On Amsterdam loneliness and our stupid little walks

Yesterday I went on a stupid little walk. I was not walking alone: beside me was my friend C. and his girlfriend, long-time Portuguese friends. I love a good catch-up walk. Words flow better when you move, plus it’s meditative. I love doing things with people rather than sitting down with people, so yes, I’m a walking person (figuratively and literally – thank God.) I made chocolate tea in to-go cups for the three of us so we didn’t freeze, and we marched.

The Amsterdam march

We were on a stupid little walk around Amsterdam which, – like the entire country, – is flat as a pancake. I don’t know if it’s because I was accustomed to hills before moving here, (Lisbon was my previous home) but in spite of being a walking person (figuratively and literally – thank God,) walking in this city never feels satisfying. Could it be because of the narrow streets where there’s barely space for a sidewalk? Could it be due to our renowned frenzied cyclists? Could it be the cars, other people, the tourists? I cannot say that there are not enough obstacles and events that excite the spirit during a stupid little walk. A group of people happily chatting on the pavement, expecting the world to circle around them. The cyclist who curses at you after you do. The delivery kids on electric bikes swerving everyone, both in and off the pavement, because they’re fifteen and it’s fun. Walking in Amsterdam is far from boring, in fact, it can swiftly turn into a life or death experience. But I swear that, for me, it’s the flatness that kills the vibe. But I digress.

Like a guinea-pig

Under the circumstances, one must walk, even if it feels pointless. We’re under lockdown in the Netherlands (The second? Third? I have no clue, anymore. What is time, my friends) and the stupid little walk has become a lifeline. We go around in circles like minuscule mice on spinning wheels; after all, we can’t go very far because we’ll have a full bladder at some point. We see the same sights, greet the same people every time. It’s like we’re on a bizarre experiment where we keep getting the same result. No cheese, back to the cage. Because, you know, one has to go back home soon to finish work. But yesterday was different. I for one was coming out to the world after quarantine, which was not only a relief but made me feel quite invincible, – like I was wearing an invisible corona-proof vest or something. My friends and I were happy to catch up after a good streak of not seeing one another. There were no eccentric alt-right protests at Musemplein. It was a mellow Sunday.

Fed up with Amsterdam

We walked all the way to the Jordaan, along postcard-perfect canals and regal-looking elm trees, got slices of apple pie from Winkel 43 because what else on a Sunday afternoon. We sat on the stairs of the Norderkerk, pigging out on pie, and agreed that yes, it was a good one. We talked things and life and laughed about stuff, and this is how good my memory has been lately – I just recovered from a 10-day omicron saga, so excuse this cauliflower head. And then we talked about the real deal. So you said you were fed up with Amsterdam? My friend C. is a fellow countryman who has been living in Amsterdam for ten years. He’s a social butterfly, loves mingling with a new crowd, has plenty of conversation for everyone and is always ready for a biertje. He is one of those who were made to live abroad. But he has been showing signs of enough is enough, lately. Well, he said, after a decade of living here I miss my Portuguese friends, my family, and the climate. I nodded. I just miss a more stable social circle. Over here friend groups are in perpetual decay because most of your friends leave eventually, and you keep having to make new ones. That’s what I’m done with.

I was looking for an image that conveyed a certain degree of desperation, so here we are.

Losing friends

Making new friends in a new country takes time, we all know that. In fact, everything takes time when you move abroad: finding a home, getting adjusted to the city, to the culture, learning a different language, finding your crowd. And just when you start feeling like you made it, – you have your places, your routines, you found your people, – your friends tell you that they’re leaving and it all bursts like a balloon. And you return back to square one. At first, you’re desolate, after a while you find the will to socialize again and make yourself some new friends. You attend house parties, start a gym membership, and end up adding some new faces to your social media profile. You think this will be good for you after all. It hasn’t been easy, but you’re actually getting more proactive, developing more self-reliance. Et voilá, life starts brightening up, and slowly but surely you get to feel home again. Look at you, rising from the ashes like a phoenix! But oh, holy excrement! A friend messages you saying they’re returning to their homeland; going on a sabbatical; changing jobs and moving to an island in the Pacific to work remotely. This keeps happening and the lockdowns of the world are only making it worse.

The loneliness is real

I often think of how incredible it is to now have friends all over the world, to have the opportunity to travel so many different places to see them again. What a curse it is too, on the other hand. I think of the loneliness that plagues me every now and again because almost everything in Amsterdam feels so fleeting, especially friendship bonds. Sometimes, if it weren’t for the crooked houses and the canal boats outside you wouldn’t even be able to pinpoint which country you were in as everyone around is speaking English while sipping on cappuccinos and nibbling on some vegan burgers. I think of the August dread. I think of how many internationals I’ve heard saying that they feel no connection to local culture whatsoever, have no Dutch friends.

I have a hunch that migrants face the same dilemmas everywhere to a certain extent. But in, say, New York, Paris or Tokyo they have, at the very least, the local language to connect them to the place. In Amsterdam, the majority of expats don’t speak a word of Dutch and that, for me, is a good indicator of how detached this particular foreign community is from Dutch culture, assuming that Amsterdam can still be considered culturally Dutch (many would argue that it doesn’t.) Amsterdam is a very exciting place to be – we got a whopping 176 different nationalities present in the city – but as a migrant, it can get so idiotically lonely.

Some more desperation, this time with canal houses in the background.

“Nobody’s here to stay”

My friend C. will sell his 50 square meter house in the center of Amsterdam for half a million and leave back to Portugal. No one’s here to stay, he assures me, with conviction. Unless you marry a Dutch person. In either case, you’ll end up in Portugal for retirement. I heard many people – Portuguese or not – say they’re planning to move to Portugal at some point. So many of them it’s almost become a joke. I, myself, am transitioning to a life between Portugal and the Netherlands, which is almost the same. It gets me thinking.

Amsterdam is not a place where you move to exclusively for the hustle and saving for pension. Foreigners learn to enjoy life in a very particular way, and we get it from the nationals: we go for beer and bitterballen with work colleagues, we barbecue in the park with a bunch of acquaintances, we attend our friend’s house-warmings, we do brunch with some new fling, we jump in the canals in groups, we take collective terrace life seriously, we do Pride and ADE and Museumnacht together. It is exactly because of that dynamic that the around 161,500 Amsterdam expats like living in this mad city. It’s not only about the job opportunities and the high standard of life. Just being here exposes you to so much world. That’s why loneliness hits the hardest. That’s why it hurts so bad to lose our people. Because when you sit at home with no company for Christmas, or when you don’t see anyone for days on end during lockdown you know how different it can be.

I don’t know that nobody’s here to stay. What I know is that I wish that we all – all of the friends from my youth in Portugal and the ones from adulthood in Holland – lived happily ever after at the same place. A place where Prides and Museumnachts got celebrated and the climate was temperate too. We could be gobbling apple pie on the Nooderkerk stairs or inhaling ice cream at some beach by the Atlantic. I suspect that the exact location doesn’t matter. As long we could all be together.

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