Friday, July 10, 2009


I spent a couple of days in Rotterdam last week. It’s a funny, eccentric, ugly little city – a million miles from Amsterdam, even if it’s only a matters of kilometres away.

Where Amsterdam’s waterways are romantic, evocative, Rotterdam’s, as you might expect – it being Europe’s largest port – are purely functional; murky waters impeded by tugs and cranes. Similarly, it’s architecture, built from the ground up after the city was flattened in the war, is constructed for practical purposes. It’s as if the buildings of the city sprang back from desolation simultaneously, without conferring. Nothing matches, nothing is complimentary. It is a higgledy-piggledy, matter-of-fact city. Ossip Zadkine called it a city without a heart, for its historical centre is absent. There’s another centre there now, but it’s not altogether convincing. Still the ships pass through its river, of course – so it’s a city with an artery.

It’s the Netherlands’ workers city. At the conference I was attending we were told a lovely story, apocryphal or not. It’s a tradition in Rotterdam, we were informed, that when one buys a shirt in one of the city’s boutiques, it is sold with the sleeves already rolled up, so that one can begin work immediately. Perhaps because it’s a city where people work, rather than play, it has a much more multicultural feel than I had expected – with women in headscarves visible on every street. Indeed the current mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, is a practising Muslim. Almost half of the population are not native to the Netherlands or have at least one parent born outside the country. On the plane back to London, I noted, the landscape is barely visible – instead one hovers above an endless sea of warehouses and petrochemical industries. There are no landmarks, just endless, featureless industry.

In the city itself, it’s rather different – especially late at night. By day it’s not quite right to say that Rotterdam works. It also shops. At night, it’s not true to say it sleeps. As well, it parties. Not in the same way that Amsterdam parties, however. There are no coffee-shops, no hip bars. Instead there’s a succession of outdoor cafes, blaring out Euro trance music. The clientele drink late. As well as a working city, a multicultural city, it’s a young city, too. When me and Sam called it a night on Tuesday – at 3am – the revellers surrounding us were showing no signs of stopping. One girl managed a monumental, drunken tumble on the street in front of our table. A hop, skip and a jump, trying to right herself. Eventually she lost her footing, her head colliding gently with a nearby chair. Her friends crowded around her, concerned. Because they were pretty, men crowded around them, faking concern.

The next evening we took a river taxi across the Nieuwe Maas to the Hotel New York, where we drank cool beer and ate dinner. The night before we had ordered a kind of Amstel we’d never seen before – three quarters of a bottle before we realised it was alcohol free. From the river Rotterdam is transformed, because although it remains ugly, there’s something wonderful about a river through a city, just as there is a shoreline. We stumbled after the last Metro of the night, and the staff showed us another Rotterdam characteristic – they were welcoming and generous of nature. Smiling at our uncertainty, a guide hastily gave us three free tickets and ushered us onto the train.

No comments: