Sunday, July 3, 2011

On a bicycle, exploring Amsterdam

On finishing a course in the International Academy of Leadership, Germany, we decided to go to Bonn. But on the Cologne train station, we opted for Amsterdam, a better choice, because it is in a new country altogether. And all we needed was a train ticket.
Trains in Europe are a real boon, but they can get confusing because you have to catch different connecting trains. Just two stations from Cologne we realised that the train is going back and we had to switch trains and not just
enjoy the outside view with rivers and lakes, untouched forests, fields and cattle.

Amsterdam has two important features — canals and cycling. “The Venice of the North” is makred by a huge grid of canals. An aerial view makes the canals appear as concentric circles emerging from the city centre, which Albert Camus compared to the circles of hell in his novel ‘The Fall’, “Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams.” Every street either ends on a canal or runs parallel to it. Freshwater and cruises with tourists aboard can be seen everywhere.

I once met a Dutch in the US who used to bicycle very fast, even on hills and intertwining roads and it impressed me. I didn’t know that he inherits it from the country’s culture. Amsterdam is full of cyclists. Cyclists not only speed around the city but also have their children sitting on special seats at the back or baskets in the fronts. There is nothing as lovable as two blonde kids or toddlers looking around intently while their father speeds away.
Although I have had a bad cycling experience in US, I still decided to look around the city through a guided bicycle tour. A company, called the MacBike, arranges these tours. Our guide was an American who breathed out swear words eloquently and told us something bad about every place. He started by informing us that the chances of breaking your nose on a bicycle are very high. He had a tragic tale for every stop. Like how someone fell in the canal, or how a girl broke her foot when cycling drunk or how an intoxicated French girl drowned into the River Amstel by falling from the NEMO Science Museum, a huge ship like structure with an open top like the dock of a ship, where visitors sit and eat.
We passed through main roads and hilly streets next to the river. I struggled to keep pace with the fairly large and diverse group, sometimes striking a wall, billboard or getting dangerously close to the riverbank. Once I got stuck on the railway track but the train was quite far and slow.
We saw the pigeons in the Dam square, went over the Skinny Bridge which has been widened now, had several intimate views of river Amstel and the De Gooyer Windmill — one of Amsterdam’s oldest windmills — which is now brewery.
The daughter of a Dutch friend of mine lives in Amsterdam and he often mentions the city with a lot of affection. This was something I found strange. Hometowns are often not well-appreciated. Netherlands often makes it into the lists of happiest countries in the world. A few morning hours in Amsterdam are enough to discern what it meant. One can see old people in restaurants and pubs, men and women cycling, lovers sitting by the riverside eating or talking. After the grey, grim and highly industrialized Germany, this was a nice break. The entire city, foreigners and natives included, seemed adjusted to the tourist mode.
The closest bond you can strike with an artist is through appreciating his work. My eyes have been appreciating the strokes of Van Gogh’s hands for many years now. May it be the “Starry Night” or “CafĂ© Terrace at Night”, his unique blend of colours and distinctive constructs on canvas bewitch the trained and the untrained eye alike. Van Gogh’s tragic life, mental illness, self-trained, exceptional and highly prolific output makes him a plausible Ducth success story, much like Abraham Lincoln for USA and Winston Churchill for UK. For people who are academically challenged (like me) and want to make it big, Van Gogh is a sign of hope.
Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam holds the largest collection of Van Gogh’s paintings in the world. It includes his self-portraits (the first painting you see is the one in which he ear is bandaged), the sunflowers (many of different types of them), The Potato Eaters (with a dimensional error) and The Bedroom in Arles. The lighting reflected on the painting glass along with the music downstairs spoiled the effect. But I was dazed for hours nevertheless.
I didn’t go to the Amsterdam’s famed Red light district, taste marijuana which is legal in Netherlands or drink the Heineken beer. I am not sure as to why but it gives me a reason to return and explore it again. Another reason is that I couldn’t meet my old Dutch friend. His memories were there with me; it made the city more special and brought me closer to him nevertheless.
This article was published in the News on Sunday

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