Amsterdam Syndrome

Amsterdam Syndrome

On the last day in Amsterdam, our paths have split again. Partly because Ben, with his mum, was preparing for an early start while I was still recovering from a cold and needed some sleep. Also, partly because, as a chronically independent wanderer, I desired to learn this new city at first on my own.

In addition to being a chronically independent wanderer, I am also chronically chaotic and so my becoming closer to Amsterdam was rich in experiences from the very beginning – in fact, from the moment I entered a tram.

I looked excitedly from the window at the famous Amsterdam canals. The lady sitting by me noticed my enthusiasm and spoke to me. We managed to go over the beauties of Amsterdam, assets of cities we were from (the lady was from Copenhagen although she lived in Amsterdam), the communist era, rights of sexual minorities, and that I should have a better plan on what I want to see. (Yes, I know. While I am an obsessive collector of information in advance, on the spot, I usually throw half of my plans to the wind, burst somewhere into the streets and lanes, and let whatever catches my attention lead me).

When the tram arrived at my stop, it jerked, and I fell directly onto some poor young man, who fortunately took it like a gentleman. And when I finally managed to gain my physical balance, I lost my mental one so much that I could not find the device to check out my ticket. (This is one of the strange specialties of some cities, not only Amsterdam but also, for example, Venice, where you not only check in on entering but also check out on exiting). As I wildly waved the ticket around, I was saved by a different young man who showed me where to place my card. Then he didn’t manage to get off himself, and the door hit him as it closed. Those are my interactions with people in a nutshell.

So I jumped out of the tram in the center of Square Dam and took delight in the fact that there was a funfair with swings and roundabouts in front of the palace, where, according to the lady from the tram, Napoleon stayed and now occasionally the royal family. What do the crowned heads think of the view from their windows?

Dam Square
Dam Square

And there I was on my own in Amsterdam, the city of canals, Venice of the North… Visitors to Paris sometimes suffer from ‘Paris syndrome,’ I obviously suffered from Amsterdam syndrome. Somehow, I idealized the town and imagined it as an idyllic network of quiet lanes and picturesque canals, along which smiley people cycling on colorful bicycles at a leisurely pace… Well, it is, after all, a large city.

So, as often happens, I got lost. I looked around and saw an official-looking person in a high vis vest. And so I set out to ask him the way. What does it matter that he wasn’t a policeman or somebody official like that, but he was there to repair tram rails?

It must have been very obvious that he was very friendly and helpful because before I gathered my courage to ask him, two other tourists jumped in front, and I had to wait in a queue. Not only did he not tell us all to get stuffed, but he also sent us patiently in the correct directions and answered all our questions.

At least in this way, my vision was correct. There is something about the local people being relaxed. Also bikes, bikes everywhere. Bikes of all colors and sizes. Bikes riding along the streets, bikes used as designer flower pots… Simply bikes everywhere you looked.

Bikes and canals
Bikes and canals

On the way to the flower market, I met a Japanese tourist who asked me the way to the center. I showed him the direction, which, according to my best knowledge and understanding, was the center. But because I know my sense of misdirection, I made sure to send him to ask the man in the high vis vest. The poor tram rail serviceman had a very busy day.

Then I set off to visit Bloemenmarkt, a floating flower market. Unfortunately, while the stalls were interesting because they were floating on the canal, you could not see it from the inside, and it looked like any other market with tourist souvenirs, just with lots of flowers. I fulfilled one of my aims to buy genuine Dutch tulip bulbs, which I could pick up from boxes with different cultivars. The idea of a souvenir that will bloom at home enthused me. Only after returning did I realize that they would not bloom this season and that I have no idea whatsoever how to store tulip bulbs, how to look after them, and if I can have them in the flowerbox on our balcony… Does anyone of you know how to grow tulips?

Flower shop at the floating market

Because the method of high vis vest worked so well, I used it for a second time when I was looking for the quickest way to the museum quarter, because as usual, I was late. The second man in the high vis vest did not speak English. Still, he was also nice and helpful, listened patiently to what I probably wanted from him, and then he punched in the number of the relevant tram on his mobile. Although there was no tram at that point, maybe it was the rails they were repairing. To be sure, I let him confirm the direction and distance on foot, and so at the end, to my big surprise, I got on time to where I needed to be.

On the way, I managed to join by complete chance a march for science. Really. I wanted to participate in it in Prague, but it did not occur to me in my wildest dream that I would run into it accidentally in Amsterdam. So maybe the march found me, and I walked in it happily all the way to Van Gogh’s Museum, where I met the others at 2 pm. What is the probability that something like that happens? (Those who know me add correctly: what is the chance that I get anywhere on time?)

And then it was time to enter the museum. To tell the truth, I have never been able to enjoy museums much. Although I visit some from time to time and try to feel cultured, I was never good at it. Despite that, Van Gogh’s museum may be my strongest experience in Amsterdam.

It may be because it is all assembled as a story. There is a general introduction on the ground floor, and then you progress more or less chronologically, from the lowest floor with the earliest pictures to the top one with the last paintings. There is a brief story in each hall and by many of the paintings. There are also letters, ideas, photos and family stories, demonstrations of artistic techniques…

It is a story to grip your heart. The life of a man enthusiastic about his art, sensitive, tormented – and in his time not comprehended at all. By one of his last paintings, I read a quote from his letter where Van Gogh wrote that he doesn’t know if he can truly consider himself a painter, and when he thinks about it, he feels so troubled that his paintbrush falls out of his hand. I have to admit that I nearly started to cry. I wish that there was some way to travel in time bring him here to this place, where there are his pictures on all the walls, and people come here from all over the world…

Original Van Gogh’s palette and paints

At the end of the day, we set off on a cruise along the Amsterdam canals. We chose the Blue Boat Company, which had two significant advantages. One of them is that their boats have commentary on what they are passing in many languages, including Czech. The other reason was important mostly because of my constant feeling cold and Amsterdam’s April weather. Blue Boats’ boats are covered and heated.

Slowly we passed various sites of Amsterdam’s places of interest. Did you know, for example, that many houses along the canals lean towards the water? It is not because the wooden poles in their foundations are deteriorating with age. The leaning of many houses in the historic center is deliberate. Many of the houses are narrow with even narrower staircases. This makes moving furniture or other sizable objects upstairs hard, so it was best done on the outside. The leaning houses have in their façade a protruding beam with a hook at the end. They would put a rope over the hook, and with its help, they pulled the furniture to the upper floors. Traders used it to move their goods to the storage in the attic. Therefore, the houses are leaning so the objects did not hit the façade, break the windows, and it was easier to pull them up.

We also visited the harbor and looked from a distance at the open sea and then set back. But at that point, I was so tired that I slowly stopped taking in the picturesque canals. We returned to our accommodation and fell into bed. Tomorrow we are going back…

‘Gingerbread’ houses (notice the beams and hooks at the top!)

Of course, we cannot say goodbye without a bit of chaos. On the day of our departure, we are waiting for a bus to take us to the airport. We wait and wait and start to be a little nervous. It was supposed to come ten minutes ago… twenty minutes ago… We will miss our flight! Panicking, we call Uber. A car with the sign ‘Taxi’ arrives, and we quickly get in. The driver looks at us strangely and does not move. Finally, he says: “You probably want the Uber which is standing in front of me.”

We run to the inconspicuous black car without a ‘Taxi’ sign. The driver enjoys our story very much. When we get out, he bids us farewell with: “Don’t get onto a wrong plane!”

Fortunately, we made the right choice that time. Goodbye Amsterdam! See you again.

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