We have to get out of here I: The Letter
Doom snuck up on us like a cat. Cautious, seemingly unmoving. Imperceptible to those who don’t know.
The first sign that “something” was about to happen was the unannounced appearance of haphazardly placed concrete planters on the quay where cars had been parked just hours before.
Not much later, men in orange vests were unloading their three-legged measuring devices from their vans almost daily for a workday of obscure operations. At least for me. For example: one of them standing on the bridge, exchanging hand signals with the other on shore, like members of a secret society.
After their visit, there were new random numbers (5401, 6952) scrawled on the sidewalk with white paint. Sometimes accompanied by a firm arrow. Sometimes by a large dot or circle. On the outer walls of the houses appeared fluorescently colored targets and mirrored objects faceted like the eyes of a fly. At times those were removed or relocated.
At the nadir of the corona figures, the orange jackets arrived early in the morning in a passenger car with a minuscule rowing boat in matching color upside down on the roof. The device being lifted off the car and into the water within seconds. They just fit in together, the orange jackets, their knees almost in their necks. Thus began a meticulous rowing tour around our houseboats. They took samples out of the water. Or put them in. No idea. Their answers to our curious questions got us nowhere.
Things got really serious when a Tintin-like diving suit on a long rubber umbilical cord popped up with its bulbous headgear next to the houseboat like the Loch Ness monster. This was preceded by a moving string of bubbles, as if a colony of fish were doing a polonaise close to the water’s surface.
And then one day the letter slipped through the letterbox: ‘Temporary relocation of houseboats’.
We have to get out of here II: Chattel
‘You have to get out of here, don’t you?’
Yet another quayside neighbor accosting me in response to The Letter which is also causing a stir on shore.
‘You’ll be back, won’t you?’
And that’s the standard concerned response. We are a close-knit neighborhood. On the floating, as well as the permanent side. With the annual highlight being the quay party including shuffleboard, party tent and homemade food.
The neighborhood that piloted our 80-year-old neighbor through lockdown I with groceries, one-and-a-half-meter drinks and pans of food. The neighborhood that gave her last greetings on her quay.
Our houseboats are an inseparable part of that quay, even though they are officially called ‘floating structures’ and, according to mortgage banks, even ‘chattel’ instead of ‘real estate’. In banking terms, this means we are outlaws.
Until the late 1960s houseboat dwellers fell under the Woonwagens en Woonschepen (Caravans and Houseboats) Act, passed in 1918 “to protect the ‘regular’ population and maintain public order.”
It is said that houseboat children weren’t welcome in neighborhood schools under that law, instead they were referred to the barge school.
And somewhere at the beginning of this 21st century an Amsterdam alderman labeled our floating row of houseboats as a nautical bottleneck that should be driven immediately out of our neighborhood and even our borough.
It’s a fact that each new city council formulates its own ‘unique vision’ on living on the water. Sometimes we form a characteristic townscape or the solution to the housing shortage, other times we are mainly obstacles to the view and resale value of the capital quay buildings.
We are used to that.
But when my Cees pointed out to me over the past decades that our ark is not built on piles like the rest of Amsterdam and that therefore there might come a time when our houseboat dream might be wrecked, I thought him a pessimist.
Until now. Until The Letter. The Letter that raises more questions than it answers. Because: we will be back, won’t we?
We have to get out of here III: The Nuthatch
This morning I saw a nuthatch, the bird that’s famous for ‘clinging’ to tree barks. She was standing on the table of our floating patio. Curiously she peered into our houseboat, head tilted.
We are right under the approach route of a growing number of bird species, but this nuthatch made her debut on the patio today.
Her curiosity brought up the memory of that American tourist who had formed her hands into a binocular against our kitchen window. Standing on the seat of her canalbike, she peered at me unashamedly, exclaiming to her pillion passenger, “Oh My God, people are really living here!”
Thank God smartphones had yet to be invented.
And so more memories came flooding to me. Of the French family who knocked on the door one summer Sunday morning and asked if anyone lived here. They couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live on the water. For example, did we have heating? A shower? And how did it work with “pipi” and “caca”?
Searching for my camera to capture the nuthatch, I thought of the Thai magazine containing a travel report about Amsterdam, a friend living in Bangkok brought me once. In one of the pictures he had recognized our houseboat. The caption: ‘This is how people live in Amsterdam: in huts on the water.’ Or something along those lines. I had to make do with his translation from Thai.
And then there was that fashion photographer from Moscow. After scouting locations around the city, he insisted on shooting a report on our patio for a Russian fashion magazine. Even though his models were anything but thrilled to have to balance on a rocking surface with their meter-high heels.
Would that nuthatch also wonder if people live here? With my camera in hand I suddenly wondered. And how it works with “pipi” and “caca”? (No, not that)
But she had already flown.
For a long time, my questions lingered in the air.
How to stick around, for example.
We have to get out of here IV: The Table
For the first Zoom session with the municipality, we install ourselves at our table together with our left side neighbor.
Not a designy table, but a worn-out one full of traces of our daily houseboat life.
The table that became so much more during Covid than just a dining table. It gradually became our world, the center of our lockdown activities. Where we did our shopping, went to the movies or out to dinner, visited museums and concerts. All while our commute to work was limited to shuttling from one table corner to the other.
At that table, the first steps are now being taken for the Great Move over Water. After a round of introductions (“My name is Marjan and I am a houseboat resident”), municipal official 1 unveils a slideshow about the how, what and why of the upcoming quay renovation.
A drawn impression of the current quay situation appears almost as a footnote. Now, even foreign media know that Amsterdam is that great city built on poles – as they eagerly quote from the old Dutch children’s song. But am I the only one who thought this only referred to the houses and buildings?
Have I been misled by the pile drivers who, in my youth, drove wooden poles into the ground with all their might for yet another new housing block? Now the entire city, including the 600 kilometers of quays, turns out to be supported by such piles. Or rather, by an immense wooden table.
With thousands of legs. But still, a table.
And that table has been severely ravaged from all the life swarming on top of it. It is wobbling. And no beer mat can stop that. You see it during coffee walks through the city: fist-thick cracks in the quay walls, walls that lean outwards, trees that wedge themselves between the bricks and, like a preacher, raise their arms up to the heavens.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg, it turns out.
More slides follow. About how concrete will replace wood, for example.
But before my eyes floats that one image of the table that carries our city. On which our daily life, our world takes place.
Text & image: © Marjan Ippel, 2021
Not only Amsterdam’s houses, but also the more than 600 kilometers of quays that circle the city and define it, are built on piles. About 200 kilometers of these are on the verge of collapse and will have to be completely renewed from the waterfront over the next six years. This will result in a real migration of people from the houseboats that are moored to them.
One of these is my houseboat on which I have lived with my family for twenty years. Most of my floating neighbors have even been moored at ‘our’ quay for over thirty years. Where we are going for the duration of two years, how that will go, and what will happen to my floating patio which houses at least two duck nests each year, we do not know yet.
A drastic renovation of the quay that will not escape any Amsterdammer or tourist. Even if only because the work will mean having to make a detour by bicycle.
1 year of lockdown in Amsterdam
From my houseboat in the historic centre of Amsterdam I saw the world come to a standstill overnight.
In the first weeks into lockdown 1, March 2020, traffic had almost disappeared altogether. So much so that we walked carelessly down the middle of the canal streets without fear of being run over by cars or bikes. We gazed up at the gable stones, an intricate ornament, or an artwork behind the brightly lit windows of a canal house, like…
Like we were tourists.
Birds and homeless people were rummaging side-by-side in the bins, looking for food that wasn’t there, since hardly anyone was out on the streets. The windows of the hotel rooms across our canal stayed dark at night. The wheeled suitcases weren’t making their typical noise on the cobblestones in the early hours of the morning. There were no airplanes skimming above the historic red tiled roofs. Not a single travel influencer posed for an Instagram selfie on the bridge with our houseboat strategically in the background like some idyllic ‘couleur locale.’
Food delivery bikes took over the streets.
Waterbirds took over the canals.
But then the joggers came, the outdoor bootcamps and the Zoom sessions from work, held from the bench near our houseboat. The ‘coffee walks’ with a friend, a flat white in hand, on which we discovered neighbourhoods we’d never been before. The various Glühwein walking routes through the city, the warm wine hidden in Coca Cola bottles because of alcohol regulations. The pop-up boat/bench/park/sidewalk/quay picknicks. The takeaway stalls in front of restaurant façades everywhere you looked. Each stand selling its own specialty comfort food previously rejected by chefs as not being culinary: gourmet toasties, French fries with stewed meat, brioches with lobster, satay in twenty different styles…
Not only did I see my hometown turn completely inside out, I saw it cater to its locals again.
Amsterdam has not been the same since Covid-19 hit our streets. And frankly, I hope the city will never be the same again.
Text & image: © Marjan Ippel, March 2021
(Text in picture says “Everything will be alright”)
My name is Marjan Ippel. I have years of experience in journalism (a.o. ELLE and ELLE Eten), script writing (a.o. Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden), and writing columns and books (a.o. Foodlingo Bijbel and Ron Blaauw – Mijn Amsterdam) – partly illustrated with my own photographs. Since day 1 of the first lockdown in The Netherlands (March 2020) I wrote a Corona Diary on this website. Recently I started a new series on the coming temporary relocation of our houseboat, due to the large-scale quay renovation in my home town of Amsterdam.
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