Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Amsterdam vacation II: So many museums, so little time

Prior to last week, my wife and I were probably the oldest living, college-educated, middle-class Americans never to have been to Europe; so my observations about the experience may be a big yawn to sophisticated you. I persevere with blogging about them, though, to preserve the memories for my own sake. Feel free to eavesdrop.

They were right

The “they” in question are all those people who have said that traveling to a place (actually putting your body there) is different from reading about it or watching an IMAX movie. Some random observations:
  • It pays to know where the nearest encashinator is, as American credit cards are not accepted everywhere. The rail system, for example, requires cash or a specific European credit card. Many restaurants expect cash.
  • Speaking of restaurants, a nominal tip is appreciated but not expected. Basically, round up the bill. And ask for the check or you may wait a long time for it.
  • Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Pedestrians theoretically have the right of way over cars, if you really want to press your luck. But bicycles outnumber cars about 17.36 gazillion to one; so it’s the bikes you have to worry about. Trust me; cyclists are not concerned about damaging their bikes, which have an average depreciated value of about twenty euros; nor are they concerned about damaging your person. Stay alert and stay out of the way—which is not easy, because the sidewalks are narrow and tend to be obstructed by delivery vehicles, cafĂ© tables, and dog droppings. And do wait for the Walk signal.
  • Next to the central train station is a three-level parking garage for bicycles. There are more bicycles there, by at least an order of magnitude, than I had seen in my entire life up to the point when I walked past—and that includes the totality of bicycles I’ve seen on streets and sidewalks, on television reports about bicycle races, in stores, in movies….
  • Citizens behave like adults and the honor system prevails: Half of the bikes parked on the street are not locked. Trolley passengers and short-haul train passengers are presumed to have paid their fare. It’s refreshing to encounter a government that can compare the cost of hiring a bunch of enforcement personnel to the limited amount it loses to dishonesty and make a rational choice.
  • Everyone understands English and speaks it fluently. Any given commercial sign or advertisement is as likely to be in English as in Dutch, and many draw from both languages equally. And even if you don’t speak a word of Dutch now, by the time you’ve been in Amsterdam for two or three days you’ll have a reading lexicon of dozens of handy words, even if you’re not quite sure how to pronounce some of them.

Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals

We went to the current exhibit (“The Masterpieces”) at Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Here’s the thing. If you walk into the Met in New York or into any major American art museum, you’ll see a Rembrandt that the museum paid a fortune for and that sits off by itself or in a room full of other European art of the same period. Or you might see a traveling collection of nothing but Rembrandts. Same for Vermeer, Hals, or any other Dutch painter. What a genius! Isn’t this painting remarkable? It’s so different from everything around it! The man was sui generis!

But in the Rijksmuseum I got a real sense of what made these individuals geniuses. All of them painted very much in the style of their contemporaries. They have in common a particular use of light and dark to focus the viewer’s attention as well as a particular palette. For subjects, they painted the people they were commissioned to paint. There were no portrait photographers; there were portrait painters. And a realistic representation was a desirable thing. But each of these guys defined “realistic” in a different way, so that instead of a static image of a posed subject with a carefully chosen, stiffly held, cosmetically enhanced facial mask, their paintings variously captured realistic and lively expressions and complexions, natural gestures and interactions, the dynamic interplay of light with moving objects. Seen in context, each of these painters is actually much more remarkable than when seen in isolation.

And the rest

Anne Frank Huis is worth the visit. Experience it for yourself. I would have liked to make it to the Van Gogh Museum and several others, too, but there wasn’t time. We did make it down to Antwerp; I’ll tell you about the museum there in the next post.


Anonymous said...

Do you know the poem 'Anne Frank Huis', by Andrew Motion:

Dick Margulis said...

If there is a problem with copying Stuart's URL, the last portion of it should read: