Some time ago, I took an English colleague out to dinner in the Amsterdam City Centre. He became more and more subdued as we walked the streets and looked at the sights. I finally took him into one of my favorite places – a small ‘tasting room’ as they call it and after three stiff Dutch drinks he finally admitted: “I won’t walk around this town any more! These bikes are lethal!”
I had noticed he had some close brushes with speeding cyclists but I regarded them as nothing out of the extraordinary. After all, cyclists are a law onto themselves in this town.
But I also remembered: After Beijing, Amsterdam must have the highest bicycle density in the world. And seeing them in action is seeing Anarchy on two Wheels! And encountering them is like facing the lions in the Colosseum in Rome…
And it is not a recent phenomenon; I found this British film fragment, showing how the Amsterdam bicycle situation was in the early 1950’s!
It is Wednesday afternoon and the weather is glorious. Not a cloud in sight and bright green leaves cover the sparse trees around our blocks. We have the rest of the day off and hurry out of the school, onto the hot concrete tiles of the pavement. It smells but of what, I prefer not to know. And as we hurry around the corner, into the narrow, sun-drenched street with its endless row of 19th century apartment buildings, Mickey says, “Let’s go for a swim!”
“Swim where?” I ask. The official swimming pool is quite far away, costs money and to top it all, we both can’t swim.
“Oh at Kattenburg”, he says and I immediately grasp what he plans to do. Apart from the locals calling it “Rattenburg”, I see other, unsurmountable problems hindering this project. “Mickey”, I say, “we have no swimming trunks and no towel. How do we get dry?” But Mickey has thought that one through already.
“We’ll swim in our underpants and when we’re done we simply get back into our shorts. We’ll wring out the underpants and use them to wipe our legs. And tonight we throw them in the laundry basket; nothing to it!”
I still am not convinced but I can’t rat on my best friend so the two of make our way as quickly as we can to our local ‘beach’, the stretch of sand opposite the naval establishment. As we pass across the bridge in front of the maritime academy, we see a large crowd that has already gathered on that dismal piece of dirty sand. To us it is the ultimate treat on a hot day in spring. Water and sand all kinds of things to discover and we lose no time in shedding our shirts and shorts and shoes. We put them next to a friendly family, hoping they will keep an eye on them, and run into the water.
I shall never forget that smell; the tang of stale green water, mushy rotting sea-weed and marine diesel fuel. We ran up and down that beach, splashing and spattering between a rich harvest of washed up driftwood and other flotsam (including two dead cats), By the time we both were both soaking wet, we had thrown all caution to the winds and we had soon collected enough planks and poles along the ‘flood line’ to put a makeshift raft together. A washed up crate would do for a seat and a more or less oar-shaped piece of wood for a paddle.
The snag was, the thing would only hold one of us. Mickey won the toss and after carefully mounting the slightly rotten crate (I saw it had held oranges in the past), he commanded, “Shove Off!” and I gave the contraption a push.
As it floated away I immediately saw we were no great boat builders. Our raft had no freeboard at all and short waves washed Mickey’s feet every few seconds. The ‘raft’ was some yards off the beach now and when he tried to paddle back, the whole thing nearly capsized. He had to sit absolutely still in order not to upset its balance. Then he noticed that the water was too deep for him to stand and he knew he was in really deep water (literally),
“Help me get back!” he shouted anxiously.
I waded into the dirty water until it reached my chin but he was still out of reach.
“I’ll get a rope”, I shouted and hurried back to the safety of the sand. I had seen a discarded length of slimy rope further down that ‘beach’. But before I could reach it, one of those ever present workboats came rumbling out of a side canal. It was the Ocean, a fine, sturdy workboat belonging to the Blue Funnel line. All of us boys admired it for the magnificent bow wave it threw up. The inevitable happened; the Ocean rumbled past at a sedate four knots, but its powerful waves lifted the flimsy raft way up in the air. It shattered completely and Mickey splashed into the water.
“Help”, I shouted, “my friend cannot swim”, pointing at the boy spluttering and trashing amidst the remnants of our ‘raft’. Several people looked up, but one lean and tanned Navy guy jumped up from the towel he was sharing with his girlfriend. In a few strides he ran down the sand, splashed into the water and grabbed Mickey at the moment the water closed over the boy’s head.
“What the fuck were you doing out there?” shouted the sailor after dropping the spluttering and coughing Mickey on the sand. The two of us tried to explain but with no great success. “Go and get your clothes; and this will speed you home”, the man snarled as he slapped Mickey’s bottom hard with a large, calloused hand.
We straggled home like two two nearly drowned cats, dripping water and sopping in our shoes. For a few moments we stood hesitating at the entrance to our block, not daring to face our parents and afraid of the ‘reception’ we would get.
Then my grandmother passed by on her bicycle and our fate was sealed
“What happened to you?” she shouted angrily as she jumped off the saddle. After my halting, rambling explanation she turned to Mickey. “You go home and stay there; I’ll talk your mom later.” Mickey hurriedly made off and Grandma slapped my face twice snarling, “The pair of you could have drowned, you idiot!”
She hauled me up the stairs and made me wash all over – the stink of the ‘swimming water’ permeating the small apartment. When I was washed and clothed again she sat me in a chair and gave me cup of tea. “Never, ever do that again!” she growled, raising a threatening finger in front of my face. “There will be trouble enough when you mom and dad come home.”
And trouble there sure was; my stepdad was livid and wanted to belt me properly. But my Grandma interfered and I was banished to my little room with the door firmly closed; house arrest as it was. I heard their voices go on in a low rumble for a while. Then Grandma left and I shivered with fright what would happen next. I didn’t have to wait long. My mother came into my little room and looked at me for a few moments.
“You could have drowned today”, she said in a quiet voice and I nodded, tears in my eyes.
“There’s too much water around here”, she added and then, to my total surprise, “so Grandma has decided that you’d better take swimming lessons; she’ll pay for them!”
Threatening grey clouds streaked overhead, chased by a cold, blustery February afternoon wind. It seemed to chill me to the bone, exposed as I was sitting on my granddad’s shoulders. But I did not care, I could see al around the square that seemed huge to me, filled as it was with a dense mass of grimly silent people in dark clothes, gathered around a statue. The statue was of a chunky, muscled dock-worker. It was the type of man I had always seen around me while a grew up. Going to and from his job at the docks and the shipyards; tough and honest, loyal friend and indomitable foe, quick to laugh and fast with his fists of steel.
“Who is that statue for?” I asked my granddad
“For the Amsterdam dockyard men, who started the first strike against the Germans during the occupation of Holland.”
“What –?” I started to ask, but my granddad whispered “Sshh” and he took of his black beret. An old, crippled man mounted a small platform and when he started to speak, an awesome silence fell. He spoke for a while in a fervent voice, filled with emotion but his words were much to grand and too involved for me. However, I caught the words “Jewish citizens” and “Germans” and “resistance”. Then it was all over and everyone assembled in the square formed a line as long as the eye could see and started walking slowly past the statue. Many of them had been carrying flowers and as they placed them at its foot, it seemed to me that the solitary figure of that stocky man was riding a wave in a sea of a commemorative flowers.
“Granddad, why did the Germans come to Holland?” I asked timidly as we started our walk back home.
“Because they were greedy; they wanted to possess all of Europe. They came across the border as thieves in the night and when the Dutch soldiers kept on fighting, they bombed Rotterdam, killing I don’t know how many people. And then they occupied our country.”
“What does ‘occupying’ mean”, I asked, not sure if I would like the answer.
“It means that foreigners, who have no goddam business to be here at all, grab your country and start telling you what to do. And if you protest they lock you up and shoot you later.”
“You mean they would kill me if I protested?”
“Yes; and that was the reason for that big strike in February 1941”, granddad said somberly. “There had been a fight between German police and Amsterdam protesters and the next day the Germans picked up hundreds of people who had nothing to do with that fight and threw them in jail .”
“But that’s not fair!” I exclaimed.
“No; but they didn’t care. They wanted to show who is boss. And the Amsterdam people were furious and started a strike.”
“What is a ‘strike’?” I asked, out of my depth again.
“When people strike, they refuse to work. It started in the docks here in Amsterdam, then the tram-people stopped working and before you knew it, the whole city had come to a standstill.”
“And then?” I asked; it sounded like an adventure novel.
“The strike lasted a couple of days and the Germans were furious. They picked up hundreds of people and killed a number of them. The others were sent away to camps in Germany. Most of them never came back.”
I looked back over my shoulder at the square we just had left. Seen from this distance, the large crowd still marching past the statue was dominated by a high building.
Granddad saw what I was looking at. “Yes, that is the Synagogue, the Jewish church. We commemorate the strike in this place because soon afterwards, the Germans started to pick up our Jewish neighbors and friends and took them away. Most of them never came back – they were murdered.”
For a while we walked on in silence, my granddad lost in his thoughts and I trying to understand what I had just learned. Then he looked at me and said, “That is why we go that place every year on the 25th of February; to show that we will not forget the people that died then.”
I looked over my shoulder again and had the impression I could see the shadowy forms of a multitude of people hovering around the square and the synagogue and the crowd still marching past the statue. I shivered; for the first time I had an inkling of the horrible things that had happened in this area of my hometown.
“Now let’s see how much you guys have brought me”, the man said gruffly after we had heaved the last bundle of old newspapers onto the grimy scales. He put a heavy steel weight on the smaller part of the balance and added some lighter ones. Squinting at the pointers he said gruffly, “Right … just about thirty kilos; I’ll give you one guilder and fifty cents for the lot.”
His hand disappeared in his pocket and came up full of small change and when I saw he was picking out a guilder piece I quickly said, “We’re sharing.” With a grunt he counted out three quarters for each of us and turned away.
“What are we going to do now?” Mickey asked as we wheeled back the old pram.
It nearly had collapsed under the load of old newspapers we had collected from all neighbors we knew and I had a feeling that it’s axles were definitely bent. We quietly put it back in the basement that served as a bicycle shed and hoped nobody would be any the wiser.
I looked around. A cold, north-west wind was blowing, sending ragged clouds scurrying across a feeble winter sun. Not the kind of weather one wanted to be outside for an entire Wednesday afternoon. The schoolyard was deserted and the street was empty.
“Let’s go and ride the tram”, I said.
“Visit Grandma”, I said.
“It will cost us”, Mickey said doubtfully, “at least ten cents.”
“I’ll pay”, I said with a grin, “I’m rich!”
“Huh?” said Mickey as I showed him another fifty cents. “Where did you get that?”
“Helped Adams yesterday.”
Adams was the ‘peel-collector’ who passed through our street each week, his horse-drawn cart leaving a malodorous trail. He collected potato peel and cabbage leaves and any other kind of vegetable waste from households as well as bones and other offal from the butchers.
My stepdad had strictly forbidden me to go near him. But I knew he offered good money and stepdad wasn’t around anyway, so yesterday after school, I had been running up and down the stairs of every house in our street and the next one.
On every landing, there had been a small wicker basket on top of the trash can and I had emptied them into an evil-smelling burlap bag that grew steadily heavier. When it was about three-quarters full I had hurried over to the stinking cart. Adams would hand me an empty bag and I would start another round of running up and down stairs until my legs ached.
Mickey and I were joking while we walked to the nearest stop and while we waited for the tram to come we made faces at people passing on bicycles. Finally a tram materialized and we climbed on board.
The Amsterdam trams in those days were heavy, old-fashioned looking vehicles painted dark blue and consisting of a motor-car and a trailer. The balconies had no doors, you just jumped on and fought yourself inside (if possible). There were no chairs, only hard wooden benches to the side of the cabin. Leather straps dangled down from the ceiling, providing something to hold on to for those who had to stand during rush hour.
Each car had its own conductor and when he had seen that all passengers had gotten off and the new ones were aboard he would signal the motorman by pulling sharply at a lanyard above his head. A bell would sound in the motorcar or a whistle in the trailer to signal they could move off.
The motorman stood on the front balcony, feet wide apart. Behind him in a corner stood a kind of bicycle saddle mounted on a tripod but we never saw it used. For every change of speed the motorman would haul at a horizontal lever that made loud ratcheting noises. And whenever someone or something was likely to get in his way he would stamp on a pedal and a bell would clang sharply, sending the message “Out of my way or face the consequences!”
With the practiced ease of someone doing nothing else each day, the conductor came over to us while the tram was rumbling and swaying like a surf-boat through the curving streets and over the humped bridges of the old town.
We meekly bought our 10 cent tickets, a white piece of paper which he stamped in black ink. It would allow us to ride any tram within a 45 minute timeframe.
It took us less than that to reach the end of the line and after a ten minute walk we reached the notary’s house. It had a garden all around and a lovely canal at its back.
As we walked up the short driveway Mickey asked, “What’s this guy doing?”
“He’s a notary”, I answered.
“What’s a notary?”
I had asked my granddad the same; he had explained that you went to a notary if you had so much money that you were afraid your children would fight over it when you died. The notary then would make something called a ‘will’ and they would have to abide by that.
“Jeez; imagine having so much money that your kids would fight over it”, Mickey said in a kind of awe and I agreed. I could not imagine having a lot of money at all; in my world the cupboard would be bare by Friday…
“How did you come here?” asked my grandma as she gave us both a nice glass of lemonade. The ice cubes in it were the big treat. They came from something called a fridge in which grandma could keep foodstuff nice and cold. It even had a compartment in which she could make those ice-cubes.
“We took the tram”, I answered, “Lots of things to see and it’s easier than walking.”
I showed her my ticket. Grandma was dead-set against joyriding because of the fine if you got caught. We stayed with her for a while, drinking lemonade and eating biscuits until she looked pointedly at the clock on the kitchen wall.
“Time for you to go back; your mom will be mad at you if you’re late”, she said while she handed each of us a chocolate bar. She kissed me and said quietly “Be careful; don’t take that bloody line 4.”
But that was exactly what we had in mind.
Line 4 had the oldest, most rickety trams in existence. My granddad told me he had to say “Sir” to them as they were older than he was. They swayed and squealed in the slightest curve. But the big thing was that, after passing through a very narrow street close to Munt Square, they had to get around a very sharp, almost 180 degrees left-hand turn at the edge of the Amstel River. At least once a year, one of those line 4 trams would jump out of the rails, smash through the iron fence and splash into the dirty water six feet below.
Of course we wanted to experience such an exciting thing. But we prudently stayed on the after-balcony of the trailer. It would be easy to jump out if things went really wrong because the balconies in both cars had no doors.
But to our disappointment we had a careful motorman that day; the tram trundled slowly through the narrow street lined with small bars, creakingly went through the absurdly sharp curve and triumphantly groaned up to the Munt Square stop…
Weekends were the high-spot of the week for me.
On Saturday morning, I would cross the street to my grandmother’s apartment. Together we would walk up to the docks and sit in the echoing office hall, together with some other women and children. After a bit of a wait, my granddad would came through the door, in the midst of a noisy crowd of dockyard mates. They would line up in front of the cashiers window to get their wages paid out one by one.
My grandmother would go up to the window when it was my granddads turn and she would watch critically as the bills and coins were counted out. She would slowly recount the little bundle of money and put it in her bag. Then, she would resolutely hook her arm through his and the three of us would walk out, in the wake of the other married women and their husbands and children.
We would walk all the way back into town, past bars that seemed to be very busy and past nice looking ladies that stood in doorways and smiled at me. I loved that part of town; its narrow streets and ancient houses, little shops that sold everything you could think of. But on Saturday afternoon, grandma never went into those. We kept on walking until we reached the market and there she had her preferred butcher and stalls for fish and poultry and vegetables.
“Always watch their hands”, she told me as we waited for oranges to be packed in a paper bag. “And always point out what you want; otherwise they’ll give you the crap they keep at the back.”
When the shopping was done, she would march us home, to a glorious dinner of fresh white bread and smoked fish. And I would get my weekly treat: a bottle of fizzy fruit juice.
After dinner, Granddad and I would go for a walk and we always stopped at a little bar close to the marshalling yards. I would get lemonade and granddad always had a beer. I liked the place; it was dark and brown, with sand on the floor. The tables were a bit sticky from spilled drinks and it had that peculiar smell of and old, old bar.
“Make sure you will have time for yourself when you grow up. You work all week but you need one afternoon for yourself”, my granddad would say while he visibly relaxed in one of the hard chairs near a window that looked out over the Navy yard.
On Sunday morning granddad and I would get up early. Sometimes it was barely light when he fetched his fishing rods. The two of us would cycle to the edge of the big canal and find nice spot and cast out, whispering to each other because the world was still quiet. There were no barges coming down from the docks or steamers going up to the locks. Even the factories were silent and I could hear the birds and the gentle slap of the waves against the pilings and the cry of a lonely seagull floating effortlessly high above us. Every now and then one of us would catch something but we always threw them back; the war was over said my granddad and there was better food now.
The rest of the Sunday would pass quietly; Granddad would sit in his easy chair, with a crossword puzzle and a small glass of genever. Grandma would sit with her knitting on the other side of the single window that illuminated the living room, looking occasionally out into the narrow street lined with somber houses and commenting on what see saw.
Supper came all too soon and afterwards I always tried to postpone the inevitable – going back to my ‘own’ home, right across the street. In the end, I had to, crossing the street while I already looked forward to next weekend…
After days of high winds and heavy rain the thermometer finally started dropping. The rain did not cease, it slowly turned into sleet, nasty flurries of ice cold crystals that clung for a moment to your face, then melted and ran down your clothes, soaking you to the skin if you had to be out for any amount of time.
Clouds pregnant with snow came down until the city was blanketed with a grey twilight that seemed to take away all color, replacing it by white and black and a few half-tones. Finally the real snow came, first as incidental flocks between the rain and the sleet but gradually replacing them until the air was filled with swirling, dancing white flocks that seemed to come down in slanted lines out of the south-west.
People were shuffling on the sidewalks, trying to get home as soon as they could. The headlights of motorcars were dimmed by the layer of snow that built up on them, their windscreen wipers barely able to cope. Streetcars packed with harried passengers trundled on, their windows coated over with condensation.
And the cyclists had to cope, covered with a layer of snow and half blinded by the flakes that incessantly hit their faces, their eyes…
Mickey stumbled up the four pairs of stairs and sat down panting against one of the coal bins that lined the sides of what we called ‘the attic’. It was not really a room, merely a six by eight foot space that had a window to allow access to the hoisting beam. All Amsterdam buildings had one, their stairs far too narrow to manipulate furniture up or down. But seen from afar, it seemed that the poorer quarters of the city had an endless mass of ready-made gallows waiting for the eruption of a bloody revolution.
I unearthed my hidden treasures from behind my parent’s coal-bin; four cardboard model sailing ships that I had patiently glued together and an old cigar-box filled with dummy men made out of cotton pipe cleaners and wrapped with various colors of knitting wool. I had given the ‘Spaniards’ red and yellow, the ‘French’ blue and red and the ‘British’ just plain blue. The ‘Dutch’ were all black as they were the privateers, the raiders that pried on all the other sailing vessels. The advantage was that you could bend and form those little figures into all shapes that fitted the cardboard ‘ships’; standing at the wheel, brandishing swords at the rail or clinging to the spars and the masts.
With a small piece of chalk stolen from school, we outlined the ‘coasts’ and the ‘island’ on the bare floor boards and used an old shoebox as the island’s ‘fortress’ from which the marauding privateers would set sail. The toss of a coin decided who would be ‘Dutch’, the other party could be any nationality as long as it was Spanish, French or British. The loser had to sail first, the ‘Dutch’ being the raiders.
We played for hours in that place, never winning or losing and re-adjusting the battle to what we liked, with the rain pattering on the roof and the light gradually growing dimmer and dimmer. We were in a fairly frantic battle around the ‘island’ when my mother’s head suddenly popped up from the stairwell. “Having fun?” she asked and we both dropped the pieces of coal we had used as gun shells. “Yes mom”, I answered. “Well, it’s getting dark; Mickey has to go home and we’ll eat as soon as dad is in.” And with those words she disappeared down the stairs. The two of us were sitting dumbfounded. The spirit of battle was all gone and it was really getting too dark to see clearly. With a sigh, I started to collect the discarded puppets and put them back in the old cigar box.
A smell that made my mouth water hit me when I entered our apartment. I loved the way mom cooked sauerkraut, mixed with briefly fried spare-ribs and mashed potatoes. My stomach rumbled; I had eaten nothing since those rolls at the market. But there was nothing to snack on in the house so I had to wait until my stepdad came in.
“Did you do your homework?” she asked. “Not yet” I replied; my teacher had insisted on giving me additional exercises to be done at home. “Then go and do it before your dad comes home!” I sat down under the single large lamp suspended on a chain over the dinner table that occupied most of the floorspace of our living room; the stove, a cupboard and an easy chair took up the rest. For a while I worked on my chores. Then the noise of the street door and heavy footsteps coming up the stairs announced the arrival of my stepdad. The door opened and he stepped in, dripping wet from his bike ride. I immediately sensed he was in a bad mood and grabbed my school things and scurried away from the table. “What’s he doing?” he asked gruffly as he hung his soaked overcoat on a peg outside and closed the door it with a bang. “He’s got some extra work for school; there’ll be a test to see what kind of school he can go to later”, answered my mother. “All bloody nonsense”, he growled as he sat down in the easy chair. “He has to learn how to read and write and do some sums. Then he can go and work for a living just like I do.” “But maybe he–” “Shut up! Everybody in our family has worked with his hands! He’ll do the same!” “But he has to–” “I know; he has to go somewhere else some time. So let them send him to a trade school; he won’t be a bricklayer but maybe he can be a plumber. They earn good money.” “But maybe he–” “I don’t want him to go to one of those fancy high schools; all they teach is capitalist nonsense.”
After supper I finished off my homework and by eight I went to bed. After putting the hot water bottle between the sheets my mother kissed me and tucked me in. She switched off the single lightbulb and closed the door and I pressed my feet against the radiating heat of the stone bottle in that thick old sock. As I snuggled down, I thought about my stepdad’s words. Becoming a plumber? I’d seen one at work one day, opening up a sewer to unblock it and repair some pipes and the sight and the smell had been enough. But what else would there be for a boy like me? Carpenter? I loved the smell of wood and the way you could work it. Or maybe I could be an electrician? Electricity was a mystery in our house. The few times my stepdad had tried to fix something had all ended in disaster; fuses blown and hands scorched by sudden angry blue sparks. I thought a little bit about it and decided better not – he would be angry that I knew things he didn’t.
As I slowly drifted into sleep I decided to wait for the weekend and ask my granddad. Surely he could help me; granddad always knew things and gave straight answers that I could understand. …