Kafka in pastels
It’s another sunny, but rather cold day as I’m looking out over Osdorp, that peripheral and cheerless suburb, busy as it might be any weekday morning, people scurrying to trains and buses to get to the getting place, to the offices and dispatches of this technocratic hive. A good day to find thrown away produce in the market. Were it Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday, I might go to one of the various weekly free supermarkets around the city. Shoplifting the more expensive of the essentials – olive oil, coffee, cheese – only gets you so far. A dwindling bank account balance will instill just the right amount of fear of God in me to do what I must in order to not go bankrupt in my attempts to maintain a normal diet. But of course, we’re the privileged subjects of the sprawling metropolises of the first world and, accordingly, there is enough bounty to go around – just so long as you can manage to get your hands on it.
On the sixth floor of this student studio building – a cascading series of plastic containers – the view is good and the heater either works too well or barely at all. I’m subletting from the classmate of a friend, gone for several months for family reasons, who couldn’t be bothered to go through the official avenue of subletting through DUWO, the student housing corporation in charge of this building. That’s with a “W” – not DUO, the official Dutch government student finances division. I guess they just wanted to choose a name that inspires trust, but the potential for mix-ups seems to be almost a consumer rights issue.
I can stay here for a few months and then: Out on the free market again. Or another sublet, hopefully one for more than just a couple of months. Not making the threshold income seems to condemn the average wage toiler to shared flats and dodgy landlords. Yes, I’ve lived in a converted storage space in an attic with a bootleg shower in the hallway-kitchen, complete with centuries-old kerosine heaters that we long suspected released unsafe amounts of carbon monoxide or nitrogen dioxide. Surely any young, foreign worker here knows that if you were hoping for a decent place to live but don’t make so-and-so many times the rent, you find yourself truly out of luck. I was even rejected from an antikraak company for making too little. I’m 8 months into the 10 year waiting list for social housing. To be sure, I’m not holding my breath.
I’ll go swimming later. After the end of my employment contract on the 22nd month, 3 contracts in (just before the compulsory indefinite contract), I was left with nothing more than a certain stinging resentment and a working login to OneFit (a ridiculous app for the more indecisive gym-goers with a Reaganite obsession for consumer choice), which soon after expired once the finances guy finally realized it ought to be cancelled. That means I could go to the swimming pool for free by just showing that I had logged into the app and “checked in”. Now that it’s expired, I just use a screenshot of that same screen that says I logged in, superimposing the correct date and time accordingly with a picture editing app right before I walk in. Just your typical botch job. It’s not like they study it too closely, just a quick look and you’re in. A few rounds in the sauna does my sore back good – but I think my half-rotted vegetables are advancing into even further stages of decomposition in the intense warmth of the changing room.
Luckily, there’s another perk post-full-time, after getting the boot: unemployment benefits. Previously not registered anywhere, having told the Gemeente I went back to Spain (I didn’t), and living between sublets, I decided to register with a postal address at a friend’s place. Since I was “coming from abroad” (I wasn’t), I was given an appointment for a month later. Once that came, I was given not the postal address I was hoping for, but rather merely the “permission” to register at one – along with another appointment, another month later, to actually do the registering part. So then, a total of two months in, a number of erroneous “sleeping” addresses provided, and some paperwork filed, the details of which I couldn’t decide whether or not crucially violated my privacy, I was finally, officially homeless. Perfect! Now I could rest assured that all the fines I never paid, sent for the fifth time to the wrong address, would arrive safely in my friend’s mailbox. Not in mine, in my sublet, where I am actually living – that would be too easy.
Now I don’t want to seem as though I’m skirting responsibility for my own legal and bureaucratic status – I’m not. I take full responsibility: I’m simply too poor and too underemployed to be what we might consider a “normal, productive member of society”. Besides, all this comes to little consequence because, in the end, I’m an EU citizen. I would never be the subject of deportation or forced internment, those policies weaponized against our neighbors and colleagues, our friends and family, those not unlike myself in any way besides the side of the imaginary line they happened to be born on.
And while I don’t expect to be discounted of my own farcical irresponsibility, maybe the Gemeente itself is unknowingly a participant in this whole ironic plot. Going up the stairs again in that stuffy reception – those that I had already gone up and down and up again – I stopped to admire a curiously placed, colorful pastel portrait of Franz Kafka halfway up the mezzanine, about 30 by 50 centimeters in a cheap, plastic frame and a good bit higher than standard eye-level. That tone deaf ode to a writer – categorically disregarding the underlying themes of his oeuvre – was somehow poignant.