2020: My year in music

Music is one of the biggest joys of my life. In 2020 it was also a source of profound comfort and, in addition to whatever little I managed to read, also a way to travel the world.

Talking of travel, I often discover new music in cafes and restaurants, especially when in other countries. With restaurants closed in Amsterdam for most part of 20201 and no travel since Feb, that source dried up2. Music from books and TV shows filled in some of that void.

My annual ritual of making a playlist of music that brought me joy that year turns five. Despite finalising the playlist a month early, I’ve just not been able to muster the energy for the hours-long endeavour that is compiling liner notes that go with it. Perhaps I’ll do it retroactively…

Nonetheless, I hope you’ll enjoy the music!

The 2020 playlist on Spotify

  1. And when they were open briefly during summer, we were sitting outdoors in music-less settings. Even if we would have been indoors, I think we would be too busy relishing the experience of eating outside our home to pay attention to music.

  2. With one exception - I distinctly remember Shazam-ing Long Way by The Californian Honeydrops in the lobby of a boutique hotel in San Francisco when visiting in Jan-Feb 2020; a song you will find in the 2020 playlist. Looking at my Shazam playlist, there is also a song by Drop Out Orchestra from their album Aeroplane In Flight Entertainment, prophetically titled - It Will Never Be The Same Again. I should pay more attention to what I Shazam.

January 1, 2021

The story of my integration tests (Inburgeringsexamen)

Wij melden fraude altijd bij de politie
We always report fraud to the police

Warned a notice stuck to one of the pillars in the waiting area of my exam center. I read the Dutch word fraude” as the German word for joy - freude” and in my head translated the sentence to:

We always report joy to the police

Clearly not a promising start for someone there to prove his proficiency of the Dutch language. While the notice was meant to deter the would-be identity fraudsters, looking at the doleful, anxious faces in that room, you would think that my interpretation might have been the truer one.

Naturalization in the Netherlands requires you to take the dreaded integration” tests. Your ability to listen, speak, read and write the Dutch language is evaluated. You are also tested on your knowledge of the Dutch society1. You could stagger these tests across different dates, but in wanting to yank the proverbial band-aid in one go, I scheduled all of them on the same day.

If there is one thing the education system in the Indian subcontinent prepares you well for, it is the taking of exams. A colleague from Bangladesh, upon learning that I was preparing for my integration tests, had sagely reminded me to master the exam and not the content. Still, that exam-cracking muscle had atrophied after not having sat for a test in two decades2.

The wife had already been through this rigmarole so I could self-study from course material she had accumulated. A few weeks before our exam date, she, I and a colleague had enrolled in a batch of 10 personalised classes to brush up on our grammar and to improve our conversational fluency. This was about as ready as I was going to be.

As I am cartographically challenged, it felt prudent to familiarize myself with the route to the exam center a week in advance. To reach the building, a stone’s throw from the tram stop, you’d walk along a park that had a towering statue of a bemused, grizzly bear holding a pillow3. While it made for a memorable landmark, it also captured the menace of the upcoming exams perfectly.

The statue of a Grizzly Bear on the way to the exam centerThe statue of a Grizzly Bear on the way to the exam center

As I absent-mindedly flossed my teeth the night before the exams, I braced myself for a rough night of assorted nightmares. They would all revolve around the theme of time running out before I had finished writing my test. I added to that repository of bad dreams by going a little too hard on a tooth and dislodging an ancient root-canal filling from it. Fortunately the tooth, now sans its filling, didn’t hurt or require immediate medical attention. As expected, I slept fitfully.

People from all walks of life had come to give the integration exams. With my employer sponsored knowledge-migrant4 visa, I and the wife could live and work here as long as the employer would sponsor my visa. Other classes5 of visas mandatorily require you to integrate” within 3 years.

All languages are hard when you are past 30. However, getting to the A2 level Dutch proficiency required for these tests wasn’t particularly challenging6. I also grew up speaking Hindi and English so I was quite accepting of all the idiosyncrasies of Dutch - all languages are made up and you shouldn’t label the rules of one language as irrational based on other languages you know. Moreover, Dutch uses the latin alphabet and after mastering a handful of phonological rules, I could start reading and building my vocabulary. As widespread as the latin alphabet is, neither it nor literacy are universal. I wondered how many people in the exam hall had to first overcome the additional handicap of learning to read the Latin alphabet.

I did well on the reading and the knowledge of the Dutch society tests, a little less well on the listening and the speaking tests and only barely passed the writing test. While all exams were on the computer, the writing proficiency exam was (naturally) of the pen and paper variety7. I would think in long, complex English sentences rich in metaphor and idiom and then realize that my Dutch vocabulary and grammar is too pitiful to allow a translation. Also, some of the questions that involved writing long-ish passages were quite contrived and I would’ve struggled regardless of the language8.

Still, clearing all exams in a single attempt felt good. However, unlike this clichéd illustration from one of our adult study books, I still haven’t felt the urge to put on the clogs, roll down on a wheel of cheese and scatter tulips along the way all the while daintily holding, what surely must be, that precious inburgering (integration) diploma.

Count the clichésCount the clichés

  1. Covering a bit of history, geography, socio-cultural norms and other miscellanies required to be a somewhat functional member of the Dutch society.

  2. Job interviews come close, but they conjure a different texture of dread.

  3. A killer bear that could always stifle you with its pillow if the claws failed to do the job?

  4. For all the hard work and long hours I’ve put in to get here, I sometimes can’t help but feel guilty at my privilege. With a culture that is focused on work-life balance, strong labor laws, a high standard of life and partial tax break for initial years of my stay here, it’s been a red carpet welcome.

  5. While the Dutch society is perhaps one of the most egalitarian society that I’ve encountered, like most societies, it does make a distinction between a migrant and an expat. What are these classes of visas - each with its own set of restrictions and exemptions - if not another class system.

  6. There is talk of raising the bar to B1 now. This would’ve probably required me to put in another 3 months of work.

  7. Writing on paper is a more widespread skill than typing so to have people type up their answers under time constraints would definitely have been unfair to many.

  8. For example, one of the sample tests asks you to contribute a passage for your neighbourhood newspaper outlining which clothes you like to wear the most, what do they look like and when do you wear the said clothes.

August 23, 2020

The library during the lockdown

On the evening of 13 Mar 2020, I received an email from the library announcing that all branches of the library would close temporarily. A couple of days later, the Netherlands entered a lockdown.

A few weeks into the lockdown, I received another email from them informing me of a new pickup service. It contained a link to a hastily put together web form where you could enter your name and library card number, indicate the genres you were interested in and even leave a note with specific titles. The staff would then do their best to put together a packet of 5 books spanning the genres of your choice. A couple of days after filling the form, I got an email saying that my packet was ready and I could come pick it up on the specified date during a 2h30m time window in the afternoon.

The walk to the public library from our home is probably my most frequently walked route right after the walk to the grocery store. Undertaking it during the lockdown felt strange. Very few cars were on the road. Each time one would pass me by, my ears would complain about how loud it had been. Having spent the past few weeks indoors wearing noise cancellation headphones for hours at end, even the ubiquitous sounds of modern civilisation would take some getting used to again.

When I reached the library, there was no one outside. The landing was marked with striped black and yellow tape for people to stand in. The library looked dark inside. As I entered through the revolving door, I saw a long table blocking the entrance. A dozen or so library-branded cloth book bags full of books were lying on it. A folded sheet of A5 paper was attached to each bag with a paperclip. It bore that day’s date, the appointed time slot, the member’s name and the last 4 digits of their membership number - all handwritten in a neat hand. A person standing behind the table instructed me to just pick up the bag with my name on it and leave. As I left, I saw a couple of more people rushing in and out after collecting theirs.

Entrance to the libraryEntrance to the library

Once home, I took a look at the books they had chosen for me. While they all more or less fit the genres I had indicated (thrillers, historic fiction), I wasn’t sure if I would’ve picked any of the books myself. And still, this bag of new, unread books was a source of great comfort and joy. I did end up reading Brad Thor’s Backlash and I was thankful for the vapid, escapist distraction from work that it furnished for a few evenings.

Surprise book bagSurprise book bag

On May 13, a handful of branches of the library started opening for a short number of hours for a fews days of the week (minus any public facilities like restrooms, restaurants, reading rooms). By May 19th, pretty much all branches were operational and the delivery service was stopped. On May 23, I returned all books save Backlash.

The library for me is all about serendipitous book discovery. Short-lived as it was, I am grateful to whomever took the initiative to launch this service during a stressful and uncertain period. It is also hearting to know that a similar service for people 67 years and older continues to operate - complete with a volunteer-run home delivery.

The library is now open as normal. Not only that, on 2nd July I received an email offering free fruit ice pops to visitors and upto 3 of their accompanying friends for showing up at the library’s attached restaurant. There is still a hygiene stand at the entrance to sanitize your hands and there are markings all over the floor that remind you to keep your distance. They also serve as reminders of the past few days that have changed our public spaces forever.

Free ice popFree ice pop

July 12, 2020

Sort-of-quarantine Diaries, Day whatever: The Haircut

The Netherlands has begun taking first tentative steps towards reopening after the Covid-19 lockdown. Since last week, the so called contact professions” - barbers, tattoo parlors, dentists etc., have been allowed to reopen. I was overdue for a haircut even before the lockdown had begun. After two months, I have been overripe1. Much to the wife’s annoyance, I’ve been dithering about getting a haircut appointment. While walking past the barber yesterday, the wife prodded me to get one. They had a spot available right away.

A person (in face mask) had been dedicated to receiving the customers and directing them to a standing table at the entrance with a bottle of hand sanitizer and an open box of face masks. After sanitizing my hands, I peeled a face mask from the box but wore it both inside out and upside down. This was pointed out and I fumbled and corrected myself. I awaited my turn in a corner designated as the waiting area while each exhalation through the face mask fogged my glasses. Every customer and hair dresser wore face masks. Some hair dressers also wore transparent face shields. Still, the usual din of a hair salon was alive and well - the smalltalk, the whirring of hair clippers and the whizzing of blow dryers. This felt very reassuring after all these weeks of sitting at home.

I was eventually directed to my seat. After the usual pleasantries the barber covered me in a single-use, transparent polyethylene cape and set to work. I asked for an extra short crop2 just in case the lockdowns kick in again. From here on, the act of getting the haircut wasn’t any different. Except perhaps for the extra manoeuvring the barber had to do behind the ears to account for the elastic bands of the face mask.

The price of the haircut has gone up by around 11%. Given the overheads of face masks (for customers and workers), hand sanitiser, disposable capes and additional workstation sanitisation protocols I think this is well justified. I was extra generous with my tip - for this was at least four haircuts rolled into one.

  1. I had long abandoned the ambition of a ponytail. Just like past attempts at growing a beard, it’s the middle phase (the equivalent of the restless teenage years in a human’s life) that’s irritating. Even Face ID on my iPhone had begun to have trouble coping with my shock of hair - it had grown noticeably sluggish and would fail altogether under challenging lighting conditions. Well, now it’ll be rendered useless by the face mask.

  2. The exact Dutch words I ended up using were Heel klein maar niet kaal” (very short but not bald!)

May 23, 2020

King’s Day in the time of a pandemic

A few years ago, when we were relocating from my company-provided temporary accommodation to our apartment in the last week of April, we were told to avoid Queen’s Day. Thankfully, we were able to arrange our move a few days earlier and on 30th April, got to experience the Queen’s Day Celebrations first hand. We hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Over the years we have swung between dressing in orange and joining the revelry, to actively avoiding it by using the national holiday to go travel to someplace new. Eventually we’ve settled on staying at home for a lazy morning and stepping out for a walk in the afternoon to sample the various street parties and food stalls.

In 2014, queen Beatrix abdicated the throne to her son, King Willem-Alexander. Queen’s Day thus became King’s Day and would be celebrated on 27th April instead of 30th1.

A few days before King’s Day, you start seeing families laying their claim to a rectangular patch of footpath by marking it with duct tape. Inside, they tape their name or initials and the Dutch word for taken - bezet. On King’s day the entire city turns into a flea market and these rectangles of footpath real estate are occupied by families and children selling everything from antiques, old toys, clothes, LPs, DVDs, books, magazines to lemonade, coffee and cake.

The footpaths on the run up to the King’s Day this year were devoid of any tape markings. With large public gatherings banned in Amsterdam till 1 September 2020, this year’s King’s Day was being pitched by the mainstream media as a stay-at-home day2.

Empty streets on the eve of King’s Day 2020Empty streets on the eve of King’s Day 2020

The mood in Amsterdam on the evening before King’s Day is festive. There are scores of parties and concerts on the streets that start in the evening and go on until the wee hours. Cafe De Blaffende Vis, a local cafe, marks King’s Day eve (and has been doing so for the last 20 years or so) with the unveiling of giant, cheesy cutouts (think Dad jokes, only worse) with themes related to the royal family.

Giant Dutch royal family themed cutouts at Cafe De Blaffende Vis from 2015 and 2016Giant Dutch royal family themed cutouts at Cafe De Blaffende Vis from 2015 and 2016

The mood on King’s Day eve this year was somber. The city was quiet and the streets were empty. The only evidence of King’s Day in the neighbourhood was the orange and red-white-blue 3 bunting a pub had decorated their terrace with. Ironically, it had been paired with red-white barricade tape forbidding people from using the terrace.

Bunting and barricade tapeBunting and barricade tape

Even Cafe De Blaffende Vis forwent their annual tradition of unveiling the giant King’s Day cutout. Instead, a nondescript banner instructed the visitors to go to a website for an online reveal”. In keeping with the times, this year’s theme Alexanderhalvemeter” was a wordplay on the Dutch word for meters (anderhalvemeter, the standard corona deterring distance), the King’s name (Willem-Alexander) and the Dutch language’s propensity to coin new words by merely combiningexistingwordswithoutspaces.

Cafe De Blaffende Vis announced their annual reveal through a nondescript, white bannerCafe De Blaffende Vis announced their annual reveal through a nondescript, white banner


On King’s Day thousands of Amsterdammers’ dress in orange, spill onto the streets and enjoy even more parties, concerts, boat parades and the flea markets that spring up in every neighbourhood.

This year, despite the pleasant, sunny weather on King’s Day, very few people were out. The municipality had already banned boating during the long weekend so there wasn’t going to be any traffic in the canals either. The only evidence of the day’s significance was the higher than usual per-capita density of Dutch flags topped with orange pennants.

Dutch flags, Amsterdam flags and Dutch flags with orange pennantsDutch flags, Amsterdam flags and Dutch flags with orange pennants

In a fit of nostalgia, someone had hung a decades old picture of young Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus outside their home. Given how 2020 is going, I am sure they weren’t the only ones pining for yesteryears. Besides people enjoying the sun at the terrace outside their homes, the only other significant human presence on streets was that of food delivery personnel zipping on their bikes. As I stood to take a picture of the house, one whizzed past me in his orange livery - it’s perennially King’s Day for Thuisbezorgd delivery workers. I couldn’t have asked for a better picture to sum up this year’s King’s Day.

Every day is a stay-at-home King’s Day for ThuisbezorgdEvery day is a stay-at-home King’s Day for Thuisbezorgd

p.s. A naval vessel firing salutes had sailed past our house to mark the abdication in 2014. Our windows had shaken so violently, I was worried they’d break.

p.p.s. The only picture of the current King and Queen I saw outdoors was of them in dowdy, gingham nightshirts urging the public to celebrate King’s Day at home. Someone had hung a garland around it. I tried not to interpret this through the lens of Indian culture.

We are celebrating at home this yearWe are celebrating at home this year

  1. For at least a couple of years afterwards, much to everyone’s amusement, come April 30th and you’d be guaranteed to spot at least one group of tourists all dressed in orange and eager to join the legendary Queen’s Day parties in Amsterdam. If you must still buy a paper travel guide, make sure you get the latest edition.

  2. The Dutch word for King - Koning, rhymes with the Dutch word for house - Woning. Koningsdag was thus being pitched by the mainstream media as Woningsdag or Balkoningsdag (Balkon = Balcony). The English translation just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  3. The colours of the Royal house and that of the Dutch flag respectively.

May 3, 2020

Quarantine Diaries, Day 35

(Posted 20 Apr 2020, 21:09)

20:00 I was due to fly to India to meet my parents next week. Once the lockdowns began in Europe and India, the airline cancelled the flight automatically. They will issue a refund as a voucher valid for a year. I wonder if a year would be enough.

India has always been an 8-hour flight away in my mind. To think, no, to know that I can no longer visit on a whim or if my parents need me, makes me feel utterly helpless.

17:20 A typical breezy, sunny, spring day.

A typical sunny, spring dayA typical sunny, spring day

April 19, 2020