Amsterdamming is a lifestyle blog by Andra Stefan, an Amsterdam-based photographer and writer. Andra is originally from Bucharest, Romania. Soon after her move to the Netherlands – in Summer 2010 – and pursuing her passion for photography and writing, she founded Amsterdamming, a blog aiming to document her life in the city, to capture the mood of Amsterdam and the flavours of local life.
It’s a matter of resonance. I finally understand why I feel so much for Berlin – not only the city, its people as well. I like Berliners. I watch them with curiosity and admiration. Young people, families, children… The best place to watch them is the U-Bahn. I like how they talk in a low voice. I like that they read. I like the way they dress, out of synch with trends, in sync with themselves. I like how couples hold hands and lean on each other’s shoulders. It’s beautiful. It’s refreshing. It’s inspiring.
So this might be it, I concluded. It’s about resonance. I resonate with Berlin and, most importantly, with its people. I am next to them and I know our thoughts are similar. This makes me feel good. It connects me with them and, in a broader sense, with their city. We are edgy, yet we are kind. We are considerate of the other while enjoying our own freedom in the city that allows us to be ourselves. We make eye contact. We like to wear black. We like to hold hands. We like the U-Bahn. We love Berlin.
I wrote this in October 2016, on a previous trip to Berlin. Having returned from the city again yesterday, I thought of these words and looked them up in my diaries. Two years later and my feelings for Berlin are unchanged. So I leave these words here, together with some fresh photos taken in the city over the last few days.
Oh, Friedrichshain! Whatever we did and wherever we went, we still ended up in Friedrichshain every day. Not that it was on our way to other neighbourhoods – it was not. But this is where we came to feel the Berlin vibe over and over again. On a bench facing Boxhagenerplatz – or on any other street in the area – a beer in hand, we sat and watched the world go by. To me, that is simply the best thing to do in Berlin. When we got dizzy, we went for lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant facing the square, and there, too, we had to return because we simply loved the food. And the view. And Friedrichshain.
I know Kreuzberg is the neighbourhood to visit when in Berlin, and so we came here on this occasion, as well. Just like before, I did not feel it. Perhaps it’s the tourists. Perhaps I am missing something out. Either way, our visit was short.
Prenzlauer Berg is an ex-lover. A handsome ex no longer interesting because handsome only gets boring after a while. We went for a walk one day, but we didn’t even stay for coffee. We just admired the beautiful apartment buildings along the gentrified streets, then got in the tram direction Friedrichshain to spend time in a place less sanitized and more real.
Quite a few times this week I was in the situation of crossing the city from one side to the other, from East to West, and backward. Riding a tram for 30 minutes can only be a treat in Amsterdam. I get a seat by the window, the sun hitting my face, and my head leaning in a palm contemplatively. Sometimes I am in the mood for music, other times I prefer the sounds of the city.
It is during such rides, more than on any other occasion, that I am reminded Amsterdam and I have a history. The city has seen me arriving here, getting lost on the streets in my first days, settling in my first home, getting my first job, being in love then breaking up, feeling lonely and confused then finding love again, bonding with the city, exploring its every corner, having no friends then meeting amazing people, moving from West to Center to East, wanting to change job, feeling homesick and dreaming of moving back to Romania, being happy to return to the city from holidays abroad then wanting to stay away as much as possible. Amsterdam has seen me and put up with me throughout these moods, throughout the years. All I need to do is look around and see the traces. It is all there.
I remember when my grandmother visited Bucharest, long before I moved to the Netherlands. We were walking along Victory Avenue when she stopped in front of the CEC building, gazing at its sumptuous architecture. “This is where I came when I was young to deposit my first savings,” she said with nostalgia in her voice. “That was so long ago, yet it feels like yesterday.” We resumed our walk.
The other day, sliding along the Postjesweg in the tram, I saw the Municipality locket where I registered as an Amsterdammer back to 2010. On the same street, new cafes popped up, while the Albert Heijn where I used to buy my groceries was under renovation. As the tram turned to Hoofdweg – another recent change, as tram 7 had a slightly different route back then – I saw the bus stop where my ex told me he was not sure he loved me anymore. I reached Mercatorplein and I remembered chilling there with a beer after my first job interview in spring 2011. It was quite some time ago, yet it felt like yesterday. I, too, made my own deposits here, in Amsterdam – in the currency of heartbeats.
The CEC building is still standing at one end of Victory Avenue in Bucharest. My first school in Amsterdam, where I studied Dutch soon after my move, is being torn down. Torn down for some years now is the entire row of apartment buildings on Donaudreef, in Utrecht, my first address in the Netherlands. I almost burst into tears when, on the internet, I saw the images with the rubble resulted from the demolition. “They built some really nice new apartments there,” my ex said when I brought this up. He was missing the point.
The city is changing, just as we are changing. The process is normal. Normal, I guess, is also this profound nostalgia that gets a hold of me whenever I am in a then-and-now, before-and-after situation. It’s the way I am. This is how I see things. All I need is a tram ride and my history with the city comes back to life – over and over again. Amsterdam knows.
There can never be too many rooftop bars in Amsterdam! HOPP has opened its doors today, above Hotel Casain Amsterdam East, and the timing couldn’t have been better. The weather was fantastic, the city at our feet, and the beer nice and cold.
Those interested in making their own drink were able to do so during the beer brewing workshop. For those more concerned with the end product rather than the process, there were plenty of local brews to be sampled and evaluated during the beer tasting.
I am sure to be hopping back by HOPP one of these days!
Today, enjoying the sun on Jharda‘s rooftop in the 9 Streets, a cold drink at hand, I realized I no longer had a problem with routine. Routine is no longer an obstacle between myself and my creative realization because the creative ideas have left me or at least they are on hold. So, I do not feel I am wasting time when I am not being productive, as I would normally feel. Because what else to do with time if not enjoying a sunny day on a rooftop in Amsterdam?
Then the idea to go to Westerpark and see the trees in bloom came. We sat on the grass underneath a tree and looked at the children playing happily in the park. I felt happy, too, for no particular reason. “Whoops! A cherry flower hit me,” said Jharda, and I burst into laughter almost immediately, repeating her words and imitating her voice. It was “raining” with cherry flowers and sunshine.
Life appeared to me as if seen through pink glasses today: the cherry blossom was pink, the cakes were pink, the cups were pink, the shop signs were pink, Jharda’s blouse was pink. And although I was wearing black, as usual, I knew I was pink, too.
Still no sign of green in Amsterdam. The streets of the city look and feel as if stuck in an eternal winter, grey and wet. These days I am walking with a purpose and destination in mind, and have no enthusiasm for wandering around, not even for photos.
Kanarie Club was a suggestion of Jharda, a vegan enthusiast, who has been introducing me to lots of nice restaurants and cafés in Amsterdam lately (remember H/eart.h?)
A couple of weeks ago, Jharda and I went to see a movie at the Film Hallen, and before that, we stopped for lunch at Kanarie Club, literally next door from the cinema. We shared a quinoa salad with hummus and sweet potato, a baba ganoush focaccia with grilled courgette, and pancakes with caramelized pineapple. Everything tasted oh-so-good! At a table next to us someone was indulging into some deliciously looking wentelteefjes (Dutch version of French toast) and I’ve been meaning to go back and have some myself ever since.
That being said, I am looking forward to sunnier days when I can just lie on the grass in the park, a book and a bottle of beer at hand.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve been to Lisbon. Six? Seven? Yesterday I came back after yet another trip to the city and, as usual, it broke my heart to leave. Because Lisbon makes me happy. It gives me sunshine, food, the ocean, picturesque streets, and a rhythm of life I crave for – slower, sensual, contemplative. Separation from this city feels like a separation from myself.
*** HOME ***
This time I had Alehandra and Nico as travel companions. We booked the same apartment in Príncipe Real where I stayed a couple of years ago and to me, it felt like home. I could have spent my whole time on the balcony overlooking the terracotta rooftops, pastel-coloured houses and, in the distance, the river and the bridge, and I would have been happy.
*** PRINCIPE REAL ***
Príncipe Real is by far my favourite neighbourhood in Lisbon. Its uphill location makes the view from every window nothing short of amazing. There are so many places to go out for food or drinks, it’s hard to choose. What I like most, however, is to watch the sunrise at Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, grab a cup of specialty coffee atCopenhagen Coffee Lab, go for late dinners at Largo ao Tacho, and relax at Praça das Flores –a truly magical place where all my visits to Lisbon begin and end. This time, we stopped at the square a few hours before departure to write postcards.
*** ALFAMA ***
If I’m in Lisbon over the weekend, I leave Alfama for Sunday. There is something about Sundays in Alfama: the sound of church bells echoing along cobblestone streets, the fresh laundry drying out in the sun, the smell of home-cooked food coming through the open windows. Alehandra’s wish was to have lunch in an old-fashioned bodega in Lisbon and it easily came true in Alfama. We ordered a cheese plate, octopus salad, and sardines, followed by coffee and pastel de nata. The gentleman running the place, although he didn’t speak our language and we didn’t speak his, showed us how to eat the food Portuguese style and urged us to have a glass of ginjinha at the end of the meal. How could we refuse?
*** LARGO DO CARMO ***
Largo do Carmo is one of the many squares in the city where people gather to enjoy the sun, a book, or the company of others. These squares, an invitation to connection and conviviality, are one of the reasons why I like Lisbon so much. Nico and I sat on a terrace sipping lemonade, while a group of young men lay down on the fountain steps. Tourists in the city, like us, we bemusedly ran into each other several times that day, first at Praça das Flores, then at Jardim da Estrela, and here, at Largo do Carmo. Nico thought the guys were killing time before the flight back home, but that proved to be wrong because we ran into each other again the following day when it was us killing time before heading back to the airport.
*** CAIS DO SODRE ***
The waterfront at Cais do Sodré is where I like to go on late afternoons with good weather to have a glass of wine. Lisboetas come here to listen to street music, cycle, jog, or simply hang around until the sunset turns everything to gold – the river, the bridge, the people. We lay down at the more quiet end of the docks, just the three of us, the smell of algae in our lungs and the sun on our skin. Alehandra soon fell asleep.
*** ESTRELA ***
If I bring myself to climb the hill up to Estrela neighbourhood it’s because I want to visit Jardim da Estrela, one of Lisbon’s most beautiful gardens. To someone living in Northern Europe, like me, the plants and trees in this park appear as so charmingly exotic, and the water wells carved into stone as such a romantic detail. Oh, the sweet life of Lisbon!
*** LAPA ***
The first time I’ve ever seen Lapa, its hilly streets flanked by colourful houses going all the way down to the shimmering river, I was instantly in love with this part of Lisbon. Lapa is the city’s most affluent neighbourhood and it is easy to see why. It was Nico’s first time here, so we walked along Rua da Bela Vista à Lapa, then Rua Lapa, until we reached the three streets running in parallel down the hill, in my opinion, some of the most picturesque in whole Lisbon: Rua São João da Mata, Rua dos Remédios à Lapa, and Rua de São Félix. Just pronouncing their names makes me happy. For Nico, too, Lapa was love at first sight. We sat down on the steps of Rua dos Remédios à Lapa, lighted a cigarette, and gazed at the movement of the light into the water. A perfect moment!
*** BAIXA ***
In Baixa we went for food. We had brunch at Tartine, stocked up on pastel de nata at Manteigaria, and almost became regulars at Barrio do Avillez, where we dined at Cantina Peruana one evening and returned for lunch at Taberna soon after. Regardless of the place, Alehandra had octopus every day, while I (as vegetarian) was happy with various tapas dishes. Nico chose the best wines and had no interest in dessert – except for pastel de nata, obviously!
*** INTENDENTE ***
A Vida Portuguesa put Intendente on my Lisbon map. This is the shop to buy traditional Portuguese brands, from soap to marmalade, stationary to homeware. We got in and forgot about the world. My obsession so far has been Benamôr, the cosmetics brand dating to 1925, with deliciously perfumed, skin smoothing cremes based on natural ingredients and packaged in pretty art deco tubes. I get one of their hand or face creams whenever in Lisbon, and made no exception this time. We left the shop – and Intendente – one hour later, content with our purchases.
These are the highlights of our four-day trip to Lisbon, one I am for sure going to remember in a most pleasant way.
Why “Love in Lisbon”? Because love is the first thing that comes to my mind when in this city. It’s what I feel when I’m there. It’s why I always return and dream of a longer stay – someday.
Among other things, Alina loves to be a host. She would effortlessly throw something in the oven, get some drinks on the table, put on a nice dress and some lipstick, and wait for the guests to arrive. Food, conversation, and pretty clothes – three of her favourite things into one activity. For years I have been witnessing her home parties on her blog Life in a Bubble and, together with Knausgård, Alinais the person who put Norway on my map. She has been living in Oslo for so long, sometimes I forget she is Romanian.
This weekend, Alina and her boyfriend have come to Amsterdam for a short visit. We had dinner together at our place on Friday evening, then met for brunch at New Werktheater on Sunday. When they invited us for a post-brunch glass of wine at their rental apartment in the East, we could not refuse.
I was caught totally off guard by the overdose of cosiness and the plethora of beautiful details in the house. Alina and I could have spent the entire afternoon just lying on that sofa, the sun on our face, talking in the carefree Romanian style, slightly bemused by the reactions of our non-Romanian boyfriends. I could tell how much she loves to be a host – even when travelling!
We did not stay for too long though. The weather was good and they had plans to go to the museum. Before leaving, Alina took me upstairs to show me the cradle hanging from the ceiling in the bedroom. I took some photos, then said goodbye, hoping to meet again in Amsterdam, Oslo, Bucharest or elsewhere.
Throughout the years I have written down a lot of my frustrations and attempts to adapt to my life as an expat in the Netherlands. Some of them I shared on my blog, others I kept in various notebooks around the house. I decided to share them with you, thinking that maybe they will be helpful.
* * *
November 10th, 2015
From the total of five years I have been living in Amsterdam, the latest two were marked by an acute feeling of homesickness. Strangely enough, these were also the most fruitful years of my life here in terms of social connections, emotional and financial stability.
I did not miss Romania when I was struggling to make a living in my adopted country, when I had no job, no friends, and no idea of the Dutch way of life. I missed it when my life in Amsterdam was finally taking shape and I became so Dutch in behaviour, the Dutch people themselves were surprised I did not speak the same language.
So what happened? How come the more I immersed myself into the Dutch lifestyle, the more disconnected and discontent I felt? How come the more Dutch I became, the more alienated I felt? How come I refused to speak the language when my results at the Dutch course were so good?
What happened was that I could finally see through it all. Through the smiling-all-the-time and acting-politically-correct attitudes devoid of any vibration and involvement. Through the individualistic and self-absorbed people who hardly ever cared about anyone else, except for maybe their family and the few close friends they had since forever. Through the socializing for the sake of socializing, with no relationship building up. A few years since moving to Amsterdam and the masks have dropped. It became painfully clear it had all been an illusion. Lacking a genuine contact and involvement with the Dutch (the individuals, the society), my comfortable life in the Netherlands became spiceless and confusing.
Me in a Dutch train / The Netherlands (February 2012)
I started to spend more time by myself. I focused on the few people and things that actually mattered in my life. And this is when it hit me. This is when I realized I was missing home.
The Eastern European way of life appeared to be the exact opposite of what was happening here, in Western Europe. The differences were massive. I was noticing them every day. In Romania, people smile and act friendly only if they mean it. If they don’t mean it, their fakeness requires some vigilance. In Romania, people speak up when there is something bothering them. The passengers on a bus will tell the driver to drive better if he fails to do so, because “it’s people he is driving around, not bags of potatoes.” In Romania, socialising will most likely lead to friendship. If someone asks you a question, they want to know all the details, they are not just socializing. If they don’t care about you, they will not bother – as simple and clear as that. Why did it all have to be so damn blurry in the Netherlands? It was awkward and it was confusing. Understanding how fundamentally different the Romanian and Dutch cultures were did not make the transition from one to the other any smoother. I was outraged on a daily basis.
But then came adaptation. In society, I was copying the Dutch. At home, I was depressed and full of rage. I feared I had changed for the worst. I feared I had dehumanized and become a robot myself. Worse, I realised there was no way out. I had to mind my own business to be socially acceptable, I had to be at the surface of things to be friendly, I had to be rude to survive. As long as I lived here, I had to comply.
Today I can say it feels good to live in a beautiful, clean, and functional city, in a country where I don’t need to worry about finances, where the employment laws protect the employee rather than the employer, where I can afford a comfortable apartment and a pretty good lifestyle. It feels even better to be part of, and contribute to, a society where the poor are taken care of and my rights as a citizen are respected and valued. It feels good to recycle plastic, glass, and paper, to have access to reliable public transport, to not need a car to move around the city and the country, to forget about traffic jams, broken roads, dilapidated buildings. The list could go on.
Still, what I am left with at the end of the day is a feeling of dissatisfaction.
How can that be? Is there something I am doing wrong?
I think the explanation is quite obvious. The most important thing in life is people. Human connection. And this is where Amsterdam has been constantly failing at in my case. I do not feel any connection. That is why I don’t speak Dutch. If I cannot connect to the Dutch, what is the point of speaking their language? To do grocery shopping? I can do that in English. To make dentist appointments? They speak English, too. To chit-chat with my Dutch neighbours in the elevator or with my Dutch colleagues at after-work drinks? What for if we are not going to build up a relationship?
I don’t feel comfortable admitting I miss home and the Eastern European lifestyle for fear I might be taken for someone who has failed to adapt to a new culture, in a country that has provided a lot. But I think I have adapted to the new culture well enough. I have adapted even when my values and nature told me differently. In time, I have learned to give up any expectations of grace. There is no such thing as grace in the Dutch emotional landscape. Most days I feel I have no more feelings, trying to keep up with the harshness by being harsh myself.
So I admit it: I miss home. I miss the place where being the way I am is not strange, is common.
Old Town at sunset / Bucharest, Romania (May 2013)
These days I am making my first attempts at film photography. A couple of weeks ago I tested an old Pentax with very poor results. The photos turned out to be so underexposed and noisy, I did not dare to share any. I know I used the camera correctly, so at least for now I can blame it on external factors.
This weekend I went to a shop selling film cameras. I laid my eyes on a beautiful Pentax (I have quite a few Pentax lenses, so it makes sense to buy a Pentax camera). The man at the shop let me use it and put a new film in when I decided to buy it. I took out the lens the camera came with and replaced it with the one attached to the digital Pentax I was carrying. It looked so good!
I took a few photos on the way back home. Six. The light was uninspiring, so I decided to save the film for another day. This is what I like about film: it makes you evaluate if what you see really deserves to become photography.
At home, we changed the manual lens with an automatic one. This particular lens is one of my favourites and its silver look matched the silver parts of the camera. I took a wet wipe from those I use for my glasses and cleaned the camera of previous touches. I wanted to make it mine. Clean and with the silver lens it now looked perfect. “This camera is screaming New York,” I told my boyfriend in anticipation of all the photos I would take with it during our travels in the coming years.
Then my boyfriend tried to take some photos on autofocus. Why we didn’t try autofocus in the shop, we don’t know. Something was not right, I could see it immediately. The ring of the lens was not moving when my boyfriend pressed the shutter. It soon became obvious the autofocus did not work. He changed the lens with the original one to see if it was because of my silver lens. Of course, my lens was just fine. Haven’t I used it earlier on the street, before buying the camera? He then read instructions online, saw tutorials, yet nothing could make the autofocus work. The camera was broken.
We called the shop to tell them the problem. They said to drop by on Monday (Sunday was closed and it was soon before closing time when we called.) We’ll surely do so, but I know it’s unfixable. I know I’ll have to say goodbye to this second analogue Pentax, too. I hope they will let me choose another camera in that price range or they will give me the money back.
In Romanian, we have a saying: the third time is the lucky time. I am willing to believe this.
Here are some photos from yesterday, in the loyal digital Pentax camera + old lens combination. We walked around the Jordaan and stopped for lunch at Monks Coffee Roasters.
Social media was supposed to connect me with my contemporaries, instead, it separates me from them. The world I see is not a world I crave for.
Oftentimes I wonder what content would “content creators” come up with if it weren’t for food, weather, travel and hip hangouts. This is what I browse through every day. This is also what I share with you every day. I open Instagram to be inspired and the effect is the very opposite: I am bored. I bet I am boring, too. Perhaps those who do it for money are more entitled to be boring than I am, doing it for free, not interested in selling anything, not interested in promoting an image, not interested in getting likes and followers.
These are recurrent thoughts for me. They float above my head like a grey cloud. I would like to find a solution, so as to get rid of them. I guess what I am looking for is some sort of revelation.
At the shower this morning I was thinking about artists. They, too, are content creators, right? Van Gogh came to mind, then David Wojnarowicz, both important figures to me. More than the products of their creativity, what strikes me about them is how they looked at the world, led their lives, and interacted with other people – while doing their art. I wondered what they would have done with an Instagram account. Would they have taken a photo of their cup of coffee and share it? I mean, for sure they drank coffee, too. They also ate and travelled and wore clothes. Would any of these have been shared had they had social media? I dare believe not. The things they put into their bodies (food) or covered their bodies with (clothes) would have had no other purpose than a purely functional one: to keep them alive so they could focus on their art. These things would not have had a meaning per se, rather they would have served a greater purpose.
Self-portrait of Van Gogh at Musée d’Orsay, Paris 2017
My point with social media is this exactly. There is all this content centered around process (how we look, how we eat, how we do this and that), yet nothing on result (What is the result of me dressing like that, eating that, and doing that? If there is no result, why am I sharing?).
So I am asking: what is the result? What is it that we make? We dare call it “work” and “creativity,” but of what service is it to say it’s work and how much artistic value it has to be a creation?
I was expressing more or less the same ideas with some friends over a glass of wine the other day. They believed differently: there is pleasure in the small things (the process, the how), and there is definitely a result – inspiring and making other people happy with our content. I must say I have never thought about it that way. Maybe that is because I haven’t particularly felt inspired or happy about things I’d seen on social media.
I keep on forgetting we are living in a comfort-centered world. Any depth of feeling, any questions that could expose emptiness and bring uncomfortable truths to the surface – all these have no place in our lives, let alone on social media. What we’re looking for are fuzzy illusions of a life well spent. An illusion that our life has meaning. So what if I am not contributing anything great to the world? So what if I will never put my dreams into practice because I am too scared or not talented enough? I can enjoy this sunshine falling on my slice of pie and cup of tea, and think #happinessisinthesmallthings. I’m not saying there is no happiness in there, but let’s be real: that is still just a slice of pie and that is still just a cup of tea. If anything, we should eat the pie, drink the tea, then use the energy to do something else. Use the energy to actually do something. Maybe that something would make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris 2017
My feeling about social media content is that it stops where it should become something. And so, I am bored because I don’t see the value. All I see is a waste of time.
Make an experiment: read something interesting, explore the creations and ideas of great people who populated this planet, get involved in meaningful relationships – with yourself and others – then go back to social media. What you will see there will not make any sense. It will appear like nothing but a void dressed up in pretty presets.
One of my greatest fears is that I will never create anything of value. I take photos I believe anyone can take, I write something I don’t even dare call a book, and I have this blog about everything and nothing. My ideas haven’t changed the world and maybe they never will. Maybe it will all be in vain. I’m going to do it regardless. Because I see no other way, because I do not want another way. I will, however, have the decency of not calling this anything. Not until it becomes something.
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