It was the time before corona.
Jamaa, a regional technology sales leader, travelled to Europe from Nairobi to report to the head office in Stockholm. While on these annual trips, he never ventured on his own beyond the confines of the head offices or hotel. His spirit of adventure was limited to packaged city tours buses. He concluded that he could only handle Europe in small doses and usually after a week, he would be eager to return to the familiarity of Nairobi.
But after a generous company bonus, he decided to do something selfish, urged on by a senior executive who subtly reminded him to prioritise his mental health.
So Jamaa decided on a three day solo holiday and took a flight to Schiphol. Before this, Amsterdam was limited to Schiphol airport, a transit point. This would be his first trip into the city.
The immigration officer who picked him out of the crowd of travelers asked for his passport,
What brings you to Amsterdam?
He thought about it and replied,
Oh! A conference on tourism in Amsterdam?
No! I have come to Amsterdam, as a tourist.
He repeated slowly as he flipped through the passport. He stopped and examined the Schengen visa and then handed him back the passport and with a stiff smile said,
Enjoy your visit to Amsterdam, sir!
From previous traveling experience, he knew not to spread himself too thin by running through a checklist of attractions. He desired an upmarket experience in keeping with his new status in the company, away from the cliché tourist traps of the past. So he called Gili for a recommendation. Gili is a relative on his maternal side who had worked in Europe’s hotel industry for decades and had recently returned home to Kenya for good. She lived in Holland for many years.
She suggested a trip to Maastricht, a city in the south of the country strategically located between Belgium and Germany. Maastricht is where the Treaty on the European Union was signed in 1992.
Even just saying it, sounds gisty! Maastrichtttt…she added.
Jamaa thought it sounded remote.
I want something more posh and not far from Schiphol.
Okay, look up Hotel Twenty Eight.
That name does not sound posh.
It is in a posh area. You will feel it in your pocket.
A few days later, Jamaa checked into the apartment hotel Gili had recommended in the south of Amsterdam, happy with his decision to spoil himself a little. His apartment window overlooked a town square, lined with birch trees and decorated with suspended stone sculptures depicting different athletic disciplines. The square was surrounded by sleek apartments. Below them at street level, he could see a bakery, a flower shop, a supermarket, a cosmetics shop and a few bars and restaurants. Activity was moderate and it gave off the vibe of an upmarket mall in one of Nairobi’s leafy suburbs where expatriates live.
Across the road, over a tramline was the inspiration of the area. The Olympic stadium built for the 1928 Summer Olympics. There was a tall tower situated at the entrance of the Olympic stadium where the Olympic flame was lit for the first time. This was a prestigious national monument.
The stadium has since evolved into a multi-functional venue. One of its prime annual events is the Amsterdam marathon. Jamaa discovered that the first Kenyan to win the Amsterdam marathon was Joseph Jebet in 1996. Since then, Kenya has produced the highest number of winners in the Amsterdam marathon. If he had arrived three weeks earlier, he would have witnessed another Kenyan take pole position in the men’s event.
On his first day, he went on a long leisurely walk through the neighbourhood admiring the architecture, the parks and the manicured green spaces along the canals. Back at the hotel later in the day, he stopped by a restaurant located on the ground floor. The long bar was empty and two bar waiters stood in the corner engaged in conversation. He allowed them time to notice him but they did not seem to acknowledge his presence. As he was about to draw their attention, he saw a blonde-haired young woman in a branded white shirt walking towards him.
She said something to him in Dutch and he asked her to repeat it in English.
Of course… …I was saying can I help you? Are you looking for something?
He did not understand why she would ask him that question as he was seated on a bar stool waiting to make an order and felt irritation rising but held his cool.
Can I get a beer?
She stared at him blankly for a brief moment and then switched to a professional tone,
Of course, what beer would you like?
A dark one.
And as she walked hurriedly back to get the order, Jamaa began to wonder what she saw, when she saw him.
On the second day, he followed another Gili tip and rented an e-bike for the day. It was a comfortable bike designed to make it easier to ride against the wind. He discovered a leafy public park called Vondelpark that reminded him of the old Uhuru Park in Nairobi during public holidays. A place where people come to see and to be seen.
Later in the evening, emboldened by his newfound sense of adventure, Jamaa returned to the recognizable Olympic square. He located the lively bar that he had seen from his rented apartment window and anticipated the opportunity of mingling with the locals.
He found a bicycle parking rack nearby, locked his e-bike and put the key in his pocket. As he pushed the bar door open, he remembered that he had forgotten to chain the bike. Gili had warned him to chain the bicycle to something immovable like a lamp post and never to rely on the bike lock.
They will steal your bicycle in Amsterdam, be sure.
Everyone chains their bicycles with a thick chain; the kind that you would use to secure a metal gate in Nairobi’s industrial area. Even the old rusted ones. He found it strange that bicycles are not safe in a country that is closing down its prisons.
A middle aged man with a round bald patch wearing geeky spectacles parked his bicycle next to Jamaa’s. It was branded with a company, Rent-a-bike, logo and he also used an extra chain. Probably a tourist, thought Jamaa.
The middle aged man complimented Jamaa’s bicycle and they walked into the bar together and sat by the counter, leaving two stools between them. They both waited a long time to be served. The four employees behind the counter were busy, doing their separate tasks. After some time, the bespectacled man leaned over the bar and demanded service firmly but politely and a young woman who had been arranging glasses turned her attention to him. When she approached, she found Jamaa ready with his order.
“I would like to have what that gentleman just ordered, the dark one? I cannot pronounce it, my tongue is heavy.”
“Zatte tripel, Brouwerij ‘t”
“ Yes, that is what I am looking for. The dark one.”
The two strangers raised their glasses to each other and moved closer, finding affability in a beer and a shared language. The bespectacled man soon launched into a complaint about the standard of service in Dutch bars. He found it too slow and made a diagnosis. Most bars are staffed with temporary employees who are not trained professionals. They simply do not care about your feelings.
The Dutch like to say they are direct but I find many of them rude! But they treat you better once you become a regular at a bar.
He informed Jamaa that they were not drinking a dark beer but a strong blonde beer from Belgium. He went to great lengths to explain its production characteristics and its taste. Jamaa would normally have settled for the recognizable Heineken beer and he was glad to discover and enjoy a drinking experience outside his comfort zone. And then, the bespectacled man touched on a sensitive subject.
You speak very good English.
Jamaa was not sure whether to read that as a compliment or as patronising ignorance. In his younger days, his response would have been immediately militant, but the years had toned him down as he had grown weary of assuming a defensive posture every time he felt prejudice in white spaces. He preferred to counter it with the wit of sarcasm.
I am from Kenya, the Queen’s favourite colony.
A little disclaimer, I am English.
Of all the Europeans Jamaa had interacted with, it was the British that he was well acquainted with. He had played rugby against them in Nairobi, stayed at safari camps run by khaki-wearing conservationists and mingled with their corporate executives in private members clubs. He knew the reputation of the young and restless soldiers at the British army base in Nanyuki and the old and broke “wazungu kimbos” stuck in Mtwapa along the Kenyan coast. He had hoped to strike up a rapport with a native Dutch speaker and get intimate with the culture. All was not lost. The Englishman was an astute observer of Dutch life.
“Do you live in Amsterdam?” Jamaa asks the Englishman out of curiosity.
No, I am from London, here for business.
What about you, do you live here?
No, I live in Nairobi.
What brings you to Amsterdam? Work?
You are a tourist? and where are you staying?
Across the road?
At the Hotel Twenty Eight!
The Englishman looked genuinely surprised and offered unsolicited advice.
That is expensive. You can get a much better deal where I am staying at the Olympic Hotel just behind the stadium.
But, I like it. It doesn’t feel too much like a hotel.
There was a lull in the conversation and the two men returned the focus to their beers.
What did you say you are here for?, asked the Englishman .
For a tourism conference in Amsterdam South?
No, I am a tourist.
Jamaa could sense the Englishman was trying to get something off his chest and eventually he did,
Forgive me for being so forward, how long did it take you to plan for this holiday?
So you must be rich?
Not in my country.
The Englishman returned to his beer and took a generous gulp.
Is this your first time in Europe?
Jamaa decided to nod as he was enjoying reading the Englishman’s perplexed face.
You will love it here, the architecture, the history, the art, roads that date back to the sixteenth century still exist.
‘I look forward to it. Have you been to Africa?
Never been and I wouldn’t go.
Jamaa noticed the fidgety eyes and he did not press for details but instead changed the topic.
What should I know about the Dutch?
At this, the Englishman perked up and dropped his eyes as one does when about to gossip.
I have been coming here for five years. Everything is expensive compared to London. Be blunt, they don’t trust overly friendly people, and Amsterdam is not the Netherlands.
Forget the liberalism, you see in Amsterdam. They have a BiBle belt. Just like in America. Some parts are so conservative, the women do not wear trousers. Ever heard of black stocking churches?
The Englishman continued to entertain Jamaa with his travel tales, answering all his questions about popular Dutch national stereotypes, the people, the country and its history. Eventually, Jamaa realised he would be late for a scheduled phone call to his family in Nairobi and bade his acquaintance goodbye after paying for the drinks.
The Englishman was surprised by his generosity and he offered to buy a last round. Jamaa declined as he slipped into his warm jacket in readiness to leave.
I am sorry, I never asked your name?
My name is Jamaa.
Jamaa…Does it mean anything in your native language?
It means a regular guy
He looked at Jamaa unconvinced,
There is nothing regular here, you are posh!