When, at the first Amsterdive meet-up, I got prompted to write about the downsides of living in Amsterdam, I thought it was an unusual request. My readers know all too well that this platform centers on the positive, on what’s to celebrate about the city. I’m the type who loves a good creative challenge so I did promise them that I would write my take on the pitfalls of living here. I have written about it once before. Twice, actually. The prompt made me realize that the regulars at this site want to see the entirety of the picture, not a sum of parts. I think that some aspects I’ve parodied will be very recognizable to most people, others not at all. Here is my perspective (subjective, personal, and all that) on the city of muddy canals and mad bikers after having lived here for seven years. Here we go.
Scene ONE – Winter’s a bitch
A couple of days ago, I shared a picture on my Instagram stories of my morning face. With the gravity of the early hours of the day pulling down my facial features, I was basically a sloth. “I never wake up fresh and full of energy”, the caption read. An acquaintance suggested I increase the intake of raw fruits and vegetables in order to sort out the issue. The next day I got a text from a friend who’s has traded The Netherlands for the Caribbean. “While I was living in Amsterdam I woke up like that every day. I felt drained and was struggling with daily headaches. I even went to the doctor and got my blood tested. Everything was fine. When we’re in The Netherlands, we get used to feeling like you do, but since I came here, ALL complaints were gone, just like that. Hey Ana, the sun is everything for us”. I knew what he meant by ‘us’. He meant ‘us’ Southern European, specifically ‘us’ Portuguese.
I thought that I had learned to cope with a colder climate. But the greyness, people. Gray skies can kill. “Am I depressed?” I wondered. A couple of days later a week of unusual February sun came, and I got magically cured. I was a positive person again who believes she’s blessed, and all that shit. I text back: “I think you’re right, man. NEVER again am I spending one entire winter in The Netherlands.
Scene TWO – CROWDY AF
It’s Sunday evening. I’ve spent the day working (yes, I am one of those) and, for dinner, I just want to grab something easy and not overly expensive because it’s Sunday evening, folks, why would I spend thirty euros on a meal out. I want a burger, a wrap, a pita, well, whatever form of decadently stuffed bread. And I want to read my book somewhere calm, with a cup of tea on the side. I know, I know, it is not easy to find a relatively quiet place where to read a freaking book in the evenings. Most places are noisy and hasty, but I’m determined.
Eventually, I have an idea that sounds brilliant: movie theatres! That’s the type of mellow environment I am craving. I live close to De Hallen which, as you guys might know, is a former tram depot that houses both a huge food hall and a movie theatre. De Hallen is the most crowded place on earth but, again, it’s Sunday. Tomorrow people are working. I am sure that I can get my fast food there and go read at the cafe that serves the cinema.
As I enter the food hall, the annoyance takes over. There’s no seat to be found. On top of that, a lousy vegetarian burger seems to cost fifteen euros now. Urgh. Oh wait, this is why I’ve sworn I was never going back to De Hallen after past visits. Why do I forget my promises?! Eventually, I find a veggie burger under ten euros, and a safe corner where I can devour it while people-watching (at least that). I Instagram-story my Sunday drama and hurry to the cinema. Peace and quiet at last, and another promise that I am never going back to De Hallen which, I know all too well, I’ll be breaking next year.
Scene THREE – Tourists. I mean, bikes versus tourists. Oh well, bikes versus the world.
I breathe deep. I am not cycling the route Haarlemmerstraat – Central Station – Nieuwmarkt for the longest time. Today I have to, as I’m meeting friends somewhere in the East. I know how it goes already. On the Haarlemmerstraat I’ll feel like I’m about to have a stroke every two seconds. Whether it’s a scooter going a thousand miles an hour that honks right before me (it is on purpose, right?). Or the sudden stop of a delivery truck that blocks the already narrow street, causing bike traffic turmoil, with cyclists trying to overtake each other from the left and right sides of the monster. Then there will be two more of these monsters. And, out of the blue, an old lady with her walker-rollator trying to cross the road and who, thanks to a spectacular swerve, I manage not to kill. Or this crossroads where twenty cyclists face each other, and attempt at moving out of the standoff All. At. The. Same. Time. Special mention to the pizza boys on electric bikes, never older than thirteen, riding as fast as the scooters do, equally life-threatening.
By the time I get to the Prins Hendrikkade I’m almost vomiting my heart out. But the worse is yet to come: the tourists. There will always be one (or one hundred) confused tourists crossing the road without taking the slightest look around. And when you think you had seen it all, hey, there is always worse: taxi drivers. I’m pretty sure that those boxed humans intend to murder every two-wheeler they catch sight of. When I try to cross the road in front of the Victoria Hotel the battle for survival is real. Bikes vs tourists vs scooters vs taxi drivers vs delivery trucks vs bike-taxis vs AH delivery bikes vs tourists on bikes.
I used to work at the former ‘In de Olofspoort’ in the city center (RIP to its soul) and had to follow this route every single day. It’s going to be two years that I have stopped. I do feel nostalgia for ‘In de Olofspoort’ at times but taking the decision not to work in the city center has been the best move I have ever made for my mental health.
Scene FOUR – Oh-My-God-Dutch-people-are-so-cold
Every sentence that starts with “Dutch people” makes me start shivering. It’s the people who are cold, the food that is bad, the language that is horrible, the canals that are dirty, the weather that is even worse. Some expats complain because nobody will speak Dutch to them so they won’t have the chance to practice the language (I understand, it’s disheartening), but many of them will complain about Dutch people speaking Dutch (!). “I feel so left out at conversations in my office, it’s so difficult, Dutch people are so distressing, they are always speaking in Dutch”. One thing I run away from like the plague is the whining expat who has been living in Amsterdam on a high paying corporate job for ten years, doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t want to speak the language, and has a dislike for everything remotely related to Dutch culture (except for King’s Day; King’s Day is nice – oh, and tulip fields) and, despite being unhappy, doesn’t do anything about it other than complaining as if their life depended on it. This is also the same person who will leave for another high-paying job somewhere else and rent their apartment to other fellow expats for triple the market price because, why not.
Scene FIVE – Sorry, I don’t speak Expat
I was dancing at this bar with some acquaintances at the end of a working day. At a certain point, a friend of a friend tries to engage in a conversation. Now, I’m usually welcoming to new people. However, the only thing that I could feel in that situation was pure dread. Because I could see it coming. I knew exactly how the interaction would develop. After seven years of every single convo starting like this, I can’t even.
Where do you come from?
Oh my god, Lisbon, Lisbon is my favorite city in the world, last year I was there on holiday, and the people, and the weather, and the yellow trams and the pasteis de nata, and everything is so cheap, it’s amazing. Why are you even here?
What do you do for a living?
For how long have you been living in Amsterdam?
Do you like it?
Where in the city do you live?
Do you speak Dutch?
Are you planning to stay?
Do you miss “home”?
Do you go back often? I would go back all the time if I were you because pasteis de nata and the weather, and oh my god everything is so cheap, and by the way, Dutch people are so cold.
So after he asked the first couple of questions I’ve interrupted him. Sorry man, don’t take this personally, but today I can’t. I’ve proceeded to explain why I wasn’t willing to tell my story for the zillionth time, after a full day of work, which very often included me having to tell my story to different internationals I didn’t know personally. I tried to do this in the friendliest and most summarised way that I could. At first, he raised his eyebrow, but then he seemed to have understood my point. So we’ve shifted to discussing our drinks of choice. Then, our taste in music. We cracked a few jokes. And I had a sigh of relief. Because, at that point, whatever bullshit that came to mind was more interesting than having the same old expat Q: A, yet another time. It’s like, talk to me about the weather.
Scene SIX – Public transportation is the wild wild west
There I am, in front of tram 26 because, god knows why, my dentist is located at that remote site that goes by the name Ijburg – a 12 minute-tram-ride. Once said tram arrives and doors open, it’s the wild wild west. No women, no men, indeed not children or teenagers: nobody will respect any line nor a basic rule of civilness. Not even the elderly. It will be a mass of bodies crammed against each other to see who gets inside first. The appearance of an older person with a walking stick will make nobody have a surge of generosity, and apparently, no remorse will follow either because people remain motionless and still as statues. Giving up your seat in favor of an older person is something unheard of in and around Amsterdam.
I can think of a couple more situations of this nature. The granny who tried to cut in line when waiting for our turn at the Stadsschouwburg’s cloakroom (and who looked at me in utter shock when I politely called out on her behavior). The man who saw me about to park my bike on a free spot on the bike rack and, in spite of it, hurried to park theirs first. The people who were standing in line behind me at the supermarket and who run to a new cash register as it is opening regardless of me having been first in line, or irrespective of each other. The cyclists’ behavior is the pinnacle of it all. And hey, I’m one of them now: one of the savages on two-wheels. I can’t possibly get used to the public transportation and queue madness though.
Scene SEVEN – Blackface, or don’t take away my tradition otherwise I might scream
Once upon a time, there was a country that was considered one of the most progressive in the world but still maintained a retrograde tradition that included a heinous caricature of people of color. It was an international embarrassment. In that said country, the autochtonous screamed that the Blackface practice didn’t intend to harm, people had been raised with it so under no pretext could you take their childhood memories away. That a once innocent-felt masquerade might have had an ugly origin (and therefore an ugly meaning) seemed too hard to bear so let’s focus the conversation on the innocence of children, shall we? Couldn’t they see that the slav, excuse me, “helpers” were black because they had had to climb up and down a chimney?! History in general and Colonialism, in particular, could have absolutely nothing to do with Blackface, this time. Like, please?
Year after year, the autochtonous failed to realize the intrinsic racism of the practice and religiously passed it on to their children who would later scream, like their parents had, that they too had been innocent. Children are so pure. All of this turmoil wasn’t fair after all because it was THEIR culture, and nobody had the right to mess up with THEIR fun and blah. In the meanwhile, nobody broke the cycle because tradition is holy. Despite not intending to harm, the autochthonous kept on harming. People of color kept on feeling belittled and dehumanized, more or less consciously. In fact, people of all colors and walks of life progressively stood up against Zwarte Piet (Black Piet). A tradition that portrays racist stereotypes cannot have a place in a society that stands for Human Rights. And yet, every December there he was, this white-bearded man on a horse in fancy red garments and a hat, distributing presents and sweets, followed by “helpers” who were all small and dumb and naughty and very black.
Feel free to let me know your thoughts on all this. Debate and constructive critique are welcome!