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17th July

It’s quiet in Amsterdam

Reading an article on the Dutch singer Ramses Shaffy this morning, I remembered how, as an adolescent in the late sixties and early seventies, I adored his songs. They had a very un-Dutch combination of melancholy and wildness. He sang about his limitless desire for freedom and love, and that resonated deeply with me.


The piece mentioned one of my favorite songs called ‘It’s quiet in Amsterdam’. I looked it up on YouTube but when I heard the first tones, I quickly clicked the video away. I couldn’t listen to it because it brought back memories of the funeral of my beloved friends Joep Lange and Jacqueline van Tongeren, where I’d last heard it played. Joep and Jacqueline were killed when the Malaysian Airlines flight they were traveling on to an Aids conference was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.


Amsterdam felt eerily quiet without them, empty even. No more lunches and dinners at our favorite spots, no more city walks on which we made plans about HIV projects around the world and exhibitions of art to combat the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids. I could no longer share memories of our twenty-five years of friendship.


Fortunately, I have other friends with whom I can share this loss. But in the last two years two of them also passed away. Because of the Covid pandemic I was not able to say goodbye in person and had to follow their funerals through a Zoom link. These funerals on my computer screen could have been part of a movie, a play, a performance. It was mediated, felt unreal – though I knew it was real.


Now that things have gone back to normal, I’ve been wondering what’s keeping me from going to Amsterdam. It’s true that the focus of my art projects has shifted away from the Netherlands so there’s no direct reason to go. But there are friends I haven’t seen for a long time.


I’ve been telling myself that the city is too flooded with tourists, that it’s not like it used to be. But now that I’ve noticed how Ramses Shaffy’s song upset me, I know the reason must lay deeper. Imagining myself in Amsterdam I see the lobby of my hotel, where I used to bask in the warm embrace of my friend Barbara and the similarly affectionate hug of Ingrid. Both women were always filled with zest for life and brimming with joy.


The empty lobby of the Conservatorium hotel would confirm that I will never see those dear friends again. That what seemed far away and therefore unreal would become tangible.

How little we know ourselves; the fear of being confronted with this unprocessed sadness goes against the image I have of myself as someone who has learned to face up to life’s challenges.


I am sure that a pressing reason will eventually force me to go to Amsterdam.

And I secretly hope that reason will wait just a while longer.

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