‘Their Backpacking Days Are Over’

This piece originally appeared in Reisikirju, a collection of travel stories published in Estonian in 2014.

***

‘Their Backpacking Days Are Over’

It is hot and stuffy in the Hotel Hortensius in Amsterdam. There is something dirty in the air of the main room and the narrow corridors that stretch out beyond it. The walls of the corridors are marked up with black scratches, maybe from people’s backpacks being dragged up against them, and the lighting in the shared bathroom is dim, and when you look too close at the beige tiles and all the tiny hairs on them, you start to think it’s best that way. We have a room beside the bathroom, a rectangular space with two bunk beds and a carpet that looks as if it has never been cleaned, or that it even could be cleaned. The dirt of the ages has just settled into this place. The tired filth of time. The muck of hundreds of pairs of kicked off shoes.

In the bottom bunk, my wife lies beneath a worn blanket, our daughter facing her, almost in an embrace. Finno-Ugric Madonna and Child. They slumber as they did on the eve of her birth in Tallinn Central Hospital, so weary and just burned out by it all and looking so peaceful. True bliss. But the room is so warm and the air is just unbreathable in here. Everything feels brittle, stiff, menacing. I lean in, kiss their warm foreheads and those tiny beads of sweat, notice how the end of the blanket is frayed. Then I walk over to the sink, look into a fogged up mirror, wipe away some of the slime. Splash some cool Dutch water on the skin. Weary 25-year-old face. Puff around the eyes.

We can’t go on like this.

In the main room, which is full of dangerous-looking characters with torn clothing, combat boots, beards and facial piercings, I tell the owner Frank that we have decided to move out and to cancel the rest of our reservation. We had booked the Hotel Hortensius for six days, but one has been enough. Frank is rotund with short cut brown hair and glasses. He looks like a hedgehog. He can’t be much older than me, but he has the vivaciousness of a man who has run this hotel all of his life. Half of the time he is on the phone. The other half of the time he is yelling something at his co-partner, a miserable-looking Nederlander with pink dreadlocks, a nose ring, and a few tribal tattoos. Her laptop went missing this morning. I heard her sobbing in the hallway. Who stole my computer?

“But I don’t understand,” Frank says shaking head. “We always get four stars on TripAdvisor.”

“The Hortensius is a very nice place, Frank. We just need a place that is a bit more child friendly.”

Frank blinks at me with those knowing hedgehog eyes. Every time I look into a Dutchman’s eyes I can’t help but wonder if he is running a hash cafe or live sex theater on the side. It’s the nature of the place. In the office in New York, Kirell, my brainy pervert of an editor, claims that any word can be made dirty by just inserting the word “Dutch” in front of it. A “Dutch vacuum” is a blowjob, by his reckoning. A “Dutch lampshade” is an uncircumcised penis. And I don’t even want to tell you what “Dutch licorice” is.

“But children stay here at the hotel all of the time,” Frank says. “Are you unhappy with the condition of your room? Let’s go have a look at it.” He starts to move from behind the counter.

“No way.”

Frank recoils, blinks. “Why not?”

“Because my wife and daughter are sleeping in there.”

“Oh,” Frank scrunches his nose as if even more confused. “But I can move you into another room.”

“Can you move us into a room with its own bathroom?”

Frank looks at me as if I have asked him to loan me his favorite Beatles LP. “Don’t be funny, sir. You know we do not have such facilities at the Hotel Hortensius!”

“Then we will need to check out. Immediately. This place is great for backpackers. Not for us.”

“Very well,” says a sullen frowning Frank. “I will, er, refund you for the, uh, remaining four days.”

“Don’t worry, Frank,” I say. “We won’t write anything bad about Hotel Hortensius on TripAdvisor.”

This seems to restore his buoyant mood. He’s back to answering phones and searching for lost laptops. We are packing our bags. I do feel bad for Frank though. We would have stayed here for six nights if it was just we two. We have probably both stayed in places worse than this. But there are no longer two of us. There are now three. We are a trio. A triad. We need a cleaner place to sleep.

***

I guess you could say that we have been living in denial. Many people had warned us that having children would change everything, and we took it like a lot of advice: heard but unprocessed. Of course, having children would change everything. There were three of us now instead of two. But it was our traveling lifestyle that I sensed people around us were most eager to see snuffed out. To see the looks on relatives’ faces that spring when I got the New York Job and cut my hair. “He’s growing up at last,” was the sentiment. “Soon they’ll settle down, get a mortgage,” it was agreed. “Their backpacking days are over.” The idea was like a shovel-full of dirt on the coffin of my heart.

And haven’t we proved them wrong? A week in Amsterdam, another planned for Edinburgh and Glasgow. And there will be genetics conferences, too! I’m a professional now, you know. But if you are going to travel with children, then you’ve got to shed your rugged clothes, your foul hostels.

That’s all.

Walk out along the water in the sunshine, a perfect late morning, bags on our backs, stroller out front. The canals, the bridges, the cycling bicycles. Beautiful family. Man and woman. A little girl with golden hair that all are always happy to see. “It’s so good to be back in Europe,” gushed Epp when we arrived a day back, walking to our first hotel. “Even the garbage men are good looking.”

At last, we discover a good hotel. Clean room three staircases up. A skylight and view of the waters. Our daughter freshly bathed, freshly snuggled beneath freshly washed blanket and sheets. Our own bathtub, our own toilet. Even our own television set! Luxury. A show for Dutch children with little puppets dancing. Daughter peeks curiously out from behind the blanket, hears the strange tongue. Mother and father are smiling again. All is going well. And then daughter vomits all over the sheets.

A spectacular runny mess.

***

The first time I glimpsed Amsterdam was through the clouds, but it was still gray underneath. All of those cargo ships, all of those sea containers as our KLM plane came in over the port. Big boxes of blue and orange, marked Maersk, NileDutch, and CMA CGM, and yet they all had that rundown, brownish, beatup, dirty Dutch tinge to them. Everything in Holland was dirty. The carpets and sheets, the streets and the people. Ancient muck seemed to be floating through the air, depositing filthy particles on every solid object with which it interacted. Growing up, you came across those paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, those hunched over pale-faced, shadowy 17th century figures against a gray sky with every tree and house in sight bent and crooked-cartoonish, and here you realize that they were just painting what they saw and what they saw was still all around you. To listen to the Nederlands on the taxi radio, which sounded so familiar and yet out of reach. The first time I encountered spoken Dutch, I really did think, “This is the worst English I have ever heard!”

But that was Holland – weird. Wooden shoes, canals, a tulip obsession, and the Anne Frank House. Fantasy and science fiction. In the Red Light District there were golden water fountains shaped like phalluses and the women would knock at the windows in their red bikinis and tired eyes. You would recoil a bit to see other men go inside and then feel a fluttering in your intestines to know that you could go inside too if you had the money. But would you? Would you really dare to go inside? Money for sex? At Christmas, the ship would rove the canals, a bearded Saint Nicholas with staff and his African assistant, Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, in blackface makeup and Renaissance garb.  They would go sailing by under the windows and the gray light would reflect off the messy sheets. Once upon a time I had a girlfriend in Amsterdam. Epp had her own crazy Dutch adventures too.

But that was before we met, before we cohabited, before we had children. A very long time ago. This time around we have good weather and the Red Light District has been swapped out for zoos, the old bars replaced by handicrafts workshops, night wanderings substituted with boat tours. When the shaggy-headed old Hippie men come swaggering down the alleys, my instinct is not to see where they are going or wonder who they are, but to pull our daughter out of their way. Maybe they are crazy, maybe they are dangerous. Whoever they are, I can’t have them anywhere near my child.

So little in this world of Amsterdam seems to be made for children. And the few places that are for children are enclosed and have an admission price. It is as if nobody wants to accept that children exist. But they do exist. Where else do you think all of these 15 million Dutch people came from?

***

A door creaks open and an old lady’s shrewish face looks out through it. Tight curly white hair, long Pictish nose. The black cab pulls away from the row house and down the lane. The sun is setting over the treeless hills of Holyrood Park, and a purplish dusk is descending in the cool moist air. A somber scene it is to stand on a stranger’s doorstep like pilgrims waiting to be let in to security.

“You said nothing about an infant,” the old woman looks at the slumbering bundle in our arms. Holland to Scotland and still sick and weak. She puked on the bus from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Twice.

“I am pretty sure we reserved a room for three,” I tell the old lady.

“Yes, you reserved a room for three adults, young man. But you said nothing of an infant.”

“What’s the difference? Three people. Two adults, one child. We reserved the room for three!”

“It is the explicit policy of the Dorothy McKenzie Bed and Breakfast not to allow in infants,” she says, with those crooked Scottish vowels angled all up in her mouth. What a cold Presbyterian bird. Explicit policy.

“Who is Dorothy McKenzie? Can we speak with her?”

“I am Dorothy McKenzie, young man.”

“Oh.”

“I am afraid you will simply have to find another place to stay.” The woman goes to close the door.

“Wait! Dorothy!” she holds the door slightly ajar and blinks at me, as if to say, What nerve! “Dorothy, I mean, Mrs. McKenzie, the girl at the tourist office in town saw us, she knew we had a child when she called you. Please let us in. We have no other place to go and it is getting late.”

The lady squints down at the child sleeping in Epp’s arms as if it was a mange-infested dog. Then there is more softness in the texture of those gray irises. “Oh,” she sighs. “All right you can stay. She is a bonnie wee bairn.”

When you are inside the B&B you can see why it has a no child policy. Vases, paintings, tapestries, fine old wall paper, silence but for the radio in the kitchen and the ticking of the clocks. When our bags are put away, we decided to walk around the block in the shadow of Holyrood. It was so calming just to walk around that neighborhood, see the lights of the families through the windows. Why is it so hard for others to understand what traveling can give a person, these moments of peace.  This is such a beautiful world and we are so lucky to enjoy it, just for a blessed evening like this. Why are so many people of the opinion that the travels must end, and that we must get so serious?

Scottish breakfast, runny eggs, runny beans, under-cooked bacon, under-toasted toast, weak coffee and watery tea served in Old Dutch China. “The worst eggs I have ever eaten, I mean how did she even manage to cook these things?” asks Epp. A gray day. Inside, the smell of old books. It all costs £57. Miss Dorothy McKenzie is very polite to us, but I can imagine she will be so very grateful when “the family” is gone. And with good reason. The bonnie wee bairn vomited all over the lady’s hand-woven blanket last night, but we cleaned it up so well it looks as if it never had happened.

***

The family sees Scotland on foot, and also on occasion by train, ferry, even bus. One bus for us, a coveted, multi-evening, sightseeing caravan into the Highlands, is off limits. I sit opposite a young Scottish lady in a floppy Jamaican Rasta hat who takes down our names and birth  years as I try to register for it, and then gives me a puzzled look when I give her the birth year of our third companion. “Two thousand and three?” she seems truly perplexed. “But that was two years ago.”

“I know,” I say. “Our daughter is a year and a half old.”

Daughter?” she shoots me a suspect look. “Did you say daughter? But how old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Hmm. Well, I am sorry but we do not allow children on the Highlands Bus. It’s not our policy.”

I want to ask why, but I already know. The Highlands Bus is the domain of young wanderers looking for guitar sing-a-longs, urgent hook ups, dope sharing, political philosophizing. Children cannot be allowed into such a freewheeling circus. No one would be able to have any fun.

***

Instead, we took her on our shoulders. Down the old walking streets of Edinburgh with all of the coal-smog-darkened Georgian buildings with their proud columns and rows of glass windows, the rising war memorials to Scottish regiments lost through centuries of colonial warfare, bagpipes in one arm, weapons in the other. In Glasgow, it is the same but grimier. On a Saturday night in Glasgow, the downtown peace is shattered by drunkards. A car pulls up alongside a young man walking his tiny daughter, a Scottish gent jumps out, urinates on the sidewalk, jumps back, and they speed away. There are excursions to Fort William, where there is good hiking, but we are in no shape to hike with a stroller in tow, and to Oban, on the coast, where there are good whiskey tasting tours, but we cannot bring a little girl to taste whiskey.

At Oban, there are ferries out to the Hebrides, those mysterious craggy islands that I looked at too many times in the atlas when I was a child, but the water looks freezing and there is a cold, damp air coming off of it, and we can’t afford for the child to get even more sick. In Oban we take refuge in a pub to get a bite to eat. There is a sign on the door that says, “NO COLORS.” When I ask what “NO COLORS” means, the curly-red-haired waitress tells me in her rolling brogue that fights break out too often here between fans of rival football teams. Wearing the wrong colors on the wrong night can nearly get a man killed, she says. This is the world into which we have brought our child.

On the Isle of Arran, we take turns holding her while hiking through the grasses to look at the Machrie Moor Stone Circles, but by the time we get there with our daughter to view the ancient standing stones, she has fallen asleep on my shoulders. I set her down to lie in the grass among piles of fresh sheep dung. We have carried this little person to the end of the earth, and for what purpose, for our own need to prove to ourselves that we can still travel anywhere, anytime, no matter what?

And yet it’s not all so hard. One fine sunny day I have the bonnie wee bairn on my shoulders and we go running across a bridge over the River Clyde in Glasgow. She snorts and giggles as we run the length of the bridge, and I loosen my grip every other second, so that she bounces up and down, as if she was on the back of a horse.

When we reach the end of the bridge, she yells, “Veel!” “More” in Estonian, and I take her back over the River Clyde, dashing away. And as soon as we reach the other shore of the Clyde it’s “Veel!” again, “Veel! Veel! Veel!” A red British public transit bus goes past us and the Scottish commuters inside are staring out of the windows at the lunatic with the tot on his shoulders who keeps running across the bridge. But prudish Scottish people, dirty Dutch people? Whatever. My daughter and I don’t care what other people think about us on this July day in Glasgow.

We are just happy to be alive.

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