An Amsterdam Journey
'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.