‘My greatest fear is of waiters and porters’

I am fascinated by the relation between people’s looks and the freedoms they are given by others. An important aspect of this is that I do not believe that so-called public spaces are accessible for everybody. The way people dress, or the way they behave, can be a reason for others to exclude them.


Print of the Vieux Doelen from 1844, published by A.P. van Langenhuysen, now in the University Library of Leiden (Bijzondere Collecties).

The twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote an evocative poem about this – about being out of place and not feeling welcome in the poshest hotel of the Netherlands’ poshest city (translation below):

Du Vieux Doelen

Het kijken van voorbijgangers braveren.
Doen of ik iemand ben bij elke stap.
Zoals ik deed als knaap en voor de grap,
om mij daarmee allure aan te leren.

Doen of ik niemand ben en zo riskeren
te zweven tussen schouderklop en trap,
tussen toenadering en achterklap,
maar altijd dupe van de hoge heren.

Voor obers en portiers ben ik het bangst.
Een klein vergrijp tegen de etiquette
moet ik bekopen met een blik die kwetst.

Ook al beweeg ik me op ‘t allernetst,
ze blijven uit de verte op mij letten.
Het eind waaraan zij trekken is het langst.

[rough-and-ready translation:]

Hotel Du Vieux Doelen

Braving lookers-on.
At every step pretend to be someone.
Like I did as a boy for a laugh,
in order to teach myself some class.

Pretend to be no one and risk
both pats on the shoulder and kicks,
both friendly approach and backbiting,
but remaining the victim of gentlemen.

My greatest fear is of waiters and porters.
The tiniest breach of etiquette
must be paid for with glances like bayonets

However politely I move about,
they keep an eye on me from afar.
They always get the last laugh.

The poem is part of a series about The Hague, about the modernity of The Hague, and about the lonely flaneur wandering through the glittering city.

Apart from the wonderful rhyme in the original (‘kwetst’ – ‘allernetst’, etc.), this poem is also interesting for what it says about looks and belonging.

Two themes run through the whole of Achterberg’s series of poems about The Hague:

  1. the staggering modernity of department stores with customer lifts and ready-priced items, of shop girls and businessmen; and, perhaps most importantly, of huge shop windows with their live male window-dressers and lifeless female fashion mannequins.
  2. the loneliness of the man who walks through this modern space; the lack of meaningful, long-term relations he experiences; the city-dwellers’ business-like communication that is often wholly reduced to financial transactions.

Eaton’s Department Store, Toronto, Canada. Archives of Ontario: T. Eaton Company. Available on Wikipedia.

By the time Achterberg was writing in the 1950s, this image of the modern city already had a long tradition in European writing (Baudelaire, Zola, Simmel, Benjamin…). Although attractive enough to many, it is a limited image that stresses the experience of wealthy male observers.

However, Achterberg is a more interesting poet than what I’ve just said suggests, and one of the ways in which he shows this is in this poem about the hotel Du Vieux Doelen. Here, the protagonist is not the wealthy but alienated flaneur who buys empty luxury and empty love on the streets of the city; instead, he is an outsider, not rich and educated enough to be at home in this hotel. Meanwhile, porters and waiters are the princes of the palace.


The poem is taken from Gerrit Achterberg, Voorbij de laatste stad, Paul Rodenko (ed.) (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1955, 1978), p. 148.


A real traveller?

Ever since the eighteenth century or thereabouts, travellers have carried an attitude commonly called ‘anti-tourism’.

Writers characterise others as Tourists: they are lazy, superficial, conventional. Tourists go on package tours; Tourists do not speak the local language; and all Tourists really want is a snapshot of themselves with the Great, Berlin or Hadrian’s Wall, which are as interchangeable to Tourists as the motel beds they sleep in.

It is not always acknowledged that this Tourist is a construction by these writers, an image, a personage. In real life, holiday travellers’ experiences are a great deal more complex.

Still, the image is an attractive one. It allows us to style ourselves different travellers: Real Travellers.

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from Neue Zürcher Zeitung article).

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from an article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

Charles Baudelaire is one of those writers who shaped our image of the Real Traveller. This is from his poem ‘Le voyage’:

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

In the translation by Geoffrey Wagner:

But the true travelers are they who depart
For departing’s sake; with hearts light as balloons,
They never swerve from their destinies,
Saying continuously, without knowing why: “Let us go on!”

Many of us will know the feeling this fragment evokes. The lightness it brings to leave one place, full of muddy memories and a thousand duties, and exchange it for another, fresh one. It’s a splendid feeling.

But Baudelaire does something besides describing this feeling: he sets those who feel it (‘vrais voyageurs’) apart from the rest. They are the wanderers, the wayfarers, for whom the journey is more important than the destination. Apart from the fact that this is a poetic distinction that does not exist in real life – often, the destination and the journey are both important, and the same people who have happy, ‘balloony’ feelings can also experience homesickness and anxiety – Baudelaire also chooses to set these people above the rest: those who are ‘fated’ to roam are more properly travellers than those who are actually going some place.

This tallies nicely with the rest of Baudelaire’s oeuvre, in which the protagonists are never able to find their place in the world, never satisfied, never at peace with their environment. Baudelaire himself, too, does not seem to have been very able to go somewhere and stay away for long.

It is flattering for Baudelaire as well as for ourselves to think of ourselves as the Real Travellers, especially when the activity mostly consists of dreaming of other places from the comfort of our own room, with little or no contact with the actual people and cultures we dream about.

But should we praise ourselves for our restlessness? To arrive is also an art. It is a fine romantic notion never to settle, but to depart on journeys, real or literary, has never been a particularly difficult task for the rich and male.

The hard part is staying in the new place: making do and adjusting one’s expectations and prejudices. It seems that Baudelaire did not find this pursuit worth much effort. But however wonderful some of the lines he wrote, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the authority exerted by romantic poetry. Perhaps, those who go somewhere and make an effort, however imperfect, to adapt to the new place – the Nigerian trader in Guangzhou, the Sudanese refugee in Amsterdam, the Mexican housekeeper in Los Angeles – perhaps they are the real travellers.

The standard work on anti-tourism is James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford, 1993). Geoffrey Wagner’s translations appeared in Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (New York, 1974). My biographical impressions were largely shaped by the chapter on Baudelaire in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel and Francis Scarfe’s introduction to his selected verse.


Imagine a sea without shore.

Nothing but water, in the whole wide world.

They say this was the way it was in the very beginning:

and the spirit of God moved over the waters

or, in Dutch

en de Geest Gods zweefde op de wateren.

Before the waters had been separated between the clouds above and the oceans below, and before they had been withdrawn from the land, they were everywhere.


‘Chaos’, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677), print scanned by the University of Toronto and published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is an image that captured the writers of the very first book of the Torah and the Bible – Genesis – two and a half thousand years ago.

This same image surfaces later on in the story, in chapters 6 and 7. In God’s voice

Behold I will bring the waters of a great flood upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, under heaven. […] I will rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and I will destroy every substance that I have made, from the face of the earth.

The point receives quite a bit of emphasis: Noah

was six hundred years old, when the waters of the flood overflowed the earth. […] And after the seven days were passed, the waters of the flood overflowed the earth […] In the six hundredth year of the life of Noe, in the second month, in the seventeenth day of the month, all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were opened: And the rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. And the flood was forty days upon the earth, and the waters increased, and lifted up the ark on high from the earth. For they overflowed exceedingly: and filled all on the face of the earth: and the ark was carried upon the waters. And the waters prevailed beyond measure upon the earth: and all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The water was fifteen cubits higher than the mountains which it covered. […] And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

If we ignore for a moment the comical effect of reading such repetitive language nowadays (also thanks to Monty Python), we are left with a desolate picture.


Gustave Doré, from a mid-19th-century edition of The Holy Bible (London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassell), taken from Wikipedia.

The endless sea is meant to destroy

all flesh […] that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beasts, and of all creeping things that creep upon the earth: and all men. And all things wherein there is the breath of life on the earth, died.

The ur-sea forms the central image of many creation myths, in both its chaotic and destructive aspects. The devouring sea also plays a large part in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Around 1900, he wrote several volumes of poems exploring how people ought to deal with the exasperating reality of never-ending comings and goings on earth; the ever-present risk of loosing life and loved ones. (These volumes are titled, amongst others, Manasi and Sonar Tari, The Golden Boat.)

Destruction dances on the vast ocean waves –

A fearful festival!

Beating its hundred wings, the storm wind raves

In furious squall.

Ocean and sky conjoin – fierce intercourse,

While blackness shuts out heaven’s sight.

Terror-struck by lightning, the breakers roar:

Inert nature’s laughter, sharp, angry, white.

Unseeing, unhearing, frenzied giants come –

Homeless, loveless forms:

Where do they rush to die, bursting all bonds?

This forms the beginning of ‘Sindhutaranga’/’Ocean Waves. On the wreck of two pilgrim-ships bound for Puri’. Further on in the poem,

The surge stretches its million arms and calls “Give, give, give!”

Have you ever been in a pool, thinking you could stand up on the pool floor but, reaching for it, found yourself step underwater because the pool was deeper than you thought? Or, swimming in the sea, experienced one of those cool currents moving past your legs as you swim away from the coast, intimating that you are entering a literally un-fathomable expanse of the world? (A fathom-line was what seafarers used to measure depth with.)

Pink Floyd’s lyrics on the album The Wall express that feeling:

If you should go skating

On the thin ice of modern life […]

Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice

Appears under your feet

You slip out of your depth and out of your mind

With your fear flowing out behind you

As you claw the thin ice

But unlike this song, Tagore also employs that more benign side of the endless ocean. The poem ‘Ahalyar Prato’/’To Ahalya’ compares the rebirth of a petrified woman to

the first slow dawn

On the blue waters of oblivion’s sea.


Ocean, first mother, the earth is your child (‘Samudrer Prati’/To the Ocean’)

Tagore described his ‘boat of life’ sailing ‘across unending oceans’ (in ‘Biday’/A Farewell’). In a letter, the poet wrote:

how can it be explained to one who does not feel it within his heart, face to face with nature in a setting of solitude? When there was no land on earth, when the ocean was alone by itself, my restless heart of today was tossed inarticulately amidst that unpeopled mass of water: I seem to apprehend this when I look at the sea and hear its single-noted murmur.

As a destructive power, the seas often feature in our common images and experiences. In their reflections on personal or shared disasters, many have turned to the regenerative, fertilising capacities of the sea, as of rivers and vulcanoes. But perhaps the most beautiful image is that of the first dawn rising over a calm sea, where life has yet to begin. Some solitary creative being hovers over the water, pondering what they might create, imagining all the million possibilities… and perhaps postponing the start of a new world, just for a bit, enjoying the silence.


P.S. I have used an English translation (the ‘Douay-Rheims’) of the Latin Vulgate Bible (itself a translation, but still used in Latin everywhere in the world), as well as the standard Dutch authorised Reformed translation from 1635 (the Statenbijbel). Although perhaps not the best translations we have, they are beautiful as poetry. With my apologies to those who regret I am not treating the Bible as the Word of God. The translations of Tagore’s poems and letter, originally in Bengali, were taken from the Oxford India edition edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, which we are very lucky to have.