Verdi won over Van Gogh. This time, I could aff ord both. Vincent Van Gogh came to Amsterdam nearly as broke as we were in our student days. He had not yet begun his work as a painter—he was training as a clergyman—but instead of spending his time with God the way he was supposed to, he spent his year in Amsterdam thinking about art. “Everything reminds one of Rembrandt’s etchings,” he wrote his brother, going on about his need for “nothing less than the infinite and the miraculous.” Van Gogh stared at flowers lit by 1877 Amsterdam’s roiled sky, and I find myself in the heart of the Van Gogh Museum staring at the permanent springtime of his sunfl owers, their yellow the shade of a tassled lampshade that used to be in my grandfather’s room.
But what stops me cold is the iris, dark blues and purples like a sneak preview for the hour right after sunset. After leaving the Van Gogh Museum, I pass through the arch at the Rijksmuseum. Buskers sing Andrea Bocelli’s Nessun Dorma, filling the archway between the two wings, and captivating tourists.
I find space between chained bikes waiting for their blonde Amazons to pedal away, and leaned against canal rails. A few feet away, is a mini-field of Nargis (Narcissus) flowers, one of my favourites. Their Springtime sweet smell makes your heart happy just the way the smell of sugar melting in butter does. And suddenly, I feel all is well in the world.
Happy, as the city goes by and the coming evening’s cold starts to get to the small of my back, where I’m leaning against the railing. Then, as beautiful as a pig on a morning walk, the street begins to twirl with Hare Krishnas dancing and singing through a crowd that had, a moment ago, been thinking only of Benetton or Kiehl’s or Prada, what the 21st century has replaced dreams of tulips with, the modern world filling windows of 17th-century buildings that seem slightly off ended.
The Krishnas clash their tambourines and chant for the beauty of creation. I’d fall in and dance with them, but the end of the conga line is by a french fry stand, the hour grows late, and I grow hungry—and not for enlightenment. I rarely take pictures on travels now. As far as possible, I refuse to take selfies. Despite being an editor of a travel magazine, and much to the annoyance of my boss, I rarely post personal shots of my travels on social media. How can you reinvent yourself, how can you be better than who you were, if you’re always tied to everybody who already knows you? Besides, I don’t need a camera.
Years of travel have taught me how I remember things. I know I’ll remember the taste of the fries, the sky’s arcs of light, clouds glowing as though they were hiding a parking lot of UFOs. I know I’ll remember the street with two smoke shops—Super Skunk and Easy Time—flanking a restaurant called Everything on a Stick. At a flea market, I buy a stack of old postcards, other people’s letters home, the things they wanted to remember. At the farmer’s market I buy a massive jar of buckwheat honey. And then it’s time to go see if the thing I remember most has been remembered right at all. The Rijksmuseum—near the Van Gogh, is in a building that looks as if it was raised to house a cavalry regiment of stair-climbing horses. It is one of the greatest art museums in the world.
You can tell by the number of people standing in front of Rembrandt’s grand painting The Night Watch, the utter perfection of his side light ruined by a crowd blocking the view. Maybe I’m the only one who cares, because nobody else is looking at the painting at all; they’re looking at their phones and taking pictures of themselves blocking the view of the painting, pictures that, for their sake, I hope they’ll live long enough to regret.
But let’s face it, 1600s Amsterdam had its own version of a selfie. As soon as you had your narrow house and your wide collars and your tulip patch, you hired someone to paint you— fat, smiling, smug, and without the judgment of time that would tell you that you just got painted by one of the best artists in the world.
Upper crust Amsterdam was papered wall-to-wall with these portraits. And I remember this, more than anything else, about Amsterdam in 1999: the endless gallery, a Mö bius hell with no clear means of escape in the Rijksmuseum, walls of nothing but one round and rosy face after another, eyes following, ruffled collars making the burghers look like a cannibal’s lamb chops. Hundreds. If not thousands. And I couldn’t fi nd a way out, and I was minutes from a full wobbly fit of claustrophobia, and there were more and more of the paintings and suddenly—wait.
Those are Brueghel colours. I was well enough educated in 1999 to recognise a Brueghel painting from 10 meters. I was not well enough educated to know there had been a whole family of Brueghels in the 16th and 17th centuries, fathers and sons, all, apparently, smoking the same stuff . From 10 meters away, the painting is a bucolic landscape, a picnic on a riverbank. But come closer and you notice two of the people are actually frogs. Fully dressed and cursed by a goddess for not letting her drink from the stream. In 2016, I re-walk the galleries in search of those frogs. I see Vermeer’s milkmaid and Steen’s baker, but no frogs.
Apparently, sometime in the last two decades or so, they hopped out of view, perhaps into storage or are on loan somewhere. And what I know now that I never would have known in 1999 is that it’s OK. That you don’t have to see what you thought you wanted to see. That, in the end, your expectations don’t matter at all. Because sometimes the world throws suit-wearing frogs at you and sometimes it doesn’t, and it doesn’t really care what you want.
Out on the street again, I decide to head to Amsterdam’s famous, albeit now mostly touristy, red light district. I didn’t see it when I was 7, I didn’t make it even in 1999. Now at the age of 40, and with a few hours at a loose end one afternoon, I find myself wandering down De Walletjes. I see bored lingerie-clad women in behind street-front glassed rooms. I’m not sure how this is remotely titillating. They look like any moment they will pull out knitting needles and balls of wool and start knitting out of boredom. What is more suprising to me is the sight of tourists and locals walking through this area with kids, who also don’t seem to be too fascinated by the lingerie clad women or shop windows with all kinds of sex toys.
As I turn a corner into the back lane, I find a strong sweet scent curl around my nose, it’s wafting from a long line of stores that sell marijuana. It’s legal here and up until now, I had mostly seen it being sold in the form of lollipops, breath mints, candy and even car-freshner at magazine vendors and tobacco shops in the city.
Here, however, there were full-scale stores. Amused by this amazing afternoon route of art, sex and marijuana, I head back to Andaz. Back out on the street, I walk slowly and reflect on everything I saw in Amsterdam. Some things I had seen then, and some things that I had seen now. But I hadn’t seen everything.
But that’s why I travel, why I know I have to come back (hopefully, this time with my mother). That’s what the miles have done for me. We don’t have to be good. We just have to be open. Show up and say “cool” at all the rewards revealed under strange skies.