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Published: July 20th 2019
Issy and I realise that neither of us know a single word of Dutch, so we consult the Google oracle to try to learn at least a few rudimentary phrases. We start with “hello”. The oracle tells us that the Dutch word for this is “hallo”. We are very encouraged; we think that we’ve probably got some chance of remembering this. We hope that perhaps all Dutch words will be similar to their English equivalents. Now that we can successfully greet people we need to move on to working out what to say if we want something. The oracle tells us that the Dutch word for “please” is ”alsjeblieft”. This is slightly less encouraging. After further research we decide that the best we can hope for is that if we say “hallo” often enough the locals will feel sorry for us and respond to us in our own language.
We meet Barbie for a visit to the Rijksmuseum. We read that this is a Dutch national museum of arts and history, and was founded in The Hague in 1798. It’s moved around a few times since then, and the current building was opened in 1885; it was then reopened in
2013 after a ten year renovation. It is apparently the largest and most visited arts museum in The Netherlands.
I’m not usually all that into museums, but this is something else. It is massive and the displays are spectacular. It includes works by masters including Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Vermeer, sculptures, historic craft displays, an Asian exhibition, and a huge public art history research library. A project aimed at restoring Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” has just started here. Its first stage involves taking detailed X-rays and other similar scans of the masterpiece, and this is all happening behind glass in full view of visitors. A temporary exhibition called “Long Live Rembrandt” has also just opened displaying nearly 600 Rembrandt inspired art works painted by contemporary artists.
The museum tells us a lot about Dutch history. They’ve clearly been in a lot of wars. Most of The Netherlands was part of the Spanish Empire from 1556, and the locals were in almost constant conflict with the Spanish from 1568 until 1648, when the Peace of Munster resulted in recognition of The Netherlands as an independent country for the first time. Other notable conflicts included a number of spats with
the British. In 1667 the Dutch navy sailed up the Thames estuary and into the River Medway where they managed to destroy a significant proportion of the British fleet. This so called Battle of Medway was one of Britain’s most disastrous ever defeats. The Museum is refreshingly candid in its recognition of some of the evils of Dutch colonialism, particularly its role in slavery and other harsh and deceitful treatment of local populations.
We move onto nearby Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest city park. This is clearly Amsterdam’s "relaxation central", where locals stretch out on the grass next to lakes, practice their yoga, picnic, and ride their bikes.
They certainly love their bikes here. Cyclists seem to have priority over everyone else, followed by cars, with pedestrians a distant third. There are bikes everywhere you look. There are also bikes everywhere that you aren’t looking. There’s a large bike path running right through the middle of the park, as well as a number of smaller ones. I think I’d feel distinctly safer trying to cross an eight lane highway back home than I would trying to negotiate my way across a bike path here. Maybe it’s the silence of the
bikes that‘s the killer. You can’t hear them coming, so you don’t know they’re there, and they seem to come at you from all angles, particularly the ones you’re least expecting. What’s worse is that you’re not always sure whether you’re on a bike path or a footpath. I see a couple of American tourists looking around very nervously as they ask each other whether the footpath they’re standing on is really a footpath or just a bike path in disguise. At least if you got mown down by a truck crossing an eight lane highway there would be a clear winner and a clear loser; you’d be dead, and all the truck might have is a slight dint in its front bumper. If we walked in front of a bunch of cyclists here, it would be carnage for everyone. We’d be lying in a heap on the ground, and so would the cyclist that hit us and all the other cyclists following behind them. At least no one would be dead. Well I hope no one would be dead.
We have a snack lunch in a cafe in the middle of the park, and then a quick browse
through a street market, before heading back to our apartment to rest our weary legs. We also need to rest our weary brains, exhausted from trying to cope with the constant threat of bike attack.
I go out for a pre-dinner wander, and watch a boat going under one of the canal bridges. It is empty other than for the driver and a vast quantity of empty beer cans and champagne bottles. We comment that we seem to have seen a lot of well populated pubs and other drinking establishments as we’ve wandered the streets since we arrived here, and the drinking culture seems to be well ingrained. This has been the case for quite some time if one of the statues we saw in the Rijksmuseum this morning is anything to go by. It was from several hundred years ago, and showed two men indulging in a drinking game. The text on the wall next to the statue said that the water in Amsterdam was so dirty at the time that everyone drank alcohol instead, even the children, and that drinking games were a standard form of entertainment. The rules of the games have apparently been long forgotten,
which somehow doesn’t seem all that surprising.
Issy’s been doing some background research on a particularly specialised aspect of life here in Amsterdam. She tells me that there are cafes and coffee shops here, and that it‘s important not to get the two confused. I think I remember reading somewhere about establishments here where you can buy coffee accompanied by cakes that might leave you feeling perhaps say slightly more relaxed and at ease with the world than if you ate say a standard apple danish. I ask her which of these establishments we should avoid, and she says that she’s not going to tell me. I think that my beloved may have plans to lead me astray. Does she not think that I’m already sufficiently relaxed and at ease with the world. Maybe I’m not. If I was before I’m certainly not now. I’m now feeling very nervous.
Issy drools at the sight of the first Japanese restaurant she’s seen since we left home a month ago, and there is little doubt where we will be sharing our farewell meal with Barbie.
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