It was the second time in a month, and I’m starting to guess that this is something I should be use to by now, that I found myself roaming the streets at the dead of night outside a train station. This time, though, I had no reason to be there, I was just hanging around; I had no accommodation for the night, and I wasn’t leaving the city in the morning.
This time it was in Amsterdam, home to one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe. But don’t let the grandiose building on the outside fool you, the interior is filled with the lowest of the down and outers in the world, I imagine. Amsterdam is notoriously unexpected – it’s not what you thought from the rumors you’ve heard: Though those rumours are also true.
Yes, you can buy weed in stores called coffeeshops which may or may not have espresso. Sure, you can window shop a prostitute without having your political rivals ambush you with illegal sexual conduct suits. And yeah, the bike culture is awesome thanks to a country that is below sea level, and a city that attracts tourists into bike paths like deer caught in headlights. All that is fun and it all takes place in this fantastic paradise resembling hell with beautiful architecture and charming canals.
But then there is a darker side: Dutch culture. Oh shit, I wrote it. Okay, I have to explain, but do understand that I’m just focusing on the negative. Basically, the Amsterdam mentioned above is a tourist delight, but once you try to stay, try to make a life there, you are for the first time confronted with Dutch culture. It’s easy not to notice it when you’re visiting because it is hidden and disguised behind their tolerance for drug use and sex.
You notice it when you live there. It’s the cold shoulder. It’s the direct asshole who tells you like it is even though it’s not their business. Maybe it’s harsher in Amsterdam because it’s not a big city, it feels like a village. And maybe they are so sick of tourists that they treat every non-Dutch speaker as an outsider, unless of course the Dutch speaker looks like an outsider. But I’ve never been to a place that is so difficult to belong. I’ve never been to a place without making friends with a born and raised local. Amsterdam was a first for many things, but for me the most mind blowing for a major European city was its lack of culinary culture.
Most people don’t notice since they’re headed to American fast food chains, anyway, to fill their disgusting, and socially, environmentally and politically unconscious faces. But I love food, so I notice that when in Italy you find cafés, gelato, trattorias, and pizzerias; go to France, boulangeries, fromageries, pâté and fancy French fine dining; hell, go to Germany and you’ll find sausage stands, sauerkraut and beer gardens.
But in the Netherlands, where do you go to taste Dutch? Don’t get me started with the raw fish stands where the Herring is “cooked” in a jar of vinegar. Yes, they have great sweats, (when the Dutch asked me what I liked about Holland, I would answer flatly, Stroopwaffles) but go out for dinner and it’s going to be Thai, Italian, Indonesian, Argentinean, Indian, and even the beers you’ll drink will be Belgian!
Being Italian, I hold food as more than something you stuff your face with in order to get full when you’re hungry. Food is the gathering of family around a table (without the tv on); it is the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next; it is the philosophy of Zen in how something simple can be the most rewarding; it is loving what you do and the people you’re doing it for, and then creating something that gives back all that love you put into it.
In Amsterdam, there is a fast-food chain called Febo. It’s the fastest food in the world. Why, because it’s ready before you are. You walk in and there it is. In a wall of vending machines there are warm hamburgers and a weird textured meat filling in a breaded and fried crust called croquettes. Maybe it’s for stoned people who feel too much pressure ordering from the teenager behind the counter, or maybe it’s a reflection of the country’s culture in the sense of avoiding contact with people. Dropping coins into a machine usually produces chocolate bars or chips, but for the Dutch it’s a warm meal.
If Germans are known for their organizational skills, the Dutch should be known for their bureaucracies. Having lived there a year I can tell you that in my experience I felt like a character trapped in a Kafka novel; confused, scared because I don’t know what’s going on and why, cold, and completely miscomprehending the inconceivable social interactions while wondering where the human spirit has gone to.
To live and work legally in Amsterdam and the Netherlands you need to have a social number (burgerservicenummer, or the BSN number) so that you exist on paper. To get this social number you need to be registered in where you are living. No legal apartment, no social number that entitles you to work. No job, well, good luck affording the expensive housing. And if you can’t find a place by yourself, enjoy the countless housing firms that will take a one month commission fee plus the 18% tax. All these mechanisms rely on each other, and with one piece missing the state wont even acknowledge you. If you aren’t registered in an apartment you aren’t entitled to a mailing address, and without that it’s impossible to apply for social programs like unemployment, healthcare rebates, and student financing.
In Amsterdam, there is a housing shortage, thus a high level of “black” or off the record rooms and apartments for rent. This is a ploy to make it harder for immigrants, including other EU nationals, to settle in a city that has foreigners as half of their population. Therefore, if you’re the new guy and you want in, it’s going to cost you to find a legal apartment.
Oh, and you might want to excersice extreme caution if you find a deal to good to be true on the internet because it is definitely a scam. Somebody’s relative (insert here dad, aunt, grandfather) is a (minister, priest, etc) on a humanitarian mission to (Africa, Asia, Australia, South America) and doesn’t need his awesome apartment right on the canal in central Amsterdam, and is willing to let it go for bellow market value, and to somebody they never met in person. So wire the money to (the UK, Denver, Jerusalem) and the keys will be sent to you. And people fall for this out of desperation.
If you can’t pay the piper, Amsterdam becomes a dark, wet, bone-chilling, nightmare. It must be the lack of altitude which goes straight to the head. It must be the constant flow of water in the canals that keeps people unsettled in freezing humidity.
I went off on a tangent there but don’t worry, I’ll tie it all together neatly. So, back at the train station you find the rejects of Dutch society. I said it before, the down and outers. The countless people who came to Amsterdam and fell in love with the scene only to get swallowed up and spit out: They end up here at the train station at around 5am.
That’s when I got there. After a night roaming the streets (by the way, bars close at 1am, clubs a little later), the station was packed. Every bench taken by some poor, rejected fuck up. Homeless guys who reek, and if they had a nickel for every mental illness… There are hard, cold faces of teenagers in army pants who have been through some shit living in the streets, and their dark eyes tell their story of survival. There are junkies, drug addicts, people stoned out of their minds – or is that how they are when they’re sober – either way, the wasted degenerates who are treated like criminals and not patients; parasites, not humans.
All these people clutter the train station benches, and in Amsterdam Central, there aren’t a whole many benches. This property is of value. These seats – I was sitting on one – are dreamt of, are planned for, and are looked forward to by countless drifters. Another night survived, another morning to sacrifice a cold ass for warm extremities.
And aren’t they still. They’re quiet. They don’t move, they sleep like little burnout angels. Their closed eye lids staring out at the recently awoken people who are the reason the train station opens so early anyway. The suits march to and fro. How busy they already are today. These aren’t the type of people who wake up early so that they can enjoy a coffee or something in the morning. No, they are the successfully employed paper-pushers who are all too eager, all too busy for empathy or warmth. Hundreds of Mr. Rabbits, late for important dates.
If my bitter tone hasn’t unmasked my joblessness yet, well, I guess this just did. From my perspective I have more in common with the people ending their night at the train station, not the ones starting their day. Of course, I have been up all night, and yeah, I admit I may have, you know, but – can it be that I’m like them, perceived as them?
Holding onto an empty coffee cup disguising myself as someone who is sitting and enjoying a coffee because he arrived early for his train, and not because he needed the crappy machine coffee for its warmth, I felt like an imposture. I felt exactly like my eyes were: dry, irritating, and small.
Being extremely tired helps my sorrowful thoughts flow. Being the night owl, sitting amongst the other ones, and not being the worker bee, rushing without a moment to spare, I felt the harsh truth of perception. When people glance at me like an outcast, or ignore me altogether, how can I not but feel useless, worthless, a burden. Where’s my important job to do? Why am I just sitting there? Why am I not greasing the cogs? Why am I forsaken when I have so much value, so much untapped potential?
Lucky for me I live for experience, and therefore live a million different lives. Meaning, I didn’t have to sleep in the train station. I didn’t end my night there just like I didn’t start my day there either. I left with the rising sun to watch the city wake: Stores opening, trams screeching by, freshly masked-faces with perpetually tired eyes gathering in crowds by crosswalks.
I knew my favorite place in Amsterdam had just opened. So I set my sights on it, and went there to enjoy the best and most inexpensive café-macchiato in the city. Not only that, but the guys know me by face, smile to acknowledge that, and then greet me like a friend with a handshake. Of course, by now it doesn’t surprise me at all that I’m not speaking Dutch to someone like this but Italian. In order to feel some connection and warmth from people in Amsterdam I need to go to an Italian café. They’re not too busy. It appears that in this city machine coffee is the preferred brew.