Reporter Lex Boon ventures out of his house and wanders the streets of a city devoid of tourists, daytrippers, and workers. A sign on the front of the De Kleine Komedie theatre reads: Dear city, please be patient. In the Zuidas financial district, all is quiet.
Walter is asleep, so I go for a walk. It’s just before nine on Tuesday morning, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot going on. A man is fishing on the quayside, a runner runs, and there are cars, bikes, and a few other walkers. On the corner, a man is repairing the road.
The first thing I notice is a couple of tall trees on the corner of Panamalaan and Cruquiuskade, completely wrapped in blue tarpaulins for protection. A developer is planning to demolish some old buildings and put up a sixty-metre apartment block in this spot, but the building permits are not quite ready, and the developer doesn’t want sparrows nesting in the trees.
This city never stops surprising me.
I walk on. Even if you hadn’t heard the news, you’d know from the snippets of conversation that something was afoot.
“Surely they’re not going to do that,” says a construction worker talking to someone on his phone.
“For the time being, people don’t even dare to...” says a woman with a dog to a man with a toddler.
“I’ve been sick for two weeks, and I wonder whether I’ve had it,” says a woman to another woman standing at the front door in her bathrobe.
“I heard they can’t restock everything,” says an employee in the Etos convenience store.
“Do you know how I get to Nieuwe Achtergracht 100?” asks a man on Meester Visserplein. He and two young children are sitting on a mobility scooter, all three wearing facemasks. Then he adds that it’s the address of the public health department and I take a step back. Too late.
It’s probably OK, we’re at least two metres apart, but I need to think about distances, slow down if anyone gets too close, and avoid touching my face. When you cross the road, it’s better to dodge the traffic than press the button to stop it. Keep an eye out for runny noses. If you can smell someone’s perfume, you’re too close.
Perhaps I’m worrying too much. Less than a week ago I spent a carefree half hour in this square, inhaling my fellow Amsterdammers’ air and being amused by a new sign on the cycle path on Weesperstraat. It read: Yes, this path really is closed, so follow the diversion. There was an accompanying photo of some fences, and some road signs, just to make it clear that the path was really, really closed, because of the Holocaust Monument being built. The sign was a waste of space, obviously, because as far as the average cyclist was concerned it wasn’t really closed. You just rode your bike a little way along the road, and then put it back on the path.
It was not so much a warning sign as a piece of outdoor art, beautifully expressing the accumulated despair and frustration of the officials responsible for diverting Amsterdam’s cyclists.
It’s still there, and everyone is obeying it today, Amsterdam’s famously rebellious cyclists finally tamed. Strange times, strange behaviour. Not that there are many cyclists, but neither are there few. It’s quiet, but not that quiet, the kind of quiet you get on a Sunday evening or public holiday, when people have lots of time on their hands and no family obligations, and lots of shops are closed. This feels different.
People scuttle across the street, gazing at the ground or into the ether, as though social distancing means you mustn’t look at other people. The zoo is closed, and I can’t get into the botanical gardens either. They have a big Turkish hazel tree, and I try in vain to read the sign beside it through the dense hedge on Plantage Parklaan. I know it’s one of the city’s oldest trees, but I don’t know exactly how old. Eventually I Google it: 225 years.
I know there are buildings centuries older than that, but this tree always makes more of an impression on me, perhaps because hazelnuts still come raining down from it each autumn, and you can eat them. It feels like it’s had a ringside seat at major events in Amsterdam’s history.
It’s too young to have seen the catastrophic floods of Amsterdam’s early history, its rise as a port and trading centre, the Eighty Years’ War, the birth of the republic, the Golden Age, or the ring of canals being built. It wasn’t there when Rembrandt, Spinoza, and Descartes walked the streets. But it did experience the industrial revolution of the early 1800s, the poverty at the turn of the twentieth century, and the expansion of the city. It survived the war, obviously, and Amsterdam’s decline and rebirth as a modern metropolis. And it’s seen its fair share of quiet times, too.
Soon afterwards, Henk Tjallinks tells me he’s had enough of nonstop doom and gloom on Radio 1 news, and is thinking of switching to nonstop pop on Sky Radio. He sells postcards, coins, and stamps in the market on Waterlooplein, but fewer than a third of the stalls are occupied, and it’s so quiet that people are wondering whether it’s even worthwhile setting up shop tomorrow.
Tjallinks was eight when he started collecting, and twelve when he realized he could make money out of it. He’s now 62 and still going strong, has always been his own boss, and plans to stay that way. But this weekend’s big banknote fair in Valkenburg, normally attracting people from all over the world, has been cancelled.
The conversation turns to another major event, the Spanish Flu epidemic that broke out just after the First World War. “That was in 1918,” he says. “I think it stopped in May, but then there was a huge outbreak the following winter. That’s when most of the people died, I think it was somewhere between twenty and a hundred million.”
He looks through his postcards for one from 1918, but doesn’t have any, so he gives me one from 1919 as a gift. “It’s already a crisis anyway,” he says.
I continue on my way clutching a picture of the Rijksmuseum from the Weteringschans, taken more than a hundred years ago. There are seven people in the foreground, and maybe half a dozen in the background, near the tunnel.
Later, I stand in front of the museum and take the same photo. It’s kind of reassuring to know that the view will probably be much the same in another hundred years, long after I’m gone. Just like the person in 1919 who neatly wrote “Best wishes, Pietje” on the card and sent it to a couple in ’s Gravendeel, southeast of Rotterdam.
There’s about the same number of people in my photo as on the postcard, plus one car. Perhaps a better comparison would be that the city centre is as quiet not as a Sunday or public holiday, but as a day in 1919.
The sun begins to break through the clouds, and I head for the canals. There are three bicycles decorated with flowers on the bridge at Herengracht and Leidsegracht. They belong to a man in a Pink Floyd shirt who calls himself the Flower Bike Man and has spent the last couple of years trying to brighten up the city by decking out the bikes, leaving them around, and moving them from one place to another. And, my God, it works. I undo my jacket and walk on with a smile on my face, thinking about all the creativity bubbling away beneath the surface of this city and sometimes bursting through, even now.
On the corner of Singel, Frank Rutten is busy with a big piece of fabric, some pots of paint, and a large brush. He’s making a banner for the front of his bookshop, Antiquariaat Brinkman. He paints a flowing L, and an E made up of several brushstrokes, and eventually it says LEES-TIJD!, time to read.
I ask him what books we should be reading now.
“Personally, I’m reading In quarantine by Vladimir Maksimov,” he says. “It’s amazing.” But he doesn’t have a copy in his shop. Albert Camus’ The Plague would be another option, but Rutten thinks it might be hard going at this particular time. He suggests The consolation of philosophy by the medieval philosopher Boethius, and I buy a copy for thirty euro, though to be honest I’m not sure I’ll ever read it. But there we go, #supportyourlocals.
I’m reminded of another book I’ve been reading: the Amsterdam in Figures yearbook, published by the city council, a weighty tome packed with tables and numbers. It says that nine people move to Amsterdam every hour, 214 passengers get onto one of the 200 trams every minute, and three cubic metres of water are consumed every second. The dynamics of the city, and of life itself, are distilled into hundreds of dry-as-dust, endlessly fascinating factoids.
Each day eight couples marry, two divorce, and there are nine burglaries and eighteen violent crimes. Once a week an animal falls into some water.
The book is a thing of wonder, but most of the statistics have stopped going up now that everything has come to a standstill.
Kalverpassage actually feels a bit sinister. It’s completely empty, but a song by a singer-songwriter is playing loudly through some speakers. A café has a sign in the window written on a sheet of white A4. There are sheets of white A4 everywhere you look in Amsterdam. This one reads Closed for obvious reasons.
In the Dam, also for obvious reasons, three people are dressed as the Grim Reaper, vying for change from the few tourists walking around. One of the Reapers is holding a big fake spliff, and appears to be doing better than the other two.
My first thought is what a bunch of dickheads. According to the city’s research, information and statistics department, one person dies here every ninety-eight minutes. Amsterdam has come to a standstill to stop this figure from skyrocketing, though the daily number of bankruptcies will probably skyrocket too. And you just stand there with your stupid scythe.
But living statues need an income, and so do the shirtsleeved men working in the stock exchange, which I can see from Warmoesstraat. Some have five monitors on their desks, each jam packed with numbers and graphs. I make eye contact with one, and put my thumb up, then down, and try to look quizzical. Good or bad? He puts his thumb up, and then even higher, as if to say business has never been so good.
He may be joking, or he may not. There’s always money to be made on the stockmarket, even at the beginning of an economic crisis that will engulf the employment and financial markets, just like in 2008.
“I used to work in hospitality, but I was too expensive,” says Arno. “For my salary, they could get five people from the eastern bloc.” I’d seen his name and phone number on a list of ‘managers’ posted in one of the sex workers’ windows on Oudekennissteeg. The lights were switched off, and the red curtains open.
I could have called Son, Jaap, To, or Faraz, but I choose Arno at random and ask whether he’s ever seen it so quiet. He is lying on a bench, resting, in a room above the windows, and can see me via a camera in the street. “Are you the guy with the backpack? Let me come downstairs, it’ll be easier to talk.”
Arno joins me in the street. A tourist tries to look in, and he snaps: “Don’t touch my windows.” They have been cleaned that morning, as every business in the city cleans, tidies, and does odd jobs.
He says he draws up the contracts for the sex workers who rent the windows, and hurries to their rooms if they press their alarm buttons. “I may be an old guy with a cigar in my mouth, but I run faster than any police officer.” It’s also his job to get rid of nuisance customers. “I stand in front of them, light a cigar, blow smoke in their faces, and say go and hang around somewhere else.”
Arno lights a cigar, with the smoke blowing in the opposite direction to me, and answers my questions. He says the only time it’s this quiet in the street is when there’s a power cut. He got this job in 2008 from his brother in law, who owns the business, and really likes it. The mayor wants to move the windows to an ‘erotic centre’ outside the downtown area, but Arno doesn’t think this will happen.
As I walk along Zeedijk, I wouldn’t count on it either. This area was full of junkies in the 1980s, but now it’s been spruced up: not quite gentrified yet, like so many other places in the city, with many former harbours now transformed into modern residential districts.
The city has been growing upwards in recent years, with lots of tall apartment blocks in the pipeline. It’s hard to keep up with the changes in the skyline, and the demographics. I take the new metro line from Central Station to Noord; this used to be a complicated journey, but now it’s only five minutes and I take its speed and simplicity for granted.
I walk down Buikslotermeerplein, near Noord station. There was a bowling alley here, but it went bust four years ago. The gleaming new cinema opposite is closed, again for obvious reasons, but otherwise Buikslotermeerplein is still Buikslotermeerplein. Café La Rosa is shut, but dozens of people are strolling through the market and the shopping centre. Bakker Bart the baker’s is open, as is Febo the vending-machine snack bar. A group of people eavesdrop as two children tell police officers that their bike tyre has been slashed with a knife.
Opposite of panic
This is the very opposite of panic: there’s something about it that’s reassuring, and yet disturbing. A week ago, no one could imagine what it would be like for all the schools to close; now it’s hard to imagine even doing your shopping a week from now.
I get back on the metro, where people are covering their mouths with scarves and sitting as far apart as possible. It’s quiet on the other side of town, in the Zuidas, but it’s always like that outside office hours. I go to check for toilet paper in the fancy Albert Heijn supermarket, which has four Biró electric vehicles parked outside, but they’re still out of stock. It’s hard to believe that this is planned to become a lively residential district.
Then I head to Amsterdam-West, and the little row of shops on Osdorper Ban. Perfecto Grill is pickup only, and Liselot the hairdresser’s is closed, but apart from that it’s a day like any other – except there are hardly any planes in the sky. “It’s much quieter, you know,” says Ibo Canbolat at the liquor and convenience store. “A lot of older people are staying home.”
I take a look at Google Maps. Some people say Amsterdam is just a glorified village, but it’s going to take me two and a half hours to get home on foot.
I walk briskly past Sloterplas, the lake, where people are sunning themselves, exercising, and playing frisbee. One man is even practising his golf. It’s so warm I take my jacket off. This is the kind of day some would describe as the first day of spring, and others would say no, it’s not quite warm enough for that, and others still would say it’s climate change.
Anyway, it’s four pm. In normal circumstances, Amsterdammers would be flocking to the terrace here, staying till the sun goes down at about seven, and maybe catch a cold but not mind too much. But my news app reminds me that it’s not really one of those days: nineteen more deaths, 292 new cases.
I set course for the Dam, which is almost in a straight line from Sloterplas. I’m struck by the fact that it’s quite noisy on the fringes of the city, and seems to get increasingly quiet as I go towards Centrum, especially once I pass the Westertoren.
If you take away the tourists, day trippers, and workers, there’s not much left of the inner city apart from beautiful buildings. The main people you do notice are the homeless. A few handfuls of lost-looking tourists stand in line at the public urinals because the usual places are closed. And back on the Dam, there’s still one Grim Reaper left.
Social distancing is not difficult in the city centre. For a moment, I’m tempted to sit on the quayside for a couple of hours, legs dangling above the water, the sun on my face. Maybe give the Consolation of philosophy a try, and think about what kind of a city we want to be if we can put this behind us in the weeks or months to come. Or maybe we know that already.
Leafing through my notebook, I realise that almost everything I’ve seen today has moved me.
The little protest by the person who wrote A paradise for sparrows on the billboard of the contractor building the apartment block on Panamalaan.
The message in big yellow letters on the display board of De Kleine Komedie, Dear city, please be patient.
The two sisters living above Febo in Ferdinand Bolstraat who, every day for three years, have lit a candle for their dead mother.
A lost bicycle key that someone has put on the railing of the bridge at Sloterplas, in the hope that the owner will see it.
The fact that everyone is staying at home again this evening, with all their lights on, so the streets are brightly lit as though there were a full moon.
The thought that it so often feels like the city is something that happens to you, but now that everything has gone quiet, you realise that it’s made up of people like you and me.
But it’s time to move on. I want to go back to Walter. He was born three weeks ago, and this is the longest I’ve been away from him. Only three weeks, but it feels like it’s always been this way. That’s how quickly you get used to major changes.
When I get home and cuddle him, he seems to have grown slightly since I last saw him. Even when everything seems quiet, this city is never truly silent.