Skulking around the midnight canals of Amsterdam with a DSLR wasn’t the most dangerous thing I did

Look at these photos. You have to be in a really horrible mood to take nice sombersome pictures like this. And I was.

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I’d just gone to the movies alone, for the first time ever. Literally, a cinema specializing in art house films called The Movies.

The Movies is an old movie house at Haarlemerdijk 161, a street lined with locally-owned businesses and clear west of Amsterdam’s regular tourist madness. The Movies has dark finished, lacquered wood and sound-dampening carpet that’s easy on the feet, and the kind of lightbulbs with the filament that gives everything a golden hue. And like everything in Amsterdam, it was built to feel closed-in or claustrophobic or cozy, depending on your view. At The Movies you can enjoy a meal and/or a cocktail before or after your film. The management announces when doors open for the various movie showings. But don’t worry about downing that drink too fast if it gets close to your movie time because they assign seats here. And you can bring your drink into the theatre. Just like that awesome couple who sat behind me did.

I sat in front of a couple who kept kicking my seat as they fumbled around for their beer bottle every five minutes. More than once I turned around to glare, and the last time I did I politely but firmly told them not to kick my seat anymore in a loud voice that I hoped would shame them into compliance. They were not helping my mood. I was watching the brood-some Adrien Brody in the oh-so cheerful  film, Detachment. Which is basically about how the characters are unable to detach from their most violent and deep-seated traumas. I was also marooned in Amsterdam for a week, having missed my plane to Manila via Kuala Lumpur because a train accident re-routed all the trains in this small country, turning my two hour ride to Schipol into a 3.5 hour journey. I had very little in the way of Euros so it was actually cheaper for me to ride out the week in a hostel than pony up the ransom sum of 600€ for the same flight the next day. And I sort of got stood up by a boy. I can’t say that wasn’t the first time that happened to me, but it had been a long time since it had. Yep, still doesn’t feel good. So, a fun Friday night out for me, right?

After the film let out, I abnormally eschewed the temptation of a post-film drink, well, because I didn’t want to be in a place so convivial drinking alone after a depressing-ass film. Instead I wandered the streets, the canals and the bridges, the quiet evening intermittently punctuated by rain, the incoherent sounds of drunkards from the pubs and the texts from my best friend in Chicago trying to cheer me up. And then I took out my camera and started taking pictures.

Lady, alone, petite and probably easy to overtake, looking probably not-local, late at night, with an expensive camera, in too-quiet sections of town, looking at her cellphone every now and again and whose demeanor can best be described with the word despondent. As alluded to in the title, this wasn’t the most dangerous thing I’d done with my time in Amsterdam. Nope, not by a long shot.

In broad daylight on a weekend, I rang the bell of a shop I’d noticed the night before. Its windows were filled with all kinds of curious art, particular to a subject matter that I found peculiar and at the same time, was drawn toward. The sign said, ring for service between this hour and that. Luckily, or not luckily, ’twas that hour.

I was met by the owner who welcomed me in. The din of the busy canal fell hush with the door. Not often do I come across the owner-collector-seller of such a varied collection of his own antique store. So I just went in for it and let all the questions fly. He seemed friendly and attentive. I asked him how he become interested in this genre. How he acquired his artifacts. Oh, this used to be a gallery? You have a few of your large-format paintings downstairs? Why thanks, I’d love to see them. How did he make certain of their authenticity. Oh, you’re a writer, too. How did this kind of art become supported by the state, and how did these pieces make their way outside the borders of their respective countries? How is it to collect the art of a place that is associated with such suffering and subjugation.

While contemplating the dizzying scale of the collection, the doorbell rang. To the door went the owner, and in stepped an angel in the form of a Japanese tourist.

Immediately the owner was very rude, very brusque to the man. Bristling, he aggressively inquired why the man was there, who he was. The Japanese man looked at me. I met his eyes silently.

Having traveled for some time with limited-to-zero proficiency of the lingua franca, I’ve learned to pay acute attention to body language and tone of voice.

In that moment, it was clear to me and the Japanese man that we were both ordinary travelers not of spectacular means, we’d both arrived at this shop out of curiosity, unannounced and without appointments, but for some reason, I was welcome and he wasn’t.

The owner hurried out the Japanese man, insisting he return on Thursday afternoon and then closed the door shut. By that time I’d already decided I was going to GTFO of there, but carefully. And I certainly wasn’t going anywhere near that basement. I gradually made my way to the glass cases towards the front of the shop, waiting until the owner was far from me as possible, on the opposite side. At which point I remembered all of sudden I was supposed to meet someone, but thank you for sharing your store with me.

And so I left and I didn’t really care that it was drizzling. And who should I spot just down the canal but my Japanese angel. I stopped him to say thank you. And then I went and had a drink.

And what have we learned today, kids? Always listen to your gut. Give people time to show you their true natures with their actions, and not just with their words. And, like 80’s slasher movies, don’t ever, EVER go into the basement.

6 thoughts on “Skulking around the midnight canals of Amsterdam with a DSLR wasn’t the most dangerous thing I did

  1. On a previous visit to Amsterdam, I had gotten separated from my friends as we headed from one bar to the next. Thankfully, we had prearranged which bars we were going to be drinking. As I wandered to the next bar, I got asked by some dude if I wanted weed, crack, speed, or meth. I was impressed, but I said “no”; interestingly, I thought to myself: there’s BEER to be had elsewhere.

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