Amsterdam Asps


We were already a family when we moved to Amsterdam in the last week of January, 2003. Marci and I had been married for almost five years. Elliot was ten months old. Still, we really grew as a family during our Amsterdam years. To the point that I started referring to our household as the “Amsterdam Asps.” (In fact, some of my social media accounts still preserve this vestige from the past). It’s hard to understate how significant that move was, twenty years ago this week.

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We grew from a family of three to a family of four, within a year and a half of our move to Amsterdam.


And then we grew from a family of four to a family of five three years later.


Amsterdam was the place where all three of our children took their first steps. Where all three first started school. Where we truly learned to love each other and love God. We had lots of special experiences in Amsterdam, but also lots of very mundane experiences. Doctor appointments… and swim lessons… and trips to the grocery store… and play-dates with friends…


There are hundreds, if not thousands of little glimpses into the family life of the Amsterdam Asps. All preserved in the archives of my website. I love the simple sketches of my eleven days alone with four-year-old Elliot and two-year-old Olivia, while Marci was out of town… Olivia inventing words… or visiting a weird private museum devoted exclusively to cats


But the one I think I’ll re-post here, today, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of our family’s move to Amsterdam, is a post about our apartment in the Transvaalbuurt of Amsterdam Oost. I found myself telling this story to someone else recently. And it seemed as good a glimpse as any into the weird and wonderful elements of living as Amsterdam Asps. This version of the story has been edited slightly from its original version, which appeared in March of 2007,


I finally met the girl upstairs… and her name is Mary Jane.

Footsteps above our apartment — for the first time in months, we hear human activity in the apartment above us… Yes, it’s definitely footsteps. Heavy work boots, by the sound of it. And sure enough, within an hour or so they’re tossing stuff out the window, onto the sidewalk below. Rotted pieces of drywall… some tangled old wires… potting soil.

Yes, you read that correctly:  potting soil.  And not just a little bit of it.  Bags and bags of rich, black earth.

It’s strange to have a mountain of potting soil in a second-story apartment in the middle of Amsterdam.  But it also fits some of the final puzzle pieces into place. It solves some of the mysteries about our upstairs neighbors. Because it turns out that they weren’t necessarily anti-social after all — they were just farmers. Agriculturalists. Growing one of Amsterdam’s premium cash crops.

Waterland Fietstocht - Starting Line

We should’ve suspected as much. A couple of Brazilian guys in their late 20s or early 30s — friendly enough, but with strange and furtive mannerisms at times. Their comings and goings were mostly limited to the night-time. And even at that, we didn’t see a whole lot of them. In a way, we actually enjoyed their lack of presence. We found it far preferable to the Latino Transgender family and their four scampering chihuahuas who had previously occupied the space with their salsa-dancing and fetch-playing footsteps at all hours of the day. We really had no problems with the nocturnal introverts who had unassumingly occupied the space for the last several months…

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But, well… I guess there was that one time when our ceiling started dripping with water last summer. We rang the doorbell. We yelled at the top of our lungs to get their attention. And we even pelted the windows of the apartment with handfuls of pebbles. We were desperate to get their attention. But they were strangely slow and nonchalant about our aquatic crisis. Until we threatened to call the police. When we suggested outside intervention, their response was remarkably prompt…

And well… Then again in December, there was that one experience when we had an incredibly difficult time keeping our home warm. Another neighbor, who had a better vantage-point that allowed her to see the upstairs-neighbors’ balcony, tipped us off that the door to the balcony was wide-open. It had apparently been open for days. Their cold apartment sapped whatever insulation we might have normally received from a heated apartment above. We thought this was weird and inconsiderate of them. But try as we might, we never could reach the tenants. So in the end, we called the manager of the building and solved things that way…

Farewell Party 1

And, come to think of it, may have been our neighbors’ downfall.

Still, these were isolated incidents. Otherwise, we never had any problems with our upstairs neighbors…

It just turns out that the primary residents of the apartment upstairs were not people — but plants.  Nice, quiet plants. I don’t want to assume too much — in spite of what the other neighbors might insinuate…Nor do I want to alarm the grandparents of my children — or anyone else who might be quick to pass judgment on “Big Bad Amsterdam…” I don’t want to add to the sometimes shady reputation of our neighborhood (because I really think it’s a great place to live, for the most part)… But I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if our apartment would’ve ever caught fire.


Would the neighbors have called the fire department?  Would they have formed an old-fashioned “bucket brigade” if necessary — helping to carry in water to douse the flames and helping to carry out our children and our prized possessions? Or would they have simply kicked back, inhaled deeply — maybe grabbing some Doritos and listening to Bob Marley records — and just enjoyed the high times in the Transvaalbuurt.

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