The Tension-Free Canals of Amsterdam

By: Paul Gordon

Canal-01bNot unlike any clique, street performers bond with each other due to proximity and chemistry. You need enough time to establish something solid with a new friend, and then, 01-chemestryonce established, each subsequent meeting builds on the earlier ones. That’s the difference between a “normal” local job (one that stays in a single location or area) and the standard-style careers and relationships of street performers:  a touring life such as the one led by a professional street performer only occasionally allows for running into the really close friends. These friends are the brothers and sisters who recharge you and reinvigorate your
soul and spirit throughout your year’s many one-off shows, during which you spend too 02-remotemuch time wandering a city alone, dining by yourself, or flipping channels in your hotel room. Meetings like these differ from the nine-to-five meetings at local bars each Friday in that they almost always are reunions of a kind. You don’t know when you’re gonna see your crew again and it’s usually been far too long since the last time already, so energy is high and you make it count.

I’ve had the good fortune to perform my type of dance-based acrobatic-theater-comedy in
enough street festivals worldwide that the “street” and its career professionals have earned 04-Paulmy love and respect. The hardcore friends of mine who do it for a living–Checkerhead Aiken, El Glenno Singer, B’fly Nelson, Nils Poll, Pieter Post and so many other greats– hone an impressive combination of moxie, talent, and willpower. It is a hard thing to gather a crowd, hold that crowd’s attention, and get enough cash from that crowd to pay your bills and your mortgage and put kids through school.

One such group who really flourished was The Flying Dutchmen, a superb juggling (Michiel Hesseling) and unicycle (Jean-Michel Pare) 04b-dutchmenduo based out of Amsterdam. The Dutchmen earned a great living touring their show full time all over the world during the 90s, and with some of his earnings Jean-Michel bought this wonderful, high-ceilinged, 2-floor apartment on the Lauriergracht, a small canal street within the inner city of A’dam.

I think back to a special reunion of ours one summer in the early 90s when I had a week 05-Lairergrachtbetween gigs and he and another pal really came through for me. I recall it as if no time has passed and it could be a day like today:

I take a train to visit Jean-Michel, my plan being to catch up for a day before heading to Copenhagen to see a woman, Eva, with whom I’ve been madly in love. Eva lets me know she’s not entirely available and needs to think things through, and although I know she loves me too, I’m unsure as to the outcome of showing up to see her again: all she explains in advance is that she wants to see me and wants to talk things over. In case that meeting goes south, my best buddy Aaron, a lighting designer for dance and theater shows, joins me in between his current gigs (in Lyon and some town I don’t exactly recall in Germany). He joins me for “just in case” support, which I end up needing badly because, for reasons involving a 05a-stoliyoung child and a new relationship, she, Eva, asks that I leave her to her life, and that I agree not to complicate things between her and her new boyfriend by continuing to be a reminder of what she is giving up. This takes guts and I understand and empathize, so I agree, although it breaks my heart to do so. Crushed, I turned to Aaron for that needed “just in case” support and we spend a long night in our hotel room downing our “just in case” provisions: smoked salmon on black bread and two bottles of Stoli. (24 years later, however, Eva and I married… life sure is a strange animal!)

07-MarriedBut I get ahead of myself: The day before the Copenhagen trip, Michel, as his close compadres call him, and I catch up at his place about life: touring life, love life, friends, great festivals and great towns.

“You live in a great town, too.” I say.

01-Canals(For those unfamiliar with Amsterdam, its many canals ring the charming inner city, offering picturesque sightseeing, both by foot and also by sightseeing boats.) Michel explains that his apartment actually came with the boat anchored out front, but it’s only a small rowboat, so technically we could explore the canals, but no one with half a brain would do it by rowing them.

“All I need is a new motor at the boat store around the corner, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”08-motor

Back to Copenhagen, post-breakup: I call Michel and ask if I can bring Aaron along too, and explain the way things just went up there and why I’m feeling in need of some release.

“We’re coming back to blow off steam… That boat store: does it have a reasonably priced motor we could install?”

Ever the enthusiast for fun and adventure, Jean-Michel rises to the occasion: “I know the exact one.”

09-Fuel-canWe arrive, drop our stuff in a corner of Michel’s place and promptly head out for our mission: the boat shop for the motor, the petrol station for a few liters of fuel, the corner bodega for a case of Grolsch, and the nearby coffee shop for a gram of fine herbus greenus. (There are few places in the western world where a list like that is as easy to procure as A’dam – everything within a few blocks.)

10-houseboatsSo our summer day cruising the canals begins; and operating such a small boat, we maneuver even the narrowest straights past houseboats, around tight corners, under bridges, all the while seeing waving people, from windows, streets and bridges…as well as prostitutes in the windows of the red-light district. Everyone waves, vicariously sharing the pleasures of our small putt-putt canal excursion. It is such a friendly, warm, welcoming way to unwind. We can’t help but chuckle and smile at the circumstance and how fortunate we feel to have such bounty.

Then we turn onto the largest, widest canal, the Singel, and see a group waving and motioning to us. We come over and the statesman of the well-dressed crowd explains that they need to get across the canal to the Hotel Singel and would we ferry them?

11-singelMichel laughingly says, “No Way!” to which the man pleads, offering to pay.

I huddle our trio (not hard to do in our wee boat) and speaking in low tones explain a plan: “Since you Michel don’t want to, and we don’t have to, why don’t we just name a cushy price we’d gladly do it for. If they say no, we’re off continuing our day. Good?” I turn to the guy and quote a healthy number, to which he doesn’t even pause.12-Grolsh

“You’re on!” he shrieks young-girlishly. “A private ferry ride across!”

“Done,” I say.

Michel drops Aaron and me on the bank; and we down a beer, watching the 5-minute work. True, Michel feels conflicted about the ferrying–sullying the day with a money transaction–but I consider it a win/win situation, the two compelling facts being: a. this guy loves it, and b. our entire undertaking practically ends up free, including Michel’s boat getting a permanent upgrade. What a day! Tension combatted superbly.

In that time of need, my dear pals came through swimmingly. These are two of my dear beloveds. We’re older now, but these memories can always circumvent
12-paultime. Catching up with Aaron last week in Amsterdam brought this story to the forefront of my mind, which most likely is why I write this now. I haven’t seen Michel in years, although I do occasionally catch up with him on social media; and from time to time I speak of the perfection of entertainment that was The Flying Dutchmen’s show: their showmanship (right down to their snazzy duds), Michiel Hesseling’s legendary juggling skills and choreography, Jean-Michel’s ability to free-mount a 3-meter unicycle under even the tightest of circumstances, and the pleasure of witnessing their comedic timing blow away their crowds.

There is something to be said for the flexibility a lifestyle like this permits; and maybe there’s something to be said for the personality traits inherent in anyone gravitating to this line of work: something that might instigate adventures like this. Ask any busker about 13-suitcasegreat road stories, or just be a fly on the wall of a gathering…when a few street performers are sharing stories. Every one of ‘em has handfuls of great ones like this that describe great and surreal events too fun to actually have happened.  Yet they all did happen; to embellish even the wildest ones would only lessen the impact.

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