Here’s an interview with Amsterdam Spotter, Gerben Broens.
I’m Gerben Broens, one of the six Amsterdam spotters. My given name is kind of hard to pronounce for non-Dutch speakers, because of the distinctive sound of the first syllable. If you ever meet me, you’ll definitely notice why. My surname is typically Limburg (the most Southern province of the Netherlands) and that’s where I’m originally from. I came to Amsterdam about eleven years ago and must say I’ve never regretted making the switch-over from the countryside to the big city. Amsterdam suits me pretty well.”
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
The things which define me are running, daydreaming, enjoying the small things in life and chocolate cake (and all other pies as well). I love food, but luckily, for the benefit of my health and weight, I love (doing) sports as well. What I really dislike is waiting, but unfortunately that seems to be an essential part of life. All that wasted time waiting on the bus, at the counter of the municipality, for business contacts to do their stuff. One day I’ll come up with a solution for all of it, I just know.
I’m currently opening my own restaurant in the centre. It’s a cute place, if I may say so, and the kitchen is mainly Dutch (pancakes, desserts, snacks etc.). I like both working with my hands and my head. Starting my own business hopefully gives me the best combination to keep myself focused… at least for the next couple of years.
As a thirty year old single guy living in Amsterdam, I can’t really complain about life. But as I am 100% Dutch, it is in my very nature to do so anyway. As most other residents I bitch about the weather, the public transport system, the traffic jams, the road construction works, bureaucracy and many other things making our lives just a little bit less comfortable. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t swap this place for any other city in the world. In which other metropolis (yes, we still perceive Amsterdam as one) can you find everything you need for a carefree life, but still manage to bike from one end of the city to the other end in less then an hour (if you bike like me, that is)? Eat that, New York City!
The things I need? Not that much, but in the end everything. I’m a pretty simple guy, I don’t live a rock star kind of lifestyle, but can’t picture myself living somewhere without a wild variety of things to choose from. And everything in the close vicinity of my house. The city looks a little bit like me and, in retrospect, I look a little bit like the city: not phenomenal and in splendor, but modest and cozy. To experience Amsterdam the way the inhabitants do I think you should ignore the many flashing signs and search for those hidden jewels tucked away in the little side alleys. The Anne Frank House is of course mandatory and a canal cruise in the evening with your girl/boyfriend is über-romantic, but try out the unfamiliar and unknown spots as well. Have a look at the Portuguese synagogue, bike alongside the Amstel to Ouderkerk or have a picnic at the Westerpark for a change.
Which prejudices about Amsterdam are true, and which aren’t?
Amsterdam (and the rest of the Netherlands) is known for its liberal attitude towards many things. This is not a prejudice, this is a well-known fact. The most famous examples are of course the drug policy, the red light district and gay marriage. I’m all pro when it comes to these things, and a lot of my friends are too. But that doesn’t mean that we’re all just potheads. On the contrary, I hardly know any Dutchies who smoke weed on a regular basis. I only know a few who only smoke occasionally. Some of the guides from flashy tour operators are totally into the whole thing and want to tell you all about it. The funny and both ironic part of this is, that these are often people from abroad who came to Amsterdam for this particular reason, to get high as often as possible. Don’t get me wrong, the tours are generally a nice way to discover the centre, but don’t believe everything you hear.
Which is the most popular area in Amsterdam to live in?
A nice way to explore another side of Amsterdam is literally to move out of the city centre and head towards one of the neighborhoods around it. My definite favorite, not only because I live there right now, but also because it’s just a really awesome area, is Oost (East). Oost is, if you ask me, the Harlem of Amsterdam. Highly multicultural, relatively safe and with a wide variety of things to do and see. The profile of the neighborhood is built up by the many different ethnic and cultural groups, without one of them having the upper hand. This gives the area a great choice of shops and boutiques, exotic supermarkets, restaurants from all over the world and many other interesting and unknown things.
The most famous museum in East is the Tropenmuseum. It depicts the many cultures in the Tropics and their link to the Netherlands; definitely worth a visit. The nearby Oosterpark is a great hang out place for BBQ-ing (still allowed as far as I know, while in some other parks it’s banned or highly regulated) or to do your jogging or yoga (whatever tickles your fancy). One of the other hotspots not far from these two is the Dappermarkt (in 2007 ranked by National Geographic Traveller as one of the best markets in the world, among Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and New York’s Hell’s Kitchen). With a wide selection of vendors it’s the perfect reflection of the neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural variation.
The area is in a state of transition the last couple of years. It’s slowly being taken over by yuppie families and that has its effect in various fields. At first glance this is a good process. Buildings are being renovated, extra money from the government becomes available, more and more facilities are provided: the area’s livability is increasing. But I hope East will keep its characteristic atmosphere. We’ll have to wait and see what the results will be. In that, once again, East looks a bit like Harlem.
Can you describe a perfect day in your city?
I’ll take the Saturday (best day of the week) to picture a perfect day in Amsterdam and it starts with a cup of coffee (this is mandatory for my functioning the rest of the day). To keep in shape and to allow myself the stuff below I’ll go out for a run, either alongside the Amstel or towards the Diemerpark, both with the final lap through the Oosterpark. After the workout it’s time for lunch. I’m not a big spender, something easy and cheap will be sufficient. My favorite places are, Tony’s NY City Bagels, Homemade, ‘Skek, Singel 404 or De Groene Vlinder. When the tummy is filled it’s time to do something cultural. This can be either going to a museum or visiting one of the festivals (preferably for free). If this were a Sunday, one of the monthly markets (Sunday Market, the flea market at the IJ-hallen) could also be on the agenda. And of course around 3 o’clock it’s time for some coffee again, this time with a delicious piece of cake (I’m a real sweet tooth). For dinner the same ‘rule’ applies as for lunch: cheap and easy. And luckily there’s enough to choose from: Thai curry, Suriname roti, Turkish kumpir, Japanese sushi or just plain Italian pizza. If the weather allows it (often the question in the Netherlands) one of the many parks will be the ideal spot to consume the chosen dinner. Of course I’ll first pick up a bottle of wine at the supermarket. Afterwards, when it becomes chilly, it’s time to hit the bars. My favorites: ‘Skek, ’t Arendsnest or the whiskycafe L&B. All and all, my perfect day looks like a typical Saturday with friends.
For more Spotter interviews check here and see Gerben’s profile for more of his articles.