The Week In New Stuff, episode 2, in which I eat hummus, visit squats, see unusual films, find something unselfish to do and am both amused and offended by a disconcertingly rude barman...
Friday 1 September
Today turned into a whole medley of new experiences, which almost made me wish I could have spread it over a few days, but such is life. When new experiences come, they come not as single spies but in battalions. Like a nest of spiders under your desk.
So I met my friend V-neck in one of the squat places I'd been reading about — a cafe-cum-gathering-point-cum-anarchist-book-shop called Info Bollox, part of the MKZ squat just south of Vondelpark.
There we ate no-frills tofu-cheese toasties for a euro and V-neck told me how Amsterdam has gone to the dogs. As usual, the problem is money. Lots of squats have been closed down and repurposed for rich people, while poor people have been priced out of once-cool community neighbourhoods that have now turned into hipster hell-holes with sky-high prices and no real atmosphere. I'm sure this is all true, but despite the best efforts of capitalism, Amsterdam remains — for a newcomer like myself at least — a phenomenally cool city. Just — apparently —not as cool as it once was when places like MKZ were ten-a-penny.
After he'd slightly depressed me with his embittered nostalgia, V-neck suggested a ride through the streets of Amsterdam on his giant motorbike. He knew I was looking for new experiences and thought this might be a good one. He'd brought a spare helmet. So that's what we did. However, the only way to stay on the bike was to hang on to V-neck's back like a damsel in distress and I didn't really enjoy that. That ain't me. Also, I didn't feel hugely safe. So I made him stop.
Then we went into Vondelpark and played with the beach tennis set I'd bought a few weeks ago but not yet tried. And let me tell you, beach tennis is enormous fun. If you don't know what it is, look at this. That was us today, but without a beach, or a net, or a great deal of skill.
After which, having worked up a thirst, we went for a drink at OT301, an ex-squat, current "multi-media alternative cultural centre" on Overtoom, and another first for me.
There is also a vegan restaurant at OT301, called De Peper, and as they happened to be serving, we ended up getting the three-course meal, which cost a tenner and was really very good. Actually, the layer cake was a little on the woody side if you want to know the truth, but still, for a tenner? Shut up and be happy.
I will be back.
Saturday 2nd September
Dokzaal Galerie is a multi-experience mega-venue that functions as a concert hall, a theatre space, a venue for courses, debates, cultural miscellanea and art, film and photography exhibitions. It's also the venue for a weekly pop-up restaurant courtesy of the Taste Before You Waste initiative.
Tonight the venue played host to two couples I'd got to know a little over the past year. It was their final night in Amsterdam before setting off on a potentially infinite trip through Russia and beyond. One of them just happened to have founded Taste Before You Waste, which meant that there were other people involved there too. So, as I'd been looking for something to do that wasn't just about me, I decided it was fate and signed myself up to help.
In essence, Taste Before You Waste consists of a group of people collecting food that would otherwise be wasted and feeding it to people who are hungry. I agreed to start helping just as soon as I was back from the UK.
And it was a great night, as I recall. I really like venues that host events that they believe in and care about, rather than concentrating 100% on what's going to make money. And I was very happy I'd found something to do that wasn't wholly about me.
Indeed, riding home at the end of the night, I thought about the doubt I'd felt only a few weeks ago, about Amsterdam and my life here, and I wondered if I might be a looney. I mean, I'd have to be insane to leave this place just because its summers are a washout. And I'm not.
I'm definitely not.
Sunday 3 September
Today I did nothing overtly new but I did see Patti Cake$, which despite being rather contrived in places, I wholeheartedly adored. Check it.
Monday 4 September
Today I went to the Amsterdam Museum, which has the tagline, "All about Amsterdam: then, now and in the future". I took in the Amsterdam DNA permanent exhibition, which gives an overview of the city's history in films, photos and various artworks.
I particularly appreciated the fact that the exhibition doesn't shy away from some of the darker episodes of recent history, such as the assassination of Theo Van Gogh and the tragic fate of Abdelhak Nouri. I had never heard of Nouri till I saw this photo of his father outside of their home, overwhelmed by the love of thousands of strangers.
The story of what happened to his son is told briefly and rather beautifully on this Reddit post.
Tuesday 5 September
As far as I can tell, American ex-pat Jeffrey Babcock has been arranging and hosting Underground Cinema nights in a variety of different locations throughout Amsterdam for around 10 years now. I've been receiving his diligently compiled emails since December of last year, but for reasons that are best not verbalised, I'd never actually made it to any of his showings until tonight, when I went to the Filmhuis Cavia and saw an intriguing if slightly annoying short-but-could've-been-a-lot-shorter film about dead bodies in the Seine by Peter Greenaway, and John Cassavetes' first film, Shadows.
I enjoyed watching Shadows again after at least 30 years, but what I enjoyed more than anything was finally seeing Jeffrey Babcock in action. I'm not sure why, but having read his emails all year and having picked up on his painstaking passion for non-mainstream cinema, I expected some kind of bookish nerdling with a mild lisp and great difficulty making eye contact. I think I may have been aided in my assumptions by the fact that he's called Jeffrey Babcock. That's not a name that suggests any kind of vitality. But of course, and thankfully, I was massively mistaken.
Jeffrey gives a little talk before each film he shows and from his first crowd-quieting shout, he reveals himself as an excitable whirlwind of expansive enthusiasm. His love for cinema shines through his stories and tangents and you can tell that he could happily talk all night if there weren't pesky films to be shown.
I love people like Jeffrey, for the same reason I love the Taste Before You Waste crew — because they're not just in it for the money. In fact, there's a very telling quote from an interview Jeffrey did with Amsterdo a few years ago. Here...
"I saw here in Amsterdam so much culture that was disconnected from business, in terms of cinema and everyday life, and I wanted to keep that alive. I see myself refusing to be incorporated into the mainstream commercial business model. That’s why I created a series of cinemas throughout the city."
So there we have it.
If you're interested in attending Jeffrey's Underground Cinema, or would just like to know how to write a decent newsletter, send an email to cinema.acephale @ gmail.com and he'll fix you up.
Picture of Sir Hummus hummus borrowed from here.
Wednesday 6 September
Today I met a friend for lunch at a hummus-centric café in the Pijp called Sir Hummus and you know what? It was marvellous. Really gorgeous food and lovely, genuinely friendly staff who gave excellent service. Which is not to be sniffed at in this city. (See below.)
I had the large hummus bowl with roasted pine nuts and traditional Egyptian fava beans. And it was so thoroughly delicious that it's probably just as well it's on the other side of town, otherwise I'd eat there every couple of days, and very reasonably priced though it is, I could not afford to eat there every couple of days.
Thursday 7 September
Speaking of service, tonight I met a friend for a drink or two at Café Kalkhoven, one of Amsterdam's "brown cafés", or if you prefer, pubs.
Café Kalkhoven is a nice enough pub opposite the Westerkerk and the Anne Frank Huis, but the one truly remarkable thing about the place was the gobsmacking rudeness of the barman, who I presumed (perhaps incorrectly) was also the landlord. Not only did he make as little eye contact as he could reasonably get away with and refuse to speak to confirm that he was even aware of my existence, but also, when I asked if they sold bitterballen, for the friend I was with had never tried them, rather than reply, "I'm dreadfully sorry but we don't, no", he said, and curtly: "What does it say on the menu?"
My friend is quite new to Amsterdam and was somewhat appalled by the man's manners. I however felt the need to convince myself that there was actually something quite charming about it.
Service is often so extremely poor here in Amsterdam that it's very easy to feel that you are beneath the contempt of the people serving you. Sometimes they simply forget you're there — or maybe they know you're there and they deliberately choose not to serve you, or even see you. Sometimes, when they finally offer you their attention, they regard you with bitter, unsmiling coldness. If you expect a basic level of pleasantness, this can be infuriating and depending on your mood, quite upsetting.
Sometimes, however, when bad service strays into outright active rudeness, you start to think, hold on a minute — maybe it's a joke.
That's how I felt about this guy. He was so casual and almost breezy with his rudeness that I began to think he couldn't possibly despise me — a complete stranger keen to give him money — as much as he seemed to. Maybe it's a kind of test, a game he plays with newcomers to see if they have the wherewithal to rise above his discourtesy. So, despite not really understanding it either way, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Having said that, the cheese-covered tacos looked nasty and I almost certainly will never return.
"Compassion is the greatest virtue" is painted on a wall near a toilet inside MKZ. It is also true.
More Amsterdam stuff here.