by David Small
The sun's out now. We have days in the low 70s (20s Celsius), which is as warm as it gets in Amsterdam, and like in Portland, everyone soaks it up while they can. The number of boats passing by out front increases every week, a parade of laid-back Amsterdammers and excited tourists, all part of the city’s canal culture.
There are party boats with thirty or more people drinking and dancing, celebrating the sun. Families in smaller, nicer boats with bored teenagers lying on the deck. Wooden seaworthy vessels freshly painted, driven by well-dressed men in linen shirts with the top few buttons undone, nice sunglasses, very Robert Redford–like, casually navigating through narrow bridges while fit blonde women drink rosé and smoke cigarettes.
Passing them are the younger groups in rented steel boats, guys with and without shirts on, drunk and singing football songs, jumping and howling. Something about this town inspires people to yell. Not in anger (almost never), but that celebratory howl you might hear while someone does an extended keg-stand at a college party or when a girl lifts her shirt for beads at Mardi Gras. It’s a bit obnoxious, but it’s nice to see and hear all the boat people out again. August, the last time it was warm, feels like a year ago already.
The fleets of tour boats are also out in full force. They are long, flat boats with glass roofs. Every few minutes another passes with tourists looking up through the glass, snapping photographs they’ll likely never look at.
This month I joined them. My sister and her husband visited from South Carolina, so we took a boat tour. It’s 15 euros (17 USD) for an hour on one of the small boats, and the first glass of rosé is only two euros so who can say no. So we’re on the boat sipping wine and learning some fun facts with ten others, including a few shy Americans, Italian men and a Muslim family whose father obsessively photographed every inch of the Amsterdam canal system using his phone, a Go-Pro on a selfie stick, and a fancy digital SLR camera. He didn't speak the whole trip except to tell one of the Italians he was allergic to cigarette smoke. The man took a drag and said, “You’ve come to wrong city.”
The next day we rented a car and drove to Belgium. Looking for lodging, we went straight to Airbnb, not even considering hotels. Not because it’s cheaper—it’s usually not anymore—but for the same price we could have separate rooms and experience each city “like we live there,” as the ad says.
The second night we stayed in a rural area a half hour outside of Bruges. We arrived around 10:00 p.m. The sun was just starting to set. The owner's son met us in the driveway. He was 20 or 23 and was working on something in the garage. He showed us our rooms, two simple bedrooms on the first floor of the house they were very much living in themselves. We were basically walking into some strangers' home and staying in their spare rooms. "You can go anywhere but upstairs," he said, then left us and returned to the garage. Suddenly, I really wanted to go upstairs.
It was strange these people trust complete strangers in their house with all their possessions and their general safety. We could easily have stolen things or set the house on fire. We didn't, of course, but still I wondered, “When did we start trusting each other again?”
The boy's mother finally arrived and joined us in her living room, followed shortly by her son, who joined the conversation but only physically. He sat in his chair, listening intently but saying nothing. We talked about our jobs and about Donald Trump. Many people I talk to have a false belief that, as a country, Americans support Trump, just like they thought we all supported Bush in those glorious times. Amazing what media can do.
The boy was gone in the morning, but the four of us ate breakfast together—two loafs of warm bread, homemade jams, coffee and juice. She was a gracious host and seemed excited to have guests. She was 48, divorced and struggling to find her purpose again, living now with a mostly empty nest. Her daughter was in New York for an internship, and her eldest son moved in France. The boy in the garage had left home and recently returned.
She explained how she felt lost when her kids left, all alone in that house in the country. She’d temporarily left her job at the bank because of “burn out.” Here that's a medical diagnosis and warrants paid sick leave. When work and life become overwhelming, you can simply take a break. A few of my coworkers have done the same. She was very open about having been through rough times and that she was now recovering. Dutch people are generally very closed, emotionally, especially with new people. Conversation stays on the surface, never going very deep. So it was strange to hear someone open up like that.
For her, Airbnb provides income (about 1,500 euros per month if 50 percent booked), purpose and people she can talk to—someone in her nest, even if not her own children. She told us Airbnb had saved her life. And, in the year she’s been renting, she's only had one "problem guest,” though she wouldn’t share the details.
The apartment below mine in Amsterdam is now an Airbnb, renting only to problem guests. It was empty when I moved in but sold a few months ago—asking price was 450k euros—to a wealthy Israeli man who converted the 1,000 square foot (~100 square meter) one-bedroom into a three-bedroom and now rents it, violating city and HOA codes, to stereotypical Amsterdam visitors, groups of three to eight guys smoking weed and partying all weekend. Every Thursday or Friday a new crop of twentysomethings wheel their luggage across the street and ring every buzzer on the first floor until someone lets them in. The usual crew hot-boxes the whole unit until the smell rises up into my place through the ventilation, plays loud music or TV, then goes out around 11:00 p.m.
When they stumble in at 3:00 a.m., they often wake up my neighbors on the first floor. I’m not sure if all this annoys me because I’m a grumpy old man, or because it’s annoying. Airbnb can be a real pain in the ass if you’re not the one raking in money from a safe distance. The city gets a cut in Amsterdam, just like in Portland, but really it’s the neighbors who should be compensated.
Over 11,000 homes are listed on Airbnb in Amsterdam. The city keeps changing their policies for such rentals, struggling to find a balance between being the most tolerant city in the world and limiting the disruption to the community. Turning homes into hotels causes problems, not the least of which is displacing residents in a city with a housing shortage. Every vacation rental is one less home available in an already crowded market. It’s kind of a mess.
I’ll admit I like Airbnb and I wanted to list my home in Portland. I could have made at least twice the rent of a traditional lease had I gone the Airbnb route. My next-door neighbor actually suggested it, offering to manage it if we split the earnings. Since I respect the integrity and charm of our little Portland community, I asked for my neighbors' consent. Every one of them said no, and I wasn't surprised. There’s no benefit for them, only disruption. People on vacation have less accountability. They stay up late. They break things. They have loud vacation sex. For these reasons nobody wants their building turned into a hotel.
Still, even with the new neighbors and the shaky foundation, I love my home here and I’m grateful for this space. Sitting on the windowsill by the big front windows, I watch the growing summer parade of boats, cyclists and pedestrians and it’s easier to remember to focus on the good. I still wave at the tour boats sometimes when I see cameras pointed up at me. It makes me wonder how many photos I’m in. Sometimes I flirt with the idea of standing naked in the window and becoming a tourist attraction (#nakedguyamsterdam #nakeddavid). I do spend a lot of time in that window. I eat most meals there, and it's my little meditation spot before work and on lazy weekends. I let people crash at my place when I travel, and someone recently told me that space by my window was her favorite place in Amsterdam. I think it's mine too.