Saturday, 17. November 2012


On the same day, at the same time, perhaps in the same train, exactly a year later, just as I was expecting to find it: the same orange Dutch sun rises above the dusty blue clouds of dawn.

The canal houses, leaning ever closer, nod me on along Zeedijk to my hotel at Nieumarkt square. How long I have longed to find myself once again, now, in the graces of this surreal city.

After a light plate of hummus and sun dried tomatoes at Singel 404, just near Caffe Hoppe, I make my way over to the Plantage neighborhood. Playing the student, I wander into a bookshop next to the UvA and read Burrough's Junkie and a bit of Max Havelaar and afterward take note of this weekend's screenings (which tastefully include Happiness) at the Kriterion cinema. The hypnotic escalator of nearby Weesperplein metro turns round and round like a film reel. In a nearby sousplex I spy a black horse being groomed and just above in a salon a Harley dangling from the ceiling. Amsterdam.

Back at the hotel far from the deafening frequencies of a Parisian weekday, the afternoon light dispersed by the bedroom curtain lends itself perfectly to introspection. From the sill I observe the passer-by, pondering their pasts and problems and potential. Boys in the throes of youth clustered together, stoned, booze in tow. Oblivious to the sunset, sweating through their sweaters. There is always an odd one out, a little pudgy, to whom the others have been relentless. The American tourist with a sachet of tulip bulbs, discovering her ancestors' land. The French girl falling out of the neighboring coffeeshop. Lots of students in their salad days with dyed hair, heather grey sweatshirts, pleather bags and a high percentage of nylon in their clothes. And that ubiquitous leopard scarf - how reassuring to see others still wearing it, just to know that this is still the same moment, that there is still time to decide, to wholly accept or refute it. And a swan keeping watch over us all.

Below, the canal is a fine reflective membrane, smooth, then wavering into a nervous jitter, then succumbing to vertigo, sifting and stretching about the light. Folding into itself, then contracting. A parked car turns on its lights, sending a cascade of fireworks into the water.

All the churches chime together. The rosy golden light of the morning. The porcelain white fat of the arm on the wrinkled pillow smells of milk and ham.

In Zuidoost, a Dutch mother nestles her offspring in the pannier of her bakfiet, pedals through midday traffic and shows me into the haven of Sarphati Park, where children of every size and colour play together. A block away, at Albert Cuypmarkt, I buy a box of strong Dutch chaï and stroopwafels before lunching in De Pijp beside three Dutch blondes with delicious masculine rasps.

Back on wheels, I wander through the Vondelpark, where I cross an entire nursery aboard a bakfiet and a white dog, fluffy and rolling like a summer cloud. After a rain-induced stop at the Eye film library on the outskirts of the park, I am finally in the Jordaan, when I am overcome by a mad urge: to the sea! Up, up, up Prisengracht, past Haarlemmerdijk, through Westerpark, two 90 degree drawbridges later and I find myself before Silodam, a building seemingly made of stacked colourful containers navigating the port. After climbing the wooden slabs into the sky, I find myself on an immense floating balcony. The GVB ferries shuttle to and fro, the bright yellow Scandinavian vessel becomes ever lighter with each container lifted from it. The angular Eye film institute resembles Oslo's opera house. In ten minutes' time, a storm has brewed. I take refuge under a bridge, the rain beating down, when I feel an eerie warmth. Behind me a glossy-eyed tramp takes one step closer and, with a shiver, I start back on my way, eventually stopping for a screening of Detachment at The Movies.

Post-film, I manage to squeeze in the rush hour cycling commute, being on the same plane, bound by the same empirical laws, a shared conversation and one wrong move away from a mangled mess.

On Dam square, I contemplate workers who are paid so little to entertain fussy clothes worth so little and yet this is the way of the world.

Past the bust of Spinoza, up and over the drawbridges east of the city hall, across the matte cityscape, absinthe spills out from an œil de bœuf window onto the silky canal pulled ever higher by the moon. Appearing just like a vision, neon lines emerge from ink. I soar ahead into an expanse where everything is known, eventually stopping for a quick bite at the Bar Lempicka and then into the threshold of the Kriterion for a screening of Moonrise Kingdom. Falling out of the cinema into laughter, smoke clouds and the warm nicotine light, my heart catches in my chest as I taste the chilly September air.

Good pub conversation over a pint of Kilkenny, going higher and higher, each matching the other, onward. Suddenly feeling move inside what has been latent for so long. Passively inhaling a pack over the course of the evening, waving in the others to use our vacant tray. Where will you be when you are older? Sitting beside you on a bottle green bench, still peeling apart leaves of grass. That the debate about whether to pursue a creative profession really is not. In the end people will do whatever they are capable of doing. The truth needn't be furthered or marketed or dissected, merely pursued. Picking at beer nuts in a little porcelain ramequin. What do you want people to feel? Nothing less than the high of that conversation. Of that film, how the wind on your arm doesn't feel the same after. The bliss of permeating the soft porcelain belly of the idea and the warm rush of omniscience that follows.

After a farewell dinner at Frenzi (oude Kaas met brood en quince) and a bit of browsing vintage military parkas, I am once again in the Thalys with Phoenix (Rome) blaring in my ears. My crimson scarf matches the seats in composition, colour, texture, philosophy. So, Amsterdam. Like the autumn, I wait for it and conceptualize it all year and once back to the Gare du Nord and the cinnamon leaves turned brittle, how suddenly irrelevant it becomes, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

We are not per se nostalgic about places but about who we were at that given point of convergence with the representation. I had, knew I had, to be there, exactly then, to revel in that convergence, to fully exhaust that idealism, to bundle it, to see it laid bare before me, to finally hold it moist in my palm, unclench my fist and let it float away with the certainty that the pursuit can continue.


Sunday, 26. February 2012


Unthawing my frozen hands above a bowl of lentil sausage soup, I look out from the winter garden atop Berlin's coolest store, KaDeWe, over the greyscale city as it subsists under the incessant snow and hypnotic red light of the Fernsehturm.

As the U-Bahn pulls out of Wittenbergplatz station, I think back to my first steps in this city just a few hours ago: getting off the bus in front of the screaming Chinese pagoda at Zoogarten, being swept along Kurfürstendamm by the -15°C Russian wind only to encounter that horrid steel spider, and in fine opening the door to my stylish room at the Mittendrin hotel on Nurbergerstrasse.

Abstieg bitte. I hop off the U-Bahn at Alexanderplatz and immediately stumble upon the Weltzeituhr. Fatigued by the distances travelled and by the overall lack of an aesthetic system (those fuschia gas pipes winding through the streets, for a start), I take a time out under the Weltzeituhr and pretend to wait like a true Berliner. Just before me sits the Cubixx cinema with its electric blue heart contained in a glossy onyx cube, stunning against the matte snow. On the S-Bahn tracks above, glowing letters. The pulse of the Fernsehturm is all-consuming. I walk round its cool cement base, frozen in time, in winters and ideologies past. Inside I run my hand along its pleated coarse walls, along its alkaline, surgical railing. In just ten seconds' time, I am catapulted to the command deck. In the distance, I spy westerners eating in the gilded bubble of the winter garden, probably listening to I'll Try Anything Once. 180° away, the Karl Mark Allee, in all its Stalinst grandeur, sustains successive waves of Russian winds and suddenly becomes my next objective.

Once on the Allee, I struggle on through the tundra to see what's playing at the Kino International. A lone passer-by nods me on with dilated cheeks. I continue on to Potsdamer Platz, the Berlinale epicenter. Crowds have gathered round Berlinale Palast in anticipation for the first screening of Les Adieux à la Reine, but the cold forces me back to the hotel, where after a long relaxing bath I retire to my bed with some delicious butter biscuits found at DM, a strong herbal brew and the news in German.

With the first morning light, I awake to snowflakes dancing in the garden. I don my woolly leggings and all the other requisite layers then hasten back to Potsdamer Platz for Berlinale Shorts tickets. I squint on in anticipation while a few French hipsters beside me use the zoom on their DSLRs to check the availability of screenings from the back of the queue. Tickets in hand, I make a right on Ebertstrasse and stumble upon the Brandenburg Tor on the Pariser Platz. To my left, the US Embassy; behind me, the French embassy, quietly tucked away in a bunker. A Congolese protest (or celebration?) erupts and spills over to the neighbouring Reichstag. I continue on down Unter den Linden, past the imposing Russian embassy and across the museumsinsel, topped with a certain Berliner Dom. Just behind the latter, the elegant Bode Museum floats on the River Spree, beaming in the setting sun. Atop the bridge to the mainland, peddlers shiver beside their treasured furs, cosy and sheltered under a tarp. On the adjacent embankment, I wander in the DDR Museum and inspect yellowed photographs of the asbestos-ridden Palast der Republik under one of the 1001 lamps which it once housed. Between my fingertips I contemplate the nonporous polyester fashions (which remind me of the green viscose blends of Brave New World) and finally take a rest in a Trabant.

On Saturday, I set off for Schloss Charlottenburg, getting off the U-Bahn at Mierendorffplatz and walking ten minutes west to cross the River Spree. Against a pale sky, skeletons of trees reach out to the stifled sun while a small boat decongests the icy river. Once at the snowy schlossgarten, I follow the winding paths past the marzipan Belvedere tea house and to the snow covered opaque lake, under the Prussian bridge and onto the buttercream Schloss herself.

Thirty minutes of U-Bahn later at Eberswalderstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg, I am at the height of the carnivore experience at Filetstück. Total silence, sinking with each sip, marbled fat as it bursts between the molars, spilling onto the tongue, exploding with éclats of sea salt and the warmth of blood. I browse a few vintage shops (though nothing compared dipping one's hand in the fifteen cent button basket at Humana Second Hand) before following the sleigh tracks to the Kaffee und Kuchen of my dreams at Frühstück on Raumerstrasse. As the sun sets I join the locals in calling it a day at the Kulturbrauerei, former brewery turned cultural mecca and host to a plethora of theatre and live music.

On Sonntag, after an early screening of Iron Sky at Cinemaxx, I take the U-Bahn to Platz der Luftebrücke and trek to the now-defunct Tempelhof airport. Standing in the middle of the umbrella-shaped structure, a hundred staircases descend before me. Below the command block, speechless letters.

I grab a quick bite to eat back in my favourite neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, catch the bus at Zoogarten back to Tegel Airport and reflect on the weekend now past. Years of watching Arte's Franco-German comparative culture show, Karambolage, and regularly reading Der Spiegel couldn't have prepared me for Berlin's complex personality. I vow to return soon, hopefully this summer, to canoe to the Pfaueninsel and spend a few days lying in the thick grasses at Schloss Sanssouci. And I can't help but to think that, as travelling so often reminds me, in order to really understand, l'essentiel, c'est d'y être.


Sunday, 25. September 2011


The Gare du Nord is ghostly at this hour. I make my way to platform 9, where the Thalys, in its deep crimson, awaits against the powder blue sky under a constellation of cables; I am consumed by the possibility of escape to an enlightened reality.

With a whisper we thrust into the imminent sunrise, past the chocolate Belgian row houses, the dome of the Palais de Justice, stout lambs grazing on melting fields under the rising Dutch sun. Past the mustard and royal blue GVB trains and finally the dangling hooks of the canal houses. Centraal station.

I make my way down Zeedijkstraat, lined with greasy Argentinian steak houses, Indonesian joints and cheap coffeeshops. In the breeze, weed. I leave my bag at Misc EatDrinkSleep, my temporary home, and don my favourite clammy blue cashmere wrap (which still hasn't recovered from Rock en Seine) and my old chestnut boots (which still haven't recovered from last winter's snow) to wander across the drawbridges and over to the market of old Leicas, vinyls and vintage clothes next to city hall.

After a vegetarian lunch at Puccini's on Staalstraat, I head over to Rembrandt's house and through the trompe l'œil faux marble wooden doorway, a surprising detail from such an honest artist. As it is nearing five, I hurry across Nieuwmarkt square to breathe the heavy damp air and tiptoe across the smooth tombs of the Oude Kerk. Just outside, drunken conversations between whores and the gaping passers-by clog the streets of de Wallen, the red light district.

From Prinsenstraat I can see the Jordaan, reputed to be the city's best place to live. Benches await before each house, basking in the warm glow emanating from the high-ceilinged salons; sills are stacked with pillows, books and cats. On Eglantiersstraat, at the Café t'Smalle, the waiter serves me a succulent lamb shank and three-tomato chutney. I make an honest attempt to comprehend my American friend as he defends proposed cuts to social services to reduce Western deficits but instead gaze out over the canal, over the clusters of bakfiets and into the glow of those tall salons and think how greater a civilisation we could be if we all knew this reality. Amid the talk of austerity measures, I savour this moment, just to know that I have known it.

The next morning I head down to the Rijksmuseum for an encounter with Vermeer's The Milkmaid and Rembrandt's De Nachtwacht and am left searching the museum shop in vain for dainty earrings like Moreelse's Princess. Right next door, at the Van Gogh museum, I marvel at the Japanese-inspired Almond Blossom and Caillebotte's From the Balcony and contemplate six volumes of letters between Theo and Vincent over lunch at the museum café. After sunset, the annual Jordaan music festival begins (held at a petrol station, of all places) and turns out to be just another reason to get drunk. I learn the very local art of dodging the unlit cellar steps before each canal house that take up half the walkway.

On my final day I wander the corridors of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, peering into classrooms and professors' offices. I walk across the shale courtyard of the Hermitage and into the Rubens and Van Dyck exhibition, then back outside across the blauwbrug to take refuge from the rain in several hoity-toity houses (Willet-Holthuysen and van Loon). The wet cobblestone streets mirror the pale sky like in one of Caillebotte's paintings. Back at Puccini's, the waitress serves me a warm goat cheese crottin with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. Afterwards, I take notes on easy Dutch style just next door at BIEC – suede totes in somber hues, bright red polka-dotted German tops and bottle-green chunky cowl knits.

After a short visit to the Anne Frank house, I force myself back up Zeedijkstraat to Centraal. Lying next to the Thalys are the mustard yellow and blue trains, this one headed to Haarlem, that one headed to the North Sea beaches. I was supposed to meet up with a girl with a pearl earring but it seems that must wait. On platform 14, I step aboard, the crimson and periwinkle nightlights a testament to a sunrise three days ago that has moved me forever.



 Ich liebe
 la philosophie
 le cinéma d'auteur
 les idées
 after the rain
 dans le Village
 l'automne comme l'hiver