I wake to the unfamiliar sound of seagulls and the briny smell of the sea. A moment of confusion. It’s then I realise I’m in Amsterdam.
Kicking free of constraining bed sheets, I make my way to the French door and out on to a small balcony. From there, the roof tops of 17th century Amsterdam stretch before me. A mosaic of differing architecture, from the austere to the baroque. In the distance, dominating the skyline is the imposing bulk of the Westerkerk, the early morning sun adding extra impact to its gilded spire and the Imperial Crown of Austria that sits atop it.
Amsterdammer’s are late to rise. Coffee can’t be found on the street before 8.00 am. That’s true at least of the De Wallen district, where my apartment is situated. I’m staying in Monniken Straat, a narrow cobbled thoroughfare lined either side with small bars, cafes and, of course, Amsterdam’s most notorious denizens, the “Girls in the Windows”. De Wallen is still Amsterdam’s largest red-light precinct but its charming medieval architecture is now attracting a new class of citizen. The bourgeoisie and the trend-setters are slowly reclaiming the charming old houses and turning them into smart apartments or restoring them to their former glory as private dwellings.
Eager to be on the street, I quickly dress and clamour down a long narrow flight of stairs. So steep are its treads, it’s more a ladder than a staircase. The steps lead to the front door which in turn opens directly onto the street. As I step out into the crisp air, a working girl taps against the glass door of her cabin – a signal that she is open for business. I’ve seen her before. She is pretty, with long blonde hair, the bikini clad frame seemingly too frail to support her overlarge breasts. I suspect their pneumatic size owes more to cosmetic enhancement than Mother Nature. But the most arresting thing about her is the life sized tattoo of a python winding sinuously around her slender body, its frightening head with bared fangs coming to rest on her breast; the tattoo’s lurid colouring lending the serpent a startlingly reality.
I wave a greeting to the young woman and continue down the street towards the Nieumarkt. Here, the flower sellers are out in full force, their buckets overflowing with tulips and daffodils. Next to them are the poffertje makers. The sweet smell of pancake batter, burnt sugar and cinnamon fills the air. The coffee shop and cafes are beginning to set up for the morning trade.
My destination: a small cafe in Bethlemstraat where the coffee is sublime and the croissants superb. Perhaps the real reason I like this cosy establishment so much is for the company I find there. No tourists populate its tables; just old men in sailors caps and the occasional lady of the night taking coffee before she heads home to sleep
I push open the cafe door and the welcoming fug of coffee aroma and warm air envelopes me. “The usual?” smiles Remi, her pretty face flushed with exertions of manning the espresso machine. “Yes please”. I feel chuffed with the sense of belonging. There are a couple of regulars already seated taking coffee and perusing newspapers. In the far corner tucked under the steep stairs that lead to a mezzanine floor sits Zelda, neat as pin in her dove grey school uniform. She waves; a shy smile plays across her pretty features.
I find Zelda’s demeanour an intriguing mix of the reserved and the exuberant. Her appearance is a study of restraint, from tightly braided hair to the snowy white ankle socks and gleaming black school shoes. The pale oval face is dominated by intelligent navy blue eyes, so large they save it from conventional prettiness and propel it towards the truly extraordinary.
Zelda and I enjoy a tenuous acquaintance. We have over a period of a few days shared a potted biography of each other’s lives. Zelda is six years old, she likes a vast number of things; among them, dancing, colouring-in books, the colour fuchsia and, of course, dogs. I tell her about Beau in Australia. ”Do you have a picture of him?” she asks, excitedly. I nod and fish from my bag the ubiquitous iPhone.
One morning while enjoying coffee, she tells me Remi is her aunt and that she is also the proprietor of the little cafe in which we are seated. When I tentatively ask about her parents, a shadow extinguishes the bright candour of her eye. I sense an evasiveness and unease in her manner. Mentally, I admonish myself for boorish insensitivity and before I can steer the conversation to a less fraught subject, Zelda confides, ”I have just Momma and Tante Remi. I live with Tante Remi because Momma needs to work”. An awkward silence prevails. Obviously the subject is distressful for Zelda and it’s left to me to manoeuvre the conversation back to safe waters.
I take my usual table by the window. It affords ample opportunity for the enjoyable pastime of people watching. On the street it grows busy. The occasional automobile slowly negotiates the ancient cobbled street, it’s progress hampered by pedestrians, people on bikes and the extreme narrowness of the thoroughfare. The coffee houses that sell marihuana are now open and I know the sweet vaguely sick making miasma of gunga will mix with the salty smell of the canals, making a pungent combination that is peculiarly evocative of Amsterdam.
A young woman catches my eye. She wears a cropped fitted black leather jacket and skinny black jeans, the ends of which disappear into high heeled boots. Huge sunglasses obscure her face as does the brim of the trilby hat perched low on her forehead. In her hands, she carries a large box tied with bright fuchsia pink ribbons. She is coming toward the cafe.
With her entrance, the cafe falls momentarily silent. The woman removes her sunglasses. Dark smudges under eyes suggest tiredness. “Hallo Remi”, her voice slightly hoarse. Remi stays behind the counter, ”Hallo Peta.” I sense a deliberate neutrality, almost a wariness from Remi. The conversation is in Dutch but during the discourse, I hear Zelda’s name mentioned and it occurs to me this young woman maybe Zelda’s mother.
My speculation is proven correct when I hear the woman say to the now standing Zelda “Gelukkige verdaarjag Shat”(Happy birthday Darling). She places the box on the counter top. Zelda looks to her Aunt for guidance but Remi’s attention is deliberately engaged working the espresso machine.
”Hallo momma,” says Zelda, moving into her mother’s embrace. Peta holds her daughter close, she speaks softly, a sibilant whisper, no doubt protestations of love, apologies for promises dishonoured and of new promises yet to be honoured and of assurances that circumstances will change for the better. All the while Zelda says nothing. I can see she has heard it all before and these old incantations have lost their power to move her.
Peta delves into her jean pocket and pulls free a 50 dollar note, she pushes it on to the resisting Zelda. With a final ferocious hug and a hasty goodbye she takes her leave. At the door our eyes meet, there is a flash of sudden recognition. I know her, but from where? And as I watch her walk away, she pauses to straighten the trilby and adjust her sunglasses, the movement causing her jacket to flare open and there exposed in lurid colour the distinctive tattoo of a python’s head. Zelda’s mother is the ”Girl in the Window”.
I look back to find Zelda. She has disappeared. The gaily beribboned package on the counter remains unopened, next to it I notice the 50 dollar note protruding from the charity box . The charity’s recipients ? “ Children in Need”
Happy birthday Zelda!
- Holiday in Amsterdam (raymondegast.wordpress.com)
- I Amsterdam (hopelesswanderer1.wordpress.com)
- Amsterdam, Netherlands- June 2013 (passportsandcoffee.com)
- Prostitution in the Netherlands: ‘Paying for sex? It’s strictly business’ (theguardian.com)