Marcel up on disastrous dates with women Trevor had recently discarded, until halfway through season three, when Marcel told him he was in love with me. As Trevor and I often expressed our simmering sexual tension through insults and various plots to humiliate each other, he would agree to help Marcel woo me, that is, until Trevor realized the depth of his own feelings for me. This would lead to weeks of addictive, will-they or won’t-they build-up until spring sweeps, when Trevor and I would accidentally be locked overnight in the Anne Frank House during a blizzard. Certain we were about to die, we would then breathlessly fall into each other’s arms and make tender yet animalistic love to each other on the floor of the Secret Annex. When this was revealed to the class, in the next episode, everyone would feign horror–everyone, that is, except for Fatima, who would calmly assert that the Holocaust was a Zionist hoax and then mention a new bedroom move that Jamal had invented, which he called “the Chocolate Treblinka” and we would officially beome a controversial, boundary-pushing comedy. In the season finale, Trevor and I would become engaged, but in a new twist on an old classic, we would leave each other at the altar–I being overwhelmed at the thought of having to deal with his snobbish, casually anti-Semitic mother; he feeling unready to give up his playboy ways. Trevor would then leave the show for a couple of seasons to pursue film projects, but we would be reunited in the series finale, when Marcel would marry Sheila the Australian lady-pothead after accidentally impregnating her during a time-travel episode set in the floating hotel in Amsterdam harbor. Their wedding would also be the first and only time we would ever see the mysterious Jamal, who would be played by Adam Sandler.
My show seemed so real to me that I even composed a set of dummy lyrics for a theme song, which was to be sung to the tune of the theme from Dear John:
Amsterdam (doo doo doo doo doo doo)
Amsterdam (doo doo doo doo doo)
Don’t know where the hell I am, Amsterdam
Amsterdam (doo doo doo doo doo doo)
Not Siam (doo doo doo doo doo doo)
Paris, France, or Vietnam, Amsterdam
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