I visited Amsterdam for the first time a few days ago. It was wonderful – clean, charming, civilized – all of which was oddly unsettling.
And yes I stayed in the posh bit, between the Vondelpark and the main square in the Leidseplein district, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it felt wrong.
Let’s start with the hotel where we stayed, The Owl. It was delightfully eccentric. You couldn’t help but notice a glass cabinet dedicated to an army of tiny ceramic fowls blinking in the gloom, tucked somewhere between the ancient toast machine and the creaking lift. They seemed to be watching over us as our concierge, Peter, happily marked out places for us to visit on our map. He seemed almost too good to be true. One had to wonder, did he have a touch of the Norman Bates?
Sat in a café by the canal along Bilderdijkkade while my friend succumbed to the temptation of all the independent designer shops, I noticed a man furiously jotting notes in a large book. Being a Brit I naturally said nothing, but then another woman sat next to him asked what he was doing. He explained that he was writing a book about moments on history that might be reinterpreted later on. Both spoke in perfect English, yet none of them were. A conversation ensued that was as quirky as it was erudite. I was charmed and unsettled at the same time. It was like a scene from a foreign movie in which subtitles were curiously absent.
Keen to experience Amsterdam’s liberal attitude to smoking marijuana, we went on to purchase a sticky lump of what was called ‘coffee cream’ in one of the city’s famous cafes where it’s perfectly legal to smoke. It should have given us a rush, but it didn’t. It was allowed. So in search of a naughty buzz we found ourselves having a sneaky toke in Vondelpark, Holland’s Central Park, where the signs clearly tell you not to smoke. Sitting on the grass, we watched people exercise en-masse; while their bags were left unattended on the immaculately clipped lawns. Groups of youths sat around portable barbecues chatting amiably as the sun set. Jogger after jogger trotted round the park; each one more preternaturally good looking than the next.
We couldn’t help but point, “Look there’s another one!” In London those joggers would be wheezing from yesterday’s curry and lager. In London those bags would have been swiped inside ten minutes. Here they were all fit and relaxed. Where were the ugly, dodgy people?
And there’s the rub. Because when I got home I found out that any problem people in Amsterdam; the thieves, bullies and thugs; are tucked away in Ghettos!
Mayor Eberhard van der Laan and the council have set up what are popularly known as Scum Villages.
In 2012 the authorities appointed a special hit squad to identify offenders who are sent to live in caravan-style metal containers, watched over by the police and social services.
Of course what happens in those ghettos probably isn’t pleasant. I’m guessing there won’t be a lot of joggers, owls, or historians.
It might not surprise you to know that Eberhard van der Laan is a touch right-wing. Perhaps it’s all that cycling. Too much chaffing.
He argues that when it comes to problem neighbours it’s the innocent who suffer and are forced to move out. So he and his councillors have swapped things around.
“Repeat offenders should be forcibly removed from their neighbourhood and sent to a village for scum,” he said. “Put all the trash together.”
On the one hand I’m appalled. On the other sympathetic. Having dealt with a neighbour who, after I cleared our communal hallway of all his rubbish, promptly filled it with more of the same, the idea is very appealing. He wasn’t invalided, he wasn’t mentally challenged. He just didn’t care about other people. The two men who lived under his flat were forced to listen to his music at all hours of the night.
But I digress. Suffice to say Amsterdam seems great. I could easily imagine living there. Only problem is I might find myself living in a metal container.