Sunday, October 23, 2016

What I thought versus what I know: Amsterdam, London and Dublin

When I first went to Paris at seven years old, my only knowledge of the city was what I had seen in the movies. I fell in love with the landscapes and architecture watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was taught that apparently traveling to Paris meant finding a French boyfriend from Mary Kate and Ashley’s Passport to Paris.

But seeing the city in all of its real, immersive glory was something altogether unique and totally separate from the repeated VHS viewings I’d witnessed on my adorably tiny 10-inch TV screen.

In the past few weeks I’ve spent time in London, Amsterdam, and Dublin. In the course of these days as a solo traveler, I’ve had quiet moments of contemplation to think about how very different it is to imagine a place and to see that same place for what it is.

London is the city I know best. I can usually walk the streets with minimal use of a map and travel the public transportation without consulting a trip planning app. But no matter the times I come here, there’s always something inspiring and new about the city to discover.

Just two nights ago, I found myself in the middle of a street fair in Bloomsbury. In this area, where I’d studied abroad four years back, I’d somehow neglected this vibrant street which on the night of the festival teemed with art installations, music and dance. I could barely believe this place I thought I’d known could be home to something that had skirted just outside my peripheral vision for so long.

If my familiarity with London is so often being tested, then my travels in other cities are like whirlwind educational experiences.

Amsterdam's gabled roofs (Rachel Poletick/Instagram)
I arrived in Amsterdam on the afternoon of October 3rd, and walking out of the Centraal train station
on the northern edge of the city, I felt overwhelmed. Not merely because my pre-holiday research hadn’t involved learning how to get a ticket for the subway and trolley system in the city, but because of the scope of what stood before me. Beautiful canals meet architecture that appears somehow equally inviting and intimidating in its ornate beauty.

Over the course of a few days traversing the city, I walked a number of residential canals, met a fellow traveler at a restaurant serving traditional Dutch cuisine, avoided direct eye contact in the Red Light District, walked back and forth and back and forth past the beautiful Rijksmuseum, cried through the Anne Frank House, and thought of my friends, my family, and the path that led me to where I was. Amsterdam, for me, felt nothing like it is in the public mindset. The deviant culture I’d been told about gave way to one of the most open and friendly societies I’ve ever encountered. The three crosses (XXX) of Amsterdam’s coat of arms that graced so many surfaces around the city felt like a postscript to every moment. Its historical significance (and modern reinterpretation) aside, the symbol felt like a set of kisses tacked onto every moment, an offering of belonging and love.

My trip to Dublin came less than two weeks later, on October 17th.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic (Rachel Poletick/Instagram)
My goal in arriving in Dublin was two-fold: 1. Awaken myself with the Irish perspective about their fight for independence from Britain and 2. Wind down with some traditional music. I accomplished my goals, but in the process learned so much more than I could have anticipated. Prior to arriving, I thought of Ireland as a smaller, greener version of the UK. I knew little about the history of the nation save for what I’d been taught in one class session during a course on British history.

Just traveling to Dublin was like a masterclass. The city is forever altered by the struggles and resiliency of its people. On my first day I went to Trinity College and saw a full print of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, not realizing that this symbol would pop up several times over my few days in the city. My passing knowledge of the 1916 Easter Rising became an expanding history of the struggles of the Irish people. I visited Kilmainham Gaol, a prison which at different times held debtors and political prisoners in great numbers. I felt the pain of separated families due to injustice. In other moments, I listened to music and discovered a side of Irish pride that is centered in an undying passion for cultural traditions. Dance, music and art became a focal point of my travels, as did the brief but incomparably lovely interactions I had with Irish people. Of the dozen or so store proprietors I spoke to, I came away with more jokes, pleasantries, recommendations, and stories than I have experienced in any other city I have ever visited. It’s hard not to feel like you belong in Dublin when you spend even a short amount of time there.

I walked away from these moments in places - both the familiar and new - and considered how little it is that I know despite how much I seem to think I know. Being in a place is nothing like reading about a place. Meeting people is nothing like hearing from people. Thinking is nothing like knowing.

On that first trip to Paris, I remember walking through Notre Dame after perhaps 50 viewings of the Disney film accumulated over four years. I was struck with something - the checkerboard floors - no doubt drawn directly from reality by the animators of the film. They had a special meaning to me because they were as real in my filmic knowledge of Paris as in reality. In subsequent visits to the church, I’ve looked at those floors and seen the familiar. I’ve known the reality of the floors of Notre Dame, just as I’ve seen it on the screen in my living room at four years old. To say that the translation of the dream to its tangible counterpart moved me to tears is an understatement. On my last visit to Notre Dame, I stared down and cried as my past, my present, and my future collided in this one small observable thing: the floor of this cathedral.