Amsterdammers are from Mars, Utrechters from Venus.

By Steve Korver, 20-10-2004, Amsterdam Weekly

wijshedenI am not a student at the University of Amsterdam. I am a student of Amsterdam. So I don’t usually have a lot of time for “wisdom”. I’m just after a certain street savvy.

So at first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Amsterdamse Wijsheden compiled by Hans Vermaak and illustrated with “vele prachtige illustraties” by Bert Witte. It’s a small book. It’s nice, new and blue. It’s also nice and cheap – for less than €5 at your better local bookshop – and therefore the perfect small gift idea. It’s also part of the series so once you have sucked back the wisdom of this city through its historical sayings and aphorisms you can move on to absorb the nuggets from other such worlds as Zen, Money, Farmers and Brabant.

But soon after I clutched it with my greedy little monkey paws, I was entertained. I even felt as if I was learning something. But mostly, it just spoke my language: Beter een buik van ’t suipe as een bult van hard werke (“Better a belly from the beer than a bump from hard work”). And indeed, while it may be worth translating this book wholly into English, such a project may quickly prove to be too much hard work. How would I ever find the right words to translate something like: Het doet ‘m niks, al hange de meiers an se kont? I would need a book of equal size for the footnotes alone.

But I was quick to recognize that there was plenty of quality stuff I could use to annoy my Dutch friends. I figured it would fun to start speaking using only Amsterdam clichés that have been badly translated into English. “Hey sorry goser for being such a lazy dry armpit for not helping you move house the other day, but I woke up with a bad case of Heineken sickness.” Ah yes: the international language of obnoxiousness – a sweet lingo indeed…

But it’s really too easy to be a smartass. Like it says in another of the books collected insights: In de gracht pisse is geen kunst. Probeer de overkant ‘ te hale ( “There’s no art in pissing into a canal. Try reaching the other side.”)

And really, the long arc involved in translating this book may very well be worth it. For one tiny tome, it does a remarkable job of reflecting some ingrained characteristics of the typical Amsterdammer. Even the quickest of perusals of its 200-odd sayings reinforced several valuable lessons taught to me long ago.

Lesson #1: Amsterdammers are Snobs
The saying, “Over het IJ en onder Diemen wone enkel boere” essentially says that outside Amsterdam there are only farmers. Yep, we Amsterdammers are the only civilized folks in these parts. This reminded me of the time when a hardcore Amsterdammer friend explained to me when I first moved here that in Amsterdam it is fact worse to call someone a boer, a farmer, than a boerenlul, a farmer’s dick. Figure that one out…

Another saying that reflects a certain disdain for the outsider translates literally as “I figure that guy is from Utrecht” but in fact means – according to the ever handy glossary in the back of the book – that you are assuming that this guy is gay. For some reason I thought that was really funny. Now don’t take get me wrong. I am not some batty Buju Banton type. Some of my best friends are from Utrecht, and yet others are “from Utrecht”. (Though I do feel somewhat un-PC for not having a friend who is a combination of both. Perhaps it’s time to join Friendster afterall…)

Lesson #2: Amsterdammers are Ever-Relativizing Pragmatists
Yep it’s a cliché that Amsterdammers are down-to-earth straightalkers who are forever ready to compromise as long as business gets done. And this book certainly pumps this image with many examples along the lines of “a big ass needs big pants”, “roasted doves don’t fly” and “never leave a pretty lady alone because the fastfuckers will soon be waiting in the hall”.

Lesson #3: Amsterdammers are Softie Romantics. Not.
As one leafs through this book, one gets the impression that the courtship rituals in this city have indeed been somewhat tainted by pragmatism. Surely there must be a more charming way of asking someone to dance than Zal ik je lijf effe door de saal sleuren? (“Shall I drag your body about the room?”). And I truly question if the pick-up line, auspiciously found on page 69, Sal ik je gang ’s witte? (“Shall I whiten your hall?) has actually ever worked on anyone. If I wasn’t so pragmatic, I’d be shocked.

Lesson #4: Amsterdammers are Born Surrealists
There’s certainly nothing like a juicy image for an aphorism to be permanently burnt into one’s mind’s eye. I’d certainly shut up if someone yelled Krijg een wielklem om je kake! (“Put a wheel clamp on your jaw!”). I’d certainly be speechless if I entered a FEBO and was asked Motte je een kattekroket of een hondehap? (“Do you want deepfried cat product or a bite of dog?”). Actually I’d be doubly speechless since I in fact do always have a problem choosing between a nasischijf and bamibal. Both are after all so lovely when served with a pungent French mustard.

But anyway, it’s these more visually oriented examples that will prove the most challenging when it comes to translating them into an English that could be understood by all. A literal approach will not get all the nuance of, for example, Die kaneelduiker is so stom as ’t paard van kristus (Literally: “That cinnamon diver is as dumb as Christ’s horse”); Is se uit de poppekast gevalle of bij ’t visbakke uite de pan gespronge? (Literally: “Did she fall out of a dollhouse or jump out of the fish basket?”); or Je ken een ei in se reet gaarkoke (“You can boil an egg in his ass”).

But I should not be scared of attaining the ability of hard boiling eggs in my butt. I should rise to the challenges of this noble task: there are wise lessons in this book that should be heard by all and not just Amsterdammers. I began leafing through the book once again in search of some pithy saying extolling the virtues of a work ethic since I knew that, at least in the past, Amsterdam was famous for having one. I hoped it would inspire me to new and more proactive heights. And indeed bingo: Je komt er wel as je het glas laat staan en je jongeheer laat hange (“You’ll get there if you leave the glass alone and keep your young man hanging”).

These were excellent words to the wise. Too many glasses of alcohol can indeed be a danger to one’s productivity. But who is this “young man”?

Is it possible that he’s from Utrecht?

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