It’s funny thing, chance. What could have been the human equivalent of two ships passing in the night insidiously creeps into something much more: a global series of encounters, often occurring with little other planning than a casual “see you.. around” – be it a few hours, days, or months later.
So here I am – a million miles from the mountain oasis of Pai, cultural light years from sweaty Khao San road, and a few train trips from a frozen Amsterdam – sitting on the train out of Dusseldorf, trying to piece together exactly how I got here.
It always strikes me how much of a role circumstance plays in romantic encounters. Despite our human tendency to claim control over the world, it is often just as much a product of time and place as it is anything else.
Nina and I met fairly inauspiciously in Thailand – me travelling with the boys, her taking some time alone after a hectic New Year’s period with local friends. There were no expectations, no demands, and no pressure. A few shared Chang and the leisurely pace of life in Pai culminated in an ecstatic evening, courting each other to the shredded bass of Bamboo bar. As far as any omnipresent being was concerned that could have been it – a warm memory of a shared holiday, free from any concerns.
But then there was Bangkok. A brief facebook message led to rooftop lounging by the pool, Tijo and I content to share the company of Nina and her Australian friend. With no plans and no obligations we lingered, and a few beers became another memorable evening in the Asian heat.
One month later and I was in Amsterdam, and on the receiving end of a local tour of the city. Bitterballen and rented bikes, dinner and drinks – floating into a Dutch apartment and welcoming arms.
For all the short-lived aspects of the relationship, there was something appealing in the lack of permanence. A shared understanding, if you will, that the present was all that either of us had to be worried about. I was here transiently, studying and travelling; and Nina was entering the professional stages of her dancing career, one that she acknowledged would make attachment difficult.
So we would chat online occasionally, as friends do, and it was refreshing for the lack of other pretences – if things happened they happened, and if not we had shared something that didn’t need to suffer the deflation of expectations.
We met again without planning to in Tilburg, during Carnival. I was visiting Redbeard, and Nina was back at home for the celebrations. Redbeard and I engaged our usual modus operandi, attempting to reach a level of intoxication that would allow us parity with the Dutch and their revelry. This was harder than expected, with the Dutch showing seeming reckless abandon for self-respect and partying beyond what, in our opinion, the circumstances seemed to warrant.
As the costumed inebriates writhed around us, Nina shouted above the Dutch folk music that Carnival was so special because it was the one weekend where there were no rules: you could get as drunk as you wanted, sleep with whoever you wanted and there were no repercussions. Appealing enough, but the cultural barrier proved too much for Redbeard and I – this was a Dutch festival and try as we might (sinking biertjes two at a time, round after round) we couldn’t quite connect with the zeitgeist. Kiwis must be more conservative than I had given us credit for.
The breaking point in the night came not long after I had had a shot of some local Dutch spirit with Nina’s brother; his initial response of “you kissed a guy from Zeland!” tempered once he realised that my origin was far further south than rural Holland. It was loud and cramped in the confines of the party tent, and in the haze of smoke and beer Redbeard noticed Nina getting some attention in the corner. Always my defender he insisted we leave, and my slurring disclaimers fell on deaf ears.
But in the cold light of day my position remained the same – what was nice about our relationship, if you could call it that, was that there were no obligations.
Only two days before Tilburg I had got some attention myself and was more than comfortable with Nina doing whatever she pleased. To take any other position would not only be hypocritical but also misconceive that to which we had consented.
It was still a strange position to be in, but perhaps one fitting of Carnival. Amongst the chaos of strange costumes and heaving music was a focus on the present; why not enjoy a second of brief passion and then later seek some other? There was no contradiction in the late night tango of booty calls and dead batteries – ships do pass in the night.
A month and a half later Nina was passing through Utrecht so we grabbed a beer, chatting like old friends about the trials of early adulthood: the doubts, the lack of plans, the fears and expectations that arise when one confronts that harbinger of decisions better known as the future. In many ways I feel that this sums up our relationship – there is just enough common ground in our life phases upon which to build a friendship, and then the extra is merely circumstantial – fulfilling the desire for intimacy that all humans share, but which can be so hard to come by as you make your way in the lonely old world.
It was this history, and the chance to see a different side of life that led me to Dusseldorf. Why not continue this strange adventure in Germany?
Nina’s current project is, as far as I can gather, a cutting-edge piece on the fragility of relationships in the modern world. I met her friends and workmates: an eccentric international collection of dancers and actors all stuck in Dusseldorf for the duration of the project. There is a range of ages but Nina is the youngest, with the majority considerably further into their careers.
From their conversation I glean that it is a tough existence: long physically demanding days, mediocre pay, and the isolation of one foreign city after another. Despite these hurdles it seems clear that it is a labour of love – laughter is in no short supply and a picnic of the edge of the Rheine quickly progresses into euphoric drinks at the composer’s apartment. Bottles of red wine and spliffs fuel a crazy mix of 80s-themed dancing and eccentric posturing – these are individuals who love to live. Performance flows through them and the banter is dramatic, their lives one big show.
As an outsider I am tremendously entertained, and privileged to be allowed so acceptingly into their inner circle. So I drink and laugh, and eventually muster the courage to dance a little. I am not usually shy in this regard but I am an outsider in the midst of professionals – it would be stranger if I wasn’t a little self-conscious.
I largely follow the lead of the composer and his assistant and we sit on the sidelines, a willing audience for the performance. There seems to be an unspoken acceptance that the posturing and posing is best left to the professionals. I am happy to appreciate and record, with cries of “photo” upping the bravado of the performers.
On the Friday night they make plans for karaoke and, ever the willing guest, I consent to come. But not without some trepidation, of course, for I have never sung karaoke and I am spectacularly out of my depth: in a foreign city, in a foreign section of society, the youngest in age and experience.
Before we head out I smoke a joint, and feel the glorious vibration spread throughout my being. Encased in my hazy blanket I stroll, laughing and posturing with the gay French actors and the Austrian dancers, sharing in their joyful theatrics.
We arrive at the Karaoke bar, and I take a background roll – I am here to follow, not to demand. The waitress directs us to a small booth and proceeds to explain the rules in German against a backdrop of garish Japanese pop videos. The Austrian translates what is happening and I gleefully embrace the outrageousness of the situation.
This was not what the group was after: they want to dance and sing on a stage in a smoky bar, not seated in a small room. The drinks are ten euro each atop the room charge and this turns out to be the deciding factor – even creative performers balk in the face of sober karaoke, and no one can afford intoxication at that cost.
So we awkwardly leave, the group slightly torn. In a strange way I am sad that we didn’t stay. The aesthetic of the room alone was enough to ensure it would become a lingering memory; tribute to the whimsy of travel.
The next bar is crowded and the service abysmally slow. We finish our drinks and head home, laughing disparagingly about Dusseldorf and its failure to deliver.
The next day I bid farewell to Nina, and laugh at her gibe – “Have a nice life”.
But there is some truth behind the joke. Ours is a partnership characterised by a lack of a future. There may be another encounter, or there may not be. Circumstance reigns supreme and we are worlds apart from the freedom of Pai. Our ships sail on, and only chance herself knows when, or even if, there will be another night where our paths align.