Posts Tagged Amsterdam

Racists are killing Zwarte Piet


A not-so-skillful picture I took of a Zwarte Piet in November 2012

The Dutch have many strange traditions. Perhaps one of the strangest is that of Zwarte Piet. Where Santa Claus in many countries has elves, in the Netherlands Sinterklaas[1] has Zwarte Pieten, which is to say Black Peters. Men(and women) put on black face, paint their lips red and thick, and put on garish costumes reminiscent of those black slaves used to wear. The Black Peters are Santa’s helpers. They hand out “pepernoten”, ginger biscuits that the Dutch love, and they perform comedy and acrobatic acts. The Zwarte Piet tradition is one that would have you denounced as racist in South Africa (you may well end up in trouble with the law), but in the Netherlands Zwarte Piet is entrenched and accusations of racism have not (yet) killed this tradition.

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The laws of biking in Amsterdam

This is not even a lot of bikes

This is not even a lot of bikes

If you live in Amsterdam, you will get to know the laws of biking. Ignore these laws at your peril. If you think you will not cycle in Amsterdam (I did) you are wrong. You will cycle, and you will like it, and you will complain whenever you are forced to use public transport because it is expensive and slow. Biking is awesome (except when the weather is really horrible, for instance when it snows, and even then “real” Amsterdammers will bike) and good for you and the environment. You are not really an Amsterdammer before you regularly go around on your bike.

The laws of biking in Amsterdam

  1. You will bike in Amsterdam.
  2. Murphy’s law of biking: The wind is always against you.
  3. Corollary to law 2: The wind will be against you no matter which way you turn.
  4. Trams are designed to lure unsuspecting bikers onto their tracks, and then tram-ple them.
  5. Red lights do not apply to Dutch cyclists.
  6. Foreigners who think law 5 also applies to them may get tram-pled.
  7. Your bike will get stolen.
  8. Corollary to law 7: an expensive lock is better than an expensive bike.
  9. You will lose the keys to your bike lock and have to cut it off.
  10. You will forget where you left your bike, among thousands of other bikes in the area.
  11. Take OV (public transport) and be late. Take the bike and be on time.

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Only in Amsterdam

I am not a photographer. However, I find myself with a few photos of things in Amsterdam that I felt like photographing at that moment. They’re not all peculiarly Amsterdammish, but I think now is the time to share them. These pictures were mostly taken in winter, so with Spring nearing (it’s still too cold to say winter is over) I feel like I should say goodbye to this winter and all the misery it caused me.

First up is a picture of a bike in a peculiar position. In a city with more bicycles than people (yes, there really are more bicycles than people) bikes get up to all kinds of naughty things. In Afrikaans we have a saying “op die paal”, but that has nothing to do with poles or bicycles.

A bicycle "op die paal"

A bicycle “op die paal”

Next, bicycles covered in snow (mine is the one right in front). It snows in lots of places I know, but I come from a warm place with no snow. Snow and bicycles are an unhappy combination.

snow cycles

snow cycles

Some dirty brown snow. I have mentioned in a previous post that snow is rarely white and pretty for long. It becomes brown, dirty and trampled soon enough. I am not the only person who thinks snow is overrated. There is one other Dutch person who also thinks so. One person could be mistaken but two never are.

the dirty snow road

the dirty snow road

In Amsterdam there is graffiti everywhere. Not a single open space next to a train or metro track is unadorned. Here is some graffiti inside a metro which I found amusing. It’s so adorable the way they misspelt “rebel.”

adorable grafitti

adorable grafitti

A three-wheeled car like the one driven by Mr Bean’s enemy. Did you ever think you would see one of those in real life? I almost felt like doing something nasty to it. But then I thought, that would make me Mr Bean, so I just took a photo. (Actually I did not think any of this, but I did think it would sound cool if I said so).

three-wheeled car IMAG0512

three wheeled car

A dog in a chair at Waterlooplein. Amsterdammers love their dogs. It is a cute dog.

adorable dog in a chair

adorable dog in a chair

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The right to beg: a third world perspective

(Disclaimer: this was written based entirely on my own personal experience. If I have any facts wrong, please let me know. )

I recently read in a Dutch newspaper that there are 253 registered beggars in Amsterdam. Several things about this statement shocked me.

253 is ridiculously little. I don’t think any city in South Africa has so few beggars, even as a percentage of population (though I have not checked the figures –there may not even be any figures).

The fact that beggars are registered and that begging is in fact outlawed (except, I suppose for these registered beggars) seems almost monstrous when you come from a country where almost every traffic light in every major city has children below the age of ten asking you for some coins. To deny so many people this form of income because it is a nuisance is something I cannot even countenance.

There are too many beggars to register in South Africa and there are certainly too many people who live off begging in order to make it illegal (that said, I have not checked our laws, but I have never heard of anyone being arrested for begging). There are the children that I have mentioned, but many grown men and women too, mostly black. Increasingly, you also find white people with cardboard placards asking for help because they have no job. I make this distinction between South Africa is still a very polarised country. The white are rich, and except for a handful of elites, the black are poor.

Of course, there are naturally people who take chances, who essentially con others via begging. (I have been conned into giving money to someone who supposedly needed it to catch a bus or a train, only to spot them in an another location not long afterward asking for the same thing.) One can argue that those children on SA street corners are being misused.   They often are, I think. The Netherlands has the luxury to control its beggar population. South Africa does not.  It is an administrative and man-power intensive task that our government and police force cannot handle. Nor is it one they should handle. There are far more important things to do.

Ideally, I think, all “charitable” money would be channelled via organisations that could oversee the use of that money. I don’t know the state of the NGO space in South Africa, but I suspect it can’t solve all the problems. And a request for a donation from an NGO will never be quite as persuasive as a cupped hand in your face.

In a country as divided as South Africa perhaps the rich need permanent reminders of their good fortune. Perhaps all it leads to is a habit of apathy. But one can be held accountable for apathy, not ignorance.  I would like to see a day where South Africa is no longer has beggars, where it can have the luxury of outlawing such distasteful things.  I do not think I will live long enough (and I plan to live a very very long time).

I have often been one of those apathetic rich people (rich compared to most South Africans, that is). This little article in a Dutch newspaper has made me question my actions, and, importantly, my inaction.

I am reminded of a quote by Henry Ford:

Capital punishment is as fundamentally wrong as a cure for crime as charity is wrong as a cure for poverty.

I don’t believe that giving to beggars solves the problem of poverty. (It’s an easy way to salve your conscience, perhaps). But when you walk past that beggar, when you turn that blind eye, it is an opportunity to evaluate your life, to ask yourself,  have you contributed to a world in which begging would no  longer be necessary? For me, the answer, too often is an accusatory “no.”


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The awkward kindness of strangers

Sometimes being kind can be really hard – or at the very least extremely awkward. Take for instance, the case when someone has food in their teeth, or worse, when a man’s fly is undone.  I remember once being asked (when I was in school) to tell a man older than I that the latter was the case with him. I think my face was flushed red with embarrassment. It would have been easier to just do nothing.

Very recently, I found myself in the embarrassing situation of being informed  (in public) by another man – whom I did not know – that in fact my own fly was undone. The man was Dutch and I did not understand him at first, but I got the point when he started gesturing.

I am grateful to this man. I do not know if it was a hard or awkward thing for him to do. Dutch people are remarkably direct and unashamed – perhaps this was just another sign of this. I do know this: to be kind we must sometimes overcome our own inertia, our irrational fears, face some personal discomfort. How much kindness is never done just because it is easier not to?

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A deeper silence

One of the most striking differences for me between my home in South Africa and Amsterdam is something I find hard to describe. It has something to do with sound or at least an impression of sound. It feels to me that Amsterdam is (almost) always silent. But this silence seems to not only be in the sounds of the city – even when I am next to a road and I hear the cars drive by, still it feels quiet. In the Centrum, in the midst of the bustle of tourists, it is not quiet, but mostly everywhere else, this quiet is like a thick fog, dulling all the other sounds.

Perhaps there are sounds from home that I am used that are just not present here – I lived near a dam with geese and ducks, so perhaps an absence of bird sounds. Somehow it strikes me as something deeper though – something in the nature of this city, the nature of Dutchness, that is more aloof and, yes, even more cold (and I’m not referring to temperature) than home. But also peaceful and calm, despite of cars and traffic and people.

I think there are few cities as quiet as Amsterdam. And Amsterdam on a Sunday morning (when almost no one is awake or about), when I bike to church, is as quiet as an undisturbed meadow or a forest. The sounds of people seem more like the sounds of birds and deer or other wildlife.

Not long after arriving in Amsterdam, I remember thinking about this quiet, trying to draw inspiration from it and I could only find the following lines:

In this quiet city
	music lights the darkness
and i feel a little less lonely

If you want to read about my other impressions of Amsterdam, see the posts The church in the redlight district and Being a mathematician in Amsterdam. My thanks to all those who have liked, reblogged or commented on previous posts. As always, any comments on this post are welcome.

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The church in the red light district

(The following is based on an article I wrote for ISN Insiders magazine entitled “Meeting God in Amsterdam”. If you have already read this article, you may wish to only read the poem)

I often visit the red light district, in Amsterdam’s city centre. Here I walk past windows luridly lit with red lights, where prostitutes display themselves. A man (who appears to be acting as a pimp) yells “girls, sex for free”. Across the street a “coffee shop” sells cannabis to curious tourists. Just across from another such shop, and right in front of a row of red-lit windows, is my destination, “De Oude Kerk”, the oldest church in Amsterdam.

Visiting De Oude Kerk is a deeply spiritual experience. I am a Christian, brought up as such in a conservative Afrikaans home in South Africa. Faced with the almost laughable contrast of the beautiful church (which still has services every Sunday) and its debauched surroundings, I cannot but contemplate the nature of humanity, and of faith. Such contemplation has been the hallmark of my experience in Amsterdam.

The Netherlands is very secular with a declining religious population. One reads in the newspapers of Churches being sold and used for other purposes because they no longer have congregations. I do not think any Christian can hear this and visit De Oude Kerk without mourning. The Good News should be spreading, not retreating. In fact, not long after first visiting De Oude Kerk I wrote a poem about it.

how can you invite me?
	     when I stand in front of those walls
(you see them, you must, through the lurid glass)
	     that for 700 years
	     have condemned it

   that should condemn it still
	      oh dear God, are you still there?
	      do you laugh at the old church coffee shop’s
the church that is the neighbour of prostitutes
		       and dopers
	   calling by its very presence them

                                    to enter

	and so many do, and look and gawp and awe and marvel
			         but look not on God

God is the juggler in the plein
	     a few coins in his hat
		           and no hearts

The feelings of this poem are true. I do not think they are wrong. But they are not the whole story either. It is tempting to dismiss Amsterdam as an immoral city, now Godless. This would be a mistake. Amsterdam is no more immoral than any other major city. It is just more open. Underlying Dutch culture seems to be the belief that people should have the freedom to make decisions about religion, lifestyle, sex, orientation, and so on. There is no judgement here.

The red light district and the coffee shops are a testament to this attitude. But so is the church right in its heart and other Christian organisations that have placed themselves there. In many areas of the city you can see Muslim women wearing their Hijabs. I am glad to be in a country where people are free to express their deepest beliefs, free to explore, free both to find and to reject God. (It is worrisome to me that an anti-immigration and anti-Islam political movement has recently gained some footing, polluting this atmosphere).

Amsterdam is not a Godless city. God is present in the passionate community of Christians that still live here (the Christians I have met have been very passionate). He is present in the many beautiful churches that abound in the city. He is present in me.

Amsterdam is definitely a place to grow spiritually. There are enough English-speaking Christian denominations that any Christian can find a home. However, in this cosmopolitan city you can  easily surround yourself with people with viewpoints that differ radically from your own. Be willing to listen. Your preconceived notions will be challenged – do not hold to them too tightly. You may hear about the differences in the practice of Islam in Iran and in other Arab countries. You may speak to vegans and reconsider what you eat. You are certain to meet plenty of atheists.

Like me, you may well often find yourself the only Christian in a group of students, many of whom are curious to hear about your faith. When you have to explain your beliefs to others, it is no longer possible to take them for granted. You may find yourself meeting God anew, or even for the first time.

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Being a mathematician in Amsterdam

I have been studying mathematics in Amsterdam for a nearly year now. I felt I needed to record my experiences of Amsterdam in story form. However, I have also wanted to write something about mathematics, about how mathematicians see mathematics, and why they do it, in a form that even non-mathematicians can understand. I tried to do both these things in a little story I wrote. It is heavily based on my own experiences in Amsterdam, of studying mathematics and of interacting with  mathematicians both in the Netherlands and in South Africa.

The story is divided into six lessons, each a snapshot of David’s life, where David’s thoughts, recollections and interactions with others give some insight (I hope) into the mind and life of a mathematician.  I have entitled it “The lives of the mathematicians.”

Here is  a link to the story. Let me know if you like (or if you hate it, or have any other kind of experience).

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