This tour was originally created during the winter 2021 Covid-19 restrictions in Amsterdam. By the spring, the Netherlands was still in a strict lockdown where museums and galleries remained closed. The following locations were imagined within the scope of possible activities that could still be carried out legally following Dutch health protocols. With gyms and all cultural venues closed, meetings outside of a household limited to one other person, and a 9pm curfew in place, public parks and other outdoor spaces have become typical places for getting together. During this tour public sport locations feature prominently as social meeting spaces, as well as urban architecture, a supermarket, and a food takeaway. I hope this tour gives an alternative vision of Amsterdam and will serve in the future as an indicator of our current times.
THE TORENSLUIS Built in 1648, this is the widest bridge in Amsterdam. The initial plan had the ambition to be similar to the Rialto Bridge in Venice, but due to the lack of finance it ended up less flamboyant. Underneath there used to be a dungeon for criminals and outcasts (because it was at the edge of the city) and later became a squat where parties and screenings took place. The access to it is now closed but the canal side can be a quiet spot for a coffee.
KINDERBOERDERIJ DE DIERENCAPEL Located in the Westelijke Eilanden neighborhood, De Dierencapel is a tiny petting farm, and the most central one. It is home to three sheep (Veronique, Dotje, and Noortje), eleven chickens, two pigs, five Guinea pigs, six ducks, eight rabbits, and two goats (Alana and Maya). On our way there, we will say hi to Kees van Gelder from the windows of Galerie van Gelder, one of the oldest and most interesting contemporary art galleries in Amsterdam.
PLANTAGE PARKLAAN This outdoor sport spot has several squeaky workout machines and it is hard to notice because it is sandwiched between a wall and the fence of a football pitch. Every time I walk past, I use the hip spinner and hang out with the elders. As sports places are closed, and the time that can be dedicated to making art has warped—for example, I cannot access my studio at night—these public facilities act as an outlet for leftover energy. For me, sport brings aspects that I miss in art: direct group interaction and a clear reward and penalty system. During my first year at the Rijksakademie, I started a BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) club where I invited all the residents to come train together on mats that I had in the studio. It was a way to put in parallel the blurry competition and intensity of the residency next to the controlled and playful violence (and care) of this martial art—using our bodies instead of theorizing about them.
PONTANUSSTRAAT Another outdoor sport place, in the Dapperbuurt neighborhood. The exercise machines point towards the street so it is more suitable for extroverts or carefree seniors. It is also more sociable because it has a pingpong table and a basketball court. The neighborhood is an example of a very Amsterdam-specific mix of Caribbean, Indonesian and north African cultures, in addition to a gentrifying hip population. While younger people might book an outdoor crossfit session with a coach via an app, the chibanis (“white hairs,” older Maghrebi immigrants) come to use this public sport place because it’s free, accessible, and doesn’t need any technology.
LIDL, EERSTE VAN SWINDENSTRAAT A freshly renovated Lidl. As opposed to Albert Heijn or Mercadona, Lidl supermarkets exist in most countries in Europe. It has a unique and nostalgic non-place feel that gives a sense of shared home. It is a microrepresentation of Europe where pasteis de nata, croissants, appelflapjes, and böreks are bound together by cheapness. In these pandemic days, Lidl is a comforting portal to European cities and a time travel to my student years.
BOULDERWAN MEERPARK Since indoor climbing walls are closed, this is one of the few free outdoor alternatives. This one looks like a chicken cordon bleu. As opposed to the public fitness parks, this boulder is for niche users. One good thing about the pandemic situation in Amsterdam is that it made us aware of the public space the city offers. Yet there are no free public toilets in the city, for example, and really that should have been solved before a professional climbing wall.
LALLA ROOKH Situated at the end of the Dapper market, this Surinamese-asian restaurant and take-away has delicious food and a beautiful logo of a ship splashing out of a wok pan. The name Lalla Rookh (“rosy-cheeked” in Farsi) is taken from the title of the orientalist romance by Irish poet Thomas Moore, published in 1817. It is an unusual mix of influences that makes one wonder how it was all pieced together. The answer goes through forced migration and the expansionist plans of the Dutch in the 17th century. What remains as a binder is the food.
I moved to Amsterdam in August 2020 but amid the pandemic restrictions I still feel new to the city. With museums closed and events cancelled, it has been difficult to get situated in a new city. Right before this tour with Salim I had returned to Amsterdam after a few weeks at home in Barcelona. The restrictions and closure of museums and galleries in the Netherlands had put a complete stop to my work as an art critic and my reason for being in Amsterdam—to meet artists and learn about the local scene as a participant of De Appel’s Curatorial Programme. Instead there were always the same four walls, the really impersonal feeling of Zoom seminars that could be joined from anywhere in the world, and the strange sense of experiencing the world through a screen— something Salim’s tour aimed to fight against.
I met Salim Bayri through Ghita Skali, another Casablanca-born artist living in Amsterdam, whose work I had recently seen at De Ateliers and the Stedelijk Museum. Salim and Ghita had developed an exhibition together at Motel Spatie in Arnhem just before the lockdown which involved visitors eating sunflower seeds and spitting the husks on the floor—no longer an appropriate activity during the health crisis, but one that created a very interesting and complex commentary on participation, food, culture, and class. Sharing food and questioning the prescribed function of space through awkwardness and humor also become the focus for Salim’s tour.
Following Dutch health guidelines and advice to limit contact and avoid busy places, we can only participate in a very limited batch of socially distanced activities. Nevertheless, what transpires is an enjoyable day playing within the rules and the fine line between private and public space. We meet for coffee in the center of Amsterdam. At least, I have a coffee. Salim doesn’t like coffee. In a series of videos titled Coffee Reviews (2019–20) made together with the artist Lee McDonald, Salim reviewed the quality of various free coffees from different locations in the Netherlands without ever trying the drink.
The first location of the day—the Torensluis—is the widest bridge in the city. Inmates were originally kept in prisons underneath it, and later a parking lot was built on top of it. Today the prison is no longer used and a small pier creates a nice breakfast spot right by the lapping water.
This is our only typically touristic spot of the journey. Next, Salim leads the way by bicycle to Galerie Van Gelder, the gallery that represents his work. It is a classic gallery in Amsterdam, although one that I have unfortunately not yet been able to visit on the inside. It was founded by Kees van Gelder 40 years ago and gave the first solo shows in Amsterdam to artists including John M. Armleder, Olivier Mosset and Steven Parrino. I take a picture of Salim in front of the closed door. I will come back again to visit when they reopen. Very close by is a small petting zoo nestled on the Prinseneiland. Small pigs, goats, sheep, and rabbits live on prime real estate next to a beautiful canal. The day is sunny and warm, and the animals are enjoying running on the grass and munching food. We are not allowed to go inside the petting zoo due to Covid-19 restrictions, but we observe the animals from over the fence. Open or not, the caretakers are at work, feeding and cleaning up with or without visitors.
I have a moment of déjà vu from the very beginning of my time in Amsterdam. I had got in touch with an old friend, the painter Elizabeth De Witt, and she had taken me to a small garden directly next to the petting zoo. Unless you know about it, it’s hard to miss, but it is a lovely garden with a pier on the canal. When it is warm enough people jump into the canal. Salim and I sit on a sunny bench for a moment watching someone work on their boat. We reflect on the fact that many people in the Netherlands seem to suffer from burnout—but they are really not that busy. Maybe it’s something about the need to always appear occupied that produces it rather than a real workload? Maybe it’s something cultural? Salim suggested people aren’t really comfortable talking about their feelings here. Maybe I am experiencing a bit of a culture clash here because I talk too much and too honestly about my own feelings.
We cross Amsterdam and go down to the Southeast where Salim lives, and where the Rijksakademie is, where he has been a resident since 2019. We cycle through Haarlemerstraat and talk more about the society here in the Netherlands. There is a false idea that it is secular; there are indicators of Protestantism everywhere. Until as recently as the 1960s, Dutch society was segregated by religion in a social policy called “Pillarization.” Salim said that when the Netherlands declared independence from Spain in 1581 the names of all the churches changed. Rather than being named after saints, they gained matter-of-fact nomenclature: “old,” “new,” or cardinal directions. It’s a very practical place. The symbolism has been stripped away.
We arrive at the first exercise park on the itinerary, in the Plantage neighborhood. Even with the sunny day there are not too many people here. Groups of older residents are using these machines. Compared to my neighborhood in Nieuw-West, where all the machines use weights, these work well, are not broken, and even include instructions that have not been graffitied over or scratched off. We are full of energy, so we do the entire routine using all the machines. Our favorite, the “Air-walker,” makes you lunge in high steps and look like a cartoon character.
On our way to the second exercise gym we pass Salim’s house and beside a huge windmill. Next to the structure there is a bar which is a popular place with Rijksakademie residents. Salim suggests we stop for a drink. I want to stop even just to use the bathroom—finding a bathroom is a big problem in Coronavirus times! We see the menu and think we can get a snack before continuing. Kibbeling? A typical fried fish snack in the Netherlands. Salim says they are better from the Dappermarket. We could get a drink here and then go to the market for some Kibbeling. Yet only after parking our bikes do we realize that it is closed; plans foiled. Salim says that one of the things he misses most during the lockdown is spontaneity. Now you have to plan everything, reserve spots, check online if the place is open, and go back home to use the toilet.
We cycle on to the next location—another outdoor exercise gym. This one is a little bit further out of Amsterdam and is surrounded by public housing with more of a neighborhood vibe. There are similar machines but they are not as good quality as the previous site. The abs plank is angled way too high to be useful. I do a couple of sit ups from an absurdly tilted position. Young people are hanging out and some guys are playing basketball. By this point we are getting a bit hungry and eager to get some snacks. Salim was already thinking about the climbing wall we would go to later and climbs up the fence of the public gym.
On the way to the Eerste Van Swindenstraat branch of Lidl we decide to challenge ourselves to get the “Lidl-est” snacks in the supermarket. Salim gets some cheese waffle cones and I choose some sausages and pre-prepared sandwiches. All Lidl stores have some identical products. The pastry and bakery section represents a European selection, with Pastéis de nata, butter croissants, olive focaccias, käsecroissants, alongside some local pastries with jam, and frikandellen. The supermarket has become a lively place of encounter during the pandemic. They play music and neighbors meet here in the brief moments when they leave their houses. Recently Lidl became a coveted brand after they produced socks and sneakers with their logo which became very sought-after items. I consider it a good thing that brands are appreciated not because of clout or exclusive prices but because they are cheap and practical. This location seems to me like the most accurate representation of lockdown Amsterdam. Everyone is really into cooking at home and going to the supermarket.
We bring the Lidl snacks to an outdoor climbing wall in the south of Amsterdam. Salim took up climbing only recently and this is one of the few places people can still climb safely within the pandemic restrictions. We are the only people here but chalk marks on the grips show that this location is popular with climbing pros. I try my best but can only manage the easier routes. You need arm strength and to learn the logic of climbing in order to do this well. Salim does some of the harder routes. I get a bit distracted by the Lidl snacks and spend some time eating them and watching him figure out a route. I climb another easy route and a bird flies over and steals the rest of the snacks. It was okay with me because they were not very good. The cheese cones were particularly disappointing.
The final destination is Lalla Rookh, a Surinamese takeaway restaurant near the Dappermarket. Salim is a big fan of their graphic design and the logo of a colonial ship sailing on an ocean inside a wok. We order and walk over to a nearby park to enjoy the food in the sunshine. This is the tastiest Surinamese food I have had so far in Amsterdam, and there are many good places. Bakabana is battered fried plantain dipped in a spicy peanut sauce. The inside is warm and gooey and the outside is crunchy. These are perfectly fried and have a wonderfully sweet and salty combination. We also have some spring rolls and skewers. Salim asks me what I think is the worst quality in human beings. After reflecting a bit I say malice. He disagrees and suggests greed. We speak about the seven deadly sins and look up the definitions of avarice and wrath. After this visit, I am sure that my sin is gluttony as Lalla Rookh was my highlight of the entire tour.
The pandemic has left me with the feeling of having moved to a shell of a city. I have become familiar with how to get around it, but not with what is behind its closed doors, or what its normal ambience is. It has been a strange and unsettling experience. The De Appel programme was known for its intense travel schedule and for facilitating meetings with people in the cultural sector—activities which both have been legally curtailed. There is a sense of urgency to adapt to the new reality and find new ways of getting to know artists through the few activities we can still do together. I used to complain about small talk, but now I realize how important it is. The moments of seemingly insignificant hellos and chats while pouring coffee during breaks with colleagues have gained a new significance. But Salim doesn’t like coffee.