A Sentimental Valuation
I took the job because in theory I loved full-time people watching. While I devoted my days to telling visitors how to find the bathroom, the posh people of Amsterdam-South delivered on their promise. I found small ways to remove myself from my monotony by taking in their outfits and words. I heard them say the art installation at the auction house was not moving, but kinetic. My life was enriched, if only because its inhabitants distracted me from myself.

They would arrive for appointments with our appraiser, who invariably announced their gem from that vacation in Mallorca or Tenerife wasn’t even worth 12 euros. Within minutes, I watched their hunched shoulders and tucked chin walk back to the parking lot. It could have had something to do with my state of mind, that fresh-on-the-job-market lack of direction, but at the time, I found nothing sadder than a post-appraisal moment. What ever happened to internal validation?

Ruben had broad shoulders and a deep voice that traveled right to my core. The first time I saw him, he was seated beside me at a Friday night dinner for Jewish young professionals with his big brown eyes and curly hair I imagined running my hands through. He sang along with the Rabbi's prayers, while I looked at my watch. He found religion there, and also belief. I’d grown up in a family that bought new clothing for high holidays, but when it came to secular troubles faith disappeared from our vocabulary. I didn’t know if I wanted the matzo ball soup if it came without a side of existential relief. I thought that’s what spirituality was for.

It was hard for me to believe in anything. I often wondered if I would become like my mother, deeply spiritual and always anxious. Or my father, an atheist through and through, implying with his going-along-with-it Judaism all the reasons to stay in the game I didn’t understand. Ruben had already decided who he was. I saw this in the way he paused before he spoke on our walk after dinner. I could tell, each time he blended a story from the Old World into our encounter in modernity.

He exuded the confidence of someone who inhabits their universe, right at the center. I wanted to tell him all about life on the periphery of mine: those uncomplicated Gouda sandwiches scattered around my middle school class, while I was the only one to show up with leftover chicken liver in my lunch box. The one day every school year when I was forced to skip an exam or dance recital because of Atonement Day. These sets of choices came with the residual setback of otherness. A few hours after we met, Ruben shared the translation of the Hebrew word for Jews, “those who wrestle with god”.

On the edge of the city there’s a nightclub called Paradiso, an old church building in disguise. Outside, two teenagers stood rolling joints. Ruben smiled. He didn’t provide answers. Instead, he put his hand on the small of my back, my personal reiki healer. He quoted Seinfeld and Spinoza, in the same sentence. He paraphrased the responses of French poets to the Human Condition.

Also, he offered his company.

The following morning, we passed by the Anne Frank House, where he grabbed my hand to hold onto it for the rest of the day. Ruben stopped on the corner of every canal. He said he craved the Sabbath, a repose, an afternoon slumber, one hiatus per week dedicated to literature, conversations over a warm meal with family members and friends. I longed to be close to him and hoped his interpretation of our common heritage would rub off on me. He had internalized the framework in such a simple way, like a pianist adopts to his metronome. Ruben’s hometown in Belgium had never seemed more exotic to me, my neighbors who worshiped more than secularism. 

Ruben asked me to name one aspect of Judaism that was relevant to me, however small. I turned towards him, watching boats turn corners in the canals. “The world is a narrow bridge,” I said. He pulled me closer and held my gaze: “the key is not to be afraid”. I’d learned the rabbinical lyrics, remixed, during a summer on the beaches of Tel Aviv. I surprised myself when the chorus had stuck.

After sundown we took a tram along the fogged-over streets and parted at Central Station. He hugged me too tightly, erasing the boundary between goodbye and farewell. Ruben never returned my emails, and it took me years to stop expecting a reply that would verify our connection was real.

As ice cubes melt and turn into a glass of water, I waited for our dissolved meeting to become something else. Regular Friday night dinners, a loss of ambivalence around a Jewish structure for my days… none of this arrived after Ruben’s departure.

During office hours I sought comfort by dreaming up the hypothetical backstories of visitors during their art appraisals. I lost myself in visions of flea markets, historical districts, swims in oceans, rivers and lakes. Meanwhile, I couldn’t shake the question of what remains after warm summer evenings, once travelers returned from travel with an aftertaste of tapas or sangria.

Ultimately, we must each undergo our own appraisals. Under thick layers of questions left unanswered, we are ready and willing. To define the most intimate and sentimental of memories, the value of which only we can determine.
Babette is an international writer whose work has appeared in publications such as Womanly Magazine and Elephant Journal. She was a newspaper journalist in Amsterdam before moving to the Bay Area.
Art used in this issue: “Marché de Minho 2, Portugal” by Sonia Delaunay
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