I am writing this from my Airbnb in Berlin, which is home for the next month. Having arrived here just two days ago, there’s a lot to take in – how do the trams work, where’s the cashpoint, why are there two whole supermarket aisles devoted to processed meat. So I should probably write about Amsterdam before it’s shunted out my mind entirely.
I stayed in Amsterdam for the whole of October, which was just about long enough to get a handle on the place. For sure, it’s a small city, and you can blast through all the tourist stuff in a single weekend – it doesn’t take too long to weave in and out of the museums, or to take a selfie near a canal. Eat some cheese, smoke some weed, maybe buy a little clog fridge magnet – it’s not the sort of exercise that lasts a month.
However, the trip I’m taking is less about frantic sightseeing, and more about gentle immersion. I want these places, in effect, to stop feeling foreign, but to become knowable and navigable – I’d like to be able to plot routes without looking at my phone, or to tell when a cheery checkout assistant is actually being passive aggressive. The things locals know intuitively, without even realising they know them. The things that you, with your guidebook clutched to your chest, conspicuously don’t.
The way I see it, if I didn’t spend all my time in London eating fish and chips outside Buckingham Palace (and I didn’t), then why would I want to do the equivalent in Dam?
The backdrop to this trip has of course been Brexit. I’d probably have come out here anyway, eventually, but Brexit is what forced my decision. This trip is my personal two fingers up at the UK government and a chance to savour all the things I may soon (symbolically, if not in actuality) be missing.
The day I hopped on the Eurostar, I felt like a bona fide, straight-banana grade European. I ate a croissant for breakfast, and a packet of E-number heavy crisps for lunch. I wrote a scurrilous journal entry, which the woman next to me (Belgian, I think) kept not-so-subtly trying to read. Once in Dam, I met my Dutch-Turkish Airbnb host and exchanged pleasantries with a fellow guest, a ten-foot tall Croatian programmer named Igor.
And while all this was occurring, the pound was tanking against the Euro and Brexit had begun to feel real. It had coalesced into ‘hard Brexit’ – a small, leaden lump of insularity that threatened to pull the good stuff into its orbit.
It was a relief to be at a slight remove as UK politics grew more farcical. Just a few hundred miles away from my bubble, Amber Rudd was clamping down on migrants and trying to get companies to reveal the number of ‘foreigners’ they employ. A Tory councillor named Christian Holliday (whose parents, presumably, wanted to make a point about Muslims hijacking Christmas) started a bizarre petition looking to reclassify EU support as treason.
This summer, being in London in the midst of this nonsense felt like being slowly strangled. When I wasn’t stressing out about the practicalities of going away, I was countenancing the likely rise of fascism, my brain whirling away like some anxiety-based AI gone rogue.
Away from it all, in Amsterdam, I could breathe again. Through an unforeseen twist of circumstance, I stayed a while in Leiden – a university town half an hour from the capital. This beautiful city became my bunker against reality. I had all I needed there: good food, good company, and buildings you’d say came from a fairytale if that wouldn’t brand them as twee. Here, I was safe from the looming threat of a Trump presidency.
It’s hard to explain why politics affected me so intensely in London, and so little once I’d left, but it truly felt like a switch flipped. You may have read David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech, This is Water, in which he discusses how everyday bullshit can prevent us from noticing what’s right in front of us. If you haven’t, I really recommend it – I couldn’t do it justice in a précis.
But he says, among other things, that ‘it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head’. He suggests that if you manage this, ‘you get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t’.
Life in London had become, for me, how Foster Wallace describes it – somewhere petty frustrations were allowed to mount until they became all I could see. In the month before going away, I was working so hard and spread so thin I was barely capable of selecting my D.O.B. from a drop-down menu, let alone attempting what Foster Wallace calls the ‘work of choosing’. As a result, the things I DID pay attention to were the things being screamed to me in headlines, not to mention the endless tube delays, the thrum of low-level aggression, the thickening miasma of associations that suggested I’d been there for too long.
On coming out here, I felt like that fish who suddenly notices what he’s swimming in. I have no baggage here, no preconceptions. I’m just looking at stuff. Looking at the people around me, wondering what their stories are. Perhaps cultivating the headspace to think about politics more clearly too. This is water.
In this sense, there’s a kind of innocence to being a tourist – someone who hasn’t got bogged down yet by a place and all its meanings. As a tourist, the simplest things seem like an adventure, rather than slotting neatly into their box.
So as for what I actually got up to, well, I’m not planning on turning this into a full-blown travel blog but for those who are interested I can rattle through a list. I ticked off a few museums, yeah, and wandered round the red light district. I came to enjoy drinking in those brown cafés (sounds dodgier than it is – it’s just the Dutch equivalent of an old man pub), and learnt rapidly that the Dutch scorn coffeeshops as just for tourists. I ran most days round Westerpark, which has a couple of playgrounds for adults, and got bloody good at the monkey bars. I discovered that the Dutch don’t really go in for microwaves or toasters, and adjusted my diet accordingly, giving myself food poisoning along the way. I overcame a lifetime of brainwashing to start eating full-fat dairy and that in itself was a revelation, the realisation that yogurt didn’t have to taste sour and punitive. I enjoyed the Dutch word for whipped cream, which is ‘slagroom’. While I was working full time, it barely felt like working. I never got used to all the bikes.
It’d be fair to acknowledge at this point that the Netherlands, for one reason and another, became pretty special to me, and that no matter what happens on the rest of this trip, I’m definitely planning on going back there.
The time has come, however, to focus on Berlin – hello lashing rain and banging techno!
Freelance writer and expat