Photo by Karin Hedetniemi
Lately, I’ve been feeling a strong pull, a soul desire. This morning, I lace up the hiking shoes I’ve only ever worn locally, retracing the streets of my neighbourhood in looping solitude. But I set out in a new direction.
After all this isolation — this hermit life of the past two years — I’d like to warm my hands around a simple cup of brewed coffee in the proximity of kindred spirits. Order a sandwich or a slice of pie from an unchanging menu. Listen to the jangle of dishes, the familiar squeak of vinyl, the crisp flip of a newspaper page. Sit near strangers and overhear their random, casual conversation.
I want to envelop myself in the collective ethos of a diner. Not something retro, made to look old, but an authentic place holding the imprint of memories layered over time. There aren’t many vintage diners left in downtown Victoria — the Dutch Bakery & Diner might be the only one.
Its nostalgic charm is apparent with its long counter and row of short chrome stools, lopsided from decades of use. There are a few booths and one long bench seat at the back, for squeezing in or spacing apart. A chalkboard handwritten with the daily specials — a refreshing absence of electronics.
Maybe this diner is a time portal, sitting on a ley line, a place to experience cledonomancy: divination by chance events or overheard words. Perhaps some sort of magic will happen if I go there. Inspiration, luck, destiny. Or perhaps the rarest magic of all: a certain timeless, ordinary comfort.
I deconstruct the layers of time. Look at my reflection in all that shiny diner metal. Stainless steel pitchers of ice cube water, pouring to a crescendo into plastic cups. On the table, just the essentials: salt, pepper, sugar. Along the counter, metal strips to keep the sugar jar from falling off the counter. How many things have slipped off the back of this counter over the years? Cutlery, coins, sections of the newspaper? Hopes, dreams?
I’m surrounded by small touches of the Netherlands, a cultural sense of home from the family proprietors. Delft Blue decorative plates adorn the walls. Enlarged black and white photos proudly show the diner’s history since 1956. A polite and orderly atmosphere, unpretentious. A place that hasn’t been modernized much beyond offering gluten-free bread for an extra dollar, or a cappuccino from the automatic machine.
There’s a breeze in my hair as a server swooshes past. Her manicured nails and bracelets make a little ‘tink’ as she places one hand on the counter, writing with the other.
I notice a girl sitting across from me, head down in the last chapter of a thick book. Preoccupied and far away on her mental journey. A metal teapot beside her, a backpack at her feet. Maybe waiting to go to work at ten. This seems a calm and collected way to start the day.
I scan the laminated menu. The server takes my order with pen and paper. One more breakfast from now, she will recognize me with a smile, ask how my story is coming along. Two more, she’ll want to know how my mother is doing, bring a small orange juice without asking. But for now, she hasn’t yet learned how I like my toast. And I haven’t yet found my favourite seat.
“White, brown, rye, multi, sourdough?” I’d like multi, please — the multiverse where everything is possible and all worlds simultaneously exist, including the one where I made it to Amsterdam. She scribbles shorthand: MV.
I did consider ordering the Uitsmyter, the Dutch open-faced eggs existing on my plate in a hungry parallel world. But I’ve found my breakfast. One egg omelette, the cutest thing, just my size. Crispy hashbrown cubes, little pillows of goodness. The fruit cup, a diplomatic sampler to appease anyone’s tastes: a few grapes, banana slices, canned peaches, pineapple. A surprise slice of kiwi, I haven’t had since Spain. The obligatory melon, I’ll politely leave behind.
This breakfast reminds me of my travels, all those outward journeys I miss with an indescribable ache. That time I tried scrapple in New Jersey. She-crab soup in Charleston. Chewy bagels, while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a crowded counter in New York City — one chocolate babka to go.
It’s a fortuitous circumstance to be here on Friday morning, when the bakery offers oliebollen for a few hours. Deep-fried doughnuts the size of baseballs, rolled in cinnamon sugar, still warm inside with baked apple nuggets, and begging to be shared — two oliebollen to go, alstublieft!
Perhaps my spontaneous diner mood is an auspicious sign: travel is impending. Maybe it’s time for me to rejoin the world, see the places I’ve rescheduled and postponed for the past few years. Take a risk — a giant, uncertain, perhaps foolish, life-affirming risk. Am I ready for all of this?
The girl with the thick book turns to the last page. The server swings by, slides the paper check face down, and pauses. I distinctly overhear a subtle, reassuring message from the multiverse within her kind and cheerful voice, “Take your time, no hurry.”
Karin Hedetniemi is a writer and street photographer from Vancouver Island, Canada. Her place-based essays and images appear in Lunch Ticket, Prairie Fire, Hinterland, Pithead Chapel, Barren Magazine, and many other literary journals. In 2020, Karin won the nonfiction contest from the Royal City Literary Arts Society. Her photo cover art has been nominated for Best of the Net. Find her at AGoldenHour.com or on Twitter/Instagram @karinhedet. “Almost Amsterdam” was first published in Hungry Zine.