(Filed from Rotterdam)
The flat is on the third floor of an apartment block in the centre of Rotterdam, a few blocks and a walk away from the big stories, Bijenkorf, Hema, V&D, Zara and many others. During the day a continuous stream of shoppers pound the streets below, increasing in number on a Saturday. At night there are the shouts of young people looking for entertainment in the bars, coffee shops, cafes and restaurants that intersperse the clothes shops with running gear, men’s clothes, jeans and outdoor gear, whilst further up towards the tramstops and going out of centre there are food shops a few butchers, bakers and patisseries, a frame shop and an art shop, an ice cream parlour just visible from my window; although in the middle of January with a never ending succession of cold rain showers and a sharp and painful wind, there are not as many people venturing out and dawdling as will be the case when the weather warms up again in spring and summer.
Each section of this apartment block building has four apartments, which you enter through a security front door at the street. The basement holds storage areas for each of the four flats but I have been unable to open the one belonging to the apartment. It looks as if someone has put in new locks and the keys no longer fit. There is a large apartment on each of the two lower floors going up and two smaller ones on the top floor where I am, right under the roof. There are no lifts and I need to carefully weigh up what I take down to street level in the morning in terms of rubbish, my empty rucksack and a shopping bag and how many full shopping bags I can carry back up. Since my accident last summer when I broke a leg my knees and right foot refuse to play game and have become stiff and at times are unmanageable and painful. I long for the ease of access to my own large detached house in rural England, which lies hidden in a large garden only a five minute walk away from the small town centre where I can buy all the essentials I need.
Here, every morning rubbish collectors shout their warnings and beep their siren when they carefully manoevre their large truck backwards into the narrow side street where they empty the bins that line the pavement at the top end and which are filled with rubbish by the apartment dwellers along the road, a continuous flow of full plastic black bags that sprawl across the top and sides as the bins fill up. I am a great contributor to this daily exercise of dumping waste, as I have taken it on me to empty the apartment of all the conceivable detritus that has collected over years of letting. The girls in the managing agency express their great relief and gratitude that someone at long last makes an effort to have good clear out: ‘so necessary – and when we have the place cleaned after tenants leave and before new ones come in, we don’t know what can be discarded as we are no longer sure about what belongs in the flat and what has perhaps been left by tenants.’
I suspect that most of what I find in the flat belongs to my son who left Rotterdam in a hurry when he transferred to England and then, a few years later, decided to move to Asia for his work. He was never the best of cleaners or the most tidy person around for that matter. I don’t tell the girls this but nod in agreement and for the past ten days on a daily basis I have carried down the stairs large bin bags full of old sheets and towels, a broken vase, a few dirty cushions and also some heavy equipment including a greasy bread fryer with crumbs still attached to the fat congealed at the bottom and heavy metal supports for a non-existent wall mounted TV that will never be put up.
Two sets of unwieldy window blinds for the two bedrooms upstairs have been left lying around when new double glazed windows were fixed so that the blinds no longer fit at the top: if fixed to the top of the frame they will prevent the new window to open to the inside as is customary with double glazed fixtures this high up. These windows have a rather clever design, not only will they block the noise penetrating inside the flat and avoid the heat escaping, the best thing about them is I think that you can open them in three different ways: just the top, sideways and with a tiny gap for airing. The problem is that the blinds have become useless. Now there are only curtains to cover the wide windows that reach from one end of the wall to the other and when these are open wide I imagine that from about fifty flats from opposite the roads at the front, where the shopping street is, and back people have a good view of what is going on inside this flat, they seem so close. Most of the flats I look at have tightly drawn curtains or blinds except for the ones on the higher floors. We will need to find a different solution to this conundrum so that we can enjoy the view without being looked at.
At night I close all the curtains upstairs as well as the blinds in the sitting room and in the kitchen, which have been refitted, I switch on the lights and with a touch of night frost beginning to rear its head I turn on the heater to a higher setting. The whole of the downstairs of this apartment has been redone with a lovely wooden floor, the kitchen is fully equipped with modern cooker and large fridge freezer and dishwasher and there is a four seater wooden table that looks out over the small balcony next to the kitchen from where you can look down at the daily hustle of garbage trucks and of people coming and going, men with briefcases of to work, fathers and mothers pushing prams, students getting on their bikes and shoppers pushing coins in the meters after parking their cars. Although there is an odd family with a very small child or baby, there are few families with growing up kids. This is not the place for them. This area is for young couples, singles, students and young and up coming professionals, people who want to live in the centre of a town because that is where there jobs are and that is where they go out.
The narrow hot and cold water pipes throughout the flat date back to the previous century and at night when all is quiet they emit unexpected rattles and noises that made me jump up the first few nights and wander through the apartment to find out if there was something amiss. Some of the pipes have been painted, others are shamelessly silver looking or brown. Others again have been painted with a gloss paint that peels off the moment hot water flows through them. Upstairs in the main bedroom where I sleep the floorboards creak under the carpet and resettle themselves after I have gone to bed and I sit up straight in in the middle of the night when a board slowly but very loud in the stillness of the night groans and creaks itself back in place. There may be an odd latecomer on the stairs outside in the communal staircase banging a front door or there is a noise on the roof that I cannot place. It is only by three o’clock in the middle of the night that everything seems to come to rest, only to come fully to life again at seven in the morning. I am not used to this, this closeness of so many other people and the noise and city smells that conjure up a kind of claustrophobia that I cannot shake off.
I’m on my own to sort things out. I have painted over walls in inside cupboards where a previous leak, now repaired, caused water damage. I have tidied and cleaned shelves and dusted and wiped nooks and crannies all through the flat and now I am ready to go back to my own comfortable home. I miss my large and luxurious bathroom, the quietness of the house and the peacefulness outside. I miss the space of my workroom upstairs with all its shelves full of books and magazines, and the comfortable desks. I also miss being able to walk out either into the village or into the garden without having to manage endless stairs.
Nevertheless, here I am able to write and edit every afternoon for between two and five hours, depending on how much tidying, fixing and cleaning there is to do around the flat and also on how many items I have to replace and therefore have to go for to shops. Sometimes I work in the open sitting room with the Mac on my lap in the one comfortable but very old chair near the large window overlooking the shopping street below; and slowly as the day draws to a close, it becomes darker and darker until all the lights are on in the shops and streets and the last workers and shoppers hurry home, some walking, others on their bikes or driving cars. There are always a few stragglers who hang on to inspect the shop windows once more, shivering and with their hands in their pockets or holding umbrellas against the rain that has just started again. At other times I sit in the kitchen at the table which is more conducive for editing and cutting and pasting, using the table as my mouse pad.
There are advantages of course of living in an urban area with all its conveniences. There are the many coffee shops that you can walk to, the bars and cafes where you can read a newspaper whilst enjoying a large cappuccino, I need one caffeine shot a day to keep me going and just around lunch time I pop out again to pick up some food from the local Albert Heijn and to stop on the way for my daily fix. Sometimes I treat myself to a large piece of apple tart accompanied by a blob a whipped cream, a Dutch treat, and one that I will not indulge in once back in England. On Saturdays there is a very large and busy market just downstairs off the side street, running along the Lijnbaan. I have bought a couple of side tables for the flat off one of the second hand stalls as well as fish, fruit and vegetables, and cheese of course. The crowds of people however are relentless and it is difficult to move forward at any pace at all. The second hand stalls sell everything from DVDs and CDs to old bicycles, picture frames, and second hand clothes in all shapes and formats. There is a strong trade in knick knacks, vases and pots, small photos, odd china sets, cups and saucers, pans, small tables, and even bedding. They are there, every week again and sometimes also on Tuesdays. Another parallel row of stalls displays fruit and vegetables, fish and bread and cakes, Indonesian delicacies and hot pancakes and Dutch stroopwafels. People stroll around, carrying bags full till the brim and pulling wheelie baskets behind them so that if you’re not careful you may trip; whilst they saunter along they eat deep fried battered fish or other warm food from greaseproof paper. After strolling along with the crowd I reach the end of the market near the Library and then decided to find another route back to the flat, unable to cope with the claustrophobia of the masses of people.
On Sundays, in particular in the morning, that same market area is completely deserted and the shops that do open for business only unlock their doors at 12 o’clock midday.
Cube houses in Rotterdam