by Hank Leukart
August 2, 2005
Flossing in the Queen’s palace
A family-loudness competition commences on a flight to the Netherlands.
The Dam in Amsterdam (view all Amsterdam, Netherlands photos)
MSTERDAM, Netherlands — I have a public service announcement. Planes are not walking or running tracks. Planes are not halls for family reunions. Planes are not free day-care centers. Planes are not dive bars. Planes are not your personal bedroom. And above all, planes are indoors — not outdoors. Children, that means that on planes, you need to use your “indoor voices.”
The issue at hand is my flight to Amsterdam, where an enormous family sat down in about 10 seats next to me across the aisle and immediately proceeded to yell, laugh inappropriately loudly, and act as a constant alarm clock for the next eight hours. It really didn’t bother me that much — David Denby’s American Sucker kept me company and served as a shield between me and the 50-year-old yet flirty woman beside me who wouldn’t stop intentionally touching my arm — but I don’t think I could even think of enough material to share with my family for eight solid hours, even if I were forced into a family-loudness competition. To be fair to my family, this indoor-voices-ignorant family did have a secret trick to keep the conversation afloat. An example: “Devin, this brownie is a damn good brownie!” “WHAT?!” “This brownie is a damn good brownie!” “WHAT’S THAT?!” “Devin, why do you never listen when I talk to you?! I said this brownie is a good one!” Voila. You only need one sentence to create three with this technique. That’s how you win a family-loudness competition.
Upon arriving in Amsterdam, I immediately set out for the city’s famous Red Light District — only because my cheap hostel is located there. Along the way, I walk past Amsterdam’s famous sex workers, who are standing behind the glass windows of cute little houses, houses in which you’d instead expect small Dutch children with wooden shoes to be living. Wearing only lingerie, the women mostly look bored and wait for customers by talking on their cell phones — to whom, I have absolutely no idea. Maybe they’re calling their mothers: “Nope, there’s nothing new mom, I’m just standing here naked again.” Meanwhile, they look so uninterested in prospective customers that they seem distinctly unsexy, which is especially surprising in a city otherwise filled with such interesting (and beautiful) women.
Meanwhile, I’m reading Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld’s exceptional new book about what life is like as an insecure teenager at a preparatory school. Sittenfeld apparently knows this experience so well that reading this book is like reading a book about my life; she captures the complete insecurity of being a prep-school freshman — the obvious yet hidden air of money all around, the constant obsession with other students and members of the opposite sex, and the everpresent feeling that you’ll never fit in — all in a poignant story about a girl who has no chance of being admitted to Brown. I’m many years past my similar experience now, but it seems like a strangely appropriate and humbling book, being surrounded by smart, beautiful, Dutch girls, all of whom I’m too nervous to talk to.
Not, of course, as humbling as getting something stuck in your teeth. Why is it so painfully annoying to get a piece of food stuck in your teeth? It doesn’t hurt, no one can see it, and it doesn’t prevent me from doing anything, yet as soon as it happens, I can’t think of anything but removing it. My stuck food completely interrupts my day at the Rijksmuseum, after I’m rejected by an old Dutch food vendor who simply can’t part with one of his hundred toothpicks. I’m forced to return to my hostel and try to remove the stuck food with all of the following: a toothbrush, a Swiss army knife, a fork, and a Dutch design magazine — all of which fails. I become utterly consumed by this food nugget, which has already ruined my day and my European vacation thus far. So, I spent much of the afternoon trying to buy dental floss. (Note: it’s apparently not all that common in Holland, but if you ever need it, try the popular Dutch store HEMA.) Excited when I finally find it, I am embarrased to use it right there in the store, so I begin searching for a bathroom. The first I find, embarassingly enough, in the Dutch Queen’s palace, in Amsterdam’s large Dam Square. Inside the huge marble castle, I find a bathroom and unwrap the floss.
Afraid the Queen will catch me in her bathroom, I work quickly to remove the food. It’s a humbling experience. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so silly and insecure, trying to use Dutch dental floss to remove food from my teeth in a Queen’s castle. I guess we never leave prep school insecurity behind.