By Way of England
Fresh from a short springtime hop to Troyes to see my psychiatrist friend Jacques, I was back in Paris, itching to plunge headlong into an adventure northward. I could have gone directly to Amsterdam from Paris by TGV (train à grande vitesse or high-speed train), but that would have been too easy, too direct, too efficient, and probably too unimaginative. Then when The Duke of Caen (actually my pharmacist friend), insisted on seeing me at Caen before thinking about any place else, the die was cast. I had to go to Amsterdam not from Paris but through Caen, heading due west before meandering my way north through southern England.
Caen of Calvados was still the good old city of placid living. And The Duke was ever the same connoisseur of good food and good wine. But I came at a special time. A labor strike had been going on for over a week now, putting in jeopardy my plans to reach Amsterdam via Portsmouth and London that spring. Having explored Caen for two days, I had found the city remarkably hospitable in many ways, but the city boy in me itched to move on. On the second night, The Duke, with whom I shared many a delightful hour of singing and chattering away about the great nothings of the world over a demitasse in downtown Rouen and over cognac in his living room, announced that the strike of French dock workers at Ouistreham might be coming to an end the following morning.
I greeted the news with equanimity and relief, for now I could board the ferryboat for a six-hour overnight trip to Portsmouth, a city on the southern coast of England among many others that had seen a great deal of buildup activity prior to the Allied invasion of the European continent during World War II. Late the following night The Duke and his entire family drove me to the seaside town of Ouistreham to see me off. The Brittany Ferries ship was a moderate-size ocean liner equipped with 220 private cabins, economy class cabins, retail boutiques, restaurant, bar, coffee shop, cinema, slot machines, games room, cabaret, and could carry 2123 passengers and 600 cars. But that night business was slow. The line of vehicles disappearing into its dark gaping mouth was relatively short, and the line of passengers boarding was probably just as short. I climbed up to one of the five or six decks where huge rooms could accommodate a hundred persons each with lots of legroom and wide aisles. Looking around the cavernous cabin full of unoccupied reclining seats, I saw two or three other people in my section. They soon settled down on the floor for the night. All was quiet in this vast emptiness.
When I woke up, all my fellow passengers had gone. The ferry was now within sight of Portsmouth. As it was gliding slowly toward the dock, passengers crowded around the windows and out on the open deck to watch an armada of warships moored at their berths. Not only does Portsmouth live on the sea, it seems to live off the sea as well. At last here I was in England again, this time coming in across the English Channel from the south. The seabirds signaled their greetings with fancy flights everywhere. On a previous trip I had crossed over through the long tunnel dug under the Channel to reach London before boarding the train to Portsmouth. This time it was an overnight sea-borne voyage, utterly uneventful, that brought me back to this town on the sea. As I was leaving the dock for my waiting friend Alex, I could still hear the cries of seagulls ringing in my ears.
Alex and his family had settled in England for a number of years, but his wife Chou came from Paris, where her mother still lives. They both prefer England to France because of the discipline and the opportunity they found in the former. To them Portsmouth is just the right size city with enough attractions to keep one happy, and I probably would agree with them if I loved ships and seafaring. I guess I am just too impatient to enjoy the vast sky and immense sea away from the maddening pace and hubbub of big city life. In fact, I came to pay a visit that I had promised my friends for quite some time. But my itinerary, severely constrained by time, would hardly allow more than a day.
So the following morning, Alex and Chou took me back to London, past Windsor, where on a previous trip we had seen the famed castle. Virile London, with its Big Ben towering over Westminster Abbey, its stately Buckingham Palace, its Trafalgar Square inhabited by myriad pigeons fattened by indulgent residents and tourists, its respected museums, its double-decked city buses, is without a doubt an exciting metropolis. I remember the city tour taken on the open upper deck of a bus on a chilly spring morning, when the penetrating cold made us shiver. Heat had to be piped up the open deck to warm the few hardy souls who would rather freeze than miss the spectacular view from this vantage point. I remember the walk to the house on number 20 Baker Street, where Sherlock Holmes and his foil, Dr. Watson, purportedly spent countless hours discussing crimes, fighting them, or solving criminal cases. And I remember the subway trips that almost invariably ended with the warning announced over the speakers, “Mind the gap.” To this day, I still don’t understand why the gap between the train and the platform could not be filled. Then there was the long walk to the Tate Museum, only to find we had too little time left to make the admission worth the cost. We settled for a shorter visit to the Madame Tussaud’s Gallery of life-size wax figures, where Queen Victoria, Roger Moore, Princess Diana, England’s royal family, and a confraternity of other famous British and foreign personalities thrilled endless crowds of open-mouthed admirers. Of the London of fine dining, we knew nothing. Our gastronomical taste constrained by geography and our budget hobbled by exchange rates had to accommodate sandwiches and coffee and bottled water. Still London for the not-so-down and not-so-out backpacking denizens of the far-flung urban landscape holds enough mysteries and enough enigmas to justify fresh looks.
Alex, Chou, a photographer friend of theirs and I spent the whole day walking around the financial district, the areas around Waterloo and Victoria stations, the Thames, and Parliament taking pictures and basically squandering time while waiting for my evening train. The train never came. Instead, passengers bound for Rotterdam or Amsterdam that night were hauled by bus two hours early to an eastern seaport, where a large boat was to ferry them across the North Sea. I took leave of my friends, and left London full of anticipation for the unknown. As the late afternoon bus wound its ways eastward, hours ahead of the scheduled train that never materialized, I could foresee arriving at Amsterdam in the wee hours instead of with the sun. I thought about London again. I had never stayed in the city long enough to bond with it. And though I would very much like to know it better, time worked against me. Perhaps someday I will return. Don’t go away just yet, London. I’ll be back.
The ferry that carried hundreds of other passengers and me was huge. It got a main deck that boasted a centrally located bar, a snack counter, a mini-casino, retail shops, chairs and lounges, and astronomical prices, at least to the bohemian tourist like me. No one slept, for the trip couldn’t take more than four or five hours. The sea was calm that night, and there was nothing for me to do. Everyone else was drinking, smoking, gambling, or chatting away. Fortunately, I had anticipated such down time and brought a book. The light at each table was too bright for a romantic tête-à-tête but not enough to read by. Sleep soon took over in spite of the undifferentiated coffee I imbibed. The book fell off my hand repeatedly, only to be picked up, looked at through hazy leaden-lidded eyes, and dropped again. Whether stimulant or depressant, coffee just did not work for me that night. While I was struggling with my determination to make the most of the time I had, other passengers simply kept their spirits high with continuous flows of spirits.
Hours passed in the chill of spring night while the boat was slicing through the calm waters of the North Sea. Interminable hours droned on. At times I shook myself out of lethargy, got on my feet, wandered around aimlessly, ogling the shadowy figures in the lounge enjoying a drink or a game of cards. What a torture! I could not sleep, I could not read, I could not think, I could not lie down, and I could not even sit still.
At last, with a slight shudder our ferryboat docked at Rotterdam. It must have been past mid-night. All passengers bound for Amsterdam disembarked to board a bus that was to take them to a waiting train. The air was crisp and cold for a presumably balmy May. If it hadn’t been for the sweater The Duke lent me at Caen, I might have frozen to death. I half-consciously followed the crowd like a lemming to the sea, knees weakened by fatigue, body heavy and senseless as an automaton. It was the exact feeling I had years earlier when I walked into the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan after an all-night bus trip from my college town. The train to Amsterdam was almost empty, even after all the new passengers had come aboard. The car I was in probably had no more than five souls in it, and the dimmed light soon put everybody at ease. Some of my fellow travelers sprawled across two or three seats; others curled in fetus position wrapped in dark coats, their bags lying every which way. There was nothing to do but falling into a half-slumber while the clanking of the wheels was trying its best to keep everybody awake with its infernal metallic noise.
In what felt like a fraction of eternity the lights of Amsterdam began to pierce through the darkness in a dance of joyful welcome. Slowly the train pulled into the Centraal Station at the heart of northern Dutch country.
Ah, to be in the Venice of the North!
Here is the city with a reputation of liberal mores, with rings of canals, tree-shaded waterfronts, and narrow tall row houses vying with imposing museums. But its discovery had to wait several more hours of shivering in the chilly air, bundled up in front of Centraal Station. The town was sound asleep under its neon signs. Nothing stirred, no cars, no pedestrians, no activity of any kind. I ventured to a couple of hotels within walking distance in hopes of finding a place to lie down even for an hour or two. One had no vacancies; the other was not even open. My legs led me back to the railroad station, where two or three other stranded travelers were placidly dozing off leaning against their oversize bags. To me time seemed to stop moving. Yet the night was slowly slipping away, inexorably, albeit imperceptibly. And not even a small group of young men and women who came to the station to get high in the middle of the night could delay the passage of the time.
Amsterdam woke up to a bright sunny morning. I shook off the lethargy that had built overnight, sprang to my feet, joined a group of tourists at the station’s tourist office, and in a short time was on my way to a hotel nearby in the center of town. I thought I would need part of the morning to recuperate from the ordeal of the trip from London, but after a good shower and a hearty breakfast, I was ready to explore Amsterdam with zest and gusto.
Among the great European cities such as Paris, Rome and London, Amsterdam stands as a parvenu, rising to fame only during the last 300 years. Built 800 years ago on mostly marshy land, Amsterdam, the city of merchants, is a study in human determination and stubbornness. Rising a mere 20 kilometers from the North Sea at the mouth of the river Ij, which empties into the Bay of Ijsselmeer, formerly known as Zuiderzee, the town was built on land reclaimed from the sea behind a powerful levee, built in the 1950’s, that holds back the water and allows the dry land to emerge. Like much of the Netherlands, Amsterdam is locked in a battle between land and sea, which for now seems to have been won despite the rising sea level caused by global warming. Thanks to the powerful steam pumps introduced during the 19th century, the land was efficiently dried, and the sea pushed back. The distinguished-looking Centraal Station, its back facing the bay, and other neighboring structures were built on land snatched from the sea, so that it is hard for a casual observer to notice that a great seaport is only a few hundred meters away.
The City Quarters
Amsterdam is also a study in contrast. Its old quarters, the Oude Zijde (Old Side) with narrow streets and medieval churches interspersed in the midst of the red-light district, which occupies a sliver of land between the two transverse canals of Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal, are embedded in the vibrant Center of town, where modern buildings farther west, such as the Stock Exchange, department stores, and glitzy hotels and restaurants dominate. About a quarter mile from the central railroad station, where most visitors to the city arrive, the red-light district stands as one of the symbols of Amsterdam’s open mind. Delimited by the Amstel River on the southeast, the Kloveniersburgwal and the Gelderselkade canals to the east, and the city’s oldest canal, the Singel, to the west, the Center is the busiest district. Down the broad thoroughfare called Damrak, stretching from the Centraal Station to the imposing Royal Palace about 800 meters away, a sea of humanity surges day and night. East of the Royal Palace is a vast expanse of open space called the Dam. It is the traditional heart of the city since the 12th century. In its center the National Monument, inaugurated in 1956 and renovated in 1998, commemorates the Netherlands’ World War II dead. Here street performers, mimes, jugglers, clowns, and musicians fascinate the crowds during the summer. Tourists never suspect that the Amstel was redirected from this area centuries earlier, and was gradually filled behind a dike, called Aemstelle Dam (the dike of the Amstel).
From the Centraal Station just walk down the Damrak for about two kilometers, then cross the Singelgracht canal, and the famed Rijkmuseum is almost within sight about three hundred meters to the west. Frequent streetcars and buses fan out from the Center to outlying districts, making it one of the most tourist-friendly cities I have seen. And when canal boats are added to the transit system, compact Amsterdam becomes a haven for tourists. To the east lies the old Jewish quarter, where the Waterlooplein flea market thrilled curiosity-seekers. It is in this quaintly attractive quarter that the house of Rembrandt is located, a red brick building he occupied for almost 20 years before dire financial straits forced him to sell it in 1658. Now a museum, it preserves 250 of his priceless etchings. Spanning the Amstel, which reaches right up to the center of town before joining with the Singel, the Blue Bridge (Blauwbrug) never fails to surprise visitors familiar with Paris, as it is a replica of the Alexander III. At a stone’s throw away lies the glass-and- concrete complex of the Stopera, which shelters the National Ballet, the Netherlands Dance Theater, the state Opera as well the new City Hall. Boathouses, some more picturesque than others, line the banks of an interior Amstel basin nearby.
South of the Center is for me the magnet. The whole purpose of my lightning trip to Amsterdam was to see the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, both of which occupied a shady part of town only two and a half kilometers from the central station. Amsterdam is full of museums scattered all over its compact domain, and can take days, if not weeks, to explore thoroughly. Just to cite a few, in the Center are the Historical Museum converted from an orphanage in 1975, the Allard Pierson Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Eroticism in the red- light district, the Amstelkring Museum with a secret church inside, a rare Museum of Tea and Coffee. In the old East Side, there are the Jewish Historical Museum, the Museum of Syndicates, the Zoological Museum, the Tropical Museum, and the Historical Maritime Museum. On the picturesque West Side, which I love for its distinctive Dutch architecture, are the Theater Museum, the Bible Museum, the Anne Frank Museum, and south of the Center tourists can find among others Rembrandt’s House, and the Van Loon Museum.
No galleries surpass the trio of world-class museums close by the Vondelpark just south of the Center: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the lesser known city’s museum of modern art, the Stedelijk Museum, where the exhibits rank among the most audacious works anywhere, besides collections of Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Piet Mondriaan and Malevitch.
A Friendly Touch
Amsterdam by day is a smiling city, welcoming, and inviting. On the first day my immediate mission was to find a place to stay. That required no more hard work than asking a few simple questions of the competent tourist personnel at the railroad station. My hotel was only a few short blocks from the dock in front of the Centraal Station. A refreshing shower and a hearty breakfast soon washed away all the weariness of the previous day, setting me in the right mood and the right frame of mind to face the world. With alacrity and the light-heartedness of a carefree man about town, I took possession of Amsterdam, as if it by rights belonged to me. Just hours after I got there, I was already feeling like a habitué. And although everything in this town of some 720,000 people was new, from the streetcars and buses to the bicycles and canals, nothing seemed totally unexpected. I attribute this familiarity and feeling of belonging either to my prior research or to the disposition of a man too blasé to admit excitement.
My operations plan was the classic one-two punch: a leisurely exploration of the Rijksmuseum the first day, a thorough discovery of the Van Gogh Museum the second, and if time permitted, a gigantic if, a blitzkrieg foray into the Stedelijk Museum next door, topped off by a hasty retrograde movement toward Centraal Station before the Thalys TGV left for Paris at sunset without me. By any measure it was an ambitious plan; but this was a make-or-break operation, and it had to succeed. Thus duly prepared and in rapid succession, I marched down to the tour boat dock across the Centraal, purchased a 24-hour ticket, and boarded the next bateau-mouche, which glided through one of the five semi-circular canals ringing the heart of Amsterdam.
As the crisp air filled my lungs with the North Sea salt breath, I could not help remembering the Grand Canal of Venice. Of course, the Singelgracht or the Amstel is narrower and less grand than the Grand Canal, which is really part of the Venetian lagoon, and the absence of seabirds screaming past accentuate the difference. If Amsterdam’s fewer canals form well-laid concentric semi-circles around the Center’s hub, the more natural rii of Venice crisscross helter- skelter the length and breadth of town. The myriad canals of Venice, traversed by some 440 bridges, trace irregular scars on the landscape packed with medieval buildings, palaces, and churches. In contrast, Amsterdam’s relatively young canals serve houses, monuments and edifices most of which date only to the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. While the houses on the canals of Venice are slowly sinking in the face of the rising sea, Amsterdam’s generally rest on sturdy pillars sunk deep into the soil. Even the weaker ones can lean on the foundations of their more stable neighbors. Finally, whereas Venice’s San Marco Piazza gets flooded at times, no place in its northern cousin is under threat by the waters of the North Sea. In the battle against the sea, romantic Venice faces tremendous odds being completely surrounded by the lagoon while pragmatic Amsterdam has an easier time holding its own with parts of its area on terra firma.
The scenery of both banks of Amsterdam’s canals feasted the eye with rows upon rows of contiguous varied-hued brick houses distinguished by their narrow but ornate fronts reaching five or six stories, all sporting a heavy-duty beam projecting from the gable and equipped with a pulley for moving heavy loads to the upper floors. Brick, if you have not already noticed, is the favorite building material in Amsterdam. I found these houses a picture-perfect subject for a Monet or a Pissarro, and an ingenious adaptation to the paucity of land. There is something about their façades that charms, hidden behind the rows of trees and bicycles along the banks lined with boathouses. The Dutch’s love of nature manifests itself in the ubiquitous bicycles, which crisscross tree-lined streets, in the plethora of parks, in the window boxes filled with colorful flowers, not to mention the famous fields of tulips. An Amsterdam street is an oasis of tranquility. I never had to watch vehicular traffic except at rare intersections. Modernity here is symbolized not by the noisy fume-belching cars but by the judicious use of resources and the respect of the environment. A walk within a few miles of the Centraal has the therapeutic effect of a walk in a park. The pedestrian, whether a tourist or a resident, feels safe and at home in this hospitable place.
The Museumplein (Museum District)
The boat trip was short to the Rijksmuseum (the National Museum), terminated when the reflection of the museum façade on the Singelgracht came into view. I jumped on land, in awe of the sumptuous red-brick edifice ahead. An oeuvre of the renowned P.J.H. Cuypers (1827-1921) inaugurated in 1885, the architect who also built the Centraal Station in the nineteenth century, the museum consists of two identical towers with pyramid tops flanking the central structure decorated by four arched portals. For the rest of the day, banishing all earthly concerns, I was going to lose myself in the world of art.
The Rijksmuseum holds more than 5,000 paintings, sketches and drawings, and thousands of sculptures, many of which bequeathed by rich patriotic philanthropists. Here the works of Bruegel the Elder, Frans Hals, Jacob Van Ruysdael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, adjoin the more avant-garde pieces by Mondriaan. Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1659) depicts with realism the lives of the ordinary peasants as a meditation on the destiny of man. Frans Hals (1585-1666), famous painter commissioned to portray the monuments and the militiamen of Amsterdam, was an inveterate drinker and debauchee, having sired ten children and an incalculable number of bastards. His dissolute ways finally caught up with him. Declared insolvent, Hals survived until age 81 by the generosity of the city council, who, on account of his talent, granted him a pension and paid his rent. What modern city council does that now for any genius? Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), who recently commanded renewed interest, still remains enigmatic since many details of his life, his stylistic evolution, his relations with other contemporary artists, and the moralizing themes of his art are matters of debate. His genre paintings represent a historical record of Dutch domestic life. Though only about 34 of his works are recognized as authentic, their chronology is anything but certain. Despite the small number of his works, Vermeer achieves fame among great artists by his poetic ways of using light and color to impart moods. Perhaps his best-known composition is The Milkmaid, which in its simplicity and directness captures the Dutch character in its essence.
The dominant figure in the Rijksmuseum must be Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669). As I walked up the stairs to the second floor, I suddenly confronted the familiar scene on a huge canvas hung on the wall ahead. It is the spectacular The Night Watch painted in 1642. I was agog, never expecting to see this superb work done in masterful chiaroscuro in this museum. This technique of using light and dark to depict character and moods dramatically, which is pioneered by the Italian painter Caravaggio (1573-1610), soon spread throughout Europe; and Rembrandt became a master of it. The crowd built in front of the painting as if mesmerized by its sheer size. As commanding as the 363 x 437 cm canvas is, there is evidence that the original was 30 cm taller at the top, and 60 cm wider on the left. With this work, Rembrandt departed from the orthodox style of portrait painting, and brought the Dutch tradition of militia portraiture to a high point, where an ordinary event becomes historical drama with every element in the composition contributing to overall effect. Every face in the scene, whether in the foreground or in the background, lighted or shaded, reflects the character of the individual. While The Night Watch sealed Rembrandt’s fame, it also spawned envy among lesser artists and criticism from traditionalists.
I leisurely wandered through all the rooms filled with oeuvres by Italian Renaissance artists, Dutch painters from Rembrandt’s disciples to artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Besides the familiar Italian names, whom I remembered seeing at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery or Rome’s Vatican Museum, the Rijksmuseum’s rich Dutch collection gave me a better understanding of northern art than other museums I know. Before Amsterdam, I regarded any art originating north of France as more or less peripheral, and my fixation with Italian Renaissance art narrowed my perspective even further. Such a view, of course, is indefensible.
Hours after disappearing into the splendid Rijksmuseum, I emerged onto the passageway under the building’s central section to be greeted by the music of a one-man Mongolian band. Having never heard Mongolian music before, I found the experience quite exhilarating. How did this lone descendent of Genghis Khan’s compatriots find his way to Amsterdam to play a traditional music that was so different yet so captivating? With an edacious appetite gnawing at my guts, I had no time to philosophize. Mongolian music and its theory just had to wait. Knowing that the Van Gogh Museum was in the neighborhood, I decided to reconnoiter the terrain to pave the way for tomorrow’s foray. Just a short fifty-meter block separated the two museums, and required no more hardship than a pleasant walk through the park. For all the museum’s reputation, its eponymous artist surely deserves more than a non-descript square box of a structure that greeted me. Now that the place was pinpointed, it was time to leave the Museumplein.
The return boat trip completed the circuit around the Center, revealing the charm of the east side from the water level. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, a drawbridge appeared in the distance, looking so much like one van Gogh had painted. I was thinking about the Langlois bridge at Arles, a small town on the Rhône River about twenty-five miles from the Mediterranean coast, where he lived from February 1888 to April 1890, in the most productive period of his life.
The following morning the tour boat brought me back to the Museumplein. With 200 paintings and 800 drawings the Van Gogh Museum possesses the largest collection of his works in the world as well as a more modest collection of Gauguin, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. In his short 37 years the prolific van Gogh never knew commercial success although shortly after his death his paintings began to sell for larger sums that he could ever have imagined. He lived off the largesse of his younger brother Theo, with whom he maintained an abundant correspondence of some 750 letters. During an exhibit of the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris Irises and Starry Night on the Rhône were displayed. In January 1890 five of his paintings were shown in Brussels, one of which was sold for 400 francs, the only sale made of his works during his lifetime. Another exhibit by the Société’s took place in April 1890 in Paris, in which ten more of his paintings were shown, and met with critical acclaim. The art critic Albert Aurier, writing in the Mercure de France, called van Gogh “not only a great painter but also a dreamer, a fanatical believer, a devourer of beautiful utopias, living on ideas and dreams…There is the universal and mad and blinding coruscation of things; it is matter, it is nature frantically twisted, in paroxysm, raised to the extreme of exacerbation; it is form becoming nightmare, color becoming flames, lavas and precious stones, light setting fire to itself, life a burning fever.”1
Afflicted by epilepsy, or porphyria according to a modern diagnosis, van Gogh fell seriously ill at Arles, and entered the Saint-Rémy asylum as a voluntary patient. During this 19-month period in Provence, despite his breakdowns and bouts of insanity, he produced 200 works, many of which became masterpieces. Even after his return to the North to settle in Auvers 20 miles north of Paris, where he lived the last two months of his life, he completed 70 paintings, 20 of which in just 19 days before his suicide. While he lived in Provence, Paul Gauguin joined him in October 1888 at his insistence to start a school of painting in the South. Because their artistic goals differed drastically, the two artists soon parted. It was during this period that van Gogh had thoughts of death. As an inmate of Saint-Rémy, he was allowed a small room from which he could look out and paint the landscape. The yellow sunflowers, the blue irises, the white almond blossoms, the cypresses, the Provençal landscapes, the orchards, the wheat fields, the portraits, the self-portraits are now familiar to most art lovers. The most famous is probably the Starry Night (1888), with swirls of clouds around the stars and the crescent moon glowing on a sleeping village hidden behind a huge cypress, which he painted after Starry Night on the Rhône, and thought nothing of because “it lacks personal willpower and strongly felt lines.” (Gruittrooy 87). Personally I prefer the dreamy atmosphere of the Café Terrace on the Place du Forum (1888), which depicts the terrace well illuminated with yellow light under the star-studded dark blue sky, the night strollers on the cobbled street, and the serenity of a small town.
As the afternoon wore on, with less than three hours to departure time, I decided to forgo the boat ride, and walk back to Centraal through the many arteries that radiate out from the Center like the spokes of a wheel. The stroll back was more rewarding than I had expected. The tree-shaded canal banks bordered by picturesque Dutch style houses no two of them alike, the flea market entangled in its maze of stands, the vibrant plaza of the Leidseplein pulsating with lively café terraces, Rembrandt’s red-brick house, Anne Frank’s House (now a museum), Madame Tussaud’s Gallery, all appeared within walking distance of each other. There was no time left to give each place the attention it deserved. Still just Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and van Gogh’s Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, irises, and Provençal landscapes made my Amsterdam visit a thoroughly gratifying experience. Now with a light heart and a head full of van Gogh I could bid farewell to this most visited city of Northern Europe.
Lingering here and there following a whimsical and desultory plan, I instinctively drifted back to the Damrak without consulting the map. It would be almost impossible to get lost in pedestrian Amsterdam within three kilometers of the railroad station, once its general layout was firmly fixed in your mind. Picture the Centraal Station, with its back on the bay on the north end, facing the entire city. The Center’s hub lies right in front of it. The five concentric, semi-circular canals surround the hub in great sweeping arcs. Finally, the transverse streets radiate from the hub like the spokes of a giant wheel.
Soon I reached the Centraal a bare twenty minutes before the cool evening breeze welcomed the Thalys TGV, which arrived exactly on time. According to plan, a three-and-a-half-hour trip was to deliver me to Paris’s Gare du Nord around 22:00, from which a quick sprint would bring me to the Gare de l’Est in time for the 22:35 express for Troyes, where my friend Jacques would be waiting at the station at midnight. The plan for my return trip, meticulously mapped out down to the last minute by Jacques a week earlier, included pre-purchased tickets and timetables. Everything so far seemed to occur like clockwork, unfailingly. Once settled in a comfortable seat, I reached for my book, ready for a quiet, uneventful ride to Paris. The TGV silently glided out of Amsterdam heading south on a predictable course. Unbeknownst to me, however, Murphy’s law was working its notorious trick. Two hours into the trip my contentment was shattered when the train suddenly stopped. No one in my car seemed concerned except me. With a razor-thin margin of time to reach Troyes on the next-to-last train out of Paris, I began to get very nervous. What if I should miss the Troyes express? I could still take the last train out. But then Jacques would worry sick about me. Jacques had as much faith in my punctuality and dependability as I had in his planning ability. As my worry started to mount, the train suddenly and silently got moving again, as inexplicably as it had stopped twenty minutes earlier. Now my only thought was for the train to keep moving until it reached destination.
The TGV eased into the Gare du Nord twenty minutes late, leaving me barely fifteen minutes to catch the Troyes express. Fortunately the Gare de l’Est was not more than three hundred meters away. As soon as the Thalys shuddered to a gentle stop, I flung the door open. After burning through its interminable platform, I darted out of the station, and flew across and down two or three deserted streets against all traffic signals. The mad dash ended when I tumbled down two flights of steps to the street level thirty feet below, and burst into the Gare de l’Est with the travel bag firmly in hand. My train was not on the first departure board, and it was five minutes from departure! The information booth was as forlorn as a haunted house, yet not a soul was in sight for me to inquire about anything. Finally, after a frantic check of other signs farther down the empty terminal, I located the platform number. Rushing to a waiting train, I confirmed it with the conductor, who had appeared out of nowhere, and was heading to my car when suddenly I remembered having forgotten to validate my ticket. Without skipping a beat, I tore past the conductor, waving my ticket while mumbling “composter” to his nod, and deftly inserted it in the nearest machine. As a dry click bit a dent in the ticket’s border, I yanked it off the validator’s jaws in triumph, and scrambled back past the conductor. Another moment passed before I found the number of my car. I nimbly clambered on, flung the bag on the rack, and flopped down into a window seat, panting. In the next second the train slowly pulled out at the raucous sound of the horn, carrying my big smile in the darkened car.
Right at midnight, I proudly stepped off the express like a soldier returning from a mission accomplished. Returning to faithful Troyes and to Jacques, whose smile brightens even midnight Troyes, was quite a heart-warming experience, a homecoming of sorts. As for Amsterdam, it has become to me a delightful memory forever to be cherished. The next time your wanderlust urges you on, go to the Venice of the North and savor its peculiar Dutch color and its free spirit.
3 June 2005
1. Gerhard Gruitrooy, Van Gogh: An Appreciation of His Art, New York: Smithmark. 1994, pp. 94-95.