Sunday, June 14, 2009

Well now, I might just write Joe Purdy a letter this morning to inform him that not all Dutch people are nice.  I need to purchase a tram ticket and on a Sunday morning can’t find either a tourist information office or a local market that’s open for business.  At the Hotel Toren, however, they tell me that I can buy a ticket from the driver onboard, so that’s what I set out to do. But as luck would have it, the man I stumble upon doesn’t like it one little bit.  In fact, he is so disgruntled by my neophyte behavior that he barks at me to stand aside while others board, which gives him ample opportunity to mock me in front of all of the other passengers. At least they have the courtesy to look away.

The incident rattles me and makes me angry, but I make matters worse for myself by jumping off the tram too early.  So here I am, quite disoriented, somewhere near Leidseplein, not sure which way to turn to get to the Rijksmuseum, and the pounding rain surely isn’t helping matters. 

Amsterdam is a handsome city—it really is—but it doesn’t seem to welcome pedestrian traffic.  Cars and buses are buzzing about, trams lines are intersecting at odds angles under a spider web of electric wire, and then there are the bicycles. Bicycles everywhere, in the streets ignoring traffic signals, and on the sidewalks evading the traffic in the streets.  I haven’t felt this uneasy about stepping off a curb since I tried to cross Piazza Venezia in Rome.  I have become the hunted, dependent for survival on the stereotypical niceness of a nation. 

My bucolic visions of Holland have long included tulips and windmills.  Who knew their citizens also had a suicidal instinct?

By now, I’ve fully embraced the spirit of “getting there in the end.”  I find a small patch of earth that seems to be blessedly free of any vehicle’s path. I hoist up the umbrella, unfold the map, and with calm efficiency reroute myself according to the morning’s demands.

When I enter the Rijksmuseum at last, ticket in hand, I consider it a small victory in my ongoing battle against the fates.  And it really is.  Granted, the vast majority of the museum is closed for a multi-year renovation, but the highlights of the collection have been condensed into the Philips Wing in an exhibit simply titled “The Masterpieces.”  There may be maniacal tram drivers and a pelting rain outside, but here is some of the finest and most jolly art of the Dutch Golden Age, and the sight of it lifts my mood at once.  There is a smiling couple painted in vigorous brush strokes by Frans Hals, Rembrandt’s mammoth “The Night Watch,” and a trio of small, intimate portraits by Vermeer.  I may have spent much of my time on this trip missing Italy, but frankly, when it comes to art I prefer this subject matter to a constant stream of “Annunciations” and “Last Judgments.”

The weather outside is still quite nasty, so afterwards I head to the Van Gogh Museum nearby, where I grab a salami sandwich and an almond cookie at their cafeteria before heading in to the exhibits.  I also pay a few extra Euros for the audio guide.  Before long, I am so immersed in the visual and the auditory experience they provide, that I’ve lost all track of the time.  This may just be my favorite museum ever.

Van Gogh’s paintings are presented chronologically, beginning in the 1880s with rather somber works, like “The Potato Eaters.”  Next comes Paris and Arles, then Saint-Rémy, with its swirling brushstrokes, brilliant yellows and cobalt skies.  And finally, there is Auvers, where “Wheatfield with Crows,” executed in the last week’s of Van Gogh’s life, lead the eye down a solitary path under an angry sky, deep into the world in which he shot himself.  Paired with narration from the artist’s letters to his brother Theo, it’s a moving and wholly satisfying experience.

By late afternoon, the sky is starting to clear, and I am grateful to have a pleasant opportunity to wander through Amsterdam’s canal belt.  I stop to admire the “Seven Countries” houses, built in 1894 to showcase the architectural styles of Europe—one townhouse has an onion dome from Russia, while another looks like a Venetian palazzo—then I walk along the floating flower market on the Singel Canal to admire the tulips, and across to a fine view of the Zuiderkerk before heading back. 

The clerk at my hotel recommends De Luwte for dinner, a fine choice just around the corner from The Toren, and there I enjoy a guinea fowl with fresh herbs, wrapped in pancetta. 

Afterwards, I set to walking again because the sky is clear and because Amsterdam is just so very lovely at night, with the fairy lights on its bridges reflecting like strands of pearls into the water below.

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