I signed up to work as a cleaner at Schiphol airport but the job wouldn’t start for another ten days and in the meantime I would have to manage on what I had, which was two weeks’ UK dole money, in 1979 something just shy of fifty pounds.

I stayed in the Amsterdam city hostel, the Sleep-Inn, for which I paid at the door six guilders a night (in advance). It was an old industrial building and we slept on rolls of yellow foam, each side of each large, bare room, one continuous roll. A cool and stony light in there, people’s sleeping bags and rucksacks weighing down those lolling yellow tongues. All through the night the soft (mostly soft) coming and going of others.

On the ground floor there was a common area in the style of a student union. I don’t remember much light ever getting into it. At the bar they sold a beer named after the river and perhaps containing the river, and it might have been at the Sleep-Inn I first saw that neat way of pouring beer into small glasses then slicing off the head of foam with a piece of plastic like a flattened shoehorn. And there was food too, the kind you sell in semi-darkness to young people – toasted sandwiches, frites, types of sausage. Nothing cost much; no one had much. That was the point of it, a way, a building, to collect up the boys and girls who would otherwise find shop doorways for themselves or bed down in the corridors of the central railway station. Amsterdam had had years of it. Old Pathé films from the 1960s show the wavy-haired in-search-of-fun youth (many from Britain) sleeping head to toe in Dam Square. The Sleep-Inn – a tram ride from the centre – tidied us up as the city grew a little weary of having to step over other people’s slack-eyed children as it went about its day.

And by ’79, things were changing. There were punks on the streets and the Summer of Love was a fading memory. In March, the year I arrived, the IRA shot dead the British Ambassador to the Netherlands. A year earlier, in Rome, Aldo Moro’s murdered body was left in the boot of a car. Thatcher was in power; Reagan soon to be. The Cold War was turning away from detente, watchers East and West tensed over their radar screens.

Did they play punk at the Sleep-Inn? At the Melkweg and the Paradiso nightclubs that year, XTC and the B-52s played gigs, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, the Buzzcocks. But at the Sleep- Inn I think disco still held its ground, just. Donna Summer, Boney M, Sister Sledge. ‘We Are Family’ was the hit of the summer and they played it again and again through the big speakers above the bar.

My first morning at the Sleep-Inn, waking late, I took my towel through to the washrooms at the rear of the building. One of the showers was already in use, and in the cubicle, under the showerhead, the rose, a black girl was soaping herself. I stopped, briefly electrified by the thought I had wondered into a forbidden zone, but it was the same utilitarian space I had cleaned my teeth in the night before. Nor did she shout at me (in whatever language she had) or turn away, Artemis disturbed by Actaeon. Instead, she regarded me with a degree of comfortable indifference that made it clear we were both where we were entitled to be. I looked ­– a second’s worth of concentrated gazing ­­– then the clumsy miming of a boundless interest in anything but her, a black girl lit by high windows, the Amsterdam sky played through coils of steam.

The world I had come from was one that might have been defined as somewhere unisex shower blocks could not exist. If they did, it could only have been as a type of pornography, or something louche, aristocratic, probably criminal. Here? I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure. What did it mean that a girl could wash herself in the same space as a boy, could be looked at but feel no awkwardness? This, perhaps, was what I’d come for, sitting eight hours on the vomit-scented ferry out of Harwich, the North Sea that can never be mistaken for friendly. To enter the liberal world of freely showering black girls! And if it was sexual – I was nineteen, everything was sexual – it was also just the thrumming-in of experience, an encounter, one of my first, with the erotic as a true medium of the imagination rather than a keyhole in a peep show. (Weeks later I went to a peep show in the red-light district, perhaps hoping to be reacquainted with shame, but even there found something plainer and more interesting, more human and broad-spectrum, hard to explain in an old Calvinist city.)

Getting work was not difficult. Little employment offices could be found on a dozen streets in the city centre. You filled out a form, showed your passport. The lack of any useful skills wasn’t an impediment: there were plenty of jobs for people who were sound of limb, could pick things up and put them down, understand simple commands. The agency took a cut but it wasn’t outrageous and it meant I could stay. My cleaning job at Schiphol sounded almost exciting. I just needed to navigate the time in between: the days before it started, then the first week of work before I was paid. I economised, after a fashion, fare-dodged on the yellow trams, had breakfast in the plainest cafes. Lunch was coffee and a roll-up, and for the evenings I relied on that key resource of the indigent, the Chinese restaurant, most especially the ones that were upstairs. I don’t know why they should be cheaper, but they were. Something to do with the rent.

I did not entirely deny myself beer and certainly I was not without tobacco. I may also have bought a bag of grass at Laurier 33, a place I discovered on my second or third day in the city, a modest sort of establishment close to the Sleep-Inn that served good coffee, good cakes, and where a dozen different types of grass or resin were displayed for sale in clear plastic snap-bags. The business of buying it, so different to what I was used to – the furtive hook-up in the pub, then retiring with the dealer to the pub toilets or the darkest corner of the car park – confused me at first. What, choosing my little bag, was the correct degree of cool? How not to look what I was, new to it, wildly pleased, wanting to laugh? You could buy it, buy your coffee and get stoned right there, yet no one was lying on the floor or looking dangerous. It was another angle of the unisex showers thing, a depth of mellow that made England seem untutored, a slightly savage place watched over by an establishment that didn’t really want people – ordinary people – to have too much fun, get too relaxed.

And so, slightly sooner than it needed to, the day came when I dug the last guilder out of my pocket, spent it and possessed nothing but the beginnings of an appetite I had no obvious way of appeasing. Cities are not friendly places to those who have nothing, but there must be degrees of unfriendliness and Amsterdam did not immediately threaten as other places might have done – London, for example. It was early June, the weather was kind. I walked the canal-sides, saw in murky green water the reflections of tall houses, those effusions of a Golden Age, grand in their way yet domestic too, a plainness like that of a good suit of dark clothes, the sort you could do business in at the Bourse then sit in the water-light of the Zuiderkerk speaking to God in that nice sticks-and-stones language I never learned more than a few words of the whole time I was there.

I was the young man in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, soul polished by poverty, not pegged down by the petty transactions, the money-life of the others. Such thoughts, rich in feeling, sustained me for several hours, particularly while I still had tobacco left. I squeezed poetry from the old streets, grew lighter in the head, lighter everywhere, a sallying-out of the spirit that lasted until I woke on the foam rubber tongue, aware not of soul but of belly, a hunger that roused in me – slacker boy, art boy – a lean and determined hunter.

In the quarter-light of very early I packed my rucksack and set out into the city. I did not have a plan but I had an appetite and it led me – the compass of need – towards a market, thirty or so stalls spanning a bridge and the sides of a canal, and already at that hour full of bustle. How to begin? Would I steal? I could hardly hope, pack on my back, to outrun an enraged stallholder. Beg? I was still several rungs from that. So, something less brazen. I would scavenge, scrounge, become a gleaner, one of those (all antennae and jaws) that tidies up, living on the waste and spillings of others.

This was a prosperous market for people who had little interest in the bruised, the overripe. What was spoiled was discarded and lay on the cobbles in dabs of colour among the wooden crates. I took a pair of oranges, pulpy but serviceable. I like to think there may also have been a banana from some former Dutch colony – Aruba, Tobago, Tangasseri – but I can’t remember. No one shouted; no one cared. If they saw me, well, they had seen it before and they had work to do. I moved down the canal, found a bench and made my breakfast.

Having, for the moment, solved the puzzle of hunger, I was ready to start on the puzzle of money. It does not take long when thinking of money to start thinking of banks. I had some idea the Dutch had invented them, or that they had, at least, been in there early. Their banks might be particularly flush. Serious money, old money, bundles of it, the oldest stuff like squares of tapestry, slightly damp from sitting so long in cellars bordered by water. And I needed so little! They might insist on more. They might – for what did I know of the emotions of banks? – be moved by such a modest request, strangely humbled. Anyway, I would go to a bank and I would reason with them. This would work.

I shouldered my pack and moved deeper into the city, the tightening whorl of water and stone. I was as exhilarated as a person can be who has breakfasted on oranges. I studied the banks I passed with what I imagined was a canny eye. Not too grand (I’d never get through the doors), not too specialised or unreadable, and certainly not with an armed guard outside, some portly faux-sheriff with a Village People moustache who might stare me down before I could make my entrance. At last I saw one that struck me as almost welcoming. I went in and approached the counter. The teller did not look alarmed, or not very. I started to explain. I had a job but it had not yet started. Soon (play up the positives, stress this) I would have a regular income. In the meantime I was in need of a small loan and, as security, I would offer not just my passport (here) but also my watch (a Timex, mid-range). The teller was young though not, of course, as young as I was. Very likely he had not dealt with this before, penniless foreigners offering their watches. A more senior man was summoned and I went through my pitch a second time, more fluently now though with a steady seeping away of confidence. The older man waited politely ­– they are a polite people, unexcitable – then gently pushed my passport back across the counter and shook his head.

I tried at least one more before I understood it, the way of the world, of banking, how money must have something to connect to (ideally, other money) and has no possible interest in young men who claim they will shortly have a job at an airport (no, not air traffic control or piloting a jet, but doing a little cleaning). It was nice no one had laughed at me or called the police.

I spent the night, the first in a series, in one of the city parks. I went in at dusk, moved towards a stand of trees, loitered there a moment as if taking in the summer sweetness, the park’s soft outbreath of day, then stepped backwards, entered the treeline and hid. At some time in the small hours I was woken by the light of a torch, one end of the beam in my face, the other in the hand of a policeman. There were two of them. No doubt it was just a routine sweep. They were not angry or officious or threatening. They stood over me while I packed my sleeping bag then walked me to the park gates. For the length of a street I felt like a cat caught napping on a bed and sent, without ceremony, out the door. Wounded pride, twitching tail. A determination to appear, to whoever might be watching, to have chosen my fate. But then came the novelty of being out in the middle of the night in a city still mostly strange to me, a wanderer between shuttered houses and hushed streets. The unnoticed-by-day caught my eye now – the lazy scribble of tram lines, black flowers stiff in a window box, a bicycle abandoned but alert against a wall. I turned away from districts that looked more brightly lit or where taxis and police cars crossed at junctions. It was hard to know how serious it was, my being out there without even the money to make a phone call. Was this an adventure or was I in trouble? At what point did one begin to shade into the other?

Two hours of this, raw with tiredness (that state where you are both as heavy as the street you walk on and light as dust), I found what I needed. A quiet square, a scrap of green, a pair of trees, an old globe-headed street lamp like a finger hole poked through the tissue of night. And between the trees a wood and iron bench where I sat, then stretched out on, lowering myself past watchfulness and into the keeping of some dryad of the small squares whose face was hidden, whose nature was hidden.

In the morning, before I was seen, approached, questioned, I was gone.

The job at the airport was with a company called Q Service. The employees – or those who did the actual cleaning – wore overalls with a Q stitched over the left breast. We were collected from the city in a minibus and driven out to Schiphol, ten of us, sometimes twelve, squeezed into a dark green Spacevan. Even in the short time I worked for Q Service, the faces changed. No one was expected to stay for long. You worked, and when you judged you’d had enough, had filled out the shrunken belly of your wallet with sweetie-coloured banknotes – Frans Hals and a lovely blue for the 10; Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and the red of hope for the 25 – you quit.

As far as I could tell, no two of us came from the same country, and from the beginning the person I sat with on the bus, who I spoke to and who, now and then, I met outside of work, was a Swiss man I thought of as middle-aged, which probably meant he was in his late thirties or early forties. Plump, balding, gentle; a gentle, thoughtful Swiss émigré, as though Switzerland were a country to be run from like Czechoslovakia or the DDR. I was taken by his earnestness, the way, in speaking, he seemed to confide. In the weeks we knew each other I managed to learn almost nothing about him. Was he poor? Hard to believe in the poor of Switzerland, in Swiss poverty. Was he the softly spoken ex-Minister of Culture flung out of office for making passes at teenage boys? Our conversations were abstract, slightly political, often focused on the rather crude power structures of Q Service: the Dutch overseers – chefs – and the entirely disposable boiler-suited polyglot labour force. But whatever else he was, however he had found his way to Q Service, I understood that he was a citizen of a place I was only passing through. To be cleaning the airport at nineteen was one thing, to be doing it at his age – an educated man, clearly so – spoke of a choice, a circumstance more interesting and more troubling than my own. He may simply have been a failure, pathetic. Or he may have been like Lenin in Zurich, biding his time and hunkered out of view until history caught up with him and he was launched.

We had trolleys loaded with mops, metal bins of boiling water and a range of cleaning agents of the kind you’d be wise not to spill on your bare hand. My beat was the engine hangar where jet engines hung in cradles of chain, each with its court of attendant technicians, crop-haired young men leaning into hatches, reaching in with their spanners and drills. Every time they loosened a bolt a stream of oil thick as molasses bled onto the concrete floor. My job was to clean it up, moving from slick to slick under the shadows of the engines (sublime objects in their way, all that dense functionality). Ten-hour shifts, the hours punctuated by visits to a vending machine for coffee and chocolate. Then the Spacevan back to the city, a glass of beer at the bar beside the drop-off, and we were done – the Swiss returning to his room or rooms (room, I think) in the suburbs, while I was at the Sleep-Inn again, paying my six guilders and lying down on the foam, my clothes, my skin, giving off the smell of the work, metallic, chemical. It was a job that might have served as a model of drudgery, yet I found something soothing in it. See oil, clean it up, fetch more hot water, repeat. I wondered if I might be especially suited to it. A number of my recent schoolmasters, fond of telling me how the scrapheap awaited, might have said so. And if you gave up on conventional ideas of success – success as money, as power – could you not live perfectly well performing the simplest tasks while keeping something of yourself, the something that mattered, entirely free? I thought of T.E. Lawrence rejoining the army as a private soldier in the years between the wars and saying how relaxing it was, taking orders from fools. Then I gave it up with barely a shrug in exchange for a job in a bakery that involved no minibus ride, paid slightly more and would, I hoped, be easier. I handed in my overalls, said goodbye to my Swiss, my fellow oily. I shook his hand. I don’t think either of us had the least expectation of ever seeing each other again. (Such is the mode of knowing the drifting life implies. Each thing for a while then not. Each man or woman, then not.)

For a few days I was free and exchanged my mask of proletarian hero for that of flâneur, took long rambles around the city, head full of leafy summer air, book in pocket (the stories of Heinrich von Kleist), now and then pausing on a bench to roll a little spliff, watch girls, watch water, watch and be watched by the tourists in the low, glass-roofed boats. In cramped handwriting I wrote things, observations, lines of poetry, little truths I probably lost within days of writing them. I think I was very happy.

Marie Darrieussecq | On Europe
Michael Hofmann | On Europe