Meeting random people in this city is always possible, especially if you’re open to it. But sometimes, even when you want to keep yourself to yourself, an Amsterdam “happening” will happen to you. This is a real mini-incident I experienced with one of those random people.
I come to a part of the city I have never seen before, after taking a wrong tram. Instead of turning back to familiar ground, I stop at a corner bar, buy a beer, and sit outside in the cold summer air. The whole weekend has been pretty miserable weather-wise. Earlier that day I told my friend Rogier, “I love the misery of the Amsterdam weather, so atmospheric,” knowing he also revels in melancholy. “You’re right, David,” he replied, “but please, not in July…”
As I glance across the road, some police are in discussion with a few drunks, presumably to ask them to move on or stop hassling the passers-by for change. One of the drunks wanders away from the police, and stumbles in my direction, ragged carrier bags clinking. I hide in the refuge of iPod earphones and a book, but to no avail. He stands in front of me, unavoidably catches my eye, and says something. I take one earphone out. He repeats what he said, but I don’t understand his partially slurred Dutch.
“I have to translate,” he says, antagonising me.
“You don’t have to do anything”, I say in similar tone.
“Is there a difference between lonely and alone?” he asks.
It’s a question worth stopping the music for, and I take the other earphone out to concentrate on my answer. After a moment’s consideration, I tell him my idea.
“I think being alone does not mean you are lonely – and some of my loneliest times have been at the side of another, when our values were not shared. I’m glad that’s in the past.”
“We are looking one another in the eyes” he announces obscurely. We are. He goes on.
“There is a man, who does nothing but kill. He kills everybody. He walks free in Paris.”
Then he deepens his stare and quietly says, “I want to learn the pain behind your eyes”.
I don’t know what to say, but it’s ok because he continues, seemingly at another tangent.
“I am not independent. I love women! I lived in Rivendale in New York. I lived with a Madame!” He leans his head in
towards my face, his breath almost unbearable, and with a conspiratorial nod, he continues.
“1972, she came here to Amsterdam with me. We lived near Nieuwmarkt: she worked in a window and I threw bricks at the police. You don’t know about the riots…”
Indignant, I butt in. “Of course I do! All the squatters were kicked out, Blue Monday, 1975. It was all about the new underground line, right?”
“She knew how to cause a riot too. She drank Jenever, you’ve never seen anyone drink Jenever like her. It… affected her. You understand?”
He seems to get lost in that thought and begins swaying on his feet, staring pointedly into my eyes again, searching. Finally,
he opens his plastic bag and shows a few bottles of cheap booze, saying, “That will be my dinner tonight.”
I expect the question “do you have a bit of change to help me out?” but my thoughts do him a disservice. He smiles, extends his wrinkled, grubby hand. I shake it, and he walks away with a wave.
I’m left with an odd sensation that I have seen this man before, and feeling I’ve just been touched by an Amsterdam moment.
David Beckett is author of ‘Amsterdam… The Essence’, a book which tells the city’s story in the words of 25 people who shape it. It’s recently been converted as an enhanced ebook for iPad – with 250 pictures, 28 sound clips and 17 movies bringing the story into vivid life. You can download 3 free chapters from iTunes by scanning the QR code to the right (just search under Amsterdam on iTunes). More information can be found at www.theessenceonline.com