Expat Ruminations by Rajeev Poduval

Edition 30 October 2018
Rajeev Poduval is an Indian American journalist currently based in Amsterdam. He most recently reported for The Washington Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Grade the News at Stanford University in the United States. He has also worked with Emirates News, The Gulf Today and Panorama Magazine in the United Arab Emirates. Rajeev is living with his son Advaith and wife Bala, a space scientist presently working on methods of improving space weather predictions using artificial intelligence at Amsterdam Science Park. In this column which will be published in the next editions of The Holland Times he will share parts of his life as an expat in the Netherlands.

Caught in a Van Gogh frame

Perhaps one of the first things one notices about the city of Amsterdam, besides its gorgeous waterways and period architecture, is that green vehicles have gone from a high-tech fantasy to the mainstream here. They are fairly common in the city– perhaps as common as they are in San Francisco. It was surprising to see many Teslas waiting in the cab-lines at the airport. According to an estimate, the first quarter of this year saw the sale of electric cars increase by 136 percent in the Netherlands. As I travel more around the city, the image of Amsterdam as a liberal haven and a trendsetter of green policies have become stronger. In my mind, they stood in sharp contrast to the recent efforts to rollback policies meant to combat climate changes in the US.

The omnipresence of bikes is a mark of how Amsterdameans are committed to protecting their environment. Parents carrying their children to schools in boxes fitted to their bikes are a common sight. The flow of bicycles through tree-lined stone-paved bike paths dotted with restaurants and cluttered footpaths seemed unending. Currently, the Dutch government has a plan in place to ban all fossil-fuel vehicles to make the country free of vehicular emissions by 2030. The plan sounded a bit too ambitious right now though, as the city still has a large number of vehicles running on fossil fuel. Probably as part of infrastructure building for this plan, vehicle charging stations are becoming increasingly common in the city. Green vehicles still remain a local phenomenon in the US, largely confined to California, while it appears to be a national movement in the Netherlands. The government also has a national climate agreement to reduce total emission by 55 percent, according to a newspaper report quoting the government plan. A clueless expatriate in the city, I struggled to maneuver the rush hour traffic at the Central Station in the crisscross of speeding bicycles, pedestrians and motorbikes often spilling to the footpaths. In certain areas in the city, the traffic is so chaotic that the images that came to my mind were of some of the smaller cities in India–minus the stray cattle roaming and monkeys crossing the streets unperturbed by the traffic backup and the mounting decibel level of automobile horns, of course! Though the city is full of bike riders, to my great surprise, I noticed nobody wore helmets.

According to Statistics Netherlands, there was a slight uptick in the number of deaths in traffic accidents involving bike riders compared to motorists last year. This in spite of the fact that bike riders don’t share roads with motorists. However, it has been pointed out that this slight increase may be due to the increased number of bikes on the road. Policing is minimal and almost invisible in most parts of the city, compared to the US in particular where there have been concerns about the increased militarization of the law enforcement, mass incarcerations, and corporate-run prisons. On a few occasions, I witnessed men sitting around on park benches and street cafes catcalling at passerby women. Though catcalling incidents have been reported from many cities around the world, eve-teasing involving lewd remarks are rare as it is considered a form of sexual harassment. I found a sense of community among daily commuters in Amsterdam, unlike the reserved and unemotional crowd I saw on New York City subways. Here, they joked, laughed and shared seats in coaches that are almost always never overcrowded. In Amsterdam, the public modes of transportation are responsible for ferrying almost the entire workforce in the city.

The cultural, ethnic and racial diversity of the city of Amsterdam has already been widely noted, and during my stay here so far I have been convinced about it. However, I did come across posters at a couple of places in the city saying “Amsterdam is er voor Amsterdamers” (Amsterdam is for Amsterdamers). These looked isolated and an exception to the general spirit of welcoming and tolerance that the city is famous for. Widespread cigarette smoking in public places gave me the impression that it was not regulated, or the existing regulations were not effectively implemented. Since environmental tobacco smoke is considered a major carcinogen, the lax oversight on the issue is out of step with the otherwise progressive environmental policies of the country. It is often difficult to pinpoint what renders the city its “bohemian” and laid back qualities. As you move around, the medieval aura of the city center with its 17th-century buildings often gets erased by modern buildings, ugly shop windows decorated with cleavage-boosted mannequins and footpaths strewn with cigarette buts.

As the clouds lifted above the city and street lamps blossomed, the nightly crowd of tourists, students and immigrants hung around waterfront restaurants spread over by the canals with wooden tables and carnival- like lights. The starlit night, the sea breeze infused with the inescapable aroma of tobacco and Marijuana, the glowing water views, and reflections from distant houseboats in the canal slowly swayed me to a landscape where, I imagined, Van Gogh could have abstracted his images from.