A guy called Johnny

When I first moved to Amsterdam, I held the naive belief that it would be relatively easy to integrate into Dutch life.

After all, it wasn’t as if I was in some strange and far off land. All I’d done was pop over the North Sea to a country that, on the surface, was more or less familiar.

All I had to do was learn the language, or so I figured, and I’d be home and dry.

For a while I even marvelled at just how British a life it was possible to enjoy in Amsterdam.

I could still find necessary delicacies such as marmite in the shops. On Sundays I could sit at home and enjoy a lazy day reading the Observer and drinking PG Tips tea. I could pop to the English bookstore and take my pick of the works of any of my favourite authors. The Paradiso ensured that I need never miss a great band on tour. And a thriving expat community kept the weekends buzzing along quite nicely.


Within a year, having learned the language and acquired some pretty nifty manoeuvres on my bike I had declared myself thoroughly “cloggified”.

It never occurred to me that my appreciation of all these home comforts, combined with a certain knack I seemed to have developed in finding employment with international companies whose staff came from all over the world, save, it seemed, from Holland, was in actualt fact, keeping me from integrating.

My smug satisfaction however, was soon revealed to be little more than self deception.

A revelation which came in the form of Johnny Jordaan.

I was sitting with some Dutch pals in one of those dark, smoke-filled, low-ceiling, little bars that Amsterdam seems to specialise in.

At some point I started to pay attention to the music and in particular to the lyrics.

A song was playing called “The Pearl of the Jordaan”,

As I listened I was suddenly struck by how curiously unfamiliar the song was to me.

Not because I had never heard it before, but because of the song itself.

Basically it is an ode to the clock tower of the Westerkerk. A lavish, sentimental love song for the Jordaan area of the city.

“Ik ben in de Jordaan geboren
Mijn enigst dierbaar plekje grond
Daar waar die ouwe Westertoren
Geprezen wordt van mond tot mond…”

“I was born in the Jordaan
The only precious place for me
There where the old West tower
is praised by everyone”

The singer seemed genuinely moved by the text, and his love of the church tower and for the Jordaan was clearly heartfelt.

I remember asking one of my friends if I was understanding the song correctly.

“Is he really singing about the westertoren?”

“Who? Johnny? Yeah”


“Why? What’s wrong with that?”

“No, nothing. I just can’t imagine anyone in the UK doing that, singing a song about Nelson’s column or something…..”

“Yeah, well you wouldn’t though, would you? Nelson’s column’s ugly. And anyway you guys don’t love your cities the same as we do.”

I suppose I could have taken issue with this absurd comment. Could anyone tell a Londoner they don’t love their city enough, or a Scouser that they don’t do good by Liverpool?


“Hey I got one! Ferry cross the Mersey! See we do have songs like it”

“Yeah. One.”

I tried to think of another one. I had vague memories of some songs about London, but they turned out to be nursery rhymes. “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clemens….”

Damn, maybe he was right, we’re not as sentimental about our cities after all.

I sat and sulked while Johnny kept singing.

Song after song about his beloved city. Little snippets of life in Amsterdam. A whole oeuvre inspired by this place.

Sung by this folk hero who had named himself after the neighbourhood he came from. A musical devotion to the place where he belonged.

And that was when I realised that I simply didn’t get it.

I couldn’t get all dewy-eyed at the mere thought of the Westertoren, or sentimental over a childhood spent in the poor backstreets of the Jordaan.

Because it wasn’t my city. I was a guest here. A foreigner. Someone unable to understand just what Johnny Jordaan meant to people, what it was he symbolised, why he was loved and adored. I didn’t know where his Amsterdam was.

Now, more than a decade later, it is an understanding that still eludes me.

If I pass the westertoren, all I see is a clock tower that chimes a pretty tune every Tuesday afternoon.

I still haven’t found the city that was Johnny’s.

I doubt I ever will.

3 thoughts on “A guy called Johnny

  1. Having lived in Poland and Chile and England ( but never as logn as ten years) I totally agree that you can never really totally integrate. I do however ‘feel’I belong here in this city every time I come back from having been away. It really is all about where you grew up and where you got to know the world.
    I am not a fan of Johnny Jordaan though. But I do love the Jordaan. I used to live around the corner from where that statue is.

  2. Jen says:

    Hey Brian!

    Yeah well, I do wonder sometimes if it really is possible to integrate in a foreign country.

    I mean, you can feel at home in a place, speak the language, eat the food, but as a foreigner there will always be some cultural reference that you fail to understand, regardless of how long you live in a place.

    Or at least, so it is appearing for me …..

    Not that I’d ever want to be anything other than Scottish mind ….. 🙂

  3. You’re hanging out with Dutch pals talking about kooetjes and kalfjes, able to catch the lyrics to a song in a noisy bar, and moaning about not being integrated?

    I’m here ten years now and only beginning to take learning the language seriously!

    I just posted recently about the shame of reading a New Yorker article about the Dutch “pillar system” of live and let live integration of foreigners — and learning more about a neighborhood two blocks away from a magazine published in Manhattan than I’ve picked up in a decade of living here.

    Shameful, really: you should be proud of how far you are.


    P.S. We’ve got Frankie’s “New York New York” where I come from. That’s more of a typically American “Beat this” Anthem than Johnny’s heartfelt lyrics, though. 😉

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