Dear tourists of Amsterdam

Dear tourists of Amsterdam,

First of all, let me tell you that I love you. Or I mean, like most lovers, I love my idea of you. I’m fond of your potential. You see, I’m sort of a multicultural sentimentalist. Whenever I see a white woman carrying a mocha-colored baby, or a latino guy holding hands with an Asian girl, or a Mexican football player trying really hard to speak Dutch in a post-match interview, my eyes well up with tears.

The crossing of racial or linguistic boundaries is, to me at least, one of the most moving phenomena in modern society. It’s so much easier to just stay back home in the comfort zone of our own country, city or street. When you think of it, it’s quite insane that people all around the world get up to face the inevitable insecurity, exhaustion and stomach flu that come with any form of travel. Any adult person who has ever tried to learn a new language, knows how humiliating an experience that is. Still we crazy humans keep going abroad, whether we do it for love, for a better life, or simply because we’re curious, and during that incredibly vulnerable process we learn new things and grow more empathy. That moves me.

That’s the potential I was talking about: you took a courageous step by coming to my hometown Amsterdam. But I’m also, like most lovers, constantly disappointed in you. Because once you’re here, you allow yourself to become part of a system that keeps you away from all the wonderful possibilities I just talked about. You’re not really here: you’re in the tourist zone. So you slip from one comfort zone into the next.

It’s like the marihuana that attracts a lot of you to our city: of course it’s nice to smoke a joint sometimes, but we all know that people who smoke too much weed, become super boring. And, dear tourists of Amsterdam, even when you don’t smoke, you seem stoned all the time. Honestly, when I run into you, looking at Google Maps on your phone or silently following your tour guide, you don’t even seem to be enjoying yourselves. You look like zombies. Or worse, because even flesh-eating zombies have a sense of purpose.

And you should be bored. GPS-based research by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad showed that Amsterdam tourists all take the same routes and stray only rarely. There’s hardly any exploration of, or engagement with, the non-touristy parts of the culture. It’s a one-sided, pre-packaged experience.

You cling together in the Red Light District and fool yourselves into thinking this is Amsterdam. In fact, we Amsterdammers rarely go there: it’s impossible to ride your bike in those narrow streets and if we want to see naked ladies, we surf the Internet like everyone else. You take selfies with your ridiculous sticks in front of the IAmsterdam-sign on the Museumplein, without stopping to wonder what that sign is even supposed to mean. I Amsterdam? I am sterdam? What is a ‘sterdam’? A very sturdy dam? Are you a dam? No. You’re a person. Or is it a verb, so you could also say ‘I London’ or ‘I St. Petersburg’? That’s just dumb. And you’re not, right?
This isn’t entirely your fault. Now that you’ve turned into zombies, the question is: who created the virus?

To answer that, you should know a few things. Holland has always been a teeny-tiny country. We’re like the kid in your class who had developmental issues and had to take growth hormones to keep up. This kid would never win a fight. We have a saying here: “He who isn’t strong, should be smart”. So it’s only natural that we have become a very resourceful country. For centuries we have survived, against all odds, by becoming very good at commerce and sucking up to bigger countries. We are the world champion of opportunism: we rarely take a moral standpoint and always go for peace and stability, just to avoid getting punched in the face. We’d rather try and sell you some tulips instead.

That’s why we’ve been so ‘tolerant’ for many centuries and tried to stay neutral during the two World Wars. Maybe you’ve seen the famous video of the Dutch colonel Thom Karremans (who was supposed to protect Srebrenica during the Balkan War), as he faced the angry Serbian commander Ratko Mladic. The leader of our armed forces mumbled from under his impressive white mustache: “I always say: ‘I’m the piano player. Don’t shoot the piano player’.” That could be our national motto: ‘Welcome to Holland, the world’s piano player’. We provide the music (and to get paid), but we prefer to stay in the background, and not take any responsibility.

Not only is Holland very small, it is also a swamp. Great swaths of our country are below sea level. We’ve drained the water very ingeniously over the centuries, and locked it behind our famous sturdy dams, but it’s still plotting revenge. This adds to our opportunistic mentality. To quote our great (and not very patriotic) author W.F. Hermans: “If a group of people spends centuries living on a piece of land that actually belongs to fish, then these people will develop a philosophy deprived of anything human! A philosophy focused exclusively on self-preservation! A worldview whose only goal is to avoid feeling wet! They won’t have any room for the larger problems.”

So now you understand. We’re surrounded by Germany, France, England, and a whole lot of water. Combine that with the general Northern European fetish for control, and you understand why everything is so neat and orderly and capitalistic here. We need to be alert for opportunities and make a lot of money to protect ourselves, because this dream that we’re living could end any second.

Every traveller faces the paradox of ‘tourism’: you want an authentic experience, but at the same time you want some comfort. You want to hike in the jungle, but sleep in a nice hotel. Locals are willing to provide that comfort and thus create a touristic industry, which threatens to kill all authenticity by offering it as a comfortable product. The hike now takes place on a desgnated jungle path, with hotels along the way. On the other hand, when you decide to leave that path and just sleep in the jungle on your own, you might get eaten by some unknown creature (yes, a zombie, I was referring to zombies again).

But in Amsterdam, we’ve perfected the tourist industry and make a lot of money from it (most of which doesn’t even go to its people or even the municipality, but to foreign companies like Airbnb), helped along by low budget airlines. This is why you’re being streamlined into this very narrow view of our city (and our country!): they don’t actually want you here. They just see you as customers, with the city as one big shop. They want you to walk a designated path, hand over your money, take pictures and get the hell out of here.

They want to control your experience, but they don’t want to connect with you as human beings. God no. Here’s another Dutch saying: “Both visitors and fish stay fresh for three days”. Mind you, that’s our hospitality guide for those who are close to us: nice that you’re here, my sister with whom I shared my childhood, but please don’t stay at my house for more than a weekend. Imagine how they think of you.

I know what you’re thinking: but everybody’s so nice here! Indeed, visitors are always raving about our English language skills. And yes, I’m proud of the fact that Dutch cinemas don’t dub their movies, as they do in more chauvinistic countries like Italy or Turkey, enabling us to learn the English language faster. But I don’t think shop keepers, waitresses or hosts immediately start speaking in English to you because they want to welcome you. I think it’s the opposite: it’s because they want to keep you at bay, like the water that surrounds us. They don’t even want to give you a chance to try and speak our language, because they don’t want you to stay. They don’t encourage you to say simple things like ‘Dank je wel’ or ‘Dag!’, while even the Americans shout ‘Merci’ and ‘Bonjour’ at their Parisian hosts. They suck up to you, make you feel at home, but only within your designated tourist bubble where you have to spend your money, like a hostage of consumerism.

And that’s such a waste. In this tourist bubble of yours, you’re raised like an only child who gets all the attention from his parents. It may feel nice, but actually you’re not fully appreciated for who you are. You become arrogant, limited and lazy. You start thinking that you own Amsterdam and its people, and the inhabitants hate you for it. When one of the great lessons that travelling can teach is actually: humility. When you try to utter a few words in a strange language or get lost in a new environment, you realize how insignificant you and your whole identity really are. When you talk to a local, you understand that your personal set values is only relative. And that vulnerability makes you a better person.

Take your cycling skills, for example. I know Americans compare something that’s easy to ‘riding a bicycle’, but even things that are easy to learn come with different levels of skill. Like swimming. Or hotdog eating. Anyone can eat a hotdog, but only Joey Chestnut can eat 69 hotdogs in ten minutes. Dutch people basically come cycling out of the uterus at birth, on a tiny baby bike, so we’re really good at it. Way better than you, especially in our city.

This would be alright, only if you realized how bad you are and adopted a more humble cycling style. Instead you are in our way, swaying like maniacs. Last summer, a Portugese tourist got so lost on his bike that she ended up on the freeway and had to be contained by the police. Imagine an amateur guitarist, obliviously trying to jam along with Prince; that’s you when you’re cycling in Amsterdam. You’d better watch and learn.

The same goes for walking. Amsterdam may seems like an open-air museum, but there are actually a lot of subtle rules for where you should walk. In fact, with every time from any curb, you could be entering an entire new sphere. So be careful. In 2016, the Amsterdam ambulance service warned about a sharp increase in accidents involving tourists, who either stepped in front of speeding local bicycles, or who fell face-down from their own.

And there’s so many of you. A city with about 800.000 inhabitants, hosts about 15 million visitors each year. Now consider the fact that you’re all confined within the city center, and it’s no wonder you get hit by our bikes. You’re like a zombie wall that we have to get through when we want to reach our destination. The city has recently started to listen to its citizens, and now tries to limit the amount of visitors. But it’s too late.

This massive influx of tourists is also pretty ironic. As you may know, our immigration policy has hardened severely over the years, maybe finally showing Holland’s true intolerant face. Many asylum seekers got so frustrated with the bureaucratic hurdles they kept having to face that they committed suicide. An Iranian set himself on fire in Dam Square in 2011 – but you won’t get to see monument dedicated to him. The public opinion is now harsher than ever when it comes to foreigners, or even fellow citizens with different skin color. But when that xenophobe-voting cheese salesman sees a group of tourists, he smiles broadly and welcomes them: “Hello peoples! Where you from?”

That’s the worse part: your superficial presence is preventing those who actually want to build a life here from doing so. There’s a hotel or Airbnb apartment on every block, but students are unable to find a place, or they pay ridiculous prices for rooms the size of toilets. Immigrants, who put their life on the line to reach our country, have to stay in out-of-use prisons. Artists and young people who invested in the city, who partly made it the attractive travel destination it is today, are driven to the outskirts.

So there you are, in a consumerist bubble where you can only talk to other tourists or people who work in the industry that serves (or uses) you, in a city so crowded that you can hardly walk on its beautiful curbs without getting pushed off and hit by an angry Amsterdam cyclist. No adventures, no lessons, no authentic experiences, no new friends. You go home unchanged, with some IAmsterdam selfies and a lot less money, like you never even left, and I hate you. Why? Why would you do that?

There are those, including the director of the Rijksmuseum, who think we should attract more sophisticated tourists. I don’t believe that. All foreigners, when visiting another country, are inherently stupid. You can’t help it: you just don’t understand anything. I’m that way when I’m abroad: I stare endlessly at subway maps, my mouth open like a complete idiot. So you’re easy to nudge, or even to fool: if someone tells you to go somewhere, then that’s where you go. Every city gets the tourists it deserves.

I think there’s another way. First of all, don’t come to Amsterdam. As I said: it’s crowded and boring. I wouldn’t go here. Go to Lisbon. Go to Brussels. Much more exciting and interesting.

Then, when you do come, you should accept your touristic stupidity. And, now that you’re aware of it, don’t let anyone take advantage of it. Don’t take the easy route because the touristic industry makes you feel at home. You wanted to get away from home, right? So show some humility, and be brave. Turn off Google Maps and just wander around. Learn some basic Dutch and refuse to speak English for the first two minutes of a conversation.

Talk to us. We may be shy at first, but secretly we love to talk and our national history has actually made us a very curious and openminded people. As soon as we’re sure you’re not a German who wants to kill us, or a flood in human disguise, we’ll probably have a nice conversation with you. Maybe we’ll even teach you some Dutch swear words. Or some handy bike tricks. And you could teach us some things about your strange culture, too. And maybe, just maybe, this will make us all less scared of foreigners.

That’s the unfulfilled potential: real interaction, instead of checking off tourist boxes. Because you’re a curious person, not just a consumer. Just like me.

Your potential friend,

Rutger Lemm