Het Laatste Biertje

In Amsterdam, out with friends for an evening, we’ll have a few sensible rounds of beer and eventually someone will suggest “het laatste biertje”. The last little beer has become something of a joke among my friends, for of course the last beer invariably produces an additional round and then another as each in turn steps up to provide his companions with a last beer.

This is something of a metaphor for my time in Amsterdam. I came on a whim, really, with no firm plans, and the idea of living here for six months, maybe a year. All right, perhaps I am being a bit disingenuous, as I did sign a two year lease on an apartment the day after arriving in the city. But the lease allowed cancellation at anytime with two months notice, so it wasn’t totally insane. Not insane at all, as it turned out, as two years turned to four years and then to six. And when the time came in August for the usual two year renewal…I found the building was being sold—I could get an extension on the lease only until the end of the year.

I’d never planned to spend forever in Amsterdam. But then I hadn’t planned to spend six years here either (six years, three months, two days!). But like that one last beer…each year just became easier and more appealing. My stay here has outlasted my initial desire to simply escape from Los Angeles. It has outlasted many of my ties to that city in which I spent so many years. It has outlasted my relationship with the young man with whom I moved to Amsterdam–he left years ago for the glamour and decadence of gay life in New York (Despite Amsterdam’s reputation, it can’t compete).

The last weeks have been such whirlwind of activity, I haven’t really had much time for reflection. There have been visitors, a trip to Paris, an exam in my language class, much sorting and throwing out of six years of accumulated ephemera, final dinners and drinks, a last visit from Logan, a festive farewell party, the Museumnacht, and finally, the removers. As I prepared my leaving, the elections in America, and the assassination in Amsterdam of controversial filmmaker and writer Theo Van Gogh by alleged Muslim extremists, cast a depressing tone over the city. Now it’s cold here my last night in the empty flat. It’s turned cold, but mostly dry, as the city slips into winter. The last of cafe terraces disappeared on the first of November, and Europe’s gone off daylight time, bringing an early nightfall to the city. Still, the Sinterklaas decorations have gone up and the displays of lights—coupled now with lights on all the bicycles (a sudden enforcement of a long neglected petty regulation)—create a festive, holiday air.

Having closed, two years ago, my Los Angeles studio/gallery/home of ten years and subsequently having survived three close encounters with death, the loss of a rented apartment in Amsterdam is not something I’m inclined to view with panic. In fact my initial reaction was a sort of freedom–I could go anywhere, do anything: I could travel for a year; I could relocate to a University with an MFA program in creative writing. I could hang out in LA with my family and friends, or sponge off friends in San Francisco. There was, and is, an appeal to a nomadic lifestyle.

But can I really leave Amsterdam? Could I return only occasionally and (worst of all) only as a tourist? I may not have really become a part of Amsterdam (I still mangle the language and stare at locals with bewildered expressions until they effortlessly switch to English; I’ve never bothered to get a visa, a resident permit, an identity card, or to register with the foreign police, all alleged bureaucratic requirements; I haven’t managed to marry, or even seriously date a dutch citizen. And yet if I have not become a part of Amsterdam, Amsterdam has become a part of me…the city and its culture have become a huge part of my identity; an important aspect of my self image.

I am an American who lives in Amsterdam. An American who chooses to live in Amsterdam. I don’t have a car (on the European continent at least); I travel everywhere by bike. I have a lovely apartment in the centrum, the quiet and charming Negen Straatjes. It has a view of (not quite over) the rooftops of Amsterdam. If you lean precariously out the window, there is even a canal view. I can hear the bells of the Westertoren, two blocks away, chiming the half hours throughout the night. This sound is somehow reassuring.

Though it seems so normal to say “am” and “have” the reality now is “was” and “had”. The fabulous apartment on the Berenstraat is mine no longer. The removers have come and the winter coats and the trinkets collected traveling through Europe and yet another collection of books and paintings has gone to storage. I return to California a somewhat rootless exile in George Bush’s America. I am hoping, scheming and plotting already my return to the adopted city I have come to love. With luck I’ll be back by the time the socialists retake the government! But what alternative adventures the fates may have in store for me, I really cannot at this moment even guess.

I will miss the sunny cafe terraces with the impossibly slow service. I’ll miss cycling in the brisk air. I’ll miss the incredible beauty of this city of tranquil canals and 17th century brick. I’ll miss the breathtaking skies of deep blue and amazing clouds and brilliant pink sunsets. I’ll miss my favorite restaurants and bars. I’ll regret that Paris is no longer a short train ride away. I’ll miss the Kaaskamer, and the Saturday farmers’ market on the Noordermarkt, the Friday Bookmarket; the Le Soliel pancake house and the cafe Nielsen (where I have had two exhibits of my photographs, and countless club sandwiches), Balthazar’s Keuken and the Utrechtsedwarstafel. I’ll miss the view of the Westertoren as I cross the Berensluis to do my marketing. I’ll miss the people in the neighborhood shops and the Splash fitness center and the familiar faces of boys I’ve never actually met. I’ll miss all the entertaining guests—American, French, British, Estonian, German, Italian—who have visited me here in the Berenstraat; if you haven’t made it in six years, you may have missed your chance. But I’ll miss most of all my faithful Amsterdam friends, and spending an evening with them, and having that one last beer.

Tot ziens Amsterdam! —Clay Doyle, 9 November 2004