Greetings from Ho-Land, Part Six

This week is Hamster Week at the Albert Heijn, the Dutch supermarket chain whose classy and graceful logo is the only thing I have ever seriously considered getting tattooed on my body. Cheerful, cartoon hamsters adorn labels and posters advertising specials on popsicles and liver sausage. Wailing children are dragged roughly away from displays of plush hamsters brandishing miniature shopping bags by their wild-eyed parents. They grope desperately with chubby fingers and scream “Ik wil een hamster, Mamma! Ik wil een hamster!” Their pleas, like those of so many other impoverished and powerful minorities the world over, are mercilessly ignored. Conflicted by exasperation and pity, I feel like Kofi Annan. “The nice lady behind you has a very bad hangover and needs you to stop shrieking now, Dutch kid. She’ll buy you a fucking stuffed hamster, Dutch kid, if it’s so goddamned important to you!”

Now, when I think of hamsters, I think of small pellets of pungent shit, fratricide, and mother’s licking the genitalia of their blind and hairless infants to make them pee. I don’t think “Mmmm! Special on salmon pate, over at the deli counter! Who wants to join me?” I referred to my friend Martijn, who is Dutch and therefore expert on all things Dutch. It turns out that “to be as a hamster” is a Dutch expression for hoarding things, as hamsters freakishly fill their cheeks with food and hide it all over their cages, sometimes until it rots. That’s part of why their cages stink so bad.

“Is that why Dutch people’s kitchens smell?” I asked, innocently. *

“Did you know that Bush is up eleven points in the polls this week?” He countered.


The week started out auspiciously enough. We needed to supplement the film footage that plays behind the stage action of the performance (between all the perspicacious commentary on vibrators, drugs, gay Dutchmen and hamsters, have I neglected to mention that I’m in a play? Well, that’s what I’m doing here. I’m in a play and we open this week.) Arjen, the director of the filmed part of the play—it’s all very multi-media and arty and European—decided he wanted some shots of my back on the water, like I was moving almost of my own volition across the Zuiderzee. Like Jesus, if instead of walking on water Jesus had huddled, freezing, on the prow of a rickety motorboat in a flimsy silk cocktail dress after being plied with a tremendous amount of flattery and alcohol. I’m not a big fan of water, I’m not a big fan of cold, and I’m not much of a swimmer. I am a big fan of booze, and I was terrified. On the way out to the middle of Amsterdam harbor, I gazed down into the murky water, home to hideously deformed sea creatures, bicycle carcasses, and unfortunate Nigerian drug dealers, and thought of…Natalie Wood. Did she know what she was doing when she got out onto that boat, on a day maybe very much like today? Did she know that the face of Christopher Walken would be the last thing she would ever see? If you had even the slightest inkling that Christopher Walken’s might be the last face you would ever see, would you continue to live your life as it is or would you grab a toothbrush and immediately run to Brunei, Botswana, or Easter Island where there was absolutely no chance of that happening? Has anybody ever been on a boat with Christopher Walken since then, or even one of the similarly insane actors that Christopher Walken brings to mind—Dennis Hopper, say, or, I don’t know, maybe Joe Pesci—and entertained similar thoughts? Did they know what you were thinking? Would you—

My reverie was suddenly interrupted with a violent lurch than sent me reeling backwards in to the cabin behind. The boat rocked furiously back and forth. We had hit some rough water, something that was not supposed to happen was happening. The last face I would see would not be Christopher Walken’s, but that of Joost Vorstenbosch, our beloved, elfin, set-designer red, and horrified, and screaming Dutch curses a mile a minute. I felt an acute urge to vomit and my cell phone rang.

“Hi honey! How’s it going! We miss you!”

The voice, the attitude, was unmistakable. It was the mother. Aveva Shukert, Ph.D. I was definitely going to vomit. Out on the hull, ropes were being tossed and knotted as the rain fell harder.

“Daddy’s here too, sweetie. Marty! Are you listening?”

“Hi, Daddy,” I said weakly.

“Hi Rachel. Hi. Did you happen to watch Dick Cheney’s speech at the convention? That asshole is just unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

“No, Daddy, I didn’t. Actually, I’m on a boat right now, and I think we’re about to sink.”

My mother gasped, then spoke in that familiar voice, forcedly businesslike but completely overwrought, that I have heard on many occasions, most memorably when the phone lines finally cleared on September 11, 2001.

“Rachel! Rachel! Listen to me! I need you to be focused and listen to me!”

“Mom, I’m okay.” I started to laugh uncontrollably.

“Rachel! Stop crying! I can’t understand you!”

“Mom, I’m laughing.”

“Rachel, do you want me to hang up the phone and call 911?”

I stopped laughing, just to fully appreciate the sheer stupidity that a single sentence can contain.

“Mommy. How is calling 911 in Nebraska going to help a motorboat in Holland?”

She didn’t answer the question, but I already knew the answer. Obviously, calling 911 was not going to do a damn thing for me. It would make HER feel better. She would do it for the same reason she sends me greeting cards with admonitions about the evils of whiskey and indiscriminate sex (apparently the impaired judgment of the first leads to the temptation of the second which leads to cervical cancer—that was in my birthday card this year) and newspaper clippings about the family of Jewish dwarves that miraculously survived Auschwitz and the weddings of people I went to high school with. It makes HER happy.

The boat stopped rocking. We were going to live. Joost came back and refilled my wine glass, in celebration, as I struggled out of my heavy raincoat and into my skimpy cocktail dress and strapless bra. My mother was still on the phone.

“We’re okay, Mom. We just straightened out.”

“You’re slurring your words. Are you drunk? You sound drunk.”

Riding our bikes home after our near death experience, Arjen and I were giddy with life and wine and turned to what so many survivors of battles do—sex. Since Arjen is gay, we had to settle for talking about sex. He mentioned that it had been a very long time (approximately 1993) since he had heard a girl have an orgasm and in the interest of science and enlightenment, I faked one for him. I got a little careless though, and just as I was finishing my approximated howls of ecstasy, I hit a curb and went flying over the handlebars into the grass. A group of passing Moroccan teenagers howled with derision.

The rest of the week was your basic tech week hell, where everybody hates and distrusts and wants to strangle each other. The actors blame the directors, the directors blame the designers, the designers blame the producers (which in this particular production are all pretty much the same people) and everybody blames the actor who keeps messing up his lines, which, amazingly enough, was not me. I waited for praise and attention to be lavished upon my wonderfulness. “Oh, dahling, so incredible of you to learn another LANGUAGE to be in our play. How lucky we are to have such a talented and smart and amazing actress.” Praise was not forthcoming. It’s not the Dutch way. Although, unlike the Germans, the Dutch do appreciate excellence on some level, they would never, ever dream of telling you so, and instead, I was forced to face a hard truth about myself, something of which I am aware but try to keep under wraps most of the time.

Despite all my talk about art, and ideas, and the importance of commitment to art and ideas, the real reason I do this stuff is for the compliments. There. I said it. I don’t need booze and a bicycle to humiliate myself in public anymore. Just the power of the printed word.

I was also uncontrollably hungry. It’s the week before a show, and I can’t help myself. I like to think that nerves run my metabolism at record speeds, but mostly I’m just a pig. I feel like the spider that Gollum talks about in the “Return of the King”—“She’s always hungry. She…always needs…TO FEED.”

“I can’t ever eat the week before a show,” said Arjen, wiping his mouth daintily as I polished off the rest of his chicken curry.

“I get–how do you say it in English—dia, diarr”

“Diarrhea,” I said flatly. “I need some chocolate.”

Thank god for Hamster Week. At least it isn’t Hamster Month.

* The reason Dutch kitchens, including mine, sometimes smell less than Pine-Sol fresh is because they are, by law, allowed to take their garbage out but once a week. Thank god our leaders are committed to protecting such unalienable freedoms for Americans. We can take our garbage out any old time we feel like it. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

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