North, South, East and West: Stepping Out of My Bubble in Amsterdam

by Suzanne Vine
originally published Nov. 3, 2017 on Suzanne Vine's Amsterdam

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

In September, I passed my three-year milestone in Amsterdam. Expat years are kind of like dog years, so three years makes me a very elderly expat, indeed. In those three long years, I like to think I have discovered a lot of the city. I like to think I've gotten out of my neighborhood and explored. I like to think some of you are still reading along.

This post gives me the chance to share some of what I have discovered on my journeys and weigh in on the experience of living here for three years. In the end, I may not have much wisdom to share, but I can tell you where to get a good cup of coffee.

Feel free to share this post with your visitors so we all don't have to reinvent the recommendation-wheel every time family and friends come to stay. I purposely left out all tips for the center of town. Most expats already know that part of town and can steer their visitors to the right spots for food, drink, and sightseeing. Frankly, you can just walk up and down the canals and find your own favorite places without much fuss...you and the crowds who visit Amsterdam. I'm going to sound like a cranky Dutch native, but we avoid the center as much as possible during the summer months. Even in the three years since we arrived, I see more and more tourists and hear less and less Dutch spoken. The city seems to be trying to strike a balance between accommodating the tourists — and their money — and keeping the charm of Amsterdam alive and well. Some would say the balance is tipping towards the tourist dollars right now.

A quick geography lesson for those of you who are new or don't live here: Amsterdam is composed of different neighborhoods. Like many of the neighborhoods in New York City — well, actually in Manhattan with its Upper West and Lower East Sides, etc. — the names of the neighborhoods are mostly directions with actual names for some of the neighborhoods tucked inside those big areas. So here we have North (Noord), South (Zuid), East (Oost), West (West). and The Center (Het Centrum), but also de Pijp, and The Museum Quarter (Museumplein). 

It seems like every map you look at divides the city in different ways. Some leave it in big chunks (North, South, East, and West) and some include the names of the neighborhoods. No wonder I get lost so often.

Old South. Like many in the expat community, I live in Oud Zuid, or Old South. Here's the great part about living in our hood: we are a few short blocks to Vondelpark, Amsterdam's Central Park. We're also a few short blocks to the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum (home to the Vermeers and the Rembrandts you want to see), and the Stedelijk, the modern art museum. We're also only a short walk from the elegant concert hall, Het Concertgebouw. And we have taken full advantage and seen lots and lots of concerts. We never seemed to do that when we were only a short train ride away from New York City.

You can see a real Picasso sculpture in Vondelpark. I'm always surprised that no hooligans have ever taken a can of spray paint to it. Maybe even they have limits.

My husband Peter and I often have moments when we shake our heads in amazement that we are actually living here. Mine often come when I look up at the majestic Rijksmuseum. How did we get so lucky to live so close by? Or to live here at all?

I took this photo during the Women's March, where for once Museumplein, the square surrounding the museums, was packed with protestors, not tourists taking selfies.

I love the quiet side of the museum, where the bikes outnumber the people.

Now, what's the downside of living in my part of town? For one, it can feel like a bubble. A very tony, one-dimensional bubble. The one "regular" store here - a hardware store - just closed its doors. It will be replaced by yet another "bougie" boutique selling overpriced clothes that appeal to someone, I suppose. That someone is definitely not me. The other downside is that there isn't much culinary diversity. You can find Italian food or Dutch bistro-style restaurants, but where is the Thai? The Vietnamese? The Lebanese? And where are the good coffee spots? That's a problem. So to find what I need, I have to get out and about.

The Dutch pride themselves on being a society of equals. When we came to look for apartments before we moved here, the relocation person told us that there weren't any super-rich here. Then who lives in those houses along the canal near the apartments she was showing us, I asked. The answer? Drug dealers. 

I can assure you that not all the fancy houses in Amsterdam are inhabited by drug lords.

North. So, let's get out of the bubble, shall we? First, we head to Noord, the North. This part of the city is a little out-of-the-way. You have to hop on a ferry behind Central Station to get there unless you have a car. They are talking about building a new bridge that will allow you to bike from behind the station, but I've learned that there can be lots and lots of talk before any shovel breaks ground, so I'll believe it when I see it. For now, take your bike right on the ferry. Once in the North, I recommend heading out to a giant oasis called Het Twiske. You can bring your lunch and have a picnic. You will feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.

When my son Ben was here for a visit, we went straight to the motherland for our picnic provisions: a place called Piqniq, in the Jordaan, a neighborhood in the center of the city. Worth every penny. Gluten-free bread available, making this picnicker a very happy camper.

On the way back from your bike ride through Noord, you can stop for coffee at The Coffee Virus. Very good coffee. Not so good English. Here's a sentence from their website: "We are very ambitious. Actively we look to expand and spread our positive virus at other inspiring locations were [Note: Yup, you read that right], creatively, we adapt to our surrounding." One job idea I have is to help businesses rewrite their "English" into words that make sense. An English Fixer. They really need my help here. 

Although not inside the city limits of the North, once you are up there, you can visit some quaint villages like Marken, and some touristy ones like Volendam.

If you're really feeling like a tourist, you, too, can get in costume and transport yourself back in time, Volendam-style. Let's just say that my daughter Rachel deeply regretted joining me on an outing with the American Women's Club that day.

Ben felt slightly better about our bike ride to Marken, but for some reason, he refused the opportunity to put his face into the your-face-here board set up near the lighthouse.

Another place to visit that's north of my bubble is The Zaanse Schans, a colonial Williamsburg-style village where you can step back in time and see what 18th and 19th-century life was really like. One of my expat friends took every single one of her visitors there, but I actually ventured there for the first time in April. It was a grey, windy day, raw even by the usual standards, so the crowds were somewhat thinner. I can't imagine taking this trip on in the height of the tourist crush in the summer. But we actually enjoyed the tour inside a windmill and the photo ops. Ah, April in the Netherlands. The wind sure kept those windmills busy.

Let's face it: you want to see windmills when you come to the Netherlands. A trip to Zaanse Schans gives you a lot of bang for your buck. You take a short bus ride from Central Station and you're face to face with a whole army of them. I've heard that most Dutch people have never been there.

I don't think the guys inside the windmill - still a working sawmill - had ever seen the likes of our friend Pierre. They did their best to answer all of his questions.

East. Let's head East, shall we? This is a neighborhood where, unlike places like Zaanse Schans, Dutch people do live, and do go for dinner and coffee. The area has changed a lot in the past few years. I think even the Dutch would agree that it has become gentrified. You still see many women wearing hijabs, but now you also see tons of young people in search of good food, and lots of new restaurants to lure them in. And then there's me: an expat who is looking to get out of the bubble and take a bike ride for a bit before settling in with a coffee and a book, or a notebook. Some of my favorite Amsterdam places are in OostCoffee BruRum Babaand Roostwhere there's a book exchange wall. You can take a book if you forget yours, and bring it home. For keeps. They even have some good books in English. Good coffee is a big reason this uptown girl likes to get out of the white bread world of the Old South neighborhood.

The burger craze has hit Amsterdam hard. Smokin' Barrels makes a burger that any American restaurant would be proud to call its own. And, oh, those fries!

In addition to good coffee, you can find some good food. There's Smokin' Barrels, where my friend Vera's daughter Rosanne worked until the wee hours, and De Biertuinwhere you can find yourself older than the other customers' parents. Lest you think all I do is eat and drink, I can also recommend The Tropenmuseuma museum "about people." According to the website, "From Africa to West and Southeast Asia, from New Guinea to Latin America: come to the Tropenmuseum and discover that, despite cultural differences, we are all essentially the same." I'm not sure if that's really true, but it's a lovely little museum with interesting exhibits. This museum is one place which doesn't call Dutch colonizing "exploring" but rather, uses the word "slavery" and the Dutch in the same sentence. Imagine that.

This exhibit about the history of music was fantastic. How could I not be excited about an exhibit that included my favorite musical genre? One can never get enough of this funky stuff.

While you are in this neck of the woods, you can visit Czar Peterstraat, recently voted the nicest shopping street in Amsterdam. And that was before De Pindakaaswinkel, the store selling one thing and one thing only — peanut butter in various flavors — moved in. I discovered the rest of the street when I went in search of the store one afternoon. It's worth wandering around there.

West. Finally, let's head to the West, another area of town that has changed a lot in the past five years or so. You will certainly see more "diversity" out there than in my neighborhood, including many Muslim faces. But as the rents around the city rise and rise, there are more pockets of gentrification. I think of the West as the Brooklyn of Amsterdam. For the coffee fans, try White Label Coffee or Lot Sixty One. White Label is still wedged among kebab joints and inexpensive chain stores, but I'm guessing the neighborhood will soon change. Lot Sixty One now has a line down the block on weekends. Sigh. When we first moved here, I discovered this place — like so many others in this post — while walking with my dog Casey. I knew about four people in Amsterdam, and Peter was one of them. I could always go West (my version of Downtown) and find someplace cozy, or gezellig, as the Dutch say.

Now to really get out of the bubble, you have to go to the Nieuw West, or New West. There you can find some tucked-away gems, like De Cantina. What's not to love about a place where you can read in a hammock, or sit in an old hippie car with your coffee or tea? Note to my expat friends wondering how I find these places: I didn't find this one. Rachel did, on a list of Top 5 Secret Spots in Amsterdam. Shhhh. Don't tell anyone.

This little plant shop, Wildernis, is in Oud West, Amsterdam West. It might as well be in the Wild West to some expats who don't venture there often. You can buy all sorts of plants, and, of course, a cup of coffee or tea after exerting yourself with your plant shopping.

So what has changed about Amsterdam in my three years here? Many would say the expats are responsible for one big change: higher and higher rents. You can't blame those rising rent prices and gentrification solely on the American expats, as one recent local news broadcaster tried to do. He also blamed us for the piles of garbage and the noise. We are definitely not taking credit for those, dear Amsterdam. Of course, many of us do come with big pocketbooks and our American values, like huge kitchens and multiple bathrooms, and the Dutch real estate market is certainly trying to oblige. But we aren't the only ones moving into previously affordable areas and turning them into posh hideouts. For selfish reasons, I want Amsterdam to gentrify, but just enough. I still want to discover places that don't feel like they are part of the bubble.

But let's face it, fancy coffee is a sure sign that a neighborhood is changing over. The city is certainly getting gussied up. Everywhere you look there is construction. Everywhere. Why can't they finish one project before they tear up the streets somewhere else? It's like when kids have to take out every different Lego set all at once and leave them strewn around and mixed up, instead of cleaning up the ones they are finished with before moving on to a new set. The city is as likely to follow my suggestion about finishing one project at a time as kids are likely to follow an organized Lego play routine. But a girl can dream, can't she?

I recently finished a novel called Euphoria, by Lily King. As it so often happens when I read, one passage seemed to be calling out to me, to be exactly what I have been thinking about as I wrote this post. The character Nell - based on the anthropologist Margaret Mead - is describing her favorite part of her fieldwork. She says, "It's that moment about two months in when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It's a delusion — you've only been there eight weeks — and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria." If you substitute her two months for my three years, you will know how I feel.  Sometimes it's euphoria: I can't believe we actually live here! We are so lucky! I think I understand the Dutch and their ways. And then the next moment, it's despair: I'll never really fit in. I'm so far away from home. Where is home, exactly?

I'll end our journey through Amsterdam with a photo of my Dad, taken in 1948 when he visited the Netherlands. He came to Europe on a ship with his father. The overseas trip was a gift for graduating from medical school. The little girls in the photo, I assume, actually dressed that way, unlike the people who dress up to amuse the tourists nowadays. When my dad visited, the world was still a huge place, where people in one part of the world lived very differently from people in another. These days, the world feels like a much smaller place, with H&M and Starbucks uniting us no matter which corner we call home. I often think about how much my dad would have loved to hear about (and read about) my adventures here.  

I didn't crop out the sides of the photo because I love those jagged edges.

In answer to one question we're often asked: No, we don't know how much longer we will stay here. For now, I'm happy to live in my expat land-of-limbo. I'm beyond grateful to have the chance to travel around the city, without the stress and all-consuming schedule of teaching. This move has given me the gift of time, as has Peter, who is, for now, singlehandedly holding down the retirement-fund fort. Thank you, Peter.

I'll close with a quick farewell to a musical part of my past: the late Tom Petty in the Traveling Wilburys: "Maybe somewhere down the road aways, you'll think of me, wonder where I am these days."

I wonder where I'll be, too — somewhere down the road.