Monday, May 23, 2011
Month Without Mirrors 5.23 Update: Amsterdam
I've been in Amsterdam for the past week, and since this is not a travel blog I will not go on about bicycles and tulips and the best rijsttafel you could ever wish to have (Cilubang on Runstraat, for the record). What I will tell you is that in early April, when I decided I'd do a month-long mirror fast sometime soon and the month of May presented itself as the obvious choice, I thought, No, wait, I can't do it in May, because I'll be going to Amsterdam for a week.
This wasn't the kind of glitch thinking that got me confusing graham crackers and anonymous Adonises (Adonii?) with my reflection. I put thought into this. Obviously I couldn't go to Amsterdam without looking in a mirror, because in an unfamiliar environment I'd need the assurance that I look okay in order to get through the day and feel okay. I remember a whirlwind party night in Spain 10 years ago; the first thing I did upon stumbling back to my hotel room was take a photo of myself in the bathroom mirror. I was having the time of my life but needed an anchor after the frenzy of nightclubbing in an exotic locale. Looking in the mirror wasn't enough; knowing that I'd taken photos of me and my new amigos throughout the night wasn't enough. I needed tangible proof that I was still me, that I still had a center amid all the unfamiliarity. The photo wound up being not of me in the mirror but of the floor tile—this was before digital cameras, and after plenty of cuba libres—but I kept it anyway, because I knew what it meant at the moment I snapped it.
So I'm a reasonably seasoned traveler, but I still crave the security blanket the mirror provides. Knowing that the incidence of confusion and disorientation will be higher than usual when visiting a country I haven't been to before, I don't think it's illogical that I wanted to stick with one aspect of my usual routine in order to maximize my comfort. But I couldn't stop thinking about the mirror project, and impatience won out over unease. I told myself that being in a foreign city while under the mirror restriction would be an interesting experience; how would I function without this particular touchstone, this crutch of self in the midst of the unfamiliar?
Here is how I functioned: I drank beer. I went to the flower market. I ate aged gouda, and strolled along canals, and watched Dutch people in ponchos ride their bikes in the rain. I slept in and lazed about, I got swept along in the hordes of Amsterdammers who were celebrating the city's triumph in a football rivalry, I spent long nights in bruin cafes with my gentleman friend. I saw the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and saw the streets they painted. I stood very still in the hidden quarters of a teenaged girl whose diary I read long ago. I watched the city wake up on a Sunday morning, ate a stroopwaffel smothered in coffee caramel, and got the thrilled shiver I always get when I hear European police sirens.
In short, I was gezellig, the untranslatable Dutch state of sharing a warm, relaxed conviviality. You might say that in some ways, I was experiencing a level of flow.
Things I was not experiencing: anxiety over whether I looked "too American." Worry over whether the misty air was making my hair frizzy. The search for the perfect canal with the perfect light to take the perfect picture of myself with my traveling companion, as looking at photos of myself is also verboten this month. Primping before dinner: a dusting of powder is all I could do without bringing out the hand mirror, which, when there's a whole Golden Age city to be explored, suddenly seemed like a waste of time.
The Netherlands were a particularly good place for me to be traveling during a mirror fast. I talked with a sociologist there about how Dutch women on the whole experience less appearance-related anxiety than American women; certainly the women there were dressed much more low-key than they are in New York. The constant bicycling, the rainy weather, the Calvinist tradition, the practical nature of the Dutch, the social equality of women: All these add up to a culture in which getting dolled up isn't exactly a national pastime. So I didn't feel dumpy in my travel uniform: sensible rubber-soled shoes, jeans, hoodie and raincoat, hair pulled back into a bun. (I did, however, feel dwarfish.)
But I can't attribute my relaxed state to Amsterdam alone. Something shifted before I set foot on the plane. In fact, something concrete shifted that very morning: I wore glasses for the flight. I never wear my glasses out of the house, and have convinced myself it's because I'm light-sensitive (which I am), but really it's because I'm so self-conscious in them that I'm miserable the second I walk out the door. But on a long flight glasses are definitely preferable, as I prefer to nap away my time—so I wore glasses. And when it turned out that the world does not stop, point, and laugh when I did so, I wore them again to a nice dinner.
In fact, I wore them to the rijsttafel dinner I mentioned. Rijsttafel is the Dutch Indonesian traditional dinner of a bevy of small plates; the entire affair takes hours, and every single dish was a delight. It was a celebration dinner—part early birthday celebration (me, 35), part toast to a successful talk at an academic conference (my gentleman friend). He, too, is bespectacled. After hours of nibbling on curried cauliflower, soy beef, coconut pork, saté vegetables, and fried banana, I leaned in for a kiss. Our spectacles clinked. We laughed.
It would be a nice ending here if I could say that in that moment I felt more beautiful than I ever had. That wasn't the case; I felt dorky (do couples with glasses practice?), but sincere, and happy. I felt open and tender, like I did the first time I ever kissed a boy and didn't know what I should be doing. I felt intimate, cozy—gezellig, if you will. I felt warm and satisfied. I felt present, and quiet, existing in the eyes of someone I care for, and he existing in mine. I did not feel beautiful. It did not matter.