I rooted around in my bag. Surely it had to be here. My debit card couldn’t have just up and disappeared, could it? I searched and searched, to no avail. Later I would learn that it indeed been stolen, and would go on to be used to buy 500 euro worth of ties, for some reason.
But right now I had more pressing matters. I had just bought a ticket from Paris to Amsterdam, and without a credit card the hostel I had on the line wouldn’t reserve a bed for me. Even more concerning, I had 50 euro on me and no way to get more. But, I did have a train ticket, and an indomitable spirit, so I hung up, boarded the train, and set out.
When you get off the train and exit Amsterdam Centraal, you’ll be facing south, and you’ll have three choices for which way to walk. To the right is the Jordaan, a sleepy suburb full of mellow Dutchmen. A few nights later I would stay in a Christian hostel there. Directly in front of you is the Leidsestraat, the main thoroughfare, which leads to the government buildings, the museums, et cetera. To the left is the red light district.
At the time, I did not know this. All I knew was that I was pretty sure the hostel I was looking for was to my left, so I set off that way.
To my surprise, I found the hostel really easily. Unfortunately for me, they had since booked up. They directed me to another hostel, which I went to, and they were full as well. They directed me to a third hostel, where I repeated the process, and after yet another failed attempt, and now well after sundown, I was growing discouraged, my pack was growing heavy, and I was getting desperate.
Just then a Kurdish man came up and asked me, “Hey, you looking for a place to sleep? I take you to hostel, follow me.” Sure, I thought, why not? What have I got to lose?
I followed him for several blocks before noticing that our twisty, turny path could not possibly be the most direct route anywhere. I know he was Kurdish because he told me; he kept up a constant stream of distracting patter the whole time. This was 2008, back when Bush was still the president, and so, being American, he felt he had found in me a kindred spirit. I felt a bit differently.
“You are American? I love America! Americans are just like us Kurds; we both hate Arabs. I love George Boosh! George Boosh is a great man: no one hates Arabs more than George Boosh” he told me enthusiastically. I nodded along awkwardly, not wanting to offend him by disagreeing, and still depending on him to find a place to stay. Then, camaraderie established in his eyes, he let the other shoe drop: he wanted me to pay him for finding a hostel.
I tried explaining that I couldn’t afford to pay him, but he wouldn’t have it. So at the next intersection, when he turned left, I turned right. He started following me, badgering me to follow him again. I did my best to ignore him.
After a series of random turns, a young British man smoking on the street corner noticed my predicament and decided to be a good Samaritan and lend me a hand.
“Hey, you looking for a place to stay? I’m pretty sure the hostel I’m staying at has some beds left. I can show you where it is, and I don’t want any of your money,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette. “Thank you,” I breathlessly intoned, and followed as he led the way.
The Kurd exploded at this. I don’t remember what all he said (much of it was in Kurdish) but one phrase stuck in my mind: these “damned immigrants taking my job”. People are the same the world over, it seems.
We walked along for a ways, the Brit in front, me trailing behind, weighed down by my pack, and the Kurd off to the side. We came to a corner where stood a huge black man, one of the largest people I’ve seen in my life. The Brit rounded the corner, and then the Kurd made a hand signal to the black man, who nodded, and then stepped into line behind us.
As I turned the corner, the Kurd rushed up behind the Brit and punched him in the back of the head, full force. The Brit staggered forward, clutching his skull, shouting “What the fuck?!”. He recovered quickly and we whirled up, side to side, facing the Kurd, who had backed off a few meters and was dancing in place, his hands up in a fighting stance. The crowd had immediately parted, giving us a circle to fight in, avoiding eye contact and thoroughly ignoring us.
At the time I knew nothing at all of fighting, and I was wearing a heavy backpack, right next to a canal. One push and I would be under the water and done for. The Brit scanned the crowd for assistance, and locked eyes with the only person not studiously ignoring us: the enormous black man, who emerged from the crowd like a photo negative Moby Dick.
“Hey man, help us out here? That guy just hit me!” the Brit called out. “Those guys are together!” I whispered to him. “We are so screwed!”
The black man came forward and put his hand on the Kurd’s shoulder. Then, with a voice like James Earl Jones gargling an avalanche, he said:
“Come on man, you don’t want to start another fight. Let’s go to the bar and forget this ever happened.”
And they disappeared into the crowd.
Epilogue: The Brit and I made it to his hostel. They were only charging 20 euro a night, so I could afford two nights, enough time to get more cash out of my account. Me, the Brit, and two identical twin Portuguese brothers spent the night smoking and watching Dutch Spongebob Squarepants.
Photos are by me.