Many years ago I went to Amsterdam thinking I had a job lined up but it disappeared as soon as I got there. With money low and jobs scarce I ended up in a Christian hostel in the Red Light district cleaning for my bed and board while desperately looking for work. One day I walked into the Travel Hotel, a tiny, spotlessly clean hotel on the edge of the Red Light district. I was given a job as a cleaner but after a couple of days I was put behind reception.
There was quite a big turnover of staff in the hotel partly because Amsterdam is a hub for people moving on but mostly because of the demanding standards of the two ladies in charge. Dorothie, a slight, brittle, blonde, owned the hotel along with her handsome husband, Hans while Ans was the manager. Both Dorothie and Hans came from the rural south while Ans was pure Amsterdam.
The Travel hotel was an oasis of traditional values in the middle of the seediest part of the city and it became a home for me for a while. The Travel as we called it was clean and cheap and quiet. It housed the only 24 hour bar in Amsterdam, a bar that ran the width of the block between Beursstraat and Warmoesstraat but which was strictly residents only and so remained relatively empty.
My duties as receptionist were many:checking people out, checking people in, answering the phone, serving in the bar, making breakfast, cleaning up after breakfast, hoovering the massive bar and reception~including washing an area of steel floor under the foosball table with vinegar~and everything in it from top to toe usually all at the same time. On the weekends and in high season it was manic.
Into this mayhem in the morning Dorothie would arrive looking for breakfast for Hans which she would serve to him on a special tray in bed. The ‘special’ tray in question was nearly the same as the two other trays on the premises except the ‘special’ tray had less rounded corners. On one of my first days I caused a minor uproar when I unknowingly gave their tray to a guest.
Dorothie went ballsitic with Ans backing her up..
“How is this you are using our tray for the guests!Het is our tray!You must not use our tray!It us for US!”
After that I decided that they were both crazy and maybe not that nice. But I was wrong, about Ans at least and maybe even about Dorothie but it took me a while to see it.
Ans was around about 60 years old but looked at least 10 years older. She had grey, thick hair, practically and neatly cut as if someone had stuck a bowl on her head and trimmed around it. She had large bloodshot eyes set in a saggy bull-dog face. Her arms were stick-like as were her legs~ which I found out later~though she looked stocky under the loose short-sleeved shirts and slacks she always wore. She had a slight stoop. She worked seven days a week. During the week she supervised the cleaners, many of whom were travelling through.
I am sure they tell stories of her still for she was the scourge of everyone who ever vacuumed or washed or polished anything in that hotel. Cleaning at the Travel was done properly. The hotel had five storeys connected by a steep narrow flight of stairs that Ans climbed many times a day. The fourth floor was her eyrie where she made and mended curtains and bedspreads on her sewing machine in between whipping on the staff.
Every Saturday afternoon Dorothie and Hans left for the south and Ans took over as manager. As soon as they left the building seemed to sag in relief. It was on the weekends that I realised that Ans was not as bad as she wanted us to think. As soon as Dorothie had disappeared out the door she would say…
“Now. You vill put on the koffie and we will haff cake.”
And she would produce a cake she had bought for us.
I lived in the hotel and I ate my dinner there. It was made by Dorothie during the week and Ans at the weekend. We had good old-fashioned Dutch food:smoked sausage, potatoes with cabbage or red cabbage with gravy or nasi or satay. We always sat down at a table for it, Ans, whoever was working the reception and David the runner.
Every Tuesday Ans would stay the night in the bar with Dorothie, Ans drinking gin and orange, Dorothie wine, both of them smoking like troopers. Ans would eventually get a taxi to her home on a canal in the west of the city around 2 or 3am. One night they went out on the town along with long-term receptionist Paula from Derry. It was a mighty night. Paula left them in the early hours to go home and throw up onto her front door (for which the neighbours, succumbing to stereotyping, blamed her 6’6″, tattooed, biker, teetotal boyfriend) and Dorothie arrived back to stagger upstairs and puke on her bed. Ans calmly continued on with the session in the bar accompanied by Greg, the night man. Returning from the toilet she stopped at the head of some steps long enough for her pants to fall down. After a pause she hauled them up again and ordered another drink.
It was nearly impossible to buy her a drink as her pride would not allow it and so it became my ambition to get her to accept one from me but the more I tried the more stubborn she became. One night in the bar at about 2 am on a Wednesday she relented..
“Ja, you buy me one now.”
I proudly ordered a gin and orange from Greg who then informed me that Ans had drunk the bar dry of gin. She accepted an orange juice, chuckling. She is the only person I ever knew who could chuckle properly and she chuckled often.
The bar was where she would watch guests play the poker machine and she was adept at calculating when it was due to pay out. Then she would amble over, throw a guilder or two in and be greeted by a clinking river of coins. Her unofficial bureau de change raked in quite a bit from the guests over the years too.
Ans had been married once but her husband had died years before and they hadn’t had any children. She had a couple of brothers one of whom she had argued with many years previously. Someone instigated a reunion for them at which they had another argument and the stalemate resumed.
The true love of her life was her ‘Mam’. Ans was very old-fashioned in her beliefs. Sometimes she told me that her Mam would call her from heaven. The phone would ring in her little house and Ans would pick it up but there would be no-one there and Ans knew it was her Mam. She was convinced that the Travel was haunted. The ghost, who had been seen by quite a few staff, was a stout burgermeister in medieval dress who Ans named Heinrik. Ans became concerned when she started seeing him in pieces: his chest or the top of his head and she called in a priest who explained to her that Heinrik was old and starting to fade. It was natural he asserted and nothing to worry about and so Ans didn’t worry.
She would greet me every day in Dutch: “Goede Morgen”
Every time I hear am cleaning my kitchen I still hear her voice in my head…
“Nattedoek, drogedoek! (wet cloth, dry cloth!)”
I loved her way of speaking English. Every sentence would start with Ja. Paula, my friend and colleague, became the exotic Paola and chairs, tables and inanimate objects became him or her.
“Ja, he is broken,”
she would say of a crooked chair. It is a habit I have picked up and it seems to make the world a friendlier place.
While in Amsterdam I wasn’t painting though I was still scribbling in my sketch pad. Painting hadn’t worked for me. I did my job, went to the gym and tried not to think of my failure. Then one Christmas Ans presented me with a gift: a lovely water-colour sketch pad and an ink pen with a brush for a nib….
“Ja,” she said in her brusque manner, “you should be painting”.
I left the hotel after two years. It was being sold, Hans was bored hanging around and wanted another project and Ans was feeling tired. I moved to Scotland that winter. In the spring Paula rang to tell me that Ans had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and only been given three months to live. I was heartbroken. She had planned days off, to spend time with friends, go to concerts and sit in the sun and have koffie but now it wouldn’t happen.
Ans lasted another year out of sheer stubbornness. I visited her in Amsterdam once again, with Paula, saw her house on the canal where her Mam smiled down from the wall. I was hamstrung by grief. I knew what I had to say but I didn’t know how to say it. When we were leaving she stood beside me in the door and slipped her work worn hand into mine and squeezed and there it was, our goodbye.
Ans died on April 10th 2001. She had spent most of her illness at home, taking few painkillers. Her last few days were spent in a hospice. On the last evening, she was in bed and a nurse was there. Ans said she could see something, a light.
“It’s an angel,” she told the nurse.
The nurse said, “Would you like me to pray with you?”
“Ja. Dat would be nice.”
So they prayed and Ans fell asleep and didn’t wake up again.
She wrote this for us before she died….
Denk aan mij, maar niet in dagen van pijn and verdriet.
Denk aan mij in de stralende zon,
hoe het was toen ik alles nog kon, en toch….
Telkens zal ik jullie tegen komen,
zeg nooit het is voorbij.
Slechts mijn lichaam werd jullie afgenomen,
niet wat ik was en ook niet wat ik zei.
Dank voor al jullie liefde en goede zorgen,
en bliijf gewoon aardig voor elkmaar.
Think of me, but not in days of pain and sorrow.
Think of me in the radiant sun,
how it was when I could do it all, and yet….
Every time you think of me,
know it’s never over.
Only my body was reduced,
not what I was and not what I said.
Thank you all for your love and caring,
and take care of eachother.