‘What do you mean by that?’ said the caterpillar, sternly – ‘explain yourself!’
‘I ca’n’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’
Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Some time ago a friend of mine – once an American, now a Dutch citizen – took me as her escort to a party in the American Consulate in Amsterdam.
This occasion was extra special for me. Almost forty five years ago I entered the same building. Not all that long before that I had stood in front of it, demonstrating against what was for a left-winger the outrage of the American presence in Vietnam.
Shortly before that day of my first entry I had received a Harkness Fellowship – perhaps the Fellowship to get. Now, in the spring of 1972, time had come to ask for my visa. As a non-liar by breeding I remember that day so well – because I had to lie. Truthful answers to what seemed to be outright McCarthyan if not Nixonian questions would have finished my fellowship before it even had begun. “Were you ever or have you ever been etc. etc.?”
Thus this Consulate – not so much sacred ground, as grounds with a souvenir quality. Before describing my entry last week, first allow me to relate a little story about an experience in the Vatican.
We jump again backward in time, it is now 2003. I am in Rome, spending my sabbatical of half year in the Istituto Olandese. There is a heat wave on, beginning in April when I arrived and lasting far into august. Everywhere in Europe old folks are dying from that hell. I am almost dying, living under the roof of that institute, in a room where the temperature is – day and night – a constant 40 degrees Celsius. Death Valley…
In spite of this terrible furnace I finally decided to visit The Vatican and its museum. A friend was visiting me, so it seemed the thing to do. My Istituto booked us, which meant no two hours waiting in line to get in. However, the normal procedures were to be followed, so I stepped through the detection arch and the machine started to scream instantly.
Metal tin for sweets; keys; coins et cetera – everything on the table to be inspected. A second try and once again that horrid screech. Deep in my little rucksack the guard finds my pocket knife, like always forgotten to be taken out before we left. In exchange for my receipt – a post stamp like little ticket – the treasure with which I cut my picnic bread and an apple for the road was left behind in their hands.
Only a week later, after finally having left unsupportable Rome for a few days in the hills above Florence, I decide to leave this town prematurely. I’ve had it! Immediately after having booked my flight home I again think of the knife. Must get it back, Man!
In the early morning before leaving Italy, I take tram 19 to the Vatican, the mini-receipt in my purse to demand back my precious blade. This time I have to wait for hours before I finally get into the entrance hall. I am referred to the office of the guards in the back. What have I come here for? Getting my knife back. I show them my post stamp.
No, sir – here we confiscate things, to repossess them one must go to the Gendarmeria Vaticana. Where then could this be? On the other side of the Vatican, sir. You have to walk around the city to reach the entrance there. And be quick, because the chief will be leaving for lunch at twelve!
I’ve got twenty minutes left before de commissario will close up shop. So I leave the Vatican, enter Italy again and start running the colonnade of Bernini which – as always – is cuddling that great Church in its huge arms. The square is closed off for the day, something religious is going on. I really must make that run of almost a three quarter circle…
After this little marathon and two gates more, where Zoaves in Middle-Age outfit, though armed with Kalashnikovs, suspect this sweaty person of being a terrorist, I finally reach the Gendarmeria Vaticana. Although I have still three minutes left, I see what must be The Man closing his door – the officer in charge, the Commissario Alissandriai. He reopens it reluctantly, then has me wait for another quarter of an hour, phoning his wife or his mistress to inform her of a tragic emergency.
After handing over my receipt I watch him open a large steel cabinet. Once I can see inside, I observe an enormous caboodle of unsorted little envelopes similar to the one which houses my knife. His labor commences. Much, much later he is very pleased to be able to hand me my envelope with the penknife inside.
Back to Amsterdam.
Since my last visit, around the Consulate enormous steel gates have been installed – and wisely so. You do not any longer enter the front door immediately but have to walk around the building, going into what very much looks like the screening room of the Vatican or of any aerodrome in the world. And indeed – there again is the knife in the pocket of my Manchester jacket…Innocence abroad. The guards are friendly, though seriously aloof. I would certainly not have been allowed to enter the building if it had not been for my friend who is a regular here.
They kept it for me. I did not need a receipt this time. The guards obviously did not count on any more offenders of my kind… I did not have to run around the old city walls of Amsterdam in order to get it back.
Could this be due to our Reformed Church code of speed and its rule of law that have made their imprint on the souls of these American guardsmen?