Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Water, sky, and windmills" (and paint)

The photo album of our adventures across the flat wilds of the Netherlands.

The next morning we tiptoed around our hostel trying not to rouse our inert roommate who had swapped his peanut better flips for paprika chips. We managed to avoid an early morning contact high since there weren’t many smokers up and about yet (but I could tell they were gearing up: “I know, man, that’s the problem with the world, you know?”) and scurry across the canals to the Rijksmusuem Amsterdam.

The massive museum is being renovated which worked out well for us since the items on display are basically the greatest hits of Dutch art with a little Asian pottery to shake things up. The Dutch are particularly fond of three things: Landscapes depicting wide-open, flat spaces, Portraits of the middle-class, and scenes of peasants being quaint. I love all of these things.

This landscape by Jacob Isaakszoon van Ruisdael (what a name) was summarized in the descriptive plaque as “the ultimate Dutch landscape: flat with an abundance of water, sky, and windmills.” Yeah, that’s the ultimate.

Lumped in with the landscapes were copious battle scenes of the Dutch showing off their navel prowess by taking it to the French and Spanish. This painting shows a Spanish flagship being blown to smithereens. Note the figures flying through the air, one of them in two pieces! Who said the Dutch were reserved? This is Michael Bay on canvas.

Then there are the quieter scenes. Johannes Vermeer wasn’t a particularly prolific guy, but when he painted, he blew everyone away. Standing on the opposite side of the room from The Milkmaid, Michael reverently observed, “Look at that. She still stands out. Beautiful.”

For centuries, the middle-class has reigned supreme in the Netherlands. A county of tolerant Calvinists, they enjoyed austere clothing with froofy collars. If you wanted to show your wealth or power, you had a portrait painted. If you were particularly proud of an organization you were part of, you organized a group portrait. This helped defray some of the costs as well. In 1642 a group of militiamen hired the hottest portrait artist in town for their group shot. Rembrandt didn’t want a boring composition with people sitting around attentively, so he posed them in action, ready to step from the shadows and bring peace to the city. The Night watch is the finale of the museum. Each face is a portrait, so you’re drawn into the story of each man, trying to read his personality from Rembrandt’s brush. As Tim moved through the exhibits, he found he was paying attention to all of Rembrandt’s work, admiring the characters and scenes long before looking at the plaque to discover he kept looking at the same artist’s work. And thus I hope to inspire other amateur art critics.

One museum down. One to go. With Rick Steves in hand we went in search of Dutch pancakes for lunch since the falafel the night before didn’t quite fit our criteria for local cuisine. Of course, the guide book lead us to a boarded-up façade. I guess Mr. Steves’s loyal readers weren’t enough to keep the place afloat. We settled for a nearby pub with a slight whiff of tourist bait. We were hungry, though and couldn’t be too picky. The plate-sized pancakes were fantastic. Mine was topped with bacon and washed down with fresh Heineken. Just like Sunday breakfast at home.

Feeling happier now that we were sporting a few more calories we walked across a park packed with happy families and dove into the Van Gogh Museum. It’s the largest collection of his work in the world. Letters sent back and forth between Vincent and his brother Theo are also in the collection along with his delicate sketches. I had no idea this icon of Post-Impressionism only wielded the brush for 12 years. Before taking up painting in his thirties, he had never shown any artistic inclinations. His art dealing brother thought Vince might do well despite his, uh, lack of experience. After failing as a missionary and businessman he figured he might as well give paint a whirl. Except for some self-esteem issues, I think he did pretty well.

The Potato Eaters is now thought to be Vince’s first major work after a long series of dark still lifes (lives?) and landscapes. But he didn’t quite have his art nailed yet. Problems with perspective and proportions would be sorted out at art school. While there he painted this surreal smoking skeleton. I had no idea Mr. Van Gogh went beyond sunflowers.

Of course he did those too. We learned he wanted to start an artist’s commune in the French country side. He was pretty lonely and only one guy showed up to join the party, Paul Gauguin who would later take off for Polynesia. But first he needed to paint with Vincent then have his life threatened by his unstable roommate who then sliced off his ear. That's how icons are born.

Vincent continued living in the countryside, but his mental instability landed him in a mental institution. In 1890 he walked into a wheat field, very much like this landscape, and shot himself. Whew.The museum had stuff by Van Gogh’s contemporaries and artists his work later influenced, but I was taxing Michael and Tim’s collective museum tolerance. We needed to get outside.

A few minutes later we were outside MacBikes, purveyors of fine bicycles to the touring public. After a particularly difficult decision over buying bike insurance (we chose to keep our ten Euros and risk the wiles of thieving Amsterdamers), we were wobbly mounting our clunky, red wheels.

I’m not used to the curved handle-bars, the plunging cross-bar, or the sheer weight of solid steel with full fenders. It was an awkward first revolution, but we managed to command the things pretty confidently, and I only managed one near-collision.

We set off in search of windmills. We were told that if we crossed the short ferry to the northern section of the city across the bay we would find plenty of them. The ferry was a terrifying experience as a hundred bikes and mopeds loaded the deck. As we reached the far side engines revved and chains locked onto sprockets. This would be every rider for himself.

The gangway dropped and we were off. I managed to clip only one cyclist on the way out. We rendezvoused around a map and saw the icon we were looking for: A triangle with four spokes. It was time to fight a giant.

We cycled along an idyllic canal, the bank lined with houseboats and grills. We started to plunge into suburbia, found another sign, and discovered we were a little off our mark. Peddling along a quiet neighborhood, we found a large wetland, and there on the horizon was the stereotype we were looking for:

Of course I hummed “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of LaMancha” and immortalized my antiquated chivalric notions and Romantic tendencies by charging it without Sancho at my side. Michael and Tim tolerated this behavior. The goats around the bottom of the mill seemed less enthusiastic.

With the picturesque windmill checked off our to-see list we crossed the wetlands, feeling like the only people for miles despite being a twenty minute ride (as the heron flies) from Amsterdam. Just in time for a late afternoon snack, we rolled into a quiet town with a bustling local pub. We sipped cool beer and ate croquets and actually felt like we were on vacation. Until the guy who owned the pizza joint across the street started yelling at us about parking our bikes too close to his Vespa. I really do hate those machines.

The second half of our ride took us past villages lined with small canals and out into pastureland populated by cows, horses, and sheep. The flat expansiveness of the horizon took me back to the Midwest. Then suddenly we were on the East Coast as we rode along the sea wall towards a white-washed town with more boats in the harbor than people in the village. We rode beyond the village over a rib of road that looped towards the massive dikes that protect Amsterdam’s harbor on the North Sea. As the light faded, we decided we would leave the dikes for anther time. We needed to figure out how to get home.

Our ride back into the city lead through urban apartment complexes and more urbanized canals. We discovered the problems of a watery city when we learned we had missed the last ferry over one canal by a half-hour. We had to peddle the long way around to the bridge to continue on home. As we followed the canal, a high schooler in a rowing skull yelled helpfully after us, “Hey, don’t smoke too much marijuana, you don’t want to lose all your money!” I thanked him for the advice. I also assumed the bright red rental bikes were the give away that we weren’t from around those parts.

Finally we were back in the city proper and pulling in to a recommended Indonesian restaurant. The New York Times travel section had informed us that no 36-hour trip through Amsterdam was complete without a taste of Jakarta. Thank you New York Times. We ate our fried rice, prawns, and peanut sauces with the kind of ravenous energy you only get from a day with equal parts fine art and countryside cycling.

We sat back, the sun long gone and admitted it was time for bed. We rode across town and carefully scouted the best spot to secure our vehicles. Multiple chains and locks were brought to bear. There was no way we were going to pay a thousand Euros to replace the things if they were taken. Even so, I drifted off that night imagining jovial, Jordaens-esqe, Dutchman with a loathing of tourists slicing through my bike with an electric saw. Despite the image, I managed to sleep peacefully. I had to. We would be skipping the country the next day.

Photos of our adventures.


Michael said...

In a close race, I would have to say this was my favorite day of the trip. The concentrated art museums + pancakes + bike riding + ocean + Asian food might be the best Amsterdam combination created.

As a side note, Thai food is similar to Indonesian food, and it is fantastic! I think some cooking is in order whenever we have a trip reunion.

Matt said...

It was pretty spectacular. Take good notes on Thai food. I'll work on perfecting my käsespätzel and Tim can...what is Pittsburgh known for?

Tim said...

Pittsburgh is known for Primanti Bros. sandwiches, which have the fries and cole slaw inside the bun. Also, Heinz ketchup and Klondike Bars were invented here.

Michael, I agree! A tiring and fantastic european day :)