A Day in the Life of... Dragos, in Mercatorbuurt

“A Day in the Life of…” is about Amsterdammers and their relationship with the city they live in. For a few hours, my camera and I will be joining them as they’re about their day, from having coffee at home in the morning, to wandering the streets en route to some of their favourite places in Amsterdam. Each post will focus on a different character, allowing for a closer look at his/her life in the city.

For this first post, I met my friend Dragos and let him guide me around Mercatorbuurt, his neighbourhood in Amsterdam West. Dragos could not be more of a “westerner,” so to say. Before moving into his apartment behind Mercatorplein in 2010, he lived for a couple of years near Surinameplein, just a few streets away. Only for a short time did he leave the West to live elsewhere in Amsterdam, but was nevertheless happy to return to the side of town he’s most familiar and most happy with.

It’s a warm, rainy morning when we meet at the entrance to Rembrandtpark. He comes to run here every day. “There are certain areas in this park that feel like a mountain forest,” he says as we walk along quiet, sinuous paths carved into the greenery. The same rain that’s making me wet doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

Rembrandtpark does look wild – and a bit extraterrestrial, too. I point to some fierce plants, thinking they’re nettles. “No, they’re not,” says Dragos, running his fingers through their leaves. “Indeed, this is not Romania,” I say smiling. “Well, it could be,” he says, pointing at the tower blocks at one end of the park. Sprouted among abundant vegetation, the tall, concrete buildings look as if they’ve just fell on Earth. While this is the norm for most of Bucharest neighbourhoods – where both Dragos and I were born and grew up – the view is rather strange for Amsterdam. To some extent, strange are also the bridges and lamps in Rembrandtpark, with their vintage-futuristic design. And then there’s the green man statue and the dog – a huge, rusty coloured dog, high on a road, above one of the park’s entrances. They, too, must have landed here from a different place.

As we leave Rembrandtpark heading toward Dragos’ place, we cross Orteliusskade and then Orteliusstraat. “Can you feel it?” he says, taking a big breath as we continue our walk along the quieter end of Jan Evertsenstraat. “It’s the smell of linden trees.” I look up and gaze at tiny bouquets of the honey-coloured flowers. Their perfume feels even sweeter after the summer rain. “You always do this, you know? You see and enjoy the details. Like when you showed me the courtyard at Hermitage and it was so blissfully quiet we could hear the rustle of leaves, high on the chestnut trees.” As I say this, I realise Dragos is indeed a flâneur. He enjoys the journey just as much as the destination – perhaps even more so the first.

Tito greets us as we step into the apartment. “I can’t believe you have a cat,” I say, having completely forgotten about it. I then remember seeing photos of the cat some time ago, on the Instagram account my friend hasn’t updated since 2012. I am not a big fan of cats, but this one seems chill. It becomes slightly confused only when I place my camera on a pouff, in the living room. “That’s his place,” Dragos explains, and so I bring the camera in the kitchen, where he’s preparing some coffee.

We drink it on the balcony, facing the inner courtyard. There is a chestnut tree right in front of us, else we’re totally exposed to the neighbours – Amsterdam style. “I don’t think I make good coffee,” he says, sipping from his cup. Coffee is good, the view is even better. “This is so much like Amsterdam,” I say, gazing at the other balconies. And it is. It’s the kind of view I used to have in my first apartment in the city. It is perhaps the kind of view in most Amsterdam apartments, and that feels reassuring. In his balcony, Dragos grows tomatoes and herbs, which he gladly uses for cooking.

While my friend is at the shower, I take some pictures of the apartment. It’s been years since my last visit, but the place has never looked better. “I placed the sofa and turntables in the middle to allow for people to move around the room,” he says when he gets back. “It also makes it easier for me to interact with them as I’m playing.” Music has always had a privileged place in his life, and same goes for the gatherings with friends or acquaintances. And one makes lots of acquaintances when living in Amsterdam. I realise I’m happy with my status of old friend of Dragos, from the times when we were both still living in Romania. Old friends in Amsterdam are quite a luxury.

Before I know it, he starts spinning some records, and the sunny melodies of years gone by are filling the room. I reach to my camera and take some more photos – this time of Dragos, who is now letting himself carried away by the music. Unlike his human, Tito could not care less. As any respected cat, he looks – and most probably, is – unashamedly bored.

It’s well past lunch time, and we could go on like this for longer if it weren’t for the hunger kicking in. There is this new kiosk with sandwiches in Mercatorplein,” Dragos says as we walk around his building, toward the square. Not that I was expecting to go anywhere fancy in the first place. It still makes me laugh to remember the expression on my friend’s face when, a couple of months ago, he asked: “What the hell is a hotspot?”

The kiosk looks more like a caravan, painted in yellow, a bunch of bread loaves pilled on the counter, and a sign above: “Tosti Bar.” Dragos is curious about the concept. The seller explains that they’re called De Tweede Jeugd (The Second Youth) and what they do is collect one day old bread from local bakeries – which would most likely end in the trash – and use it for baking sandwiches, the so-called tosti’s. We order two sandwiches and two lemonades, then sit at a table overlooking the Mercatorplein. There are pigeons, children chasing them, people idle on benches, and there is the red brick of the buildings surrounding the square.

“I wish I Iived in one of those apartments,” Dragos says, munching on his food and pointing at the tower located at one end of the square. I didn’t say it at the time, but I don’t think he really meant it. There comes a time in the life of every expat when they need to put things on hold and reassess their situation. To do this, they need a break from work, a break from the adoptive city, a break even from the new friends and contacts they made. Some will go to see the world. Others will go back to their home country. Dragos is somewhere in between the two. No need for a new apartment.

After lunch, I feel like another coffee. I almost have to drag my friend to White Label Coffee, across the street, for a cortado. This is, after all, a hotspot! A hipster hangout. No surprise it’s busy and loud. We stay outside, on two chairs, facing the street. The coffee is just as good as I can remember. “I don’t understand these people with their laptops, how can they focus to work here?” Dragos says, pointing vaguely at the café’s population, almost entirely connected to their devices. We had this conversation before, most probably at the same place, and I happen to share his view. “I bet they’re checking Facebook as we speak,” I say, trying to make light of it.

But there’s more than entrepreneurs and hipsters at White Label. In front of the shop, a loud, opinionated group – two large ladies, well in their fifties, later on joined by a man of similar age – is discussing stuff. They look like they’ve been out shopping, now returning home. The entrance to their apartment building is next to that of our café, but the ladies are in no rush to say goodbye. I can hardly hear Dragos speaking over their voices. “For sure they’re complaining about something,” he concludes. I have to laugh. There’s a bit of everything at this particular stretch of Jan Evertsenstraat, so we take our time and look around at the world passing by.

The plan was to go to a record shop – Waxwell Records, one of Dragos’ favourite – and continue the photo shoot there. But it’s raining and none of us is in the mood to go in the centre. So we stay in Mercatorbuurt. “Let’s have a beer instead,” he says, leading the way. We walk along some quiet, residential streets behind the square, and we stop at what looks to be a neighbourhood café, named after the street on which it’s located – James Cookstraat.

Inside Café Cook the atmosphere is extremely cosy: wooden furniture, candles burning on tables, locals of different ages and looks enjoying time alone or in the company of friends. A really gezellig gem. It’s not the first time Dragos introduces me to such location, impressive in its simplicity and exuding genuine Amsterdam atmosphere.

Despite the on and off rain, we stay outside, under an umbrella. The air is still warm, moist, and sticky. We talk about sunnier destinations far away. We talk about his dreams.

It’s well past 4 PM when we start to head back toward Mercatorplein. I take a tram to bring me back home, to the East. Dragos stays to meet another friend – is there a better way to spend time?

<< Post originally published on Amsterdamming.com in July 2017 >>