By: Stephen Gildea-Young
We set out for Amsterdam, racing by train across the flatlands of Holland, through fields of yellow flowers, and we were, for a while, like Icarus. The world was no longer Dublin—it was Europe. Bound in a hurricane of anticipation for what lay ahead with every turn of the train wheel, we felt freer and wild, Tommy and I with our heads out the carriage window howling like wolves.
Chasey and Red laughed in the seats beside us. They looked on as our cheeks flapped and bellowed.
Like skydiving while standing still, it felt as though our faces could blow right off. The earth’s atmosphere filled our lungs, and all the while our feet stood planted on the floor—we might have been blown all the way home if our toes slipped. That feeling of grounded weightlessness was absolute freedom and my abiding memory of trains.
Then, after all their mockery, Chasey and Red gave into temptation and the four of us laughed and flew like wildmen by the rapeseed plantations.
We went everywhere by train that summer of 2002.
Not long before my own adventure, a veteran dirtbagger told me: “To see a country properly, walk it. Seriously. Yes, it will take a long time, and you won’t see all of it. But to feel the heartbeat of a land, you have to put your foot on the soil’s pulse and flow through its veins. To understand a country well but fast enough that you don’t linger in any one place for too long, see it by train. Stop at the stations. Walk the towns for a few hours, maybe stay a night. Then get back in the carriages and keep on going.”
We saw the Netherlands at its most beautiful because we left Brussels early, arriving in Amsterdam by midafternoon and finding our accommodation left a little to be desired. Chasey, though, had already paid the deposit.
Three nights we slept in that damp apartment above the Irish pub. Our view from the only window was the red bricks of the next building over. If you opened the pane wide you could reach across and touch it as the smell of bins wafted up in a hot perfume of old food in high summer. Our rooms were buried on the second floor of a five-storey block, so even when the skies cleared blue and the sun looked for windows to paint, we had to squint up three stories to see mid-July. Still, we didn’t complain. We were twenty, spending our days getting lost, but never too bothered by that. Most evenings we laughed our way home and stopped for dinner at the late-night kebab stand opposite our front door.
At Larmour’s they were always busy, and whether you wanted it or not they poured hot sauce on everything. Once dinner was done, we found all that heat had given us a thirst. We looked across the narrow street, and after some communal pondering we pooled our thoughts on the first evening: Yeah, okay, we’re slumming it, and we’ve already seen more rats today than we have in our whole lives, but damn we’re lucky—after that hot sauce—to be roughing it above an Irish pub.
It was deep and narrow, as shady in colour as it was in character. The Ogham Stone was sparsely populated. Even after dark. It looked more like a barbershop than a public house, with unstrung guitars hung from the walls and vintage cigarette logos adorning everything.
The shifty clientele skulked around the tables, the high-tops that ran along the back wall. Aside from the odd couple enclosed in candour, the bug eyes faced toward the TV that hung between the spirits. Dutch TV on silent, so the boys could watch Shakira but listen to The Pogues.
The bartender was quiet and spoke in prices, slouching in his sanctum, his face in profile, ears pointed towards the drink orders, ambling to the taps to pour the beer, shuffling to the till and returning to the baying palms with grog (and change) on a loop. He was no more than thirty-five years old, but he wore a comb-over and his skin was so pale and translucent it was almost blue. From four o’clock until after midnight he mooched around in there with his sleepwalking gait and half-closed eyelids like a perma-stoned turtle.
One evening at the kebab stand, licking hot sauce off my fingers, I looked in and reckoned that the Ogham was almost like any other regular Irish pub, but something was amiss, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Through half a mouthful of chips, Tommy replied: “Know what? I was jus’ wondering the same thing. It’s like the whole pub is moving in slow motion.”
“Yeah,” said Chasey, wisest of us all. “That’d be the weed.”
“Ours or theirs?”
Chasey puffed his cheeks. “Ha! Both,” he said and chomped down on his kebab.
He was most likely right, but the pub looked just the same in the morning too—even before we smoked. It did move a notch slower than the rest of the planet. And so, in conclusion, but not to finish: if the earth spins at eight hundred miles per hour, there must be a time warp on one street in old Amsterdam, because The Ogham Stone only does about seven hundred, seven-fifty tops.
It was Grifter Heaven there at its busiest. A melting pot of drugs and debauchery. To pick a pocket in The Stone all a ne’er-do-well had to do was reach out a hand.
I met a man from Liverpool—a permanent tourist—who sat at the bar every day biding his time between prostitutes, half-heartedly pushing cocaine. He gave not a damn if he didn’t sell his quota for the day— “Cos I’ll get fucked and then I’ll get fucked again regardless, know wharra’ mean lad? I’m doing them ladies down the Red Light yeah… no secret that. But their bosses are doing my wallet, so I come in ‘ere and do these punter’s noses. I drink wharra’ make, shag the profits, get an earful off my old boss who has probably got an earful off his boss. Circle of Amsterdam life, mate. No one in this city isn’t getting fucked.”
Men like him warmed stools all over the city—as common as the rats in the alley outside—in every coffee shop, bar, or nightclub-dressed-as-a-backlit-boudoir. ‘The Lost People of Amsterdam’ they were called: immigrants who came for the weed and the women and never left.
There was a park where some of the “lost” stayed and formed a kind of commune. We passed it one dawn. There was a loud bongo party going on just as the sun was coming up. The drums were soft and played with light fingers but even still the “lost” fought to keep time.
Amsterdam, I realised even as a young man, is not a town for the weak of will.
On our second morning, we crossed the bridge making north, dancing between the bicycles to Singel, where The Bulldog Cafe played “Break On Through.”
That adrenaline-rousing riff thumped out the open windows with billowing green smoke, over the canal and the ornate bridge, that led to the next bridge, and the next, in every direction. You could guide yourself by those bridges if your memory stayed clear. That was the hard part of taking it easy.
We found that days passed in a thin mist. You could barely stop for coffee or a bite to eat without somebody blazing up at the next table. You got high just hanging around.
Chasey made Tommy and I roll him light ones—nothing that would “fuck him up.” Red didn’t smoke. He was a beer man, damned if he was going to smoke any of that “hippy shit.”
The boulangerie we decided on for lunch the second day looked good enough for him. There were just enough customers over the age of forty for it to be bona fide in his eyes. He ordered a regular cappuccino with a croissant. We encouraged him to try the brownie.
“Can’t be any harm in a place like this,” said Tommy with a great straight face.
“Will they be wacky brownies?” Red asked, looking to Chasey, the man most likely to tell it straight. Chasey said they were, but they were fine. “Honestly. Just like drinking a beer.” Red got one to go. He took it back to the apartment and we watched as he took his first bite.
After his second nibble, I asked him: “How do you feel dude?”
It was like waiting outside the cinema for the film of your favourite book. It would be the greatest few hours of all time or a “there, there” while a man threw up.
“I can feel something now.”
“Are you stoned man?” Chasey asked.
“I think so.”
He was, and for twenty minutes the four of us were shooting off the same handicap. Then he got sick. His already pale face remained a sickly green for a few hours. He didn’t want a pint, or a kebab. He just lay on the manky brown couch and blinked.
They so rarely make a good version of your favourite book.
We watched each other carefully later that second day when we finally emerged into the sun. Red looked like easy pickings for the pickpockets, and we had developed a fear of losing one of the party.
Tommy and I had ventured south the day before and got lost somewhere between the Sex Museum and the Catholic church. We had asked for directions to The Ogham Stone from a glazed-eyed man who nodded and said: “Oh yeah? You like the Stones? Cool. I love The Rolling Stones.”
We agreed with him. And said so. But we were looking for “The Ogham Stone, you know, the pub?”
“Oh Yeah? Fuck. Yeah. Okaaay yeah. You go that way I think…”
Under instruction by pointed finger, we crossed another bridge. There, in a window, we saw a large woman dressed in lingerie smoking a pipe. She winked and we blushed. We waved at her: virginal saints. She blew us a kiss and we rushed on. Still flushed in the cheeks, we turned a corner and there we were: in Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
In the passing crowds were the libertines. The side of humanity so seldom seen, raw and laid bare. People in their most primal state, lusting but completely unaware that they were hunting. Couples passed us, the women as awestruck as the men—both sexes realising at that very moment that we, as humans, are Earth’s God-given freak show.
Neither Tommy nor I came to the beckoning of the women in the windows. Instead, we smoked cigarettes and half a roll. We looked on in fascination as men popped in and out of the doors, loading and unloading, like pigeons on tree-lined streets taking shits on the cars below. It is hard to justify civilisation in a red light district and we never tried, not that day, not since.
Then somehow after walking bridge after bridge we returned to the church as the deacon bolted the doors and rushed down the steps, towards the lamppost that we were leaning on.
“Hello,” he said, unlocking his bike. “Relaxing huh? Nice time. Tourists?”
“I see,” he said. And with a smile and extra emphasis on the local accent added: “And how long are you in Amsterdam?”
“Just a few hours, father,” said Tommy. “Actually, we’re lost.”
“You look it,” he said. “Where are you staying?”
“The Ogham Stone,” I said, and the deacon raised his brow.
“Not in it. Above it.”
“Aha. That is good. Take that street there, with the bakery on the corner. Walk four blocks and you are home. But careful on your travels. Remember this thing my grandfather would recommend. ‘You know,’ he’d say to me ‘you can’t make a fortune, a life or a reputation in a few hours, but you can lose any of them’.”
He unlocked his bicycle and rode away on the cobbled stones.
We left Amsterdam on the fourth morning, hanging our heads out the train window again. I watched the buildings grow smaller in the distance and I thought if ever a city was to make the world feel small it was Amsterdam, where the same evening light falls on sacred stained glass and red-lit windows alike. How you’re only ever a couple of bridges away from a hooker or a priest.
Three and a half hours later we approached Berlin from a height. Slaloming on the towering track, our express skated between skyscrapers.
If Amsterdam is the college party that never ends, then Berlin is the grown-up, black-tie affair, where once a year car keys are thrown in a bowl.
When our train slowed near the city centre, I saw the four of us reflecting in an office window. The outlines of young men. No more than that. We were too young to be old, possessing the great freedom to travel for long periods with the kind of flippancy that our parents never had.
Our generation was born in a different time. Feminism was liberating young women or beginning to. In turn young men, too, were liberated. Once sisters and friends and cousins broke free of antiquated expectations, brothers, friends and cousins were no longer consigned to be emotionless mammals. Some say the world went soft, but if it did how are we to blame? We were born into it. If this millennial generation has been slow to come of age, fine. Because while we waited, a new age came to us by the grace of our times.
It just so happened that we came to Berlin by the grace of time too. The mother of all parties was about to begin. The city felt alive with a spark that was invisible, but felt in the air, like the sky before a storm. We arrived in Germany the night before the Love Parade.
The Love Parade is Berlin’s St Patrick’s Day, only with less of the shamrock paraphernalia—the alcoholic begorrah—and more dance music in leotards on ecstasy. I didn’t care for it much, but that wasn’t why I sat the thing out.
Tommy and I had spent large portions of our three days in Amsterdam looking for a strain of weed called Ice. It was rumoured to be the most potent grass on the planet, hence enticing us.
After two days’ searching, we bought one fifty baggy in a bootleg store in Staalstraat. We’d heard a whisper about a drawer under the till where they kept the Ice. We would ask for Volume 2 of The Basement Tapes, on cassette. Tommy and I split the bill and picked up a bag of Northern Lights for casual use and vowed not to smoke a stem of Ice until the time was right.
I broke that promise the morning of the Love Parade.
Writing for a while in my diary long after the boys had passed out, I put a pretty big hole in my box of beer. I woke up to blazing sunshine that filled our room, and a cruel and nauseating hangover. My only available pain relief was the Ice. I took ten minutes for myself on the balcony with some cold water and a joint.
Chasey poked his head out after a while and asked if I was ready. I stood up and laughed. I tilted sideways a step but regained my balance. My eyelids drooped, and I answered his questions croakily. “Yeahhh… feeling better now.”
Chasey wore a wide smile as he reintroduced me to the others.
Tommy was cool about the Ice. There was plenty left. And besides, he had sucked down his first beer and got a fit of the giggles as I fell silent on the train from Warschauer, near the hostel on Helsingforser Strasse. Chasey chuckled too. I had gone quiet, and their giggling made me nervous. I tried to shush them, but that only turned a private joke into some commotional cackling from their double seat. Some folks on the train were beginning to take notice. They looked at me, and that was the last thing I wanted. I became anxious, shifty-eyed. It was the strongest weed I had ever smoked. Then instantly, like leaving the room and coming back again, I relaxed. I slipped my plastic gold sunglasses on and I smiled back at the boys.
“You are out of it, dude,” Chasey said, though his grin tailed off with a hint of concern. Then he frowned, probably thinking I was going to be sick.
“I really am,” I said. “But I’m good.”
Relieved, Chasey laughed. He clapped me on the back and shook his head. “How was the Love Parade, Boys?” he asked, rhetorically, anticipating the future conversation with friends back home. “Well… not a great start, I’ll say. Steve hit the after-party before we even got there.”
We arrived, and I found the high of the weed was still rising. There was no summit, no descent or levelling off. Instead, everything between my ears was like a kite in the wind, yet nobody was holding the string.
The heavy dance music pounded up from the concrete below. Everywhere you looked there were chaps and g-string combos. Revellers had masks, some had ghoulish makeup that streaked from sweat in the warming sun. Floats ambled by carrying topless dancers flailing on poles. The thronging, sky-high masses heaved and gyrated, pulsing with the groin-tingling beats. Every second mouth had a whistle. It was like a referee convention on uppers.
Occasionally, I glimpsed at Red’s face to see the look of unbridled joy. Then he would swivel at me and laugh before turning back to the crowds again. His hands raised in the air, in praise of the party, the dancing orgy happening all around us. I saw Tommy and Chasey when my eyes refocused. They were six feet away. I pointed to a nearby park. They could find me there.
I found a shaded patch of grass under a tree. The music was still in earshot, but it was dimmer and distant enough that I settled.
People came and went from the party nearby as I sat like a statue, cross-legged like Buddha in gold-rimmed Elvis glasses. Buddha in sunnies. High as a hot air balloon.
The sun burned away the last of the clouds and the bright morning became a hot afternoon. It was then that the day changed. I regained control of my limbs. My face muscles unclenched. Soon I was able to perform basic functions like smiling or talking, even both at the same time. I was myself again, but a contemplative, zen self. I sat in that park as everyone around me walked or danced. With my shades on, feeling warm and tranquil, I rolled another joint.
Ice, I concluded later, is probably not unlike heroin.
Then, as the universe does, that incapacitating day of temporary paralysis and stupor morphed into a warm, orange-skied, transcendental night. There was nothing specific about it at the time, but it remained orange-skied in its corner of my mind for its pure simplicity, its innocence, strange as that might sound considering all that went before.
There was an afterglow in the German air as I sat on the balcony at our hostel on a date with myself in Berlin, after the Love Parade and the Ice. I knew I was amidst an epic adventure. I drank Grolsch, smoked cigarettes and rolls of Northern Lights. In the west, the sun was beginning to set on the horizon. Through colour-blind eyes I can only say that it looked like fire.
From my fourth-floor balcony I could see a decommissioned railway line a hundred yards away over a high wall. Remnants of the old steel lay silent in the weeds. I couldn’t help but wonder about that line, as you do in a place like Berlin, with all the terrible secrets of history there that hide themselves in plain sight.
Still, Berlin was as viscerally beautiful as it was haunting. I sat with my notebook laid across my legs and watched that fireball sunset. The other three had departed for night-life. I was content and silent. Until the silence ended.
A young woman peeked over the low dividing wall between my balcony and hers. “Oi! Lone Range-ah. Whatcha doin’?”
“Erm… not much. Looking around a lot. Taking in the city I suppose.”
In a lively London accent, she replied: “Are you alone?”
“I am,” I said. “Yeah, you just missed the rowdy bunch.”
“That’s fine. It’s good actually—I’m not feeling very rowdy. Hey, open your door. I’m coming over to smoke your cigarette…and no, that doesn’t mean what you might think it means, you potentially dirty bastard. I’ll bring a bottle of Bavarian wine. You must try it, it’s divine!”
I did as she asked. It wasn’t a request, more of an order really.
The Lady from London sat beside me on the maroon balcony tiles. Her head bowed, and her shoulder-length black hair fell as she took a drag. Then she craned her neck and blew the smoke high into the air. She turned and looked at me without speaking, her brown eyes playfully narrowing, frowning. “Have you got many left?”
“About a full box,” I said.
“Wonderful,” she replied. And her smile was contagious.
We talked for hours, though she never told me her name and she never asked for mine. But by the time the sun finally went down we knew each other well. As we gabbed, the orange evening slipped away west and turned a dark blue. She said: “You know, the further you get from home the closer you get to yourself.”
The Lady from London had a theory that we spend our teens in chrysalis and once the butterfly is born it must fly “because…that’s what butterflies do, innit?”
She looked at me and smiled sometimes. In those moments there were gaps in the conversation, like an ellipsis for where an “and then we kissed” might fit, but then the Lady from London usually ended those silences with an “…oh my God, did I tell you what I saw in…” Often what she saw was a couple having sex in a very open place.
She was going to Prague next. I said the train to Prague was also Chasey’s plan. That we were leaving for the Czech capital the next morning.
“Maybe we’ll meet there then,” she said. “If we do…”— with a cigarette hanging from her lip she gazed off into the starry night— “I’ll buy you a box of cigarettes.”
“That’s a deal,” I said.
“Right then,” she replied as if her mind had been made up about some longstanding issue. She took her empty bottle of Bavarian wine and said good night.
I was first to bed and first to rise the next morning. I had vague, dream-like memories of the other three coming home at dawn, shushing each other loudly so as not to wake me, and giggling.
It was 10:15am when I sat up. I had let them sleep in fifteen minutes longer than we’d agreed. Chasey and Red struggled to wake with some groaning and furious rubbing of bed-head hair. Tommy, though, didn’t move, not even under intense prodding or persistent calls of his name. He was breathing (we checked), but he was in a deep slumber where our prods and calls were just a faraway din as he swam with ecstasy-eyed women and danced with them on a merry-go-round until his party ended as one red eye opened and the music stopped.
We watched as he hauled himself from his bed and carried a pillow to the toilet. He vomited repeatedly and violently. Then he laid down and asked for a blanket.
The vomiting continued throughout the slow packing process. He was sick along the uphill walk to the train station. At the Berlin Hauptbahnhof he found a plastic bag. Every ten or fifteen minutes he released more of his stomach’s contents into it.
Chasey spoke to the cashier at Hauptbahnhof in broken German and ordered four tickets to Prague. We paid and were politely informed that when passing the border into the Czech Republic we would each have to pay a supplement. “Nothing much, maybe fifteen euros.”
Three of us nodded. Tommy had huddled with his bag under a public telephone, watching us with contempt and suspicion, his face contorting. His summer tan was gone, replaced by a deathly complexion.
“Whatcha mean a supplement?” he grumbled, head across folded arms resting on his knees.
“Don’t worry about the supplement. Just have a bit of cash ready when we pass into the Czech Republic,” Chasey said.
“Sounds fucking dodgy dude,” said Tommy and he returned his attention to his new plastic bag.
Platform 7 was almost a half mile walk from the vendor stalls, and Tommy lagged behind. When we boarded, he chose not to join us in the compartment on the carriage, instead staying near the toilet in the gangway between our carriage and the next. In turns, one of us would walk down to check on him, to bring water and offer him food which he never took. And, to remind him about the supplement.
We were over two hours into the train ride when a tall woman in a brown peaked cap and uniform slid aside the compartment door. Her face wrinkled, her hair prematurely silver, she gazed beyond us out the window. She leaned in the doorway and sighed.
Red said: “Huh?”
She sighed again, louder. Just for him. “Supplement!”
We collected our share and received three cuts of pink card in return. Then we remembered Tommy: the poor bastard buried in a plastic bag. He was about to be aggressively sighed at.
Minutes passed, and our amusement grew. Then he appeared at our compartment with his vomit bag—half full—dishevelled, confused, wrestling with his hair. As green as the fields back home.
“Eh…” he said, then paused and pointed. “There’s some woman down there…” He wiped his face then frowned.
A distant—familiar—voice bellowed down the train. “Supplement!”
The landscape beyond our windows began to change. Rolling green hills disappeared. We seemed to dig down into the earth until huge, tree-lined cliffs overhung. Standing in the gangway, we looked out below into steep gorges where waterfalls splashed into widening brooks. Slowly the water grew wider and wider, bound for the big city river. Scores of corrugated steel shacks dotted the far banks. Tin roofs on tin walls. Clotheslines wound from lower-lying trees to wooden posts, and we knew that we had left Germany. We were as far away from skyscrapers as we could get in two hours.
Tommy had recovered by twilight. He emerged from under his bed sheets like Nosferatu seeking red meat and Red Bull. His afternoon nap had re-energised his lust for life. As he turned on “Porcelain” by Moby, he shed his Love Parade malaise like a cocoon.
“Let’s hit a nite club.”
Chasey laughed. “Yeah, sure thing dude. Let’s get you on a dancefloor. It’s good to see you standing.”
Tommy bounced along the paths as Chasey, Red and I kept up. He led us all the way to the nite club’s door where we entered a realm of five floors and a thousand punters, easy. We ventured to the first floor where a live band played “Walking On Sunshine.” We bought beers and toasted “to Prague.” Soon, though, we drifted like wood from the same tree down a river, all coming from the same place and going to the same place too, just taking different routes to get there.
I found myself alone on the fourth floor, smoking a cigarette on a bean bag and drinking a beer when a black-haired woman appeared in front of me in silhouette, back-lit by a slow-flashing strobe. She threw a box of smokes at me and sat down.
“Welcome to Praha—as the locals say. And welcome… to the chill-out deck of this rather fantastic club. Alone again? I’m beginning to wonder if you really do have mates at all, or are you really the Lone Range-ah?”
“I am temporarily lost.”
“Hmmm. You’re a strange creature. Fascinating though.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
She looked at me as strobe lights bounced around us. The Lady from London seemed to search for something she had lost on my face. Maybe it looked different?
She said: “Hey, can I ask you a question?”
“Why didn’t we ki—
Bounding onto the chill-out floor with an almighty surge of energy, the bean bag trance had been broken by the shouts of an animated and drunk Tommy. Even the dreadlocked DJ with headphones over one ear looked up.
“Here’s Tonto,” I said to the Lady from London.
“Aha,” she said and shook Tommy’s hand.
“You’re from London?”
“Nice,” Tommy replied, nodding. “I can do a Landan accent, innit. Alwight geeza’ Eh? What’ya fink abou’ that then?”
“Not bad,” replied the Lady from London. “You’ve got a talent there. Very impressive. So, you’re this guy’s mate then eh?”
“This bastard? Yeah. God love me, hah? Nah, just shitting ya, Steve’s a good egg.” Tommy drank, and somewhere between the vodka and Red Bull hitting his lips to it welling up inside his belly, a thought crossed his mind. “Shit, am I interrupting something here?”
“No. You’re not interrupting at all. I was just returning a pack o’ smokes to…erm… Steve, here. Steve—good egg—it has been nice to meet you, really. And thank you for a lovely evening.”
The Lady from London stood up and bid us both well for the rest of our journey. She turned to leave, then stopped and swivelled on her high heels, to give me one last wave, one last look, as though forever imprinting in her mind my name with my face. And then, with a flashing strobe, she was gone.
In the blinding light I knew then that orange-skied evenings are extraordinary flares of blazing heat, express trains that cannot be caught once they’ve left. Sometimes they are supposed to be gone, to leave you with memories as perfectly drawn as the sunsets they were set against.
Like a solar prominence, we too flashed and disappeared, like flames of gas that rose for a month in the heartlands of Europe, flying high into the stratosphere before we were gone. We were train-riding forces of nature, bound by the laws of physics and finance—those that had been kind to us at the beginning but less forgiving by the end.
The butterfly, as the Lady from London said, is not born by sunup to die by night. It flies to its favourite garden and stays, or it lets itself be blown by the wind and maybe, at times, become lost by it.
By the end, we had seen graffitied trains and stations. The Black Forest. Fields all shades of green, faces too. Pastures of bright yellow. And every sight went by us as fast as life as we rode the rails.
Stephen Gildea-Young is a former sports journalist from Ireland, where he reported primarily on boxing and Gaelic games with three different national publications. Following a change of path, he now lives in northern Italy with his family where he is working on his debut novel. His short story work has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine and on the podcast Bob’s Short Story Hour.