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Further Writing by Swan Morrison

Weighty Matters In Amsterdam

I walked across the Vondelpark on my way to meet a friend for dinner.

In the late afternoon of this sunny, June day, the park was filled with cyclists, joggers, walkers and those undertaking many other varieties of strenuous physical activity.

Some people sat on benches or were lying on the grass – presumably enjoying breaks prior to their next sessions of exercise.

I had visited the Vondelpark on many previous occasions. Today, however, as I looked around, something seemed odd. Unfortunately, I could not identify what that might be as nothing was obviously different from previous visits.

It was one o’clock in the morning when I left my friend and began to retrace my steps across the park, back to my hotel.

As I walked, I became aware of a vehicle drawing up beside me. I glanced to my left to see a police car.

The vehicle stopped.

I stopped.

‘Goedemorgen, Meneer,’ said the officer to me through the open car window.

‘I’m English,’ I replied.

‘Ah, good morning, Sir,’ the policeman cheerfully continued. ‘It’s a lovely night for a brisk, healthy walk across the park.’

‘It certainly is,’ I responded.

He opened the door of the police car and climbed out. When he was standing on the pavement in front of me, I noticed, in the bright moonlight, that he was carrying bathroom scales.

He placed them on the ground. ‘Would you mind stepping onto these?’ he said politely, indicating the scales.

As a seasoned British traveller, I had long ago learned that the behaviour of foreigners could be rather strange – indeed this was often what made them so endearing. I therefore complied with his request without further discussion.

The policeman looked at the dial on the scales. ‘Seventy-nine point four kilograms,’ he said, almost to himself.

He removed a chart from his pocket. ‘You’re about one point nine metres tall, aren’t you?’ he guessed.

‘That’s right,’ I replied.

He consulted his chart. ‘You have a BMI of around twenty-three,’ he concluded.

‘Is that good?’ I asked.

‘It’s absolutely fine,’ he replied as he picked up the scales.

The officer got back into his police car.

‘Enjoy the rest of your walk,’ he called to me through the open car window. Then he waved and drove away.

Unusual though this encounter was, I quickly attributed the incident to routine foreigner strangeness and thought little more about it as I continued on my way.

I had walked for another hundred yards when I heard a rustling behind a bush to my right. A head popped up above the leaves. ‘Is de politie weg?’ the man said to me.

‘I’m English,’ I replied.

‘Ah,’ he responded, ‘have the police gone?’

‘I think so. Are they after you?’

The man stood upright and emerged from behind the bush.

In the moonlight, I could see that he sported a rather rotund figure – to the point that he might be described as obese. ‘I like to walk in the park,’ he continued, ‘but I can only do so at night. Even then, there’s always the risk of arrest.’

‘Why would they arrest you?’ I enquired.

He looked downwards at his own body and then up again at me. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he replied. ‘I‘ve got a BMI of thirty-three.’

‘I don’t understand.’

He paused and looked quizzically at me. ‘You don’t know, do you?’ he finally concluded.

‘Know what?’

‘Have you been long in Amsterdam?’

‘I come here quite often,’ I replied. ‘Why?’

‘Have you never wondered why everyone in Amsterdam is so slim and fit?’

I pondered for several seconds. His question had instantly brought many things into sharp focus. It was true that I had rarely seen anyone in the city who was not the epitome of health and fitness. I had noticed obese guests checking-in at my favourite hotel. Strangely, however, I had never seen the same person twice.

I thought back to my walk across the Vondelpark earlier in the day. I suddenly realised why the scene had seemed peculiar. I had unconsciously compared it to a walk through London’s Hyde Park that I had enjoyed just three days previously.

In England, according to government statistics, over half the population are overweight or obese. During my twenty minute walk across Hyde Park, from the Royal Albert Hall to Speakers’ Corner, I had noted many such individuals struggling with mobility – at least partly related to their weight. As I was in Britain, however, I had not thought this unusual.

Now that I reflected upon it, I had never seen anyone like that in the Vondelpark – and very rarely elsewhere in Amsterdam.

I looked at my new companion. ‘Why is everyone in Amsterdam so slim and fit?’ I asked, referring back to his previous question.

‘Anyone with a BMI in excess of twenty-nine is detained,’ he replied.

‘What happens to them after that?’

‘Foreigners, like you, are taken directly to Schiphol and deported. They’re warned not to return until their BMIs are less than twenty-nine. They’re informed that if they tell anybody about their deportation they’ll be banned for life from entry to the Netherlands.’

‘What about those who are resident here?’

‘They’re immediately taken to the Port of Amsterdam and put on a ship. The ship takes them to Griend Island in the Wadden Sea.

‘On Griend Island there are fitness camps where they remain on a strict diet and exercise regime until they achieve a BMI of twenty-five. They are then returned to the mainland at Den Helder and can walk or cycle from there back to their homes.’

‘But I thought the Netherlands was very liberal?’ I responded with surprise.

‘With sex, drugs, and just about everything else, it is,’ my companion answered. ‘But everyone must be fit. For example, all Dutch must cycle at least fifty kilometres each day to avoid heavy fines.’

Things were now falling into place. This was why there were so few obese individuals on the streets of Amsterdam, and my companion’s last comment explained why so many people were frantically cycling around the city at all hours of the day and night.

‘What about you?’ I asked.

‘I, and hundreds like me, hide in basements during the day and only venture out in the dead of night.’ He glanced cautiously around him. ‘I have to go,’ he continued. ‘The patrols come by about every half hour, and I must get to my basement in Overtoom, without breaking cover, before the sun rises.’

Without another word, he vanished into the undergrowth.

‘Good luck,’ I called after him.

I stood for some time, pondering on my two recent encounters. The incident with the police officer had confirmed that, with a BMI of twenty-three, I was safe for the moment. I resolved in future, however, to take an early morning run around the Vondelpark – and perhaps an evening cycle ride – just to be sure.