Echt Rotterdams eten

Schrijver en essayist Matthew Stadler woont en werkt tijdelijk in Rotterdam. Op scherpzinnige wijze observeert hij tweewekelijks de maasstad. Vandaag deel 9: Eten bij de 'bureaulampen' van het Schouwburgplein.

Last week I took my AirBook to Café Betty Beer to work on my important avant-garde novel while enjoying an echte Rotterdamse lunch. The day was warm, and I sat on the cafe's terrace, beside the Schouwburgplein. This central square is little used. It's surface is a Frankenstein patchwork of industrial materials, including wooden-slats that remind me of the walkways a public bath employs for hygiene. Sited atop these wooden slats, the huge Pathé movie theater looks all the more like the dirty old tub that it is. In front of Betty Beer, the square is dominated by giant crouching light standards, and I cannot sit on the terrace without wanting these mechanical monstrosities to rise up, traverse the slatted emptiness, and turn into scrubbing tools to clean the sides of the Pathé. Once a week should be enough.

The city tries to assemble on the Schouwbergplein, but is defeated by the plaza's vastness. Most public squares in Rotterdam suffer from their scale. The city is a staging ground for the massive invasions of popular music and art brought by an endless round-robin of festivals. The Schouwburgplein, the Binnenrotte, the Museumpark, even the comparatively cozy Noorderplein, resemble the beaches of Normandy, mapped and strategized for this or that festival to land, erect its equipment, and do business, before tearing-down to depart without leaving a trace. For this function, Rotterdam's public squares are superbly designed.

At Betty Beer I order a kopstoot to begin my meal, with the Notaris jenever. If my favorite waiter is working I'll ask for a garnalen croquette with my kopstoot. These delicacies are reserved for the dinner menu, and their provision at noon requires special favors. My novel concerns an unlikely romance in the city of Rotterdam. To court favors I let the nice waiter read a few pages every now and then.

The terrace hosts solitary people or big groups, more so than it does couples. In this way, Rotterdam has the feel of a corporate campus or a busy company town—work brings us together. When cupid's arrow hits its mark (as with my neighbor Erik and his sweet Dutch Juliet) lucky Rotterdammers will quickly find and feather their nests. Romance here is a domestic affair; public life is for the workers.

My work is writing, and it is pleasant to write in public in a foreign language, if English can be called that. The lively sound of Dutch all around me forms a musical backdrop, as Gertrude Stein observed about French when she lived in Paris. The waiter brings my main course, an assortment of fried balls and tubes of stew, with slices of bread and butter. A young woman speeds past on her bicycle, clearly on her way to an important appointment, her burqa taut as a sail, flapping in the wind. If I could see her face I'm sure she would be smiling.

The traffic of bikes is constant and it lifts my spirits. Especially delightful are the swarms of children, chatting and prodding one another, as they speed along, sometimes two- or three-to-a-bicycle.

Any visitor to the Netherlands has to wonder what accounts for the optimistic "can-do attitude" that unites an otherwise deeply heterogenous population. This is what I call "the Dutch advantage." I believe the Dutch advantage is bicycles. Not just their ubiquity, but the fact that children as young as four or five are asked to enter the stream of traffic, piloting their own bikes. To watch children, who aren't yet old enough for school, confidently mount their tiny two-wheelers, or balance on the big, speeding oma fietsen of their mothers and fathers—to see them navigate in public as part of the commonweal—is to see a perfect training ground for bold confidence and initiative. Nothing prepares the young citizen better for the degree of trust and daring collective enterprise requires, than piloting a bike in city traffic from their earliest years.

When I want to feel optimistic about the world I watch the young Muslim girls of Rotterdam speed past me on their bicycles, their burqas flapping in the wind, as they fly toward their important appointments. Where I come from, in the U.S.A., most children are strapped into harnesses and hauled around in the muffled faux-safety of the family car, until the magical year when they move from the back seat to the front, eventually to take the wheel of that demonic contraption. The family car trains you for nothing collective, except terror and fear.