Expat Ruminations

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.

Going beyond the “Amsterdam experience”!

Moved by a desire to go beyond Amsterdam’s travel media stereotypes involving pot cafes, redlight districts and Van Gogh, I decided to explore the International Documentary Film Festival before a nighttime crawl downtown. Crisscrossing innumerable bars and cafes, practically inhaling the vibes given off by them, I walked with a friend who came over from London to attend the ongoing International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in the city.

By the time we reached Pathe De Munt, one of the venues for the festival, the screening of the film “Island of the Hungry Ghosts” had already begun, and the theatre was house-full though we managed to get in with the help of a festival organizer. The feature-length film is about Christmas Island, which has an Australian immigration detention center– home to over 800 asylum seekers and about 40 million red land crabs! The documentary unfolded in the backdrop of the eery shots of the island jungle and the sluggish movements of the crabs across, migrating from the jungle to the coastal region. The film, directed by Gabrielle Brady, made a compelling visual statement about how we treat immigrants and refugees. We were pleasantly surprised to see a lot of enthusiasm about the documentary genre here. Many of the screenings were already sold off. This year, Anand Patwardhan’s “Reason”, won the award for Best Feature- Length Documentary. The jury said the award was for the film’s “epic storytelling of the rise of the far right in one of the most populated countries of this planet”.

With four cinemas, Eye Film Museum was also an IDFA venue.

The museum is uniquely set on Amsterdam’s IJ Harbor with a beautiful waterfront restaurant-cafe. Sitting at the cafe, watching cargo ships passing by, I was reminded of the Dutch sea-faring traditions. With a large collection of materials associated with the history of Dutch cinema, the museum’s main focus is conservation, restoration, and research. From Eye, the Central Station is just a few minutes away by ferry–”the only free service available in Amsterdam” as the cab driver put it!

As I reached Dam Square, the city’s major shopping hub, the streets became crowded. Here, one often has to move along with the flow if you don’t want to be pushed to the bike paths. Now, that brings to my mind one thing I have noticed about the city: during my threemonths stay here, I have never heard anyone apologizing in any public places for anything! Though based on this, initially, one may consider the entire society micro-aggressive, I now realize it is just part of the Dutch culture. I strode across the Central Station to a restaurant in a brick building with cheap wooden tables and mismatched chairs spilled over to the street. A dainty waitress barked out my order across to the kitchen as I waited.

There are designer boutiques, galleries, gift shops, beer bars, cocktail bars, pot cafes, brothels, and jazz clubs spread over in the area. Walking further, it appeared to me, if you didn’t go look for De Wallen (the main redlight area), it would find you anyway– wherever you happened to be in the city! I went ahead to explore the canal district and the surrounding areas deeper. If you want to reach the redlight area just follow the crowd as the individuals who land up there were “so like-minded”, a passerby said! The redlight area really is so close to the city center that it is almost impossible to avoid it when you tour the city. It was sad to look at those lifeless mannequin-looking figures in red neon lights of the window brothels. Touristheavy crowds continued to swarm into the alleys leering at women in their undergarments. They were mostly tight-lipped though to make sure they did not make any lewd remarks at the prostitutes because that is illegal. There were also tour operators offering tours of the area.

There have been reports in the Dutch media that authorities are finally realizing that the business model of legalized windows prostitution neither increased the safety of women nor stopped human trafficking. On the contrary, legalization has resulted in a dramatic increase in trafficking and unlicensed sex trade. This undoubtedly is a disgrace to the city and exposes the seamy underbelly of window prostitution. At any rate, it is a relief to learn that the practice is on the verge of being wiped out as the Dutch government is reportedly cracking down on the global sex trade networks in the city. I get the impression that the real Amsterdam we live and work is very different from the image projected in travel writings as a “destination”. The emerging Amsterdam is the bustling capital of a post-industrial, innovation-oriented high-tech nation. Walking past several blocks, I entered a cafe with mirrored walls and a disco ball. The flickering lights cast a glow on the waterway nearby. There were several riverboats — some of them with tourists, and some appeared to be ghost boats, long abandoned. As I approached a table at the far end of the cafe, the place erupted in claps and cheers–apparently calling for more music from a tattooed Moroccan soloist who just concluded his performance for the evening.