Rihan Najib is a fourth year student of Humanities, and one of the institute’s most prodigious writers. Her story here is about some glimpses of Amsterdam experienced during a student exchange program she took part in during the odd semester of 2011.
At that point, it seemed I was inspecting the small, colorful wooden clogs so emblematic of the city. I turn them over in my hand and examine them closely; they looked like it might hurt to wear them, even the bigger sizes. I begin to tell my friend who was standing next to me what I thought of the Dutch clogs since she wanted to buy a few of them for people back home. But I lose the thread of my argument after a few words and I couldn’t be bothered to talk anymore, so I just point with foreboding at the clogs. I must have stood like that for a few whole minutes. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turn around, still pointing at the clogs, I see my friend looking at me enquiringly. Wait, wasn’t she right next to me just now? The universe is contracting around my head.
“Rihan…er…what are you doing?”
Maintain dignity for now. Don’t answer her. Comment on the clogs.
So I pointed again and asked with immense smugness, “Who the hell would ever wear these things?”
She looked at me for what seemed to be a very long time before she responded, “No one. Those are keychains.”
It was only mid-November in Amsterdam, but the Christmas lights were already up. They snaked around posts, around electric lines, vaulting across the canals, and flashed at you from the outlines of the shops around the square. They took the shape of snowflakes, of evergreen wreaths and just about every imaginable Christmas motif; they hung suspended from the electric lines and watched you weave your way through the crowded sidewalks. One could get tired of the lurid brightness rather quickly, but without them, the night would be immeasurably opaque, colder and longer than it really was.
You never saw as many people as you did in the evening. People would spill out from the pavements, from the bars, from the trams and the people were scarcely alone. They were there with bottles, with other people and some with bachelorette party troupes wearing ludicrous outfits, a few were with flowers and some with only cigarettes and nothing else, so bizarrely beautiful in their inalienable cloud of smoke. At first we wouldn’t find a table, and then later didn’t find enough chairs, and through the noise and smoke from the other tables that wafted over to ours, we couldn’t find our conversation too. And then slowly, the talk picked up pace; wine, beers, rounds of shots and intermittent js slid over the surface of budding acquaintances, welding us to a lengthening evening and that impression of possessing time like a certain God possessed thunder.
Though the city would lead us to believe otherwise, we didn’t have all the hours, we didn’t own the night, or what it contained, or the neon-lit roads where vomit lined the sidewalks. We could only drag our feet on the cobblestones, lay bets about how cold the water in the canals would be, fret about a snapped heel, and sometimes watch each other’s breath cloud the air as we wondered aloud where we could get a coffee at that hour. Unravel, said a city. And we obliged. So for those evenings in Amsterdam as I stepped out wrapping a scarf around my neck, feeling restlessness soar, I knew that there was nothing that deserved censure, nothing worth the weight of sour blame.
One night in particular, it was eleven degrees Celsius; warm enough for only one jacket, but also cold enough to not go without any. The city lights blurred and blotted along my field of vision; if I walked too fast, the lights became ribbons that swam like schools of fish through the sky. I also suspected my lower jaw was hanging loose from my skull. I wanted to stop and inspect if I still had all of my face. But I was being led through the square, hurried along by an increasingly tightening grip on my arm. There was no time to repair twists in sobriety.
The grip on my arm informed me that we had somehow lost the group of people we were with; now we were in a godawful part of town at quarter past three, with no place open and no means of public transport to get us back to where we were staying for at least the next two hours. I slowed my step, pulling the grip on my arm towards me. I ask the Grip if it’s okay to take a taxi and quickly go home before we make any lobotomizing decisions. The Grip stood still, looking at the deserted square.
The night had to be ended somehow; it had gone on long enough. “Do you have enough for a taxi?” she asked. I check my purse even though I distinctly remembered the Heineken which my last few euros had bought. “Oh well, let’s walk there” the Grip concluded. We start to walk along the main road silently, conscious of how empty the streets were and just how badly our feet were aching. We walked till we reached a fork in the road, and then we just stared at the two divergent roads with anguish.
“What now, then?” the Grip asked. And then both of us saw it, the distinctive outlines of a taxi. We bolted for it, flailed our arms and shouted for it to stop. Even as we ran towards it, we could hear the unmistakable strains of remixed bhangra from the open window of the taxi. I peered into the dark interiors of the car and could vaguely make out a south Asian face. I open my mouth to ask directions but I can’t seem to remember where I should be going.
The Grip pushes me aside and exclaims, “Prinzengracht? Wo ist….where…speak English?…er…Sprechen Sie English?”
The taxi driver leans across and asks cheerfully, “Arrey, aap log ko kahaan jaana hai?”
At that moment, I swear I saw God. The taxi driver hailed from Gujarat and had been working in the Netherlands for around fourteen years. He conversed mostly with the Grip, and I was grateful to be able to smile vacantly to myself as I looked through the window at the flickering lights of the city. He didn’t even charge us, the dear man. He talked about his family, how difficult a language Dutch was, the competition he faced from other taxi drivers and how we should be more careful. As he drove away after dropping us off, I felt a mounting sense of unrecoverable debt.
Dawn broke late the next day. From the tiny window of the attic in which I lodged, I saw the city glimmering in the smoky, orange light. The canals and the dew on the bicycles sparkled; I watched the colours till I stopped seeing them. Then I left
a note next to the Grip’s pillow and left the room.
It is never just about the city. It’s about what happened to you when you were there. One travels to be marred, to have multiple lives etched into you, and to confront one’s personal shipwreck. One travels for stories. These days more than ever, I think about Amsterdam endlessly; I miss the canals, the graffiti, the rows and rows of bicycles and all the dyes in the Amsterdam sky; I miss the guttural language, the comically narrow houses that line the streets, and those fine few days of financial and moral bankruptcy.
Amsterdam is indeed everything you hear about, and then again, a city that needs to be learned on one’s own. A city that lingers. But the real plague is not your memories of Amsterdam, but that list of all the things you said you’d do tomorrow and never did.