In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams: Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?
S moved out of our apartment sometime in early July 2013, leaving me with our cats CJ & Charlie and a home full of memories. Each evening, when I returned home from work, I existed only in a fuzzy stupor as I tried to come to terms with what was happening. I spent a great deal of time working my way through the towering pile of movies stacked up in the living room. I also re-watched The Wire, just for the hell of it. I took long baths, overate, under-exercised, over-analyzed and underslept.
Nights were particularly difficult. Unable to sleep, I’d sit playing with the cats for hours or simply stare at the ceiling as my mind trudged uselessly through the events of our relationship, from our early days in Belgium right through to our travels around China and our eventual arrival in Amsterdam. I listened to a fuck load of new music. I’d always wanted to collect Marvin Gaye, so I bought a bunch of his stuff and binged on it.
No surprises that I found myself drawn to his epic divorce record Here, My Dear. As a companion piece, I also picked up a paperback biography about his life: the engrossing Divided Soul by David Ritz. The backstory of his chaotic breakup with first wife Anna Gordy certainly helped me put things into perspective, making me realize that S and I were actually dealing with everything pretty well! We were ironing out the financial side of the divorce with no major rows and had even begun the awful process of separating possessions and dividing up all those little personal treasures we’d acquired together.
Then there was poor old Marvin and Anna, whose bitter, hateful separation spawned lyrics like “you said you would love and obey”, “I was young and fine and you plucked me clean”, “the judge said she got to keep on living the way she accustomed to” and “why do I have to pay (my baby’s) attorney fees?” I couldn’t stop listening to that record, over and over. Gaye’s story bared no resemblance to my own at all, but somehow I empathized with him and in some weird way it felt like I was sharing his pain.
“Titanic!” said S, a ponderous finger on her lips as she scanned the shelves. “True Romance!” I replied. “Cry Baby!” she announced vigorously… “The Deer Hunter” I countered, trying not to hide the smile that was breaking out on my face. This is going to be easier than I thought, I realized, as we went through the dreadful process of splitting our beloved film collection in two. I knew I was going to lose loads of precious titles, but the more we progressed the more it became clear that she was also going to relieve me of a whole bunch of crap that, if it’d been down to me, I probably wouldn’t have bought in the first place.
“This is literally the most amicable breakup in history,” said a friend of mine over the phone, “why are you even splitting up?” Even I had to admit that it all felt very surreal. “Are you sure this is what you both want?” my mum had asked back when my parents visited. We’d been sitting in the little garden of their canal side apartment, the four of us drinking wine while my dad puffed away on his signature vacation cigar. It had all been so unsettlingly civil.
I could see how it looked from the outside, but I’d grown tired of trying to explain it to people. They could never truly understand, especially those whose own relationships had survived all kinds of crap: habitual screaming and fighting, screwing around on each other, alcoholism, chronic depression, drug addiction, you name it. S and I hadn’t wronged each other in any way, we’d just drifted apart, lost our spark, run our course. I wasn’t angry or resentful, I was simply heartbroken. I felt gutted for the young idealistic people we’d been when we met. I felt disconsolate about the shared dreams we wouldn’t fulfill and the children we’d never have. These were the thoughts that invaded my head at night and haunted the dreams of the little sleep I managed to get.
At Old Harbour I was starting to grow tired of the job. After three years with the company, I felt like I’d hit a wall when it came to the nuts and bolts of my typical working day. I could pretty much knock out the daily news items in my sleep, while the formulaic structure of our weekly programs no longer felt fresh and exciting. Now that S and I were calling it a day, a frightening notion hit me one morning while I was cycling to work. Do I really need to stay in Amsterdam? The thought lingered in my head for almost a week before I finally came to the conclusion that the only reason for me to stay at Old Harbour was the opportunity to interview more stars. Was it really worth it? In the words of Mr. Marvin Gaye: “Is that enough?”
I found myself mulling it all over as I trammed my way across the city to interview the French film maestro Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I could never proclaim myself an expert in French cinema, but I did love Jeunet’s work. His movies Delicatessen, Amélie and The City of Lost Children were titans of modern day cinema stuffed full of cartoonish visuals, off-kilter characters and contrasting senses of heightened romance and dark, brooding despair. My interview with him was for his second English language movie, The Prodigious T.V. Spivet, starring Helena Bonham Carter.
Looking back, and I’m not sure if it was just my state of mind, but I found the movie underwhelming, despite containing all the elements of what a great Jeunet picture should be. Although overly cute and quirky, it was also full of contrived character decisions, heavily affected dialogue and a muddled plot. In the end I concluded that Spivet was probably a decent enough kids film with some solid messages about family, identity and the idea that sometimes one’s imagination can be the best tool for making sense of life’s many and varied complexities.
If I was a little disappointed with the movie, that was nothing compared to the experience of interviewing Jeunet, who was an abrasive, uncooperative twat from the moment I sat down and said hello. With the limpest of handshakes, he wouldn’t even look at me until the cameras had started rolling and seemed intent on punctuating our chat with a series of withering looks and one-word answers. Maybe he’d just been having a bad day, though my online research suggests this almost certainly wasn’t the case.
“Leighton, how are you?” asked Trudy, “What about your life in Amsterdam?” I was skyping with my old boss from the school S and I had taught at in Beijing. Despite our somewhat bumpy year working together, we’d kept in touch and I’d even continued working for her as a freelance recruitment consultant. Every now and then she’d ask me to screen a bunch of CVs and interview any desirables before making a final recommendation. It wasn’t a great deal of work and my bank account certainly appreciated the extra cash injections. When I gave Trudy a brief rundown of “my life in Amsterdam” she was initially lost for words. “Oh… I’m so sorry” she eventually said and quickly changed the subject. But later on, as I sifted through my emails at work, I was surprised to find a job offer in my inbox. Trudy wanted me to come back to Beijing and help her manage the school. “You will be my head teacher,” she explained, as if the matter had already been agreed. “You will help me manage everything, especially when I take Happy to school in America”. Ah yes, The Prodigious Happy Wang. Boy genius, the micromanaged one, the student of infinite subjects, the boy who’d sometimes look at me as if he’d love nothing more than to do a T.S. Spivet and jump on a train that would take him away from it all.
I knew I was going to accept the job offer the moment I’d finished reading the email. There were some finer points of the contract I wanted to sort out, but my overall feeling was that a move away from The Netherlands was what I needed to get my life back on track. It would be a great chance to reflect on everything and reach that all-important state of inner peace. It would be an exciting new start!
Those last four months of 2013 were the toughest of my life. Having made my decision to leave Amsterdam, it was agreed that S would retain the apartment and buy me out of my half of the mortgage. But then, in a truly horrible morning with a valuator, we discovered that our place was in negative equity, which meant that if I wanted to move on I’d have to buy myself out! I lost about 75% of my life savings that winter, but sometimes you just have to bite a big old bullet. Freedom is priceless, I told myself, signing the papers with a lump in my throat.
S had no interest in keeping the cats, so it was up to me to find them new homes. After a succession of frustrating time wasters, I finally found a young Moroccan couple who seemed to want to adopt them for the right reasons. Packing up all their stuff and popping them both into our cat bags for the last time was just another level of heartbreak, especially with Charlie fixing me with a confused, big-eyed look, right up until the moment the car sped off. “What’s going on?” his little black and white face said. If only I could have explained.
“We’ll be sorry to lose you,” said Ap, shifting his glasses up to his forehead, “but I understand. You gotta do what you gotta do”. With just three months to go until I boarded my plane to China, it was a scary thought to realize that I was gradually building up to the end of everything as I knew it. I’d lost the love of my life. My savings had been decimated in order to simply say goodbye to the place I called home. I was turning my back on the best job I’d ever had and bidding farewell to some great friends. With what remained of my stuff already finding its way into packing boxes, I arranged for everything to go into a storage facility outside Amsterdam until my long-term future became clearer.
Somewhat foolishly, I ended up embarking on a whirlwind romance with a Dutch girl living near the German border. She was a friend of a friend I’d got chatting to through a Facebook group and we seemed to have plenty in common. After a bit of online blah de blah she started visiting me at weekends. We watched movies together, listened to football on the radio, took long strolls around Amsterdam and spent plenty of time in the bedroom. She knew I was China-bound at the end of December, but it didn’t put her off and as the clock ticked down on our inevitable parting I sensed she was looking for a way to keep things alive beyond my flight. But deep down I knew there was no future with her. Looking back, I wish I’d been a bit more straightforward with her, but with everything I was going through I just kinda enjoyed it for what it was, hoping that she’d eventually figure out that it wasn’t a workable thing. I think she deserved a lot better.
“Leighton, do you think you can handle last one junket?” Lianne asked me one snowy December morning. “Sure thing, who’s up?” I asked.
My final press junket for Old Harbour took place on December the 11th, 2013 at The Marriott Hotel on Grosvenor Square. The movie Anchorman 2 hadn’t been my cup of tea at all, but I had no complaints with the interviewees I’d be adding to my CV. My first chat of the day was with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, who were great fun from start to finish! “Jellybeans?” scoffed Rudd, as I took my seat. He was stuffing his face from a giant glass jar and didn’t hold back as he emptied a small mountain into my hands. “Oh, you’ve dropped a few”.
I’d hardly finished relocating them to my jeans pocket when Carell was leaning forward with a fishbowl of shiny, plastic wrappers. “Would you care for a condom?” he enquired. “Uh… sure” I replied, “any recommendations?” “I’d go for the skins” he said, so I fished out a pink one and popped it into my pocket with the jellybeans. I kept that condom for two years and when I finally used it, with much reluctance, I believe the magnitude of the moment was completely lost on the girl in question.
Will Ferrell was an odd one, as I’d expected him to be. When I entered the room he was in deep conversation with David Koechner about something Will had said in the previous interview. “Maybe we can edit that out. I don’t want it to sound like I was…” “Oh, hey!” he said suddenly, interrupting himself as he became aware of my presence. “How’s it going? Are you all psyched up for Cyber Monday?”
We talked about who pulled off the best perm (Paul Rudd?), which actor could have been drafted in to play Dobie the Shark (Warren Buffet, Sylvester Stallone) and why live police car chases make such great TV viewing. While Ferrell was totally cooperative and highly quotable, there was something about his stiff body language and forced laughter that made me feel just a little uncomfortable. “Did you like the movie?” he asked at the end, once the cameras had stopped rolling. “Uh… yeah, it was… entertaining”. Fuck, he’d really caught me by surprise.
Director Adam McKay was really personable, although there was initially some confusion in the beginning when he thought I was Dutch. “Leighton, your English is fantastic!” He was also genuinely interested in finding out how I’d ended up in Amsterdam and could I teach him a few Dutch words. As a former Saturday Night Live writer and helmer of comedy classics like Step Brothers and The Other Guys, I remember being surprised but very pleased when, a few years later, McKay won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the financial drama The Big Short.
Elsewhere Judd Apatow joked (?) that making an Anchorman sequel was “all about the money”, while James Marsden was polite and pretty looking, but ultimately dull with his cardboard cutout posture and sound byte answers. And finally there was Christina Applegate, who did nothing at all to charm me with her snippy comments and general argumentativeness. All in all though it was a fun day and as I headed off to Heathrow for my flight back to Amsterdam I knew I would miss all this, no doubt about it.
My farewell drink with S was easier than I’d thought, initially at least. We knocked back a few beers, recalled some funny times on the road in China and kept the anecdotes lite and breezy. But then it was time to part, the two of us stranded at Rembrandtplein tram stop like stone slabs placed directly opposite each other at a polite distance.
“Goodbye Leighton!” she sobbed. We were hugging each other tight, a hug I didn’t want to step away from. But of course I had to, because the tram was pulling in and it was time to go. The tram that would take me away from her forever, back to the empty apartment that would only be mine for one more night. Where packed bags awaited for my new life in Beijing. It was as if all eight years of our relationship had gone into that hug, an embrace of bittersweet nostalgia and genuine warmth, but also incredible sadness and regret.
Turning away from her, my vision blurry from the streaming tears, I boarded the tram and dropped into a seat. Wiping my eyes with the sleeve of my coat, I caught sight of a young Dutch couple sniggering at me from a few seats ahead. The guy had a smirk on his face that for the briefest of seconds ignited a rage in me I’d never felt before. I wanted to jump up and attack him, go properly medieval on his ignorant ass. And then we were moving away, the clunking of the wheels acting as a sedative. I could feel S was still standing there, waiting for me to turn the corner out of sight. I wanted to look back one final time but I thought it best not to. So I whipped out my phone, dove into the nearest Bowie album, hit play and emptied my mind.
‘The End of Everything’ is the sixth and final chapter of my short story collection Notes From The Netherlands.
For my travel reports on the Dutch capital, take a look at my articles on Amsterdam.