I spent my early life admiring picture books. The place where I grew up had no museum, nor did the closet city. The only library access we had was an itinerant mobile unit that came by our rural outpost depending on the weather. There was, we had heard, a magnificent building for books in the city. It had been granted free to the people by the largesse of a famous railway billionaire Andrew Carnegie, but I could never have imagined visiting that place, nor had Mr. Carnegie who had donated enough money to build a library in every city on the continent that had a railroad.
Our school was a poor learning center where teachers gave off the sulking impression that they had been banished to a distant gulag. I don’t recall ever hearing a discussion about art. Our society had other things on it’s mind. My families black and white television received the one channel available, it was dedicated to the political ideology of a national broadcaster whose fanatical appreciation of the sport of ice hockey as a tool of nation building I did not share. My people were too poor to build a rink and too isolated to know what they were missing.
When the mobile library would wend it’s down the winding roads and cross the river to my village in the forest I became transcendent at it’s approach. Of the most popular items brought by that vehicle, books on art were not considered on that list. As one of the youngest and smallest attendee’s to the rare event I was left with what was left over. As it turns out, I was able to borrow the finest things of all.The art books had rarely been opened, they shone with the iridescent luster of fresh binding. Inside, the colours of the pristine pages were lustrous and other worldly. Even today I love the inky smell of a new book, the odour takes me back to my childhood and that roadside carnival of the mind.
Art books in my community were considered trash compared to a recent edition of Readers Digest, it was said to be ‘the recipe pages’ that drove the native women into frenzy of competition for ‘dibs’. Popular Mechanics came next in popularity, but never art books, I had my pick. There were repercussions to my anti-social choices, after all, rural Canada in the 1950’s was a place where art was considered ‘gay’. I wasn’t sure what that meant, except that it was undesirable. Men had returned from the last world war with a code of violence against anything aside from booze and a package of ‘coffin nails’. I made sure I was last in line at the check out so I could smuggle out my forbidden texts under my jacket or beneath other works deemed more socially acceptable.
Jack London would have been a permissible choice, there was liquor and wolves, manly stuff. Recordings by the Limelighters or the Four lads were ‘In like Flynn’, a sly reference to the tilted Hollywood star famous for his green tights and philandering, a popular role model of the time. The contraindications of Canadian culture were a dreary reality of the era. However, my black and white world burst to life where I released the power and imagery held within those sacred books of light. The magnificent representations of the South Pacific, Provence and Paris were a gateway to an undiscovered world.
I was immediately imbued with a love of colour after being exposed to the work of Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. I would harbor a desire to see these paintings throughout my entire youth. When I did, I needed to see them again and again, as if to assure myself from time to time that such beauty existed in the world and that I wasn’t living in a dream. The fluid nature and colour of the impressionists affected me deeply. Portraiture hadn’t the same appeal and the mechanical architecture of the modern artists was incomprehensible to my mind as I I had been afflicted from birth with dyslexia.
The complicate patterns presented by cubism and abstract works of Miro, Picasso or Kandinsky made few synaptic connections to me intellectually. Even as a youthful ruin-bagger , my world wide pilgrimage to the shrines of art would take me to any city large enough to house any of the great masters. I would camp out on the concourse bench at the foot of a great piece and meditate until asked politely to ‘move along’. They don’t appreciate it when you lay on the floor for hours on end to take in the Sistine Chapel mural by Michelangelo. The single marble bench that sits under the direct center of the painting is always fully occupied with the bums of admirers and the scene resembles a gaggle of geese in a crate with their necks craning uncomfortably to and fro from between the slats.
At long last I was standing on the platform of the historic St. Pancras railway station in London. I was about to embark on an odessy to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I felt like a reverential mendicant starting out on an exalted purpose to a holy place. I was filling with veneration and the anticipation of a desire fulfilled as I waited for the Euro Star line to announce our departure . This was one of many journeys to the cathedrals of high art I had made. I always experience a feeling of trepidation mixed with excitement when I am about to capture the essence of a long sought after quest. Some people have their ‘bucket lists’ , my personal requirements are more simplistic, to be in the presence of great art . In exactly five hours and thirty minutes I would set foot on the native soil of one the greatest masters of all time, Vincent van Gogh.
There would be a short stop in Brussels to change trains from Euro Star to Thalys we were told. It was so much easier than flying, now that airports have become militarized gauntlets. I loathe the requirements of security to have me arrive at the airport hours ahead of my flight, it seems like such a waste of my precious and expensive travel time. London’s Heathrow airport is so far away from downtown that it is faster, easier and cheaper to take the train from one of the downtown railway stations for short hops like Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris ‘on the continent’. The cost of a taxi from downtown London to Heathrow is now as expensive as the air ticket, adding insult to prohibitive injury.
Added together, it is the same price to take to the rails, and far more romantic. Euro Star and Thalys are extremely comfortable conveyances for traveling to the continent. It’s not the same experience it was many years ago as when we penny wise routards were forced to depart at Hoek van Holland pier in England on the ferry for a riotous overnight booze cruise across the North Sea to mainland Europe, but those days are well behind me. Besides, the snoring and unwashed long distance lorry drivers in the third class cabins were no genuine company at all.
Power is available for your laptops and phone charger on the train. The hours spent in the cabin looking out the panoramic windows are time well wasted. As opposed to the bubble world of flying, a traveler makes contact with the world around them. I spark a conversation whenever possible, meeting people is a big part of the experience for me. When we saw our first windmill and the excitement started to build .
Amsterdam’s ‘Centraal’ station is an attraction in itself. The massive waterfront building is like a small town, only busier. I had chosen to stay at the Park Plaza Victoria hotel directly across the street from the Centraal Station where I could drop my bags and get going. I wanted to follow the usual circuitous route I enjoy along the central Keizersgraht canal. One of the novels I wrote ‘The Bloody Oath’ has a sequence based on the geography of this famous canal. If you are an ‘appreciateur’ of scenery, then this will stick in your mind forever. The leafy shade, cobblestones , awesome bridges and quaint canal boats are for avid photographers and amateurs alike , an endless reel of subject matter.
I was headed towards the Albert Cuyp open market where hundreds of vendors set up open stalls to sell their eclectic merchandise. One stall in particular has been selling mouthwatering herring and sweet bread sandwiches with delicious pickles on the side for decades. I had to have one of those right away. I’ve had dreams about these pockets of heaven in times of drought. I eschewed the speedy urban tram and walked through the city, there is just too much sensory pleasure to enjoy on a canal walk and bridge trek across central Amsterdam. To wander the quiet streets of ‘Old Amsterdam’ is to be transported back in time.
The inconstant weather of Holland was cooperating, it was a gorgeous day to stroll through four hundred years of historical architecture. The uniquely thin tall houses lining the canals have been occupied continually since the founding of the city. The steep stairs tell you a bit about the Dutch peoples frugal nature. The houses were taxed on the front foot so they kept their lots narrow and built up, necessitating fifty degree climbs up flights of stairs. Ancient elm tree’s line the waterways while colourfully painted klinker built wooden boats ply the placid water.
When I arrived in the Albert Cuyp lane I had one of those deja vu experiences remembering past times we had visited this familiar place. I sought out my favorite cafe mid block and sat outside on a sofa pillow that the owner had thoughtfully brought out into the auto-free pedestrian mall so that his patrons could enjoy the rare sunshine. We ordered hot chocolate as only the Dutch can make it, with a stick of dark chocolate melting in the milky water for Pat and a North African style fresh mint leaf tea for me.
Amsterdam is a truly enlightened city in so many ways, the ambiance is not to be missed, passed by or taken for granted. There are so many North American cities that have never developed the ‘cafe culture’ of European cities, much to our regrettable loss in urban lifestyle. When our second round of drinks arrived we were offered a plate of pastries free of charge, apparently our friendly banter and boisterous laughter had won us some friends behind the bar. I have often said this in my travel articles, be nice to the people who serve you and sometimes wonderful things happen. The time we spent here cemented our love of this great city , we never miss an opportunity to return.
The Van Gogh museum was only a few blocks away, of course we walked. The central districts of Amsterdam are primarily foot paths and bicycle lanes designed for people in the time before the automobile. Brick buildings decorated with ornate wrought iron are endlessly fascinating to me. By the way, watch out for the cyclists, they take no prisoners if you accidentally step across an imaginary line between the sidewalk and the domain of the bikers. They expect you to know the rules even though the game is played without any. Cyclists can be quite fanatical about their ‘rights’. Europe is a ‘Harry Potter’ world of complicated civic politics.
My heart was beating, it wasn’t the adrenalin of the bike race race me, it wasn’t the high potency sugar of the ‘Chocolate’ dregs I’d drained from Patricia’s cup, we were nearing the high church of Vincent van Gogh. This museum holds the most complete collection of the masters work of any in the world. After a few short blocks, there it was, situated at the end of a long green concourse, as if struck on a landscape designed to enforce it’s dignity and stature above the surroundings. The enormous red sign announcing we’d arrived was probably visible on Google Earth. The big block letters spelled ‘his’ name out across an entire concrete plaza. I neared the entrance and actually experienced breathlessness, as if I were entering a shrine. It was the second and third floors that held the treasure we sought, so that was where we headed without stopping at the coat check.
We were most interested in ‘The Starry Night’ he had produced while in an asylum in Saint-Remy in 1889. This one painting is an inspiration for me. I have always admired mans seeking of perfection with either his body or mind. This painting captures a primordial spirit inside me. I have the same feelings about ballet, so delicate in it’s quest to perfect the aspirations of our soul. I was politely asked to refrain as I raised my camera for a shot. in my zeal I had forgotten that photography of these delicate canvases is restricted due to the negative effects of flash intensity light over a period of time. I would have to take the memory home, burned into my memory like a holy vision.
This is my Amsterdam, a city of great art and inspiring people, of history and beauty. The worlds first stock markets were played out here in the coffee shops of the Herengracht canal as speculators awaited news of the returning ships they hoped were laden with spices from the Indies. It is a city of people who know how to enjoy life and show it as they relax at cafe’s along the canal’s whenever the sun decides to make an appearance. Of course there is the famously notorious ‘red light district’ but who cares about that anymore. The prostitutes all look rather sad and the sex must be quite mechanical, considering many of the sex workers I observed were not female but rather cross dressed males.
Foreigners still come to Amsterdam in droves to be titillated by what was once here, but exists only in a sanitized version adapted for the ‘tourist market’. They have heard whispered conversations in some evangelical basement of the mind about illicit activities done in dark corners. Today, reality is quite different, public drunkenness is considered a problem and the streets around De Wallen district reek of urine.
We are also witnessing an end to the marijuana free for all that Amsterdam City Council created decades ago. They are closing the famous ‘pot’ cafe’s and disallowing foreigners without usage permits to enter the ones that will be left to service the local addicts. The skunky stink of weed blowing out the doors of these hovels won’t be missed by anyone over the age of twenty three. Holland has the lowest youth drug use statistics in all the western world. Dope, is dead.
I was high on Van Gogh the rest of my time in Amsterdam and walked on a cloud. I wanted to drink in the convivial atmosphere of Amsterdam’s cafe culture for another day before heading back to Brussels where we planned to continue our playful meandering. Pat and I gorged ourselves on brilliant chocolate chaud’ and more mint tea’s. We walked to discover the quiet doorways of unheralded cafe’s that exist to service particular clientele whether they be jazz aficionado’s or blues enthusiasts, poetry readers or political activists, everyone has his or her place here it seems. These days we buy our food in the local markets or from tiny family shops and trundle back to our hotel room to munch on local delicacies and review the days photographs.
There is no discussion in Amsterdam regarding ‘laptop hobo’s’ , as in Vancouver’, who are accused of taking up ‘valuable seats in the window’ by narrow minded landlords and finger pointing media pundits of the myopic local scene. These neighborhood establishments are considered extensions of peoples living rooms with the current owners only temporary caretakers of the on going social needs of the community. Your inspiration for going to Amsterdam may be different from mine, but by all means go anyway, everyone needs to dream.