“Here is one of the very reasons I love living in Amsterdam. How could I not? The experience of being a woman in this city is very liberating. Dutch women are known to be very independent and outspoken, and expat females tend to follow the example. What the neighbour does in his private life is his own business – being a woman doesn’t change a word about the first sentence. Taking initiative as to approaching a man, and having your boss not caring about what you do in your free time are just examples, but they are important ones since they help creating a safe environment for women, in which they have space and legitimacy to express themselves in very basic ways. In the meanwhile, the ghosts that popped up my mind when I arrived here, are not worries anymore. I don’t feel the need to avoid a construction site, or a parking lot full of bus drivers, as I did in the past, because I know I won’t be harassed. Slut-shaming? I don’t know what that is anymore. I wear my mini-skirt as often as I feel like – I even bike wearing one – and nobody assumes I am asking for attention. (…) In Amsterdam, the only thing I need to look like is actually like myself.”
This is a quote from Ana’s post “On Being a Woman in Amsterdam.” I am glad she wrote on this subject because it’s something that comes to my mind rather often and the two of us talked about it several times over a cup of coffee or during one of our random walks in our adoptive city, Amsterdam. While I share the same opinion as Ana about the privileges of being a woman in this city and I see a clear resemblance between Lisbon (where she’s originally from) and Bucharest (my hometown) when it comes to freedom of expression for women, I feel like there’s a bit more to say on the subject. So I decided to write about my own experience.
It is indeed liberating to wear whatever you like when you go out and not having to worry about it. Are you wearing a nice dress and heels for a night out? That’s fine, no man will harass you. Are you wearing your pijama when going to the Albert Heijn downstairs to buy croissants and orange juice on a Saturday morning? That’s also fine, people in the shop will mind their own business. Whatever you wear – and whenever you wear it – in Amsterdam you will be just fine.
Looks are not the most important thing here, and this goes for both men and women. What matters is your contribution – as a spouse or partner, colleague, neighbour, member of society. What matters is what you can do. As a consequence, relationships tend to be more functional – the marriage or partnership, the friendship, the collegiality, the community. It’s all a transaction. Just like in business. And nobody wants to lose. So, in order to get any consideration, you first need to prove your value, even more so if you are a woman. Your pretty face and trendy clothes won’t mean a thing if you are not contributing enough. Take that, ladies! It still makes me smile when foreign women traveling to the Netherlands are shocked by the total lack of consideration of their Dutch counterparts when it comes to looks. It takes time to understand where this is coming from. I needed several years.
When I moved to Amsterdam in August 2010, I was very Romanian, so to say. I could not leave the house without first making sure my hair, make-up, clothes, accessories, manicure, and pedicure looked all right. Else, I risked not feeling as my best self. And who wants that, right? This continued as I started my job at the office. There was this important meeting I had to attend – aren’t all meetings important? – and I was wearing a black, office style dress. Nothing extraordinary, trust me. At the coffee machine, a colleague – a friendly Dutch man – approached me: “So, are you going to a party?” I immediately knew he was talking about my outfit. “Yes, the <insert name of meeting> party,” I said smiling, at the same time starting to doubt Dutch men’s approach to fashion. A similar incident happened when I thought of adding a bit of spark to my all-black office outfit. So I put on two golden bracelets, one on each hand. I had bought them from H&M. The colleague at the desk in front of me – another friendly Dutch man – said, pointing at my bracelets: “Are those Gipsy style?” I laughed. After all, he was known for being a funny guy, plus he had brought me soup made by his wife the other day.
Fast forward two years since my move to the city, and there I was, replacing elegant shoes with comfortable boots, shoulder bags with a backpack – much easier to wear during the train commute or when going to the gym after work – suit jackets with cardigans, and trench coats with rain jackets. I gave up on make-up and said good bye to jewelry. These were all personal choices, more or less influenced by what I was seeing around me. I realized I quite liked the comfortable style of Dutch ladies. After all, I had never been a girly girl, not even when living in Bucharest.
There were, however, some things I was never able to assimilate. Wet hair while going to work in the morning? Dry skin on the feet while wearing sandals? Putting on make-up – the entire ritual, starting with foundation and ending with mascara – while commuting in a crowded train? Filing nails, removing nail polish, spraying armpits in the public transport? No, thank you very much. I didn’t like the liberation in that, so I skipped. I believe a bit of mystery never harmed anyone, therefore some processes I’m going to keep for myself, while showing the world only the results.
There are now seven years since I live in Amsterdam. Among other things, this means seven years of unpretentious outfits, hardly any heels, light or no make-up at all, no jewelry. And guess what? In spite of all the comfort this brings, I have lost the ability of wearing a dress or a skirt without feeling clumsy and totally out of my comfort zone. High heels? God forbid! Did you even see what streets and pavements look like in Amsterdam? It’s all bricks.
Joke aside, I do feel that my grace – my femininity, if you want – is slowly fading away in Amsterdam. That’s because I don’t really need it here. What I need is strength to face the cold, speed – and comfortable shoes – to catch the train, and a whole lot of ignorance for the angry commuters stepping on my feet or hitting me with their elbows, no remorse whatsoever. At the same time, I do turn my head whenever I happen to see a lady wearing something remotely feminine on the streets of Amsterdam. Whether she’s Dutch or expat, that lady has my entire attention and admiration. I can even miss the train for her. When staying ladylike becomes a luxury, I can only be in awe when seeing such display of that incredible, feminine energy nurtured by grace and elegance. In the mornings, when I leave the house, I sometimes meet this Italian woman at the elevator. Her look is always impecable and highly feminine. No matter the weather, no matter the commute – I noticed she also takes the train to go to work – she will not give up on her Italian upbringing. Needless to say, I admire her.
Sometimes, when I go out to dine at a nice restaurant or to see a theatre show, I also put on a dress, some elegant shoes – still no high heels – red lipstick, and my favourite perfume. I instantly feel a change. It’s that energy I was telling you about. I suddenly start to feel more powerful, more of a woman. I make a mental note to dress like that more often. And then, as I look around, something very strange happens. Just like no one is bothered by me showing up in a bathrobe at the supermarket – not that I am ever doing that – no one seems to notice my bodycon dress & red lipstick combination either. And this is exactly the point I was trying to make by writing this. This is what I shared with Ana when we discussed her article. This, and my revelation: living in Amsterdam is killing the woman in me. Not only am I losing my ability to dress and act elegantly, I also feel like I am becoming, well, invisible. I am not looking for a partner, I have one. So flirting with men doesn’t interest me. What I would like though is a clue that I am being noticed. I see you and you see me. That’s all. But it will not happen in Amsterdam. There are other places in the world for that.
“We live in a romantic city, yet there is no romance to be seen,” I said to the same male Dutch colleague who asked if I was going to a party when wearing that dress at the office. We were attending a farewell dinner with some other colleagues at a restaurant in the 9 Streets a couple of months ago. To get there that night, I walked across arched bridges, street lights reflecting in the flickering water of the canals. I was once again amazed by the breathtaking beauty of the city, the same beauty that kept me here for all these years. Amsterdam looked so romantic, yet something was clearly missing from the picture. Where were the lovers? Where was the romance? My expat colleagues at the table agreed with what I said. The Dutch colleague nodded. “It’s the fear of rejection,” he said. “Dutch ladies don’t like to be disturbed.” Nothing new about that. “But you,” he said looking at me, “I think you like to be seduced.” We laughed, then dessert came.
My colleague was right. I do like to be seduced. But that’s not the point. What I really like is to be visible. Regardless of what I am wearing and regardless of the profit I am bringing or not. It can’t all be a transaction. It should indeed be my choice if I want to go for a more elegant, more feminine style – like my Italian neighbour – even when the city I live in could not care less about it. But I think we should all make time to look around us every now and then, at the people we pass by, if only to give them a hint that we see them.
The men who behave well when Ana is riding her bike in a mini-skirt, do they even see her? Do they perceive that beautiful energy that comes with it? I have my doubts.