By Jeppe Kleijngeld
Return of the Prodigal Son . . . A Personal Account of Loss & Sorrow . . . Taking the Touristic Route . . . AK47 & Familiar Habits . . . and Finally; The Meaning of a Human
Life . . .
When thinking about Argentina, most people will think of famous soccer players, like Messi or Maradona. Or Maxima perhaps. Or grill & steak. Or economic crises… I think of my old pal Alejandro. I remember dropping him off at the gate of Schiphol Airport, 20 years ago. One last handshake, a big hug and watching him walk towards the departure gate…
Now he is back in the Netherlands, my old friend Alejandro from Argentina. I met him at the Leidseplein in Amsterdam on 14:00 in the afternoon the day before Kings Day. He was late. I think he always was late. But that is a cultural thing he later told me. ‘Jeppe, in the Netherlands, everything is very structured. If you want to play a game of tennis with somebody, you ask him at least a week in advance even if you want to play right now.’ Therefore, he let all his Dutch contacts know well in advance that he would be coming around at this time.
He learned a lot about Dutch culture and traditions when he was here in 1995. His curiosity was inspiring. In six months he learned to speak Dutch fluently, which everybody found very impressive. He made a lot of friends too. Me for example. He became one of my closest friends in just a few weeks time. This South-American monkey was pretty charming.
While waiting, I was reading a New York Times article about the rats of New York City. It said that rats tend to stay in the same area their whole lives. They don’t cover a lot of ground and rarely move. Cool huh? Then I got a WhatsApp: ‘Hey Jeep, I’m there in ten minutes.’ I got a nervous feeling. What will it be like seeing him again? Will I even recognize him? And am I still a cool guy he will enjoy hanging out with? But no problemo, it turned out. From the moment he stood in front of me, we were talking as if nothing ever changed and time just… well evaporated. Or something.
He was with a friend from Argentina: Fabio. His boyfriend it soon turned out. ‘I switched sides ten years ago’, he told me. He was in several relationships with woman, but something was never quite right. Then one day after his last relationship ended, he went to a large gay club in Buenos Aires and picked up a guy. The day after he kicked the guy out, and then he knew: ‘this is it for me’. Soon after he met Fabio.
His coming out among friends and family members was remarkably easy. In Argentina homosexuality is very accepted nowadays. Gay marriage became legal in 2009. While Argentina got more tolerant, the Netherlands has lost some of its tolerance, I regretfully informed my friend. When he was here with the student exchange programme in 1995, it was a blissful time or so it seemed. People from all backgrounds lived together in relative peace and harmony, and there was little bitterness and resentment.
Now that has changed. Was it the murder on Theo van Gogh that was the breaking point? Alejandro had heard about that shattering event off course. For centuries Amsterdam had been a free haven for all sorts of freaks & weirdos from every outskirt of the planet. A place where they could believe whatever they wanted to believe and nobody would bother them. We Dutch & international guests managed to live together so well for a long time. Have we lost that ability?
Fact is, we are losing ground fast to other countries that are advancing in tolerance and acceptance. Even in a notoriously backward country like the USA, quite a few states have legalized marijuana, while suppliers in the Netherlands still have to worry getting arrested while driving their greens to the coffeeshop. But no reason to get all depressed, not yet anyway. When we walked around in Amsterdam – after drinking a beer on Alejandro’s return – the vibe was good on this day preceding the second Kings Day on April 27, 2015.
While walking around to check out some of the touristic sites, we talked about the year he was here – 1995 – and what came afterwards. Going back to Argentina was a real hangover for Alejandro, and he couldn’t stay in touch. I told him no hard feelings whatsoever. I knew him a little and figured back then that, despite his easy going appearance, he wasn’t a complete lightweight when it came to emotional processing. He could not take his departure from the Netherlands lightly. He came here, found home and wanted to stick, but he had outstayed his one year ticket. There was no way in sight to stay here longer. Not legally anyway.
And Alejandro left a lot behind. The friendship we had developed was real, and he had adopted largely – if not completely – to the Dutch way of life: boerenkool, zuurkool, bloemkool, aardappelen, weed…. He was always good at adopting, this Argentinian. Very much one of Darwin’s own super species. His agility also became apparent from his current job: Manager Social Media for a large Argentinian company. He had obviously mastered the digital skills that have become so essential for survival in this challenging current age, constantly tapping, typing and swiping through a variety of useful apps and platforms on this oversized i-phone, while swalking through the city with me and Fabio on this cold but happy day in April.
Ajejandro (left) & Fabio
Their style of holiday was very much like my own; just walking around and sightseeing, occasionally stopping at bars and restaurants to load up on foods and drinks. His friend Fabio is a photography freak, stopping every 20 metres or so, to take a few shots of the impressive Amsterdam architecture. We started our walking tour at the Museumplein, and then headed back towards the Dam area, stopping underway to have pancakes (pannenkoeken) and bitterballen. We tried to bring back Alejandro’s ability to speak Dutch and it did after a while.
We also played the ‘remember when…’ game. How we met in 1995, when my parents offered to take Alejandro to France with us on Holiday. That decision was right; we had a terrific time there along with our other friend Boris. We talked about how we jumped from a 18 metre cliff into a lake. And I reminded him of a mini-twister that blew the stuff of a group of Dutch tourists in the water, but Alejandro can’t remember that one.
We also talked about the loads of marijuana we smoked during his stay in the Netherlands. And it was probably inevitable that we would smoke some on that day. Early evening, we headed over to The Doors, a small coffeeshop close to central station. The lightest weed we could get our hands on was AK47 that went for 10 euros per gram. I rolled a joint and lit it. I hadn’t smoked that stuff in ages, so it came in pretty hard. Same goes for those two Argentinian dudes. Then we were high. After about 10 minutes of indecisiveness (should we go or stay? Get a drink or shouldn’t? Leave the rest of the weed or take it?) we walked out and strolled through the Jordaan, where people were now setting up shop for Kings Day. Fabio said he enjoyed the fairy-tale like houses in the inner city, but for the rest we didn’t talk much. We just walked – stoned – and it felt great.
At the boys’ apartment we watched CNN. A massive earthquake had hit Nepal and caused a devastating loss of life and history. The presenter seemed mostly concerned with promoting a special feature Facebook introduced to help those involved in the disaster, but we couldn’t figure out what was so new about it. If you’re in a disaster you can use social media, so what? The footage for the broadcast was provided by Nepalese television, which doesn’t consist of much more than one old camera held together by duct tape. ‘Man, that’s sucks’, said Alejandro. ‘You live in the poorest country in the world, you own nothing, and then on top of everything else you get hit by a gigantic fucking earthquake.’
We talked some more and noticed that our particular way of conversing and thinking from our childhood came back. That was a nice realisation; some things just exist and don’t disappear. Even if we had changed, we were still the same people in a way. Some time later, I left the boys to crash and decided to walk back to my own sleeping address, straight through many kilometres of Kings Day crowd. I bought a beer from a street bar and started marching through the crowd. I loved it. My mind was like a racetrack, moving between memories past and observations from the current moment. Walking is terrific: the ultimate existential activity.
I figured I would probably get an emotional hangover from this little get together. I am rather sensitive for these kinds of meetings. For the idea that meetings with friends and loved ones can be so meaningful and yet so brief. That life itself is so brief. I might see Alejandro again. Maybe I’ll visit him in Argentina sometime. I took him 20 years to get back here, so I should be able to do it. Until then I’ll try to keep on walking and living, and Alejandro will do the same.
Is that the point of human existence, I wondered. To collect a large number of meaningful memories with friends and lovers? To feel things? I, like other humans I suppose, have the need for some narrative in my life. I will probably see Alejandro again. He will come back some day, or I will visit him in his country, and then one day one of us will learn of the others persons death of the other side of the world. I figured there is some narrative in that, but it is not Shakespeare. It’s more like Scorsese. Not much plot, but just life. And life is often very good as well. Especially in this little country we Dutch are all so damn lucky to live in. And I wished more of my countrymen would see that as well. But by then I didn’t care. I was confidently walking towards more bliss. And there was plenty of time to worry about the future later.