I look at the murky water of Prinsengracht, through the bedroom window of Robert’s apartment. A man and a little boy walk down the canal street. The man stops to zip the kid’s jacket and tighten his scarf. They exchange some muted words and continue on their way. The sky is colorless, the same as it was yesterday during the flight over here. The heater below the window is blowing hot air up my nostrils, clogging them slightly, and I step back from it, catching the foot of the bed with my heel. Pain shoots up and I fire a variety of Serbian curse words into the room’s atmosphere.
Once I acquire the desired numbness in the hurt spot, I find a pair of leather slippers under the bed. They presumably belong to Robert’s absent roommate whose room I’m inhabiting, and so I put on a pair of socks before inserting my feet into them. I pick up my phone from the nightstand and head towards the hallway bathroom where I hear the shower running. Realizing I will have to wait for my turn, I then carefully find my way down a remarkably narrow staircase, the kind I was used to once, four years ago.
Downstairs, after failing to find a coffee machine in the kitchen, I ignite the kettle and take a seat on the recliner in the corner of the living room. On its armrest, I find a copy of Nick Cave’s Sick Back Song. I skim over the first couple of pages, landing on a line that reads: You must take the first step alone. I close the book and look out the window again. Through the thinness of the walls, I hear the shower still running. Outside, a bird flying in circles starts its return arch now, going straight for the window, then turns right before the impact, and flies away. The kettle clicks.
I find a bag of organic green tea in one of the kitchen drawers and place it in a large ceramic cup. I pour hot water over it and pull on the string, bathing the little bag as it releases dark bursts of extract coloring the rest of the liquid. Back on the recliner, I rest the cup of tea on the wooden floor and swipe across the screen of the phone. Apart from the regular dose of spam, including newsletters from Netflix, AdWeek, skyscanner, and nba.com, there is nothing new. Sipping on the tea, I scroll down Inbox and open the same e-mail I read before going to bed last night. The address belongs to Coca Cola’s HR department. The subject line says “Final Interview”. They require my presence some time during the upcoming week and I should let them know about my availability as soon as possible. I read the text once again, then click on reply and write up an e-mail, scheduling the interview for Friday afternoon. Six days from today. The shower stops and I hear the sound of footsteps dragging across the floor above. I take another sip of tea and leave the cup on the floor, before climbing up the stairs.
“How’s the published poet doing this morning?” – Robert asks half an hour later, as I enter the kitchen buttoning my shirt.
“Would be feeling better if there was some coffee around here.”
“Hey, didn’t the doctor tell you green tea’s great for detoxing?” – he says. “Your liver should thank me.”
“My brain does not.”
“Can’t detox that.” – he says, glancing at my forehead. “Not much sleep last night?”
“Barely fell asleep, then kept waking up every hour or so.”
“It can get loud around here on weekends.” – he says. “Fucking Brits and their stag parties.”
“It wasn’t that.” – I say. “Too much other shit on my mind.”
“The Coke thing?”
“Leading the charge, yeah.”
“You’re going to go for it?”
“Let’s talk about it later.” – I say, looking for my shoes. “Did you have any ideas for today?”
“Up to you man.” – he says. “But we should get breakfast somewhere first. My fridge is cleaner than it was when I bought it.”
It is not the best day for tourists. The cafes on Prinsengracht have removed their outside tables, and cues for some of Amsterdam’s indoor attractions are twice their usual, notorious size. I see this while walking past Anne Frank’s house and the Houseboat Museum on the way to a nearby croissant place that Robert speaks complimentary of. Rain seems to be seconds away as we enter the café and take our seats at a tall counter set against the wall of the establishment. We make an order of ham and cheese croissants and coffee.
“Saturday morning and I’m not hungover.” – Robert says. “Not really a welcome change.”
“It might be time for you to do your own bloodwork.” – I say.
“I prefer not to know, to be honest.”
“Easy for you to say. You don’t have a family of doctors eyeing your appearance every Sunday over lunch.”
“So you really fucked it up again, huh?”
“Looks like it.” – I say. “Still completely reversible though. I just really have to take it easy this time around.”
The croissants and coffee are served. I ask for some milk on the side.
“Well with the boozin’ and cruisin’ out of the way,” – Robert says, taking a bite of the croissant. “What do you propose we do?”
The dough is warm and fluffy and the cheese up to the Dutch standard. I take another bite, crunching it with hungry pleasure.
“You know,” – I say. “We could go down to Rotterdam for the day.”
“What are we going to do in Rotterdam?”
“See the old stomping grounds. I haven’t been there since graduation.”
“I was only there on business since.” – he says, slurping the coffee. “But I guess we could check it out. I’ve heard people say the city’s kind of booming and I haven’t really witnessed that yet.”
“Then it’s decided.”
“You want to take the train or go by car?”
“Let’s take the car.” – he says. “It’s not like we’ll be drinking.”
We take Robert’s Fiesta and navigate through the narrow canal streets as the rainfall heightens its tempo. The windshield wipers respond, giving us a clear view of the traffic around us. The stubbornness of people riding bicycles becomes more obvious now; their bodies covered in plastic disposable jackets, their presence on the streets no different than on the sunniest day of the year. The rain stabilizes as we merge onto the A4 highway to The Hague and Rotterdam. Flat, green, seemingly endless fields populate both sides of the road. The interior is very warm. I dial down the heating.
“How long is it now,” – I ask, wrestling out of the sleeves of my coat. “That you’ve been back in the Netherlands?”
“It’ll be one year in a couple weeks. I left London last December.”
“Still glad to have done it?”
“I prefer the life here.” – he says. “Much less frenzied. It’s just that the financial benefits may not be as relevant as we imagined them when we decided to move the company here.”
“Getting to be more expensive?”
“Yeah.” – he says. “Fucking Brexit. Bunch of companies will be moving to Amsterdam left and right soon.”
“Is the business doing okay?”
“Yeah, it’s good.” – he says, overtaking a white truck in front us. “Fucking hate it though.”
The rain has stopped completely now, as we approach the exit to Leiden. Some sun can be seen, vaguely breaking through the ashen sky, bouncing off the tin rooftops of a familiar-looking township to my right.
“What was the name of that little town we stayed at while we were writing the thesis?” – I ask. “It was somewhere around here I think.”
“Voorschoten.” – Robert says. “But you can’t see it from the highway.”
“It was a good decision to move away from the city during that final stretch.” – I say, still looking at the houses in the distance. “Not sure I would’ve done everything as well if I hadn’t.”
“We had ourselves a nice little think tank too, huh?”
“True.” – I say. “How’s Emma doing, did you hear anything about her?”
“No.” – he says. “Last I heard she was in New York, working in some consultancy.”
“You had a nice thing going there for a while.”
“We did.” – he says. “But it was one of those things that expire on graduation day, as soon as the bubble bursts.”
“Wonder what Hans is up to.” – I say, grinning at the mention of his name.
“I don’t.” – Robert says. “Not since that last night in Voorschoten.”
“Still can’t believe he reacted that way.”
“I mean, having two drunk idiots on wheelchairs break into your room at 5am…”
“…while humming the James Bond theme…”
“…can be a reason to get pissed, I get that now.” – I say, laughing. “But to never speak to them again…”
“Yeah.” – he says, also laughing. “Fuck Hans.”
We soon pass The Hague and Delft, and take the exit to Rotterdam Noord. The streets are noticeably more deserted than in Amsterdam, as we make our way to Kralingen, the neighborhood of the city where the university campus is. We agree for this to be our first stop of the day.
The campus, once a gathering of grey rectangular buildings with sporadic patches of grass, is now invigorated with a colorful new building on the central plateau and a sizable artificial pond, fountains included, along the main walkway. The new building seems to house a couple of coffee shops – the regular, non-Dutch kind – as well as a new canteen overlooking the pond.
“Well it’s good to see why we had to suffer through all those excavators and trucks in our final year.” – I say, looking around the plateau.
“They did a good job.” – he says. “Easier on the eyes now.”
“I liked it before too.” – I say. “The way it was gritty a bit.”
“Said the Eastern European.” – he says.
We cross the plateau and reach the G building, the one where the bulk of our classes was held. The revolving entrance door is locked. A bicycle parking in the form of an elongated steel rack is still in the same spot, to the right of the entrance. As usual on a Saturday afternoon, it is entirely vacant. I light a cigarette underneath the designated awning, inhaling deeply, tasting the tobacco and humidity. Robert is on the phone with someone, walking in circles, speaking in Dutch.
“I think I smoked opium here once.” – I say, as he hangs up.
“Yeah. I remember seeing a couple of guys, I think they were on exchange from the Emirates or somewhere, smoking something over here.” – I say, pointing at a dark dead-end passage next to the revolving door. “When I asked them what it is, they only looked at me with glassy eyes and offered me a puff.”
“How was it?”
“Can’t really remember.” – I say. “I wanted to ask them how they brought it into the country, but I don’t know if I did. I was due in class in like five minutes.”
“Not remembering much of the class too, I imagine.”
“It was something about citizen journalism that week.” – I say, pulling on the cigarette. “No harm in forgetting there.”
“Stupid shit.” – he says. “We learned some really stupid shit when you think about it.”
“Even then, I loved the free time we had.”
“That I did too.” – he says, then looks at the screen of his vibrating phone. “I’m not going to take this.”
“I’d do better things with it now.” – I say, throwing the butt, stepping on it.
“Who wouldn’t?” – he says, answering the phone.
We walk back to the central plateau, past buildings C and H and the main library, as Robert continues to talk on the phone and I search for signs of life in the newly made pond. I find none before we pass it and stop in front of Aula, the building used for conferences and ceremonies.
“It was so funny,” – Robert says, smiling, returning the phone to the inside pocket of his coat. “Seeing you with the entire family here that day.”
“The whole Serbian entourage.” – I say.
“How many of you were there?”
“Eight I think. Parents, sister, and both sets of grandparents.”
“That’s actually cool.” – he says after a little while. “Sharing such moments that way. It’s the only real purpose of these celebrations.”
“I think I was the only one who filled the allowed quota of invitee’s.” – I say, peeking through the glass window at the main hall of the building. “It was a big thing for them to witness the first one in the family graduating abroad.”
“Of course it was.” – he says, when we turn to walk towards the parking lot. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Fiesta’s engine rumbles to life and the campus gates grow smaller in the rearview mirror as we drive down Oostzeedijk street. The kebab place at the end of the street is still there, with a line of overweight regulars cueing in front. Robert turns in the direction of the city center and soon we pass under the block of cube houses, the famous symbol of Rotterdam – together with the city’s harbor the only thing I knew about it when I first moved here. The houses look as confusing as always, resting on their corners rather than their bases. Like their residents are sleeping on the walls and eating from the floors. It must not look that way on the inside.
“And?” – I hear Robert say.
“You want to check this out?” – he asks, pointing at a huge horse-shoe shaped glass structure behind the cube houses.
“What is that?”
“Markthal.” – he says, with a tone combining ridicule and pride. “This new building that’s now supposedly the world’s largest indoor market.”
I look at him.
“It has a garage as well.” – he adds.
We park underground and take the escalator upstairs, straight to surface level. Cheese shops, fish stores, butchers, and florists somehow mix together without foul olfactory consequences. Looking up, I see the vast concave ceiling is actually a giant painting of oversized flowers, fruits, straws of grass, and benevolent insects, all towering over the restless visitors of the market, offering a useful perspective.
Outside the hall, a strong cold wind welcomes us, making us give up on the idea of walking around the center.
“Let’s go to one of the bars in Oude Haven.” – I say, zipping my coat. “One beer is not going to hurt me.”
In a quick-footed minute, we reach the Old Harbor. Nestled in the crotch of two residential buildings, it has a number of pubs to choose from but the wind urges us to settle for the nearest one – Dutch Maritime Pub. The interior is all wood except for the floor tiles that stick to my shoes as soon as I step inside, explaining the pleasantly overwhelming smell of stale beer. A man with white moustache welcomes us with a barely audible goedemiddag. We take the only window table, still containing leftovers of the peanut aficionados who preceded us. I go for a pint of draft Palm and Robert opts for a bottle of Leffe Bruin.
“I loved Leffe.” – I say, rubbing my hands together, trying to warm them up. “Until my job became to market it.”
“Hard to find a target group over there?”
“More like personal overconsumption.”
He laughs. “So what about this deal with Coke?”
The man with the moustache brings the beer. The foam pours over the edge of my glass, down to the Heineken coaster under it. Robert fills his own. We clink the glasses and take long swallows.
“Ahhh.” – I exhale. “Fuck I missed beer.”
“How long has it been?”
“A month.” – I say, surprising myself. “Maybe more.”
“Moderation is better than abstention.”
“Moderation is kind of the whole problem.”
“With that I concur.” – he says, taking another swallow. “So, what are they offering you at your current job?”
“A promotion of sorts. They’d attach the branding duties to my plate and give me a raise. Some boneheaded title will follow too I gather.”
“And how’s the money?” – he asks. “Compared to Coke I mean?”
“Less.” – I say. “But easier hours, definitely.”
“Both are regional positions?”
He sighs. “Then I don’t know what to tell you man.”
I take another sip of Palm, a smaller one, and set it back on the wet coaster. I rotate the coaster, flattening the drops of liquid into an imperfect ring on the wooden surface of the table. Faint music is coming from the bar. The sound is a touch metallic, as if coming from a transistor radio, despite the obvious computer screen behind the counter. I look out the window. Not much can be made out in the encroaching twilight.
“What’s going on with Nataliya?” – he then asks.
“You didn’t call her back?”
“No.” – I say. “And she didn’t call again.”
“Why should she?” – he says. “You ignored her twice.”
“I know.” – I say, taking another small sip. “And I think it’s better that way.”
“Do you miss her?”
I let out a half-stifled groan.
“All right.” – he says, pouring out the bottom of his bottle. “No more talk of that.”
Our host notices the empty bottle and asks Robert if he’d like another one. He accepts. The host then looks at me and I wave him off. He spreads his arms, as if protesting a severely irrational decision, and I wave him off again, this time with a smile. He shrugs his shoulders and disappointedly fetches another Leffe from the buzzing fridge.
“Her birthday is coming up.” – I say, as Robert gets the drink. “December 18th.”
“Well you already got her a present.”
“The poem, man.” – he says. “She doesn’t know it got published.”’
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that.”
“Yeah.” – he says, pouring a glassful. “Maybe you shouldn’t after all.”
I finish nursing my tepid Palm after Robert is done with his third Leffe, and we are trekking back to Markthal again. We take the escalator down to the crowded garage, causing Robert to surmise that parking at a market on Saturday is perhaps not the best of solutions, after all.
The streetlights are on by the time we surface again. In their indifferent luminosity, Fiesta’s matte blue exterior moves towards the outskirts of the city.
“You know,” – I say, as we merge onto the highway. “Going back to school might be a good idea.”
“For a Master’s you mean?”
“Yeah.” – I say. “Instead of going for either one of these options.”
“Like an MBA or something?”
“I don’t think so.” – I say. “I don’t care much for that career enhancing crap, especially since I know how it all works inside the companies. I’d rather do something that interests me more.”
“I was thinking film studies maybe. I found this pretty good program, in Budapest.”
“Well that wouldn’t be completely senseless.” – he says, breaking a five-second-long silence. “I’ve never met a greater cinephile than you.”
“It would mean putting any kind of a career on hold.”
“And it’s a little irresponsible.”
“Depends what you do with it.”
“I know.” – I say, sighing, looking around the car. “Do you have any kind of music in this car, Dutch radio stations not included?”
“Actually…” – he says, fumbling around the glove compartment. “I have the new Leonard Cohen album.”
“Play that.” – I say. “It’s a great fucking album.”
Robert inserts the CD. “It’s a shitty fucking year.”