Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I Heart Amsterdam

Mention Amsterdam and the first thing anyone thinks is sex and drugs. I kept getting advice like go to such-and-such place for the best weed or don't take pictures of the prostitutes in the Red Light District. But legalized sex and marijuana overshadow what the place is really about. Which can probably best be expressed by the Dutch term gezellig. It's a word that's considered rather untranslatable in English. Here's a whole page attempting to define it. And here. But basically, I think gezellig is what everyone who was around in the East Village in the 1980s misses - a sense of togetherness, of comraderie, of homespun warmth.

In Amsterdam, I kept feeling like it was the 1980s all over again. Part of this feeling was probably due to me staying with Walter at the Vrankrijk, one of the oldest squats in Amsterdam. He's a friend of my friend Joel who had lived in Amsterdam for two years back in the early 1990s. One night, Walter and I made pizza together and he put on a VHS tape to share some of the performance pieces that he and Joel used to do together. He was surprised that instead, the VHS tape began with half an hour of footage in which he ran around with friends asking people on the street how much money they make - the ultimate forbidden question. I mean, people will answer compromising questions about their sex life before they will admit how much money they make. And of course, I think this is a taboo that really should be confronted. So there I was, enjoying a simple night of making food with a friend, watching a crappy VHS tape of something hilariously radical - I was getting flashbacks that definitely did not derive from any substances legal or illegal. I began wondering if home wasn't necessarily a place or a community, but a time period or perhaps just a quality. Maybe gezellig can just be simply translated as homey.

Joel did appear in the end - in a wacky mystery thriller about foiling a dastardly plot by the Dutch Santa's black helpers. Dutch Santa? Black helpers? Yeah. If you don't know about Sinterklaass and Zwarte Pieten (or even if you do), you should listen to David Sedaris read from his hilarious story 6-8 Black Men.

We also went and saw The Night of the Hunter at De Slang (The Snake), one of about six other squats across the street. The building is pretty iconic - I've seen photos of it before in books, maybe in Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities - it has a painting of a giant spotted snake with fangs. While the squatters in the Vrankrijk managed to buy their building, I learned that De Slang and all the squats on the other side of the street were threatened with eviction. Ah, shades of the East Village. It seems that the corporate powers are beginning an attempt to disembowel communities in Amsterdam, same as they did in New York City. Maybe the squatters in Amsterdam will find a way of foiling them. Unlike in NYC, they seem to have support in the general population, probably since most squats seem to have some kind of artistic venue that is open to the public.

After the film, we ended up at Cafe the Minds, where Walter works, a bar decorated with a dozen hanging pairs of combat boots and a giant oar. Most nights ended at Cafe the Minds, actually. The first night, a very drunk guy sidled and lurched up next to us and asked Walter in Dutch what my name was. After seeing the guy try to hit on every other girl in the bar, Walter was mortified enough to toss him out.  And then there was one night when I sat down next to someone else wearing an IDFA badge and he exclaimed, "Oh, I thought I would avoid all the IDFA people here!" It turned out that he's a pretty well-known Iranian filmmaker.

I would have liked to have spent more time getting to know the city, but I was really there for IDFAcademy, and had a pretty intense four days of workshops that started at 10AM and ended with drinks that lasted until 2AM. I had already been partying since Paris so the entire trip I felt "rough as a boot" as one Dutch filmmaker whom I became friends with put it. Plus I was pretty darn broke. I never did get to tour the canals on a boat. Or see the Rijkmuseum. Or visit the Red Light District. But after these last two years when I've been despairing that NYC is at a dead end, out of gas, end of the line, it was great to remember what it used to feel like. And so very unexpected to find a place that has managed to keep its beautiful collective spirit, the missing ingredient in the new New York that used to make everything so possible.

Pictures of Amsterdam are here.
My IDFA experiences are on the ALMOST HOME: TAIWAN website.

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