The gamely cheerful girl took the final boarding pass – ours – and watched as the shuttle bus crossed the wet quay, round the loading trucks, from the railway into the boat. Water falling from the dark, overcast sky.
The boat sat huge above the train, riding at anchor.
Later, sometime after 11, we stood on the deck as the ferry moved slowly out of the port. The cranes and then an empty Harwich town, with its Christmas lights hanging off the lamposts, sliding past. The town’s Church of England steeple hiding shyly at the back.
Earlier, at Liverpool Street station, waiting for the ferry train to be announced on the station board, drinking in the old Great Eastern Hotel, images of Anis Amri, the most wanted man in Europe, had flashed up on the tv screen. Hunted after the terrorist attack in Berlin.
Berlin, where, if all went to plan, we would be in 3 days’ time.
The train had taken us up through East London – the pavements gleaming with rain – Essex, East Anglia.
I’d looked into the houses as we ran up the rail. At the Christmas decorations in the windows, flashing on the outside walls, crawling up the roofs.
I’d been taken back to years ago when I would take the train up this same line to go and spend family Christmases in Norfolk.
Not this year though. Oh no. Now I was taking this route to leave. No festive Christmas in comfy chairs in warm rooms with content bloated feelings and slightly ripped paper hats slipping over eyes.
We were going home. But back home to Greece. By train. The long way down.
A long detour round the back of Europe.
Following great swathes of the old Orient Express route. Sleeper trains, rural trains. Stop-overs in the grand European cities of Empires’ past.
We didn’t want flights. We wanted to take the train, we wanted to see more.
But still, we needed to get back. An appointment for my travelling Passepartout waiting to be kept in Thessaloniki – a ticking clock, all the way down Europe.
The ferry, eerily calm on the water – having just missed a vicious storm, Storm Barbara, that had powerfully passed just before we departed – sailed alongside the gigantic ‘China Shipping Co.’ container ship, sat colossal – and sad – high above us, loading endlessly in the dark. And then we were out into the open sea.
Just before dawn I woke and made my way from our cabin out onto the deck to see the Hook of Holland appear.
Bigger, more active than Harwich. Lights and bellowing chimneys. Dawn breaking rust-coloured on the boat’s port side, a red industrial glow on the starboard.
But also, in front of the smoking chimneys, were rows and rows of whirling windfarms – Holland’s new style windmills. Windmills before we’ve even landed in Holland.
We docked in the town. The Hook of Holland’s protestant church, with its green copper steeple, like a rocket ship, standing proud.
Our second train. A small shunter towards Rotterdam waited on the platform, standing in the milky morning light. We boarded, and sat in the small First Class part. First Class which had no chance but to look any different at all really to the rest of the small train.
A bearded middle-aged English man, and his friend, both dressed for long walks in fleeces and boots walked through, opening the carriage doors ostentatiously, and coughed raucously in my face.
I stood up and complained.
He carried on, barrelling down the carriages.
“Well that was disgusting…” I shouted after him.
“Merry Christmas!” he bellowed back, not turning round.
“Thank you for that. Thank you for your germs. I’ll remember it…Fat arse!” I hollered back.
He flicked a V-sign behind him, back at me.
The Dutch sat in their seats. Uncomfortable at the scene, quietly appalled at the two shouting, rowing Englishmen on the silent train in the slowly strengthening morning light.
I sat down, suddenly embarrassed.
There was no one sat in the little plastic walled-off part of the train with us. Even the rough looking louts of this port town respected the rule they shouldn’t be in the nominal First Class bit of this two carriage train, and crowded instead, bunched-up in the door wells.
I couldn’t believe, myself, that any ticket collector would get on – or care if they did, that we were there. I felt playing the lost foreigner would get us away with anything anyway.
A large, walrus-moustached, conductor appeared. Officious. The long bulk of his carcass squeezed into a too-tight navy uniform.
He looked at our ticket. And he insisted straight away, strongly, with no interest in – waving away – any chat from me, that we move.
“If I was doing my job properly,” his voice yodeling with displeasure “I should have you arrested.”
This struck me as an overly dramatic claim. But I started to get a first feeling here that things on this long European train journey might just not run as smooth as I had blithely assumed.
As we bundled into the over-crowded rest of the train, the coughing Englishman grinned smugly at me.
“YAY! Itsh a new day!” came the insanely happy Dutch train driver’s voice over the tannoy as we passengers – cold, half-asleep, all unsmiling – chugged our way out of the town.
Holland is Dutch straight away.
The land is flat. Canals run straight as a spear alongside the train. I looked at my first dyke, running off into a wood, as we ran along the track. Is England this clichéd as soon as you take the train from the port?
A change at Rotterdam. The station platforms surrounded by glass, high-powered moneyed modern office towers, angled buildings, shards of steel. It looked a sterile city. But at least serving up something slightly different from the morning of continual conventional Holland.
And then another unexpected turn. Our Amsterdam train, a few minutes out of the station, came to a halt on a bridge over a canal.
Half an hour went by. 40 minutes. The train didn’t move. I hadn’t thought that trains would have ground to a stop so quickly into our European journey, and certainly not while we were still in the stately, slick West.
No one seemed to be too agitated though. The Dutch commuters sat patiently. There weren’t any of the tuts or the impotent blowings out of air I’ve experienced from a million stalled trains back at home. It all seemed to be borne with complete patience and acceptance.
I talked to a blonde, featureless Dutch man, sat over the aisle from me.
“I am so angry” he said to me, placidly, with what seemed a complete lack of any sort of anger whatsoever.
“I cannot tell you… I am so angry about this. I have appointments to keep. It is all so… upsetting.” He turned to look out of the window, benignly calm and unruffled, as if enjoying the view out into his garden.
After 50 minutes it finally took an English woman in a business suit in the seat in front of me to break the mood.
“This is… BULLSHIT!” she shouted and thumped, with bunched-up fists, at the seat rests.
As we hit the hour mark, a small locomotive engine was spotted coming round the bend in the track. And eventually we moved. Tugged through the Dutch landscape.
The Dutch landscape which was still startling me at how Dutch it all seemed.
There were the real, old, windwills. The lines of long straight roads departing to a point on the horizon. And everything in a soft bright light. All painted in watercolour.
We disembarked at Amsterdam Centraal and walked past the rather tragic figure of the large, glinting, new, double-decker sleek Netherlands Rail train, sitting on the platform, prone and disabled, connected and dependent on the small, squat, filthy dirty blue ancient old locomotive ahead of it.
And we headed into Amsterdam central.
Bicycles were rented, the city pedalled. Apple pie eaten at ‘Winkel’ café.
Amsterdam’s beautiful, old, tall, thin, high-gabled buildings seemed to range far round the city, not just a few streets here and there. I could see them all along those 3 major canals of the 17th Centrury Grachtengordel – the canal ring.
And even the new buildings, outside of the centre, seemed to keep to the same style, and all looked incredibly neat. Looking like freshly pressed laundry.
Ancient stained old golden hooks sticking out, high up, from the houses’ gables, I’d taken for old curio relics left just for show, are actually used. I watched a group of students hauling a ridiculous procession of fridges and washing machines and pianos – using a rope thrown over the hook – straight up the front of one of these remarkable 300 year old, gaunt, high-foreheaded houses.
Then you look down and notice a cyclist. Then one more. Then more. Until with a strange growing unease that you can’t quite put your finger on, you see you’re quite surrounded by cyclists. Like focusing and finding a thousand fast-moving slithering snakes all around you.
Cycling truly is everything in Amsterdam. The cars did all they could to wait for me as I wobbled across the face of busy roads. They give all the space you could need (unsurprisingly, this doesn’t happen in Greece).
The Dutch are expert cyclists. Kids jump nonchalantly on the back of moving bicycles, cycled by their friends. It strangely reminded me of something exotic and remote, in this most civilised of European cities, as if the Dutch have learnt skills other Europeans don’t have. Like husky sledging in the Arctic Circle or tree climbing in the jungle.
We were told that the Dutch are like the Greeks in their willingness to speak their mind, but like the English in their moral outrage and fervour at keeping to rules.
I found it to be very true as I’m brutally told off three or four times in a row in less than 30 seconds of mistakenly cycling down a pedestrianised road.
Night fell and after Heinekens and bitterballs snacks in the café bar ‘Proeflokaal t Loosje’and then frinkandle chopped sausages and large round glasses of malty bokbier in ‘Prael’, all served with utterly unfriendly service, we headed into the Red Light District.
It didn’t seem as gaudy or tacky or touristy or commercial as I’d expected.
We walked through the alleyways and along the canals and past the sex shops. But at change-over time. So there was the faintly comic, faintly sad, sight of empty stools up waiting on the raised platforms in the windows. Men hanging around outside, not really knowing what to do.
It was if a factory-whistle blows and all the girls clocked off at exactly the same time.
I spotted the awkward sight of one small Indian man whispering to one of the girls left on display.
“What?” she kept asking, getting louder and more irritated at the repeated mumbles. “What?”
Eventually the small man snapped and cried out in frustration: “Sex?!”
Everyone in the surrounding street turned to look.
“Oh,” the girl, stood in her black laced underwear, replied, blinking with a sudden comprehension. “Oh, well…yes…” And the door opened up for the tiny man.
He placed his hands together and bowed as he entered.
We stumbled around the town. Falling down an alleyway to the great looking Wynand Fockink ‘tasting house’ to drink jenevers, Netherland’s nation liquor, that they’ve been drinking here, unchanged – with the full-to-the-brim glass placed on the bowed, deeply stained old wooden bar: the first few sips to be taken bent double to avoid spilling – since the 1600s.
We unsteadily fell further, into dark wood 16th Century restaurant rooms – portraits on the walls, polite dinners looking on distastefully at our arrival, as I tripped over the thick carpet – to eat Stramppot: mashed potatoes with kale and smoked meats.
The Dutch lady on the table next to me looked ill and coughed into her handkerchief.
I drunkenly moved my chair away, slurring a little to Passepartout “More germs eh… you see? I’m sure I’m coming down with something from that man on the train coughing all over me…”
“Excuse me,” said the ill lady’s husband, very calmly with deeply rational voice, moving his torso straight at a 45 degree angle towards me, his backside not moving an inch on his seat.
He was a man in his 70s. Or 80s. Maybe even his 90s. Brilliantly preserved. White hair, white clean goatee beard, white suit, pocket watch, half-moon glasses halfway down his nose. A long pointed face, like an empty canoe.
“I think perhaps you have a grave problem.”
I struggled to focus clearly on him.
“I am a doctor here in Amsterdam. A psychologist. I see men like you very often in my practice.
They come in with a problem like yours, a worry about getting ill or something like that. And soon it grows. And then it grows. And soon they find they can’t even leave the house.
He won’t be able to leave the house one day.” he said, turning to Passepartout, pointing a silver butter knife in my direction. “I hope you are well aware of this.”
He returned himself upright to his table and continued to butter his roll and talk to his red-nosed wife.
Home, of course, was still almost two thousand miles away, at the end of a disheartening long railway track. I was just looking forward to seeing it again, at some point. Maybe the Dutch Freud was right though. Perhaps after this I should never leave again.
Christmas Day broke over our rooms in the Sloterdijk suburb.
We peddled into the centre of the city and decided, as we were in Amsterdam, we supposed we really should visit a coffee house.
The Dampkring coffee house, decked out in orange and red psychedelic Indian swirls with solid stone floors and ornate chairs seemed as good a place as any to spend Christmas morning.
A Dutch with a tall and complex afro sat on a barstool looking out of the window was indulging in both a rolled joint and a huge bong. A group of Brits were in the corner, overdoing it: a rake-thin lad with a mean, nasty face in an England cap suffered a chronic coughing fit, honked at by his laughing mates. An expensive-suited, expensively groomed American in designer glasses sat next to me, conducting high commerce business across the Atlantic on a laptop, while holding a quite impossibly long reefer in the other hand.
My travelling Passpartout and I shared one ourselves off the long, ridiculously overly descriptive menu. Sat slumped for a bit. And then took off.
Cycling through the green Vondelpark with curved, stupid smiles on our faces. Stopping outside Rijksmuseum, eyes hooded, thoughts floating nowhere, up and out over the Rembrandts and Vermeers. A stroopwaffle from a market stall keeping the munchies away.
We were in a city that we didn’t know. On Christmas Day. Surrounded by no people we knew.
But the Greek community means wherever you are, you’re never really alone.
Passepartout had heard rumour that there were ex-pat Greeks here in Amsterdam that she had a connection to, by some indirect route back home, that we hoped might take us in and put us up for Christmas Day.
With this goal in our emptyish minds, we cycled south, to the Oud Zuid district. To an address we had that may or may not have been the right one for the Greeks in Amsterdam.
Calling on endless doors, up and down the straight uniform road of dark brick very Amsterdam-ish homes, we eventually found the flat. A flat full of Athenians, Thessalonikians, Patraians, Larisians, Gianninotians…
Christmas was spent in this very Dutch flat, in this very Dutch neighbourhood, with an incredible groaning table of Greek foods – mousaka and souvlakis, kourampiedes and melomakarona.
Greek voices all around. Greek drinks flowing. Dances and hearty back slapping, as I looked out over the road directly into the window of the flat over the way, at a family spending what looked a quiet traditional family Christmas night in a warm, red flickering living room.
Then I spotted the Hanukkah candlestick. And saw the family gathered, kneeling on the floor in front of the table and menorah. A light that would have been hidden in this city just over 70 year ago.
A Jewish family celebrating their festival over the road from a loud house of Greeks, and a dislocated English, celebrating theirs. Under a quiet dark sky. In a briefly borrowed city, that we would leave the next day.
The 13.03 train arrowed us out from the pile of neo-Renaissance magnificence of Amsterdam’s train station on time.
It was good to feel we were back moving, making European progress. But we were spraying out eastwards rather than south. Perhaps this was a mistake?
The early January appointment we had to keep in Greece was always there, nagging, on the periphery of vision. Perhaps a detour to see what Berlin had in strore for us wasn’t such a good idea.
But the Dutch Nederlandse Spoorwegen train took us away, giving a smooth, trouble-free, ride. The landscape was gentle. The newish houses from Amsterdam to Amersfoort looked very British. The ride reminded me of nothing more than the District Line from Richmond to Kew Gardens.
I chatted across the aisle to a very made-up, but tired looking woman.
She told me, without any sense of embarrassment – on her side at least – that she had been working in the sex industry in Amsterdam and was going home after a few weeks in the capital back to her parents’ home. “For some rest.”
She got off at a sweet-looking small town called Appeldorn. We carried on towards Germany.
I looked out of the windows at the woods of thin trees running alongside us on either side, breaking for a small town to appear, where I would often catch a glimpse of an uncompleted life.
Someone entering a shop. Someone getting out their car to greet a friend. A kid winding up to take a shot at goal in the park. Glimpses of life going on, that I’d never know the outcome of as the train relentlessly moved me on, in perpetual motion, and as we hurtled towards a new country.
The sun was already low in the sky at only half past two.