Did you ever meet a normal person? And did you like it?
Amsterdam – Part 1 of 3
Did you ever meet a normal person? And did you like it?
Amsterdam, 1979. Its almost a sunny day. Life in Amsterdam happens mostly outside. On the Zeedijk, a lady of ill repute whistles at two police officers walking by. It is hard to guess her exact age, but by the looks of her skin and her expression she would have to be at least sixty something. She could be younger, but there’s something about her that would tell you that life happened to her. She is dressed as a woman of her profession would be. With a sigaret in her mouth, she hisses something to the two gentlemen, probably because they did not politely greet her as would on all the other days. This seemed to have worked, because the police officers charmingly turn around and whistle back – to her satisfaction. Perhaps, in another time, the police officers would have reacted offended, but not today.
On the Wallen life is easy going and hard at the same time. Prostitutes are working the streets. In all honestly, working the streets has something more empowering than sitting behind glass under a red light, I feel. The streets are filled with the locals and everyone is loud. An especially excentrical looking gay couple dressed from top to bottom in black leather, walks by while holding hands and stops for a moment to French-kiss each other on the bridge of the Oude Zijdskolk. A group of children chases each other down the street playing tag, and they look dirty but happy. Actually, a lot of children play outside.
Somehow, life doesn’t feel overwhelming here, although it is chaotic. Squatters, hippies, punters, neighbours, everyone in the neighbourhood feels at home. Like its their city, their Amsterdam.
Stepping into the night is to be avoided by some, while others live for it. Everyone is beautiful, even those who do not look pretty, because of their expression and authenticity. In the evenings, men and women alike dress up, as if they have to seduce the darkness the night brings. All dressed up in whatever – glitter, feathers, wigs, heels, leather, or in nothing at all – men and women and everyone in between, get their own stage.
I’ve never really known that stage. Only from the stories my mother would carefully choose to share with me I guess. She would tell me how she used to go dancing in the gay disco, COC and later in the RoXY. My mother and her friend and film-director, Theo van Gogh, both lived on the Brouwersgracht in his studio. Next door was a dentist practice. The dentist, had drilled a tiny hole in his own head because he had heard that he would be perpetually high by doing this. Theo’s girlfriend, Julia, called herself ‘living art’. She did not wear regular clothing but would wrap herself in white linnen sheets like a Greek Goddess. She would always paint her face white and her lips red. “Julia can smell my infidelity from a mile away” Theo would always jokingly say. Although we knew he meant it.
I believe her when she tells me that since the days she calls her younger years, times have changed. Has tolerance turned into narrow-mindedness in the city that was once famous for specifically its tolerance? Have we become boring and small minded? Could I as a young woman today think and do and live as my mother did? And could the men in my life think and do and live today as my mother’s friend, Theo van Gogh did?
I was born in the Jordaan, a neighbourhood right at the heart of Amsterdam, as daughter of a feminist, hippie, left elite, actrice/ womens-psychologist/ activiste. It’s fair to say my bringing up was anything but boring and normal so the Dutch saying ‘better act normal, cause thats crazy enough’ I never quite understood. When did ‘act normal’ actually become a saying in the Dutch language and even more, in our culture? Did Amsterdam not use to be more liberal, more giving, or is that a total illusion someone like me who only knows Amsterdam from the stories has, as everything from the past can be romanticised. Has Amsterdam shifted from a warm and tolerant city to a boring and cold place? What happened to the city that used to be known for being the gay capitol of the world, the city where hookers were not oppressed, the city where almost everything was permitted as long as you would not bother anybody. The city where a man could walk down the street in a dress and no one would look up or judge. Is Amsterdam not that city anymore?
Somewhere between my birth and now, Amsterdam has shifted from paradise city to a city where being normal is to be the standard. This shift occured in my generation, although somehow it passed me by before. How come we all wanted to fit in so badly that we’ve lost our unique identity and all long to be alike? What happened to the slogans that used to cover the squatted buildings in the Spuistraat that would tell us that we should be anarchists? That we should make love, not war. That today is the first day of the rest of our lives. That fighting for peace is the same as fucking for virginity.
Hysterical. “over-excited and suffering from hysteria”. A definition that used to describe women in the last century and nowadays slang we throw around when we describe someone out of character, not normal. That could be a woman, or a homosexual, or someone excentric, or perhaps a man wearing a dress. Without having lived in the amazing seventies and eighties in Amsterdam, I can fairly say that being excentric or hysterical was perfectly normal back then. “Why do we all have to be so God damn boring” Theo would have said, would he have lived today. Really, I wonder, how did narrow mindedness overtake tolerance in Amsterdam?
At the end of the eighies and throughout the nineties, the city counsel took drastic measures to ‘clean up the city’ and restore a local economy. Amsterdam would get a financial centre and more and more expats would move to the city. Sub-cultures like the squatters and the extravagant nightlife scene would disappear and the city would become a hub for yups.
My mother tells me stories about the riots on the Nieuwmarkt that would mean the end of an era. The locals would fight for their beliefs and to keep their city as they knew it and loved it. During the day, young and old people would demonstrate and fight ,and in the evenings everyone would phone each other to decide on a plan for the next day. The city could and would not be left in the hands of the city counsel that wanted to change Amsterdam for the worse. “I remember that all of a sudden I had a rock in my hand, ready to throw with” my mother tells me. My mother would also make sandwiches for everyone who was ready to stand for what they believed in. Because whatever sub-culture you were from in Amsterdam, everyone shared the same belief that the city was beautiful for its authenticity.
Have we really let go of the freedom and warm character that Amsterdam used to exude? Did we get a less special but better city in return? I can’t help but long for the stories of way back then and learn all about the freedom and openess of the generation of my mother when she grew up in Amsterdam. Maybe most of all, I long for the ideals that generation had, more than mine does. My generation, adequatly called the me-generation, defined and characterised by selfishness and materialism. I hope that maybe we can be taught how to be more openminded and warm and loving again, by looking at the generation of my mother, of Theo van Gogh, the lovers of the good old days.