Sitting watching the world go by at the locks on the Amstel river, I’m day dreaming and half dozing.
There are still quiet spots to be found in this city and here, on this bench, it feels quiet.
It’s strange really, because it’s not a secluded spot.
The Amstel is a busy river. Barges filled with sand, coal and other miscellaneous goods, chug by on a regular basis.
A bell rings constantly, warning the pedestrians and cyclists that the bridge is about to open, as yet another load passes on through.
The “skinny bridge” is a favourite destination for tourists, and I watch them click away with their cameras, setting up yet another standard Amsterdam shot for the photo albums.
Is this one of the most photographed bridges in the world? It wouldn’t surprise me if it is.
But for all this business, for all this activity, there is still a sense of tranquility to the place.
Perhaps it’s the river. The water flowing lazily by has an hypnotic effect. It mesmerises and relaxes quite instinctively.
The buildings, old and crooked as they are, also have something calm about them. They have been standing so long, they have lost all sense of time. To them, the river just flows on by, year after year, much as it always has. Time is relative. Looking at them, the rush and push of life does seem absurd.
Sit and watch the water for a while, they seem to suggest.
And so, sitting there, musing and dozing a boy and girl join me on the bench, with polite nods.
“Is it okay if we sit here to eat our lunch? We’ll be gone in a minute”.
“It’s okay” I say, not really meaning it.
I want to sit alone, to have some space in a city where the pressure of people can, in the busy summer months, feel very heavy.
So we sit in silence and watch.
The boy fixes his gaze on the skinny bridge and slowly I notice that his face is changing. He’s frowning ever so slightly.
Perhaps he notices my stare.
“Does the bridge ever open? It says here in my guidebook that if you sit here for 20 minutes or so it will open”.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s about right. It opened twice already in the last half hour. It’s a busy river.”
So we sit a little longer and watch the bridge. Five minutes. Ten minutes. For some reason the bridge remains unmoving.
I smile “It usually does open more often than this, really, it does. Maybe it just feels a bit self conscious, with all of us staring at it waiting for the show”.
He seems baffled and I realise that it isn’t everyone that shares my tendency to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects.
He changes the subject. “Are you from here?”
“No. I’m Scottish”.
“Oh, really! What are you doing in Amsterdam then?”
“Well I was working here, but I just stopped, so now I’m thinking of moving”.
“Yeah, why? It’s so beautiful here. I’d stay”.
I look at the river.
“Yeah it is beautiful. I just want to move now. I can always come back. Amsterdam isn’t going anywhere”.
“We’re from Seattle”.
“Wow! I’ve always wanted to go there. The location is superb. The sea, the mountains. It looks really amazing”.
They seem a little surprised at my enthusiasm.
“Yeah well the mountains are nice. You can ski there in the winter. I guess it is beautiful. This place is really flat though, huh? I mean it’s nice, the buildings and everything, but it’s pretty damn flat”.
“Yeah, too flat. I miss the mountains”.
“Right. Scotland has nice mountains. I’ve never been but I’ve seen photos. It looks like a nice place”.
“Would you not go back there then?”
He waits for further details, but I say nothing. Nah kind of sums it up at the moment. I am resigned to not going back, to no longer contemplating it as an option. So what more is there to say, other than “nah”?
“Maybe you should go to the States?”
I suppress the urge to say “nah” again and he catches it and laughs.
“Right! I guess no-one really wants to go there these days huh?”
“Well, not permanently … a holiday would ne nice though. The nature looks superb. I’d like to tour around and see some places. Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, New England in autumn. All that cliched tourist stuff, you know?”
“Ha! Yeah just like us. All we want to see here is the Van Gogh, The Rijksmuseum, the canals. We went to Paris a couple of days ago, saw the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. All the usual stuff, but it’s fun”.
We look at the bridge again. It’s still closed.
“Are you going to get some bikes?”
“Oh no! God it’s way too dangerous. They really ride fast here, eh? We’ve almost been hit so many times. Even on the pavement – they don’t even stick to the roads!”.
“Ha! Yeah there are no rules really. Bikes can go anywhere. It takes a bit of getting used to, the bikes, the trams. People get hit. Every summer you hear about it. Someone going under the tram”.
“Shit! Really? ”
“Yeah. It’s tourists mainly. I guess if you’re not used to trams, then you forget to look. Then there’s the water. People fall in the canals quite often too. English people mainly, for some reason. They’re drunk or stoned, and fall in. And it’s almost impossible to get back out. I mean the walls are pretty high and there are few places where you can get out, so if you go in and you’re drunk, well you’re pretty much a gonner.”
“You mean people fall in and actually die?!”
He’s looking at the water now as if it is something suddenly sinister. The city now a place full of traps and dangers for the poor unsuspecting tourist.
I was about to tell him that a few years back some friends and I used to keep a morbid tally of the summer fatalities and accidents as they were related on the local TV station, but I decide not to. I don’t think it would relieve the mood of horror I seem to have inadvertently created.
Time to reassure.
“Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often”.
He’s staring at the water and I can tell he’s still imagining all those people, falling in drunk at night and clambering in vain to get up the wall.
I guess he has a vivid imagination. I used to imagine these poor souls myself, when I first arrived. I can see the same image as him in my own mind and it’s not a pretty sight.
Why doesn’t that damn bridge open? It would be a welcome distraction now. But it remains resolutely closed.
“Looks like you’re not in luck”.
“The bridge. Looks like it’s not going to open”.
“Yeah, guess not”.
“Maybe if you wait a little longer though. Something will pass through eventually”.
“Yeah, ten more minutes maybe”.
“Right, well have a nice time in Amsterdam then”.
He looks at me a little bewildered, and laughs.
“Yeah if we survive it!”
“You know quite often when I try to cross that bridge I have to wait because it’s open. Maybe if I try to cross now that’ll do the trick”.
I say goodbye and make my way across the river. The bridge stays closed and halfway across I turn to shrug my shoulders at them but they are already gone.