I’ve been reaquainting myself with the city. Being away, even for a short time, can sometimes be disorienting.
I don’t think it’s so much to do with the fact that I feel I don’t belong here anymore, (although that is a factor no doubt) I think it’s more that I feel, for some reason, that I belong somewhere else. I just don’t know where that place happens to be, is all.
The usual walks don’t seem to be having the same effect on me. Sure they’re leisurely enough, pleasant enough, but the sense of the new that I used to have seems to have gone.
I used to be able to walk down the river, across the canals, through the park, and notice so many things. It was as if each trip was different – even after living here for ten years, it all just seemed fresh somehow. I was still in love with the city.
I think I still am. But I’m not sure. The love affair seems to be ending, my interest is waning.
The separation has not made me lonesome and blue, has not made me pine to be back home. Rather the opposite in fact, the time away seems to have put fire in my belly, has sparked a wanderlust. Already I am dreaming of China and what awaits me there….
But for now, for now I am here, back in Amsterdam. The place I still call home, the place I still return to. And I find myself looking for ways to settle back in. Ways to recreate that intimacy that is part of belonging.
Strangely enough the answer came in an unusual form.
Shuffling forlornly around with my camera in hand
(Note to self: you have developed an unhealthy attachment to that apparatus these days – it seems to accompany you on every trip no matter how banal – a thing you swore you wouldn’t do when you bought it. Let it go Jen, let it go)
I was absentmindedly taking snapshots of everything and nothing in particular. All the sights seemed equally photogenic, all the moments witnessed seemed as worthy of capturing as the next. Nothing that my lens grabbed seemed to stand out, and I couldn’t say why.
Perhaps it was because the things I was snapping at were so familiar to me, so deeply ingrained in my psyche, that I didn’t feel the need to photograph them.
If I closed my eyes I could capture them from memory, could raid my own personal photo album of images that are held just beyond my retina.
So why photograph?
Around me the tourists were in town for the summer, pointing their lenses at everything. All of it wondrous and fresh and new and exciting.
As I watched them, I started to wonder what those shots would be like. Just what kind of images were they capturing, these people.
Did Amsterdam look different through their eyes, I wondered, even if what they were seeing was just life through a lens? All of a sudden, I wanted to see what they were seeing.
Were did all those images go?All those snapshots where did they disappear to?
The internet of course.
These days it seems as if very few people’s lives are really sacred and private. So many of us yearn to share the rawest details of our lives with complete strangers. Blogs and photosites abound. Everything is laid bare for the world to see.
Why? To show we have no shame about how we live? That is perhaps the Dutch response.
People always note that the Dutch never have their curtains drawn. It is always possible to look through the window and observe the little daily dramas that are occurring within.
They say it is a throw back to stricter, more Calvinist times. People wanted their neighbours to see that they had nothing to hide, that everything that went on in the household could be scrutinised by God and man alike.
It fascinated me when I first arrived. To be able to sit, especially in the long winter nights, and watch the people across the street just living their lives. I was very absorbed in this for a while – just watching them do nothing. Eat, watch TV, take a nap, read a book, talk, argue, drink, go to bed, stare back. I watched it all mesmerised and intrigued.
And now this once exotic and foreign experience seems to be the norm. Everyone has opened their curtains. We can all take a look.
So I did.
Flickr. What a place it is. Thousands upon thousands of photos from who knows how many thousands of people. All there for the world to see. A little world unto itself. A realm within a realm.
I type in Amsterdam. I want to see my city as others see it. I want to see it through other eyes. Through less tired, less jaded eyes. I need to borrow someone else’s lens. Just for a day.
And there it is, my city, familiar and secret all at once.
Canals, bridges, boats. Coffee shops, cruise boats, red-lights. Van Gogh, tulips, cheese. Bikes, bikes, bikes. It’s all there. All so familiar. The Disney-style images of my town.
But I keep on flicking through. I persevere. And the odd image starts to filter through. Unfamiliar things, intimate things. Open curtain moments.
Details of some tiles in a doorway in some part of the city I am unfamiliar with. Plants growing on a roof garden – a little hidden idyl that you never get to glimpse save for the odd stray flash of colour that can on occassion be seen peeking up from the tops of the roofs.
A wedding in the park – all the guests happy and casually dressed, the bride in a silver sequined dress, no less a bride for all that.
A toddler in some living room, taking his first tentative steps, his grandmother holding his fingers and grinning with delight.
Beer in a bathtub at the start of a party – the host’s shirt still hanging on a coat hanger above the bath – he’s clearly not ready yet.
Snaphots taken secretly of people simply wandering about minding their own business.
Dogs in the park staring longingly through the fence into the enclosure that they are banned from, but where their owner sits watching his child play in the sandpit.
A bored an exhausted student, ploughing through a heap of dry textbooks, the next morning’s exam clearly on his mind.
Oh I could go on, the dinners, the football matches, the views over rooftops. So much of Amsterdam is on offer.
I flick and flick and flick, as with each image, each tiny secret moment, I come to see a part of the city that isn’t mine. The little pieces of lives that I am not meant to see, not meant to be a part of, but which I can now share, via the internet.
It’s like being a voyeur, only the scene you are gazing at is also a scene you are a part of yourself.
I look at that familiarity, at those images, those faces, those streets and alleyways, and it’s like looking at myself. At a piece of myself I didn’t know was there.
Amsterdam, briefly, is a new place again.
I am home.