Thursday, July 21, 2005

This could be Amsterdam or anywhere

I never really said much about my time in Amsterdam, short of reflections on the excellent Dutch resistance museum. I meant to write much more about my time - especially if you go to the right areas, it is a wonderfully picturesque city - but now I'm actually sitting down at the keyboard, I can't. That's because the last part of my trip was totally overshadowed by the news of the first London bombings (how sad that we now order them sequentially).

The internet cafe on the Damrak will now be etched in my memory. It is a strange feature of the human psyche that we remember so clearly where we were at these key moments in time - as if our remembrance of hearing the news somehow lends greater significance to the occasion. I've always viewed the "Where were you when you heard about JFK?" articles with some cynicism, but the strength of emotion that I felt after both 9/11 and the London bombings makes you at least understand the rationale.

Hearing the news did bring to the fore some interesting observations about the information age. My first act on logging on to the Internet was to speak to Richard via instant messenger; his opening words were "sad events", but he just assumed that I would know to what he was referring. It was only much later, once I'd checked my e-mail and logged on to the BBC website, that I finally realised what he was talking about. Now that we live in an era when, with a small amount of Google know-how, almost any information is at our fingertips, we assume that all news has an immediacy that it doesn't when you're map-reading and wandering around the side streets of a foreign city.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the day was the feeling of severe dislocation. I was travelling with a Londoner, and perhaps his shock at seeing places he knew so well reflected on to me. Yet then again, the bus bomb blew up a matter of yards from where I had been staying at Easter. Of course, the terrorists know that in targeting a city like London, almost everyone will have a reaction like this. After 9/11 I remember the fear of realising that I had been on a flight to Los Angeles barely a month earlier. Looking back now, though, the strongest reason for the sense of dislocation was being in a foreign city. I had been to Amsterdam before, but when you hear world-changing news like that, there is a certain comfort to returning to your own home, your own family, your own bed - your own safety network. If all around you are familiar faces, the threat seems far more distant, especially living in a small town as I do.

There were, of course, positive reflections to be made too. The friendliness and solidarity of the strangers at my hostel, and their concern when they found that I was British, is something that I will remember also for a long time. It is important to remember at times like that that the reason the terrorists are able to strike fear is precisely because they are so different to us.