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‘My greatest fear is of waiters and porters’

I am fascinated by the relation between people’s looks and the freedoms they are given by others. An important aspect of this is that I do not believe that so-called public spaces are accessible for everybody. The way people dress, or the way they behave, can be a reason for others to exclude them.

UBL01-P326N312-largeVieuxDoelen

Print of the Vieux Doelen from 1844, published by A.P. van Langenhuysen, now in the University Library of Leiden (Bijzondere Collecties).

The twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote an evocative poem about this – about being out of place and not feeling welcome in the poshest hotel of the Netherlands’ poshest city (translation below):

Du Vieux Doelen

Het kijken van voorbijgangers braveren.
Doen of ik iemand ben bij elke stap.
Zoals ik deed als knaap en voor de grap,
om mij daarmee allure aan te leren.

Doen of ik niemand ben en zo riskeren
te zweven tussen schouderklop en trap,
tussen toenadering en achterklap,
maar altijd dupe van de hoge heren.

Voor obers en portiers ben ik het bangst.
Een klein vergrijp tegen de etiquette
moet ik bekopen met een blik die kwetst.

Ook al beweeg ik me op ‘t allernetst,
ze blijven uit de verte op mij letten.
Het eind waaraan zij trekken is het langst.

[rough-and-ready translation:]

Hotel Du Vieux Doelen

Braving lookers-on.
At every step pretend to be someone.
Like I did as a boy for a laugh,
in order to teach myself some class.

Pretend to be no one and risk
both pats on the shoulder and kicks,
both friendly approach and backbiting,
but remaining the victim of gentlemen.

My greatest fear is of waiters and porters.
The tiniest breach of etiquette
must be paid for with glances like bayonets

However politely I move about,
they keep an eye on me from afar.
They always get the last laugh.

The poem is part of a series about The Hague, about the modernity of The Hague, and about the lonely flaneur wandering through the glittering city.

Apart from the wonderful rhyme in the original (‘kwetst’ – ‘allernetst’, etc.), this poem is also interesting for what it says about looks and belonging.

Two themes run through the whole of Achterberg’s series of poems about The Hague:

  1. the staggering modernity of department stores with customer lifts and ready-priced items, of shop girls and businessmen; and, perhaps most importantly, of huge shop windows with their live male window-dressers and lifeless female fashion mannequins.
  2. the loneliness of the man who walks through this modern space; the lack of meaningful, long-term relations he experiences; the city-dwellers’ business-like communication that is often wholly reduced to financial transactions.
622px-Eaton%u2019s_College_Street_Store_Toronto_-_ca._1930

Eaton’s Department Store, Toronto, Canada. Archives of Ontario: T. Eaton Company. Available on Wikipedia.

By the time Achterberg was writing in the 1950s, this image of the modern city already had a long tradition in European writing (Baudelaire, Zola, Simmel, Benjamin…). Although attractive enough to many, it is a limited image that stresses the experience of wealthy male observers.

However, Achterberg is a more interesting poet than what I’ve just said suggests, and one of the ways in which he shows this is in this poem about the hotel Du Vieux Doelen. Here, the protagonist is not the wealthy but alienated flaneur who buys empty luxury and empty love on the streets of the city; instead, he is an outsider, not rich and educated enough to be at home in this hotel. Meanwhile, porters and waiters are the princes of the palace.

 

The poem is taken from Gerrit Achterberg, Voorbij de laatste stad, Paul Rodenko (ed.) (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1955, 1978), p. 148.

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With a little help from my strangers

Last night, I was in trouble.

I live in a city. It is a hilly city. I try to cycle around as much as I can, but yesterday I was on foot, quite a long way from home, tired, hungry, and… near a tram stop. Isn’t modern city life wonderful?

I got into the tram and discovered that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for my fare.

Now we have to move back a few hours, to the moment I was still at work. My task was to get better acquainted with theories of modernisation. One of the most famous theories, and one that many of the newer ones rely on, is that of Georg Simmel. Simmel lived in another city, Berlin, around 1900 (okay, I have to admit that even in 1900 Berlin was somewhat bigger than the city I live in). He believed that life in the city made people blasiert: hard, arrogant, unsocial. People in the city, he wrote, were only interested in treating each other correctly; not in getting to know them. People in the city were rational, unfeeling. They treated other people like things, machines to be used to get on with one’s own life and then discarded.

All in all, my situation was looking pretty grim, there in the tram-car on a cold night in the big city.

Honoré Daumier, 'Entre onze heures et minuit', from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

Honoré Daumier, ‘Entre onze heures et minuit’, from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on http://www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

At that moment, a single modest individual stood up and proved Simmel and his succeeding generations of theorists wrong by a simple but brave act. She offered the conductor the amount for my fare. And was interested in chatting with me for the rest of our shared journey. In fact, she was a city dweller if ever there was one: she was born in one, and had lived in various cities and metropolises around the world. So she was certainly not the Last of the Mohicans, taking a fading country-side mentality with her into the modern metropolis.

It is true: the town or city makes different demands on its inhabitants than the village. It has always done so, and it always will: there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about that. As soon as a place grows so big that you cannot know everyone, your attitude to your fellow citizens necessarily changes. This is because we cannot follow up on most of the social encounters we have: we will never build relations to most of the people who serve us in shops, check our parking permit or sit with us in tram-cars. Therefore, we can never ‘reward’ the people we are grateful to, nor ‘punish’ those that have done something wrong in our eyes.

This is also why begging homeless people form such a ‘challenge’ to city councils and affluent ‘homed’ people alike. Their unboundness, their freedom of sorts, makes giving to them scary. People want to know what happens with their money: ‘If we start giving to them without asking anything in return, where will it all end?’ Another city where I used to live explicitly advised its new (homed!) citizens not to give any money to those directly asking for it, but donate to an official charity instead.

Whether this is a sound advice, I do not know. Probably, the answer cannot be general but has to be specific to the circumstances: somewhat intellectually handicapped, freedom-loving 60-year-old tramps for life are a different matter altogether than (to give a quite different example but one that operates under the same mechanism) ministers of poor countries, which may be better off with trading opportunities than guilt-assuaging money.

But I know that this city’s warning appeals to the desire most people have to control the recipients of their charity. And, perhaps, also, not to come too closely to them. Strangers feel safer at a distance: in that sense, Simmel was absolutely right. Therefore, I called my ransomer’s small act brave.

She was acting from the age-old hope that the good you do will return to you some day. Was her decision therefore old-fashioned, un-modern? I believe not. Urban disinterest, which is inevitable to some extent, does not govern all we do. Just think back to the past year: I am pretty sure you can remember some instances when someone (in the city!) has done something good for you without expecting anything in return from you.

And that almost turns this column into a Christmas wish (aaargh)…

(Ok, lets get it over and done with:) I will close with the same two words spoken every day by Ellen DeGeneres:

‘Be kind’.

This post was written on Tuesday 10 December.

P.S. I know there are some critical readers out there who might object that acts of charity, like this one, tend to reinforce social (‘class’) distinctions (crudely put: we help the people who look like us). I do not believe this is completely true – I am not as pessimistic as that – and even to the extent that it is: that story needs to be told some other time and, I think, does not undermine today’s.