Three Years
In Holland

Sean Condon
(Lonely Planet)
My 'Dam Life is the story of an ex-pat trying to make it in what turns out to be a very alien culture. The lead characters in the book are not Condon and his wife, Sally, but Amsterdam and Sean Condon's strange imagination.

When most of us think of Amsterdam, we think of white bicycles and canals and Anne Frank and cafes where you can get stoned on legal hash. Condon's Amsterdam is different. It's a place of a language that is impossible to learn, a government that is impossible to deal with (especially for visitors holding forbidden jobs) and of housing that is impossible to find. Condon reveals that Anne Frank's family was fingered not by a German nor a Nazi but by a Dutch neighbor. It was someone, he suspects, who coveted their rather large if hidden apartment.

As far as quaint items of Dutch life, we learn that the white bicycle idea never worked because the bikes got stolen, that the hash-cafes aren't very interesting unless you are a full-time stoner, and rather than being scenic waterways for the passage of scenic boats, canals are used as dumps for people or cars (or bicycles), vast waterways that spawn astonishing mosquitoes who "shoot you full of some sort of insect caffeine."

Just such a mosquito wakes him from a dream where he is kissing Katharine Hepburn:

    Other celebrities whom I have kissed in dreams include, but are not limited to, Jodie Foster, Reese Witherspoon, Kylie Minogue, Renée Zellweger, Parker Posey and Burt Reynolds.

"I think I have a thing about celebrities," he muses:

    The thing I have about celebrities is this: I resent them. I am deeply jealous of them in all sorts of appropriately fantastic ways and yearn to be one, principally because I would be better at it than many of them: Elle MacPherson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Guy Ritchie to name just three.

This is typical Condon. He starts out on the subject of mosquitoes in Amsterdam and ends up on Guy Ritchie. He tells his wife that a friend hung himself and Sally corrects him, "You mean hanged." He goes to Der Ring des Nibelungen but "the singing is in German the subtitles in Dutch," and all the while he is covering his face with his hand because he has needles in his jaw from an acupuncturist who is trying to cure his cluster headaches.

He's a tall tale spinner, and when he is good, he is very very good --- the kind of writer to make you giggle even at 6:30 A.M. while you are on the Eighth Avenue Local and no one else around you is awake, much less laughing.

§     §     §

Condon paints himself as a not-very intelligent, not very handsome, drop-out kind of a guy. He tells us that he "left high school" and "got into a lot of trouble in my working life," being fired from "my first thirty-six jobs,"

    including a termination after just three days at the Department of Foreign Affairs, a truly miraculous achievement considering the fact that it is all but impossible to be fired ever from the public service, let alone after seventy-two hours.

But this supposedly not-too-bright fellow is no dummy at all --- but, rather, a sly wit who can turn a visit to the dentist into a major trauma, a visit to the doctor a knee-slapper, who can invent a dialogue with himself about his booze consumption and turn it into a mini-drama right out of AA:

    SC: Your father's an alcoholic, isn't he?

    SC: (Long pause): Possibly.

    SC: In fact, definitely.

    SC: Whatever you say. Why do you always bring my father into it?

    SC: Because I think it's important

    SC: (no response)

    SC: This conversation took place in your head, didn't it?

    SC: Yes it did. It says so on the previous page.

Because of the wonderful way he paints his three years in a not very accommodating city, we know he's lying about his mentality: he's someone you and I would want to hang out with, a genuine gas who can turn buying stamps into a major adventure:

    "Hello," I said, to the slumped grey figure before me. "I'd like two stamps and two envelopes, please. Alstublieft."

    With the charm and alacrity of a corpse the guy slid the two stamps toward me then told me that they didn't sell envelopes.

    "This is a post office, " I reminded him.

    "Nevertheless, we do not sell envelopes," he reminded me. Then he pointed in the direction of Belgium and said, "Tabac."

    I went to the tabac, queued up for seven minutes, bought three envelopes, went back to the post office, took a number, sat down and read mail-related pamphlets in Dutch for three-quarters of an hour until my number came up, went to the dead postal worker and handed over my spare envelope. "Next time somebody shows up and wants to buy an envelope --- and that time will come, my friend --- please give them this. It's on me."

My 'Dam Life is a travel book that's not a travel book (even though it is put out by a publisher that specializes in travel books). It's one that doesn't dwell on the wonders and delights and the pretty side of Amsterdam --- but, rather --- the horrors of losing an apartment overnight, what it's like to hide from the city's no-foreign-workers bureaucrats, how to make do while not understanding a weird language, how to put up with weird neighbors --- like the guy across the way who has a painting, a very large painting, of his testicles hanging on the wall (the painting is hanging, not the testicles) --- all executed by his girl-friend.

It is this ability to take the boring or scary or strange and make it winningly funny that makes My 'Dam Life such a treat. Condon might as well have called it Down and Out in Amsterdam, Holland for, like Orwell, he can make the desperate side of a city come alive for us. It also convinces us that we will never go to Amsterdam to look for a job, buy a stamp, have our testicles painted, or commit suicide.

--- Hans J. W. Werner

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