Amsterdam Update, September 2015

David Small

Things I Googled while writing this month's update: privilege, white guilt, migrant crisis, nespresso, juxtaposition. Brace yourself.

In reference to Martha's last update, I'd like the record to show I didn't actually write that I deserve privilege. Rereading my entry, however, I see how it could easily be inferred. In an email, I told her I was struggling to write this month. I wanted to respond to her views on privilege, race and money, but part of me wanted to ignore it entirely and write about bicycles and food and pretty things. Partly because I simply haven't had the mental energy to tackle such a complex issue, and partly because I've always struggled with the concept of privilege. I'm not sure where I stand. I know I've worked very hard for what I have, yet as a white American male it'd be obtuse to say I haven't benefited from privilege. I don't deserve it. It's just there.

I don't know how much coverage the migrant crisis is getting in American media, but it's constantly on the news here. Footage of people pushing through police lines and onto trains and buses not terribly far from here, desperate for a better life. More than 500,000 migrants have come to Europe since January. Most come from northern Africa and the Middle East, leaving everything behind to escape war, to seek asylum, to save their lives. I can't imagine what that's like. I'm an American. We watch our wars on television.


I've been thinking about this a lot lately, having just moved to Europe with the unfamiliar comforts of a corporate relocation package. Earlier this month my employer moved me to another short-stay apartment in Amsterdam, this one in Oud Zuid, a wealthy neighborhood near the park. It was an amazing corner unit on the second floor above a café. French doors in the living room opened to one of those little European balconies, the kind that make you want to smoke cigarettes and drink espresso from a tiny cup. It also had a bidet. Without corporate assistance, I could never afford such luxury, and I felt I'd be discovered as an imposter at any minute by my wealthy neighbors.

Yet I found myself feeling disappointed that it didn’t have the same Nespresso automatic coffee maker my first apartment had. I'd gotten used to that machine and the delicious espresso it produced. I enjoyed popping in the little pod, pushing the button and watching the gourmet coffee magically appear. And with no cleanup!

I'd gotten used to this little luxury. I'd never had one before, and I liked it. The new apartment had a similar device, but it was some other brand. It was clearly cheaper. The coffee tasted slightly worse, and you had to empty the grounds after every use. For a moment I actually felt disappointed. Then I turned on the news and watched a camerawoman trip a Syrian refugee as he and many others fled from Hungarian police. In my head, I try explaining the difference between the two coffee machines to the Syrian.  

Me: ... and that's why the Nespresso is clearly superior.

Syrian: You are an asshole.

Me: I can't argue with you.

Perspective is a powerful thing. Problems are relative. So is privilege. And neither can be given away or traded. "Please, take my privilege along with the shapeless and useless guilt that comes with it." Not possible. Instead I donated to Google's crowdsourcing fundraiser for migrant aid. I shared the link on Facebook to help spread the word. I closed my laptop and rushed out the door to make the train to work.

Moving to Europe during—but clearly not part of—the worst migrant crisis since WWII, I can't help but think about how fortunate I am. I came here because I wanted to. I had options. I have the luxury of choice. If I don't like my city, I can move. If I don't like my job, I can quit and find another. If I want to sleep in on Sunday, I lie around till noon. And that's exactly what I did today.

After seven weeks living out of suitcases, I finally moved into my own apartment. It's a one-bedroom on the fourth floor of an old canal house on the Amstel River. Amstel used to make beer with water from the river. You wouldn't want to drink the water now, or even swim in it, but it's still pretty to look at. 

Back in August, I spent two weeks apartment-hunting with a real estate agent. "You moved here at the worst possible time," he told me. (The Dutch are very direct.) He was right. Much like Portland, rents here have risen steeply in the last year and more people move here every day. Apartments are hard to find, but there is no housing crisis.

Rental housing is divided into two sectors in Amsterdam—private and public—and the Dutch have the largest public housing sector in Europe. Most of it is owned by non-profit housing associations (amazing, right?). Rents in this sector are controlled—maxing out at 710 euros/month—and tenants must earn below 34,911 euros per year per household. If you earn more than that, you must rent in the private sector, where rents are much higher, somewhere between Los Angeles and present-day Portland.  

Like those cities, the market is incredibly competitive. Rentals go on and off the market in a day, and it's hard to find a place in the city without hiring an agency. If you see something decent, you take it immediately or the next person will.

Coming from Portland, the density of humans in Amsterdam is overwhelming. Back home, I lived near the food carts on SE 12th and Hawthorne. For Portland readers: imagine that corner with hundreds more people walking around, taking pictures with selfie sticks and studying maps. That's the city center of Amsterdam today. I wonder what it was like twenty years ago. Portland is far from that extreme, but there's an underlying fear that the city will lose its identity with such rapid change and the influx of so many transplants.

The reality is that the Northwest's best-kept secret is out and people want in, as do property investors and developers. As Martha writes, the housing crisis is very real and many people are being priced out of their homes and neighborhoods. People are furious, but nobody seems to know what to do. I'm not a native Portlander, but I hope Portland can stay Portland.

I moved to Portland in 2009 on a whim. It wasn't known as a cool place to move to then, at least not that I knew of, and honestly I didn’t like it at first. But I wanted to put roots down somewhere, and with the help of a few patient friends, I grew to love it. It took a few years, but eventually I got a good job. I got health insurance. I saved and saved and was able to buy a one-bedroom condo in Southeast. Condo has negative connotations, but it's not one of those community-crushing complexes. It's a group of four modest duplexes built around a small courtyard in the 1930s.

It's strange being a homeowner and now a landlord, especially in Portland, where so many are getting screwed over by greedy property owners. When I bought two years ago, I'd already spent over $100,000 in rent in my life and I refused to pay the exorbitant rents of 2013, which now seem reasonable in comparison.  

 From what I'm told, people in the Netherlands—Dutch and otherwise—buy as soon as they can afford to. It's not uncommon for young single people to own their apartment. It's actually cheaper. In Amsterdam, only about 30 percent of the housing market is rented. In a city with so many expats, immigrants and travellers, it's interesting that so many make the long-term commitment of homeownership. For me it was terrifying, the idea of staying in one place for that long, which is probably why I moved again anyway.

So far, Amsterdam seems like an easy city to commit to. I'm settling in slowly. I bike to the train station in the morning. I take the 8:31 to Amersfoort. Two transfers and I'm at work. It's an hour each way. I've got a Dutch I.D. card, a Dutch bank account, and a bonus card to the local grocery store.

There's a charming little bar on the corner, where I'm writing this now. It's filled with old furniture and candlelight from real candles. A drunk middle-aged couple slow dance by the bar, though there’s no dance floor and you can hardly hear the music. Three pretty girls laugh in a language I don't understand. The bartender brings a beer to my tiny table in the back and sets it next to my laptop. She speaks English to me but I thank her in Dutch.

Dank ye wel.  

So far that's the only thing I feel comfortable saying.