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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 121 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 5, 2003

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Going Dutch

Neeman A Sobhan

The next day, mother and son set out for the Rijks Museum yet again! This time we pause dramatically before shutting the front door. Then, clutching the house keys to our bosom, we start out arm in arm, at our chummiest. Half an hour later, Taimoor and I are not speaking to each other. We are sitting on a tram heading in the opposite direction from Rijks and Museumplein, and we can't decide whose fault it was. At the next stop we alight, kiss and make up. It's too hot to stay either mad or lost. Never mind Rijks, we have come upon a lovely bridge with a charming café at the corner of the cobbled street close to a canal. We settle down and order a cool drink.

This is what we have been doing most of the week anyway, and loving it. Taimoor and I have walked the length and breadth of this city ringed by the Amstel river and its canals, and we have wiled away our mornings balancing coffee cups, cakes or pastrami and edam sandwiches on rickety sidewalk café tables as we watched glass topped boats full of tourists plying the canals leaving in their wake the shaded silence of bridges hanging over dappled waters reflecting flickering trees and gabled windows. Oh! the beauty and heat of Amsterdam's summer. We observe from the shade of awnings or trees, the drifting clouds of young people in shorts and backpacks, swigging mineral water or adjusting their sunglasses, walkmans and cameras; we get sneaking glimpse of a tidy living room at almost basement level windows; we dodge from the path of cyclists or pedestrian Dutchmen or women going about their daily business; we watch tram loads of passengers in every colour, shape and race; we peer at the blue and white Delft pottery in store windows and avoid peering at weird objects in 'adult' shops.

The next day, we start out in silence and not until we are actually at the doorsteps of the Rijks Museum do we start laughing: we have made it! We see everything, the old masters, Vermeer, Van Gogh's self portrait, Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' (which fails to impress me), as well as the artists hitherto unknown to me whose paintings take my breath away: Pieter Saenradam's church interiors, Van de Velde's tinted glasses and bottles, Breitner's impressionistic oils and Anton Mauve's vegetable patch with the variegated greens lit up by two tiny dots of red from a hidden cock's comb and a roof tile. I am impressed but I know that I will forget these artists as soon as I step outside. When we walk out into the sunlight, the real world tingles and throbs like a painting come to life. I will not forget this canvas, and I am happy to be out of the museum. As soon as we do the canal tour and Anne Frank's house it will be the end of the tourist mom.

I remember the canal tour as being more enjoyable in winter than it is now as we sit dodging the sun's arrows as it hunts us through the glass roof, and yet the pleasure of viewing this old city from the river is undeniable. I love the sight of the interiors of the picture pretty residential houseboats, with kitchen gardens on deck.

There is a prohibitive queue in front of Prinsengracht 263, Anne Frank's house. I wanted to see the annexe where she hid for two years with her family and then perished, but it's too hot to line up. We turn back and instead, walk to an English bookstore of which there are quite a few, where I buy a copy of 'Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl', the book I read and loved when I myself was the author's age. She was a fellow Gemini who started her diary on her birthday 12 June 1942. In an early entry she had written: 'Writing in a diary is a strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I've never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl….'

Dear Diary, I am now free to muse and laze around, strolling up the colourful flea markets on Albert Cuypstraat with its stalls brimming with international products, browsing among the second-hand English book stalls in the bohemian neighbourhood of Spuy, avoiding the busy Damrak near Centraal Station and finding anonymous alleys to walk in. Most afternoons Taimoor and I kidnap Nader from office for lunch as we walk up the shady Stadhouderskade, strolling along the cobbled, canal hugging streets to some square close by like the Heinekenplein, Rembrandtplein or down the Utrechtstraat.

Our evenings have been a series of international gourmet meals which apart from Indonesian (former Dutch colony) ranges over Peruvian, Tibetan, Japanese or Turkish cuisine, followed by films ranging from the elegant yet gruesome 'Ripley's Game' at the newly refurbished art deco Tuschinski theatre to a small anonymous hall near Jordaan showing the beautifully original 'Punch Drunk Love.'

On the last day, the three of us indulge in delicious pizza-size Dutch pancakes for breakfast and in the evening after a home cooked Bengali meal complete with pumpkin and fresh dhoniya pata bought at the Bengali and Asian stores around the Van Woutsraat and Ceintuurbaan area where we live, we go out for a stroll and perhaps a last coffee and dessert. The Dutch have given the world the concept of splitting costs while eating out; my sons and I do one better on 'going Dutch' and end up initiating another concept which we call café-squatting where expenses are zero!

This 'going bengali' proceeds thus: we start at one picturesque sidewalk café and find ourselves ignored by the waiters. We not only do not mind this, we welcome it for we aren't really thirsty, so we order nothing, sit for a while enjoying the night breeze and the ambience for free, and then pretending to be a bit put out at not being attended to, move on. We do this successfully at four different cafes at four colourful locales including the crowded one at the popular, glittering Leidesplein where people are busy watching some entertainment going on in the square. Hardened squatter that I am by now, I push aside the expensive drink menu (a cup of plain tea or coffee for 4 euros) and sit back to watch the people around me watch the fire-eaters and acrobats.

My sons are laughing and chatting beside me, the sky at ten is still a dark blue, there is music drifting from somewhere, and it's the mellow end of a hot day and the happy end to a mother's holiday; and although I'm quite willing to pay for drinks, we are quenched and happy as we are, and decide to squat a while, unless a waiter comes upon us. Fifteen minutes later, I still haven't ordered any coffee but my cup, nevertheless, is full. I smile as I watch the watchers of this vibrant Amsterdam night. Sorry, Rembrandt, my 'Night Watch' is definitely better than yours.


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