Saturday 12 August 2023

The Interesting Englishman

This is all taking a very long time, isn't it?  One day of walking around Amsterdam has so far generated six blog posts (and this one makes it seven).  If you are here for the delights of Acocks Green and Erdington you must be drumming your fingertips in frustration.  Yes, this modern metro in a foreign city is all very well, but when are you going to Penkridge?  I'm sorry.  I've got so much bubbling out of me about the trip, so many pictures and "fascinating" facts, that each blog post is taking much longer than I thought to write up.  And when I have written it, I have to take a day to lie down in a darkened room to recover.  

Those of you who aren't at all interested in the Amsterdam Metro should probably look away now, because I'm about to do something that will enrage you even further.

The map of the metro is clear and to the point.  Five coloured lines, some nice interchange blobs, a bit of green and water.  All of the stations are represented, plus a few mainlines to show interchanges.  But hang on: what's this on the right hand side?

The east (or rather, Oost) side of the city doesn't have any metros, but people still live there.  They have, rather kindly, added the three Nederlandse Spoorwegen stations that are in this area to show that they're still accessible by steel wheels.  Obviously any normal person would ignore these stations, because they're not metro stations, so they don't count.






Well, if I had the capacity.  If there was nothing else going on.  I mean, I was in Centraal Station anyway, wasn't I?  It would be wrong to not take a train while I was there.

Where the lines out of Centraal split, you'll find Muiderpoort station.  (My Anglo bias means I constantly read this as Murderport, which is definitely one of those depressing Scandinavian dramas they show on BBC Four).  

Muiderpoort station has been here since the 19th century, but it was rebuilt in 1939 to the modern style.  The result is a building that looks like it could easily slot in somewhere on the Piccadilly Line.  

Brick building?  Tall glass-windowed ticket hall?  Strange chimney off to one side?  All features that are common on the Tube extensions built in the thirties.  Muiderpoort, however, isn't quite so well loved; go inside the building and the ticket hall is one window, some barriers, and an awful lot of cycle racks - there's no real wow moment.  

If the East-West Metro is ever built, Muiderpoort will get an underground station, and it feels as though nobody wants to spend any money on it in case it needs a rebuild in the future.  No point spending cash restoring it to its former glory if you then have to dig an escalator well in the middle of the room.  

I negotiated the gyratory outside - in the UK, a process of avoiding taxis and cars dropping people off; in the Netherlands, it's dodging cyclists - and disappeared into a net of tight row houses with flowery balconies.  I was soon in a pedestrianised shopping centre, which was filled with some kind of party gathering.  I'm not sure what had happened, or why, but it was the very definition of Black Joy; happy Black people spilling out into the streets, laughing, smiling, dancing.  They seemed to be having a whale of a time.  Of course I, being an uptight British person, immediately skulked into the gutters so I wouldn't inadvertently get caught up in their ecstasies.  I'll have none of that thank you very much.

Outside the district offices, the shopping area widened into a plaza, with a bridge carrying me across the canal onto the Watergrafsmeer, a polder reclaimed in the 17th century but which is now another residential area of the city.  I say "another residential area of the city"; what I actually mean is "place where I absolutely lost my heart and soul and would dearly love to reside".

The Linnaeusparkweg was a long straight road with parking for cars and bicycles running along the centre.  Trees shaded me as I walked past elegant town houses and apartment blocks, every one of them a little different, but at the same time, similar enough to form a style.  The road broke after a while for a diamond-shaped public space, with roads at each point and a fountain bubbling away.

Around the edge were small bars, restaurants, shops.  I looked enviously at one across from me, the benches outside filled with relaxed Dutch people, a man sat in the window reading a book.  I wanted to have a quiet beer in there, a pause, a moment, but I felt too grungy and out of place.  I was a sweaty tourist - I didn't want to destroy their vibe.

I wanted to live here.  I wanted to be part of this neighbourhood.  I wanted to wake up in the morning and fetch a pastry and a coffee from my neighbourhood bar.  I wanted to sit in the bay window of my first floor apartment and write my novel (what's the novel about?  I have no idea).  There would be a delightful old lady on the ground floor who'd chat to me in the hallway and take in my parcels.  I'd go for walks around the district, sometimes into town, but mostly strolling by the canal or to the local parks.  I'd learn Dutch.  I'd be content.  I would be the Interesting Englishman, enigmatic, known to the locals but politely left alone to enjoy my time.

The warm afternoon meant that the streets were being used by kids for play.  A boy and a girl, both under ten, played swingball on the pavement outside their home, the front door left open so that their dad could hear them.  He appeared as I passed and swapped a few smiling words with them.  Meanwhile two teenage boys called to one another as they cycled by, conspiring, planning.  I was surprised to see that their bikes were rickety boneshakers.  Black metal, no gears, no style.  If I'd ridden a bike like that at their age I'd have been resoundingly laughed at - which I suppose is part of the problem.

People cycle in Amsterdam because it's flat and the city has been built to accommodate them, but as I walked around, it became clear that there was a major societal factor at play here too.  It was a democratic, equalising form of transportation.  It was for everyone.  In the UK, we've somehow taken one of the simplest, cheapest forms of transport and grafted a load of snobberies on it.  The middle class obsession with cars - what year is it?  What model is it?  Is it a limited edition? - has been carried over to bicycles.  There is a strand of cyclists who want you to know that they are cycling, that they cycle, and that they do it on a Panda 345 with 28 gears.  They have all the helmets and kit and probably a GoPro strapped to their forehead.  They are feverish about cycling and pillory anyone who isn't doing it - though they save most of their opprobrium for the people who aren't doing cycling right, who are wearing the wrong kit, or cycling inappropriately, or are young, or are going too fast or too slow.  They are, in short, Jeremy Vine.

Amsterdam's residents couldn't give a shit about any of that.  A bicycle is for getting around and picking up your groceries.  You let your kids out on their bikes without being afraid that the locals are going to call them chav scum; you let your husband or wife nip to the shop on one without worrying they're going to get hit by an irate taxi driver.  People cycle but aren't cyclists; it's not part of their personality.  I looked at the two lads on their bikes; they weren't worried it was going to be stolen by bigger lads because it cost five hundred quid.  They were simply enjoying their afternoon.

This is all an appalling generalisation.  One of the reasons cyclists in the UK are so defensive is because they don't have the level of infrastructure the Dutch do; if they had segregated cycle lanes on most main roads - which I would absolutely support; one thing I've noticed since I returned to Britain is how much wasted space there is on UK roads which could happily be carved off to form a cycle lane with a kerb that nobody could park in or drive through "accidentally" - and if the government wasn't loudly shouting about being "on the side of motorists" at their expense, then maybe they'd be a bit more chilled.

I guess it also helps that the Dutch have access to marijuana.

I popped into an Albert Heijn for a drink and something for my dinner later.  I'd hoped for a pasty or a sausage roll, something meaty wrapped in pastry, but I didn't have any luck, and my fantasy of moving here and becoming The Interesting Englishman of the borough took a knock.  I'm not sure I could survive without access to reasonably priced savoury goods.  Greggs needs to open in the Netherlands before I move there.  I settled on a couple of bottles of Coke Zero - my drug of choice - though there was a moment of confusion when I tried to leave.  You had to scan a barcode on your receipt to leave the checkout area, which I only realised after pushing on an unyielding gate.  I loudly said "oh dear" in my best Englishman abroad voice, that Hugh Grant tone I take on when I'm overseas, so that anyone watching would see I was a befuddled outsider who didn't understand the system, rather than a very stupid person.

The Kruislaan was a larger main road, lined with apartment blocks rather than houses, but still with plenty of greenery and cycle lanes.  Off to the side I saw rows of more blocks overlooking small cul-de-sacs of parking.  On one downstairs balcony was a woman repotting her plants beneath a hammock; I got an idea of how large the flats were when a child emerged three doors down and called out "mummy".  It was a proper family sized home not a poky little hole.  My Interesting Englishman Dream took another knock when I saw Trump 2024 spray painted on a paving slab, though I quickly convinced myself this was ironic.

I was heading for Science Park, one of the newer stations in Amsterdam, having opened in 2009 to serve - you guessed it - a large science park that formed part of the University.  It also houses research companies and those "tech incubator" facilities that have sprung up anywhere where an awful lot of very smart young people hang out.  

I'm going to be brutally honest here: Science Park is a terrible name for a railway station.  It's so prosaic and dull.  It's an advert rather than a geographic descriptor.  I hate Wavertree Technology Park, on the City Line in Liverpool, for much the same reason.  I think of all those people who've lived round there for years, not getting any access to the railway, and only getting a station once there's a redevelopment over the way that has nothing to do with them - and then having it named after that same development.  It's rude.

I rolled up to the station, took my sign selfie, and was about to go up to the platform when I noticed the departure board.

My train was cancelled.  And so was the one after that.  And the two after that one.  A damaged overhead wire had put the line out of action for the rest of the afternoon.  I had walked all this way and I wasn't going to be able to take the train.

My plan had been to get the train from Science Park to Diemen, therefore collecting the three stations on the east.  That wasn't going to happen.  There wasn't much point in walking to Diemen, either; it was a half hour's stroll, and the trains still wouldn't be fixed by the time I got there.  I had nowhere to go.

Here's the selfie pic anyway.  It doesn't count because I didn't get a train.

A little dejected, I walked back down the Kruislaan to where it met the Middenweg.  The one positive of this transport upset was I'd now have an excuse to ride a tram.  Missing out on the Saturday in Amsterdam meant I'd also had to rule out any non-metro related exploration, so I'd not got a chance yet.  Now I was able to board a tram and ride into town.  Obviously, it was ace.

I never went back to collect Science Park and Diemen.  They remain two uncollected stations on the Amsterdam metro map.  I will remind you of what I said right at the start of this blog post, about four hundred years ago; they don't count anyway.  They're bonuses.  They're not important.

I'll have to go back sometime.

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