A café near the Leidseplein in downtown Amsterdam, where I conceived my first novel.
In the summer of 1995, I was traveling with friends around Europe before my senior year of college. The trip itself was a screwball comedy of missed trains, drunk late nights and grandeur-induced sobriety. It was throughout this journey that I first experienced travel’s ability to provoke the soul.
Amsterdam was our penultimate stop. After a crowded overnight train ride, we emerged from the Centraal Station early in the morning. An American backpacker on his way into the station spied me as a fellow traveler, unslept and blinking.
He said, “You’re just getting here? I’m leaving, and can’t take this with me.”
Into my hands he dumped medley bags of hash and marijuana.
Later that day, my companions and I decided to explore the city separately, in keeping with our distinct modes of travel. I set off without a plan, map, or (as we would learn in a few days) much energy left in my watch battery. The Leidseplein square was sunny, a healthy aorta of trolleys, bicycles, busses, cars and pedestrians.
Nearby was a café with trim umbrellas shading white plastic tables. I took a table and shouldered out of my backpack, foot down on a strap for security as always. At one table was a pair of Hasidim; at another, an exceptionally pretty girl. I ordered a coffee in apologetic English and felt the lives, the life of the city pulse by.
From the backpack I drew a tattered green notebook. It contained the stories I’d written on the trip and many more beginnings, notes and bits. Everything written in it had come burning out of me; my hand couldn’t keep up with my senses.
Watching the slow cream swirl in my hot coffee, I felt a tug under my foot. At the other end of my backpack, a small calico kitten had a strap in her mouth, yanking at it with fierce, tiny jerks of her orange-crowned head. She caught the strap in her claws, dove to the ground and attacked it with her full frenzy. Back in my college apartment was my cat Baker, an adopted calico who looked very much like this café kitten: puffball white, with orange and black patches blurred in explosive activity.
I returned to the notebook, the stories, the next question of the blank page. With this cup of coffee, this unlit cigarette, this kitten at war, I realized that the broken edges of my stories fit together. In fact, I possessed the first bold strokes of a novel within my green tattered notebook.
I hungrily began to sketch the shape of what would become my first book, After Bells Had Rung And Were Silent. Suddenly, I was no longer digging sand castles at low tide, but actually building a real castle, block by block. That feeling of building a real castle has been the oxygen of my writing career.
Since then I have written six novels and was finally published in 2008. Travel compels true sight. I will be relying on it as I continue to write my seventh novel, The Object: a love story.
I discovered the central happiness of my life at that café, shaded from the bright city sunlight at my own table, with my own notebook, and a kitten tangling herself in the straps of my own backpack.