It was late Sunday afternoon December 2nd when the train I had boarded in Best arrived at the big Amsterdam central station. The mostly clear skies in Best and across the Netherlands had given way to more overcast as we neared its capital city. The two hour trip had been uneventful but otherwise kind of fun, enjoying the view out the window of chaste, white and wintry Holland, plus enjoying the mouth feel of the gooey, cheddary, grilled cheese sandwich that Femke had made for me. And I had to give it to the Dutch, their trains were the prettiest I had seen in Europe, all bright yellow on the outside with slashes of red forming abstract designs on the sides. And unlike yesterday’s train from Munich, the compartments, at least my compartment, was toasty warm.
Coming into the city, the train tracks had already crossed several of its iconic canals, and finally there was a view of the huge man made Ijsselmeer (Lake IJssel) to the north just before we came into the station. (I would learn later that it was the largest ‘lake’ in Europe, having originally been part of the Netherlands’ Zuiderzee bay, but had been separated from the bay by a 32 kilometer dyke in 1932 and became a freshwater body filled by the Rhine river. All these views were very exciting, particularly from my cozy train compartment, and took my mind off my homesickness.
The coming into a big city on the train drill was now totally baked into my brain. I immediately headed to the information booth and tried to cobble together some German, if not Dutch, to ask where the Christian youth hostel was, though not knowing the German word for ‘Christian’. I queried the middle aged woman behind the counter.
“Wo ist die Christian jugendherberge?”
She looked at me a bit quizzically, then replied, “Die Christliche jugendherberge?”
I nodded and she began to point and rattle off directions in German. I had learned in these last nine weeks in countries where I did not speak the language to ask for directions in sort of an iterative process. I’d head off in the direction indicated by the first person queried for a block or two, then asking a second person and follow the direction they pointed out, and so on until I got to my destination (or got completely lost). After the initial useful directional indication, I was listening to her whole unintelligible spiel just to be polite.
Sensing somehow my lack of understanding of what she was saying, she paused, and then asked me, “Do you speak English?”
After my affirmation, she proceeded to give me much more understandable directions to the hostel. Turned out it was little more than a kilometer down the street along the picturesque Brouwersgracht Canal, the streets and structures all gleaming under the dusting of snow, with cars parked along the street and cute little houseboats parked on the sides of the canal itself. It occurred to me that even if I had been teleported here from my hometown without any sense of context I would totally be able to guess where I was. Yes Venice also had canals, but they had a very different look than these. Amsterdam’s were broader with real streets on either side lined with clean brick townhouses, while Venice’s were narrow, often not even a sidewalk running along them and the brick structures of buildings looking dark and stained, like they had been submerged for years in water and just recently risen out.
The hostel was a three-story brick building just off the canal with an inscription carved in stone above the second story in all capital letters that read, ‘TOT HEIL DES VOLKS’. The young woman behind the check in desk looked in her mid twenties with big blonde frizzy hippie hair, the requisite headband between her untamed mane and blue eyes, gazing at me through round metal rimmed glasses, like Janis Joplin or John Lennon would wear. She was slouched in a wooden office chair not unlike the one my dad had in his basement office in our old house, that swiveled and had big metal springs under the seat that let you lean back in it and assume a contemplative pose, or just slouch in her case. She was wearing a dull green sweatshirt, several sizes too big for her with holes along the shoulder seam and fraying at the cuffs which covered most of her hands. Across her chest in faded white letters read ‘Ende Faschismus’. Her bell-bottom blue jean clad legs stuck out from under the bottom of the table, the fabric torn at both knees as well as just below the crotch, showing pink underwear underneath. Her jeans were covered in R Crumb style comic book line drawings in black ink, her feet ensconced in thick green wool socks but no shoes, though I noticed a pair of decrepit looking army boots behind her chair.
From her comfortable slouch she looked up at me and flashed a killer shiteating Janis Joplinesque grin. Her whole vibe was just major league irresistible. My libido percolating, my new ‘Coopster’ persona told old timid me to stand aside and it went for a flirt before she could even speak or I could stop it.
“Cute socks. Look nice and comfortable.” She responded by wiggling her toes and I continued, “And I love your jeans, all ‘R Crumbed’ out! Did you do the drawings yourself?”
Her whole shiteating grin thing intensified and her eyes got just this side of lascivious. “I’m a very talented person, sugar!” she said in a well honed English though with a German or maybe Dutch accent (making that last word sound more like “shoe grr”) and a gravelly voice that befit the rest of her look and vibe.
It felt like some alien spirit was possessing me, perhaps at the behest of my libido, but it was on a roll so I let it continue.
“So ‘tot heil des volks’?” I asked, referring to the words carved above the building entrance.
“Salvation of the people baby”, she said with a delicious swagger, “Just three guilders a night, such a deal!” Then continuing, “And just about all the free beer you can drink each day just a short bus ride away. Plus whatever else the traffic may allow.” THEN continuing, “By the way sugar, you have the prettiest curls and lovely hazel eyes! But I digress.”
She pulled out a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it and a ballpoint pen hanging from a string and smacked it down on the table in front of me.
“Just fill this out for me, read the rules, and sign here and give me your money honey!” It was an obvious and shameless play on the rhyming words.
While I filled out her form, she told me that the hostel was an easy walking distance from the Anne Frank House and to that bus to the Heineken brewery, both with daily tours. I handed her the clipboard and she reviewed my form. Somehow I had missed writing something in the ‘Sex’ box.
“So just checking sugar”, she said now in a more hushed tone, noting that there was someone entering the place with a big pack on, presumably to check in after me, “You left the ‘sex’ question blank, which is okay if that’s the best answer.”
A shiver of discomfort went through me as I recalled the crude jokes from some of my male peers in junior high about answering the ‘Sex’ question with ‘Y’ instead of ‘M’. “Sorry”, I said, “I missed that.”
“Not a problem”, she said, returning the clipboard with the form still attached to it. “We want to accommodate everyone, and we of course keep this information private.”
“I’m male”, I said, a bit defensively, but then softening and trying to regain the whole flirt thing, “Last time I checked.”
I noticed the slightest grimace as she nodded reacting to my joke, but then recovering her vibe. “That would have been my guess sugar. Men’s bunkroom is up on the third floor. Enjoy Amsterdam! Let me know if you have ANY questions.”
I decided to pay for three nights and gave her my money. She said, “Oh and by the way, watch out for the ‘blue dot’ acid. I’m hearing some not so good things!” Amsterdam indeed!
The first two locals I had met here in Amsterdam spoke plenty of English, and I would find that most other people I encountered in the city did as well. Even more than that it was like the whole place was concerned about my well being. On my walk to the hostel suddenly a cab on the other side of the street was honking and the driver had rolled down his window and was gesticulating in my direction. I was mystified what was inspiring him to do so until I happened to look behind me and see that one of my gloves had fallen out of my jacket pocket onto the sidewalk. I finally picked it up and waved to him in acknowledgement. How about that?
I climbed the two flights of stairs to the men’s bunkroom, a huge square room with a high ceiling and windows on one side looking down to the street and on the opposite wall looking down into a narrow alleyway. I noticed that despite the cold outside, several of the windows were open, and then noted the distinctive smell of burnt tobacco and hashish in the air. I found my numbered bunk, the upper of a wooden bunk bed with a built in ladder on the side. I unshouldered my pack and hoisted it onto my little rectangle of elevated real estate, deciding I’d head back out to scope out the immediate neighborhood for a grocery store and anything else useful before it got dark.
I did not make it back to the stairwell before a guy sitting in a small circle on the floor with two others, without even introducing himself or asking my name, called out to me.
“Dude”, he said, drawing out the long ‘u’ sound in a melodious stoner drawl, “Wanna smoke a bowl of some sweet hash?”
He had long blonde straight hair rubber banded into a ponytail down his back. Wow, I thought, Amsterdam was truly Amsterdam, living up to its reputation as the cannabis capital of the Western world, people openly smoking hash in a youth hostel, a CHRISTIAN youth hostel even.
“Ooo I’d love to man”, I responded, “But I gotta find a grocery store before it gets dark and resupply.”
“Got it dude”, he said, “There’s an awesome market just down the street and it’s probably a real good idea not to go there high because you’ll buy everything in sight.” He paused in some sort of stoned thought. “Unless you want to buy everything in sight.” He laughed, and his two comrades sitting in the little circle with him did too.
It was like a Cheech and Chong routine, a more female sounding voice of one of his comrades, from under a big curly riot of auburn hair, scoffed and said, “Yeah, like you did last night!”, the three of them laughing again.
“I’ll be back”, I said. They all nodded in unison like they were in some sort of trance.
Judiciously unstoned, I successfully found my way to the market and managed to purchase only the necessities for dinner and breakfast the next morning – bread, cold meat, cheese, dried fruit, and of course yogurt – avoiding the chocolate bars and Hostess Twinkies and returning from my forage as the street lights began to turn on in the twilight. I thought to buy a second baguette, thinking I would offer some to the guy who had offered me a toke and his comrades. As burnt out as I was feeling after my mostly sleepless night and my long emotional day, I was afraid to get high with them tonight, though I was determined to cement some sort of a connection hopefully before climbing into my bunk for a delicious needed sleep. I ended up spending eleven Guilders, around four dollars U.S., the groceries being about twice as much as they had been in Spain, more than my lodging for the next three nights.
When I reentered the hostel, Greta was checking in two guys, obviously flirting with them as she had with me, commenting on how buff their arms looked. Still, as I ran the gauntlet by her desk to get to the stairwell, she managed to wink at me as if she was acknowledging some jointly planned sexual encounter later.
When I entered the bunkroom I found the same threesome still sitting there, the pipe now empty on the floor between them. They looked at me quizzically but said nothing. Their invitation to join them was only telepathic, and I decided to just go for it, go ‘Coopster’ and just sit and join their circle. I flopped down next to the guy with the long blonde ponytail who had offered me the toke before, and he and his two comrades adjusted their butts so we reconfigured as a four person thing. The three still said nothing, but all giving me welcoming grins from inside their stupors, their enlarged pupils telling the tale.
I couldn’t resist (nor should I) the obvious next line in the Cheech and Chong routine.
“That must be some pretty good shit!”
They all laughed. I ripped a big piece off one of the long skinny baguettes for myself, and passed the rest of the thing around the circle to my new comrades, who each tore off their own hunk, showing unspoken gratitude in their eyes as each started to hungrily bite and chew.
“My name’s Cooper by the way”, I said, imitating Jen’s line when she introduced herself to me in Rome, though not with that same panache when she said “by the way”.
Swallowing a big mouthful of bread, the guy with the long blond hair finally spoke.
“I’m Burton, and this is my girlfriend Gwendolyn”, he said, patting her jean clad knee as she sat cross legged next to him. She of the auburn riot of curls and the earlier funny line about the groceries, still chewing her big mouthful and putting her hand over her mouth as if to excuse herself and just waving to me.
Burton then held his hand out towards the fourth person in our circle. “This is…”, he paused, looking unsure how to continue, finally saying tentatively, “Kalei…”
“Kaleiokalani actually”, the fourth one said. There was a twinkle in his eye and a lilt in his voice and I noted the crisp enunciation and projection despite his obviously stoned state, like he was theater or otherwise vocally trained.
He continued, “Ah yes, it’s a Hawaiian name my parents gave me meaning…”, then pausing, straightening his back from a slouch and puffing out his big chest and speaking in a low register like the voice of God, “The mighty voice of heaven!”.
Another pause and he dropped the deified affect, changing to an exaggerated ‘golly gee whiz’ look and sing-songy voice, “Mum and dad call me ‘Kaley’, but everyone at school calls me ‘Butch’.” Then yet another pause before wrinkling his nose and shaking his head and saying, “Don’t ask!”
He looked my age, but much bigger than me, with skin as bronze as his two companions were pale white. His long black frizzy hair, way longer than mine, was corralled into two massive pigtails, exploding from either side of his head. It was like he had suddenly come to life, with all his brimming alpha energy, and he was soon directing our foursome’s conversation and planning our day.
He put his hands together in front of his chest like he was praying and said, “So where are we all from white people? How about I start!”
Then he went into a schtick like a game show contestant introducing themselves on camera. His hands gesticulating every which way as he spoke in that sing-songy affect.
“I’m Butch. I hail from Dunedin Otago, a college town, University of Otago. That’s of course New Zealand. And no, you’re right, I’M NOT WHITE.” He flung his hands out and spread his fingers as he said it.
He continued, “My father’s Samoan, and my mother’s Hawaiian. Not an ‘American’ living in Hawaii, a REAL Hawaiian.”
Then he looked at me and theatrically pointed a finger in my direction. “You’re next!”
Okay, so I played along, mimicking his style and cadence.
“I’m Cooper, or Coop. I hail from the amazing town of Ann Arbor Michigan U.S.A.”
“What makes it amazing?”, Butch broke in.
“The people. The parks. The trees.”
“Okay, got it”, he said, waving his hand, “Sorry! Continue!”
“Uhh”, I paused, stuck, not sure how to characterize myself and my parents to parallel Butch, but then going for it.
“And YOU are right”, I pointed back at Butch, who was already grinning at my teasing homage, “I AM WHITE!”, stretching my eyes wide open as I said it.
Mimicking his sing-songy voice I continued, “My dad’s parents are from Poland and my mom’s, on HER mom’s side from Germany, and her dad’s”, I waved my hand in front of my face theatrically, “they go way back in the States, originally from Wales and Scotland.”
“Very nice”, Butch noted, “Now how about our young couple?”
I could tell from Burton’s slight grimace that he was not playing along with Butch’s little game. Gwendolyn tapped her partner’s knee with her hand.
“How about I start”, she said, her voice was quiet, not big and projected like Butch’s. “I’m Gwendolyn. From Windsor Ontario Canada. Not that far from your Ann Arbor actually. I’ve been. Beautiful trees. My parents are”, she paused, “just Canadians, somewhere back in time family from Europe somewhere.”
Then looking tentatively at Burton, “And this is my boyfriend, B…”
“Burton”, he said his name before she could, “Also Windsor. Folks also Canadian. Scottish ancestry. Mackintoshes.”
“OKAY!”, said Butch, still moderating the convresation, still using the sing-songy voice, “And where’ve we all been in Europe?”, waving his hands, “You know, standard question.”
So as we continued to pass around, tear off pieces from, and munch on my communal baguette, we traded our travel stories. It was notable and duly noted that we had been to so many of the “same fucking places” – The Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Pitti Palace and Vasari Corridor in Florence, boats down the Rhine and Mosel, and even Swiss heaven itself, Grindelwald. The only thing I came up with that no one else had done was Oktoberfest in Munich, the others had not been in Europe as long as I had. Also my spending a half hour, alone except for the docent, in the Sistine chapel.
Butch finally announced that the three of them had decided they would venture out to check out a supposedly cheap place to have dinner, recommended by flirtatious Greta below, and they invited me to accompany them. I was really tempted to accept, knowing now from my hostel experiences in Switzerland and Italy that my fellow backpacker cohort was a great source of connection and camaraderie, and probably the best cure, or at least medication, for my ever lurking homesickness. But I was still feeling kind of under the weather, and also very concerned about my budget, with nine days still left before my flight home on December eleventh. So I thanked them profusely for the invite but declined, saying I had not so successfully slept on the overnight train last night and needed a good night’s sleep to recover.
Gwendolyn gave me a concerned look, and then volunteered, “We’re headed out to the Heineken brewery for the tour tomorrow morning. Why don’t you join us!” I heard that faint Canadian accent in the way she said ‘out’.
“Cool, I will”, I said nodding, grateful they wanted to continue to include me.
Still torn, I figured that tonight I’d get a good night’s sleep and by tomorrow, when I anticipated getting my boarding pass for my plane flight and should also be able to nail down the cost of the train to the Hook of Holland and boat to England, I would feel better, and be a little more free with my remaining money. Not having smoked any hash in maybe six weeks, I was excited to do so, though these people seemed pretty hardcore stoners. Best to wait, I confirmed with myself, though if Gwendolyn’s two comrades had been female types, I probably would have said damn the finances and the health concerns and gone along.
So they put on all their rain gear and departed the bunk room. I climbed up and sat on my bunk, the bunk below me and others around me currently unoccupied, though some had backpacks laying claim to their little rectangles of real estate. I did my now daily exercise of checking how much money I had left, how many days I had to go, plus how much of a reserve I still needed going forward. Having bought groceries and paid for the hostel for the night, I counted four $20 travelers checks, plus about 35 Guilders left. I had nine days left until my flight was scheduled to leave London Heathrow for Detroit. The biggest unknown expense at this point, now that my rail pass had expired, was my remaining transportation to take me about until I got on my plane home. The cost of the train and boat to get me back to England, and whatever bus or train fare I would need to get around my last week there.
Also part of that daily exercise was to check how I was doing internally. I really was drained of energy, having spent the previous night sleeping fitfully on the train plus spending the morning with Hugo and his family in Best having my own sort of catharsis. It had been liberating to acknowledge and let go of those feelings, but fatiguing as well. I craved a good night’s sleep, and I thought I best eat something more and then crawl into my sleeping bag and go with that very primal urge, it having been quite the long day. Quite the long two days really since I left Angelica and Helmut in Munich.
As I sat on my upper bunk munching on my last bits of dinner I got a fresh whiff of tobacco and hash. There was a group of my backpacker cohort off in the far corner of the big room, five of them sitting on lower bunks of two bunk beds next to each other, passing a joint, one tuning the strings on his guitar between tokes. He started in singing, the others, male and female voices, joining in for the chorus. It was Cat Stevens’ song ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’…
I would have given you all of my heart
But there’s someone who’s torn it apart
And she’s taken almost all that I’ve got
But if you want, I’ll try to love again
Baby I’ll try to love again but I know
The first cut is the deepest, baby I know
The first cut is the deepest
My psyche still raw from my little breakdown in front of Hugo, Femke and her kids earlier today in Best, that last line of the lyric struck home somewhere deep inside me. The goosebumps shivered up on my forearms and the tears began to flow from my eyes. The first cut IS the deepest. I realized that I too had been deeply cut, wounded, a wound that was obviously not healed, and that that was probably where much of my continuing shyness and timidity was coming from. I continued to struggle, mostly unsuccessfully, to be that precocious, loving, sexual “let’s get naked together” soul that I was born to be, remembering that awful incident in third grade.
I remembered every bit of that incident clearly. I had confided in my male classmate Joey that I had a crush on our classmate Mary. A crush so intense that I wanted to get naked with her, that “I’d pull down my pants for Mary”, as I explained it to him. Fucking Joey, for some reason I’ll never understand, ratted my ardor out to all my classmates, including Mary and our teacher Mrs Rood as we gathered by the classroom door to go out to recess. I was mortified, and Mrs Rood pushed the knife deeper in the wound by calling me up to her desk later and telling me I shouldn’t say things like that. I felt like some sort of pervert…
I still want you by my side
Just to help me dry the tears that I’ve cried
Cause I’m sure gonna give you a try
And if you want, I’ll try to love again
But baby, I’ll try to love again, but I know
The first cut is the deepest, baby I know
The first cut is the deepest
The five of them singing the song with such energy and passion had touched my wound and made me realize that after eleven years it was nowhere close to healed, just scabbed over. The tears continued to flow down my cheeks as I sat on my upper bunk, feeling like that seven-year-old again. There was some solace that, hearing their voices singing as if they knew the pain, it occurred to me that I was certainly not the only one, and as the mantra I had adopted goes, ‘Life goes on’. But those eleven years of so much life gone on, so many romantic opportunities missed or bailed on, I still had told no one of the incident. And I knew I had to get past it somehow, to be the person I was meant to be.
The intense wave of emotion finally played out and I finished eating and put my head down on the little nylon bag stuffed with my down jacket that I used as a pillow. As I closed my eyes my mind raced at the implications of what had just been revealed to me. I promised myself that I had come far enough now that I could share my secret wound with someone, sometime hopefully soon, and finally make my peace with it, and try to put the whole thing behind me. For an hour or so I lay there considering all my friends back home, which one might be the right one to tell, and exactly the words I would use to tell them. It was only extreme fatigue that overcame my mind’s urge to keep spinning on the topic all night.