North Korea

By Niña Weijers

When I was five months pregnant, we moved to a hideous flat in Kattenburgerstraat. We had no money back then, or not much anyway. My boyfriend worked as an editor at a small publishing company, and I wrote copy for fashion magazines and literary reviews for websites nobody had ever heard of.

The flat had two tiny bedrooms and a bathroom with a shower and wash basin that were fitted so close together as to be all but on top of each other. Getting out of the shower with my belly was a grotesque affair and required me to step out of the cubicle sideways to then exit the room backwards. My boyfriend, thinking it was important to also document the mundane aspects of my pregnancy, wanted to photograph this procedure. I told him not to confuse the mundane with the degrading, but he took no notice.

In no time at all the narrow strip of balcony overlooking the street filled up with rubbish bags, broken chairs (two) and an impressive array of glass. Now and again it bothered me that our home looked to the outside world as if the people who were living in it had made a sad mess of their lives, and that’s when I tried to be a good housewife. I carried all the leaky rubbish bags to a container, threw the piles of old newspapers into the recycling bin, bought scouring pads and all-purpose cleaner and spent hours scrubbing furiously if not very meticulously the surfaces of our scant belongings. At the end of such a day the flat would be cleaner but still no bigger, and I wondered where in God’s name we’d find the space for a child.

There were two reasons why the situation didn’t depress me too much. First there was the proximity of the water. I’d often walk over to the bridge opposite the Maritime Museum, where I’d lean against the railing as the traffic on Prins Hendrikkade sped by. I most loved the River IJ on grey winter’s days, when the water was as drab and impervious as the cargo ships sliding through it. Sometimes I longed to live on such a ship, although I couldn’t tell you why.

The second reason was an obsession I’d developed for the other side of the street. It consisted not of houses, but of a long, not very high wall.

“What’s that wall for?” I asked the first night we were there, while my boyfriend was fiddling with a jumble of leads and plugs. He’s not very good at that sort of thing, but he’s exceedingly patient and hardly anything gets him down.

“What wall?” he asked.

I told him to come to the window so he could see, but he was sitting there surrounded by his leads and didn’t feel like getting up to look at a wall.

“There’s an entrance too,” I said to him, as I stuck my upper body quite far out of the window, while craning my neck to the left. My boyfriend asked me how the baby would like it if I fell from a second floor window.

I typed our address into Google Street View and directed the camera so it faced the other side of the street from roughly my perspective. It was a sunny day on Google Street View. I moved the cursor to the entrance, but when I clicked nothing happened.

“I’m not allowed in,” I said. The baby kicked against my uterine wall.

Later, as we were lying next to each other on our mattress, which was floating like a raft among the unpacked boxes, I asked my boyfriend if he thought it was exciting to live opposite a secret location.

“On Google Maps the space behind that wall has been completely blurred out,” I said. “It’s really big. More or less triangular.”

“There are hardly any satellite images of North Korea,” he replied. I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t, and a minute later I could hear him breathing slowly and deeply. In the dark I imagined he’d turned into a whale, with huge lungs and a carcass big enough to house all our furniture and bits and pieces.

“It’s an old navy yard,” he said the following morning, while rummaging through a box with “kitchen” written on it in felt-tip pen. I’d woken up late from a deep sleep. There were two croissants on the kitchen counter. I was touched.

“I made some inquiries,” my boyfriend resumed. “It’s true, that place is off-limits. Top secret.”

I faked indifference and asked him what he was trying to find. He looked at me puzzled. “I thought you might be interested,” he said.

“Oh, you know,” I said. “The cafetière’s in the box with bathroom stuff. It didn’t fit in this one.”

I couldn’t have told you what I was after, but in the weeks that followed I’d walk to the end of the street every day, to where it intersects with Piet Heinkade, and along the wall all the way to the bridge. The opening in the wall had two barriers on either side of a small booth with dark windows. I’d never see anyone, and there was no barbed wire or any other deterrents. All in all, it looked more like a deserted border post than heavily guarded terrain. It intrigued me. The thought that behind it lay another country, a secret country, which didn’t feature on any world maps.

And then it happened, two weeks before my due date. My belly was huge, my ankles swollen and my blood pressure too high. Well-meaning friends told me I looked gorgeous, but the exact opposite was true. I felt like a giant on display at a freak show and stayed indoors as much as possible, trying to concentrate on an essay about the Russian science fiction writer, naval engineer and dissident Yevgeny Zamyatin. His famous dystopian novel We, banned by Soviet censors in 1921, depicts a world in which the individual has been all but eradicated. Names have become numbers and days pass like a tightly controlled production process. The novel features a poet laureate who reads his poems at executions. I found it perverse and endlessly fascinating.

My daily walk became an increasingly laborious affair, but the street was quiet and the wall appeared to have a calming effect on the baby, as I’d tell stories about the land beyond in a soft whisper. The landscape is gorgeous, I said, boasting mountains all the way to the sea as well as vast plateaus. I talked about the people there, living in large cities made of glass. About the uniforms they wore, and the lack of ethnic diversity, poverty and wealth. About the despot who had his advisors executed, even if they were relatives.
Rumor has it, I whispered down at my belly, that the country has nuclear weapons, but nobody knows for sure. Nobody gets in and nobody gets out. This land, I said, exists only inside its walls; the rest is speculation.

I’d just passed the barriers when I heard someone shouting, “Ma’am!” And again, “Ma’am!” When I turned round I saw a man stepping out of the booth between the two barriers. He was wearing a green jacket and dark-blue beret with red insignia on the side. A young guy, in his early twenties at most.

He waved at me.

“I wanted to say hello,” he said. He hesitated, as if taken aback by his own initiative. “I always see you walk past, that’s why.”

It never occurred to me there was actually someone in that small booth.

The young man pointed up, to a rectangular building right behind the entrance.

“We see you on the security camera every afternoon. You’ve become something of a celebrity within the force.”

He flashed a broad smile. His eyes were light blue and his skin so pale it was practically translucent.

Full of enthusiasm, he started telling me about his job, the daily raising of the flag, the exact dimensions of the site, the helipad, the commander who went on cruises, the restaurant for the troops and the corporals that was inexplicably nicknamed ‘The Buffalo’ and a depot that held 240,000 items of something.

Unable to stop him, I could only nod and fight the urge to dig my nails into that pale skin of his and scratch it open.

Then he leaned over to me. “This is the safest ad-hoc place in Amsterdam,” he said. He smelled faintly of vegetable soup. “We have a safe house for people in danger. We provide them with a modicum of safety.”

Then he pointed to my belly.

“What’s it going to be, if you don’t mind me asking?”

I cleared my throat. “A cross between Mussolini and Stalin,” I said, louder than I’d intended. With that I turned round, and without looking over my shoulder, walked away from him, towards the water, which glittered extravagantly in the sun.

Two months after our child was born, we left Amsterdam. We found a house beside a pond, which we were able to pick up for a song from an elderly man who was moving to sheltered accommodation. We knocked down a couple of walls and whitewashed everything that was brown.

The first winter was so harsh that for weeks we could step out of the front door on ice skates. When winter turned to spring, I discovered a roll of film in an unpacked box. I had it developed in a shop in the village. They were pictures of me in our flat in Kattenburgerstraat. I looked at myself sleeping, reading and gazing out of the window with the other side of the street in the background. In the final picture I saw myself stepping sideways out of the shower. My body and hair were wet, and I had one hand on top of my belly while trying to ward off the camera with the other. I don’t remember ever being that beautiful.

North Korea was first published as part of The Land Inside The Walls, an artistic research/project about the redevelopment of the Marineterrein (the Marine area) in Amsterdam, by Das Magazin & artist Sjoerd ter Borg.
Translated from the Dutch by Laura Vroomen.