Behind the Museum Glass

February 24, 2015

in Europe, Netherlands, Paul Van Vliet, Spring 2014, Spring 2015

I raised my hands above my head and placed my feet over the footprints painted on the floor as a TSA agent turned on the machine to see what I was made of. Having been judged harmless, I reunited with my belongings after their short journey through the x-ray machine and stepped into the vastness of the airport atrium. I put on my best impression of a confident walk to the gate and waited impatiently, as I had for months, for my journey to begin.

Fifteen hours later on the clock, I walked out of the Utrecht Central train station and almost immediately found myself meandering with the pitched cobbles into what I thought had to be the most beautiful part of Utrecht. How little I knew. The anxious train ride from Amsterdam had been much shorter than I had expected it to be. By the time I was sure I was no longer in Amsterdam, I was stepping off the train in Utrecht, and I was struck immediately by the closeness of everything. I had looked at maps of the world long enough to know that the Netherlands is roughly the size of West Virginia, but I had thought that maybe I was missing some conversion factor, and that when my brain switched over to the metric system, the country would expand to meet my imagination. These hopes of expansion, however, would be dashed in the twenty minute walk from the train station clear through to the far side of the old city.

As I glided away from the train station, I expected there be more of a prelude to the city, maybe a mile of 1970’s cookie-cutters to get everything in focus. Or maybe, I thought, there would be a pane of museum glass in front of me to tone down the beauty of the morning sun pooling in the damp streets, but there was nothing to prepare or restrain me. I had caught the city with its guard down, just as it was waking up. I half expected the old men stocking the flower stands to ask me to show my credentials, but they just chuckled into their cigarettes as they dressed the street corners in their Sunday best. As the sun rose and ricocheted off the lazy shop windows into my eyes, I tried my hardest not to blink; I had seen the back of my eyelids enough, I thought, but Utrecht was unfolding for the first time in front of me. Much to my chagrin, however, every two seconds I plunged involuntarily from the new world to the old familiar space behind my eyelids; the very type of space I was trying to escape. But in between the comfort zone relapses, I watched the city come to life, and without knowing it, watched myself wander quite far from the city center.

I had just walked clear across the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, I thought, as I made circles and U-turns through beautiful suburbs, and I was filled with hope that, by virtue of the sheer compactness of the city, my odds of discovering each everyday wonder that Utrecht hides must surely improve. But as I sat down on a park bench where I was sure countless metaphors had been created, I couldn’t help but look at the palm of my hand. With a little blurring of my eyes, the lines and wrinkles slowly shifted into a rough sketch of the winding, tangled streets of Utrecht. After twenty years of being within an arms length of my palms, beyond the deep creases, the lines on my hands carry no particular significance, maybe because of their complexity, maybe because it’s pointless to stare too long at my palms, but in any case there I was, able to reach out and touch houses that were erected long before my home country even existed, to walk down streets where 1700’s trading merchants stumbled home drunk, and to look up at a church tower built nearly seven hundred years before. I had only been in the city for a few hours, and while I knew next to nothing of the small wrinkles of Utrecht, I knew that it may take more than twenty years to discover them all, and so I got up and wandered to the old canal, which makes a deep crease through the heart of Utrecht.

 

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