What will we do there? We’ll get high. What will we touch there? We’ll touch the sky. But why the tears there? I’ll tell you why.
Small Faces, Itchycoo Park
‘Tom,’ she said. ‘Tom. Tom. Hey, Tom.’
‘Sorry?’ he asked.
‘Tom. Tom. Am I talking funny, Tom?’
‘Are you what?’ he asked.
‘Am I talking funny?’
‘Are you talking funny?’
‘Uh huh,’ Jane said. ‘Am I talking funny?’
Tom needed a wee, quite badly, but the trek to the toilet and back seemed more than he could manage just now. They were comfortably settled on a snug sofa covered with a mustard-coloured Moroccan blanket on the first floor of the coffeeshop while, unfortunately, the toilets were on the ground floor. They had not thought about that when they decided to sit up there to smoke. It was easy-peasy walking up that spiral staircase before they smoked, but now it seemed impossible to walk back down. How could he possibly do that? How could anyone do that, walk both down and around? And then, having done that, walk back up again, up and around, but in a different direction, anticlockwise this time, not clockwise? No, it could not be done. It was too much to do. Besides, everyone smoking on the ground floor would be looking at him, watching as Tom tried but no doubt failed to walk up and down those corkscrew stairs like a normal person.
They had come to Amsterdam for a wedding. When he was a lecturer at the University of Cologne some time ago, Tom had met an English poet who seemed to be almost always engaged but never married. The poet had even announced some of those engagements in the notes about the author in his volumes of verse. This was the first time an engagement had made it all the way to a wedding, so Tom was keen to meet the Dutch woman who obviously did not know the meaning of cold feet. But when Tom and Jane arrived at their hotel, there was a message from the poet telling them the wedding was off, that the Dutch woman, like all those women before her, did indeed know what cold feet meant.
‘Should we go see him?’ Jane asked. ‘Just to see if he’s okay?’
‘No,’ Tom said. ‘He’ll be okay. He’ll curl up in a corner for a couple of days, as he always does, then he’ll be fine. Let’s be tourists. Let’s do those things tourists do.’
‘Coffeeshop?’ Jane suggested.
‘Coffeeshop,’ Tom said.
Like the menus at some Indian restaurants, the menu at the coffeeshop was mind-boggling. They decided to order a half dozen pre-rolled joints of something called Amnesia Lemon. Amnesia appealed to Tom, for some reason, while Jane liked the sound of Lemon. After a toke or two, they both felt the onset of Amnesia, but they were having trouble tasting the Lemon, agreeing this stuff was definitely stronger than anything either of them had ever smoked before.
They had also ordered a couple of mango lassis to stop their throats burning, as well as some space cakes to take back to the hotel. Jane took a small sip of her lassi and began to giggle softly.
‘Tom,’ Jane said. ‘Tom. Hey, Tom.’
‘What?’ Tom asked.
‘Tom,’ she said, giggling a little louder. ‘Am I talking funny?’
But this time Jane did not ask that question in her own voice, but in her duck voice. Jane was a primary school teacher who had discovered, quite early in her career, that children would say things to a hand puppet they would never say to a teacher, that they would ask a hand puppet questions they would never ask an adult, even though their teacher was obviously sitting there with her hand up the puppet’s bottom. Jane was quite a talented mimic, switching easily from her Cheshire accent to a Geordie accent or a Scouse accent or a Welsh accent, though her Indian accent was always a bit dodgy. But Jane was even better with animals, including her impersonation of a duck. She eventually bought a whole basket of hand puppets, letting the children choose which animal they wanted to talk to that day.
‘Tom,’ Jane said, this time in her elephant voice. ‘Am I talking funny?’
Unable to stop herself, Jane began to repeat that question in the voices of most of the hand puppets in her basket, including her monkey voice, her moose voice, her pig voice and her sheep voice. She was also unable to stop herself giggling.
‘Yes,’ Tom said, giggling himself now, not helping his need for a wee. ‘You’re talking funny, Jane. That reminds me of a story.’
‘Oh no,’ Jane said. ‘Not a story, Tom.’
Part of his job at the University of Cologne had been to offer workshops to help students pass the translation exam, working together to translate texts from German into English. Tom had found that the short stories of Kleist, Kafka and Hesse worked particularly well for these workshops, with all three writers writing in a rather flat, almost bored style of German. But the seemingly simple language of these texts turned out to be not so simple to translate after all, with Tom’s students repeatedly pointing out to him that, in German, the stories were almost always funny, slightly absurd. They told him when Kafka read his stories out loud to his friends, for example, he would wet himself, laughing so hard he had to pause for a few minutes before he could continue. If they were to give the flat voice of these stories a face, Tom’s students said it would probably be Buster Keaton. Or perhaps Charlie Chaplin, whom Kafka adored.
One of the texts by Hermann Hesse that Tom often used in these workshops was a story about an ordinary bloke named Ziegler who decides one Sunday to spend the morning at the historical museum and to spend the afternoon at the zoo, with a long lunch in between at his favourite restaurant. Thinking himself a man of science, he finds the room at the museum dedicated to pre-scientific practices, such as alchemy, silly but sort of seductive. Alone in the room, Ziegler picks up a pill from one of the displays to take a closer look at it. Someone suddenly enters the room, so he stuffs the pill into his pocket.
At the restaurant, he takes the pill from his pocket, sniffs it (it smells okay), licks it (it tastes okay), so he pops the pill into his mouth and washes it down with a swig of his beer. Then Ziegler walks to the zoo, stopping first at the monkey house, where he thinks he hears the monkeys talking about him, mocking him and insulting him. More than a little spooked, he realises the pill he swallowed has given him the power to understand what the monkeys and the other animals are saying, which is, basically, that Ziegler and all the other visitors to the zoo are no better than vermin, malodorous morons who should not be allowed to run around loose like that.
‘So the pill makes him paranoid?’ Jane asked.
‘Perhaps,’ Tom said. ‘Either that or the opposite of paranoid, seeing himself as others really see him. Or seeing us for what we really are.’
‘So how does this story end?’
‘Well, he has a bit of a breakdown,’ Tom said. ‘He starts to strip himself naked, so the guards grab him and haul him off to the bughouse.’
‘Nice. Another lovely story, Tom.’
‘Talking of talking funny, have you ever listened to the Dutch speak Dutch?’ Tom asked. ‘If you think you’re talking funny, just listen to them.’
Tom had always thought Dutch by far the funniest of the European languages. Neither French nor German made him laugh. Neither Italian nor Spanish made him laugh, though he did think Portuguese sounded sort of funny, like Spanish spoken by Martians. But Dutch always made him laugh. It not only sounded funny, it did not sound like a proper language at all, like the Dutch were just making those words up, like Charlie Chaplin does when he sings that nonsense song towards the end of Modern Times, one of Tom’s favourite films.
Tom rooted around in his shoulder bag, pulled out a Dutch phrasebook and began to flip through it.
‘What are you looking for, Tom?’ Jane asked.
‘I wonder how you say Am I talking funny? in a funny language like Dutch.’
According to the phrasebook, the Dutch word for funny was grappig, pronounced KHRA-pikh. The phrasebook warned that the KH sound was all but impossible for non-native speakers to say, describing it as more ‘guttural’ than comparable English consonants, sort of like the CH sound in the Scottish word loch but with much more spit.
‘Grappig,’ Tom said, showing Jane the word in his phrasebook. ‘I think the Dutch would be Pratt ik grappig?’
‘Grappig,’ Jane tried.
‘No, grappig,’ Tom said. ‘Remember when we went trekking in Nepal, that sound the Nepalis made outside the teahouse every morning, that cough followed by a clearing of the throat and the nasal passages and ending with a nice gob?’
‘Yes, I remember,’ Jane said. ‘That was disgusting.’
‘Sort of like that,’ Tom said.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Was it mere coincidence, Tom and Jane wondered when they had finally found the courage to confront that spiral staircase (with all the other smokers no doubt watching them) and walk out the door of the coffeeshop, that they spotted a Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop just across the street? Or was it some sort of capitalist conspiracy, the nabobs knowing that, when they exited the coffeeshop, Tom and Jane would have no choice but to cross that street and enter the ice cream shop?
Walking somewhat unsteadily down the narrow street with a tub of Cherry Garcia for Tom and a tub of Chunky Monkey for Jane, Tom began to sing softly to Jane the nonsense song from Modern Times.
Se bella giu satore Je notre so cafore Je notre si cavore Je la tu la ti la twah
‘Oh no,’ Jane said. ‘Not that silly song, Tom.’
La spinash o la bouchon Cigaretto Portabello Si rakish spaghaletto Ti la tu la ti la twah
Senora pilasina Voulez-vous le taximeter? Le zionta su la seata Tu la tu la tu la wa
As he sang the second and third stanzas of the song, his legs began to bow, his feet began to splay and Tom began to waddle, his step becoming both bandy-legged and duck-footed.
‘Jane,’ Tom said. ‘Hey, Jane.’
‘What?’ she asked, abstractedly studying the street before them, busy with cyclists and pedestrians, in search of the sign for their hotel and the promise of a good nap.
‘Jane,’ Tom said, giggling once again. ‘Am I walking funny, Jane?’
‘Oh no,’ Jane said. ‘Not that silly walk, too. Please stop, Tom.’
But he did not stop. Hand in hand, Tom and Jane toddled down the cobbled street with their tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream like the couple of stoned tourists they so obviously were, not quite sure where they were or where they were going, their backs to the camera.
‘You eat the tablecloth, too,’ Tom said.
‘What do you mean you eat the tablecloth?’ Jane asked.
They were sitting cross-legged on what looked like a bed covered with an embroidered beige-coloured bedspread and adorned with a profusion of plump maroon-coloured pillows. If they had not already had a long afternoon nap, Tom and Jane would have been tempted to lie down there and sleep. But they were there to eat, not sleep. After they had scoffed the ice cream and had a good snooze, Tom and Jane ate a couple of space cakes and went for a stroll along the Herengracht, where they sat on a park bench beside the canal and smoked another spliff of Amnesia Lemon.
Looking at the map, Tom had told Jane there was an Ethiopian restaurant just round the corner. Ethiopian sounded good to her, Jane said.
They had ordered the Special Menu, which seemed to be a little bit of everything else on the menu. The table beside the bed was a bell-bottomed basket, not much higher than the bed itself, with a lid that looked like the top of a tagine. When the waitress brought their order, she lifted the lid from the basket and covered the entire top of the table with a spongy flatbread roughly the size and shape of an extra-large pizza, dotted with dollops of various meats, vegetables and cheeses.
‘You eat the tablecloth,’ Tom said again. ‘You tear off a piece of the flatbread and then you use it to scoop up all the other stuff. It’s not only the tablecloth, it’s your knife, fork and spoon. They call it injera. It’s a bit sour, but it grows on you.’
‘How do you know these things?’ Jane asked.
‘I’ve been here before,’ Tom said.
‘What do you mean? You mean you’ve been to an Ethiopian restaurant before?’
‘No,’ Tom said. ‘I’ve been here before, in this restaurant. I used to eat here quite often.’
‘What? You used to live in Amsterdam?’
‘Not quite. My girlfriend lived here. Still does, I think.’
‘Your girlfriend lives here? How long was she your girlfriend?’
‘Gosh,’ Tom said. ‘About eight years or so, on and off.’
‘Eight years? So you brought me to the restaurant where you used to bring your girlfriend?’
‘I thought you might like it, too.’
‘You thought I might like it? And the coffeeshop? Did you and your Dutch girlfriend go there, too?’
‘No,’ Tom said. ‘She hated coffeeshops and she never smoked dope. She said that was something only stupid tourists did.’
‘So now I’m a stupid tourist?’
‘I suppose we’ve both been stupid tourists today,’ Tom said. ‘I always wanted to be a stupid tourist here, hanging out in coffeeshops and getting high.’
‘But why bring me to the same restaurant, then?’
‘It’s not the same restaurant, really,’ Tom said.
‘Not the same restaurant? Didn’t you just say it was the same restaurant?’
‘To me, it doesn’t feel like the same restaurant,’ Tom said. ‘It feels like a completely different restaurant, just like Amsterdam feels like a completely different Amsterdam today, not the Amsterdam I used to know. It’s like there are two Amsterdams: the Amsterdam the locals know and the Amsterdam the tourists know, the Amsterdam you see from the inside and the Amsterdam you see from the outside, the Amsterdam you see when you’re not high and the Amsterdam you see when you’re high. Not-high Amsterdam is not the same place as high Amsterdam. I always wanted to see Amsterdam high and I finally got to do that today.’
‘Not the same Amsterdam?’
‘No,’ Tom said. ‘It’s not the same place. Would you like to hear a joke?’
‘Sorry,’ the bartender says. ‘We don’t serve time travellers here.’ A time traveller walks into a bar.
‘That’s not funny,’ Jane said, welling up. ‘That’s not even a joke.’
‘Is everything okay?’ the waitress asked, suddenly beside their table. ‘You don’t like Ethiopian food?’
‘He says this is another restaurant,’ Jane said. ‘He says this is another Amsterdam.’
‘Sorry?’ the waitress said.
‘Everything’s fine,’ Tom said. ‘It looks lovely. We’ll eat now.’
The waitress walked away, but kept glancing back at Jane, obviously worried.
‘I don’t want to eat here,’ Jane said, openly weeping now. ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in your Amsterdam. I don’t want to be in your girlfriend’s Amsterdam. What about our Amsterdam? Why couldn’t we stay there? What about my Amsterdam? What happened to my Amsterdam? What happened to Tom? What have you done with Tom?’
Written at Hyfrydle Cottage, Trefriw, North Wales, March 2020