Learning to swim…

It is early March and twenty to seven on a miserably cold and wet Tuesday morning when Mickey and I climb the steps to the swimming pool. The large and Gothic looking building looms black against the night sky, its stained dark brown stone somber and forbidding, just like the other 19th century buildings in the area. We hurry through the high and heavy wooden doors, glad to be out of the metallic smell of coal that drifts down from the nearby gas works and from the stink of boiling milk that surrounds the brightly illuminated dairy factory.

The entrance to the swimming pool

Inside we bump into a small crowd of young boys and a single girl, jostling each other at the ticket window. I have to show my pass and a morose looking man nonchalantly stamps one of the empty spaces, thus cancelling another lesson – there had been 12 of them when I started. He unlocks a steel, man-high turnstile whose frame allows only one admission at a time. Seconds later, the creaking and rattling contraption disgorges Mickey and the two of us hurry up some stairs.
At the end of an echoing corridor is a row of dilapidated wooden doors, the changing cubicles, that surround the actual swimming pool. Children’s voices echo and re-echo shrilly in the vast space lined with ceramic tiles and while I hurriedly undress, I can hear the splattering rush of the two thick, foaming jets that replenish the pool and fill the air with the smell of chlorinated water.

Today’s the great day! Mickey and I have graduated from the ‘paddling-pool’ downstairs and now we will have our first real go at the ‘deep’ – the 10 feet deep and 25 yard long main pool.

After taking a quick shower, we all have buckled a girdle of cork-blocks around our chest and the instructor checks if we have done it properly. He obviously does not want to earn his pay by diving fully clothed after somebody whose lifebelt has slipped off. Satisfied at last, he lines us up on the rough stone edge of the pool and shouts “Jump in!”

I am the last in the line and he seems to think me a trifle slow. He gives me a shove and I tumble in, arms and legs flailing and hitting the ice-cold water with an almighty splash. I bob up like a cork with the eerie feeling of being suspended over what seems to be an unfathomable abyss. The instructor shouts at us to start swimming, mimicking the motions we have practiced in the paddling pool. And as we move our arms and legs to gain some forward motion, the cork lifebelts make us bob up and down. Some of us have trouble keeping their head up but the instructor has long pole with a circular steel ‘hook’ at the end and he applies it rigorously when somebody is spluttering too much.
Three weeks later the cork lifebelts are gone. And so are some would be swimmers. They were unable to master the art of staying afloat. And while we hang on to the edge of the pool, we smile smugly when we talk about them . They could not hack it, were simply not good enough; back to the paddling-pool with them while we are ‘swimming the deep’…

Another four weeks pass and we are  taking the swimming test for our first diploma. All of us graduate this first, simple test and I come home, beaming with joy and clutching a piece of cardboard that, freely translated, says that I might not immediately drown when I fall into deep water…
The challenge is of course to go for the next series of lessons; to become a real proficient swimmer, to learn how to dive…
But would Grandma pay for them too?

After the summer vacation…

Boy_PosterThe sharp ‘Tac’ of a pebble against the glass woke me up. Who the hell was throwing stones at my window? For nearly two blessed months, school had been closed and I wanted to lie in as long as I could on these final days of freedom. But there was another sharp ‘Tac’ against the glass and I swung my legs out of bed. I pulled the thin curtain aside and looked straight into Mickey’s grinning face. He was standing across the street, gesturing impatiently for me to come down. I nodded and hurriedly got dressed.
The small apartment was silent; my stepdad had left early and mom had gone out too; no doubt earning a little extra by cleaning house for someone too rich or too lazy to do it herself.
She had left one of her awful sandwiches waiting for me on a saucer. I quickly wrapped it in a piece of newspaper and after shoving it in my pocket, locked the door. Mom had made me promise to leave the key under the dustbin. “That way I could not lose it”, she had said. But I had the feeling that this would be the first place a burglar would look in. Ah well, I thought; there was little to steal at our place, so I shrugged my shoulders, dropped they key under the galvanized can and ran down the stairs to join Mickey.
“What the hell are you doing, you idiot? I shouted
His answer was a big smirk. His hands came from behind his back and he held up a paper bag full of fresh white rolls. How could I remain angry at him when their lovely smell wafted seductively into my nose and made my mouth water?
“Let’s find a quiet spot and have breakfast” he said and a quarter of an hour later we were sitting at the quayside, our legs dangling over the dirty water that lapped at the pilings, a yard or two below our feet. When we had finished the delicious fresh rolls, I took that awful margarine and jam sandwich from its wrapper and tore it up in little pieces. Mickey and I fed it to a cloud of screaming seagulls that did not seem to mind the sickening taste.

Boys_Canal“Man; school will start next week”, Mickey moaned.
“Don’t spoil the fun now”, I said. It was a such a wonderful day; the bright early September sun warmed me through and through and its caresses brought back good memories of the summer vacation that had started somewhere in July.
The first few days we had to get adjusted to a different rhythm in our daily life. Initially we hung around the schoolyard, then we gradually went further afield. Living close to the docks as we were, there was always something to see or do.

Whenever the weather was nice – and it usually was – we would wander around the huge marshalling yard, trying to ‘hitch a ride’. In those days, there were still many old wooden boxcars in use. These left-overs from long before the war had a tiny brakeman’s cabin at one of the ends. ‘Hitching a ride’ meant that we tried to sneak into one of those and hide ourselves until the boxcar was coupled to the shunting engine, pushed up a little hill and given a shove in the direction of a forming goods train.
Rietlanden_1We held our breaths as the rattling boxcar bounced and swayed over the various points and, still going at a good clip, smashed against the buffers of the waiting car. It gave a tremendous crash, accompanied by the agitated clanking and jingling of the loose couplings dangling from all the other waiting cars.
Of course it was strictly forbidden and the railroad guys would give you a sound beating if they caught you but that only added spice to the adventure.

IJ_Haven_5The marshalling yard was at a mere stone’s throw from the docks and we would wander over there if we could not ‘hitch a ride’ or find something fun to do. We would hang around, watching in awe how  massive loads  were lifted out of the large freighters. The huge dockside cranes on their high, stilt-like legs  sometimes straddled whole flatcars on which they dropped their load.
Quite often, those loads were piles of burlap bags and sometimes one of those bags would drop out and explode like a bomb on the concrete quayside. If the gods were kind, it would be a bag full of fresh coconuts that would fly in all directions.
Then we would grab a couple and disappear as fast as we could, find a quiet spot and open the rock-hard nuts with a brick. We thought there was nothing more exotic than sitting in the sun with a grand view of the docks while scooping out fresh coconut meat.
“How was it in that place in the east?” Mickey asked and I made a face.
“Boring”, I said.
Each and every year, I was sent off for two weeks to some place in the woods near the German border on a cheap vacation for young boys, offered by a charitable church-organization. It was all very well-meant but much too organized and structured to my taste, with strict times for getting up and going to bed and saying prayers before each meal.
960_0_3_boys_1149665_960_720The house was in an almost deserted wooded area, and there was little else to do than romp around in the woods, pretending we were in the boy-scouts. There were some dolmen in the neighborhood and we dutifully paid them a visit while getting lectured about the – I guess – Neolithic people who had built them (to what purpose was not made very clear).
But when you had seen one, you had seen them all, and by the end of the second week, I would get restless. Each morning I would rush out at the sound of an approaching diesel engine, and  each morning I turned back in disappointment as it was only the daily delivery van and not the bus, coming to take us back home. In the evening, I would climb the highest tree I could find and, being high enough to look out over the roof of trees that hemmed me in, would try to figure out where Amsterdam was.

“You know – it’s good to be back”, I said philosophically.
“Damn right; we missed you”, answered Mickey and, with tooth-gapped smile from ear to ear, he said, “Come on; Billy got a new football for his birthday. Let’s go and play!”



— To Be Continued —

The Cycling Capital of the World?

Some time ago, I took an English colleague out to dinner in the Amsterdam City Centre. He became more and more subdued as we walked the streets and looked at the sights.  I finally took him into one of my favorite places – a small ‘tasting room’ as they call it and after three stiff Dutch drinks he finally admitted: “I won’t walk around this town any more! These bikes are lethal!”
I had noticed he had some close brushes with speeding cyclists but I regarded them as nothing out of the extraordinary. After all, cyclists are a law onto themselves in this town.


But I also remembered: After Beijing, Amsterdam must have the highest bicycle density in the world. And seeing them in action is seeing Anarchy on two Wheels! And encountering them is like facing the lions in the Colosseum in Rome…
And it is not a recent phenomenon; I found this British film fragment, showing how the Amsterdam bicycle situation was in the early 1950’s!




A Journey Back in Time

Sometimes one finds a ‘time capsule’ – some content that opens up the past of which we have heard a lot but never saw much of, except for some pictures in a family album.
Going through U-Tube for something completely different, I stumbled upon this video and could not resist to post the link. It shows Amsterdam as it was is the 1920’s, long, long before the backpacking herd and the pot and sex locusts took over one of the most beautiful cities in the world.


Going for a little swim…


The ‘Kattenburg Beach‘ in the mid 1950’s, with the St.Nicholas Church in the far background

It is Wednesday afternoon and the weather is glorious. Not a cloud in sight and bright green leaves cover the sparse trees around our blocks. We have the rest of the day off and hurry out of the school, onto the hot concrete tiles of the pavement. It smells but of what, I prefer not to know. And as we hurry around the corner, into the narrow, sun-drenched street with its endless row of 19th century apartment buildings, Mickey says, “Let’s go for a swim!”
“Swim where?” I ask. The official swimming pool is quite far away, costs money and to top it all, we both can’t swim.
“Oh at Kattenburg”, he says and I immediately grasp what he plans to do. Apart from the locals calling it “Rattenburg”, I see other, unsurmountable problems hindering this project. “Mickey”, I say, “we have no swimming trunks and no towel. How do we get dry?” But Mickey has thought that one through already.
“We’ll swim in our underpants and when we’re done we simply get back into our shorts. We’ll wring out the underpants and use them to wipe our legs. And tonight we throw them in the laundry basket; nothing to it!”
I still am not convinced but I can’t rat on my best friend so the two of make our way as quickly as we can to our local ‘beach’, the stretch of sand opposite the naval establishment. As we pass across the bridge in front of the maritime academy, we see a large crowd that has already gathered on that dismal piece of dirty sand. To us it is the ultimate treat on a hot day in spring. Water and sand all kinds of things to discover and we lose no time in shedding our shirts and shorts and shoes. We put them next to a friendly family, hoping they will keep an eye on them, and run into the water.

The ‘Kattenburg Beach‘, seen from the other side. Across the water are the signalers school buildings of the navy yard

I shall never forget that smell; the tang of stale green water, mushy rotting sea-weed and marine diesel fuel. We ran up and down that beach, splashing and spattering between a rich harvest of washed up driftwood and other flotsam (including two dead cats), By the time we both were both soaking wet, we had thrown all caution to the winds and we had soon collected enough planks and poles along the ‘flood line’ to put a makeshift raft together. A washed up crate would do for a seat and a more or less oar-shaped piece of wood for a paddle.
The snag was, the thing would only hold one of us. Mickey won the toss and after carefully mounting the slightly rotten crate (I saw it had held oranges in the past), he commanded, “Shove Off!” and I gave the contraption a push.
As it floated away I immediately saw we were no great boat builders. Our raft had no freeboard at all and short waves washed Mickey’s feet every few seconds. The ‘raft’ was some yards off the beach now and when he tried to paddle back, the whole thing nearly capsized. He had to sit absolutely still in order not to upset its balance. Then he noticed that the water was too deep for him to stand and he knew he was in really deep water (literally),
“Help me get back!” he shouted anxiously.
I waded into the dirty water until it reached my chin but he was still out of reach.
“I’ll get a rope”, I shouted and hurried back to the safety of the sand. I had seen a discarded length of slimy rope further down that ‘beach’. But before I could reach it, one of those ever present workboats came rumbling out of a side canal. It was the Ocean, a fine, sturdy workboat belonging to the Blue Funnel line. All of us boys admired it for the magnificent bow wave it threw up. The inevitable happened; the Ocean rumbled past at a sedate four knots, but its powerful waves lifted the flimsy raft way up in the air. It shattered completely and  Mickey splashed into the water.
“Help”, I shouted, “my friend cannot swim”, pointing at the boy spluttering and trashing amidst the remnants of our ‘raft’. Several people looked up, but one lean and tanned Navy guy jumped up from the towel he was sharing with his girlfriend. In a few strides he ran down the sand, splashed into the water and grabbed Mickey at the moment the water closed over the boy’s head.
“What the fuck were you doing out there?” shouted the sailor after dropping the spluttering and coughing Mickey on the sand. The two of us tried to explain but with no great success. “Go and get your clothes; and this will speed you home”, the man snarled as he slapped Mickey’s bottom hard with a large, calloused hand.
We straggled home like two two nearly drowned cats, dripping water and sopping in our shoes. For a few moments we stood hesitating at the entrance to our block, not daring to face our parents and afraid of the ‘reception’ we would get.
Then my grandmother passed by on her bicycle and our fate was sealed
“What happened to you?” she shouted angrily as she jumped off the saddle. After my halting, rambling explanation she turned to Mickey. “You go home and stay there;  I’ll talk your mom later.” Mickey hurriedly made off and Grandma slapped my face twice snarling, “The pair of you could have drowned, you idiot!”
She hauled me up the stairs and made me wash all over – the stink of the ‘swimming water’ permeating the small apartment. When I was washed and clothed again she sat me in a chair and gave me cup of tea. “Never, ever do that again!” she growled, raising a threatening finger in front of my face. “There will be trouble enough when you mom and dad come home.”
And trouble there sure was; my stepdad was livid and wanted to belt me properly. But my Grandma interfered and I was banished to my little room with the door firmly closed; house arrest as it was. I heard their voices go on in a low rumble for a while. Then Grandma left and I shivered with fright what would happen next. I didn’t have to wait long. My mother came into my little room and looked at me for a few moments.
“You could have drowned today”, she said in a quiet voice and I nodded, tears in my eyes.
“There’s too much water around here”, she added and then, to my total surprise, “so Grandma has decided that you’d better take swimming lessons; she’ll pay for them!”


To Be Continued


The Magic of an Ancient City

Excerpt from the forthcoming Java Gold Series Book Three

He parked near the Central Station in the falling dusk, just when the lights came on. The falling darkness slowly transformed the old part of Amsterdam into a magical maze of narrow streets; an enchanted place where floodlighted church towers and illuminated windows and the forms of centuries-old buildings were softly reflected by the dark water of tree-lined canals. All sounds were hushed in this timeless city center, and they walked amid the low hum of human voices and the far-off buzz of traffic in the main streets.


When they passed over one of the hump-backed bridges, the chimes in a nearby church tower played a light, enchanting air before its solemn bell struck the hour.
On the corner of a narrow street and a small square at the foot of a tall 17th century church, was a typical Amsterdam bar; old and brown and with sand on the floor; bypassed by the tourists and still frequented by the locals. The aged barman and a couple of customers greeted them friendly as they sat down at a window table that gave them a good view of the darkening square. He ordered a beer for himself and a white wine for her and when the drinks came, they raised their glasses and said “Proost”. And while taking a sip, he looked at his companion.

It might have been a trick of the dying daylight and the muted lights in the bar that somehow revealed the extraordinary beauty of her face and her body to him. Suddenly he felt tongue-tied. All subjects that came to his mind seemed too trivial and unimportant to talk about and an awkward silence fell.
Sensing his embarrassment, she gave him a quick glance and as she put a small, warm hand on his arm she whispered, “I did some modelling once, so I know I look good but remember: I’ve got my nasty sides too; after all, I am just a human being.”
He looked into her luminous brown eyes and he saw understanding and warmth but he still was unable to speak freely.
“How did you know this bar”, she asked, trying to find a subject he could talk about and she listened patiently when he told her about his student days at the nearby university and his love for the old city center.
“I’m pretty sure my grandfather has been standing in this bar half a century ago, having a beer after work”, he said. “Amsterdam was so much smaller in those days; he used to walk home from the docks to his apartment, never bothering with a bicycle.”
“You loved him, didn’t you?”
“Yeah; he was more of a father to me than my step-dad ever was”, he said and fell silent again, afraid of talking too much about himself and not knowing how to make small talk with her.


Granddad and the February Strike

Threatening grey clouds streaked overhead, chased by a cold, blustery February afternoon wind. It seemed to chill me to the bone, exposed as I was sitting on my granddad’s shoulders. But I did not care, I could see al around the square that seemed huge to me,  filled as it was with a dense mass of grimly silent people in dark clothes, gathered around a statue. The statue was of a chunky, muscled dock-worker. It was the type of man I had always seen around me while a grew up. Going to and from his job at  the docks and the shipyards; tough and honest, loyal friend and indomitable foe, quick to laugh and fast with his fists of steel.

Dokwerker“Who is that statue for?” I asked my granddad
“For the Amsterdam dockyard men, who started the first strike against the Germans during the occupation of Holland.”
“What –?” I started to ask, but my granddad whispered “Sshh” and he took of his black beret. An old, crippled man mounted a small platform and when he started to speak, an awesome silence fell. He spoke for a while in a fervent voice, filled with emotion but his words were much to grand and too involved for me. However,  I caught the words “Jewish citizens” and “Germans” and “resistance”. Then it was all over and everyone assembled in the square formed a line as long as the eye could see and started walking slowly past the statue. Many of them had been carrying flowers and as they placed them at its foot, it seemed to me that the solitary figure of that stocky man was riding a wave in a sea of a commemorative flowers.


“Granddad,  why did the Germans come to Holland?” I asked timidly as we started our walk back home.
“Because they were greedy; they wanted to possess all of Europe. They came across the border as thieves in the night and when the Dutch soldiers kept on fighting, they bombed Rotterdam, killing I don’t know how many people. And then they occupied our country.”
“What does ‘occupying’ mean”, I asked, not sure if I would like the answer.
“It means that foreigners, who have no goddam business to be here at all, grab your country and start telling you what to do. And if you protest they lock you up and shoot you later.”
“You mean they would  kill me if I protested?”
“Yes; and that was the reason for that big strike in February 1941”, granddad said somberly. “There had been a fight between German police and Amsterdam protesters and the next day the Germans picked up hundreds of people who had nothing to do with that fight and threw them in jail .”
“But that’s not fair!” I exclaimed.
“No; but they didn’t care. They wanted to show who is boss. And the Amsterdam people were furious and started a strike.”
“What is a ‘strike’?” I asked, out of my depth again.
“When people strike, they refuse to work. It started in the docks here in Amsterdam, then the tram-people stopped working and before you knew it, the whole city had come to a standstill.”
“And then?” I asked; it sounded like an adventure novel.
“The strike lasted a couple of days and the Germans were furious. They picked up hundreds of people and killed a number of them. The others were sent away to camps in Germany. Most of them never came back.”


I looked back over my shoulder at the square we just had left. Seen from this distance, the large crowd still marching past the statue was dominated by a high building.
Granddad saw what I was looking at. “Yes, that is the Synagogue, the Jewish church. We commemorate the strike in this place because soon afterwards, the Germans started to pick up our Jewish neighbors and friends and took them away. Most of them never came back – they were murdered.”
For a while we walked on in silence, my granddad lost in his thoughts and I trying to understand what I had just learned. Then he looked at me and said, “That is why we go that place every year on the 25th of February; to show that we will not forget the people that died then.”
I looked over my shoulder again and had the impression I could see the shadowy forms of a multitude of people hovering around the square and the synagogue and the crowd still marching past the statue. I shivered; for the first time I had an inkling of the horrible things that had happened in this area of my hometown.


— to be continued —