Erin went to Amsterdam with a backpack and his guitar and no plans other than to see what there was to see, admire the canals, and get legally stoned. He decided he liked the city and so he stayed, surviving on his wits, charm, and the kindness of strangers. He played his guitar for spare change. He knew French from high school and German from college, and after a while he stopped being embarrassed that the locals could talk to him in his language better than he could talk to them in theirs. He emailed his sister from an internet cafe to tell her about the needle exchange programs and the prostitutes' guild and the houseboats on the canals, and she emailed back and said she was glad he was having fun, and did he need money?
He made some friends, he did some traveling, he went to Belgium and bought too much chocolate and a little decorative strip of lace for his sister. He went to Delft to see how they made their pottery, he rode ferries up and down the canals, he bought a used bike and managed not to fall off in the rain. He sat in cafes and wrote letters and songs and bad freeform poetry, and he drew on napkins and made friends with waiters and waitresses who thought he was cute. He learned to swear in Dutch and how to order food and beer and get directions, how to pick someone up and how to tell someone thanks but no. He conducted a half-hour conversation with an older gentleman entirely in German, impressing himself and prompting the older gentleman to try and fix Erin up with his niece. Erin wasn't quite sure how to tell the gentleman that he liked boys - how did you say "I'm sure she's lovely, but I'm queer" in German? - but he managed to get his point across without offending the old man, who just shrugged and said it was worth a try, his niece was picky anyway.
Somewhere in there, Erin met a boy named Joost, an art historian who gave tours and lectures at the Rijksmuseum. They met at a bar, had sex, became friends, and between Christmas and New Year's, Erin moved in. Joost lived in a tiny apartment, but any time they started getting in each other's hair, Erin took his bike out and rode around the city. He'd grown up in Vermont, and while Amsterdam in the winter was cold and wet, it was nothing like the bone-deep chill he was used to.
Erin thought they made an interesting-looking couple, the tall skinny American boy in his jeans and his black Chuck Taylors and his grown-out brown hair, and the tall not-as-skinny Dutch boy with his round face and his blond hair and his slightly-wrinkled but always clean vaguely professorial clothes. Joost taught Erin how to cook and Erin taught Joost how to play the guitar, and sometimes they would sit in a cafe and Erin would work through a pile of French comic books or a Dutch novel with a dictionary and Joost to help him.
In the spring they went out to Lisse to bike around the tulip fields, and even though the fields in full bloom were a new and interesting geographic pretty, Erin thought maybe it was time to go home.
His last night in Amsterdam, he wanted to go out and say goodbye to the city properly, but Joost wanted to stay in and say goodbye in private. They compromised, sort of, by inviting friends over, and Joost cooked and they all drank beer and talked and Erin got some goodbye presents, including a pair of wooden shoes and a carved wooden tulip, and later that night, after everyone had gone home, the two boys spread out on the bed and licked and sucked and touched, whispered silly things in four languages and gasped and moaned in the one language everyone shares.
Joost went with Erin to the airport, and they sat outside the security gates as long as they could. Erin brought his guitar on the plane because he was afraid to check it with his backpack, and in the courier bag Joost bought him for the trip he put his iPod, the wooden tulip, a couple of music magazines, a novel in Dutch and his Dutch-English dictionary.
When will you come back?
I don't know. Come see me, I'll take you into the mountains and you can meet my sister.
They kissed each other goodbye and then Erin went through security and down to the gate, and he got on the plane and he went home.
His sister met him at the airport, hugged him, told him she missed him and he was so skinny! He said his boyfriend was a good cook. She didn't believe him.
Coming back to the States wasn't as much of an adjustment as Erin thought it would be, but he missed his friends and the girls who worked at his favorite bar, and he missed the canals and the tall narrow houses, the Rijksmuseum and the tulip fields, the cafes and coffeeshops where he used to draw and drink and smoke, the public places where he'd play his guitar. He missed the Indonesian restaurants and the local beer, he missed the little corner shop where he used to buy cigarettes and the shop owner who let him practice his Dutch, he missed Joost and he even missed Joost's tiny apartment and the radiator that only worked half the winter.
He worked as much as he could, saved his money, audited a class in Dutch and another in art history. He argued with his sister about his plans but then it was the end of April and the tulip fields were in bloom, and a year after he left, Erin met Joost at Schipol Airport and said I came back, I missed Amsterdam and I missed you and I think I'm home.