Dutch stairs

5 June 2012

We climb up the stairs and the first thing I notice is the large, framed photo of Andy Warhol in a supermarket with a shopping trolley full of All American consumer products. My first thought is, oh, so this is that kind of place. What kind of place I mean isn’t immediately clear to me. And at present I’m too exhausted to care, so I file the thought away somewhere in my brain, like a letter back in its envelope to be read later. Right this moment I’m too busy climbing the staircase that’s making me feel like Judy on the bell tower in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Someone reassures me that it’s a typical Dutch staircase. It’s typically Dutch to have stairs that are as narrow as the road to heaven and as dangerously spiraling as the one to hell.

I’m carrying my baby, Seymour on my arm and my husband, Nathan is following somewhere behind us. Nathan sounds like he’s crawling up the stairs with the suitcases with the amount of noise his makes.

I was invited to Amsterdam to do a writer’s residency here. That was almost six months ago. And here I am sitting with my husband and the baby. It meant a lot to me to come here or rather to leave there. There being Cape Town, South Africa. But maybe more specifically, it was home that I had to leave for a while. I look at Nathan, he has never left South Africa, never left home even maybe. He has the aura of someone who’d never been out of the house.

Illustration: 'Caravaggio' by Nathan Trantraal

It’s been my hope that Europe might have a positive, transformative effect on him. That he could see perhaps that the world is bigger than a house and that all people and places are not in fact the same. And here he’s sitting at the window, overlooking Spuistraat’s CafĂ©’s.

Mesmerized by all the tilted buildings and the perfect symmetry of the cyclists and he keeps repeating to me or maybe to himself: “This set was built for me”.

He looks at me and he tells me that these people just live here while this place was made for him. I feel sorry for him not because he wants to be part of this city and can’t have it that way, but because if he could really have it his way he would take everyone out of the place and put them somewhere else. And he would live in this beautiful city alone.

Now we’re both sitting by the window and smoking, Seymour is asleep. We’re all exhausted and sick from the 13 hour flight but, we’re sitting by the window a bit looking at the old buildings, the almost ugly buildings except for the fact that they are beautiful in their own way. I feel a close affinity with these buildings because they communicate with me in a way that nature never does. Cape Town with its beautiful ocean, gardens and mountain has never spoken a word to me. All communication is one way, I speak and the mountain stares over the sea and says nothing. It’s clear that Cape Town was built by a god and Amsterdam by a man. And because I can appreciate what it is to create a world from scratch, these buildings speak to me.


My first official assignment was to do a reading at a Globalization lecture, where the writers Billy Kahora and Chika Unigwe spoke about cosmopolitism. The event was hosted by Wim Brands. What was interesting to me about it all wasn’t the lecture itself, but that a subject that has been so saturated can still draw an audience, I sat and wondered, what do people think about, do they really care about what is being discussed or are these kind of events just an excuse to get out of the house a little, or maybe it’s just what well-balanced, well educated people do. Everyone gets a chance to speak and everyone seems to be listening. Billy Kahora’s argument is rather inconsistent and clearly not well thought through, something about Afro-politism. I’m highly suspicious of anything related to culture or politics that has the Afro prefix and that Wim Brands, a person who is clearly very much more articulate, humors him sits extremely uneasy with me. The more seriously and sincerely Wim addresses Kahora with his half baked opinions the more patronizing it seems. Notwithstanding that Billy Kahora is a guest and that Wim is a host of sorts, you feel you want him to destroy Billy’s arguments if only to eradicate the suggestion that he might in fact just be indulging the African writer for whom these Europeans have generously created a platform irrespective of his limits as a public orator.


I go to the Rijksmuseum with my husband and baby and there is a line outside that stretches into eternity. But I ask one of the securities and show him my museum card and he says no, we don’t have to stand in line we can go on through. This is a turning point in my life, the first time that I don’t have to stand in line for something I really want. The want in this case being to meet the works of Johannes Vermeer in person. I have admired them for years from reading art books, but knowing artworks form art books is a bit like having a relationship over the internet. You can’t quite say you know that person unless you’ve met. You can’t really say you know a painting unless you’ve stood in front of it. We walk through the museum and my husband, an artist himself zones out into his own space. I leave him be, and tell myself we’ll drift back to each other at some point today. The large groups of people led by a curator congregating around the paintings for 2.5 minutes per painting is a bit amusing. I don’t understand how you can structure this kind of thing. Art being such an intimate thing. I search for the Vermeer paintings and I surprisingly find them huddled in a small space in one of the museums many corners. I think it’s quite fitting that they should have such an unobtrusive presence in this majestic gallery space. Vermeer’s soft spoken paintings, that quiet intelligence, that ordinariness that borders on the heavenly. I feel truly inspired for the first time since I’ve come to Amsterdam, for the first time since my arrival I catch a glimpse of that old world. Where for artists communicating with deities was a natural part of their daily lives. Not something that needed to be conjured, but something that was floating around in the air and all you had to do was grab it.


My second interview was for the newspaper NRC Handelsblad, conducted by the famous writer Christine Otten. On a wet, rainy day she walks into the apartment with a warm smile and a bouquet of tulips. Christine is not particularly writerly, in the sense that from the start we sidestep the pompous rituals of name checking at least 15 great writers per second and the prerequisite query about the best place to find a good theater that stages Russian plays from the 16th century. In other words we skip the intellectual sparring and dive right into where the best and cheapest places are to shop for baby clothes and groceries.

We sit and chat, and it’s so lovely I forget it’s an interview. She is responsible for my participation at Bijlmer Boekt! night where I share the stage with Jetty Mathurin, Zulile Blinker, Thomas Verbogt, Herman Koch, Pablo Nahar and Christine Otten. I discover that I know incredibly little about Surinam and its history, but Jetty Mathurin’s performance speaks to me and for a moment I can see the correlations between South African Coloureds and people from Surinam, but there is one huge difference, there is an air of Dutchness about the Surinamese’s story, it’s like being third world inside of your house and when you open your door you are living in the first world. (Black vs Brown and the wheel goes round and round.) There is a heaviness to her performance that almost reminds me too much of the ‘grown-ups’ in the Coloured community. She reads from her manuscript and tells stories about her years growing up and I realize that I’ve heard her story so many times in others, but the Dutchness around the story draws a line and we remain different from each other.

To be continued…


Ronelda S. Kamfer

Ronelda S. Kamfer (Cape Town, 1981) is one of the most exciting young South African poets at present. She was born and raised in Cape Town. She started writing as a teenager. Her poems have been published in a number of publications and she debuted in 2008 with Noudat slapende honde (Now That Sleeping Dogs) at Kwela publishers. 2009 she was awarded the Eugene Marais prize for the collection. She lists her influences as Charles Bukowski, Dylan Thomas, Antjie Krog and Adam Small. She is currently a student at The University of the Western Cape under Prof Antjie Krog.

See all weblogs by Ronelda S. Kamfer