It was early November. The leaves had turned yellow and were, with their last strength, still hanging onto their branches. The day was another record-breaking one, with temperatures soaring to a wonderful 15 degrees centigrade. The sun had just crawled above the buildings along the Prinsengracht and played a final trick with me. I cherished the moment, smartphone tucked away, sipping a cortado, and sitting back.
Tourists from all the countries I ever visited were passing by. They were taking pictures of the bronze statues of the famous Jordaan singers and a guide sang Tulips in Amsterdam. The bridge was crowded with people taking selfies, trying to get the Westerkerk on the background. Beautifully-dressed Asian girls had their photos taken by each other. Photos that had to be instagrammable. Some posed with a duck-face, others with a shy smile.
My attention was drawn to a conversation among three young women sitting at the table next to me. The blond one had just gotten back from Bali. They were floating in their own bubble and did not seem to be concerned about other people overhearing them. Bali was the-place-to-be. The people were so friendly! She had been based in Canggu and had enjoyed smoothie bowls and the most wonderful coffee each morning at a digital nomad place near the beach.
Getting there was so easy with the scooter she had bought. After having been away half a year she was back to see her friends (laughter, hugs) and talk to new prospects.
She would stay around until after Christmas and then check-out Chile. It would be summer there, so a good time to work from Valparaíso and move on to Medellín and Cartagena, in Colombia, later on. I remembered having read an article on nomad platforms as RemoteOK and Wanderbrief, providing links to jobs facilitating the freedom to work, wander and live anywhere on the planet. Listening to these girls I started to feel the generation gap. Me, boringly old-school and they, hippyish global digital nomads. Me, being worried about a steady home base, a safe haven. And they, crashing charming coworking and coliving places, being business rebels, courageous creatives or techies, truth-seekers, living life on their own terms. So, was she couch surfing at old friends’ homes in Amsterdam before flying off to South America?
“I started to feel the generation gap. Me, boringly old-school and they, hippyish global digital nomads”
A group of British guys with trolleys and rucksacks plopped into a few empty chairs on my other side, where one of them ordered beers. “Something bigger than those damn flawtuse,” warned one of his friends, obviously referring to the fluitje that holds just 20 cl of beer. I realized that I had become a bit grumpy with their appearance. Not the type of groups we, locals, enjoy having around.
The bartender served four mugs of beer. “When you are ready, you can get your key to the apartment, they are just finishing up cleaning,” he said, looking up at the apartment just above the bar.
I could not help but turn around and look up as well and noticed the painted Heineken Bier, het meest getapt, just below the window of the apartment. Clinking beer mugs signaled the start of a wild weekend in crazy Amsterdam. They had surely been lured by Airbnb in search of ‘an authentic travel experience amongst the locals’.
The cleaning personnel soon came out and placed a bag of rubbish on the sidewalk. Two days ahead of garbage pick-up; enough time for gulls and rats to make a selection of left-overs inside. 24/7 garbage on the sidewalks; one of the many disrupting side effects of what has been euphemistically named the ‘sharing economy’. Locals complain there are too many tourists and there is too much noise and trash. “Airbnb is hollowing out our cities, gridlocking our canals and leaving us, locals, struggling to get on with our lives!” The effect of this sharing economy runs deep in idyllic places such as Amsterdam. Digital disruption aggravates inequality and favors the haves over the have-nots. What once started as an opportunity to share homes and swap lives with some financial benefits on the side, is now transforming into a slick professional industry. Airbnb has created many winners including its shareholders, numerous businesses offering services to a myriad of users, and of course, the platform’s property owners. Airbnb has helped local ecosystems flourish. So they say.
The young women next to me were ready to leave. “So when will you fly out?” asked one. “I have airbnb’eed my apartment from the 26th of December onwards,” replied the blonde. “The rates are just too good to be true around New Year’s Eve. I will be back in March.” Laughter, hugs and kisses. I realized that the girl was one of those lucky enough to own property and pimp it out to the highest bidder, leaving her with enough income to allow her to be an independent, digital nomad.
Are the winners taking it all? It seems so. And this mentality runs against the principle of social solidarity that is so much in the Dutch DNA. The leftist city council is now moving to restore the balance and limit the Airbnb effect with curbs on rentals.
I had witnessed a digital micro ecosystem on this terrace in the Jordaan, with the guys from the UK having an affordable ball, allowing property owners to explore the world; both being facilitated by Airbnb and its spin-offs. Would this system be dismantled by the city council?
I looked at the garbage and wished for an affirmative answer to that question, but then, seeing the young lady stride away to new dreams and adventures, I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy. There are always two sides of the coin.