Every year, perhaps every day, new people move to Amsterdam and start calling this city home. They know where they are coming, for good and for worse, but they decide to give it a try anyway. After all, we have the right to make our own impression, built on our own experience. And there is always hope.
When all logistics are set, the big quest begins – the search for human contact. And this is the real challenge about the beautiful city of Amsterdam. If you are happy with a few expat contacts at the workplace and someone to meet for a drink every once in a while, then you should be fine. You could live many years here, happy in your bubble, with a good job to finance your indulging lifestyle, including travels around the world, a cosy apartment in a leafy neighbourhood, and, as background, the civilised city of Amsterdam. You might even decide you want to stay for good. Life is simple in Amsterdam if your expectations in terms of meaningful human contact are at a minimum. The problems only start when you want a bit more than that.
This summer marked my tenth year of living in Amsterdam. A decade of my life spent here of all places. A chance encounter, the decision to stay, the highs and the lows, and the conclusion that a city – any city – can only give you that much. What matters is what you make of your life in that place – any place. You as the main character and the city as background only.
My Amsterdam bubble was complete when, after many years of search, trial and error, I managed to nurture a few meaningful friendships. To me, it was a reason to be happy and proud, and most of all, a reason to stay. People I cared for cared for me too and we had the time and resources to do whatever we pleased – in beautiful surroundings and almost carefree. To this day, this has been my biggest accomplishment in Amsterdam.
Then 2020 came, a year both tough and great for friendships. It brought to the surface the kind of things that only come to the surface in less than ideal circumstances. Some friendships became even stronger, a proof that hardship is nothing but building material for kindred souls, others just haven’t passed the test. What I learned is that opposites attract in times of good, but separate in times of bad. Like oil and water. Mix them and they will create the illusion they come together; put the glass down and they will come apart. It’s only natural.
And this is how Amsterdam has (again) become a little lonelier for me this year. My bubble has been temporarily affected. Like so many times before in similar circumstances, I now need the city to offer some kind of solace. I look around again with a curious eye and a needy heart and all I can see is beauty. The problem with beauty is that it doesn’t speak.
Writing about my move to Amsterdam – a forever ongoing occupation for me, it seems – I wanted to read how other people wrote about their move to other places in the world. I like Greece, so I ordered books about humans moving to Greece. Some take place in Athens, others in the islands. Some are authored by artists or even anthropologists, others by English teachers. Some are poorly written, others so good it makes me want to quit.
The one thing all these books have in common is the presence of Greek people interacting with their environment, even when this environment includes a foreign implant. In other words, these books are as much about Greek people as they are about the person moving to Greece. The local characters are present on the page because they are a fact of life when one moves there. They speak. The author interacts with them and they interact with the author. Moving to Greece one moves among – not to say with – the Greeks. Moving to Amsterdam one moves among… ?
Moving to Amsterdam one moves among the beautiful buildings, the streets, the bridges and the canals of the city.
Moving to Amsterdam one moves among the expats.
Moving to Amsterdam one moves within him/herself.
Moving to Amsterdam one moves into the bubble.
I don’t think it is ever possible to write a book about moving to Amsterdam – or any other place in the Netherlands – the way one would write a book about moving to Greece. “Cold place, cold people,” someone described the Dutch in a movie I saw recently. I would not go so far as to call them cold. I am sure they can be just as warm as anybody. I would rather say they are unwilling to connect to someone they have no interest in. There simply is no curiosity for another human being.
Then I remembered about a book I received as a birthday present a few years ago – “Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City” by Geert Mak. I finally read it all the way through and I warmly recommend it to anybody who, every now and then, feels a bit out of touch with Amsterdam and its people. One funny thing is that foreigners who came to the city hundreds of years ago had the same feeling about it as we have today. That’s because Amsterdam has never been a place for the humanities. Ever since its founding, Amsterdam has been a place for commerce. The business opportunity. The transaction. The profit. The rest didn’t really matter. The Dutch will click with you and you will click with the Dutch if you find any of this interesting. But if you don’t, well, then you still have the beautiful buildings, the streets, the bridges and the canals of the city. You still have the expats. You still have yourself. And you still have your bubble.
So, I will fix my bubble and write about how I came to live in a city that doesn’t speak.