The Magic of an Ancient City

Excerpt from the forthcoming Java Gold Series Book Three

He parked near the Central Station in the falling dusk, just when the lights came on. The falling darkness slowly transformed the old part of Amsterdam into a magical maze of narrow streets; an enchanted place where floodlighted church towers and illuminated windows and the forms of centuries-old buildings were softly reflected by the dark water of tree-lined canals. All sounds were hushed in this timeless city center, and they walked amid the low hum of human voices and the far-off buzz of traffic in the main streets.

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When they passed over one of the hump-backed bridges, the chimes in a nearby church tower played a light, enchanting air before its solemn bell struck the hour.
On the corner of a narrow street and a small square at the foot of a tall 17th century church, was a typical Amsterdam bar; old and brown and with sand on the floor; bypassed by the tourists and still frequented by the locals. The aged barman and a couple of customers greeted them friendly as they sat down at a window table that gave them a good view of the darkening square. He ordered a beer for himself and a white wine for her and when the drinks came, they raised their glasses and said “Proost”. And while taking a sip, he looked at his companion.

It might have been a trick of the dying daylight and the muted lights in the bar that somehow revealed the extraordinary beauty of her face and her body to him. Suddenly he felt tongue-tied. All subjects that came to his mind seemed too trivial and unimportant to talk about and an awkward silence fell.
Sensing his embarrassment, she gave him a quick glance and as she put a small, warm hand on his arm she whispered, “I did some modelling once, so I know I look good but remember: I’ve got my nasty sides too; after all, I am just a human being.”
He looked into her luminous brown eyes and he saw understanding and warmth but he still was unable to speak freely.
“How did you know this bar”, she asked, trying to find a subject he could talk about and she listened patiently when he told her about his student days at the nearby university and his love for the old city center.
“I’m pretty sure my grandfather has been standing in this bar half a century ago, having a beer after work”, he said. “Amsterdam was so much smaller in those days; he used to walk home from the docks to his apartment, never bothering with a bicycle.”
“You loved him, didn’t you?”
“Yeah; he was more of a father to me than my step-dad ever was”, he said and fell silent again, afraid of talking too much about himself and not knowing how to make small talk with her.

***

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The Weekend

Part five of “The Golden Years”

Weekends were the high-spot of the week for me.
On Saturday morning, I would cross the street to my grandmother’s apartment. Together we would walk up to the docks and sit in the echoing office hall, together with some other women and children. After a bit of a wait, my granddad would came through the door, in the midst of a noisy crowd of dockyard mates. They would line up in front of the cashiers window to get their wages paid out one by one.

My grandmother would go up to the window when it was my granddads turn and she would watch critically as the bills and coins were counted out. She would slowly recount the little bundle of money and put it in her bag. Then, she would resolutely hook her arm through his and the three of us would walk out, in the wake of the other married women and their husbands and children.
We would walk all the way back into town, past bars that seemed to be very busy and past nice looking ladies that stood in doorways and smiled at me. I loved that part of town; its narrow streets and ancient houses, little shops that sold everything you could think of. But on Saturday afternoon, grandma never went into those. We kept on walking until we reached the market and there she had her preferred butcher and stalls for fish and poultry and vegetables.

Streetmarket_2_Lindengracht
“Always watch their hands”, she told me as we waited for oranges to be packed in a paper bag. “And always point out what you want; otherwise they’ll give you the crap they keep at the back.”
When the shopping was done, she would march us home, to a glorious dinner of fresh white bread and smoked fish. And I would get my weekly treat: a bottle of fizzy fruit juice.

After dinner, Granddad and I would go for a walk and we always stopped at a little bar close to the marshalling yards. I would get lemonade and granddad always had a beer. I liked the place; it was dark and brown, with sand on the floor. The tables were a bit sticky from spilled drinks and it had that peculiar smell of and old, old bar.
“Make sure you will have time for yourself when you grow up. You work all week but you need one afternoon for yourself”, my granddad would say while he visibly relaxed in one of the hard chairs near a window that looked out over the Navy yard.

Cafe_1
On Sunday morning granddad and I would get up early. Sometimes it was barely light when he fetched his fishing rods. The two of us would cycle to the edge of the big canal and find nice spot and cast out, whispering to each other because the world was still quiet. There were no barges coming down from the docks or steamers going up to the locks. Even the factories were silent and I could hear the birds and the gentle slap of the waves against the pilings and the cry of a lonely seagull floating effortlessly high above us. Every now and then one of us would catch something but we always threw them back; the war was over said my granddad and there was better food now.
The rest of the Sunday would pass quietly; Granddad would sit in his easy chair, with a crossword puzzle and a small glass of genever. Grandma would sit with her knitting on the other side of the single window that illuminated the living room, looking occasionally out into the narrow street lined with somber houses and commenting on what see saw.
Supper came all too soon and afterwards I always tried to postpone the inevitable – going back to my ‘own’ home, right across the street. In the end, I had to, crossing the street while I already looked forward to next weekend…

— To Be Continued —

Friday

Part Four of ‘The Golden Years’

There was something special about Friday.

Coal_Merchant
People lining up at an Amsterdam coal-merchant in the early 1950’s

Somehow people seemed to be brisker, more energetic; as if the idea of the coming weekend brightened them up. The coal-seller who plied his trade in the basement under our apartment would be whistling merrily while he was filling paper bags with coal and firewood.
Boys_StreetfootballThe teachers  would be smiling at each other and tolerate a little more than usual. If somebody had brought a ball along we would all troop onto a postage-stamp sized piece of grass during the break and play soccer. Well, we called it soccer but I doubt if anyone would have recognized it as such. The only definite resemblance with the original game were the ‘goals’, marked by heaps of sweaters and jackets. Of course there was no referee and there was no limit to the team size,  I even doubt if there were teams at all. The game was just a mad melee of boys scrambling after a ball, in summer in a gradually thickening cloud of dust and in winter sliding on the mud. One day, when there were more ‘players’ than usual, there was a kind of mass pile-up and I found myself sitting at the edge of the ‘field’, looking at the crowd that was frantically kicking and scrambling for a ball that was lodged between my legs…

Friday was the day for the ‘getting cleaned up’ ritual. After a whole week of dabbing my face in the morning with ice-cold water from the kitchen tap, it was time to get rinsed more properly. A couple of big pans full of water were put on the gas ring and while they heated up, the wash-tub was brought in. It was put on the floor in front of the pot-bellied stove, the sole means of heating our small apartment. The boiling water was poured into the tub and cold water added until the temperature was right.

Woning_3Then I stepped in, under the critical eye of my mother who admonished me not to splash too much. Once I was sitting down, she would take a bar of “Lux” soap, dip it in the water and lather me. I loved the smell of that soap, so totally different from the course soap we had in the kitchen. But it apparently was a luxury, because my mother always put it away immediately. The bath lasted maybe ten minutes, (fifteen if I had to wash my hair too) and then I had to get out of the tub and dry myself  in front of that trusty stove.

Friday was also the last full working day of the week. Tomorrow would be payday and the cupboard in our house would be nearly bare. My mother would always be struggling for money at the end of the week. She would react very irritatedly if I had the temerity to ask if there was something else for supper, apart from a sandwich covered with a questionable kind of powdered Swiss cheese that came from a yellow and blue cardboard can and had the locker-room odor of old sweaty socks. Not daring to protest any further, I ate the sandwich – coated with margarine of course. I remember the harsh, rather sour taste of that powdered cheese all too well. It did nothing to appease my hunger; on the contrary, it set my stomach rumbling in anticipation of more solid food. But that was not in the cards; the best I could expect was a cup of warm milk in which some kind of cocoa had been mixed. It tasted rather nice and it was one of the things that came out of those mysterious packages from Canada.

By half past eight it was time for bed and I would try to ignore my still rumbling stomach and think of tomorrow. Because tomorrow the weekend would start…

— To Be Continued —

Winter – in Amsterdam in the 1950’s

Leidseplein_SnowAfter days of high winds and heavy rain the thermometer finally started dropping. The rain did not cease, it slowly turned into sleet, nasty flurries of ice cold crystals that clung for a moment to your face, then melted and ran down your clothes, soaking you to the skin if you had to be out for any amount of time.
Clouds pregnant with snow came down until the city was blanketed with a grey twilight that seemed to take away all color, replacing it by white and black and a few half-tones. Finally the real snow came, first as incidental flocks between the rain and the sleet but gradually replacing them until the air was filled with swirling, dancing white flocks that seemed to come down in slanted lines out of the south-west.
People were shuffling on the sidewalks, trying to get home as soon as they could. The headlights of motorcars were dimmed by the layer of snow that built up on them, their windscreen wipers barely able to cope. Streetcars packed with harried passengers trundled on, their windows coated over with  condensation.
And the cyclists had to cope, covered with a layer of snow and half blinded by the flakes that incessantly hit their faces, their eyes…

 

The Attic

Part Three of “The Golden Years”

Mickey stumbled up the four pairs of stairs and sat down panting against one of the coal bins that lined the sides of what we called ‘the attic’. It was not really a room, merely a six by eight foot space that had a window to allow access to the hoisting beam. All Amsterdam buildings had one, their stairs far too narrow to manipulate furniture up or down. But seen from afar, it seemed that the poorer quarters of the city had an endless mass of ready-made gallows waiting for the eruption of a bloody revolution.

GoudsbloemstraatI unearthed my hidden treasures from behind my parent’s coal-bin; four cardboard model sailing ships that I had  patiently glued together and an old cigar-box filled with dummy men made out of cotton pipe cleaners and wrapped with various colors of knitting wool. I had given the ‘Spaniards’ red and yellow, the ‘French’ blue and red and the ‘British’ just plain blue. The ‘Dutch’ were all black as they were the privateers, the raiders that pried on all the other sailing vessels. The advantage was that you could bend and form those little figures into all shapes that fitted the cardboard ‘ships’; standing at the wheel, brandishing swords at the rail or clinging to the spars and the masts. 

With a small piece of chalk stolen from school, we outlined the ‘coasts’ and the ‘island’ on the bare floor boards and used an old shoebox as the island’s ‘fortress’ from which the marauding privateers would set sail. The toss of a coin decided who would be ‘Dutch’, the other party could be any nationality as long as it was Spanish, French or British. The loser had to sail first, the ‘Dutch’ being the raiders.

Boys_Playing_1We played for hours in that place, never winning or losing and re-adjusting the battle to what we liked, with the rain pattering on the roof and the light gradually growing dimmer and dimmer. We were in a fairly frantic battle around the ‘island’ when my mother’s head suddenly popped up from the stairwell.
“Having fun?” she asked and we both dropped the pieces of coal we had used as gun shells.
“Yes mom”, I answered.
“Well, it’s getting dark; Mickey has to go home and we’ll eat as soon as dad is in.”
And with those words she disappeared down the stairs.
The two of us were sitting dumbfounded. The spirit of battle was all gone and it was really getting too dark to see clearly. With a sigh, I started to collect the discarded puppets and put them back in the old cigar box.

Woning_2A smell that made my mouth water hit me when I entered our apartment. I loved the way mom cooked sauerkraut, mixed with briefly fried spare-ribs and mashed potatoes. My stomach rumbled; I had eaten nothing since those rolls at the market. But there was nothing to snack on in the house so I had to wait until my stepdad came in.

“Did you do your homework?” she asked.
“Not yet” I replied; my teacher had insisted on giving me additional exercises to be done at home.
“Then go and do it before your dad comes home!”
I sat down under the single large lamp suspended on a chain over the dinner table that occupied most of the floorspace of our living room; the stove, a cupboard and an easy chair took up the rest. For a while I worked on my chores. Then the noise of the street door and heavy footsteps coming up the stairs announced the arrival of my stepdad. The door opened and he stepped in, dripping wet from his bike ride. I immediately sensed he was in a bad mood and grabbed my school things and scurried away from the table.
“What’s he doing?” he asked gruffly as he hung his soaked overcoat on a peg outside and closed the door it with a bang.
“He’s got some extra work for school; there’ll be a test to see what kind of school he can go to later”, answered my mother.
“All bloody nonsense”, he growled as he sat down in the easy chair. “He has to learn how to read and write and do some sums. Then he can go and work for a living just like I do.”
“But maybe he–”
“Shut up! Everybody in our family has worked with his hands! He’ll do the same!”
“But he has to–”
“I know; he has to go somewhere else some time. So let them send him to a trade school; he won’t be a bricklayer but maybe he can be a plumber. They earn good money.”
“But maybe he–”
“I don’t want him to go to one of those fancy high schools; all they teach is capitalist nonsense.”

After supper I finished off my homework and by eight I went to bed. After putting the hot water bottle between the sheets my mother kissed me and tucked me in. She switched off the single lightbulb and closed the door and I pressed my feet against the radiating heat of the stone bottle in that thick old sock. As I snuggled down, I thought about my stepdad’s words. Becoming a plumber? I’d seen one at work one day, opening up a sewer to unblock it and repair some pipes and the sight and the smell had been enough. But what else would there be for a boy like me? Carpenter? I loved the smell of wood and the way you could work it. Or maybe I could be an electrician? Electricity was a mystery in our house. The few times my stepdad had tried to fix something had all ended in disaster; fuses blown and hands scorched by sudden angry blue sparks. I thought a little bit about it and decided better not – he would be angry that I knew things he didn’t.  

As I slowly drifted into sleep I decided to wait for the weekend and ask my granddad. Surely he could help me; granddad always knew things and gave straight answers that I could understand. …

***

— To Be Continued — 

Winter in the old town

Winter_1A wonderful silence has descended over the old town.
All sounds are muted; the incessant rushing hum of wheels on tarmac from the main streets has vanished, replaced by an awesome, reverent silence, only broken by the crunching of my footsteps on the gradually thickening layer of pure white snow. The old town is transformed into a picture postcard image in which mere humans have no place. Only the timeless, ageless shapes of the buildings, the bridges, the streets remain, converted into a stark, severe beauty that no human hand can ever touch.
Slowly, I make my way home through a lovely town on a dark winter’s night, its pristine layer of snow only disturbed by my footsteps, my breath converted into  little clouds of  freezing air, my soul communing with the spirits of winter.

 

The School

Part 2 of “The Golden Years’

Having watched Mom disappear around the corner I turned around with a sigh and made my way to school. It was only two blocks down the street and as I walked past the derelict building, I fished the sticky pieces of bread out of my trouser pockets and threw them into the gaping maw of what once had been its basement.

“Hey Robby”, a familiar voice cried and I stopped in my tracks.
It was Mickey, my best friend and I waited as he came hobbling up to me. Some nasty childhood disease had left him with a crippled right leg. He was not exactly lame but his leg didn’t work too well either so I always stayed close to him. Together we had beaten up all jerks stupid enough to joke about his leg. By now there were no more sneers, I thought grimly.
“Dumping your bread again?” he said with a knowing look in his eyes and I just grunted.
“Don’t! Keep it for the afternoon; let’s throw it to the gulls!”
“Too late”, I grinned as I showed my empty pockets.

IJ_Pont_3One of our nastier little games was to board the ferry behind the Central Station. We would go to the upper deck and toss pieces of bread to the gulls. After two or three pieces, a whole screaming flock would be hovering over the slowly moving vessel, its deck packed with cyclists and pedestrians and the odd car.
We would throw more pieces of bread to the gulls and each time they swooped down to catch them, they would squirt shit on everyone below them.

Our school was one of those stately, 19th century buildings that had been built all over town after the education laws had been passed. Its three gables and its austere lines gave the building a stern and almost forbidding aura, as if the architect had wanted to emphasize that education was a serious business. It had a number of high-ceilinged classrooms, all with three high windows divided into a multitude of rectangular panes. Even in winter they gave us plenty of daylight, but cold air came rolling down from them like an invisible waterfall that made us shiver as it penetrated our thin clothes. In the opposite corner stood a large, coal burning stove and when fired up, it radiated enough heat to slowly cook the unfortunate souls sitting next to it.
The classroom had twelve wooden desks, each one seating two pupils. We were facing the teacher’s table, raised on a small platform in front of a large blackboard. A large map of Holland and a few pictures of the Alps decorated the white-washed walls and that was all there was to see in this most basic of classrooms.

School_2We thronged through the echoing hall with its white-washed stairwells and hung our coats on a row of pegs just outside the classroom door. We noisily hurried to our desks, eleven boys and eight girls, and moments after the concierge rang the newly installed electric bell, our teacher came in. He was a rather short, thickset man in a rumpled brown suit who always wore a dark brown fedora that seemed to be glued to his head. He slammed the table with a ruler and the lessons began.

It was an easy morning; we started off with some writing, then some geography and before we knew it the bell rang for the mid-morning break. We all rushed out into the schoolyard, a place paved with concrete tiles and hemmed in between the school building and the fence of the marshalling yard. Actually it was not a fence at all but a long line of discarded railway sleepers set upright and pointed at the top. It looked like a fortification and I guess a tank would hardly have made a dent in it.
But we could run around in that yard and do all the kind of silly things that young boys do; climb the fence (until the teacher saw it), play tag or just buzz around and pinch the girls to make them squeal.

School_1All too soon the bell summoned us inside again, this time for arithmetic, followed by history. The teacher was good at that. I loved the way he described those historical characters; he made them come alive, doing incredible things against the Spaniards, the French, the Germans…
The bell brought us all back from fighting the Spaniards during the siege of Haarlem in the late 16th century to the here and now. Class had ended and we stampeded out of the classroom, free for the rest of the day.

“Got any lunch?” Mickey asked.
“Nope; fed it to the rats”, I said as we walked down the narrow street. I could go to a neighbor for lunch but all I would get were some stale slices of white bread, plastered with margarine.
“Let’s go to the market and get something”, I suggested.

A quarter of an hour later the two of us were munching freshly baked rolls from a corner bakery  while sitting in an unused market-stall, sheltered from the slowly falling drizzle by its tarpaulin roof.
“How did you get that money?” Mickey asked; I had paid 25 cents for our lunch.
“Every week I go around and collect old newspapers”, I told him. “There’s a guy around the corner there who pays 5 cents a kilo.”
“Ahh”, said Mickey and he took another bite.
Streetmarket 1 Ten Catestraat
We looked around when we had finished the rolls but the market was not an inviting sight. Normally the market was a place of bright colors and smells of fruit and fried fish and the air filled with the cries of hawkers, selling their wares. Now, the steady drizzle made everything look grey and drab and even the hissing pressure lamps in the fishmonger’s stalls did not radiate their normal golden hue. Somehow, they gave off a harsh, metallic light that mingled with the mottled daylight and turned the silver fishes  dull grey and unappetizing. People were hurrying by, huddled under umbrellas or stooped forward with shawls around their heads, hardly glancing at two small boys sitting in that empty stall.
“Any ideas?” asked Mickey and I shook my head. Our normal domains were the market, the docks or the marshalling yard; there was always something fun to be found there. But the steady drizzle spoilt it all and mom’s warning about not getting dirty still rankled. Suddenly an idea popped up in my head.
“Let’s go and play Privateers in the attic!”
“Yeah”, shouted Mickey as he jumped down, gammy leg and all. “Let’s go!”

***

— To be continued —