Women and cities are normally exempted from this involuntary eclipse of the mind. Nature has endowed me with extra-large brain cells to store the sight, the smell, the sound, the taste and the feel of women and cities. I am a very lucky man as I don’t really have bad memories of women. Perhaps a few things went wrong over the years, but nothing that might cause embarrassment or remorse on my side or theirs. I need to add that I haven’t truly been close to that many anyway so I’d better remember each and everyone fondly and with the utmost of affection. I have some ghastly experiences in a few cities but they were, in general, independent of the place. They could’ve happened anywhere and to anyone. So it goes again that I have no real regrets about the cities I’ve been to. Sure, there are some I didn’t like but it serves no particular purpose to reminisce about what we're not fond of. Until now that is, which brings us to the beginning of our story.
It has been a fascinating week. I was slowly getting myself in travel mode as I was scheduled to leave to Amsterdam for a two-day conference. But on one dark night, as I was having dinner with a bunch of friends up in the mountains near Tartous I received a call that not only I would have to go to Rome first but that I would have to fly out of Beirut. Not two days later as previously planned but on the next day!
I arrived in Beirut late in the evening after a 2-hour drive from Tartous. By most accounts, Beirut is a gem, a unique cosmopolitan city of unmatched beauty and inspiration. To tell you the truth though, I never thought so much of her. I can’t fit in in Beirut where I have the nagging feeling that I’m in a heartless place. She’s a city who pretends to tolerate me but doesn’t like who I truly am. Beirut is an unloving city with a perpetual identity crisis even to her own inhabitants who have different mental maps of her based on sectarian coordinates. At one time during its celebrated modern history it provided an intellectual and political haven to all but only because other Arab cities were run by obsessive-compulsive and tyrannical regimes. This early fling with a pseudo-democracy, at a time when all her sisters were unabashedly struggling under the heavy load of despotism, made her derisive and pompous. What a shame, had she only learned a lesson or two in humility, things would have been different. Beirut today is a narcissistic and neurotic city, shifting loyalties, fostering hate and suspicion among dwellers on opposite sides of the same street. Like a once beautiful woman marred by a long scar running down her face, Beirut needs to come to terms with her own reality. She has to learn how to forgive and forget before she finds herself again. She has to accept that a great part of past faults, mistakes and blunders were hers and hers alone, all along. I opened the door of the Captain’s Cabin, an old restaurant, turned pub, on a side street of Al-Hamra and walked in. Had I been blind-folded I would’ve had no idea of where I was. I ordered a cold Almaza beer and sat at a corner alone. The beer was refreshing and cold. The atmosphere was stale and heavy. There were two women sitting nearby who could not make up their minds on what language to stick to to carry out their loud conversation. English, French then English again. They would get out of synch and inadvertently slip into Arabic before they would catch themselves and amend. A tall westerner of undetermined origin and age was standing in the middle of the small room, laughing hoarsely and begging for more attention. He was surrounded by two or three doting local chicks of mediocre beauty. A graying man sat at the bar, sipping his whiskey in silent thoughts. A girl, raring to go, gave me a look from across the room. "Nah", she must’ve thought, too old for her or not particularly her type. She shifted focus in search of a more interesting companion amongst the faces in the crowd. A mix of rock music, good and bad, reverberated in the corners. Only the man with the white hair looked real. Because he was real he had to forget what was going on around him. He was a disenchanted Beirutian, so I liked to think, overwhelmed by the unmerciful abuse his city has suffered on the hand of time. At 4:20 in the morning I left Beirut with no regrets but with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the duty free at the airport, a solitary testament of my brief call. The Alitalia plane took off and headed west toward Rome, the center of the known universe for a significant part of our recorded human history. I was harsh on Beirut you would think and assume that I will flip completely once I start writing about Rome. Not so I am afraid. I am not done badmouthing cities of inveterate reputations yet. Let me go on.
One of the most un-Italian traits of the dolce vita, in addition to the obstinately obsolete style of football, is the Italian national airline. Alitalia is without the slightest shadow of a doubt one of the worst in the business. I flew on four miserable flights during this trip of mine and was served with the same horrendous cold turkey sandwich. The airplanes were noisy, the service inferior and the Fiumicino airport in Rome a nightmare. I am one who enjoys his idle layovers in airports but Rome’s international doesn’t give the traveler any chance or possibility of having a good time. I jumped in a waiting cab and gave my hotel address to the driver who sped up toward the ancient capital of the world. It was 7:30 in the morning. I had one affair to attend to in Rome and I was done by ten o’clock. The Grand Ritz Hotel was in the northern part of town, an old establishment catering to American senior citizens traveling to Italy in flocks. I put on my walking shoes and headed in the general direction of Piazza di Spagna. It was a fine Saturday morning with vigorously fresh air. When I reached the Piazza hundreds of sightseers and tourist were already there. Under normal circumstances I avoid crowded venues and feel itchy in the bestial rush of the hordes stampeding from one site to the next for the sole purpose of being there. Soon enough my annoyance started creeping up on me and I found myself snaking through side streets and narrow alleys for evasion.
I located a small restaurant and sat at a table in the confined yard. The place was lively with conversation and having decided that these were probably some of my finest moments in Rome so far I ordered lunch. Primo e secondo, vino e cappucino have finally caught up with me after all these years of traveling to Italy. I simply needed an unfussy bite to eat and a cold beer to drink. The waiter presented me with a plain cheese sandwich, a Peroni and a cynical look. I gathered my will again and wandered the vias and the piazzas for the rest of the day. I watched the swarms of enthusiastic tourists clicking their cameras and further immortalizing statues of naked muscular men with hanging testicles and small penises. An hour or so before sunset I stopped again for a bite and another beer, a Moretti this time then walked back unhurriedly to the hotel where I slept the evening and night away. I wasn’t really disappointed in Rome but rather unimpressed. She reminded me of Zsa Zsa Gabor (b. 1917), the Hungarian-born American actress who was stunningly beautiful at one time. But nine marriages and the attrition of over ninety years had left their conspicuous toll. I found Rome a disenchanted city living the glories of her past and void of novel originality. The Italians, more Mediterranean than continental Europeans, suffer from our same Levantine infliction. They seem to be stuck in time while the rest of the world has moved forward in strides.
I briskly stepped out of the train carrying me from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam Centraal in less than twenty minutes. As I emerged from the underground station and took in my first panoramic look of the cityscape I immediately fell in love. I spent three days in Amsterdam and like a man madly in love with a stunningly beautiful woman I remember every little thing about her. I had imagined Amsterdam as a woman of aloof disposition, a flaxen with exceptional beauty, large breasts and pinkish nipples. How she turned out, however, is a thousand folds more intriguing. Immigrants came from everywhere, from Suriname, Indonesia, the West Indies, Turkey, Morocco, Italy and Spain and settled down to become part of the city’s identity. Her nipples had turned darker over the past two hundred years but certainly not less striking and tantalizing. Her breasts were smaller and firmer, her legs skinnier and taller, her hair wilder, her spirit livelier, her love more copious. Amsterdam decided at one point in her colorful history to shun aside all pretensions of chastity and conceited morality. She opened up and exposed to the world what goes on in every city in the shadows of dark shame and guilt. Prostitution and soft drugs are in no way degrading to the magnificent Dutch mindset.
I strolled the narrow passageways of the Red Light District where prostitutes display their mouthwatering bodies to the thousands of hungry eyes. I exchanged a word or two with a few of them and had a laugh and many smiles. No remorse, no guilt, no disgrace but a better understanding of true human nature. The tangy smell of marijuana filled the night air in the crowded Dam Square and the amber sparkle of frosty glasses of beer glittered with promises and assumptions. I lunched and dined around the city and experimented with Indonesian, Argentinean, Dutch and some of the best Italian pasta I’ve ever eaten anywhere, Italy included. Amsterdam permeated my skin and I reveled in an ecstatic abandon of Pilsner and light lager. Each restaurant and café promoted and served its preferred beer and I took every chance to sample a wide variety of drafts such as but not limited to Palm, Amstel, Heineken and Grolsch.
I dined in a boat and sipped South African wine while gliding through the canals of this magical city. I rode her trains, busses and trams and was besotted with her bicycles and the crisp yet relaxed pace of her ephemeral visitors and lifelong dwellers.
I know I have to go back there one day, hopefully with my wife and kids. Amsterdam broke all the taboos of the past and present and became a guiltless city where anything and everything goes, very much like Paradise. She has gone beyond morality, ethics and religion and is thriving in a higher form of humane conscience. I want them to see her with their own eyes and leave it to them to reach their own conclusions.
A week went by in the intangible silence between two successive heartbeats. A Week to remember in the arms of three cities.