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Romeo Dies in Amsterdam
copyright © Victor Paul Borg 2000

"I feel defeated and trapped, and my tongue is stuck," Angelica Lehmann said. "I have the urge to escape, to leave."

"Why?" I sighed under my breath, and lay down in the bed next to her.

"I think you don't like me anymore," she said. "Do you?"

I rolled on my back, scrambling for words. The walls and ceiling of our room had gray wallpaper, the door and bedside table hand-painted green, a black carpet, and a cramped bathroom that smelled of a stale pond. Angelica was voicing what we had both observed over our first two days in Amsterdam: that my interest in her had shrunk, and it's Amsterdam I wanted to explore not Angelica's inner landscape.

On the first night we roamed the alleys near the Central Station until we stumbled into a coffee shop. The Nepalese hash had a leathery narcotic taste. I spoke about what I expected from Amsterdam, my prejudices, the hash. Angelica sat erect and tight-lipped. To cheer her I frolicked with her, danced for her, tickled her; she was bruised because my love was fizzling.


"Well," I said. "I am not as madly in love with you as I thought I was before meeting here. Now you are like past women: I like you but not head over heels."


"I still like you - and you should be grateful for that. Maybe you expect too much from me?"

"Perhaps I am too romantic for you?"

After all the love letters, after we had placed our hands on each other's heart to feel the love-frenzied beat, after wailing like babies in the airport when she left - how could I say that her expectations were too high?

Outside, the bells of the Nieuwe Kerk in Dam Square started chiming on the quarter, a lilting and melodious chime. It gave Amsterdam the intimacy and laid-back atmosphere of a small town. I stood up and gazed out of the window, at the gothic spire of the church framed by a sky the color of dirty dishwater and dusted with the orange of the streetlights. The chime sounded like a weep over lost love and it made me restless.


"Just relax," I said. "I still like you, and I am still considering moving with you. Let's enjoy our time and then see what happens, take it from there."

She nodded, and a frown knotted her forehead. "Give me a smile," I said, nudging her playfully. She eyed me with hollow eyes. Gozo's emotional hangover shadowed her face. How could my love for Angelica wilt just five days into our second encounter?

In Gozo, eight weeks earlier, love had blazed across our vista like an unforgettable sunset. We had met in Malta where Angelica was studying English, six days before she would leave for home. For her last weekend we planned a three-day trip to Gozo. Gozo is to Malta what the highlands are to the UK - rural and laid-back, a landscape of tabletop hills, valleys with bamboo meadows thick as bristles on a broom, limestone cliffs dropping into the sea, forgotten coves.

That weekend we savored all the ingredients that nourish love. We lodged in a 150-year-old farmhouse; in the morning's we awoke to the cackles of cocks and the booing of cows. We ate the traditional pizzas cooked in wood-fired ovens, and ravioli large as purses bursting with sheep's cheese. We got drunk on the fortified walls of The Citadel, a 500-year-old castle whose limestone face is weathered to the color of sandstone. We skirted along a 200-metre high cliff, the blue sky and sun-dappled sea unfolding before us forever. We chased crimson sunsets. And we had sex under the Milky Way; "It seems to be there for us," I murmured.


"You have changed my life," she said before leaving. Back in Hamburg she left her boyfriend. I left mine and booked a flight for Hamburg seven weeks later.

When I told friends about my plans they shook their heads in growing disbelieve. It was only a holiday fling, they said. The pattern was familiar: another man from the Mediterranean who had fallen for a woman from north Europe.

In Gozo the romance sprouted in a state of suspended reality. And perhaps we should have kept it that way by meeting again in a hotel in a village or near a lake, a setting amenable to long and dirty nights, terrace breakfasts, candle-lit dinners, nature walks. A place where we would fill each other's vista, as in Gozo. But this holiday fling was different, I thought. After a 4-year live-in relationship I had become cynical about love.

With Angelica, however, I felt superstitious about love again; even her name suggested a primal love. I believed that love would triumph over hedonism and decadence, and Amsterdam poised that challenge: if I could love Angelica in Amsterdam in January I could love her anywhere.

Pacing across our room now, I wondered how romance could shine in our gray room, tucked in a corner of the attic, one wall leaning towards me as though it could cave in any minute. Angelica still lay in bed on her stomach, her face in her hands. I said, "It seems that we have problems communicating."


Later, when I went down to the hostel's bar waiting for Angelica to shower, it was the happy hour and everyone swung into a party mood. Techno music blasted from the speakers. The air reeked with cannabis. Leaning on the counter I sipped a coffee.

An Australian young man, who had just arrived in Amsterdam, quizzed me about the coffee shops and sex; he planned a binge of booze and drugs, and what are the women like? A Peruvian man joined us, and we discussed what nationalities of women are the best looking.

My eyes lingered on the Dutch woman behind the bar, confident and sexy as she bundled her blond hair into a ponytail, flashing her toothpaste-ad smile. To my right I spotted the Spanish duo, their faces cute as kitten's faces, the drawl in their voices sexy.

Everyone here basked in Amsterdam's hedonistic allures, and I wondered why Angelica and I thought we would cultivate our love to blossom in this lust-crazed city?


That night we ate Falafel in a cheap restaurant that smelled of dirty clothes in a closed room. Afterwards we walked to Leidseplein, Amsterdam's tourist-ridden area, to our favorite coffee shop.

In the Rokeru candles throw dim shadows dancing on the walls, Buddhist designs plume across its walls, young people sprawl on its bench-like seats woven of rope, and ambient music with its distorted sounds and electronic beats sputters through the air.

When Angelica said something I had to lean close to hear her. In Gozo her small voice blended with the nature setting, a whisper as romantic as the whistle of the wind filtering through grass and trees.

Here her voice irritated me because it sounded like a whimper. So fifteen-minute silences dissected our discourse. Seeing everyone else talking and laughing in merry animation made it worse: every spell of silence dealt us another blow.

In the Rokeru our gloom evaporated in a haze of smoke. Though on the way home I counted the days still - five down, ten to go.


The next day dawned cloudless, and I bristled to take pictures. We went separate ways. I roamed through the cobbled streets and the canals, watching the ducks and coots and grebes and water-traffic from the arched stone-bridges.

In the Red Light District I was struck by the marriage of the oldest profession and the oldest building in Amsterdam - prostitutes in bikinis in their window-booths surrounding the Oude Kerk. A smell of urine whiffed the air and I gawked at a street-sign showing the half-body of a man spewing a dotted line of pee, pointing to an open-air booth that enclosed a toilet.

"Coke! Ecstasy!" When I whirled my head I saw a dark man in a corner, his lips moving. "Coke! Ecstasy!" Shaking my head, I smiled at the flatness of his voice, the economic use of his words. I toyed with the idea of buying an LSD tab. To do it with Angelica? Her paranoia might rub on me.

I wandered into the Marijuana Museum and the Sex Museum. Both wear an educational and academic cloak: the Marijuana Museum devoted largely to the history of hemp and its uses and environmental tributes, and the Sex Museum with the theme 'Pornography through the Ages.'

What does hemp have to do with mind-altering hash? What's the link between cannabis plants growing in a hothouse "in natural surroundings" and industrial hemp? In the Sex Museum, what's educational about centuries-old sex aids and pictures and the clips of porno films produced through the decades? The educational sideshows seemed a pretense for a celebration of sex and hash. And both taunted me: I felt like a tethered dog that couldn't reach the meat in the mid-distance.


We spent the weeknights reading and sipping tea in the hostel's bar. Sometimes I would lift my head from the book and catch Angelica staring at me. Her eyes burned. In Gozo I interpreted these gazes as dedication, that she was peering into my heart; here her unflinching eyes scorched me because they judged me.

The nights were long and we devoured each other in feverish intimacy. We cried like wounded animals. We joked that sex was good; "Mind-boggling, isn't it?" I said. Yet it was good while it lasted, furious in its romantic finality, the way a pricked balloon will swish through the air before it tumbles to the ground.

The next days rolled past unhurried, and we planned our itinerary day-by-day. We visited the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, where Rembrandt's celebrated The Nightwatch is housed. We strolled in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam's largest park. We roved through the city center, soaking the atmosphere.

We sat in cafes with their sweet coffee flavor and took in the city's face: its buildings, like stacks of books propped on a shelf, some teetering forward, their facades pock-marked by hollow-eyed windows, their facades pluming into stonework designs like the back of a chair of a medieval king.


Angelica had shed some of her emotional baggage. And half of the day we were stoned anyway so the days unfolded in slow motion; we floated in a daze. With Angelica I felt the way I would feel with someone I had met in the hostel and paired up for a day or two for company.

We pointed out the sights, we wallowed in our flights of fanciful imagination triggered by skunk intoxication, we discussed the Dutch way of doing politics and business in growing admiration.

At night we went clubbing, and Angelica acted like an alien. She grew up in the Rock scene, and now found it hard to blend into clubs and relate to electronic music. She followed me step-for-step, my shadow, confused about what to do next. While normally I smile at people, dance like there is no tomorrow and chat up anyone within earshot, Angelica's boredom and lack of self-confidence dragged me into the corners and edges of clubs.

I realized this: you can be with a lover one-to-one and grow into each other's presence, but the break-or-make test for a couple comes when you mix with people, and Angelica and I were failing. That we were in a city that rages with opportunities to party and mingle made our failure a decisive blow. In Gozo I took her timidity as a sign of submissive dedication, while in Amsterdam her lack of assertiveness, her weary face, made me feel socially incompetent, guilty by association.


Mazzo, on our last night, struck me as an unpretentious club, with red umbrella-shaped paper lamps dangling from the ceiling as décor. The DJ spun dance-floor acid jazz, with lilting basslines and rhythmic beats. As the dance-floor started to fill up I got up to dance; Angelica followed. I rolled my head and shuffled my feet as the music gripped me. I beamed at a woman windmilling her hands and a man hopping from side to side.

I eyed Angelica and said, "Do you feel like going home?"

She shook her head. Her gestures, however, suggested boredom. Her face was down-turned, her arms and legs crossed, and while everyone in the club danced I could not detect a twitch in her body.

At least we never argued or made a scene, I thought when we left Amsterdam, back to our separate homes.

Ten days of Amsterdam had rotted our love, though we both fell into a new love affair: with Amsterdam. In her latest e-mail Angelica said she is planning to visit Amsterdam again with her friends, a group of five women, her "chick's club." And when a friend suggested a weekend in Amsterdam to celebrate a friend's bachelor party I said I'm game; to experience Amsterdam as a man my age should, with a pack of wolves on a hunt, on the rampage every night.

copyright © Victor Paul Borg 2000

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