Thursday, July 17, 2008

I AMsterdam

Houseboat neighborhood in Amsterdam

Tamar, my gracious host whom I met through the Humanity in Action program, enlightened me to the frustrating stereotypes tourists impose on her city.  Drugs, sex, and rock and roll – but mostly drugs.  It is not a city of hedonists running around naked swinging from street lamps while saluting a supposedly benevolent liberalism (as I had once thought…maybe…).  It’s actually a normal city.  Very quirky, very original and unique.  It is kind and oftentimes orderly, even its established drug and prostitution markets. 

            Tamar has been an absolutely incredible host.  When I first met her, I was slightly surprised because I have only met Armenians named Tamar – I didn’t realize the name translated across different cultures.  Tamar is Jewish, and once spent eight months living on a Kibbutz in Israel.  Amazing.  The Kibbutz specialized in cultivating decorative fish and fostering the communal living philosophy which to me seems totally fascinating and worth trying hopefully sometime in the near future.  She just finished studying philosophy in Amsterdam and before going to get her PhD, she plans to study creative writing for a year in the US, most likely at St. Lawrence college in upstate New York.

            Tamar lives just outside of the city, but to my great fortune, she was house sitting at her aunt’s place for a few weeks while they were in Italy on a film shoot.  The house was absolutely incredible and I was extremely lucky to be there.  The home overlooks one of the city’s many canals on a street called Prinzengracht.  It occupies three floors of a five floor row house where Tamar’s aunt, a psychiatrist, and uncle, a filmmaker, reside.  My sleeping situation was pretty interesting – they psychiatrist aunt’s office was in the home, and there was a beside along one of the wall’s of the office.  When I would lay my head down, I would start to wonder about the confessions that took place in the room, the emotional breakthroughs, and the psychological barriers.  I thought of adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder, middle aged men who couldn’t stop smoking dope and visiting prostitutes, and couples who argue incessantly about how to arrange the couches in the living room.  Then I would fall asleep. 

            What I’ve noticed about European cities so far in my indefinite journey is that they are all, for the most part, unique.  They each have their own character, their own personality, their own identity.  This does not occur to me when I compare Omaha to Oklahoma City (although I have never been to either – I just like city name’s with O’s), or Baltimore to Philadelphia, Chicago to New York, Boston to Providence (I have been to these places).  American cities are definitely unique, but because they are far younger than their European counterparts (we might call American cities “adolescents”, and European cities their elders), I believe they are rather similar – architecturally, ideologically, linguistically.  In the US, when one travels from Baltimore to Boston, the contrast between the two cities does not outweigh the similarities.  It is, after all, the same nation, the same language, the same general cultural codes, the same dance, etc, even if the street names and climate differ. 

            Translate to Europe the distance from Baltimore to Boston and one can travel from Copenhagen to Prague, Barcelona to Milan, Athens to Istanbul.  Different worlds.  Different language, different history, different codes of conduct – yes, they do share their similarities.  Throughout history, economic trade and travel brought cultural exchange and interaction for people around the world, but when comparing European cities, I would say that the differences far outweigh the similarities.  This reality has made my experience traveling in this content intriguing, and Amsterdam definitely had a strong identity.

            Although I will always consider Copenhagen the ultimate city for cyclists (for the time being – I’m always open to adjusting my stance if another city strikes me the way Copenhagen did), Amsterdam definitely had more bikes.  One of the first things I did with Tamar was rent a bike, the vehicle upon which existence can be at its best.  Riding through Amsterdam was extremely different from riding through Copenhagen.  In general, Amsterdam is far “cozier” than Copenhagen with more people living and moving in a smaller space.  If city cycling is a real-world obstacle course, then Amsterdam presents many more obstructions than Copenhagen.  Aside from dodging the customary array of other cyclists, cars, and buses, hordes of pigeons love to fly around the bike lanes, and trams can present deadly danger when making u-turns.  If you are looking to enhance your survival capacities atop a bicycle in an urban atmosphere, I would highly recommend Amsterdam.

             The van Gogh museum was fantastic.  I’m usually not a big museum-goer because I have a strong aversion against tourist culture (of which museum visits compose a significant component).  When I travel somewhere, I want to make unorthodox contributions to the country in addition to/instead of the standard expenditures that contribute to the economy’s tourism sector.  This is why I was so happy to be part of the fellowship and why I really look forward to farm work in Portugal (still waiting to here about the job in Armenia).  But my appreciation for van Gogh plus visiting the museum with Will, Alice, and Michael from HIA who were in town outweighed by aversion.   

            The museum itself did an excellent job of contextualizing van Gogh’s works with his personal story, which is of itself as interesting as his art.  He decided to become an artist at 26 years old after spending time working for an art dealer and observing trends in the contemporary art world.  He had no formal training until he put his foot down and decided, “you know what?  I’m going to be an artist.”  And he did it.  This is the power of the human will.  The museum showed works from the different phases of his ife, from when he just started to when he moved to Paris then to the south of France.  Van Gogh’s contemporaries were also highlighted in the exhibition, and watching the interplay between the artist’s styles was really fantastic.  I had no idea that van Gogh drew great inspiration from Japanese prints, and that he considered himself an absolute failure (which is why he killed himself).  I was inspired by Theo van Gogh, his older brother who supported Vincent financially as he struggled becoming an artist and trendsetter.  In America, there is such a dogmatic reverence for individualism that can lead to neglecting our closest friends and even families in times of need.  Theo inspired me because he believed in his brother’s mission and vision, and was willing to sacrifice his hard-earned resources on an investment that, in their lifetimes, did not pay off, but in ours, most certainly has.  The museum also featured a number of works by the Russian avant-garde artist Malavich who took form and geometric expression to a whole new level – he’s the guy who painted black boxes.  Just black boxes.   

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