Last weekend, a few of us decided to embark on a midnight bike trek to a squat festival an hour west of the city. The festival was put on by ADM, one of the last large squat communities in Amsterdam. They were celebrating their 18th year of existence with a weekend long birthday party that was open to all.

here are some blurry iphone photos
“there is no culture without subculture”

We biked for an hour out west past the Amsterdam suburbs, graffiti-ed train stations and putrid biodiesel industrial plants to the west harbour wharf where the party was taking place. It was late and very dark by the time we arrived, and I imagine the darkness hid many of the quirky gems that would be found at a squatting community. Not to say that there wasn’t enough eccentricity to captivate our interests. On our way to find something to eat (we worked up an appetite on the bike journey), we went past a number of giant art installations made out of various materials that lit up the pathway through the area. Past the ‘eco-friendly television’ (people in costumes performing enthusiastically to their audience behind a cardboard TV cutout), people were sitting atop a giant ship enjoying the music playing from below. We found the Guerilla Kitchen stand, an Amsterdam based group that takes food from supermarkets that would otherwise be thrown out and cooks up somethin’ good for whoever is hungry. I’m not entirely sure what we ate, but there was cilantro and pumpkin and bread involved. While snacking away, the Violent Femmes were echoing through the speakers and two older men danced to their own beat in front of us.

another blurry iPhone photo!
another blurry iPhone photo!

(When I’m out walking / I strut my stuff / And I’m so strung out.) Right beyond the men a woman was dancing with a fire hula-hoop. I think I could have watched people dance with fire the entire night. When we finished our food, we wandered farther and found a DJ playing inside a scrap-metal giant piranha sculpture. We climbed onto a ship and sat in plastic chairs while we people watched and talked about our thoughts on the whole squat community concept.

Amsterdam experienced a squatting boom in the 80s, when the economy was in a slump and the city was experiencing a huge housing shortage. A number of renewal plans threatened many aspects of the urban fabric of the city. There were plans to tear through the centre of the city to build large roads and to replace a number of old historic buildings with modern urban developments. For many, squatting became a strong political movement – people were fighting for the right to decent and affordable housing. Many historic buildings, and some say even the neighbourhood I live in right now, the Jordaan district, have been saved from demolition due to squatters occupying these once abandoned places. Squatters can bring life and creativity to forgotten areas in the city. For quite some time, squatting was legal in The Netherlands. Beginning in 1994, if a building had been vacant for at least one year, a squatter could legally establish residence, as long as they had a table, bed and chair set up.

Squatting in Amsterdam has declined rapidly since its peak in the 80s, but some communities, like ADM, still exist. Over one hundred people of all ages live in the ADM live-work community. This “cultural free-haven” focuses on alternative ways of living and find ways to shift their daily focus away from time and money. Since 1987, when the first squat community was established in the ADM area, a number of court cases to remove the squat have taken place. The act of squatting is technically banned now in The Netherlands, but there are still ways around the laws (people seem to find loopholes around authority very well in this country).

Breaking and entering has always been illegal, so squatters tend to enter abandoned spaces in groups with tools that make breaking the door open a quick process. -- Photo by Hans Bouton
Breaking and entering has always been illegal, so squatters tend to enter abandoned spaces in groups with tools that make breaking the door open a quick process.

Photo by Hans Bouton
Photo by Hans Bouton
Squatters moving in tables, beds, and chairs. — Photo by Hans Bouton

I still don’t know much about the whole squat culture here in Amsterdam (or anywhere else for that matter), but from what I’ve seen and read it appears to be a pretty important aspect to the cultural fabric of this city. In its heyday, the squatters’ movement attracted a lot of radical protesting and anarchist violence – there were over ten thousand squatters in Amsterdam in the 80s. These days, the political action seems to have simmered down and squatters’ main goal isn’t necessarily radical change – they just want to have a roof over their head while being a part of creative communities that enrich their society. Heaps of squat communities put on events in Amsterdam that are open to the public; such as the ADM festival we went to last weekend. These events are affordable and vibrant and allow exposure to groups that don’t particularly agree with mainstream capitalist lifestyles.

piranha dj!

After more wandering and dancing at the festival, we decided to begin our journey back home. Even though the food we had that night gave us all mild food poisoning and my scarf still smells like burnt biodiesel from biking past the industrial plants, I think I’ll be checking out similar events while I’m here – these alternative communities are an essential part of the multi-layered amazing complexity of this city.


cool light up structure that I am pretty sure is a green house?

smiles in the city

I’m amazed by this city. It’s a beautiful, stimulating and fantastic place. Every day, I see something in the streets that makes me laugh.

Yesterday, it was a woman who set up her easel in the middle of the sidewalk to paint a picture of the autumn afternoon. The day before, I couldn’t help but smile at the group of elderly people who set up a table on the street next to a canal to eat their supper. There was a white tablecloth, candlesticks, wine and everything else you need for a proper dinner party. A week ago, my laughter was sparked by an American tourist sitting on a patio wearing a shirt, that barely fit over his protruding stomach, and read “POWERED BY PIZZA”. On my way to class the other day, the loud sound of someone in a houseboat banging away on their drum set caught my attention, and once again, I couldn’t help but laugh. Speaking of houseboats, there is one on my street and on hot summer days, the people who live there fill up a kiddy pool on top of the boat, and lounge in the pool. Another one of our neighbours is an old skinny man who, on a hot day, is guaranteed to be contently sitting shirtless on the sidewalk reading his book. Every time I see a puppy in the basket of a bike (which is more often than you might think), my heart melts a little bit more.

This city is pulsing with eccentric energy, and it makes my days a little bit brighter every time I walk out my front door.

impressions about canada, from around the world.

I haven’t met any fellow Canadians since I’ve arrived in Amsterdam. I have, however, met heaps** of people from all other corners of the world. As a result, the weather is no longer the go-to topic of small talk when you first meet someone, and instead, conversation seems to concentrate on where we are all from. The most common responses when I tell them I am from Canada seem to be: “Are you from Vancouver?” or “Do you speak French?” To these people’s disappointment, neither are the cases for me. The second most popular questions are if I ski or “ice” skate, and I tell them I am a poor representative of my country, because I am not particularly talented at either.

Two different people asked me in one night if we are like the head-bobbing animated Canadians in South Park. I’ve also been told at least three times that I am like Robin Sparks from How I Met Your Mother. I’m tall and Canadian, and so is she, so, I can understand the connection, I guessml5ocjttfoabsivkjs2n.

A few Brits were really excited when I said I was from Calgary, because they knew all about the Jamaican bobsled team in the ’88 Olympics. A couple of people have seemed to recognize the name of my home city, thanks to Bon Iver and his track Calgary, or from Death Cab’s I Will Follow You Into the Dark.

My Swedish friend asked if we actually eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches in North America (hell yes!). An American immediately asked if I was a Belieber (hell no!). A girl from LA got fed up with the terms toque and tobogganing and told me that she refers to Canada as “America’s Hat”. I had never heard that one before.

At an Oktoberfest party with a Calgarian friend who was visiting from London where she’s on exchange, we sat on the ground and started eating hummus and melba toast from my backpack. We had been a lot of places that day and had figured we’d save money by bringing a bunch of snacks. Two Dutch boys in lederhosen turned around and joined in on the late night picnic in the bar. We had talked about bears and beers and other random things and as I took out my 1 litre Nalgene bottle, the lederhosen boys said, “Wow, you Canadians are really resourceful.” Sam and I liked that one, and decided to roll with it. The conversation then led to us talking about how Canadians have got to always be prepared, because we’re so often out in forests and on top of mountains and other outdoorsy things like that.

The same night, a German post-grad asked me if it was true that Canada’s government is as scandalous and dishonest as he had heard it was. He said he was surprised to hear such a thing, and had always assumed that the USA would take the cake on our continent for being the politically messed up ones. After all, to some, we are just “America’s Hat.”  Who knew a hat could be so shameful and anti-democratic!  I told him about the upcoming election and that people are so incredibly fed up*** with our current leader, that things ought to change for the better after October 19.

I certainly hope they do, so we Canadians can go back to wearing our toques with pride wherever we go in the world.



**I’ve been spending a lot of time with Australians, who use the term ‘heaps’ so often that it has naturally entered my vocabulary.

I like this one better than “America’s Hat”

***One of my favourite stories regarding the whole “anything but Harper” movement was when a woman passed away and her obituary read: “In lieu of donations, Catherine would want you to do everything you can to drive Stephen Harper from office, right out of the country, and into the deep blue sea if possible. Also, she would like you to fix the CBC.” You go, girl.