Wednesday, September 27, 2006

An Amsterdam Journey

Yesterday morning at 4am it was strangely warm.

'Been like this all night.' the taxi driver said. He was a noctural specimen, apparently - preferring the dark over the light and the empty roads over those unappealingly full of traffic. 'Strange for this time of year. Unnatural.'

In late September there is supposed to be a bite to the air, we agreed - something to distinguish the outdoors from the inside - but stepping into the air outside Liverpool airport that morning was like stepping into a warm room. Everything was still, and apart from the lilt of some distant Liverpool voices, quiet.

As I flew over northern England an hour or so later the street lamps below me shimmered as wisps of cloud drifted across them like ink dispersing into water. It was ghostly; flying always seems to be an unreal activity to me and if I think about it too much - if I allow myself to know where I am - I feel terrified.

By the time we reached the Netherlands fifty-five minutes later it had become light. The fields were perfect long rectangles - one green patch and then another, evenly abutting the straight lines of canals. Even the irregular features were artificial - a golf course fitting in neatly between two lakes and a road - and everything so flat.

'Is global warming a worry?' I asked Marjolein a little later as we travelled by taxi alongside one of the river dykes.

'Yes,' she said, 'two third of the Netherlands is below sea-level.' And I looked around me -thinking about what would be lost. Amsterdam is such a beautiful city. Each canal seems to tell its own cheery little tale of houseboats

and bridges that conveniently lift to allow water-traffic through

with waterfront houses like tall slim bricks shoved together - each one with a fancy facade, and floor upon floor with a hook at the eaves. This is the preferred method of transferring goods to the upper floors, apparently - not by carrying them up the narrow winding stairs inside but simply by hoisting the load via this hook and pulley through windows. Very sensible.

I think it was Auke who told me about the pulleys. He told me it had been an unseasonably warm September for Amsterdam too - although August had been cold. We met, as arranged, at the cafe, and, finding it too crowded swiftly marched through the streets to the haunts of Auke's student days - to a cafe and then onto Rembrandt's House nearby. It is Rembrandt's 400th birthday this year and Amsterdam is celebrating. There are exhibitions throughout the city on various aspects of Rembrandt's work and I found it very interesting to explore where he lived.

A narrow steep staircase led from one narrow deep room to the next: each one seemed to contain a cupboard bed and a fireplace, until, near the top floor with a series of windows that let in the ideal, unchanging northern light, was Rembrandt's studio. The light slanted in and hit the easel with impressive precision. On the table were small earthenware pots filled with ochres and one which contained a brilliant and striking lazuli. In the next room was a display of all the artefacts Rembrant kept to add interest to interiors and portraits: busts of Roman emperors, many sorts of corals, a pinned out skin of a snake and unidentifiable big cat. Then, on another floor, a demonstration on how Rembrandt made his etchings while one floor contained some of his portraits; each one as accurate as a photograph but conveying much more character.

Outside the clock towers chimed - not a simple counting of the hour but a tinkling rendition of a scrap of Beethoven or Mozart - and Auke showed me the way to the Ambo Anthos offices where I was to meet Marjolein and Else den Boer for lunch.

Sadly Wanda Gloude, my editor, had had to attend a funeral for her uncle so Elsa, who is another editor at Ambo, took her place. Here is Marjolein on the left and Elsa on the right.

I had a traditional Dutch dish of croquettes and bread in a rather splendid restaurant decorated in the Art Nouveau style - I think Hercules Poirot would have felt quite at home - and then went on to a nearby bookstore to see my book in vivo.

Which made me very happy.

Then, after saying good-bye to Elsa, Marjolein and I went onto a nearby hotel for my interview with Marnix Verplancke and also have a huge number of photographs taken in the hope that in at least one of them I will not turn out to be blinking. (Update: And there was! The photographer, Thomas Schlijper, has posted one up on his website here.)

After that I was free to walk in a warmth that now was beginning to feel a little sinister - past ancient turrets

and flower markets

and more bells marking out time.

Sometimes I feel like quickening my pace - a city like Amsterdam used to feel timeless and permanent and it is very hard to believe that perhaps it is not.


Blogger Anne S said...

Clare, Lovely piece and such wonderful photos illustrating it.

I envy your ability to be able to go to another country in only 55 minutes.

For us here in the Antipodes, we must contemplate hours of flight to get anywhere.

Thu Sep 28, 12:26:00 am  
Anonymous Jan said...

Great photos Clare. Like your outfit too. Would love to ask the provenance of the skirt but that's probably not a seemly move on a blog??!

Thu Sep 28, 11:37:00 am  
Blogger Debi said...

Lovely words and photos. Thanks for sharing!

Thu Sep 28, 02:51:00 pm  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

Looks like you had a great visit and lots of wonderful photos!
Was it planned that your outfit was perfectly colour co-ordinated with the spine colour on your novel? Looks good! (Other authors should take note - it draws attention to the novels!)

Thu Sep 28, 07:23:00 pm  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

A moody, enjoyable day...

Doesn't it often seem that all is in danger of dissolving, not just Amsterdam or Venice and lovely coastal cities? Often one goes back to loved places and feels the terrible estrangement of ugly change, so that all things are flooded with loss and nostalgia. An Amsterdam of the heart, I suppose.

Thu Sep 28, 07:49:00 pm  
Anonymous Maxine said...

I really enjoyed reading your post, and the pictures, Clare. I especially liked your phrase about seeing your book "in vivo".

And yes, lovely outfit, so cheerful.

Thu Sep 28, 10:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're a gadabout Clare, thank goodness for that!

Thu Sep 28, 11:47:00 pm  
Blogger twitches said...

Wow. This is a terrific post. So much wonderful information and detail. I love reading your blog entries!

Fri Sep 29, 01:12:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

A gorgeous photo essay. And I love to see your book so prominently on display.

Fri Sep 29, 09:44:00 pm  
Anonymous clare said...

Thank you all for taking a look - I am determined to remember events like this because they may never come around again. I also realise the irony that my plane flight over there will be contributing to the warming of the planet...

Anne S - Yes, I am truly lucky to be able to do this and to be so close to so much culture. Amsterdam was so interesting to see in so many ways.

Jan: Thanks - (Per Una - think it would co-ordinate with your jacket very well...right, back to the literary stuff)

Debi: Thanks for visiting...

CFR:No, I wish I did plan it - but was v pleased it matched - very lucky really - you have to be so careful with reds!

Marly: 'Amsterdam of the heart.' Wonderful and I think I know exactly what you mean. Memory quite often diminishes, I feel - and dissolves. I am going to return to this.

Thank you Maxine. I shall return to the vivo - I think it deserves further consideration.

Hello Minx. yes, sometimes I feel I gadabout too much - but I do find it difficult to keep still. As soon as I come home I look around me and think what next.

And Twitches and Lee - oh you are all so kind. Thank you for reading.


Fri Sep 29, 10:18:00 pm  
Blogger kimbofo said...

Wonderful! I went to Amsterdam in 1999 and loved it - the buildings lining the canals were so picturesque.

I love that story about the hooks, to hoist up furniture etc. There's a row of artists' houses on the A4 near Baron's Court tube station here in London just like that. The hooks were designed to hoist giant canvases into the artist's studio so they did not have to try and juggle them up the stairs. The windows on the top floor are absolutely huge too, apparantly to allow as much light to flood in as possible.

Sat Sep 30, 03:24:00 pm  
Anonymous clare said...

Hello Kimbofo! Yes, Amsterdam is wonderful - I'm planning to go again - maybe in the Spring.

That's interesting about the artists' studios - it's something you'd perhaps not notice unless you were told. I certainly wouldn't have noticed the hooks on the front of the Dutch houses if I hadn't seen one in use.

Sat Sep 30, 04:24:00 pm  

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