Wednesday 30 August 2023

De Finishlijn


I was, in truth, getting tired of the Amsterdam Metro.  (Reader's voice: YOU'RE TIRED?)  Not tired of the stations, not tired of the city, but just tired of the relentlessness.  This was, don't forget, meant to be a leisurely three day quest, and instead it was crammed into two.  Add in the general stress of it all and my brain was getting a little fritzed.  On top of that, my feet ached.  I'd not worn my big sturdy walking boots because I wanted to get through airport security without any problems; the trouble is, now I was learning that Vans aren't really built for pounding the pavement, and they're certainly not very good when it comes to cobbles.

I uncurled myself from the seat on the train and stiffly walked towards the escalators at Amsterdam Bijlmer ArenA station.  (Yes, that final A is a capital as well, work with it).  At least it was an impressive station.  Comprehensively rebuilt in 2007, there's an intriguing mix of colours and textures that really impress.

There's something quite sci-fi about it, quite Star Wars-y; those shooting roof pieces feel like they could be the roof of an X-Wing hangar.  Deep voids lead down to the passenger concourse. 

All this space is, of course, to accommodate the thousands of people who pass through on their way to the complex of entertainment spaces just outside.  Amsterdam put in a bid for the 1992 Olympics, the ones that went to Barcelona, and the centrepiece was a brand new stadium here in Bijlmer.  Though that failed - Amsterdam went out in the first round, before Birmingham - the spot was still suitable for a new football ground for Ajax.

Even I've heard of Ajax.  They're one of those European teams you can name off the top of your head, like Spartak Moscow or Real Madrid or Borussia Mönchengladbach.  Ajax have won the European Cup/Champions League four times, and that is the beginning and end of the football chat here, because even looking at the Wikipedia page for them bored me senseless.  All I wanted to know was if they were any good and suddenly I'm being bombarded with tedious stats and factoids.  (Also, the last time I tried talking about football, Queen of Women's Soccer Carrie Dunn swept in and corrected all my points about Manchester City Women, so I'm not doing that again).  

The plaza outside the station is very Wembley; a series of alluring traps to get people to spend money on their way to and from an event.  The night before I visited, Coldplay had played; I believe they're a very popular beat combo.  I mean, I know who Coldplay are, I've just never heard one of their songs and had it permeate into my brain to the extent that I recognise it as a Coldplay song.  Actually, that's not quite true - there was an advert for BMW that played before No Time To Die and on about the sixth viewing of it I found myself pulling out my phone and Shazaming to find out who was doing the music.  It turned out it was Coldplay's Higher Power, but I wouldn't take that as a win for Chris Martin, because I also became enamoured with the music they used for the Matrix Resurrections and House of Gucci trailers; I'm in a very vulnerable state when there's a new Bond film about to play.  

The music venue next to the stadium had posters showing people who'd previously played there and - hang on, who's that next to Sting?

I felt strangely proud seeing Trixie & Katya there with the greats.  Those weird little Season 7 Drag Race queens - who didn't even win - were now featured artistes.  This must be what it feels like to buy a band's first album and then see them explode a few years later.  I know gay culture permeating mainstream Dutch society is hardly a revolutionary concept - even I was starting to get bored of the rainbow flags everywhere - but it was a nice reminder that not everywhere in the world has lost its mind over drag queens.  They're entertainers, Barbara, and they're not here to groom your kids.

I walked down a side road, past a restaurant called Burger Bitch because we can no longer have nice things.  A cafe had put out a board: "Why have abs when you can have Kurio's kebabs?" and here, have a link Kurio, because that sort of marketing must be supported.  There were also public urinals, cross shaped plastic depositories for those attending the events to use, because men are disgusting.

Round the front of the arena was a statue to the most famous Dutch player of all, Johan Cruijff, the man the stadium was named after.  There'd been calls to dedicate the stadium to him from the start, but the City of Amsterdam has - in my opinion, very sensible - rules against naming items after living people.  You can't risk the person turning out to be a later in life arsehole - imagine if there was a JK Rowling Bridge or a Right Said Fred Park or an Elon Musk Penitentiary (actually I would support that one).  After Cruijff died, however, the family gave permission for it to be renamed in his honour (and please note that I'm using the correct Dutch spelling of his surname, not the internationally used version of Cruyff).  

I have to be honest - the stadium's not a looker.  While the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium is a classic design, one that was highly influential throughout the world, the Johann Cruijff ArenA is a hulk, a big heavy lump.  A retractable roof means it has strong braces arcing over the top and much of its exterior was covered with commercial advertising.  It has none of the charm or elegance of, say, Anfield, though I will say the experience of arriving and departing and the immediate environs are infinitely better.  I'm looking forward to all those Eurogays who fell for Liverpool during Eurovision heading to the city again for Taylor Swift and then having to deal with the Sheil Road Circular and the somewhat "earthy" pubs outside.

It was while I was stood there among happy families who'd just paid twenty three Euros for a pair of socks in the club shop that I realised I'd not taken a picture in front of the station sign.  It's no exaggeration to say my stomach lurched in horror.  That's how tired I was - I was forgetting the essentials of my trip.  I'd been so keen to take a picture of the stadium when I left the station I'd completely forgotten about it.  I dashed back, walking twice as fast, a slight sense of panic inside being quashed by the reassurance that I would soon sort it.  Imagine I had got home to England, downloaded all the photos... and realised one sign was missing.  It would have been a tragedy.


Now I had to trek back the way I came, past those same smiling families, only a bit sweatier and more panic ridden than I was before.  On the way I passed the ArenA's other station, tucked round the back and simply called Halte Amsterdam ArenA.  This is a single platform, only accessible from the direction of Diemen Zuid, which exists purely to separate, shall we say, contentious fans from one another.  If there's a game between Ajax and one of its fiercer rivals, the other station can be brought into use, allowing the away fans into the stadium via a purpose built bridge that keeps them well apart from the home fans.  

I hate that we have effectively normalised this behaviour.  That we have, as a society, simply accepted that if you get a load of football fans together they might fight and attack one another, and what we should do is build physical barriers and architectural get outs to mitigate the damage.  I bet Trixie and Katya's fans didn't have to be corralled and guarded in case a tranche of manic Violet Chachki supporters came running over the hill, ready to pulverise them with sharpened stiletto heels.

A walk past more football pitches brought me to Strandvliet station, ArenA's little brother and a handier station to use if you don't want to go anywhere near the commercial quarter.  Much like Sandhills will soon be to the new Everton stadium, Strandvliet was a quiet station that got a massive tourist attraction dropped on its doorstep.  They hastily rebuilt it to accommodate the crowds, with a special entrance for match days - something I sadly don't think is going to happen at Sandhills.  No, that's not fair; apparently it's going to get a special Fan Queuing Area.  So that's alright then.

One thing I forgot to mention about the refurb of the Oostlijn stations was the coloured glass entrance.  Above the open front, a high window was put in with abstract glass colours.  It let more light into the ticket hall and also gave each station its own identity.  At Strandvliet there were rainbow colours, which extended to the windows over the escalator as you ascended to the track.

Duivendrecht came into existence because of its location.  There wasn't anything here until 1993; the trains went on to Van de Madeweg, which was known as Duivendrech Centraal because, well, it was in the middle of Duivendrecht.  However, the Ringspoorbaan - a rail line from Schiphol across the south of the city - was constructed in the early 90s, and at the point where it met the metro line, they built an interchange.

It very much feels like a station that was constructed because they thought they should, rather than there being a specific need for it.  It's big and airy and full of glass and steel, but it doesn't feel like a hub.  I got off the train with one other person, who went down and through the gates alongside me and waited outside to be picked up by a friend.  He looked at me a little askew, as though he was surprised to see anyone else there.

There's space for buses outside, and a park and ride, but both were unpopular with the public.  Eurolines operate coaches from here, but that's about it.  I walked outside and took my picture under the ostentatious sign.

The road out of the station complex is long and straight and really quite dull.  I think it says a lot about the amount of pedestrian usage it gets that a tree had fallen across the footpath and nobody had thought to move it.  It had been there long enough for most of its green leaves to turn brown.  The highlight was a heron, which stood on the path and watched me approach with a certain amount of arrogance.  It didn't seem inclined to move, as though I encroaching on his territory, and I was within a metre or two and wondering if it was possible or even wise to pet a heron when he lifted his wings and lazily flew off and into the trees.  

I was deposited on a huge junction with a massive depot for the postal service, but I turned right, past small units and car dealerships.  The grinding engines of the city.  I crossed another street, and then swore, quite loudly.

I'd been here before.  A few hours ago, in fact.  I'd thought I was simply in another industrial estate but no, there was that cash and carry again, and there were the pictures of food again, and then I was passing under the motorway with the lollipops painted on the supports and the big silver sewage machine was up ahead.  

I felt terribly disheartened.  I was tired and sweaty and grumbly, and now here I was on the same grimy strip of traffic blasted tarmac.  It was my own fault of course; if I'd turned left out of Van der Madeweg station this morning, I would've gone a far more interesting route.  I could've gone through a housing estate where all the streets were named after space - Lunaweg and Meteoor and Astronautenweg - and maybe gone to the Duivendrecht precinct on Telstarweg.  Then the metro junction and the pumping station would've been a nice surprise in the afternoon.  I'd planned badly.

I crossed the road, going between gaps in the traffic rather than pushing the button, because I was knackered and dejected.  The road shadowed the metro line, and I passed a group of enthusiastic looking young people in hi-vis jackets and helmets being marshalled by a man from the GVB; I wondered if they were engineering students, or apprentices with the transport network.  They were far too pretty to be fellow train nerds.

Two men stopped their conversation as I passed, leaning on their parked BMWs and watching me suspiciously, pausing in whatever illicit trade they were engaged in.  I feigned disinterest, while secretly wanting to know everything about what they were up to, and walked up to the station at the end of the road.

Overamstel was added to the network in the 90s, when the Amstelveen tram-train line came into existence, and now it's a handy spot to change between the green 50 and the orange 51.  We'd moved off the Oostlijn now, onto the newer line I'd mainly collected the day before, and so it didn't get the same refurb.  This meant, sadly, no tiled station name.  Instead I had to put up with a shiny one under the viaduct.

I promise you that says Overamstel up there.  I didn't know the sunshine was exactly on it when I took the photo.  Look, I've fiddled with the colours, and you can clearly see a stel.

Once again, if you want me to go back and get a proper photo of the sign, feel free to send cash to my Ko-fi.

This was it.  One more train journey and I'd have done it.  Every station on the Amsterdam Metro, collected, visited, photographed.  Two days and a lot of walking.  I was tired but exhilarated.  This was genuinely one of the best things I have done in my life (Reader's Voice: Jesus Christ) and I enjoyed every second of it.  In some ways, I didn't want it to end.  In others, I was glad it was over.

Towers and glass told me I was back in the business district of the city.  This was Amsterdam Rai, the station for the conference complex I'd been to a million years ago when I did the Nord-Zuidlijn.  The 52 passes right underneath Rai station but they didn't build an interchange, instead putting Europaplein station directly outside the convention centre and removing the lengthy walk passengers on the 50 and 51 needed to take.  

It was another rail/metro hub, though rather better used than Duivendrecht.  I followed the crowds down, thinking of how I'd shared a lift with two of the delegates for the dementia conference at the RAI in the hotel that morning, and they had studiously avoided making eye contact, even though they were both wearing lanyards showing they were going the same place.  I walked out into the road outside the station, raised my camera, and took my last Amsterdam station selfie.

Monday 28 August 2023

A Bitch That Needs To Be Tamed

The word, Gein, in Dutch, translates to English as "joke".

Amsterdam.  You shady bitch.

With the M53 now complete, it was time to head back out into the city's suburbs for the M50/M52 branch.  This was the final set of stations for me to collect to complete the entire Metro.

Gein, much like Gaasperplas, was on the edge of the city in every sense.  Once again I was out in a world of social housing and relative poverty, of immigrant stores and community centres.  The shopping street that extended from the station inland wasn't packed.  The main source of activity was the Jumbo supermarket, a chain I've always liked for its "does what it says on the tin" name - "yeah, we're a big supermarket, we're Jumbo, what's your problem?" Beyond it was a water feature with a small terrace lined with tables with chess sets inlaid in them.  The bird mess and general scratches decorating the black and white boards hinted that they maybe weren't used a lot.

From here, a footpath with a cycle route alongside took me through the estate to the next community along.  It was heavily shaded with trees and bushes, while the houses turned away from it, showing only their gable ends.  If this had been England I'd have been wary, waiting for muggers and rapists and murderers to leap out of the undergrowth.  Because I was abroad, everything had that glamorous patina of holiday, and I strolled along, thoroughly charmed, not thinking I could ever experience any kind of danger.  I sometimes worry that my sheer levels of stupidity are the only thing stopping me from being beaten to death, that psychopaths look at me and decide I'm actually too dumb to bother with.  I passed a bench where a large black man had a speaker system blasting out reggae music; next to him, on the same bench, a toothless man with a can of something in his hand (I'm guessing it wasn't sugar free Fanta) rolled around in a sitting dance.  The man with the speaker studiously ignored the person rocking out eight inches from his face; there may as well have been a forcefield between them.

Approaching the centre of Reigersbos, I was passed by a middle aged Asian couple.  He was bent over, a bag of groceries in his hand, while she wore a big floppy canvas hat and was carrying a gourd.  I'm not a biologist.  I know nothing of vegetables that you can't get from Sainsbury's Fruit & Veg aisle.  All I know is that this lady was carrying a foot long yellow fruit that could've been used as a weapon.

Reigersbos precinct was almost exactly the same as Gein.  Pink paving, a few shops, nothing you'd travel too far to visit.  1970s modernism with concrete and glass.  It did, however, have an architectural feature I found utterly thrilling.  There are some things that just appeal.  I like tilework.  I like steps.  I like symmetry.  I like pointless grandeur.  But one of my favourite things is transport going through the middle of a building.

It is, in many ways, dystopian, and I'm sure the people who live either side of the metro tunnels are furious several times an hour, but from down at street level it was unbelievably thrilling.  It was Gotham or Coruscant or Mega City One, and yes, I know none of those are exactly the ideal place to live, but it was still the future, and I loved it.  

Reigersbos station got a similar makeover to Ganzenhoef, except by that point the money was starting to run out.  The original 1970s building was demolished and replaced with a steel and glass version but there was none of the flourishes of Ganzenhoef, none of the charismatic moments.  It was a rebuild that felt more practical than artistic.

An interesting ("interesting") feature of Amsterdam's transport network is how late they were in building suburban railway stations.  I guess the idea was that Centraal was such an effective hub, with trams and buses radiating out from it, you didn't need silly little stops outside the city centre as well slowing things down.  It lead to strange situations like Holendrecht, where the metro station opened alongside the Amsterdam-Utrecht line in 1977, but they didn't build mainline platforms until 2008.  That's so weird to me.  Surely the more interchanges the better?

This might be a good time to broach the topic of the refurbishment.  You might have noticed, in the many, many sign selfies that I've taken, that the Oostlijn ones usually involve a red tiled frieze.  One like this:

These signs aren't original to the metro's construction.  In fact, they're newer than the Nord-Zuidlijn, having been installed between 2016 and 2019.  The Oostlijn's problems had continued beyond the riots that greeted its construction.  Drugs gripped the city throughout the 1980s, and the metro stations - dark spaces under viaducts with seats and lighting - became a prime spot for dealers and users alike to hang out.  A system of methadone buses introduced by the city's authorities to try and alleviate the problem made things worse, as they used the stations as convenient stopping points to treat addicts.  

Amsterdam was also being attacked by another problem: graffiti.  The original stations had been designed with ridged concrete walls which the architects proudly proclaimed would make it difficult to scribble on.  This was when the worst you could do was use chalk.  Unfortunately, spray paint suddenly became commonplace, and those ridged concrete walls became incredibly difficult to scrub clean.  The city eventually covered the walls up with drab panelling or a plasticised formulation to cut down on maintenance costs.  The lifts were enclosed metal boxes that people used as toilets, to the extent that some stations had cat litter scattered at the bottom of the shaft to absorb all the urine.  Add in a general increase in station clutter - ticket gates and cables and lights - and the Oostlijn was tired and run down.  One politician, Alderman Eric Wiebes, called it a "bitch that needs to be tamed", which is so brilliantly Dutch they should've immediately made him Prime Minister.

The architectural firm Group A was given the job of restoring the network and making it suitable for 21st century.  They stripped back the walls to reveal the concrete again; new treatments developed since the stations were built could be applied and meant they could resist graffiti without compromising their look.  Lifts were rebuilt in glass, open for everyone to see, so they no longer acted as urinals.  Windows were introduced as much as possible to create open spaces, while at the same time, leaving you with nowhere to hide, while lighting was introduced throughout to illuminate the dark spaces.  Each station was given an expanded ticket hall where the machines and services were integrated into the wall to stop vandalism.  And then there were those tiled signs, designed by RenĂ© Knip, finally giving each station the identity it deserves.

I had no idea about all this at the time.  All I saw was an attractive metro network, clean, tidy, with Brutalist touches that thrilled me and those lovely tiled names.  I found it all out afterwards via a wonderful book called Metro Oostlijn Amsterdam which I highly recommend buying if you've got any interest in station architecture or urban design or if you just like looking at pretty pictures.

Outside Holendrecht, they built a bus exchange, where I had my one and only negative encounter with a member of the Netherlandish public.  An agitated man, who I am pretty sure was recently at the hospital next to the station, approached and barked a lot of Dutch at me.  I could only stammer a reply of, "I'm sorry, I'm English", which is, let's be honest, something we should probably say whenever we talk to foreigners.  The man was unimpressed and marched off to find someone more able to help.

Across from the hospital was an office park and I vanished into it, following bland avenues between tall buildings.  It seemed that this was undergoing some regeneration of its own, with older blocks being demolished and replaced by shiny new ones.  What looked exciting and futuristic in 1981 was dated and tired.  If they hung on long enough it might become retro and fashionable again.

One thing that made me laugh was that, for some reason I couldn't quite understand, these new gleaming office blocks had all been named after friends of your mum.  I spotted Dorothy, Rosalyn and Barbara; presumably Phase 2 will include Elaine, Val and Lynne.  I followed the road round, with the noise of the motorway getting louder and louder, and on the horizon was the entrance to the Gasperdammertunnel.  If you cast your mind back you'll remember that I'd actually walked over the top of that tunnel earlier in the day; I was ridiculously pleased to see it again from a different angle.  

Under the motorway was less fun.  The Dutch are the tallest people on the planet, with the average for men being six feet, and yet they build their underpasses with seemingly the bare minimum of clearance.  I'm only five foot nine but I could reach up and touch the underside of the motorway bridge.  The men of the country must be permanently cracking their head on things.  Incidentally, what's this obsession among gay men with six foot?  Everyone thinks they're scraping that height, and they go all gooey the more over the bar you go.  I don't get it.  Personally I love a Short King; I like to be able to look over the top of your head.  When I first met the BF I thought he was shorter than me, and I remember the disappointment when I stood up and realised he was an inch taller.  

On the other side of the road I found myself at the back of a blue and yellow Ikea, because some things are constant no matter where you are in the world.  Again, the signage was in both Dutch and English, and once again I must ask of the Netherlands: who hurt you?  Why do you hate your native tongue so much?

Tucked in amongst the boring office blocks and hotels was a small garden, De Proefzaak, which accompanied a tin shed that housed a brewery.  It looked scrappy and defiant amongst the ordinary cubes, and I thought back to the community restaurant near Verrin Stuartweg station that was closing for redevelopment.  I wondered how long it would survive here before another business hotel bought the land and turfed them out.

Bullewijk station was simple to get to, a straight path leading to the escalator hall (which Metro Oostlijn Amsterdam has informed me are called "sphinxes", because of the way they poke up over the tracks).  Unfortunately, that day the building site next door had spilled over onto the path in a way that I don't think was 100% local authority approved.  Heras fencing had been erected to completely seal off the route.  The result was a lot of confused passengers trying to work out how to reach the station; in the end we picked through the weeds and grass around the canal, dropping down below the road level, while the workers watched us.  They didn't seem to be actually doing anything, of course.

That sign on the bridge apparently translates as I Stand For You.  No, me either.  An encouragement for polite behaviour when you spot a pregnant lady on a busy train?

I can't look at those lift shafts the same way since I learned about the cat litter.