Sunday, 15 February 2015

Postcard from Amsterdam 2

It is well known that holiday postcards only ever arrive long after the sender has returned home.  "Wish you were here" and descriptions of balmy weather and languorous leisure always have more than a little calculated irony, when inscribed into the allotted 4" x 3" area of a postcard.  I was in Amsterdam for just three days, but you should imagine that I managed to post these four cards, which have just arrived.

It is a cycling city, Amsterdam.  Bikes are everywhere, rattling over the cobbles, and stacked together in great clumps on every available railing.  Cycleways are not painted on as a gesture but built into the fabric of pretty much every street.  If you come from a country that drives on the left, and where speeding cars are the main predator of pedestrians, crossing the road is hazardous: you're simply not expecting a swarm of bikes to swoop round the corner out of left field.  An elderly man was floored dramatically when descending from our airport shuttle bus: the driver didn't have time to call out, "Watch out for ...  Oh dear!"

The Dutch bike is a sturdy thing: long in the frame with backswept "sit-up-and-beg" handlebars, which encourages an upright riding posture that looks very comfortable, and seems especially favoured by women.  Bikes with multiple baskets and trailers are common: the school run and shopping trips look very different here.  Next time, I'm definitely hiring a bike.

"Real good for free"...  As readers who read my Innsbruck posts will know, I like street musicians.  This guy, sitting in a tunnel behind the Rijksmuseum, was exceptional.  He was playing Bach toccatas from memory on a piano accordion that he had somehow adapted to sound like a church organ.  It was amazing.  It was also very cold.  How he kept his fingers working I cannot imagine...  I stood and listened for as long as I could bear to stand still, gave him some money, and went in search of a hot drink.

WTF.  It appears that cameras can have flashbacks, too.  Look carefully at her arm and her ear: isn't that the weirdest thing you have seen this year so far?  I'm not sure whether explaining what is going on here would help.  In fact, I'm not entirely sure what is going on, and what little I do know won't help.  Visit the Tropenmuseum for yourself -- she's always there.

A lot of the older buildings in Amsterdam are distinctly wonky, leaning on each other in a companionable way.  Ground subsidence must be a constant problem.  I saw several buildings with mind-bogglingly trapezoid or parallelogram-shaped door- and window-frames -- fitting replacements (not to mention buying blinds and curtains) must be a challenging business.  The generous size of the buildings is a clear indication of the trading wealth that has flowed through the city.  Our hotel in the west of the city had once been an orphanage, and was built like a palace: our room had a 20 foot ceiling, with a window to match.  That's either a lot of air per orphan, or a lot of orphans per room.

I rather like the European preference for apartment-dwelling; it does make for more convivial city centres.  People can live together in higher densities and, as the ground floor of most buildings is allocated to shops with the apartments on the floors above, you don't get that feeling of isolation that blights our own attempts at high-density living.  Though whether Europeans might equally admire the typical British suburban terraced or semi-detached house-with-a-garden, with curving streets full of trees and green open spaces I don't know: sometimes the allure is simply the attraction of difference.  From the air, though, as your plane loses height and banks towards the airport, the contrast is quite striking. Even in winter it can appear that Hampshire's towns and villages have been lost and overgrown within a forest, whereas coastal Holland is strikingly geometrical, outlined with drainage ditches twinkling in the sun, and as treeless as an East Anglian agri-desert.

Should you be interested:  I decided to take only a Fuji X-M1 with a 27mm pancake lens.  I bought mine second-hand, and they're a real bargain, especially now that a second wave of Fuji X models is coming through, and the firm seems to have lost faith in the idea of a small, viewfinder-less option for the X sensor.  If you can manage with just the LCD and are happy with a single standard focal length it's a perfect travel combination.  I keep mine in an Op/Tech neoprene pouch, and it lurks unobtrusively in my shoulder-bag.  Sufficiently so, in fact, that I occasionally forget whether or not it's there, not something that has ever happened with the X-E1...


Huw said...

I really like the first photo, Mike. At first glance it's almost like you've caught the same person cycling in both directions.

I hired a bike when visiting a friend in Amsterdam and nearly came a cropper with my incompetent use of the back-pedal brakes. So beware!


Mike C. said...

Huw, thanks, I'll bear that in mind.

How did you get on with "Landmark", btw?


Huw said...


I’ve recently started a new job which is all-consuming and leaves little discretionary time for careful reading; Landmark has not been top of the list. I have leafed through it in an evening and find it a mixed bag. The accompanying articles are wonderfuly idosyncratic and there’s a wry sense of humour throughout, exemplified by the opening picture of El Capitan. The printing is generally good and there are many photographers I already know, and a few pleasureable finds, e.g. Nadav Kander. I’m not a fan of hyper-real or manipulated photos (but like the NASA ones) but recognise they’re a part of contemporary photography. Conversely I love the Sally Mann pictures, which are deeply unnreal. For the price it’s excellent and thanks for the recommendation.