The toilet at Café Dudok is magnificent, like boarding one of the great ocean liners that once crossed the Atlantic. It is the finest toilet I have ever used. Mounting the elegant, black stairway that turns up and away from the cafe's main room, grasping the brass rail, one pushes the heavy metal door open and is at once met with a bracing marine chill. The toilet is clean, odorless, and chilly; never warm, flowery, nor cluttered. The great porthole windows are generally thrown open to Rotterdam's salty air, and the tile and ceramic have been vigorously swabbed, if not actually washed by crashing waves of sea water breaking over the cafe's prow. The toilet gives that impression, in any case.
The architect, Dudok, designed these magnificent toilets for the staff of the insurance firm that originally occupied the site of the eponymous cafe. Dudok is as close to a grand cafe as Rotterdam gets, and I enjoy writing there over coffee and cake. Beside the toilets, Dudok's appelgebak is its finest feature. You can buy the same cake in cafes around the city, but here it is fresh and served in the correct setting. One can only imagine negotiating the purchase of an insurance policy in so grand a room.
According to photographs, the offices of De Nederlanden health insurance company filled the main room with a warren of temporary partitions and dropped ceilings to afford privacy for the policy vendors. Insurance is an intimate, discreet affair, like a tryst that, though only briefly consummated, returns after death in the form of a miraculous pregnancy and the birth of great riches. Quel surprise! as the French say.
The French carry out their trysts at cafes, where all partitions have been dropped. In cafes, watching other people, looking at stranger's faces, is an accepted pastime. It is never polite to look at faces in the cafe toilet, but in Dudok's main room it is the order of the day. At Dudok, the private business of insurance has given way to the public business of living.
I note that the faces of Rotterdam are large. Some are so big, they seem to have been squashed in order to fit the meager allotment a human head affords. One looks like an old balloon, distended but not popped by small, poking fingers. Another is a huge cabbage, a witkool, as round as the sun, leaning to plant a kiss on the cheek of her husband, a spitskool, tapering from broad jowls up to the last whisps of white hair on his pinhead. They carry decades of hard living and volumes of unspoken wishes—retorts, bon mots, sweet nothings, bald declarations of love—that perhaps came to mind too late to be said. Swallowed words bunch up and bulge in the flesh, padding a man's ruddy cheeks, his scarred chin, the cascading folds of his triple-brow, which he carries around with him like the front end of a truck.
Rotterdammers lead with their faces. Parts are misshapen, but incredibly beautiful, like a building by Frank Gehry. I think my favorite Dutch architects, J.H. de Roos and W.F. Overeijnder, designed toilets as magnificent as Dudok's, but they did not survive the city's ceaseless tide of renovation. A Rotterdammer does not mind renovations. They are unafraid of make-up. A cigars droops from a heavily lip-sticked mouth. Bright eyes, framed in deep purple mascara, rise above a great rouged landscape shaped by a lifetime spent in a steady wind, like twin blue suns. A single face will show many skin tones.
Where did the market vendor on the Binnenrotte find so many lipsticks and blushes? Crates of them, unsorted and partly used, fill his ample wagon and spill across his market stall. Where does he store them between Saturdays? For every color there is a customer, or several, fighting over small handfuls of these alluring sticks and creme pots. When the world comes to the Netherlands, they all end up in Rotterdam.
At Dudok, the sample of Rotterdammers is narrow and impure. Foreigners— that is, Amsterdammers—shelter there when business brings them to town. The market is near enough, though, and there the faces of Rotterdam track their restless orbits in great, massing, shifting crowds of color. Our humanist god is a pointillist. I see them after shopping, trooping one by one past my cafe table, on the sly no doubt, to use the magnificent toilets of Dudok.