This latest trip to Amsterdam has been a revelation in so many ways; being my first travels from home since realising I have Asperger’s. In a sense, no place could have met that realisation better, as it turns out. Why? Because the very geography of the place seemed to speak to some aspect of my Asperger’s way of regarding the world so that, like a metaphor mirroring both inside and out, I got to know myself a little better with each step I took around its streets. If this seems like a peculiar thing to say then, I guess, its just my Asperger’s way of regarding the world and you will either “get me” or you won’t….but if you are an Apsie then just maybe you will.
In fact, its so fascinating to me now to look back at my life-long interaction with the “geometry of place” through the eyes of my Asperger’s. So many of the posts I’ve shared in this space have been a self-frustrating attempt to convey my underlying sense of there being a pattern or hidden geometry to a place (no typical travel blog this!), be that a city or an ancient hillside, yet I often come away even more frustrated than ever by my flawed attempt to convey in words what, to me, is so patently obvious. In hindsight, I doubt many reading my words could ever grasp what it is that I allude to, being such a personal experience yet I feel so compelled to try to share, if only to make more sense of these observations to myself; in which sense blogging is my Asperger’s “outlet” and an attempt to rationalise what is obvious yet abstract through my senses.
To me, these obscure yet obvious patterns of place are as real and tangible (perhaps more so…) as its buildings and its throngs of people, buses, bicycles and all those “must-see” tourist landmarks that seem to consume other peoples’ interest. I am so fascinated by patterns of behaviour; how feet beat a path to certain favoured places, converging in whirlpools of human activity in some locations whilst quiet havens and empty voids form around the edges; all of which hint at an underlying energy grid, a geometry of sorts, asserting beneath all these feet. Why do people tend to gravitate to some places yet away from others; and why do places feel so different to each other though they may be just yards apart; all these considerations are part of my life-long obsession with patterns and making connections between diverse or even quite obscure details.
Now, at last, I grasp why it is that I am so fascinated; being to do with my very-different way of interacting with things, feeling through all the senses, “seeing” what I see in a different order of priority to a neurotypical person who may focus on the more obvious or cerebral yet, to me, more trivial details of a place. This is always how I interact with the world, like viewing an ant colony from above, or crawling within some sort of hidden maze of information barely yet compellingly perceived beneath the surface.
I newly grasp this trait through my Asperger’s eyes and travel surfaces it for me in a way that more commonplace experiences leave alone through their familiarity. Other such posts that spring to mind, from before my Asperger’s relevation, have been about Venice and Stockholm, leylines and Cotswolds villages…posts whose accessibility was probably quite obscure and yet I felt so compelled to share them at the time; and there’s nothing like coming to realise how differently you are “wired” to help you understand how you have been largely rambling on to yourself on your favourite “pet” interests!
This time, I will try to stay somewhat on the accessible path…and deal openly with the Asperger’s one…inspired on this occasion (and not for the first time) by Amsterdam, having just returned from a week living in a rooftop apartment in its most neighbourly and colourful of districts, the Jordaan. This choice of location, itself, added interest to this trip since I had been to the city twice before in quite different living circumstances. The first time, we stayed (as a family) in a far more imposing and spacious apartment on the far side of Prinsengracht, which is diametrically opposite to the Jordaan in every sense and, last time, just the two of us in a small hotel close to the centre, not so far from Dam Square. That time was a compromise base for our long-weekend, giving us easy access to all the culture spots we planned to visit in short time yet I was not particularly enticed to return there since it lacked true “feeling” of the city (is the only way I could describe it).
This time, we craved a fuller emersion in the “real” Amsterdam and the pied-a terre I found was just perfect, being small enough to meet our needs yet real enough, on Amsterdam terms, to throw us amidst real people leading ordinary lives. The owner of this apartment lives there once a week so it has the feeling of a home that is well-loved and”real” amidst an actual neighbourhood made up of local residents. In an Amsterdam apartment on the old canals, achieving that part is relatively easy; just look out of one of your own numerous windows, for these townhouses love their glass, and you are likely faced with scenes of some domestic idyl or other across the way and at every level below; without even trying to, forced by proximity to voyeuristically peer into families around their tables, people at their desks or snuggled on sofas watching TV, surrounded by the stylishly eclectic yet functional interiors that seem to come so naturally to them.
And what you can see, they can see of your life also, of course, yet there is a sense of contained human interaction; me in my glass box and them in theirs. Which is different to being at home, where I sit in my box yet see nobody but the birds in the garden, so this is real city living for me; a giant step outwards from my usual isolation yet, here’s another reason I love this particular city; I feel involved and yet not really, or (I could say) only on comfortable Asperger terms, with a safety barrier around myself and everyone esle.
Also because nothing much offends my eyes (and I do so get offended by “wrong” looking interiors) since Amsterdam’s style is my style; neat and geometrical in white-grey-black with flashes of blue lit by Edison light bulbs…its shops, flea markets, florists, cafés and domestic glimpses oozing the kind of mix-it-up taste, made up of modern and functionally clean lines softened by injections of boho-hippy-nostalgic, that is very-much my own back at home. The streets in our neighbour oozed yoga shops and retro, health food and second-hand vinyl, reclaimed architectural salvage and vintage clothes; a colourful mixture that speaks the kind of eclectic taste that I share to my core.
And, is it me or is there something about the Dutch personality that is more than a little bit Asperger’s because a book left on the coffee table in our flat hinted at quite a handful of traits in common (“You know you’re Dutch when…you love practical solutions to everyday problems….you say what you think…you take your own food/drink with you on vacation….you eat dinner at the same time every day…you don’t care what others think of you…you have no idea how to be politically correct…you swear using colourful words”). What’s this, am I Dutch? Yet, from the data I can find, diagnosed autism cases are modest in the Netherlands; though, my thinking is, maybe this would be the case in a place where these traits are accepted as relatively normal compared to in other places, such as North America, where they are more typically, or even culturally, frowned upon unless you happen to live in Silicon Valley…
The first time I stayed in Amsterdam, it felt just sooo oddly familiar; that was my biggest sensation. When I wrote about it, I attempted a convoluted description of how the old part of the city built around the four semi-circular canals felt like one of the butterflies I kept seeing everywhere in museums and shop windows, its sides divided in two, like wings whose patterns identically mirror each other…perfectly symmetrical…at the surface of it and yet which are not quite the same; in fact, quite the opposite when you look more closely. Though Amsterdam centrum is horseshoe shaped, the one side is quite unlike the other in how it feels…
Now, I would make that analogy simpler and say that I regard its horseshoe canal design, of four-hundred years’ standing, as being like the human brain, split into halves which look the same and yet are not… with its would be centre point, Dam Square, poised at the tip of its brain stem, beyond which it is connected to the outside world via train terminus, harbour and, now, airport links. This way of regarding a city’s street arrangement – which is a an impression I get more so than a logical idea I have formulated – feels potently linked to my synesthesia; thus, is extremely difficult to convey to others since no two synesthestes experiences things quite the same way as each other, or anyone else, but this is my best attempt, below.
Assuming this, the first time we stayed there we had landed in the the left hemisphere, which is how it felt because, when we ventured over to the Jordaan on the opposite side of town, we found a vastly more colourful neighbourhood than the predominantly black and white one in which we were then staying and where we gained no sense of anybody being around in a neighbourly way, except other tourists walking or partying on boats beneath our window, which overlooked the Prinsengracht canal. In that place, we felt quite aloof in our balconied window, staring across at the penguin-like buildings with their lights on, but not so much feeling of anybody at home.
This time around, as we walked the reverse journey along the Prinsengracht, away from the neighbourly Jordaan, towards that same sensible row of houses where we first stayed, there could be no doubting that the design of the city’s buildings became more and more uniform as we progressed from one side to the other; the most favoured black and white building design assimilated again and again like so many tall men in suits, whereas they are a jumble of colour, shape and variety on the Jordaan side; and much more prepared to show glimpses of their innards through colourful window displays made up of oddities and floral displays, sleeping cats or dogs and real people…expectably noisy people… leading ordinary lives.
In fact most of the quirk and variety, even flamboyance and borderline oddity, of the city seems to pool around the Jordaan end of the Prinsengracht and, once in the depths of its smaller streets (where we were staying this time) and its Saturday markets, there is so much to take in that the senses are at a loss where to place their attention first, but in a far more pleasant way than most urban settings; which is a photographer’s heaven.
I realised this, too; that my trait of seeing and gathering information in pictures is exactly what makes the photographer (and artist) of me since I already take “impressions” on the inside, like I’m a walking photographic plate. This is an idea that developed so much on this trip (excuse the pun) that I just shared an Asperger’s related post about it in my other blog (Impresssionable II: Lliving in snapshots).
Another analogy that keeps coming to me lately, especially in relation to the physical trait of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) that I also share with many Aspie’s, is that I am like memory foam; holding patterns and impressions long after I have encountered them (which can be a source of pain in the least desirable situations). Again, I have just shared about this on my other website as it feels like an important realisation for how I perceive things as an Aspie woman (see Impressionable: A breakthrough in working with super-sensitivity). Colours, vibrations, the whole sensory kit-and-caboodle of a scene leave their mark on me and this often fuels a desire to hold onto or share this particular ensemble of effects (and, often, has led to disappointment when others don’t seem to “see” what I see with the same enthusiasm).
Helped by this new level of understanding, I am finally starting to reconcile how painful if has been to constantly feel as though others don’t relate to me; and to glean ways that I can continue to find purpose and joy from pursuing these interests, regardless. I suspect this is possible just as soon as I cease expecting to relate these points of intense personal interest exactly as I experience them to others, or them to relate to me on their neurotypical terms, since I am very far from typical and, in that sense, we speak quite different languages. In other words, I must learn to share what I do for myself or, perhaps, for other neurodiverse individuals who may happen upon what I put out here and feel somehow less alone for the effort I’ve made to communicate.
To me, this sensory interface I use to navigate my way around a place is my primary way of navigating the world in general; far more so than via drama or event, conversation, transaction or instruction. I don’t feel a certain way about a place because I am told to do so by a sign or some guide book but because its obvious to me in other ways; just as, in other places, its so obvious there’s nothing to be recommended, though everyone seems to gather there due to some cultural trend or other-such directive. I’d just watched the film about Temple Grandin, famous Asperger’s woman who has written books and given countless talks about her remarkable career as an innovator built on her trait of “thinking in pictures”, prior to this trip, and this is my version; allowing me to get in under the hood of what seems obvious and perceive beauty and possibility in uncontrived places…and Amsterdam is so full of those.
A paradox I noticed; how the tallest and most obviously present landmark of the Jordaan district is the Westerkerk….at face value, a prim high-protestant “cathedral” and yet its melodious carillon, which rings out on every quarter hour day and night, had a softer side, playing Beatles songs and other unexpected melodies if you paid attention. The first time we heard those quarterly tinkles and the twice hourly chimes, from this blue-tipped and glowing tower which beautifully filled the frame of the window directly opposite our bed, we groaned at the prospect of many disturbed nights sleep (I can’t abide any kind of timekeeping device in our room back home) but, oh irony, I enjoyed better sleep in that bed than I had had for weeks in my own bed, where other human noises have started driving me to distraction lately. Wherever we walked around our favourite part of the city, the Westerkerk tower would guide us home like a friend that we grew so very fond of on this trip.
Conversely, the one-and-only thing that tempted us back to that other side of town, where we had stayed the very first time, was our favourite vegan restaurant, The Golden Temple; like a flamboyant taste of the east dropped into a far less colourful district as a foil to its relative austerity and yet still worth the very long walk, as ever it was. Like the “dots” in the yin and yang symbol, their very presence made these dichotomous landmarks – the protestant church and the golden temple – into a sort of lynchpin around which their opposite qualities could express all the more fully; and I know there is no right or wrong here, just my personal preference at work…and I clearly preferred staying in the Jordaan. Through falling in love with the chimes of the Westerkerk, for all I normally dislike clocks, I was able to bring home from this trip the realisation that not all rhythmic, repetitious sounds are “annoying”; some can help hold us together and even comfort us as they mark out time…
Which links in with that other so-unavoidable landmark of the Jordaan, the Anne Frank House museum and yet, fate took a hand, there were no pre-book tickets to be had and so we didn’t go there, yet again. As I surveyed the queue from our favourite juice bar on our final morning, I realised just how glad I was not to have joined its ranks. It’s not that I am not interested; I am very interested indeed. Reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” was one of the BIG Asperger’s “focused interests” of my youth, transitioning me from the relatively happy times where a handful of gutsy and heroic fictional female characters were my near-obsessional points of interest to where I was thrown without warning into all the intensity of those same feelings over a real-life girl with her real-life ordeal and oh-so horrific death in a concentration camp. I have now learned how much additional intensity people, especially girls, with autism often bring to their reading matter; how much they tend to take their relationships with fictional and non-fictional characters more literally, personally and deeply within than neurotypicals tend to do. Often, they react to the plight of characters in stories as though they really know them and are directly impacted, even traumatised, by what befalls them; as though they are in relationship with them…actual friends or family. I did that; still do that, with fictional characters and people I get to know through written words and the intensity of my involvement only puzzled me more as I matured and compared with others. In the light of my newly discovered Asperger’s, I am therefore no longer surprised at just how intensely this era of my reading affected me, setting me off on a new and much darker trajectory of preoccupation.
What began from that point was, in hindsight, a new obsession with reading everything I possibly could about the holocaust, to the exclusion of nearly all other reading material for at least a couple of years or more after “Anne Frank”, needing to know more and more and more about this topic…plunging very deep and dark into adult material. I then took what I learned deep inside of me as only an Aspie ever seems to do with such intensity, as though all these traumas had happened to me or as though I was now charged with the heavy responsibility of being fully and mindfully aware of all this stuff, keeping its memory alive in me, on behalf of all my school peers, who couldn’t seem to care less. What I learned about human nature over those couple of years really wounded me and my sense of the world; if only I could have found myself a “focussed interest” with a lighter feel to it…but there it was and it has made me who I am today.
Yet that museum, with the “house” and, more particularly, the “room” where Anne Frank spent her incarcerated time, from where she also deeply loved the reassuring sound of the Westerkerk bells (until they were taken away to be melted down for “the war; how demoralising that one simple action of “dissolving normality” must have been for so many in that district of Amsterdam…) now seems quite gobbled by the vast modern building and so much other baggage to do with holocaust studies and related preoccupations. That’s not to criticise the endeavour of the museum at all but to say that, to me, it seems like one hell of a load for a small girl to carry and a cacophony that drowns out the quiet voice recorded in her diary as she looked out on the world through the “eyes” of her thoughts and her writing, whilst quite separate from it, much as I do in that sense. Perhaps that’s why I related to her so intensely, even then; which was through our shared sense of being the detached observer that watched life more so than taking part in it, for all I realise how audacious that comparison sounds given I was always free to come and go. Yet it was with her ordinary girl-ness that I related and which took me inside her experience, through that relatability. It’s all too easy to forget that she really was that ordinary girl, with quite ordinary preoccupations, when projected through the eyes of the phenomenon that she has now become. In a sense, her name has been turned into a brand (how the world loves it brands) which, like a monster onion, is actually gaining layers rather than unpeeling them….and, these days, my inclination is always to unpeel, to simplify and to get to the heart of things. In my fond connection to the Westerkerk bells, I now feel closer to Anne Frank than I think I ever would through a visit to that museum and a new tenderness has formed around that old scar from my teenage reading…
For the record, I learned that a movement to silence the Westerkerk clock during the nighttime hours was quashed by locals in the Jordaan just over a decade ago. It was deemed to be quite a ridiculous proposition made at the bequest of outside visitors and new “yuppy” property owners in the district and nothing to do with them, to whom the sound of the quarter-hour carillon is like breath itself…
To me, those bells only added to the feeling of softness that seemed to be filling my days a little more with each passing hour…And there it is, the very theme of this trip because softness was coming through as the most resounding sensation linking all my best experiences, including the distinct feeling of having landed in softness or “my comfortable place”. Before we set off from home, I was more than a little anxious about travelling again, my track record not having been the best this year. In Italy in the Spring, in that same place I had enjoyed a milestone-positive holiday two years ago, some cross-contaminated guten led to the return of such intense IBS that it lasted for two long months after we returned home. Then, on a tranquil hill in Shropshire in July, my health crashed with one of the most intense returns of fibromyalgia symptoms (and what I now know to be EDS) for years and it took more than two months to get me fully back on my feet. Now I was to put myself through a city break and days of pavement pounding; what was I even thinking of…
Yet, from the uber comfortable bed (big relief!) to the way all the many windows in every street reflected back and muddled soft interiors, gorgeous and brightly daring fabrics, so many flowers everywhere and all the autumn leaves reflected back off the trees that line every canal walk, like all the colours of a watercolour painting merged so artistically together, I had landed softly into such a comfortable and sensorarily gorgeous place that I really didn’t want to leave after our few days. It was as though I lit up on the inside at the recognition of so much that was pleasing to my senses; as so much is in Amsterdam. My love of architecture and of beautiful interiors I can peer into sprang back into life like a seed bestowed with water. With so much walking to do and the chillier weather that arrived with us, I dressed only for comfort; comfortable shoes and nothing that hoisted me up or pulled me in as I used to do when around other people (a theme I wrote about just recently…) but, rather, in soft fluid layers of natural fibres and an array of my own-designed colourful scarves, my eccentricity blending in with the locals and hardly a blink. Our room was chilly enough, up the white-painted stepladder and under the eaves, for me to take to wearing hat and scarf to bed, which only added to the child-like cosiness, and we lounged on sofas and chairs in snug blankets as the heating got-going again over breakfast, bathed in the beautiful Delft blues of our host’s colour scheme. Somehow it felt a lot more like a nest or a tree-house than a real house that we had landed ourselves in, looking down on a world of coffee shops and other people’s domestic arrangements as though we were stalks in the rafters with the best bird’s eye view.
Even the easiness of “foraging” for food was part of this softness since I am well-accustomed to the hard challenge of fending for myself on holidays due to my multiple dietary intolerances, hence booking an apartment with a kitchen, but my quirks were not so very quirky here. We had so many vegan and gluten free options within walking distance, and ingredients were so transparent and open for discussion with cheerful and well-informed staff, that I cooked only once, the time we were too tired from all our walking to go out again one evening. On all those other days, we really relished the lamplight-reflecting waterside walks to and fro to different places I’d found, then the gentle camaraderie of eating amongst folk who really warm-up and enthuse over healthy harm-free food as we do. And how we walked…and walked…and walked…yet I was so “in my place” that I only seemed to get stronger for it. That corkscrew climb up a a narrow staircase, three stories high and more like a ladder by the top, had near killed me on the first attempt but, after a few days, I was hardly pausing to catch my breath. The miles we must have covered each day….only coming back from hours of pavement pounding ready to walk out to dinner with no lack of enthusiasm.
Walking is a real pleasure in this city; that I also notice, since the main risk is not to come into conflict with one of the hundreds of bicycles that whiz around at Ninja speed. How the locals do that, as though it is second nature to have pedals attached to your feet, and no breaks on so many of those bikes, I have no idea but they start young and, by the time they have families of their own, think nothing of cycling carts packed to bursting with children and dogs on board. My husband’s favourite observation was that the city is filled with butter-wouldn’t-melt females who acquire a “get out of my way or I’ll run you over” glint in the eye if you step off the pavement at the wrong time. Though you are forced to keep your wits about you, this cycling urge makes the streets quieter, less polluted, more relaxed and benign somehow than in London, where the energy drains me even as I walk along the pavement.
I noticed I was doing my yoga with more strength each day, my skin was glowing, there were no energy crashes to speak of beyond those that took just ten minutes shut-eye or sit-down to recover from and I was relishing all the uber healthy food – the juices and superfoods so readily available on every street corner, served by welcoming staff who speak English so well you sometimes pause to wonder if they are Canadian or some other native speaker. We became familiar faces in the local juice bar; greeted with enthusiasm, our personalised drinks made just the way we liked them and – truly, in just a few short days – this had started to feel more like home than home itself, if that is possible, since our real home ends at the perimeter of the walls of our property but this feeling spilled out over edges, onto pavements and to where small pools of familiarity began to form. In fact I could so easily imagine it thus; as we popped to the local supermarket, laughed with the cashier, returned our bottles for recycling, learned the shortcuts between places and observed the rituals of rubbish collection days and turning our music down after hours. All this we had missed out on in a hotel last time around and it was quite unlike that first apartment experience on the far side of the Prinsengracht. Amsterdam is so symmetrical that I felt like I was staying in the yin to that yang in a way that was quite palpable.
And here was another one of those Asperger traits newly appraised. As I collected short cuts and alternative routes, I realised how I love to work with places visually, as a pattern in my head, and when that urge is made all the easier by a place created by deliberate design – as Amsterdam was – I can make sense of it all the easier, unlike in other places that expand chaotically, driven only by supply and demand. Each time we set off to go somewhere, I would study the map and learn it through a series of turns and landmarks and would then get us there, no problems, as though I had walked the route a dozen times before, and often with nifty shortcuts or the most scenic view.
This way of working with a place appeals to me oh-so deeply….so much more so than in a more messy urban landscape…and it also highlights something else to me in a way that links directly to how the human brain functions; or, at least, the way mine prefers to operate. The more I walked those preferred and most scenic routes, the more established they became, as though their experience became more colourful and larger than life and those other places I like less well receded, shrinking into greys. It was like when you consciously choose your own preferred preoccupations in your head or apply yourself to learning some positive new habit rather than leaving it all to chance. In doing so, you encourage those particular “happy” neurones to work fluidly, all-flushed-out with oxygen and good nutrients, well-oiled and ready for use, encouraged to expand and grow stronger by your every action. Whereas, in withdrawing your focus and encouragement of those other actions, thoughts and experiences you like the least, dropping them out of your focused routine, entire branches of neurological “habit” die back, like pruning off the least healthy branches of a tree to allow the rest of it to thrive. This is how we hold the key to change our experience of life, from the inside out, via neuroplasticity and, in walking my daily routine this way, I was reinforcing its truth, over and over again; doing the good work of stengthening good and life-affirming habits, both inside and out by choosing my best version of Amsterdam; the parts that work best for me (for I know it has its other sides). As I did this each day, I realised how I needed to make more of such habits at home; and how the particular geography of urban settings could help me make this more manifest in my Asperger’s mind’s eye.
So, the more we moved between places we preferred, focusing on what we liked so much about them (avoiding utterly what didn’t feel right, including any set “tourist” agendas that felt prescriptive), the more our stay seemed to flush with wonderful feelings, pleasant encounters and conversations, good timings, happy coincidences and beautiful, sometimes wondrous things, that had us brimful with gratitude and enthusiasm. We chose quirky museums that really appealed to us – one on cats, one on hash, one on houseboats…or popped our heads into side-street galleries but avoided all the stuffiness of city art collections and other such stuff that registered boredom even before we went. The one time we went off piste, to get to one of the museums I wanted to visit (thankfully, worth the trip), crossing the hideous mess of Dam Square, the contrast showed me just how much I was having “my” particular experience of Amsterdam by choosing as I did and that it also has a very different underbelly. Here, I had no desire whatsoever to take any impressions away with me; only to get through it unscathed with my camera tucked deep in my bag.
In fact, if Dam Square and surrounding area, the well known Red Light district, is located…as per my analogy…in the centre of the city’s “brain”, its preoccupation centre, then I see through its metaphor what holds every other version of it, in miniature, back from the brink of a far more switched-on, lit-up, love-filled version of itself. For, like any human brain whose pineal has become encrusted in so much sludge and slurry from a life of distorted and confused, repetitious, often addictive and quite self-destructive preoccupations, it will serve as the sinkhole for a whirlpool of disillusioned, dystopian and self-fulfillingly defeatist thoughts. Maybe every city, like a bathtub, has to have such a place and here we were, feeling the slip-slidy tug whist focussing with all our might in order to keep an unhindered, unconfrontational path.
That’s exactly what Dam Square felt like with its austere grubby buildings, chaotic traffic, tamlines and armwaving workmen doing crazy roadworks, plus just so many people rudely crashing into each other carting luggage and bags, mostly quite unaware and uncaring, bunched together in zombie-eyed herds, gobbling the readily available junk foods and diving into shops selling tourist-tat, enticed by every dubious sign. Maybe I caught this place on a particularly bad day. Maybe I felt some of its history, which I only read about later. Whatever it was, there was a repugnance we both picked up on and we had the urge, once through it, to shake and frisk ourselves down as we last did in some of the most crowded hubs on our Italian holiday; and each city has its version…Venice’s San Marco, London’s Piccadilly Circus, New York’s Time Square; places where the vast majority of people seem to have lost their minds to blank-eyed jadedness, peer pressure and wild consumerism built upon pointless yet eye-grabbingly garish trinkets and processed junk…plus that all-important selfie to be taken at inopportune moments. Branching all around were the kind of streets that shout out familiar corporate brand names as per any other city in the world. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what so many people saw in this heinously overcrowded square that they were prepared to prolong the visit by sitting down at the people-jostled pavement cafés to consume whatever strongly smelling processed food they had to offer when there was a whole other city waiting just the other side of a canal bridge…But then that, in essence, is the biggest mystery of my life; how we can always be so very close and yet fail, en masse, to get to a more sublime and beautiful place.
Were those other, quieter, parts of the city any different to this, really, except with slightly less people? Well, yes, those people felt more more aware; a higher proportion of them looked at you as they came up close or served you in cafes, they walked around instead of shoulder crashing you, small conversations were struck up, they asked if everything was OK, remembered your face the next day, there was a degree of authenticity, laughter, time to lean back and not feel rushed from your table by the next arriving herd.
Yet even given this, I still noticed how I remained pulled back; still the detached observer, by and large. Though I enjoyed this week-long excursion into the midst of far more human interaction than I normally encounter in a month of Sundays, I was still the one on the sidelines and – most important of all – I observed I liked it there; this was my happy place. Its why city breaks….in the right city….are one of my favourite things, for all I am overwhelmed by much of the sensory onslaught that one assumes comes with city life; oh paradox of my life, because I get to be where I can watch people, up close, and (in my way) to be a part of their colourful, creative and lively world, without having to go in too deep.
This paradoxical state was my more outgoing comfort zone, the foil to that other comfort zone that means I like to be all alone at home most of the time. Here, I was allowed to be the anthropologist, studying all the patterns and rhythms that go on in a city, including patterns of human behaviour, watching it all as though through a pane of glass. When I was inside I peered outside and when I was outside I peered inside and this…I realised…was one of my very favourite things about Amsterdam; that same theme I wrote about when I blogged about glass butterflies all those years ago only, I now realised, I was that glass butterfly….not innert and pinned to a collector’s wall but fully animate and brightly colourful, choosing to experience life at arm’s length as though through a pane of glass. My early fixation with painting window compositions and photographing butterflies behind glass came full circle at last; it had been my Asperger’s hint to myself!
This, again, is what makes Amsterdam so perfect for me as a destination; so much glass, whether I am inside or out, through which to observe as though viewing a tableau of human life, something fascinating for me to study, yet I can remain detached, which is the only way I know how to be. Its how I prefer things to be…and I won’t change, can’t change, for its as valid a way of being as any other and this is the true gift of accepting my Asperger’s. I can fully immerse in human life, sort of…as though wearing a space suit, and yet not feel myself tugged more deeply than I like into an atmosphere I don’t seem equipped to breathe in. Yes, like a visitor from another planet, curious yet aloof; this is how I am and will be, going forwards. I can enjoy a brief encounter over a common point or something funny in a cafe (we left so many people laughing at our comic double-act, which is how we are…lighthearted wherever we go) but, I also noticed this; when I have had too much or even start to feel slightly overwhelmed by all the sensory assault or too much chatter, I pull back into myself to, typically to work on my photography, editing images on my portable version of Photoshop and happily left to my own thoughts and creativity until I am ready to emerge again (and my husband knows when I need to recharge myself like this; there is no irritation or judgement from him, my perfect travel partner). By finally owning and accepting the need for this pull-back behaviour (no, I am not being sullen or rude…I have Asperger’s) I can cope all the more with situations, able to go into them because its now on my own terms, knowing I have a safety valve, an escape route or refuge, wherever I go.
Photography is that other thing that makes Amsterdam so perfect for me since it is the most photogenic city I know and I do so love to take pictures that involve architecture and, especially, glass. Nature is wonderful, yes, but there is something so very special to me about places where architecture merges – softly – with nature and vice versa and that happens via every sheet of glass in that oh-so colourful city, where every subtle alteration in the light throws up new patterns for my hungry eyes to notice and gather. As reflections blur the lines between what is solid and what is not, that interplay feeds my eyes and my very soul with such a joyful feeling that I can’t truly express it except to say I found my way again, during this visit, remembering what I am all about and what truly makes me tick; and how I need the inspiration of being around other creative people and their output, even without necessarily talking to them, to feed off the colourful patterns and shapes they throw into the mix of life…whether I am looking at a flower arrangement, a piece of art in a gallery or the way someone has put their outfit together. Its all the same; inspiration and food for my soul and I need it in my life; can’t afford to allow myself to feel so rebuffed by modern life, overstimulation and the constant presence of people that I recoil to a fully solitary life. Such a life would be wrong for me; I would become jaded and drab, stagnant and sickly, with no prospect of cross-pollination to ensure future generations of my output and so the me that is most intrinsically me would very quickly die out.
I need to remember this….its so important!
Being around other creative, eclectic, diverse, colourful people lights me up and reminds me of who I am without the need for words and, on this trip, there was the sense of regathering parts of myself that I had discarded or lost along life’s path. This, perhaps, is the most potent way that I know how to engage with other human beings…and it’s important that I recognise it in myself and allow it to occur in its own quiet, watchful way and without comparing with how others might do things differently; I am the way that I am and it could be interesting, if only I could stop judging it so harshly!
My urge to dress eccentrically and decorate my living space to my own eclectic vision (both long-standing traits…) received such a breath of life on this trip, leading to a couple of purchases and some plans to play with new ideas when I got home. In just a few strolls around the Jordaan, I remembered just how deeply I love colour, textile, flora, light and pattern and anything that has the audacity to play with tradition and newness all in one palette; how pursuing these things, in whatever bizarre way calls to me next, is my reason d’être and one that needs no explanation or justification to another soul. It just is that way…and I just am this way, with my Asperger’s explanation (such as I needed one) and no apology required, except to myself if I delay living according to this truth a single moment longer. There have been too many years of trying to fix or alter myself, to conform or at least seem vaguely conventional. I have made a milestone choice to just be the way that I am from now on and to be grateful and curious, not self-derogatory or prone to comparisons with “normal” or “typical” any longer.
Colour, beauty, pattern, tone and the juxtaposition of these are all so unspeakably important to me…I can’t even describe why…but they just are. As I brought home four tiny hand-made coloured glass vases for a collection that began from the same shop on my first visit, I felt so joyful clutching my treasures that it was like being a child at Christmas all over again. I had become such a puritan lately, forbidding purchases that couldn’t be justified in some sensible way but Amsterdam had reminded me of some quite fundamental quality of needing this form of self-expression and to indulge my synesthestic senses in a wholly playful way; qualities which lie at the very crux of who I am, for all I can hardly put them into words. I feel excited to get home and play with my designs and other projects; without need to justify them in any other way now except to shrug as I point out they bring me deepest joy and another mode of expressing myself without words.
Yet, somehow (I knew) the softness and quirk that is me had been allowed to surface explicitly because of the sense of structure that is everywhere in Amsterdam; all the undeniable structure of street grid and bicycle lanes, of straight-edged and exceptionally tall monochrome buildings, of winding staircases, of canals that require bridges to get across and multiple tram lanes that intersect with bike lanes and pedestrian crossing at busy junctions that require such concentration to get across. It was the all-powerful juxtaposition of these two qualities…the fixed and the fluid, the orderly and the playful…that had worked its magic. All these rules and lines and the ceaseless marking of time by the quarter hour, day and night, and yet I had only become softer….like honey poured through a honeycomb; brimful with the nectar of my own interior kind of life, made even more manifest, before my very eyes, as the madcap world I was visiting, as though I had been temporarily turned inside out. I don’t know quite what it was but something clicked into place in the lifelong work of accepting myself while I was there and I have come home feeling far more intact than I was when I left….and than I have felt for a long time. The feeling continues even as I look around my own familiar domain and the wide-open fields of my walks; so different to where I have just been and yet it was largely an inside job.
Was I oblivious to all those hordes of people that fill the streets of Amsterdam, as though they were invisible or simply not important to me? Was I being as coldly aloof as they say an Aspie’s can be? No; it’s just that I don’t need to interact with the particular story of each of them because I sense them through their frequency. By pulling back from the fray, I am able to dial into other people without becoming muddled or thrown off track by what they do and say, to feel what they are really about so, in a sense, I see them more authentically this way, without all the layers that bring obscurity and confusion. All my life, this has been the behaviour that has made me seem a little odd; rude, staring, aloof, snobbish or disinterested but it is really my best way of coping with many people all at once, given the way I process information, which is with little sense for what people are thinking, planning, intending and all that very convoluted stuff (and I am far too prone to taking their behaviour too personally, hurtfully, if I don’t stand back from their effect) yet with powerful sense of their heart resonance from where I view them in my own particular way. What I discover, in watching other people like this, from afar, is that they so seldom engage with one another with great authenticity anyway, for all they do so noisily engage; so I am hardly missing out, as I see it. Most of it is only surface deep, trivial and fickle, made of big gestures that taper to smallness when tested; and I would rather hold back and be real, waiting for what is really worth the engagement. Their behaviour, by and large, is tribal (a word I like less and less); to do with safety in numbers and a sense of belonging to the winning team yet I feel more intact in my individuality and always have.
And yes, you get the sense Amsterdam is full of individuals when you sit back to observe. In the neighbourhood where we were staying and the kind of places where we chose to eat, I liked the feeling of these people, which was enough to tell me all I needed to know so that we could be together in our separation, passing smiles or jokes but not so in-the-face that we were expected to form packs in agreement with one another, as neurotypicals like to do; more strength to their arm in assimilation. My strength comes from the opposite to that; though feeling intact within myself, surrounded by people I like the feeling of. Feeling comes from frequency and frequency, after all, is a vibration; yet another pattern that my autistic sensibilities make me extra party to and this can be enough to shout out information to me, without all the need for surface interactions, the chitter-chatter and trivia upon which so many other people rely. Some insist that those on the autism spectrum lack the ability to communicate non-verbally but, no, whilst we may be no good at all the surface level artifice of silent messages people signal out to one another through body language and nuance in social settings, I would say we are extra good at picking up on the vibration of other’s deeper levels; their hearts, their fears, their true intentions and any hidden agendas. I suspect it’s why so many NTs find themselves uncomfortable around us, perhaps especially Aspie women, since we have this uncanny way of seeing through people’s outer layers, getting to what they don’t always want to reveal to others.
So in terms of other people, you could say, I am a generalist more so than someone who can cope with getting very specific, except in a handful of cases where I get to know certain people very well, such as my husband or a very few close friends. Our initial reason to be in Amsterdam was to see Deva Premal and Miten in concert in nearby Almere. The proximity of concert hall to where we were staying that first night meant that we “met” them in our hotel, in the town and at the train station and yet…perhaps this is not how other people would do it when meeting someone they are genuinely in awe of, encountered face to face, I did no more than say a brief “hello” to Miten as I would to anyone else bumped into at the breakfast bar. Deva and I locked eyes for several (what could have been deemed, awkward) seconds, smiling yet wordless, on the escalator heading to the train yet I felt quite alright about that once I overrode the tendency to interpret what just happened using neurotypical measures. The wordless look we passed conveyed more than a thousand words ever could have said; I could feel our transmission and any more than that would have felt sycophantic. I suspect others may have gushed a dozen words but I would have hated that, my stance being that this was their private time, they were “off duty” and out of the public domain when we saw them so why should I bother them with my introductions, as though they were old friends? If that came off as odd or even rude behaviour then that’s a shame; but I somehow think that was not the case.
That was the same day we headed to the crowds of Amsterdam and our long walk to our apartment from the train and, as it happens, this pulled-back stance turns out to be my very best way of being in a crowd. It’s so easy in this city, where no one asks too much in exchange for our few moments of interaction in cafes and shops. Not like back home, where you can feel so alone in a crowd (not because of your personal preferences but) due to the judgements of those all around you, coming at you in waves if you happen to go for lunch alone or prefer to walk briskly past on your dog walks in the park. Separate behaviour in social contexts is not a very English thing, I find; except maybe in London but not in neighbourly places, where women operate in packs. Yet the Jordaan district was made up of a crowd of individualistic individuals and, here in this favourite district of a favourite city, I felt none of that familiar sense of “oddity” around doing things in my pulled back quirky way. After just a few short days, I found I had achieved a great deal for I had felt more than a little bit at home in this crowd, had found my happy place and had coped with more than my usual dose of over-stimulation from noise and chaos (the kind of stimuli that has me feeling completely out of my depth at home) as a result of feeling intact and in my integrity. I could tell I had achieved this since, unusually for me, I went home feeling far better for it and not rung out from a week of non-stop activity, like I am from even a day spent in London or some other urban places, including the town where I live which exhausts me utterly. Rather, I came home more energised than normal…and am still so, like a dynamo fully charged.
When I’m alright with all this stuff; when I know I am allowed to just be the way that I am and am not expected to be other than I am, inside or out, I find I can cope with crowded places far better; can be out and about pavement pounding far longer even where the streets are most busy, or eat my meals in noisy places for a couple of hours, just like neurotypical people do…without being a mess by the time I get home, because I have not spent all my time trying to seem like them, to assimilate…only to be amongst them (which is quite different). This was a revelation to me since, at home, these noisy, crowded, populous and overstimulating places are my struggle zones and yet I watched myself do all this and thrive. I was so bowled over by this success that I wanted to try it out back home as soon as I could, setting myself the challenge of going into town the very next day and then into London for a food festival a couple of days after that, which was a remarkable achievement straight after a holiday. I noticed straightaway that the frequency of the people back home was certainly not the same and I felt cut-off at the knees by the energy of them in any confined spaces I happened to be in, such as in my local shopping mall and on busy trains, all of which felt much more akin to the energy of Dam Square and its neighbouring streets. But, having found this (paradoxically) softer-thus-sturdier place in myself, where I can be alright regardless of all that outside stuff, just as soon as I remember to pull back inwards and notice only those structures, rhythms and patterns that actually support me, or afford me pleasure and comfort, letting go of all the rest, I believe I can get better at this with practice. There’s a technique that I’ve since written about, self-taught on my holiday, and it helps me let go of overstimulation when I need to.
Most of all, I realised, I had come to terms with my autism on this trip and this was BIGGER for me than I could have anticipated. Before I went, I was writing up a storm of so much enthusiasm for it all, open to perceiving all the positives of a trait that has rendered me not only “different” but pretty confused and lonely in that difference all my life, until I realised I had Asperger’s this summer. I now had my reason for being “an odd bird”; which was such a massive breakthrough. Yet…as all the books I am avidly reading on the topic describe in their different ways… finding out is just the beginning of a long process of unpacking this new information. Armed with its handbook (which is work-in-progress as more and more women, so importantly, write about their particular experiences, as I am now doing…), you then start to really understand yourself for the very first time in your life, shedding light on ways that you have struggled and felt isolated for decades. This is a lot to take on since it can unleash a whole array of other emotions, even anger and frustration at not having known and having been forced to stumble around in the dark for so long. For all I had been doing so well with reconciling this new understanding in myself, it was only once I took this time out in a place that seemed to meet me half way, as though made for my particular sensibilities, that I could make this giant leap…and so I did. Its as though I am now fully and celebratory reconciled to all my quirks, ready for a life that embraces (not apologises) for all that; and seeking out ways of living, expressing and spending my time accordingly. The future hasn’t felt this bright and carefree since I was an adolescent first setting out into the world from my quirky teenage bedroom where I hand made my own clothes and collected offcuts of fabrics; yet all that has really changed is my perspective which had, for a long time, been turned pseudo-neurotypical and now I am fully in my Asperger’s groove.
Another really big thing to realise…or, rather, admit…is that executive functioning is my classic Asperger’s shortfall; and what little bit of structure I used to have in my life, hard won from years of practice in school and my earlier careers when I had to be around people, I have tended to dismantle or throw out of the window in disdain for all things neurotypical these last years (along with my watch). So, I get easily obsessed by things, carried away, they take me over, and I don’t know how to say “enough” or “stop” to myself and actually listen, to the point I do too much, for too long, taken-off down long rambling paths of over-exertion, forgetting to pause, to move, to vary things, or even to breathe at times. Yet, as I have seen on this trip, I do rather better when there is at least the semblance of am outline and some edges to my days and my intentions; and I feel more calm and in my place, overall, when that is so. Without at least some structure and tidiness to my projects, my creativity spills all over the place and goes to waste, led astray by my ever rambling mind. Amsterdam has reminded me that, with some grids, rules of thumb, straight lines and markers of time, I can get even more out of my life than without them and I intend to take a good hard look at that truism now I’m home.
My aspirations for my future life have thus broadened into full acceptance of who and how I am…the creative oddity; and I will keep on adjusting the trappings of life around me instead of expecting me to change to fit those trappings (as I have tended to do for too long, assuming myself to be the faulty one, the misfit…). My right to claim a life that works for me the way I am, and which inspires me has been shored-up somehow; and I now know that I will certainly find my niche or, if I can’t find it, will set about making one of my own…and enjoy doing so. None of us deserve any less than this, however we happen to be wired, and it is in this indulgence of our personal preferences that we find the ultimate softness that allows us to mellow into the state of wholeness that was always just waiting for us to come back home.
To see more of my photos, you can go to my Flickr album (many more images still to be added).