I’m standing in a hailstorm on a November morning in Amsterdam, reading the black-stenciled words on a storefront window: BEAUTY AND PAIN. An apt description of this city, where dapper street vendors sell tiny skewered pancakes in the shadow of Anne Frank‘s last home, and where swans cut a graceful path through serene canal waters, disrupting reflections of neon signs advertising all-live triple-X sex shows.
Beauty and pain, it says, and I know I’ve found ASCII, a squatted Internet cafe. ”Squatted“ meaning the people who live and work here don‘t pay rent. This 18th-century building — overlooking Heren canal and surrounded by an upscale window-shopping district — has been inexplicably abandoned or underused by its landlords, and so squatters have claimed it for their own, turning it into an Internet cafe where unlimited online access is free.
There are squatters all over the globe, but the Amsterdam scene is special. Population density here is among the highest in Europe. There’s a housing shortage. Rents are skyrocketing. So squatting has become less of a last resort for the homeless and more of a viable lifestyle for students, laborers, even young professionals. And for hardcore lefties who reject the whole concept of private ownership of land, it continues to be a form of living protest.
Relatively accommodating Dutch laws help squatters keep eviction notices at bay, so they‘ve had the time to set up a true shadow society. In Amsterdam, there are squat nightclubs, squat restaurants, squat newspapers and squat radio stations. A zine called The Shark lists locations of squat establishments and their activities, which are mostly open to the public and usually free.
The Shark has led me to ASCII. But my expectations are low. Once you’ve heard about a scene, it‘s almost by definition dead, or at least dying. I hesitate at the door until a blast of frigid wind turns my umbrella inside out.
It’s drier inside, but no warmer. A lone electric radiator strains to heat the big room and fails. Pierced and tattooed teens sit at rickety tables lining the walls of the ancient, gutted space, hunched over hulking old PCs running Linux. In the back, a friendly Canadian expatriate sells cheap coffee and chunks of homemade brownie. The place smells of rotting wood and hash smoke. A stereo blasts the shrieking protest punk of Stiff Little Fingers and Dutch mainstays The Ex. ASCII is a beautiful anachronism, and the most authentically cyberpunk thing I‘ve ever seen. Breath frosting, fingers numb, I sit at a computer and type ecstatic e-mails to friends in the States: ”This is everything I hoped for. I’m home.“
For some of us, that‘s what travel is — a search for a home away from home, someplace that jibes with the way we live our lives, or want to live our lives.
Surrogate homes aren’t easily found. When I flew to northern Italy, I figured I‘d touch down in the Old Country and roots would burst from my feet. But it only took a few days to realize I’m less importantly Italian and more importantly a closet punk. Northern Italy is all gentle hills and slow, dreamy days that tend to induce naps. It doesn‘t rock. It rolls.
Amsterdam’s squats, though, they rock me to the bone. After ASCII I am obsessed, prowling back alleys, battered copy of The Shark in hand, an urban explorer. In the warehouse district: a squat bakery set up on what looks like an abandoned racquetball court. Next to it: a squat art gallery exhibiting exquisite little pieces of junk sculpture. In the museum district: a squat restaurant where 4 bucks buys a four-course vegetarian meal and a bottle of good Vos beer. And everywhere there‘s code. Punks with straight-edge X’s scrawled on the backs of their hands. ”Free Mumia“ stickers plastered on windows and sidewalks. This is the language of rebels and radicals, and it speaks to me.
The message gets garbled only once, at FH-111, a squat residence, restaurant and leftist broadsheet dispensary rolled into one. I‘m here for a meal, but as I walk in I’m confronted with a huge cartoon mural depicting a city scene from hell: A skinny doper snorts piles of coke through straws jammed up each nostril; a wide-eyed maniac holding a gun clutches a bullet-riddled ”Holly Bible“; a skinhead rears back with an ax, ready to behead a crippled old lady; a burning jet hurtles toward collision with a housing project; a billboard screams BUY MORE STUFF.
It‘s cultural satire, of course, the kind of aggro graffiti that makes sense in, say, the ghettos of L.A. But in Amsterdam? This is hardly a gun-toting town. The billboards are few and small, so as not to spoil the view. And has there ever been a Dutch ax murderer?
Maybe the mural is just a generic vision of capitalist dystopia. But a look through FH-111’s racks of pamphlets and propaganda suggests this is how these squatters see their city. I grab a flier protesting a proposed ”Bayside Expo“ project that will raze a huge section of Amsterdam, leaving hundreds of squatters homeless. I‘ve been living in a permissive city that allows the squat scene to exist. They live in a city of greed that’s determined to bury them beneath upscale corporate complexes.
Beauty and pain. I‘m only beginning to understand how deep both go here. Until I do, I’m just a tourist, a poseur, and a long way from home.