Amsterdam: I’ve Been To Bali, Too

AMSTERDAM. Been here a year. Was concerned I’d find it boring after years absorbed by manic Asia, the last years in Indonesia, which used to be Dutch. But, neo-colonially, we’re now ensconced in the Netherlands, in an agreeably restored 18th century canal-house that once traded silks, pelts and spices shipped from, well, the East Indies. Plus ça change et cetera, or however that saying is in Dutch.

With its curio shops, cosy brown cafes and UNESCO-listed waterways spanned by antique bridges, de Grachtengordel, Amsterdam’s canal zone, is enchanting. As temperatures plummet and canals snow over, my wife and I feel like we’re characters in a yuletide pastiche inspired by Bruegel.

And so convenient. In fetid Jakarta, shopping would take literally all day, hours wasted in smoggy gridlock. Now some of Europe’s most divine stores are just minutes away. I like how a store on nearby Haarlemmerdijk is a calendar for the seasons. In summer, it sells gelati of a sublimity that would delight the Medicis. But I know its time to change the clocks when it starts ladelling stamppot, a stodgy potato-based comfort food, around mid-October.

In Jakarta, we paid $150 a month for the world’s slowest ‘broadband’ service which rarely worked anyway. Here — and nota bene, NBN — it is 100mbps 24/7, the network is privately funded, and it costs a competitive €50 a month, with phone and TV, too. No wonder Dutch geeks are world leaders at internet piracy.

What’s not to like?

THAT would be racism, which underpins the national debate here. This is the country in Europe closest to electing as leader a man many regard as a racist, Geert Wilders, the divisive “Golden Pompadour” as the US embassy here described him in a candid missive published by WikiLeaks.

I’m tipping he’ll make it to the Prime Ministerial residence, Catshuis, in The Hague, if he isn’t assassinated first. Wilders is the canniest pol in a land where politicians are dull and dulled. He calls his vehicle the Party of Freedom, as if he’s some messiah liberating one of the world’s most democratic polities from chains. He commands 24 seats, the 150-seat parliament’s third largest bloc, carved from 16 per cent of the 2010 vote. In that election, the 48-year-old part-Indonesian Wilders stoked populist embers among those Dutch fearing real or imagined Islamist blowback from years allowing Turks, Pakistanis and Moroccans into the Netherlands for jobs deemed beneath the average Nederlander.

The articulate Wilders is Pauline Hanson with brains, a savvy kingmaker who anointed the decidedly beige PM Mark Rutte’s centre-right coalition. It would be too neat to say Wilders only appeals to a whitebread Netherlands of be-clogged cheesemakers and jolly milkmaids. There are plenty of Amsterdam sophisticates who like him too, and increasingly they admit it.

Wilders plays his rivals off a break. He’s not formally part of Rutte’s government and so can snipe at the coalition he installed while manipulating policy. And when something’s done well, he takes credit.

His timing is canny — Wilders condemned the Islamophobic mass murderer Anders Breivik when the Norwegian nutter cited him as an inspiration but has been quick to ask the Dutch, an essential Euroland economy, if returning to the nostalgic, insular cosiness of the guilder would soothe their Euro-pain.

WILDERSISM surfaces unexpectedly. Starved of deli items in Indonesia, I’ve found abundant Amsters a revelation and became partial to the Mediterranean mezzes at the Albert Kuyp market. One providore seemed pleasant; a 40-something blonde, groovily groomed, two perfect kids. I bet hubby is a banker/lawyer/doctor and they press their own olive oil summering splendidly at their just-so Provencal stone mas.

I was there recently, second in line behind a well-dressed man whom a tabloid would describe as being “of Middle-Eastern appearance.” He apologised to her for not speaking Dutch and ordered, in English, some olives. She looked straight past him and solicited my order instead. I gestured that he was first but she insisted she serve me. Puzzled, I did precisely what the Arab man did, apologised and ordered olives in English. The Arab guy tsk-ed, gently protested and walked off in helpless disgust.

The proprietress barely seemed to notice. I asked her why she served me ahead of the Arab chap. Neither of us was Dutch nor spoke it, but we were both polite in not doing so. “Yes,” she said, “but you are normal.” With that, she lost a second customer.

MY BUTCHER, Sami, feels threatened by Wilders. And I’ll bet the feeling would be mutual. A fluent Dutch speaker, Sami is from Cairo, and in 2005 he bought a small slagerij in the pleased-with-itself Amsterdam neighbourhood of Jordaan. The butchery has been known for centuries as Int Vette Varken.

It was a good business deal, however Sami had a problem. It doesn’t do a practising Muslim to own a shop called The Fat Pig. But common to many Jordaan shops, the name was embedded above the door in a heritage plaque that depicted said fat pig. And such legacy is state-protected.

What to do? In what seemed an artful marriage of religious pragmatism and Mammon, Sami re-named his new butchery Vette Kalfje, the Fat Calf, secularly suggesting — if Amsterdammers could be bothered — the Bible’s festive parable of the prodigal son. He kept the porcine plaque as the law compelled, and festooned the window of his re-named with a graphic of a cheerful, Dutch-looking cow.

Bad idea. This name-changing was interpreted as precisely what Wilders was on about, the game-changing of Dutch culture. Customers voted with their feet. I discovered Sami only because one day there was a long queue spilling out to the straat from Loumans, a three-generations-Dutch butcher just 20 metres away, while Sami was customer-less.

They are both excellent butchers, and Sami is about as much of a threat to Dutch wellbeing as I am — and less, I venture, than a rampant Wilders. In a culture that’s notoriously penny-pinching, Loumans’s meats are a third more expensive. But it bustles with blousy matrons, and this in an economic crisis. At Sami’s Vette Kalfje you can buy much the same cuts (except, er, fatted pigs and their derivatives), get served immediately and debate Middle East politics, too. And Loumans doesn’t sell kofta.

AMSTERDAMMERS insist they are tolerant, welcoming to all comers. And it’s true, the city is a multicultural kaleidoscope; I’ve become firm friends with a Pakistani phone guy, a Kandahari launderer and his Tibetan wife, a feisty Iranian deli owner and Palestinian brothers who sell sensational baklava. Every third person seems to be gay — a big support base for Wilders; Islam does not look kindly on homosexuality, so homosexuals tend to feel more favourably toward the anti-Islamic Wilders. And there’s a coffee shop on nearly every corner. I can see, and smell, two from our apartment.

But the longer I’m here, the more I think all this famous liberalism is more accidental and, if the truth be told, pragmatically commercial than considered. Amsterdam has ghettoes, and very grim ones. Take Bijlmeer, with its disenfranchised blacks and Surinamese, whom the good burghers of Jordaan choose not to think about much, and when they do, it can be with contempt. Wilders’s disciples say that places such as Bijlmeer are evidence that many immigrants won’t assimilate and furthermore that they are sick of subsidising them from some of Europe’s highest taxes. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

SKIPPING — sometimes literally, near Centraal Station — over the Dutch clichés of dope, porn and prostitution, I’m often asked by Nederlanders if I like it here. I say it reminds me of Bali. This tends to be a conversation-stopper.

The comparison is not immediately evident. It’s four degrees outside here now while equatorial Bali maintains a steamy 32. The Netherlands is a hyper-developed conurbation; save its tourism scars, Bali is rural. Bali is often corrupt and convoluted, the Dutch are clean, candid, even curt.

But here’s my banter-arresting take. The average Balinese spends an hour a day on ethnocentric activities: dressing a temple with poleng, the ubiquitous black-and-white checkered cloth that symbolises Bali’s yin-yang dualism balancing life; thatching penjor, ceremonial bamboo poles; lighting incense and speaking Balinese instead of the official Bahasa Indonesia. Within a few minutes of meaningful engagement with a Balinese, they tend to let you know they are Balinese.

So, too, the Dutch. I’ve now taken to tallying such encounters to advance my theory. Of the 10 Nederlanders I’ve initiated chat with this week, seven quickly reminded me they are Dutch. Some other places I’ve noticed this are in Sri Lanka among the Sinhalese, and in Singapore. A friend told me Israelis also do it — some defensive kind of cultural re-affirmation, as he put it.

Which seems to prove the non-scientific theory I call Small Culture Syndrome. It tends to afflict places that are cultural and linguistic islands surrounded by intimidating — or as many see it, threatening — majorities. With Balinese, it’s the Javanese Muslims who run the Indonesian empire. In Bali, orang dari Jawa, man from Java, is the catch-all explanation why bad things happen. The Buddhist-Sinhalese, though a majority on their island, feel like a minority in their mostly Hindu-Dravidian corner of South Asia. In Chinese-Malay-Tamil Singapore, all three ethnicities have something to feel spooked about. With Israelis, it would be the Arabs and Islam.

Here Small Culture Syndrome has 16 million Dutch surrounded by 75 million Francophones, the mighty Anglosphere, and 85 million Germans about to realise a destiny of dictating Europe. And there are fast-breeding home-grown Muslims. Not to mention China, too, wanting to buy everything.

That’s a lot to fret about if you’re Dutch — small, rich, smug but just a little bit anxious at the centre of the European drama.