An American Girl in Amsterdam

Our writer travels to the Dutch capital in search of what attracts its growing Black expat community—and what keeps It there

by Ayana D. Byrd, September 13, 2012


Amsterdam had become the Bermuda triangle of my social life. One by one, girlfriends traveled to the city for a visit and didn’t come back, deciding that they loved it so much, they would stay. After a college friend quit her big-deal job, moved there and told me, without a hint of irony, she’d be happy “sweeping streets” in Amsterdam, I knew I had to find out what kind of spell this northern European city cast. When the opportunity arose last summer via a two-week apartment exchange, my boyfriend and I packed our bags and headed off. ¶ Though Paris and Rome seduce visitors with dazzling monuments and a frenetic pace, Amsterdam doesn’t go for the bells and whistles. Soon after our arrival, I surmised that life here feels as calm as the water that flows through the 165 canals. A recent study revealed the Dutch work fewer hours (30.6 per week) than other European Union residents, which came as no surprise as I witnessed the city’s leisurely pace: Meals last three hours, the parks are always crowded and bicycles are the primary mode of transportation.

My days were spent navigating cobblestoned streets dotted with overgrown trees or narrow brick homes and walking along shimmering canals wishing I had a houseboat. When I grew tired, I’d find a “brown bar,” the term for the city’s quintessential drinking establishments, filled with locals enjoying beer, broodjes (sandwiches) and, always, laughter. Nights were spent indulging in music, either at hip-hop and R&B shows or sitting in a lounge listening to ’70s soul.

The Netherlands held colonies throughout Africa and the Caribbean for hundreds of years and has long been home to a population that includes people who look as I do. But what kept me from declaring this an urban vacation mecca was knowing that come December, these same streets would be full of Dutch people in blackface for the annual celebration of Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete,” Santa’s dark-skinned helper. I also had to walk past the Anne Frank house—a stark reminder of the city’s complicated past—to get anywhere from the apartment.

But being in a place that’s figuring out how to move into a more integrated future made me feel hopeful. Amsterdam’s commitment to embracing its multiculturalism—as well as how safe the city feels—gave me insight into why my friends were making it their adopted home. Though my time in the city was limited, the warmth, welcome and, most important, balance I felt makes Amsterdam not only worthy of a visit but, yes, a relocation.



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