The tolerable American

There are few things in this world more pitiful than a spotless, untouched, unstamped passport. In its way, a virgin passport tells its own travel story, one of hesitancy, fear, and ultimately, sloth. But there it was, in the top drawer of my desk, a fresh, perfect passport, completely unsmirched by ink, thereby giving away the truth that the bearer was probably not a secret agent.

Fortunately, my friends Ed and Ronda have been visiting the Iberian peninsula of Europe since ’01, and they told me this summer that it was time for me to get serious, accompany them on their November trip to Portugal and finally deflower that poor little passport.

Minneapolis, Saturday night, Nov. 5: I’m flying Northwest Air/KLM to Lisbon via Minneapolis and Amsterdam. We left Reno at noon Saturday, scheduled to arrive in Lisbon at 10:30 Sunday night. The flight to Holland leaves on time. I’ve already made a horrible rookie traveling mistake. It’s called a window seat. That might not be so bad for you, but for 6-foot-4-inch me, it’s not a good call. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no help. The dinner, a chicken dish, is beyond decent. As for scenery, I can tell you the Atlantic is quite dark at 4 a.m.

Amsterdam, Schiphol Airport, Sunday, noon: I booked this brain-boiling flight mostly because of this stop, an 8-hour layover in the world’s largest university town, which gives me plenty of time to spend the afternoon in the city itself. Except that the airport is absolutely incredible. I could easily blow the entire layover right here. It’s pretty much a city unto itself, loaded with shops, restaurants, duty-free stores, Internet cafes, children’s lounges, private business-class lounges, meditation lounges, even museums. I wander about, slack-jawed and crispy, buying Euros and eating ice cream, finally realizing after a couple of hours of aimlessness that I’d better get the hell out of the airport before I blow any chance of seeing the city itself.

Amsterdam, 3 p.m. Canals and crazy old buildings and thousands of one-speed bicycles. This must be the greatest bicycle city on Earth. I’ve never seen a multi-level parking garage filled with bicycles before now. Bicycles ONLY. I stop in for a beer at a Doors cafe, as in the rock band Doors. It’s a swingin’ little hellhole, playing trance music that sounds like Center Camp in Black Rock City. Then, into the hemp shop next door. I figure a hemp shop in Amsterdam might have some classic “Dutch touch” going for it, like these little baskets of mushrooms, looking similar to the sliced mushrooms we get at our local supermarket. Except when you add these particular mushrooms to your lasagna, you end up in a suburb of Amsterdam known as Giggle City. The silver-haired employee, who tells me she moved here from Reykjavik because Iceland was just too uptight, says there’s a special today: Buy two fungal baskets, get one free.

“Gee,” I say, “this is my kind of town.” She smiles, “Mine, too.”