One evening this September, I was watching a shitty DVD while lying on the sofa out in the vast hall of our squatted car repair shop where we arranged what we call our living room out of a large square of moquette and a rather wild assembly of furniture once found on a scrapheap. Next to me, somewhat squeezed, was Andy, who had recently charmed me with his assumption that the capital city of Finland was "Heineken".
It had been a rainy evening, and the sound of water drops plopping in the back of the hall reverberated over to us through the dark. In the past our living group had tried several times to fix the leaks in the roof with asphalt cartridges or tarpaulin, but evidently it had proven too formidable a task for us. This made the atmosphere rather spooky, especially late in the night as it was now.
It was already two o'clock when abruptly our cosy-eerie get-together was interrupted by Eline's voice echoing over from the entrance via the former reception desk: "Hoi Iris, ik heb een verjaardagskadootje voor jou!" It wasn't my birthday, but, hey, whatever, I propped myself up on my elbows and turned my head. Accompanying our friend as she approached was a young, stridently blond woman. "Here, I found a chick for you to speak Russian to," Eline introduced the girl jokingly, and after asking her to sit down, added with a wink, "thought you would like her".
Natasha was her name and she told me she had just run into Eline after having been desperate enough to choose a Centraal Station train platform as a publically available bed. She had been dropped off around an hour earlier in Amsterdam by a driver who had picked her up hitchhiking all the way back in France. After having reached his destination in Western Belgium, he had taken it upon him to do the long, 250 kilometer haul to the Dutch capital city, seemingly entirely out of a mixture of sheer kindness and a good measure of boredom... until he proposed to drive her all the way to Berlin a few days later, if she'd first come back to Belgium with him.
The girl declined, and that was that.
Natasha was a Russian beauty from Nizhny Novgorod with water-blue eyes and near-translucent skin, adorning herself with elaborately ornamented silver and turquoise earrings. The jewelry didn't mean she wasn't a tough girl. For her it was the end of a two months hitchhiking and wild camping trip around Spain and Portugal, and she was on her gradual way home. In Barcelona all her valuable belongings and money had been stolen out of the tent she and a friend had pitched on the beach, and she was left with a 20 Euro bill handed to her by a French travel mate from a week back.
Conditions being as they were she announced, "I am leaving straight away tomorrow morning".
Supine Andy groaned that he wanted to hear what the actors were saying, but me and Eline, after a short translation action on my part, began to remonstrate vociferously : "You can't just come and breeze through like that, you have to at least come on a bike tour around the city tomorrow!"
Natasha's opinion could be swayed. She was to be with us the following day.
Being the house's only Russian speaker, I automatically became the designated tourist guide. It turned out to be raining cats and dogs, and coming from our house in the rather far out yet lovely, canal and river-streaked suburb of Zeeburg, by the time we'd reached the centre already we were soaked to the skin. Natasha was none the less enthusiastic. I asked what she wanted to see first, and the answer was direct and curt: The Red Light District. And not only that, she wanted to see "those girls behind their window panes."
For inexplicable reasons, despite having lived this long in Amsterdam, I had no real idea how to precisely locate the hookers and their walk-in windows and had to touch-feel my way around the Red Light District. We started along Warmoestaaat, one of the oldest streets of Amsterdam, a touristy main artery adjacent to the real seedy areas of town. It is lined with innocuous pubs and the one or other sexshop. On our way we came across what you can really also see elsewhere in the city centre: Naked female mannequins wearing strap-on dicks, vitrines stuffed with granny fetish porn, and drunken Germans hanging drunkenly out of coffeeshop doors shouting "Scheiße, Scheiße" at this still early forenoon hour. Ducking into a small alleyway to the left, and then again left, we finally found the stuff Natasha wanted; dapper young ladies behind glassdoors, strutting their stuff under the soft glow of crimson tinted lamps in nothing but black bras and panties. She was positively thrilled of her discovery, "Какие они красивые!" - "Wow, what beautiful girls!" One young lady, having wrapped herself up in a large dark towel, was just striding out on dizzyingly high high-heels, leaving her door open. Natasha and I glanced inside and could see all sorts of mountaineering equipment, with which the lady was daily tying up up expectedly large, quivering mountains of customers to mount them and flagellate and generally mistreat. "Look at all the stuff she has in there! Handcuffs, whips, studded leather straps!", Natasha shrieked happily.
Around us, all other tourists were men alone. One Dutch guy stood out who looked about 16 years of age, affecting airs of having stranded here by accident and being the least of all interested in the women on show, casting only sidelong glances at them; although we presently would see him come circling around the same alleyway a second time. A fat Italian guy with his group of homies was negotiating half-jokingly, leaning to the brick wall near one of the display windows fractionally held ajar by the "inmate" on the other side, just enough so her voice could be filter through; "nah, I think I will come back after a few pints with my mates", the Italian seemed to be saying, then waddled off after his friends.
Next, Natasha was less interested in seeing some of the quainter small streets and canals of the Jordaan, as I proposed, than in doing a round of the famous squats, real deal or legalized. So we breezed on, through the rain, to the other side of the city centre, through the verdant Vondelpark and the villas exorbitant in size and comforts surrounding it. I took her all this way to catch a glimpse of the Occii, the formerly squatted now legalized punk rock club, and seriously one of the most beautiful ancient buildings of Amsterdam. It still being early in the day and the place being closed, we could only glance at the façade, but that being the Occii's prime touristic allurement, that may have been all the better. I myself remembered the building from before the summer, remembered the moldy, dark wood carvings whose desolate state spoke of the great age of the building, and found its newly renovated, particoloured and shiny as if lacquered, present state rather tacky.
On we went to the Hallen, the imposing former tramway depot. Robbie having left her bike there some Friday bar-night and having handed me the key to pick it up turned out a perfect excuse for ringing the bell and letting Natasha see the building's entrails. Its inside being similar to our own industrial area squat, although a bit larger, and maybe even damper, it was the outside, the vastness and the gloom of the row of high gables under the cloudy sky that Natasha found more impressive than the saw-tooth roof of our own current home back in Zeeburg.
We went to the wonderfully cheap and multicultural neighbourhood market round the corner to buy a small picknick, then we popped into a big-chain supermarket where, taking into account that all her money had been stolen, I looted all the ingredients for Natasha to cook Borshchsh later on tonight for the gang at home. On the way back, we rode through parts of Amsterdam home to my own or our living group's shared history in the city, and I could not stop myself from telling stories.
First we cycled past the bar my friends from another, smaller town squatted one and a half years ago, with whom I first came to the city, helping them with the action and the first week's occupation.
About ten days after the opening of the squat, I had just had a quick breakfast and gone out the house, as one of the lads, Matt, was trodding around in his pyjamas probably searching for the coffee, when a man politely knocked outside at the door. Neighbbours had been regularly presenting themselves in this way, and Matt, in all innocence suspecting nothing, unlocked the door from inside and... - found himself grabbed like a kitten by the scruff of the neck and put out on the street in his socks. Around the corner, in a blind spot from the door, eight other men had stood in wait, and they were now flowing inside, quick to change the lock. Then they dug into the crate of beer they brought along for the occasion, much like squatters themselves do the day of an action.
Now, the nice detail was that at those times, squatting was still legal, and Matt being the legal resident had no qualms about going to the police. So in the very same evening, it was Matt, Étienne, I and our friends back in there, drinking their beer.
It is not always possible to rely on the righteousness of the law-enforcers, but when it happens, it can have some amusing outcomes.
Although, to be honest, I don't know why I still tell this story. Matt and Étienne clearly were fly-by-night squatters. They had not even barricaded the door in the simplest of fashions.
Coming to think of it, maybe Matt was actually lucky, being so harmless and naïve to even open the door for the guys. A gang of musclemen assembled for the very purpose of coming in would probably have been ready for rather more distressing actions.
The next stop on Natasha's and my road was a house where I lived for a few months: "A friend of mine from a smaller city started it. She knew the location and figured as a squat it would might have a chance to last a while. In the last minute before the action, she ended up giving her room away to someone else, being from then on involved only as an outsider. The first few months the one-house squat bided its time quietly, but then, in the summer, the three houses next to it were occupied by squatters as well, and the whole thing rapidly swole up into a city-wide campaign against the company owning the dilapidated structures, the speculation giant Ymere. Not a week went past that there wasn't at least a small notice about it in one of the national newspapers."
That I (luckily) had already moved out when that sort of craziness started and am on bad terms with most of the members of this particular gang of hippies today, I conveniently left out.
Then, as we began crossing a bridge over the river Amstel, I pointed my finger at a row of appartment blocks on the other side, nice examples of riverine architecture: "It was in one of the appartments of those houses, that we all met, Eline, Robbie and I".
It was Eline and her friend Dirk's plan to squat two adjacent properties each one million Euros worth. The space required more people though. Eline somehow chanced upon this new girl Robbie, whereas Dirk invited his friend Dotty, who invited her friend Dolly, who invited her friend Iris, that is, me.
The action itself had rather more political motives than being a good plan for setting up a domicile: Still a few years ago, the building had been ascribed for social housing. The inhabitants however had got evicted, in order to renovate the flats and sell them for a much higher price. The owner at the time was a well-known speculant and low rank Mafiosi, the middleman for big scale drug-dealers, white-washing money through buying up immobilia. He finally had died through a bullet in his head in 2004, after which the house was sold to the large Estate company Libra.
When so much money as a million Euros is involved, it could only be expected that we would last no more than three weeks in the habitations, which is exactly what happened.
Yet, new friendships were visibly kindled. We were the core of the living group of the new industrial squat we were to open, around whom a bigger group finally gelled.
Natasha was getting dizzy from all the talk and exclaimed, "Jesus, I want to come and live in Amsterdam. How can I get a job here?"
That evening at dinner, with our house group of eight complemented by our two guests, Andy and Natasha, all of us slobbering tasty Borshchsh (typical Russian vegetable soup bloodred from the beetroot in it), and with everyone joking around and laughing, I guess it was exactly what Dutch people call gezellig - convivial, cosy, fun.
At the dinner table, Natasha spotted a cute guy, and started riotously flirting with him. The cute guy was Andy. Always one quick to accomodate myself to the fact that my lovers will be snitched by lassies of a more extroverted fibre, I resigned myself to do nothing but sort of wiggle my chair further away from the table and let the free love axiom run its course.
Anyway, later on that night, I correctly assumed Andy would be up for coming along on an evening adventure: Eline and I wanted to round off the evening by taking Natasha to a coffee shop, an activity she had wished for during the daytime. It just so happened that on our way to Muntplein, where we knew a nice exemplary, I wanted to get some beer, because neither Natasha nor I actually smoked weed. So I spurted into a supermarket and pilfered a six-pack, which spurted mucho-macho Andy, peeved at my superior stealing skills, into wanting to outdo me, so he pilfered another one... Suddenly we had a lot of beer, and somehow we ended up in a park, drinking.
Not too late after midnight, the beer was finished and the air started to become night-time nippy. Time to go home. Natasha had expressed interest in the archetypal Dutch experience of riding on the rear carrier, usually a rather uncomfortable way of travelling, although in the given case it was probably msotly an excuse to be able to pat Andy's back. So Eline and I took our two bikes, leaving the couple with the third one we had brought and shouted: "Andy, just don't forget to take your girlfriend with you!"
The next day, after breakfast, Natasha stood bright-eyed at the kitchen table, said she had a gut feeling it was time to leave, hitchhike on. On Tuesday her school started, 400 km East of Moscow, some 3000 km from here.
The whole group of us protested emphatically: "You cannot leave yet, you only spent two nights here, that is hardly a flattering gesture of you to want to leave!", each and every of us providing a different reason for her to abide with us for just a few more days. After all the incalculable hospitality I personally have received around the world, I must honestly say I was extremely happy my so very disparate group of housemates, bike-nerd Tobbie, opium-eyed Matza, trippy-hippy Eline, and usually so lackadaisical Robbie were all so readily and unreservedly hospitable.
In the end, Natasha's gut feeling won over our collective expostulations though, and Eline, Robbie and I got Tobbie's car and drove Natasha to the motorway.
Our road took us past the kringloopwinkel (that's a second hand shop) round the corner, over the bridge under which Matza spraypaints his artwork, over the riparian, lush greenery hugging the IJ's confluence with the IJmeer, straight past the student homes we sneak in to wash our laundry for free. There we turned into a garage to tank up and buy a last souvenir, a packet of drop (liquorice).
At the exit back to the ring road, another hitchhiker. Eline, ever the communicator, approached him. He was a German student, living in the very same student residence we know so well, and who had just walked out his door and started hitching from right there. Bad idea, he had been there for an hour already. Heading he was to Hamburg for the birthday of his older brother.
That is more than half the way to Berlin, where our guest was heading for.
Great news for Natasha who now had a hitch-hiking partner.
Indeed, she was duly delighted, "Oh cool, I think I'm going to Hamburg next!"