Amsterdam, Anne F. and me
Amsterdam, Anne F. ja minä, Otava Publishing Company, 2008
A funny and brave novel about 15-year-old Kerttu and her colorful week-long vacation in Amsterdam.
“Human relations are always gnarly. I’m trapped between two people. Or I was, that is. Lately all kinds of stuff has been happening.”
Kerttu has ended her relationship with Mira with an embarrassing text message, and Mira is furious. Kerttu’s relationship with Jim, on the other hand, is thriving, although he lives hundreds of kilometers away.
Kerttu’s mother takes her on a trip to Amsterdam, which is like a world in miniature: idyllic canals and bicycles, used-up syringes, streetwalkers – and ghosts from the past. On the trip, her mom acquaints her with the diary of Anne Frank, and it makes a shattering impression on her. The city remains when Kerttu leaves, but she has been changed.
1. Me, Madam Author and John Lennon
I stare at the ceiling, close my eyes, stare at the glow-in-the dark stars on the ceiling – my own starry sky – and roll over onto my stomach. I’ve been trying to get to sleep for at least a couple of hours, because otherwise tomorrow will be a dead loss. I count sheep. One, two, three, ten, a hundred, all black and woolly. I hide my Betty Boop alarm clock under the bed so I won’t keep looking at its hands all the time. A taxi is coming to pick us up at half past two – a shocking hour. Mum booked the cab so we won’t have to hitch a lift by the side of the road in the middle of the night. What a sight that would be. A posh mummy and her prodigal daughter with their varnished thumbs stuck out.
Mum’s shut the door to her office. I can hear the steady clacking of her keyboard and Frank Sinatra crooning about New York: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.” Mum always listens to Sinatra when she’s putting the finishing touches on one of her novels. She’s editing the last few pages and plans to get the whole pile of rubbish (literally, if you ask me) done before a well-earned autumn holiday. I can hear her editor’s fingers drumming on the desk at the publishing company’s offices already.
Mother and daughter. A two-woman household. If Mum is yellow, I’m purple. If Mum’s blue, I’m orange. Our art teacher who says complementary colours go well together has got it wrong.
Example number one: my mother is refined and ladylike, and visits the hairdresser twice a month. Meanwhile, I trim my own aniline-red split ends in front of the bathroom mirror and do not require a beauty therapist to squeeze my blackheads. Example two: my mother gets manicures, while I eagerly chew my nails. Example three: my mother’s wardrobe is full of Finnish designer items, whereas I shop for retro clothes at flea markets with a tenner in my purse.
Example number four: work ethic. One of us has got one; the other hasn’t. If you ask me, night-time is for sleeping – or at least trying to – and not for staying up, not for writing insignificant columns for women’s magazines, and not for compelling fictional characters to gaze sweetly into the eyes of the love of their life.
So I, Kerttu Koistinen, the first-born and also the youngest daughter of Kaarina Kataja, turned fifteen yesterday, and to be honest I feel it. Sissi’s lot were heading off to their summer cottage, so we celebrated both the start of the autumn holidays and my getting older. Sissi knitted me a pair of black-and-white socks with skulls on them for my present – I’m wearing them right now – and Aram attempted to educate me about the Persepolis graphic novels. Jimi sent me a virtual cake, hug and kiss on Facebook, and there’s supposed to be a parcel on its way in the post, so I guess I’ll get that when I come back from holiday. Gran and Granddad sent me 50 euros, Auntie Riikka sent me a card with the Swearing Hedgehog cartoon character on it, and Uncle Matti gave me a drawing by his five-year-old daughter Helena. I seem to be loved.
Despite getting off to a good start, the evening ended with me crying and getting all introspective, but fortunately Sissi and Aram were willing to listen to my sorrows and provide support and hugs. In the morning, I found three texts that had made their way to Mira in my Sent Messages folder. She hasn’t replied to a single one of them. Her Contacts list on her mobile probably says “Do not reply!” next to Kerttu. That’s how I label unwanted people on mine.
I got two presents in hard packages, because Mum gave me something to read as well: The Diary of Anne Frank. Last year she gave me a blank diary, but I still haven’t even written anything in it. Maybe Mum is hoping I’ll become her successor, but she’s mistaken if she does. I started to keep a diary a couple of times when I was younger, but I’d always get sick of scribbling in the first week. I want to live, not write.
Besides, Finnish is a horrible subject. I can’t stand its illogical grammar rules and its epidemic of vowels with dots over them. If anyone actually breaks out in a rash from using English words or making mistakes with compound words, I’d advise them to get out a bit more. Common sense tells you that there are more important things in life. I’ve always been against these Trivial Pursuit people. I don’t mean the game, but the know-it-all types who acquire ridiculous masses of information just to impress other people. I believe in the big picture! So big that I don’t manage to crack open my schoolbooks all that often, but that doesn’t mean that other books don’t interest me. There’s always a tome lying open on my bedside table. Currently, Nancy by Deborah Spungen and The Silver Elephant by Finnish author Marika Uskali are resting there.
I don’t like writing, but I talk enough to make up for it. I’m an unstoppable chatterbox who our biology teacher sent out of the classroom three times in a single lesson. Talking is far more natural – and more fun – than writing. I can even keep internal monologues going for hours at a time. Yada yada yada.
I ought to get some sleep. Three-hour afternoon naps may have been a bit much. Sissi got me home safe and sound in the evening. No worries, she said, just like a best friend should. Of course everything will work out. You’ll make it. You’re a star.
Mum definitely saw my red, puffy eyes in the morning, but she didn’t start into the usual cross-examination. Of course she knows it pisses me off. Mum has gone through so many breakups that she can sense the situation. A person suffering from heartache can always recognise it in others and knows to keep quiet when they ought to.
My personal relationships are all tangled up. I’m caught between two people.
Or more accurately, I was. Mira is probably sighing with relief that she won’t have to bump into me for a week on Hämeenkatu Street. At least she’ll be briefly spared from a possible murder charge. I’ve dreamt about Mira every night, even though I would have preferred not to. Suddenly everything about that girl is thrillingly beautiful and gorgeous. Her laugh, her glances and her hugs, which I didn’t appreciate enough. Her lips, which are always bright red, even if it was raining cats, dogs or frogs. Her clothes, which you could only express your admiration or horror of. Her huge black bag with a sketch pad sticking out of it.
Loads of stuff has happened recently – too much stuff. I admit I was a massive bitch and should have thought twice about what I was doing. I should have thought about it a lot sooner.
There are certainly more considerate ways of breaking up with someone than by text message. Mum shook her head when I told her. She didn’t seem too pleased, even though at the start she had been a bit taken aback that her straight Kerttu was becoming a lesbian or bi, or whatever it is they’re called nowadays – a confused teenager in any case. My mum is in the habit of doing things by the book. She’s one of those people who write out lists of pros and cons on a piece of graph paper when a crisis works it way into their lives. Pro: Kerttu is my only daughter. Con: Kerttu is my only daughter. Argh!
I haven’t mentioned anything about Jimi yet. Too much information is overkill, after all. Maybe I’m such an untamed secret lover that my mum will write me into her book yet. I don’t intend to find out though, because I’m not in the habit of perusing Ms. Kataja’s potboilers. The woman who gave birth to me might lead people to think that our mother-daughter relationship was something special, but it’s not.
No first-grader’s relationship to her mother can be special in any way; that’s something the screenwriters for The Gilmore Girls should have borne in mind. Maybe every mother like Lorelai dreamt of having her own talented daughter like Rory to share all of life’s joys, sorrows and relationship worries with and to enjoy DVD marathons with, sitting side by side on the sofa with a big bag of crisps. It sounds like a utopian dream when I think about my own circle of friends. Show me a happy family whose members manage to talk to each other about anything and everything, and I’ll show you my long-term relationship.
I can’t get to sleep. The sheep have run wild. They’re pogoing around to punk music and beating saucepan lids together, sticking their tongues out and doing backwards somersaults.
I can make out the shadow of my Mary Poppins suitcase in the doorway. I’ve got too many things, but that’s how it always is on journeys. Every time we end up having to buy an extra bag for souvenirs. In addition to The diary of Anne Frank, the woman who gave birth to me gave me some new beige suede boots with white fur edging and an extremely naff John Lennon handbag. Even though I am heartbroken, at least I’m bloody stylish in all my angst and pain. It provides some consolation.
This time tomorrow we’ll be in Amsterdam. An autumn holiday away from the daily grind is appropriate, even though the super-mature Sissi is of the opinion that you can’t run away from your problems. Not forever, maybe, but seven days are better than nothing.
There is a knock on the door.
“Are you still awake? I can hear groaning,” Mum opens the door a crack.
“I’ve got too many things going round in my head,” I reply to the ceiling.
“Oh, those things will work out, have faith.”
“How do you know?”
“I know from experience,” says Mum. “Now shut your eyes. Fortunately you can continue your dreaming on the bus.”
“By the way, how come you bought me The Diary of Anne Frank? We’ve got loads of them already.”
“All in good time. I’ll tell you on the way there.”
“You’ve got something up your sleeve again.”
“Just a teeny-tiny thing at the very most.”
“I’m going through a crisis! You can’t demand anything from me,” I whine.
“The alarm clock will go off in two hours, so off to dreamland, Sweetie.”
“Have a good night shift, Mum.”
We travel quite a lot. My mum seems to have chronic wanderlust, which is an incurable disease. This summer we spent five days in Paris with the Garden Gnome, Mum’s latest interest. Two days on the upper deck of a tour bus, gawping at the Eiffel Tower along with thousands of other tourists. Chewing on a baguette on a park bench by the Seine and a nervous breakdown in the Louvre in the middle of a laughing crowd. For the Easter holidays, the two of us went to Riga to marvel at the women who had been born in high heels. There hasn’t been any mention of our next trip yet, even though Mum loves to leaf through travel guides. I’m sure she’s got something in mind.
Mum has prepared for this trip in her usual way, right down to the last detail. She bought an Amsterdam travel guide and is taking one of her copies of The Diary of Anne Frank along (I’m not dragging mine along on this trip.). Mum collects different versions of that work. I’ve never heard of anyone else who collects one single book. Strange? Definitely. Our reading room at home has several shelves full of Anne Frank, in different languages and different editions. I’m surprised it’s Mum’s favourite book. Next, I bet she’ll start putting together an Anne shelf in my room. I take a somewhat different view …
It’s readily apparent that I haven’t read the diary and do not intend to touch it, even though it was a well-intentioned gift. I certainly do not intend to spend any time doing anything educational on holiday – it’s enough that I will be breathing the same air as my mother, the brilliant (in quotation marks) author. My Finnish teacher, the Demon, would be liable to suffer a stroke, and I’d rather let ADHD Ari send him on sick leave. And I think we will see that day before Christmas. People have already placed bets on it at school.
The woman who gave birth to me occupies herself with literature in various forms, whereas her daughter is more of a muso. I’m taking my MP3 player along on the plane, loaded with Antic Café, DOREMIdan and Kana. Of course, Mum has never heard of any of these bands, but she smiles in solidarity and fellow-feeling if I lend her my earphones for a bit. She’s so damn tolerant. In one newspaper interview, just one of the things she came out with was a slip of the tongue that could also be referred to as a mega-clanger: “Thanks to my daughter, I’m considered ‘in’ by the youth scene.” Excuse me?! She never forgets to mention that she was young once herself. People should be rebellious and dare to test the boundaries, because when you’re old you no longer have the energy or the inclination. Mum always manages to reason and reconcile things when I simply want to argue. It does a person good to exercise their vocal cords properly every once in a while. At the end of one row I threw a glass onto the floor, but it didn’t break. When the glass didn’t even chip after the third throw, we both burst out laughing and the argument was considered a draw.
I stretch my arms and legs. I yawn, turning my mouth into a gaping black hole. I sit up and peep through the curtains into the back garden, where I can make out the patio table and four chairs ready to go into storage. A silent drizzle is coming down, and it looks as if a pitch-black sheet has been fastened to the sky with clothes pegs. It’s so totally inspiring to live in Finland this time of year. There is a vibe that makes me feel like bouncing around with a skipping rope every morning, just out of sheer joy. I sink back down into bed.
If Mum had a single functioning brain cell left, she would have used her Visa card to book us a trip to somewhere around the equator or even further south. But city breaks are the ‘in’ thing right now, and we wouldn’t want to be anything other than that, would we?
I’m running in overdrive. Now, at long last, I shut my eyes and try to get at least a few moments of shut-eye. Watch out, The ’Dam! Soon you will no longer be your old self. For tomorrow you will meet the girl from Tampere. Ahem, or should I say, the laydees.
14. Anne Frank’s smile
Unbelievable. For once, we manage to get up and about early enough so we can walk straight into the museum, even though we waste over a quarter of an hour looking for the place. The signs are pointing in the wrong direction (yeah, right … or else we’ve just got miserable navigation skills) and we can’t make head or tails of the directions the locals give us. But eventually we get there.
Prinsengracht is a typical Dutch street along a canal, and today – yet again – is a typical Dutch rainy day. The house doesn’t look like a museum from outside, and it doesn’t have any big lettering on the wall saying Anne Frank Huis. Maybe they wanted to keep it looking like an average grey house. After all, the Franks did everything they could to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
“So this is where the family hid?” I ask, uncertainly. “It’s right in the centre of Amsterdam. I thought it would have been in a more out-of-the-way place.”
“This is it,” Mum confirms.
To the right of the house, the massive, monumental Westerkerk, or Western Church, dominates the scenery. We scurry into the museum, and Mum pays our entry. Water drips off our umbrellas onto the floor. Some other interested people are already there, but it’s not crowded yet. I identify some American tourists from the way they are talking. A middle-aged couple is having a fierce argument. They’ve clearly had some trouble finding the place, too. The woman is giving her poor husband a telling-off for messing around with the map. I’ve always wondered why some couples like to create a scene in public.
We go downstairs into a small area where we leave our coats and wet umbrellas. There’s a scale model of the Secret Annexe there that looks like a doll’s house. Those little dolls were deported to a concentration camp and burnt in the ovens.
“There’s no furniture in the model. Isn’t there any left in the Secret Annexe?” I ask Mum.
“Apparently not. An annexe similar to the original one was built here according to the account given by Otto Frank, Anne’s father,” says Mum, examining the doll’s house. “Let’s go and look at the original.”
There’s a strange churning in my stomach.
Seventy years ago, this very same house was filled with secrets. In the daytime, Anne’s family – her father Otto, her mother Edith, her big sister Margot and Anne – along with the van Daan1 family with Mr and Mrs van Daan and their son Peter, and Mr Dussel the dentist had to speak in whispers, and at night they had to keep their hands over their mouths if they needed to cough. They couldn’t risk being heard or seen.
I remember our history teacher telling us that the Nazis wanted to get rid of everyone who was different from their Aryan ideal, the exalted, supreme German race. Jews, Gypsies, Slavic people, disabled people, homosexuals …
… homosexuals. A bell starts ringing in my head. Would I have ended up in a concentration camp in the 1940s? Could Anne have been doubly persecuted? As a Jew and a lesbian? Or as a Jew and bi? The Nazis would hardly have made such analytical distinctions. They would just have been directed to the door of the gas chamber.
I remember the horrible Amon Goeth character from Schindler’s List, who was firmly convinced that his housekeeper Helen Hirsch was a rat or vermin. “Are those rat’s eyes?” the tyrant asked as he looked at Helen, and no doubt he saw a rat as well, as mad and utterly brainwashed as he was.
I follow my mother silently. Is Anne’s ghost hiding here, I wonder? Or maybe her big sister Margot’s? We climb up the incredibly steep, narrow staircase.
“Not for old people,” I mutter.
“Not for disabled people either,” Mum says.
“And not for people who are scared of heights.”
The Secret Annexe is hidden behind Anne’s father Otto Frank’s former office. Work continued in the office throughout the whole time there were eight Jews hiding in the building. Nowadays, the idea seems crazy. I’m sure the people who helped the family to hide had a hard time as well, with the constant fear of being discovered. The person who did the most to help them, Miep Gies, was incredibly lucky. When the Secret Annexe was discovered, the SS man didn’t shoot her, because Miep was from Austria, same as the soldier.
We reach the doorway to the Secret Annexe. The door is concealed behind a brown bookcase. The bookcase was filled with folders and papers so nobody would have suspected that anything was hidden behind it.
A weird feeling accompanies me as I continue to climb the stairs. This is the spot where Anne and her companions would often bump their heads. Bam! Some things never change, I reckon as I massage the top of my head.
The apartment is surprisingly large. Very large, in fact.
I wasn’t aware that the family actually had this much space. I thought that the Secret Annexe was like a sardine tin where the Franks were all crammed in, the way they show in historical documents and films. But this place is an entire good-sized apartment. It seems unbelievable that an apartment like this could be hidden right in the middle of Amsterdam. It’s both amazing and scary. At the same time, I feel ashamed: how dare I think that they would have had to suffer in some miserable little rat hole. There is no furniture in the apartment, just as there was none in the model.
Anne’s diary is fresh in my mind, and I’ve got the book with me in my John Lennon bag. I dig it out and scan the pages. Here is what Anne thought in this same apartment:
“When I lie in bed in the evenings, I imagine myself alone in a dungeon, without Mother and Father. Sometimes I’m wandering lost somewhere, or our Secret Annexe has been set on fire, or they come to take us away in the middle of the night and I hide in desperation under the bed. I see these events in my mind as if they were real. And I feel that something like that could happen to us in the near future.
“When someone has been shut indoors for a year and a half, on some days everything feels overwhelming. These feelings cannot be suppressed – I want to ride my bicycle, dance, whistle, see the world, feel young, know that I am free. I yearn tremendously for all of this, yet I cannot reveal my yearning to the others.”
The room Anne shared with Mr Dussel, the dentist, is the most interesting part of the Secret Annexe. Nostalgia emanates from the wallpapered walls, which are filled with pictures of actors and actresses Anne cut out from issues of Cinema & Theater magazine. I don’t recognise any of the faces. Anne knew all of the films and actors of her time and knew all of the film reviews from the magazines off by heart, even though she hadn’t been to see a single film in years. She had an exceptionally good imagination.
I wonder what Anne’s favourite films were and which actors were the most popular in those days. What would Anne and Margot have thought of movies like Girl, Interrupted, Lost in Translation, American History X or Requiem for a Dream, which are my favourites?
In the room furthest towards the back in the Secret Annexe, I am lost for words. This is not part of the apartment itself, it’s more of a special memorial space, a chapel where visitors can spend a moment with their own thoughts and come to terms with what they have seen.
The black-and-white room is modest in appearance. A black memorial plaque has been put up for each one of the eight people who were in hiding, sort of like their own gravestone, which they never even got. It’s unlikely that anyone knows where their remains actually are.
Written documents prove beyond a doubt that these same eight people were on a train bound for Auschwitz. A typist entered their names on the list: Anne Frank, Margot Frank …
Anne’s now-famous smile, a bit similar to the Mona Lisa’s, beams from a photograph. They are all here. Anne, Margot, Otto, Edith, Mr and Mrs van Daan, Peter and Mr Dussel.
It feels strange that someone really wrote that document, and that it really exists. Anne – and Margot – are no made-up characters in a novel. They were real people who were murdered in the early years of their lives. It’s there in black on white.
Even though I’m biting my lower lip, the tears still come.
I go over and stand in front of Anne’s photo for a moment.
Anne and Margot were like two peas in a pod. Pretty, smart and sweet-looking girls. Margot clearly looks older in her glasses. She looks like a girl who thinks a lot. She was lost in thought when the photo was snapped as well.
Anne’s face is angular. Her nose is long and pointed. Her dark brown hair frames her pale face; her bare forehead is like a half-moon. Anne is looking into the camera and smiling. Her smile reveals her teeth and gives her dimples in her cheeks. She looks purer and better-behaved than the author of the last few diary entries.
I stand in front of the photo for a long time. Anne keeps me rooted to the spot. I think about her words. Her secrets. Her dreams. Her feelings. The body and bare breasts of Venus.
Suddenly, Anne’s lips turn upward slightly, just a millimetre or two. She looks me right in the eyes and her smile widens; her gaze brightens. I can almost hear her soft laughter. I glance around me. Nobody else is paying any attention to the picture. Am I losing the plot?
People are deep in thought. They are reading papers with concentrated expressions, chatting quietly to one another, not paying me any notice. I flash a smile back at Anne, like a co-conspirator.
I remain there for a moment, but nothing else happens.
15. Rain suits Amsterdam
“What did you think of it?” Mum asks, a bit stupidly, as we walk away from the museum.
I want the words to come out, I want to blabber away like a chatterbox, tell about the photo, tell about the strange part in the book that I’ve never heard anyone talk about. Ask Mum if I’ve just imagined everything, if I’ve over-interpreted things, if I’ve read too much into it. But words would spoil the experience. It’s impossible to talk about it all.
“I had a strange feeling as well. It’s a kind of terribly sad mood,” Mum continues.
“That house doesn’t have great karma,” I admit.
The rain patters on our umbrellas, and we leap over the puddles. Rain really suits Amsterdam. Even though the city looks grey, it’s still got atmosphere. The patter of the rain unites people. Strangers smile at one another in bus shelters. Someone lets another person shelter under their umbrella. Everybody is able to talk about the weather.
Seventy years ago, nobody would have offered Anne protection from the rain because of the yellow star sewn onto her coat. Instead, they would have shoved her out into the pouring rain in disgust.
But then again, there was not merely evil in the world. There were some men and women like Miep Gies and Oskar Schindler. Not all of them get movies made about them. How many of them have been forgotten? How many of them die without receiving any recognition, other than their clear conscience? Or do people actually need anything more than that?
“Who betrayed them?” I ask, as we look for a nice café where we can let our clothes dry and drink some hot chocolate.
“Many people were suspected, but they never found the culprit. There was a reward of 7.5 florins for each Jew that was reported,” replied the encyclopedia in high heels.
“How much is that in today’s money?” I wonder.
“I couldn’t say.”
“That’s shocking,” I mutter. “People will do anything for money.”
“There were lots of informers in those days.”
We duck into a café whose walls are covered in black-and-white film posters. Marilyn Monroe is the leading light in the place. Her white hemline flutters, and the platinum blonde laughs. Marilyn’s presence can also be felt in the music in this café. There’s no mistaking her honeyed voice, even though I’ve only seen Some like it hot: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend …”
Mum orders us each a hot chocolate and asks them to squirt plenty of whipped cream on top. It smells amazing.
“Shall we visit the red-light district this evening?” Mum asks once we’ve sat down and put our wet coats over the back of our chairs to dry out.
“Sure, let’s go,” I say, even though I am apprehensive.
“Maybe we ought to get through all the world’s injustices first, and then we can concentrate on enjoying ourselves for the rest of our holiday.”
“Whatever,” I say. “And the workaholic here will be able to secretly take notes.”
“The thought never crossed my mind,” Mum laughs. “Are you planning to meet up with your new friend again before we go home?”
“Yeah. Robbe promised to show me his school and then take me to his favourite café.”
Translated by Ruth Urbom