a smoker and smoke
Photo by Or Hakim on Unsplash
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But was it worth it?

He’s not sure how to answer me.

10 mins read

Ken has startling gray-blue eyes. Light. Clear. A morning sky in spring. But when I ask again—you didn’t exactly answer my question, I say—his eyes can’t quite meet mine.

It’s not that Ken is dishonest. No, I can already see that he’s someone who has found no shelter in subterfuge. I like him for that. But the question is too hard.

When your life unfolds to bring you here, sitting across from a woman you just met in a place to which you’ve just escaped, the easier question is would you do it again.

Yes. Absolutely.

But that’s not my question.

*

I met Ken on Thursday afternoon. He is an ex-pat (equals expat equals expatriate, Niels) from California. He’s a little older than me, but he has already experienced more than his years should allow. Still, the first moments of our conversation travel the well-worn paths of the just-met. Where are you from? How did you get here? What do you do?

His eyes widen slightly.

FAMM, he says. I know FAMM.

Ken is the previous head of a medical marijuana clinic in California. For those of you who follow the news of the U.S. Drug War, you’ll recall that California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996 allowing the possession and use of marijuana for seriously ill patients, such those suffering from AIDS-related illnesses and cancer. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision, holding that federal law (namely the 1970 Controlled Substances Act) did not allow for medical exceptions.

Regardless, cannabis clubs continue to operate in California jurisdictions, placing the state and the feds in a dueling match over whether it’s a permissible (taxed and regulated) business or wholly illegal and subject to felony prosecution.

It didn’t take long for the raids to start.

Ken was away in Canada when they issued a warrant for his arrest. He had already won a similar case—and tells me about the patients who testified on his behalf with real tears in his eyes—but the feds are vicious. Twenty to life.

While the legal teams from both sides battle it out, Ken simply stays… away. First, to Cambodia for a year’s work of teaching and working in a medical clinic. And now here doing… well, let’s not talk about that.

But he misses his daughter. And his mother, who thinks maybe he should just turn himself in. (She still believes in a just American system, poor dear.)

Was it worth it, I press.

*

It’s Friday now, and we’re at a corner pub. I had told him of my interest in seeing the Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum, and he has agreed to join me. I’ve just finished my lunch—a large, flat plate of eggs, ham and cheese that I ordered by simply guessing at the Dutch words—when Ken joins me.

He’s not sure how to answer me.

The museum is just down the street from the pub. A nice walk in the cold air. There’s no rain today. Nor hail or snow. Just a cold, sunny day.

Despite the subject of our chat, we are both in good humor. We talk for just a bit about skipping the exhibit. I can’t believe how expensive the tickets are.

More so than a live sex show?

I suppress the urge to giggle, and let Ken and some weird thoughts of “balancing my karma” sweep me into the exhibit.

The place is packed with people. My audio tour drowns them all out, including Ken, who is lost in his own audio playground.

I flippantly decide that I am no fan of Rembrandt. Heresy! But Caravaggio…

His colors are bold, decisive. And the attention he gives to his subjects is, well, loving. Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Supper at Emmaus, The Taking of Christ, Judith Beheading Holofernes… Amor Victorious stops me in my tracks.

Impish. Sensual.

Loving.

Van Gogh was a fan of Rembrandt, so besides the Rembrandt-Caravaggio focus, there is the Van Gogh and Rembrandt treatment and then the rest of the Van Gogh permanent collection. Although there are special extended hours until 10 p.m., Ken and I are exhausted by 5:30. It is just too much.

Want to come with me to a coffeeshop, he asks.

Sure.

The term “coffeeshop” in Amsterdam bears no resemblance to Starbucks. Here, at the Greenhouse for example, it’s a place where you smoke pot and drink. Sure, there’s more on the menu, but…

I am the only one not smoking.

What do you want, he asks as he heads to the bar.

A hot tea, please.

We are sharing a table with two college students, men, from the U.S. One is a dark-haired all-American type from upperstate New York. The other is shrouded by his hood and from Chicago. They met while studying in Italy for the semester. Because class is just two days per week, they spend the rest of their time traveling through Europe. Other parts of Italy, yes. But also Spain, Switzerland, the U.K. and here.

Ken pulls a cube of hash and a pipe from his waist pack. Pretty, I remark. A gift from a friend, Ken replies.

I sip my tea while the others spend time talking about what they do and don’t like. Ken offers us all a hit from his pipe. The hooded kid dislikes hash, so declines. The All-American declines, but offers his joint to Ken. Ken lights it. Inhales.

*

We are on the tram again. Ken is heading to work, and I am on my way to dinner. We make plans for another museum, hug goodbye at Overtoom, and I step off the tram for the Hap-Hmm. The guidebook had recommended it. Cheap. Tasty. Utterly Dutch.

The Hap-Hmm is a family restaurant, tucked away on a side street on the first floor in a row of little homes. I had wanted to eat lunch there on Wednesday, but a man stepped from the narrow door to tell me that he had just started cooking the evening’s dinner. He’s nice, very warm and friendly, so I pledge to come back.

The place is just like him. Nice. Warm.

They all assume that I am local, so seat me (in Dutch), tell me that they will get to me in a second (in Dutch), and ask me for my order (in Dutch). I am prepared to just go with whatever they bring to me, but when the English burbles from my lips, the older proprietress says, “Oh!” and walks off to fetch an English menu.

The guidebook had referenced a traditional pea soup, so I order that. I also order the dish I spy at another guest’s table: a large fried meatball in sauce, served with cooked broccoli and boiled potatoes. Don’t let the description fool you: the meatball is delicious, and the vegetables are cooked to simple perfection.

I regret the pea soup though, as I am too stuffed to finish the rest.

I want to read more of On the Water, but decide to call it a night. I thank the proprietress profusely, such a wonderful meal and such a charming place. I am not sure she understands everything I say, but she gets that I am very pleased. She presses a restaurant flyer into my hand, and smiles.

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