Travel Tuesday: Amsterdam

When I think of Amsterdam I usually think of its airport.

I’ve been in it more than a dozen times and it’s hands down my favourite airport (though Charles de Gaulle’s atrium inspired terminals give it a run for its money artistically).

It has a stunning fireplace and grand piano lounge. And a library. And an art gallery. And Sbarro garlic knots.

But I digress.

*

I don’t think of Amsterdam the town as somewhere I’ve travelled much. I spent all of 2 days there, mostly just lost with my crabby, sleep-deprived siblings in tow.

I had been so excited to travel the world with my brother and sister; our first real adventure now we were all emancipated. But I had not taken our poverty (and their extreme jetlag) into account.

We spent the better part of the trip lolling on bunkbeds, bored and drinking cheap cans of beer, or lost down the unbelievably homogenous alleyways of the city’s old town.

I had unwittingly booked us into a hostel in the winding and cramped Red Light District. Without any sense of direction, we were constantly crisscrossing shopfront windows showcasing live dancing girls in lurid backlit panels.

“We’ve been this way already” my teenage brother would say “I recognise that french maid’s wig”.

I tried to play it cool. I was a giant ball of type-A stress back in those days, but I pretended as if I was totally continental.

Completely blasé about bodies. Not at all freaked out by seeing live, casual nudity with my younger brother’s innocent eyes trailing behind me as I wandered deserted streets in the dark.

In reality I was gripped with terrible panic (and actually worried the prostitutes in the window would recognise us from our previous passes and *gasp* what would they think?!).

The metallic pang of being lost somewhere strange and the ugly weight of failed Oldest Sibling Responsibilities made for a sickening cocktail. Not to mention I was convinced a neon sign above my head glaringly broadcast the fact a 23-year-old virgin was wandering in the seedy part of a foreign city; lost with no money and minors in her protection.

I stuck out like a sore thumb and I was convinced sooner or later Trouble was going to notice.

Weird, misguided terrors shot through my tightly laced brain those nights. Shadowy Dickensian demise beckoned in doorways. Shrewd, artful eyes darted behind twitching curtains. We were marked targets. I was sure of it.

Sigh. I laugh at it now. My wild imaginings can do more harm than good sometimes. Of course it all ended well. And, like most childish fears, they seem paltry in the light of day.

Or maybe I have just finally embraced the continental sensibilities I so long falsified. They were, after all, just women doing their [legal, licensed, professional] jobs. And we nothing but another raft of tourist backpackers who come and go without incident.

*

But it is not this stupidly naïve version of Amsterdam that I brought home with me.

One day, armed with good sense and a map, we headed out to the world-class Van Gogh Museum.

There were droopy sunflowers and crooked chairs a-plenty and it was interesting and enlightening, though I’ve never been a huge fan of his work aesthetically. It’s often so sad, painstakingly self-conscious and all too insular.

But one painting caught my attention.

There is much written about Vincent’s relationship with his brother. Dependent on Theo emotionally and financially, the burden and guilt he felt is the stuff of PhD theses the world over. Spock even wrote a play about it once.

And when Theo and his wife welcomed a baby into the family and named it Vincent, Van Gogh painted Almond Blossoms in honour of his new, tiny namesake.

Depression and solitude usually tail in the wake of Van Gogh’s ouvre; but here is the simplest magic.

Clear skies and soft petals sing of gentle love. Selfless and without complication. The bright, cheerful canvas is sprawling, with an uncharacteristic symmetry both hopeful and delicate.

Art critics concur Almond Blossoms exhibits a unique freedom and spontaneity not seen in Van Gogh’s other work; and perhaps it is this natural spontaneity and tender raw gentility which captured my heart.

So, armed with the spare change from my brother’s hash-bulk-buy the night before, I purchased a postcard of these budding branches, as harbingers of spring and of new life.

And as a testament: family is family, beauty is everywhere, and things are not always as dire they seem.

Van Gogh Almond Bossoms -- Que Sera Sara

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