I had some trouble finding the platform for my train from Copenhagen to Amsterdam. Rewind, I had some trouble getting myself to the station. I could say I was confused by the metro and the S-train being on the same network map, but really I was slack and forgot to double check that the nearest stop was on the same line as the central station. Then at central I couldn’t see my train code on any of the departure boards and I began to worry that I was at the wrong place again. The line at the information desk was long and slow, but the woman at the counter pointed towards the platform directly behind me. Phew. This time I had a better excuse for not finding it myself, the train code really wasn’t shown anywhere and for very good reason. It was one very long train that got broken up during the night for groups of carriages to go off to different destinations.
My travelling companions were three retired women testing out the idea of going on a holiday together, a businessman who had been an elite trampolinist, and a fellow about my age returning home from a bicycling tour of Denmark. When the women said they were going to Amsterdam, I asked if they were going directly on that train. They were! When I’d had trouble booking this leg I’d been informed that the direct train was unavailable due to track work. My tickets had me changing early in the morning and making another change after that. When our tickets were checked I asked if I could stay on through to Amsterdam. Yes! I could sleep longer and not lug my bags around so much. Camaraderie developed while finding the ladder and the long narrow table. We postulated how the train might get off the island of Zealand to the European mainland. Bridge? Tunnel? Ferry? There was a short tunnel. And then a lovely long bridge over a calm sea. The sun was setting, and as we got closer to the other side the land curved around on both sides. The cyclist had bread and cheese for dinner, and I asked how long we could subsist on such a diet. He thought forever.
The train was late in to Amsterdam on another cool grey day. Someone said it was too nice a day to sit inside. I was learning that these things are relative. I bought a ticket in advance for the Van Gogh Museum to skip the long line and chose to meander on my way there. The smell of marijuana smoke drifted by for the first time since Thailand. I got some more bread, this time with the cheese baked in for convenience. Sitting to eat it by a canal, I watched a few people. One older fellow who looked to be permanently drugged out, walked unevenly and left an empty backpack behind. Two younger fellows went diving in the recycling bins for the perfect plastic bottle. I questioned my judging the laws based on these few. For all I knew, the relaxed laws just made these fellows and their actions more visible. And normally I’d be impressed by a bit of opportunistic repurposing. Although I did wonder why the bakery and other local shops only accepted cards for payment, no cash. For myself I’d decided if I was going to try the soft drugs on offer I’d rather be in the company of friends who knew what they were doing, than be swayed by their legality in an unfamiliar city.
I moved on in the general direction of the Van Gogh Museum, deliberately via Anne Frank’s house. The queue was several people wide and stretched along the street, around the corner to the end of the block and disappeared around another corner. I didn’t have that much time. For some reason I didn’t really feel the need to go in anyway. I read her diary in high school, I believe in the power of the written word, I wasn’t sure what the point was. Perhaps if I’d been more enthusiastic and gone early the next morning I would have found out.
A light rain started and I picked up my pace, several hours had disappeared. There were three queues at the Van Gogh Museum. A quick little one for people who had bought an online ticket for a particular time, a longish one for pre purchased tickets, and a rather long one if you still had to buy a ticket. Even with the pre purchased ticket it took about half an hour to get in. What happens if more people pre purchase than not and that line ends up being longer?
I thought the museum was well done. The first thing I realised was that van Gogh was only a little older than I am now when he died. I’d had this idea he was older. Maybe it my memory of his self-portraits, their style or the way the paints had faded, that made me think of him as older. Or maybe I’m older than I realised! Looking at them again here, I began to think that it might have been his poor health as much as anything else. I was also surprised to learn that he didn’t begin painting until his late twenties, so had only painted for about ten years. Some people can make a big impact in only a few years.
For me the museum only had a few significant pieces: almond flowers and orchards, wheat fields under thunderclouds, a harvest; but the half a floor devoted to the study of his works made up for it. Clear explanations of how they know there are paintings under paintings, and modelling of lighting deteriorating the organic red pigments alongside a quote from van Gogh indicating he knew they would fade, all the more reason to paint them brightly. Reproductions to touch the difference in paint textures, and to see sand in paint under a microscope to know a piece was actually painted at the beach. Close up photos showing the newsprint and paint that clung to paintings that he wrapped before they had dried properly or that were rescued from a flooded room.
The supporting descriptions of his life seemed a little light on detail, or sanitised. The major events were there, but I felt the heart was missing. I wondered whether the introspection of all those self-portraits and mutual paintings of fellow artists had contributed to his state of mind. Now reading that most reliable of sources, Wikipedia, I realise there was much more to it than that. Leaving the museum I was slightly tempted by the shop. The almond blossoms were printed on everything from t-shirts to serving trays. It was a powerfully bright piece, but I couldn’t get away from the sadness under it that seemed to be glossed over in its application to mass produced shiny handbags.
Later I looked up why all these places full of paintings were calling themselves museums and not galleries. Apparently an art gallery is primarily about selling its art, a distinction we don’t make so much in Australia and which is reversed in the ‘museums’ scattered around Amsterdam. A cheese museum next door to a tulip museum, and a sex museum in another part of town, which were all really shops. The erotica museum might have been more an actual museum, but it didn’t seem so much fun without someone to giggle with.
On my way to the hostel, I was again confused by the distinction between the metro and trains and waited half an hour for a train instead of finding the metro than ran every ten minutes. You’d think I would have learnt by now. In my defence, when the lack of network map at the train station made me ask the information person for help, she only directed me to the train. A young boy nattered away to his grandparents. It was strange for me to hear the guttural sounds of the Dutch language coming from someone so young, but of course they do. I actually found it easier to make out the Dutch sounds than the German ones even though someone told me German was closer to English.
I woke with a start the next morning when I realised how late I’d slept. I sat up quickly thinking, I should go see more, and then saw the cool grey day outside. Sorry Amsterdam, I’m over it. I just want to get where I’m going. I wrote a little and generally hung about until it was time to leave if I was to at least tag along on another ‘free’ walking tour. I still almost missed it because the most confusing locker system of the entire trip meant I had to convince three people how they operated before I could pay for mine.
The fellow doing this walking tour wasn’t as good as the one in Stockholm. He kept telling us where to go to get the best apple pie, the best beer, the best Dutch style chips, and so on. But I was leaving town immediately after. I eavesdropped on a conversation he had with another tourist about how the liberalisation of the drug policy had successfully allowed police to concentrate on areas that were particularly unsafe because of local mafia involvement in hard drugs. This was the sort of thing I wanted him to be telling all of us. He did tell us about the writer represented by a statue on the widest bridge. He had been instrumental in revealing the abuses of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia to people back home. Our tour guide also pointed out that the buildings leaned out at the font on purpose, but the ones that leant to the side were not designed to. The buildings nearly all butted up against each other, but the canals and paths down the middle of the streets compensated and maintained a sense of openness and space. Until we all had to squeeze into a doorway to let a truck drive over the footpath to get around a corner.
After the walking tour I went past yet another museum, only this one was showing actual human bodies. Now that was one I would have been interested in, if I could stomach it, but I had a bus to catch for the ferry to Newcastle. The ferry company’s website simply said a local bus company provided the transfer service to the ferry port, leaving from in front of a particular hotel between 3 and 4 pm. Now that’s vague, especially when it turns out to be a sprawling bus station. A bunch of other people were waiting around in front of the hotel, but with a distinct lack of luggage. A fellow backpacker was waiting for the vague bus as well, so we figured it would become clearer in time. It materialised with a ferry sign stuck on its side and left about half past. I think another one left later. I could have had a whole nother hour and checked out that museum. Nevermind, I was glad to be on the last leg of my journey.