Sunday, 13 April 2008

Amsterdam Part I

I am such a slacker about updating this sometimes, I'm sorry guys and now you are going to have to read a long post all at once, well I suppose you don't have to read it. Last weekend I went off to Amsterdam to see the sights and interact with some non-French people and these are the tales of my journey. I really enjoyed Amsterdam, it was a city with a really great feel to it, it must be awesome to be a uni student there. It is so flat and really compact so pretty easy to get home after a night out. I was amazed at how well the Dutch spoke English as well, and I mean every single person I interacted with spoke amazing English.

It was a bit strange though, because they were so willing to speak English it kind of became their language, in that all tourists, whether from native English speaking countries or not, would speak in English to them, rather than trying to speak Dutch, which is unusual, especially for the non-native English-speakers. The other strange thing about the other (foreign tourists) is that because the Dutch could speak such good English the French and Italians seem to assume that they can speak their language too and start speaking that to them. But the fact that everyone spoke English made the weekend really easy for me, as a tourist anyway, as you never had to worry about not being able to communicate sufficiently or that someone would yell at you for speaking English to them, fantastic!

Another point about their amazing English skills was whilst I was there I saw a protest meeting. It looked like it had been organised by dis-affected youth (I suppose that is the euphemism for unwashed art-students) and was held right in the middle of the main pedestrian area in Amsterdam. They had almost totally blocked this mall so the trams couldn't get through and the tourists were having real trouble squeezing past. It was all to do with the fact this area of the city was the most expensive in all of the Netherlands and yet you had to pay to enjoy it, in that you had to buy a coffee or something to sit-down, that sort of idea, which I agreed with. And he then went on to say that you should be able to do anything you want in the streets, which I didn't really agree with. But the point of this story was the entire protest meeting was all in English, and you would think that really the ultimate audience would be the Dutch, they are the ones you have to convince, but it seemed like the meeting was aimed towards the tourists, strange, or maybe they knew they were hitting both audiences by speaking in English.

If anyone visits Amsterdam I have two pieces of advice for you, first get a proper map and I'm not talking Google map print outs, and second get as far away from the central station as fast as possible. Amsterdam is designed in a concentric circle layout (at least concentric semi-circles as there is a harbour on one side) with canals as the circles and streets radiating out from the centre. This actually makes it hard to navigate without a proper map, you would think I would be used to the circular city planning, after living in Canberra for 8 years (the city of non-straight streets) but I still managed to get lost for the first 3 hours. And unfortunately I wasn't lost in the prettiest section of Amsterdam, but rather the semi-industrial/residential area. The thing with a concentric layout means that a small angular error at the centre of the circle equates to a lot of walking around the circumference later on. But once I had my map and found my first museum I then wondered how I could have gone so wrong in the first place. So get a map first, no matter how long the line is at the tourist information bureau.

Amsterdam was a city of museums, though unfortunately you couldn't take photos in any of them. Or maybe it is fortunately as then your view of the art is not blocked by people taking hundreds of photos of everything on the walls and things certainly keep moving. Still you want a shot every now and again of things you particularly like, or at least to prove that you've been there.

My first museum was the Rijksmuseum in the south of the city, which I found after a great deal of wandering around. This area of Amsterdam, the museumplein was my favourite area, with parks and pedestrian malls and heaps of places to eat and far enough from the red-light district so it was decidedly non-dodgy.

The photo to the left shows the Rijksmuseum along with the city's slogan, I wonder how much money they paid some marketing genius to come up with that? This museum really is a must visit if you go to Amsterdam, the building was specially designed to house the museum and features work from the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. When I went they were renovating half the building so only a small section was open to the public and they had moved all the best art into there. Maybe that is why I enjoyed it so much as everything on display was really good, not like usual galleries where the masterpieces are interspersed with the non-masterpieces, sorry it was hard to find a word and I didn't want to say second-rate art.

It was here that I really learnt to appreciate Rembrandt, obviously they had quite a few Rembrandts. Previously I've always classed Rembrandt in with those boring religious style painters. But at this museum walking around with an audio-guide I could appreciate his amazing use of light and shadow, I don't know how I haven't noticed that before in his paintings.

After the Rijksmuseum I went off to the Van Gogh museum, about 200m away. In sharp contrast to my new-found appreciation for Rembrandt, I decided I didn't really like Van Gogh's stuff. Which is a bit of a shame really as I was standing in his museum. This isn't really fair to Van Gogh, or rather VG as I like to call him, simply to save on typing, in that I quite liked his work at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. It's just that this museum only really had his earlier work, before he had refined his technique and didn't really have any of his really famous stuff. VG was self-taught and so when they put his early work next to the works he was recreating, or those that had inspired him, the comparison really didn't work in his favour. In one of his first major paintings, the Potato Eaters, he actually got the perspective all wrong, which seemed like such a basic art mistake to make, not that I am arty in the slightest. I think this museum is really for the die-hard VG fans, but you can see how his style changed over the years and how he got better in the few years before he died, which is kind of cool.

After Van Gogh it was off to Anne Frank's house, or rather the house where her and 7 other people hid for 2 years during the Second World War. I hadn't read her diary before I went, which now having read it I kind of wish I had. It really was amazing to think that 8 people nearly survived the war in these few rooms, but then about 9 months before the end they were betrayed and sent off to separate concentration camps, sorry I've given away the ending. The only one to survive the camps was Anne's father who made it back to Amsterdam hoping that he would find his daughters there, he knew his wife had already died in the camps. But Anne and Margot had died just a few weeks before their camp was liberated.

It's amazing to read her diary, you can see her grow up during her 2 years in hiding and she does have quite deep thoughts, particularly as she was only 14 years old when she was writing and I guess as everyone says she puts a face to the Holocaust. Reading it though you have to keep reminding yourself that it is a true story, there is no happy ending, no plot devices or twists, you only get what a 14 year old girl thought was important on that day and so some things are left unanswered.

I'm going to have to break this trip into two posts, there is too much for one go. I will leave you with the dinner I had that night. It was in a pretty fancy restaurant and was delicious, but the freaky thing was the water they gave me, artesian water from Norway. Tasted pretty good, like water anyway and no chlorine or fluoride flavour, but for 6 euros/500mL bottle I thought it was a little steep. Hasn't this restaurant read the review that some people in London did of these bottle waters? Apparently good-old London tap-water came 3rd in a blind taste-test of something like 25 of these bottled waters. The best one was from Fiji too, not Norway. Oh, one last thing before I do go, one thing I disliked about Amsterdam was the smoking in the restaurants. They didn't seem to even really bother with a smoking and non-smoking section, which they at least give the appearance of in France, so that was pretty disgusting. I remember smoking and non-smoking sections from when I was a child in Australia, now no smoking is allowed in any pubs, clubs or restaurants, and I thought Europe were meant to be the progressive one?

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