I moved this past weekend, into my third apartment in Amsterdam in 15 months. In my last post I mentioned I was moving into a place in the Oud West, but that ended up not working out (long story) for me, though fortunately some friends of mine ended up taking the apartment. It was such a great place, I'm glad that I can visit!
My new home is in de Pijp, and after just 2 nights, I am so incredibly happy there. It's a ground floor apartment with a large backyard - one of those perfectly charming pijp homes with huge windows in the front and back and very high ceilings. Feeling like I'm living in the right neighborhood is everything to me, and after about 2 hours, I was absolutely sure I was living in the best spot in Amsterdam. It's the same feeling I had about living in Montmartre in Paris - there was no question in my mind that I could live anywhere else in that city. When the rest of Paris was annoying me (for instance, if I had to go shopping on a Saturday in the Marais, or go to work by the Eiffel Tower or in the horrible 16th district), I could always safely retreat back to my neighborhood and feel good and relaxed. The last three weeks that I lived in Paris, I was staying in the Marais, and I really didn't like it. For as much as I like being in that neighborhood (the history, the beauty, the fact that it was very central) and would often find myself there to hang out with friends, I didn't like actually living there.
Anyway, I'm getting the same feeling about different areas of Amsterdam. For instance, the Jordaan is a phenomenal neighborhood, and it's where I work. I recently spent about 10 days living in the Jordaan when I was dog-sitting for a colleague, and after the initial "it's great to be close enough to work to walk!" phase wore off, I was ready to leave. The problem is, anywhere in the Jordaan is going to be close to my office. If I lived in there permanently, I would constantly cycle past my office building, and my entire life would end up taking place in one small area of the city. Fortunately, it's a great area, which is why I love working there so much. It's also why I love that some of my friends live there, it's why I love going out for food or drinks or movies there. But I need some separation from my home life and my work life.
My main complaint about my now-former neighborhood (I lived at the Weesperplein from 1 July 2008 - two days ago) is that it just simply wasn't a neighborhood. It wasn't east enough to be east. It wasn't center enough to really be in the center. There weren't a lot of cool little bars, cafes, or shops within a 5-minute walk of my place (except for the Kriterion, which was great). I never got to know any of my neighbors. Now, before someone jumps in and says "oh it's impossible to get to know your neighbors in the Netherlands, everyone keeps to themselves and the Dutch don't let anyone it and everyone is so private," let me say - that's just simply not true. If that is something you're (you = the foreigner/expat) experiencing, than it's up to you to change something about the way you're approaching the situation. In my first neighborhood (the Oud Zuid, just south of Vondelpark), I lived there for 2 months. After a few weeks, I was regularly having friendly exchanges with all sorts of people in the neighborhood - Dutch and non-Dutch.
It's not to say that living among the Dutch doesn't take some getting used to. The idea that they want to live in apartment buildings that are very close together and that they'll keep their curtains open all the time, or even just leave their front doors wide open - it makes you think that they're happy to have neighbors and live communally. But should you dare make a noise after 11pm, or have friends over for dinner that starts at 10pm, you're breaking the rules and will receive complaints about the noise. Then you (you = the foreigner, or in this case, me) look around and point out that hey, we all live in apartments with giant windows that we want to keep open at night, of course, and these apartments aren't made to be soundproofed. But that's just part of city life, especially city life in an old European city, so ... get used to it, right? I mean, if you value peace and quiet so much, move to the country. Hearing my neighbors walk around has been part of every single apartment I ever lived in. Sometimes hearing parties, music, whatever. It just comes with the territory. The Dutch seem to think they can have it both ways. I disagree.
But this doesn't mean that the Dutch are unfriendly, and it doesn't mean that it's impossible to get to know your neighbors, and it doesn't mean that it's hard to find a place to fit in. I did have to change my lifestyle to suit my surroundings, but in a respectful way, I also required that my neighbors adjust to me. Eating dinner at 10pm with a group of friends who laugh and talk for hours isn't wrong, it's just not typically Dutch. We did eventually find a middle ground.
Getting back the the topic of neighborhoods: I just simply wasn't attached to the neighborhood around the Weesperplein whatsoever. It was an amazing apartment - spacious, a beautiful balcony, conveniently located next to 2 tram lines and the metro - but I grew tired of living in an area that just didn't suit my personality.
Now that I'm in de pijp, I feel 100% at home. Within the first few hours I had met several of the neighbors - some came over purposefully to introduce themselves. Strangers I never met before helped us out. I helped out a guy I had never met jump over the fence in my backyard because he locked himself out. There are tons of cafes, shops, bars, and restaurants all around me. On a Sunday evening I was able to buy fresh bread! (if you live in Amsterdam you understand how rare that is) There's tons of diversity, lots of different languages being spoken at all times. But most of all, there's the food.
If you ask just about any expat what their complaints are about the Netherlands, I'm willing to bet that most will say "the weather and the food." For me it's "the food." Period. The weather I can handle. However, I hate Albert Heijn. This is rough, because Albert Heijn - the big chain of supermarkets - is everywhere, and I really, really hate it. So I went out of my way to buy fruits and vegetables from the organic shops, I tried to make an effort to get to the markets on the weekend and to buy bread from the bakeries when they're are open during the day, etc. But now - now! I live just down the road from the giant Albert Cyup market, which is open 6 days a week. The wikipedia page says the market is the busiest in all of the Netherlands and according to rumour, it is the largest daytime market in Europe... the famous Dutch Stroopwafel can be found here, made fresh right before you. I live down the street from a little night shop that sells wonderful, fresh bread, 7 days a week, even late at night. Basically, I live in a neighborhood with a lot of foreign influence, a lot of Indian, Turkish, North African, and Surnamise people - and this has made the quality of the food improve about ten million percent. All of a sudden, everything is easier. I'm sure I'll go to the supermarket for the basic items, but now a majority of my grocery shopping can take place at the markets and at the small shops that sell their vegetables from bins on the sidewalk, and it's all right outside my door.
So if you're looking for a great neighborhood to reside in Amsterdam, I highly recommend de pijp. The only downside of my new place is that it's temporary - 3 or 4 months max (the owners will most likely sell it after that time). When I have to move out of this place, I'm going to try as hard as possible to not move out of the neighborhood. My new commute to work takes me through the museumplein, how could I give that up?
I plan to spend the next 2 weeks in a state of domestic bliss, and then head off on holiday (finally!). Holiday plans step one: 6-day sailing trip around the Croatian Islands to southern Italy. I can hardly wait... but in the meantime, I'll get to know my new neighborhood in Amsterdam. Oh, and as always, I moved with the help of friends and the White Van Man, who provided excellent service.