10 October 2011


Posted in Talking about . . .

Talk about culture shock . . .

We left Paris on the 15th Sept and trained to Amsterdam. The trip was easy at 3 ½ hours in first class, with a meal delivered to our seats. All good. However, I noticed the countryside becoming flatter and flatter and the colours of the buildings changing from white to brown and grey. I also experienced the increasing distance from my beloved Paris. So, by the time we reached Amsterdam Central station, my mood had depressed considerably as I experienced the transition from light and white and gold to grey and brown. It looked very drab and I felt very drab.

My mood deteriorated further when we reached our lodgings for the following 2 weeks. We were staying in Oud Suid, an old part of Amsterdam. The streets were littered and dirty around our building, and the architecture looked almost dead compared with Paris. The apartment we rented was very basic and worn-out and dimly lit and disorganised and I felt quite lost. The first things I noticed were that the only bed was a small double; the toilet wasn’t working properly; the toilet seat was made of perspex with barbed wire in it; there was no microwave, nowhere to put toiletries; no clothes drier or drying rack; no dishwasher; no toaster - AND I discovered that I’d left my darling Provencal shopping basket in the Hotel Bonaparte! I very nearly took the next train to London. The Brain was confronted by a miserable, complaining wretch and was probably grateful to go to work the next day.

I started reorganizing the place to make it more user-friendly for myself. I even took a tram and then the metro in the rain (using my purple Paris umbrella for hope and inspiration) out to Ikea and bought a cupboard to put in the bathroom! Then the box was too heavy to carry so I had to have them deliver it. Then I opened the flatpak to find that I required a hammer and 2 screwdrivers to assemble the bastard. Then I had to go out and find a hardware shop and buy them. Then I found that the Phillips head was too big for some of the screws so I had to go back and exchange it. Then I had to work out how to put it together (with fancy expandable door hinges and fancy joints and fancy brackets to hold the glass shelves). It was a nightmare, but I did it! And you know what, I was so excited about what I’d made, I nearly went back and bought another one for the kitchen! Fortunately, The Brain intervened . . .

The first day we were there, we set off to find The English Bookshop for a little light relief. Oh, what bliss! I bought 6 books and had a marvellous conversation with the woman who suggested some of them. It felt like forever since I’d been in an English bookshop and I felt as though I had some friends to cheer me up. She gave me a contact for writing groups in Amsterdam, which I’ll follow up. She directed us to the Athenaeum in the Spui for intellectual books, and while The Brain was browsing and doing his 30° thing there, I hung around the square. Suddenly I noticed this in a corner of the square:

Society Wedding Going away car

From Left to Right: Society Wedding, Going away car

Then I noticed the wedding party disappearing through an unremarkable little door in an unremarkable wall. While I was wondering what was behind the door, I saw a few other people go through. So, I went through the door. Well, well, well – I was in the Begijnehof. It’s a medieval courtyard with typical Amsterdam-style townhouses enclosing it, very separate from the bustling city around it and quite hushed. It was originally a Catholic kind of convent, although the nuns – Begijnen - had much more freedom than the usual nuns and could even leave and get married. It was expropriated from the Catholic Church for the Presbyterian Church after the Reformation. In keeping with the history of the place, the 47 houses are today all occupied by single women only, with a pretty, private green in front of the houses. There is a tiny Roman Catholic chapel and a larger Presbyterian church in the courtyard (both open to the public), and hence the wedding party! It was fun to see the high society of Amsterdam out in their finery.

English Church Begijnhof Chapel

From Left to Right: English Church, Begijnehof Chapel

Begijnehof Courtyard Society Wedding

From Left to Right: Begijnehof Courtyard, Society Wedding

I was astonished to see the 3 young women in the centre of the picture – all wearing impossibly high heels – arriving on bicycles (in spitting rain) and locking them up outside before coming into the courtyard!

Because I didn’t want to stay in the apartment, I spent many hours each day walking the environment that first week, while The Brain was at work at the University of Amsterdam. In spite of the grey days and rainy spells, I also took the tram into the Center of Amsterdam most days and just walked around the various canal areas, orienting myself. This was just the right thing to do.

I gather that a large part of the Oud Suid was built at the end of the 19th century - very quickly and cheaply constructed. Then there is a part that was built in the 1920s in the Amsterdam School of architecture – a style now reminiscent of the Art Deco style that was to follow. I developed an appreciation of the architectural style and found some amazing-looking buildings in the city, like the Tuschinski movie theatre.

Amsterdam Alley Tuschinski Movie Theatre

From Left to Right: Amsterdam Alley, Tuschinski Movie Theatre

de Spui

de Spui

On the pavement close to our apartment, I found 3 brass plaques set into the paving. They tell a small but shocking and poignant story of the Holocaust – right where one passes by each day. A couple in their mid-30s and their 6 year-old daughter used to live here. They were deported and killed in Nazi extermination camps – the father at Auschwitz, and the mother and child at Sobibor. The first day I saw them, there was chewing gum smeared across the middle one. I had nothing with me to clean it off. The next day, it was clean, and the plaques had been polished. Clearly, someone looks after them.

Holocaust plaques

Holocaust plaques

Oud Suid is inhabited by a mixture of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, and Dutch yuppies. Just a few streets back from our somewhat run-down and neglected street, I found a gorgeous space, Sarphati Park, surrounded by beautifully restored apartment buildings. I even found one that I could definitely live in. In the first week, I had mid-morning coffees alongside yummy-mummies.

Yuppie neighbourhood I could live here

From Left to Right: Yuppie neighbourhood, I could live here

Sarphati Park Me and the Yummy Mummies

From Left to Right: Sarphati Park, Me and the Yummy Mummies

I also met lots of fabulous people like the tailor, Mnr Stegman who expertly altered the magnificent red wool coat I bought for 59 euros in a vintage clothing store; the Dutch girls across the road who run a fabulous deli; the lovely woman with the bull terrier called Henry whom I kept bumping into; the twinkly-eyed elderly man at the hardware store who asked if I was becoming “addicted” to him because I went in so regularly, and who was amused by my Afrikaans pronunciation of Dutch; the lovely Turkish man at the Laundromat who looked after our washing; the efficient young woman in the local Coffee Shop (place where people go to smoke marijuana) who told me about the kinds of marijuana available and that I couldn’t get cookies at her establishment – only in the city shops; the gorgeous Ethiopian, Mic, who served us a meal to remember; Veronica at Cape Town Spice who produced great South African food; the couple who make Wild Moa Pies; and many more.

My Magnificent Red Coat - Dankie Mnr Stegman!

My Magnificent Red Coat - Dankie Mnr Stegman!

Cape Town Spice Wild Moa Pies

From Left to Right: Cape Town Spice, Wild Moa Pies

There is also a huge permanent open-air market on Albert Cuypstraat, where you can buy fabulous foodstuffs including the glorious Dutch breads, cheeses and meats, and French, Spanish, Greek and Italian olives and more meats. Because of the ethnic makeup of the area, there are also lots of greengrocer shops, selling fat, ripe figs and juicy peaches, pomegranates, melons and many of the other delicious fruits of the Mediterranean.

Then Kate and GK decided to come and spend the weekend with us. I swung into action to make the apartment more hospitable for sleep-over guests. I asked Kate to bring me a splendid kingsize self-inflating Aerobed from John Lewis in London, and I got the linen washed and ready. I bought new pillows to replace the bags filled with foam chips, rearranged the little bits of furniture, and bought faux-wolf-skin cushions and a squillion flowers. We decided to have a student weekend – everything had to be done on the cheap and we had to depend on money from our parents. Our parents turned out to be very generous . . . Kate brought all-in-one pyjamas for student-type lounging around and GK brought Veuve Cliquot!

They also brought the summer with them (Europe had a tremendous Indian summer for a week) and grand spirits. We ate out and had lots of fun: Friday night at Cape Town Spice with potjiekos, bobotie, and live jazz; Saturday morning Kate and I had breakfast in de Spui after dropping The Brain off at a huge Australian pub in Rembrandtplein to watch New Zealand beat France in the RWC; We browsed the fashion places in the little streets between the canals; We bumped into Henry at the Albert Cuypstraat market; Saturday night we had Ethiopian at Azmarino; Sunday we hung out on the lawns in Sarphati park with the rest of the locals yuppies and then enjoyed Sunday roast lamb at Veronica’s – with the parents, of course. We had loads of fun, hanging out in the sun at Sarphati Park and browsing the markets and wandering the streets. I was sad to see them go.

The Aussie Pub The Brain with rugby and rugby friend

From Left to Right: The Aussie Pub, The Brain with rugby and rugby friend

Henry and mum Henry and Kate

From Left to Right: Henry and mum, Henry and Kate

Jazz jam at Cape Town Spice

Jazz jam at Cape Town Spice

Azmarino Ethiopian restaurant with Mic - GK, Kate, me and the Brain

Azmarino Ethiopian restaurant with Mic - GK, Kate, me and the Brain

Onezies! The Lounge (post-reno)

From Left to Right: Onezies!, The Lounge (post-reno)

Summer in Sarphati Park

Summer in Sarphati Park

The second week loomed – how was I going to keep myself positive . . .

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Comments (1)

  • Rose Clarke
    Rose Clarke
    13 October 2011 at 03:51 |

    Just love it ...as for that coat!!!!

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