Traveling Backwards in Heels
It’s around seven in the evening and the sun is beginning to set over the museum district of Amsterdam. I’m skating home on my dinky little penny board, stumbling every couple of yards on the cobblestone and I have the distinct feeling that someone is following me. No one is of course. Or honestly, maybe someone is, maybe I’m right, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the thought is there, in my head, and I am making sure that I am back at my hotel before the sun has completely set, as I have the past few nights I’ve been in Amsterdam alone since Laura left for Majorca.
The Netherlands is stop number two on what my father calls my “Eat Pray Love tour”. To me it does feel very spiritual. Laura has leant me her copy of Coelho’s The Alchemist (if you’re reading this Laura — I’m sorry! I still have it!) and this trip will mark the third time I’ve visited the city as well as the first time I’ve been here alone.
That’s it isn’t it? That’s what this trip is about. It’s all about “alone”, about learning to be alone, about fostering my friendship with myself, the most important one there is. But as much as I had set out to conquer “alone”, to not fear it within myself, my very existence as a woman means that my alone will always be at risk from outside forces, from the lingering “what if” around the next dark corner.
Now I’m home safe in my little hotel near Vondelpark. A couple days earlier, the man at the fourth smart shop I visited told me Vondel was a great place to eat the truffles I’d bought from him. I thanked him for his advice as I walked out, knowing that would never be a possibility. Perhaps were I in possession of a Y chromosome, but no, I would not with my current sexual organs be ingesting psychedelic (but legal!) substances alone in the middle of a notorious park in a foreign country.
Eat Pray Love, that’s the fantasy. But I wonder if Julia Robert’s character was ever afraid. We don’t see that in the film, and forgive me for never reading the book, but that seems unfair. Unfair to show a woman carelessly traveling the world without fear of her carelessness being stripped from her without revealing her secret. Forget the secret to a meaningful life, give me the secret to a fearless night walk home, the confidence of knowing the world truly belongs to me.
I don’t mean to insinuate the Netherlands as a dangerous place. A week ago I was in Uppsala, the uninvited guest of a Swedish wedding I had no true business at in the first place. Uppsala is a tiny town where the liquor stores have a prompt 5pm bedtime, and still, that fear found itself in the dark places between me and my hotel. A few days later, I’m in Stockholm, drunk in a cab on the way home with my best friend. There’s two of us, so we braved the darkness with the confidence of one guy our age. Liquor softened my worldview, but the morning that followed, the fear, “what if” still found me, pointed backwards towards the night that had already passed.
My hotel in Amsterdam is tall and narrow and reminds me of a boat’s cabin. Sometimes I’m sure I can feel it swaying, but perhaps that’s just the effect of all the coffeeshops I’ve been visiting. I’m thinking about my male friends and all their travel stories, the insane adventures they stumble into, the friends they make, and I’m jealous. When they travel, it's not brave. They don’t know my fear. They couldn’t.
I read a book once, How To Climb Mont Blanc In A Skirt, it’s about all the women you never heard about who climbed Everest before women were even given the vote, the women who circumnavigated the world simply to prove a point. When I feel my fear holding me back, I think of these women, lugging hoop skirts over rivers, paving the way for young women like me to find their place in the world, wherever it may be. Because it’s no matter how much you fear what may be in the darkness waiting. Courage is feeling the fear, and doing the damn thing anyway. And like Ginger Rogers, we do it backwards, and in heels.