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Amsterdam Adventure

A couple of months ago, I got a strange phone call from someone in the Netherlands. Apparently they had seen one of my websites, and were impressed enough that they wanted to fly me over for a job interview.

I agreed, and in January I spent a week in Amsterdam. It was… interesting.

My first impression of Amsterdam was that it’s cold! It was a transition from 35°C to -5°C. And it was overcast and rainy too. The heavy coat I got from the army surplus store immediately became my favorite garment.

Amsterdam is very vertical. My flat was on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator. In fact, I don’t recall any elevators, anywhere. My bedroom was basically a large bunk-bed. When I went to report myself to the Aliens Police (Live Long And Prosper!), the only thing they had in their entrance hall was a set of stairs. No ground floor.

The architecture did remind me strongly of Stellenbosch, which makes a strange kind of sense. There seems to be very little redevelopment in Amsterdam. Everything is converted from old buildings, which were largely around before Simon van der Stell was even born. The wooden stairs even had the same construction.

Their transport system was a revelation. A single ticket strip can be used to transverse the city by bus, tram or train. The trams are electric, and the power cables simply don’t get stolen. In fact, they haven’t had any power outages or glitches for the last 25-odd years. Their office servers are not even connected to UPSs.

Despite the extensive public transport system, many people get around by bicycle. All the bicycles are ancient black models (with no gears!), since any obviously new bike gets stolen. Even new bikes are made to look like old bikes. I have seen some interesting innovations, like wheelbarrow bikes, and I once saw a guy pulling along an unmanned cycle next to him.

Everybody was thin. All the stairs, the walking, the low temperatures, and the diet all seem to contribute to a higher metabolism and a healthier lifestyle. Through no special effort, I lost a kilo in the week I was there, and I never had so much energy. It must be my European heritage. My body seems adapted for those conditions.

The people are not only beautiful, but friendly as well. They did all assume that I could speak Dutch, but everybody I met was fluent in English as well. I did get the most terrible headaches from trying to watch English and American TV-shows. All of them were subtitled in Dutch, and I couldn’t stop myself from reading the subtitles. You try to watch an English show while being forced to read subtitles in a language that you understand about 75%, but with more complex grammar and a not quite foreign vocabulary.

There seemed to be no large billboards, no beggers, no violent crime, and no supermarkets. Yes, no supermarkets, at least not like we know them over here. I also saw only one bookshop that had any English books at all - the “American Bookshop”. Book prices were comparable to book prices here, but almost all other goods are at least twice as expensive.

Speaking of other goods, nothing had labels in English! I had to puzzle out whether I was buying cheese, soap, or head cheese (aka. braaaaains) using my broken Dutch, and even more broken German. Of course, there was usually an attractive young lass around to ask for help.

And no, I didn’t smoke dope at a “coffee” shop, and I didn’t visit the redlight district (although my host made us walk a long way through many twisty little streets until it was unavoidable that we had to take a “shortcut” through A redlight disctrict.)

Spectator sport seems to be an oxymoron there. Everybody that I met had at least one sport that they do, but not any that they watch. Even mind sports are revered. In Amsterdam alone, there are not less than five Go clubs, some of which meet more than once per week. I even spent one evening in a mind-sport cafe, where people were playing chess, bridge, Go and various other board and card games.

I did play against someone who used to be a 3-dan Go player, and he was gracious enough to let me lose by only 2 points before educating me on many interesting and subtle points of the game.

In the end, I did not accept the job offer. Amsterdam isn’t nearly as foreign as I thought it would be, but it just doesn’t feel like home.

They don’t even know what milk stout is.


  1. Phenie wrote:

    3-dan… did you play any handicap? what level are you? O_o

    I want to check the Netherlands sometime, I have one or two good friends there so I’m sure I’ll go over sometime in the next few years.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 01:25 | Permalink
  2. Gustav Bertram wrote:

    We played an even game. It has been 20 years since he played seriously, but he still knew far too much about the game for it to be that close.

    I am rated 13 kyu at the moment.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 10:12 | Permalink
  3. Ivan wrote:

    You were in Amsterdam and you didn’t smoke, snort, inhale or in any other way ingest chemicals to alter your perception of reality? The nerve of some people! ;-)

    I just love Amsterdam, and especially the entire Dutch culture of _thinking_ about everything. They are, as a nation, almost as rational as the Scandinavians, without all the steely blue German seriousness and angst. You should take it as a massive compliment and vote of confidence for someone to have invited you over there for a job interview.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 10:36 | Permalink
  4. Gustav Bertram wrote:

    I tried to be objective about the project and what I could bring to it.

    I just didn’t feel that I was the right person for the position. I didn’t want to take it just because I was flattered.

    Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 23:39 | Permalink

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