Amsterdam is like a dream to me now, the tiny streets and bridges, the light reflected from the canals, the brown buildings topped with white curlicues of plaster like judges wigs or icing on ginger cake. I lived there for a while and it lives still in my bones. I arrived, like many do, on a train into Centraal Station, a red brick edifice which presides over Stationplein an open square which gives way to the broad, busy avenue of the Damrak. In the summer time Stationplein is full :commuters, families day tripping to Zandvoort on the coast, tourists rushing for the airport train or sitting on backpacks and the newly arrived ambling out onto the esplanade to breath in, wide-eyed, the perfumed air of the city
In the melee if you look carefully you will spot the runners hustling for business. A runner persuades people to stay at a certain hotel, sometimes even leading them there in case they get ‘lost’ along with the runner’s commission.
If you had wandered out onto Stationplein during those years, one figure might have caught your eye with his stillness. He was slight with dark hair and dark eyes, if you could only see them behind aviator sunglasses. He always wore the same clothes:a beige suede waistcoat, a frayed shirt, once red now fading to pink, open collared but buttoned at the wrists, jeans and battered running shoes. He would stand, with his legs slightly apart, snapping the block of business cards in his hand and survey the crowd. He never smoked though sometimes he chewed a match stick. This was Mikhail*(name changed), the runner at the hotel where I was receptionist on the edge of the red light district.
Mikhail was from Transylvania in the eastern part of Romania. If all the inhabitants of Transylvania were like Mikhail then it didn’t take Bram Stoker much to dream up Dracula. Mikhail’s pale skin and dark eyes were accentuated by black hair receding back from his widows peak. The nails on each of his little fingers were exceptionally long though not, he claimed, for drug related reasons. He would come out in a rash, literally, if he went out in the sun which meant he never rose before 4pm. He was a creature of the night. He periodically insisted on standing in front of my desk and reading his list-the list of tourists which was kept to tally his commission-out loud…
…sounding, with his Transylvanian accent uncannily like Count Dracula from Sesame Street which he claimed never to have seen.
Mikhail lived in room 4004. We used to eat together in the hotel bar, our dinners cooked by one of our bosses who insisted we sit at a table in emulation of a real family. Once he rented an apartment in the city. He soon came back, paler and skinnier than before because, I think, he nearly starved to death. When he left another time, to sort out a large and mysterious ‘tax bill’ we assumed that, like others who washed up in Amsterdam and washed out again, we would never see him again. Three months later he was back, wearing exactly the same clothes and looking for his old room.
His day would start at 4pm when he would come downstairs and go outside to survey the street, check the weather and decide whether it would be a good or a bad day tourist wise. He would then come into the bar for his mug of ‘morning’ koffie. Sometimes I refused him koffie, if there was no pot on, if I was busy or just I was feeling mean.We used to fight a lot.
My job in the hotel was manically busy and Mikhail would often drive me to distraction, demanding his list or claiming immediate attention for his tourists. He would quote prices that were lower that the ones I was allowed to charge or he would try to fit too many people into the small rooms and devise complicated plots for moving people about the hotel from one day to the next to gain maximum occupancy. Sometimes he would claim tourists that weren’t ‘his’ as his own. He would regularly accuse of me of forgetting to update his list and sometimes, in the madness that is an Amsterdam hotel, he was right. Often I ended up screaming at him and one time we nearly came to blows. Though he came from a Europe in the throes of change and most likely had been in many hairy situations he was not an aggressive person and I am pretty sure I, a not-so-small Irish woman with a temper, scared the hell out of him. I think he only stood up to me out of desperation and a will to survive.
On the Stationplein he was a legend. He was coveted by other hotels. His talent was such that he could afford to stand at Centraal Station and decide who he wanted to stay in ‘his’ hotel that night. Some days he would decide that today he would fill the hotel only with Japanese girls, his favourite, dark and petite, their pittery pattery voices a perfect antidote to the screeching of any larger, more scary women that might be around. And he would do it too.
I lived in the hotel for a spell and though we were quite the dysfunctional little family, Ans, Paula, Greg the night man, Mikhail, Graham* the stoned Australian sitar player, the cleaners and others who passed through, Mikhail and I eventually got used to each other. I came to understand that trust was not in the repertoire of those coming from broken countries and survival was all. Even so I eventually taught him that if someone buys you a beer they are not looking to steal your soul but you should maybe, if they are Irish, buy them one back. He even dared, in time, to flirt with me, offering me, in his accented voice, goes in his ‘love swing’ in room 4004.
For all that, I never saw him with a girl and I think he was very shy-except when it came to making a living. When times were quiet he would play Pac-Man in the bar for hours on end or read the Herald Tribune which he bought every day or watch the news or cartoons on the old TV set at the back of the bar.
I left when new owners took over and the hotel of those years, the clean, calm haven in the midst of urban wildness, the place of seated dinners and the home to a dysfunctional family of staff bound by their transience and their own personal weirdness, was soon a thing of the past. Everyone dispersed, disappearing like travellers swallowed by the crowd at a busy train station.
Mikhail stayed on. He rented an office, employed some people and the last I heard was successfully running an online hotel booking agency. I have been back to the city and wandered the canals but I did not try to find him though, knowing his calibre, I used his business to find a place to stay. Despite all the shared meals and rows and beers and talk of love swings I decided my looming Irish appearance might elicit unwelcome flashbacks. Sometimes the past is best left there. Sometimes the best thing to do is to keep running.