We almost missed the bus waiting on Daniel. Dan became my first abroad friend when he graciously declined a 3 am coke deal to instead walk me home during orientation weekend. We were often mistaken for a couple, so we’d acquired a collection of romantic canal photos taken by well-meaning tourists. He loved making friends with the bachelorette parties smoking outside of bars, bumming their cigarettes, and blowing their dick whistle necklaces. He showed up to our 11 am bus stop rendezvous at 10:59 clad in a camel trench coat and Elton John-style sunglasses, holding a pint of Ben and Jerrys.
We arrived in Marken an hour later, pulling up to a hillside landscape eerily similar to the Microsoft screensaver. Little blue and green houses capped by terra cotta roofs dotted the winding brick walkways and oceanside pier. A singular swan floated down the central canal, completing the fairytale scene.
After trying on clogs and buying souvenirs for our parents at the village gift shop, we ambled further into town toward a cheese shop. We’d been to our fair share of cheese shops in Amsterdam (there’s a part of the city with a Henri Willig every other block and we’d discovered we could pop into one, try a few free samples, move on to the next, and call it lunch), but we approached this one in Marken with far more reverence. We gathered around the butcher block island and cupped our outstretched hands toward the cheese woman as if she was a priest distributing communion.
“I know it’s kind of annoying,” she said, “but I have to hand out all the samples – you know, because of the virus thing.”
I’d been hearing about the coronavirus on my daily NPR podcast since December. But until my university issued our study abroad recall, I’d thought about it the way most Americans did at the time: a foreign, far-away flu. Even when friends got sent home from Italy, I was still confident I’d finish my semester in Amsterdam – the virus panic having blown over by the time the first tulips bloomed.
When that forecast became highly unlikely, my fellow soon-to-be deportees and I ditched our classes during our last days. We got drunk over pitchers of cocktails, biked high all over the city, visited a tattoo parlor, and took over a karaoke bar, because as an email from our Amsterdam school reminded us “the Dutch perspective is that we continue business as usual.”
Realizing that all of our trips to Rome and Vienna and Stockholm and Nice and Dubrovnik were canceled, the dozen of us remaining decided to take an adventure on our last day to Marken, a small island north of Amsterdam. This was before lockdowns and masks and Zooms. Even as the world closed in, we hadn’t thought twice about inhaling on public transit or intruding on 6 feet bubbles.
Kathy was the only person who might have been more excited about the cheese visit than me. I had introduced her to the art of the charcuterie board a few weeks earlier and she’d become obsessed with the idea that cheese could be a meal. A first generation Greek American from Queens, Kathy was one of the few adults I’d ever met who still experienced pure, uncynical joy. She was also – and I mean this in the kindest way possible – most definitely not from this planet. The best explanation I could conjure for her unconventional existence was that her human studies curriculum in alien school seemingly forgot to include pop culture. She could go on rants about Donald Trump or European immigration policy, but we would talk about Justin Bieber or Jennifer Aniston or J.K. Rowling and she’d ask if those were the names of our friends from home. She was the only one of us who hadn’t booked a flight home; she saw no reason not to stay in Amsterdam through the impending unknown.
One by one, blocks of cheese were transformed into cubes and chunks and paper thin pieces sliced and peeled by a lactic guillotine. There was a soft, creamy unpasteurized beer cheese with a green rind reminiscent of the Heineken it was aged in; the whole spectrum of goudas: truffle gouda, aged gouda, baby gouda, pesto gouda, black garlic gouda; and aged goat cheeses with tiny, gritty, calcified crystals. After a first round of samples, we requested seconds, to which the cheese woman kindly obliged.
Liz, an almost-vegan with a weakness for cheese and the kind of sunshiny, optimistic personality that must come from eating a lot of chlorophyll, bought a block for each of her four siblings. Greta only bought one because she had recently purchased a rug on a weekend trip to Morocco and was already struggling with how to fit both the rug and her other belongings in her suitcase. Rachel bought one for each of her divorced parents, plus one to give to her ex-boyfriend she was hoping would become her current boyfriend once they quarantined together back in the US. I had €100 in my wallet that would be useless in 24 hours, so naturally I spent €80 on cheese I would have to pray customs wouldn’t confiscate.
From the cheese shop we wandered toward the pier. Despite seemingly existing solely for tourists, the town was eerily quiet. Over the past week we had noticed the bike lanes in Amsterdam were less congested and the crowds that normally poured out of the train station had slowed to a trickle, but people still packed in bars and restaurants at night. Here in Marken, however, our group’s twelve sets of shoes echoed against the empty roads.
I don’t think we comprehended what was really happening. I knew of course that this moment was, as a million tv ads would remind me in the coming months, “unprecedented,” but the idea that my last days in Amsterdam would be the final flickers of a life forever lived in the past tense was certainly not in my present thoughts. It is, I think, only in retrospect that you realize the world wasn’t spinning, but turning upside down.
Being mid-March, the air was still chilly and the seaside wind brought an extra bite. My rings had started sliding off my shrunken, shivered fingers. Luckily, on the corner of the pier I spotted the second best solution to mittens: a stroopwafel stand.
I’d encountered my first stroopwafel at the Schiphol Airport in the early hours of post-red-eye jet lag. It was just big enough to rest on my espresso cup and warm up over the steam. But the best kind, I soon learned, were the fresh face-sized ones like they were making in Marken. The child running the stand looked too young to be on the payroll, but she deftly sliced the wafer-thin, cinnamony waffle in half, slathered it in a thick layer of warm caramel, and slapped it back together, presenting me with the ooeist, gooiest cookie sandwich. As much as I wanted to savor it, I was racing against time as the caramel dripped down my hands and lips, hardening into sugary icicles.
A few others formed a small line in front of the neighboring pickled herring stand. The fish was presented in a checkered boat, adorned with a mini Dutch flag, and looked every bit as salty, scaly, and slimy as it sounded. Will offered me a bite. Although he was the epitome of Canadian nice, every once in a while, he would do something – like bite into a cucumber as if it were an apple or order pickled herring – that would make me question if the nice thing was just an act to hide psychopathic tendencies. I knew I wouldn’t have many opportunities to sample questionable sea snacks when I returned to suburban Kansas, so down the gullet it went. I didn’t want to like it, but it was better than expected, possibly even good. Stef laughed at the face I made as I slurped down the slippery fish. He had the most energetic laugh – the kind that felt like the sun peaking between the clouds.
Further down the pier we parked ourselves at a wind-worn restaurant. We pushed together a few of the outside tables and wrapped ourselves in orange blankets. We ordered spiked hot chocolates and baskets of bread. We took pictures in front of the window boxes of tulips. All February, when the cold rain fell sideways and the wind made my bike pedals feel like I had turned up the resistance at a spin class, I’d held on to the mantra that it would all be worth it when spring arrived. When I saw the tulips, I said, it would all be worth it.
In between bites of bread and whipped cream mustaches, we laughed and hugged and recounted the highlight reel of our last six weeks. All of us trying to ignore we were edging toward that crescendo of friendship between strangerhood. The sun set over the gray water while we cuddled beneath the blankets, sipping our chocolademelks. We had hot chocolate while ice skating on our first day of orientation and now here we were, on our last day, sipping the same warm drink, admiring the simple perfection of chocolate softened with cream and sugar.