Vitali Vitaliev discovers his love of a tolerant and laid-back Amsterdam
I don’t know why, but Amsterdam always evokes in me childhood associations, not just the memories of my own early years, but rather the joyful feeling of being a child again similar to the one experienced by adults in Disneyland and in Venice, this medieval playground of doges and spice merchants.
Is it the characteristic smell of canal water mixed with odours of tar and tulips? Or, maybe, it is the soothing shuffle of bicycle tyres against the cobbles? Or the sight of Amsterdam’s old ladies – these “God’s dandelions” (a good Russian expression) and Queen Mum look-alikes, with mischievous twinkle of past indiscretions in their fading eyes? Or clusters of narrow-facade gabled houses (in the Middle Ages, Amsterdam landlords were taxed per square inch of their house facades’ area), huddling around the canals and looking like tower-chambers from a Russian fairy tale?
But most likely, it is the trams – these moving wrinkles on Amsterdam’s face that, curiously, make it look younger. Trams were the main (and pretty much the only) vehicles of the city of my childhood, and no noise is more familiar to me than the sound of an old tram, squeakingly turning the corner. As a little boy, I used to wake up to it every morning…
For me, Amsterdam begins and ends with tram number one, from the Central Station to Overtoom, where my elder son Mitya now lives. Chatty, smiley, multilingual and multi-racial, this tram is a microcosm of the Dutch capital itself. It is a stark contrast to a taciturn and stuck up London bus, or to a Tube train carriage, with its strict mind-the-gap attitude.
The people on Amsterdam’s tram number one make a lot of noise. They laugh out loud; they read Kafka and Umberto Eco as the tram freezes for what feels like an eternity at the permanently red Amsterdam traffic lights. Its progress along the congested narrow streets is so slow that at times it gives the impression of sliding backwards in space and in time – towards the melting pot of medieval Amsterdam, and its passengers get miraculously transformed into diamond-cutters from Antwerp, Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Huguenots from France and dissenters from England, all of whom found refuge in this most tolerant and accommodating city in the world, the “people’s” capital of Europe.
Amsterdam’s main distinctive feature is (and always was) that – unlike London – it never pigeonholes people according to their origins, occupations and addictions. It accepts them as humans first and only then – as politicians, junkies, academics, beggars, plumbers or prostitutes. It embraces humans in all their complexity: with their merits and sins, peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, passions and peccadilloes. It invites them all, without exception, to the never-ending party celebrating tolerance, if not temperance: the 24-hour-a-day bash called Amsterdam.
Overtaken by cars, cyclists and some disabled pedestrians in wheelchairs, tram number one is crawling towards the city centre – past canals and across bridges – a seemingly endless journey. On this bridge over Keizergraht, bike-junkies – the addicts maintaining their habit by stealing and quick-selling bicycles – congregate. In pre-Euro times (BE – Before Euro) one could acquire a stolen bike from them for as little as 20 guilders (£7). It is not common knowledge though that the bike-junkies have their own website, where a potential buyer can view a stolen bicycle before agreeing a pickup point. Old bikes and those that do not sell fast enough are routinely dumped into the canals, from where a special city council dredger fishes them out once a month.
From the tram window, I spot a smallish Die Port Van Kleve Hotel in a street off Dam Square, where I stayed during my first ever visit to Amsterdam in August 1991. My KLM flight Melbourne-London (I was flying to London from Australia, where I then lived) included a free stopover in Amsterdam which I decided to use walking off my jetlag and preparing for a week of interviews and public talks in the UK. For the first two days, I was staggering along the canals as if drunk, overwhelmed by the half-forgotten smells of European summer. Of course, I committed a common boo-boo of a first-time visitor to Amsterdam by asking for a cup of espresso (and nothing else!) in a seedy coffeeshop next to my hotel, and the barman eyed me with scornful disbelief, as if I had ordered a cup of sulphuric acid. On the second night, I went – alone! – on a candle-lit dinner cruise along the canals. Surrounded by snogging homo- and hetero-couples, I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that going on such a “romantic” cruise on one’s own constituted a minor offence in Holland. But I didn’t mind my loneliness in the least. The boat was sliding noiselessly under the bridges, and the reflections of burning candles were wriggling in the water like some restless fiery serpents.
I remember feeling such indescribable happiness at being back in Europe after many months down under, at being re-united with the smells and sounds of my childhood that I couldn’t help thinking this simply cannot last. From experience, I knew that one could only feel such bliss on the eve of a disaster.
The following morning, the military coup took place in Moscow, where my mother was still living. Barred from returning to the Soviet Union as a recent defector, I spent the next several days trying – in vain – to get through to her by phone, from Amsterdam, from Brussels and then from London. Persistent crackles at the other end of malfunctioning lines were like muffled screeches of tank caterpillars against the old stones of the Red Square. I was only able to speak to her after the putsch was defeated. Having given up smoking six months earlier, I lit up again on the first day of the coup and have been unable to quit ever since.
Yes, Amsterdam has a somewhat sinister touch for me too. It was there that I learnt about the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. The night before, Mitya and a bunch of his cosmopolitan Amsterdam mates dragged me into a disco – the first disco experience in my entire life. I tried to resist saying I was too old for it, but they persevered, and, fuelled by a couple of Amstels, I soon found myself twitching and shaking next to my son in the middle of a crowded hall. Contrary to my expectations, I was enjoying it all: the music, the open and civilised faces of my fellow-dancers of whom – I was pleased to note – I was by far not the oldest. Everyone in the disco was bouncing strictly within his or her imaginary little square never trespassing into someone else’s space. At some point, a young Dutch woman came up to Mitya and whispered something in his ear pointing at me. “What did she say?” I yelled trying to outcry the deafening techno beat. “Have I done something wrong?” “No!” my son screamed back. “She told me that looking at the two of us she had guessed we were father and son and that it was very nice to see us dancing together…” In short, the experience was profoundly gezellig, to use a popular Dutch colloquialism .
It was early morning of 11 September 2001 – Mitya’s 21st birthday.
Past my favourite café “Chaos”, with its wonderfully eclectic interior and friendly informality of service (patrons are encouraged to dump pistachio-nut shells on the floor which makes it easier to sweep), tram number one enters the fringes of the Red Light District which I always found not much raunchier than London’s Carnaby Street. If to overlook occasional drug-peddlers, the tax-paying law-abiding women in the windows (the District police brochures warn repeatedly – and somewhat intriguingly – that “they are not always women”) and confused British louts haggling with bouncers over the price of those women (or whoever they may be) , it can be a very interesting place. Where else in Europe can you see establishments like “Cannabis Connoisseurs Club”? Or a thought-provoking exhibition of conceptual “Media Art” under the motto “Are You Experienced?” (one of the exhibits – “Disinformation” – allows visitors to inscribe a huge painting with images created by their own shadows)? Where else tourists desperate for a pee are officially invited to relieve themselves at the district police station? But the thing that strikes me most about this little “enclave” of super-tolerance in the midst of tolerant Amsterdam is how strict its boundaries are: three metres away there’s no sign of it whatsoever. You can literally brush past it without spotting anything unusual. Like Cheshire Cat’s smile, the Red Light District is noticeable only to those who want to see it.
The tram screeches to a long, seemingly endless, stop in Laidseplein – a small square in the hub of Amsterdam. Here, after 11:00pm each night, one can watch an amazing street performer – a slightly built teenage-like young man, with a sad Mediterranean face. Dressed in a soiled tracksuit, ridden with holes, he attracts crowds by climbing lampposts and trees while kicking a football in the air and never dropping it onto the ground. His technique being second to none, I think that the only reason this “feet juggler” (as I came to call him) hasn’t yet been recruited by Ajax, Eindhoven or some other Dutch premier-league football club is a worry that he would start climbing goal-posts in the middle of a match. Also, I often wonder what he does during the day: sleeps in some dodgy vermin-infested room pressing the ball to his chest like a piece of his sultry childhood somewhere in Turkey or in Macedonia?
In a lane off Laidseplein, there’s a small cinema showing obscure foreign movies that never hit the big screen. I once went there with Mitya. They were running an American film, with Dutch subtitles. At some point, a protagonist said: “I don’t like wogs” which was subtitled “I don’t like Italians” in Dutch. “They don’t have derogatory words for Italians or any other nations in Dutch,” explained Mitya, who had just come back from a live-in crash-course in Dutch in a suburban … convent paid for by the Amsterdam company for which he worked. A player for an Amsterdam amateur soccer team, he also assured me that the worst curse he had ever heard on a Dutch football pitch was “Goddamn!”
What a gentle nation, I thought then.
Gentleness and tolerance of the Dutch have their limits though. They will be quite happy to chat to a visitor in colloquial English, or in a number of other European languages which most of them can speak after secondary school. But if you have lived in Holland for a year and still do not make an effort to learn Dutch, they are likely to start ostracising you. I don’t blame them.
The tram turns into Overtoom, a long traffic artery connecting the city centre with the melodiously alliterated suburb of Lelyllaan. Halfway along it, hidden from idle tourist eyes by massive wooden gates, is an establishment, which for me represents the spirit of Amsterdam better than anything else. It is the city’s oldest and the most prestigious (sic) squat – yes, a “wrongfully and unlawfully” (by both British and Dutch legal standards) tenanted premises, known to Amsterdam police and happily tolerated by them, despite its obvious illegality. Getting a place in The Squat is almost as hard as finding a reasonably priced apartment in London’s Mayfair. Only in The Squat accommodation is free. Its residents: tramps, buskers, travellers, recovering drug-addicts and impoverished students, often with small children, also enjoy free Internet access, free charity-supplied meals, free in-house concerts of leading Amsterdam pop groups, and so on. In its basement, The Squat houses Radio Patapoe – Amsterdam’s oldest pirate radio station, also illegal, yet tolerated, because, as my son explained, its signal is rather week and does not reach outside central Amsterdam.
Mitya certainly knew what he was talking about, for on top of his other Amsterdam incarnations, he was also a DJ for Radio Patapoe, the world’s only radio station whose casually vetted (by squatters) “anchors” were not just unpaid but had themselves to contribute 5 Euros a month towards the equipment maintenance to be allowed on air. He once invited me to his basement “studio” to take part in his Saturday program on music in poetry, or poetry in music – we couldn’t quite sort that out. As a regular visitor to The Squat he was entrusted with a coveted key to the wooden gates.
I felt at ease in the tiny cubicle of a “studio”, lit by an antique lamp in the shape of Patapoe the dog, in whose memory the station was named. Sitting on a battered leather sofa, so deep and soft that it negatively affected one’s self-esteem, I spoke with relish into an old-fashioned, heavy (and, no doubt, extremely “tolerant”) microphone and read out poems in English and in Russian, whereas Mitya was introducing musical pieces with a peculiar estranged and almost robotic radio DJ’s voice.
The basement studio reminded me of my writing closet in Moscow. When Mitya was a baby, we occupied a single room in a communal flat, and I had to type away in an extended wall cupboard not to wake him up. By ironic coincidence, the room’s previous occupant had been a radio pirate, using the cupboard for illegal broadcasts at considerable risk to himself: the word “tolerance” was not in the police lexicon in Brezhnev’s USSR. So, in way, I was an old timer in radio pirates’ dens…
Meanwhile, The Squat was living its normal life. Children were playing with crude self-made toys in a small walled courtyard. A dishevelled man in ragged clothes was browsing the Internet. An invisible young woman’s voice, with a good London accent, was loudly complaining of “cold turkey”: “I can hardly walk, and the headache is splitting…”
On shutting the wooden gates behind me, I suddenly realised that I had fallen head over heels in love with Amsterdam.
I hop off the tram at Overtoomsesluis, and pop into Ter Brugge – a pub, where Mitya always leaves a set of house keys for me, our family key-drop, so to speak. The staff know me and fish out the keys from under the cash register. Before moving on, I drink a cup of tepid wishy-washy Amsterdam espresso tasting and smelling of unclean canal water, with “Sally”, my obnoxious Salisbury suitcase, parked at my feet. It is late afternoon, and the city canals start slowly releasing the sunlight they have accumulated during the day, but many patrons are still having their breakfasts. Amsterdam wakes up late. At midday, it often feels like London at 6:00am, and in late afternoon, like London at 9 o’clock in the morning. This peculiar Amsterdam time-loop makes lunch there feel like breakfast, and dinner like lunch. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that anyone works in this permanently partying city. But some people do, and my son is one of them.
I wait for a drawbridge across the canal to join together after letting a barge called “Marianne” and a flock of carefree Amsterdam ducks pass through a small lock. The skipper waves to me from the cockpit. From here, it’s just a hundred yards to my son’s flat. In a couple of minutes, I am looking up at a handwritten plate underneath the doorbell – “M. de Boer; R. Wilson; D. Vitaliev”.
I could stare at it for hours rejoicing at the lucky fortune of my Moscow-born and Mebourne-educated boy, for there are few better things in this life than being young and living in Amsterdam.
Vitali Vitaliev was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He first made a name for himself in the then Soviet Union, writing satirical journalism. He has appeared regularly on TV and radio in the UK, was a writer and researcher for QI and has contributed to newspapers and magazines all over the world and is the author of thirteen books.
Vitali’s latest book “Out of the Blu” is available from Amazon the Kobo and Apple stores.
 The closest English word to gezellig (pronounced heh-ZEL-ick) I can think about is “cool”, although its meaning is much broader. A gezellig environment is one that allows good times to happen. It is almost like a vibe, and it is contagious. As a Dutch friend once explained, a gezellig place is cosy and inviting and full of gezellig things that make it so gezellig. A two-hour leisurely meal with friends is gezellig, whereas gobbling up a Big Mac on your lap in the car is not. He said that the constant pursuit ofgezellig-ness is the key to the Dutch psyche.
 I once overheard a bouncer trying to extract a payment for two consecutive visits to a “window woman” from a British man of a soccer-hooligan appearance. The latter was only prepared to pay for one visit only, his argument being: “I was on my way out, but she just pushed me back in!”