I’m watching people with suitcases carefully read a menu outside of a coffee shop. I can tell they want to go someplace better, but they just got to town and don't know where anything is yet.
I know that feeling. When I get to a new city, I want that first place to be good. I always wind up looking way too long for the perfect place, and driving the person I’m with crazy. I just have this lack of faith that the first place is going to be any good. I know the perfect place is out there wanting me to find it, but instead I took the most convenient option and I know it’s coming- that crippling disappointment of that bad cup of coffee.
One day I found the perfect place. It was the best meal I've ever had. That's the problem. That's what keeps me searching. It was 1998 and I was in Amsterdam. Yes, of course I was high, and yes of course that makes food taste good. But that fact should not diminish the majesty of the experience.
It was July, and I was 19. My friend and I were back packing across Europe. We had been looking forward to Amsterdam, for obvious reasons. This was before a person could simply fly to Denver to legally smoke marijuana. Going to Amsterdam was like going to Mecca for a 19 year old American finishing his sophomore year at a liberal arts college. It was the antithesis of regressive American culture. It was the height of sophistication. It was the deep understanding of the human spirit that yearns to be free and buy weed from legally sanctioned providers.
We got to Amsterdam, threw our bags in the hostel, and immediately headed out to the first coffee shop that we could find.
My recollection of the place is fuzzy. Obviously. There is one thing I distinctly remember: neither my friend or I could roll a joint. To me, this was a cardinal sin. It made me feel like a fraud. Like a fake. Like a boy scout unable to fish.
We took a seat and looked around the shop. White people with dreads puffed billowing clouds of smoke out of perfectly rolled spliffs. This was the sum of all my fears. Here we were, in Amsterdam, in Mecca, with everything I’ve ever wanted to see laid out in jars before me, and neither one of us had the skill to make it happen.
We were fucked.
My friend did not share my existential crises.
“We’ll just ask for a bong,” he said.
“No! We can’t! They’ll know!”
“That we’re boy scouts who can’t fish.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
He borrowed a bong. My fears of being ostracized why the weed glitterati were unfounded. They were high. No one cared.
By the time we made it to Amsterdam, we had been on the road for a week. The trains and the travel and the sheer power of what we smoked caught up with my friend. After an hour in the shop, at six o’clock in the afternoon, he decided he was going to turn in. I was having the opposite experience. The trains and the travel and the sheer power had me in top form. “Go back to the room,” I said. “I’m going to find something to eat.”
I set out on a quest to find the perfect food. This quest lasted damn near three hours.
My requirements were simple. It had to be 1. Good, 2. Not a tourist trap and 3. Cheap.
I looked at menu after menu. I weighed pros and cons. This was before cell phones and Yelp. All I had a hope and a Frommers Guidebook. Did I want Indonesian or Dutch fare. What even was Dutch fare? Wow look at that pretty canal. Do people live in these houses? What do those red lights mean? Oh, yes, that’s what they mean. Keep walking. A cigarette would help me decide. I should call my parents. At least send them a card. I’m such a bad son. Fuck I’m starving. Food, dinner, that’s right, I’m looking for something to eat.
I looked and I looked. I crossed the threshold, past hunger, past hangry, to the place I wanted nothing and everything all at the same time.
That’s when it hit me.
The smell of fried. It was mediterranean. That feeling of being sixteen years old in New York City and passing a deli for the first time. The gyros. The pastrami. With a side of fried potatoes. These smells were coming from a narrow store front. I peeked inside. There were seven stools along a counter top and a couple of tables along the wall. There was no need to look at a menu. It was happening. It was here. I had found it.
A little bell rang as I opened the door. I sat at one of the seven seats on the counter. I ordered a falafel with french fries. Five minutes later they sat a plate in front of me. There were no words. The sandwich and I were in perfect communion. In a moment of unequaled culinary inspiration, they had stuffed the french fries in the pita. I said a prayer. I ate in complete silence. Every bite was better than the one before. After I finished I ordered a Sprite in a can. It was cold. So cold. I chugged it. It was the only thing I knew to do. The burn hit the back of my throat as I gulped the lemon-lime beverage. Every drink better than the one before.
And that was it. I thanked them and I left. I lit a cigarette outside the shop and for a moment I felt complete and utter freedom. I was halfway across the world from anyone I knew. The city glimmered in the twilight of that July evening. I had a sense that what had happened was a singular experience. That I would never eat at that falafel shop again. This was a moment that couldn’t be replicated. That couldn’t have been shared. It was only for me. Because of my unrealistic search for the perfect thing.
It was also proof that occasionally you find it.
The couple decided to come back to the cafe. They ordered a muffin and a coffee but they were disappointed, I could tell. Oh well. Just the price of admission when searching for something new.