THE FIFTH COLUMN
One of the great pleasures of life is getting lost in central Amsterdam. Well, in truth, you can’t really get lost, despite all those confusing canals and little bridges and streets that gradually turn themselves around until you’re facing the other way without knowing it.
You can’t get lost because if you keep wandering around you almost inevitably end up where you began; the series of semicircles that form the concentric canals of the city kind of ensure that.
Part of the fun, too, is the Dutch way with street names. Leave aside where the actual names came from and just the categories of street are interesting. For instance, there’s the odd steeg, which means a narrow passage (apparently they were once sheep trails, but there are no sheep now), an armsteeg, even in the decadent city centre, doesn’t mean a place you’ll get your arm gesteek with a heroin needle.
It means poor (arm) people used to live there. A kolk is a gully, so what is now the Nieuwezijds Kolk was once a bit of a depression in the landscape.
Looking at a map of Johannesburg, by contrast, one gets little enjoyment. Many of the apartheid-era street names are gone, but then many are still there – possibly because we don’t remember who their eponyms in fact were. Otherwise, whole areas are given generic numbered streets, flower names, or (as in Parkview, where I live) are named rather arbitrarily after counties in Ireland.
About the most excitement you can find on a Jo’burg map is in areas such as Robindale, where all the streets are named after legendary figures in the Robin Hood story, or Montgomery Park, where performer Rocco de Villiers has a street named for him, although he’s very much alive.
In Amsterdam, there’s an endless array of interesting names, though often their explanations are rather opaque. The Kattenburg, once the home of the shipbuilders and repairers, was allegedly so-called because the area was infested with rats off the ships and many cats were given homes so they could deal with them.
But then, too, there’s the Uilenburg, formerly an island in a leg of the Amstel river, and once the Jewish ghetto. So many Jews were squashed in there in such dire conditions, in the years before they were partly liberated, that the rat population surged – and then so did that of the owls hunting the rats. Hence Uilenburg or Owltown.
No suburbs of Amsterdam, you note, are named for the rats.
The cats, though, keep popping up. A little street in an old part of town is called the Kattengat, either because a lot of cats collected there, or because it was deemed so narrow only a cat could get through it. Or, again, it was because a mint-like plant called kattenkruid grew there.
In the Indische Buurt there’s a Langekatstraat. Amsterdam tradition would imply that somewhere nearby there is a Kortekatstraat, but there isn’t. So, in this case, maybe it wasn’t the street that was long (it’s rather short, in fact), but the cat itself.