It was almost dusk when we first found the park known as ‘the lungs of Amsterdam’. It was a serendipitous find as we had just been out wandering the streets near our hotel, when we saw a narrow gateway. We could hear music blasting out and the increasingly louder hum of voices. There was smoke in the air and we could see the orange flicker of flames. However, we were not expecting the litter and mess that greeted us as the park came into our view. Young people were everywhere, they were cooking, eating, laughing, shouting , dancing and around them lay what must have been tons of discarded cans, food and empty containers. I began to think we had inadvertently walked into an illegal rave. Whilst I didn’t feel unsafe I did wonder whether two, not so young females, would be welcome in such an environment. We asked a young man what the celebrations were about and whether it was a private function. He smiled and said, “We are celebrating the sunshine and all are welcome!”
We continued walking until I saw the herons. Standing at the edge of the one of the lakes tangled in the reflected tree branches they stood, seemingly less concerned than I was about the surrounding mayhem. One was trying to gobble a large sausage, clearly stolen from the adjacent barbecue. I took photographs in the dim light knowing that the quality would be much less than I would have liked. As I watched and photographed them I couldn’t help but think, that in some ways they were providing a rather beautiful calmness amidst the madness of Amsterdam and the litter strewn park. They walked up and down the water’s edge in and out of rather eerie reflections even posing for photographs. There was nothing I could do about the lack of light other than open up the aperture and we stood for over half an hour trying to capture the essence of the scene. We walked on and saw a small tower in the distance and there was just a hint of sunset colours. As it grew colder we began to walk back towards the gate and suddenly I heard a slight altercation between two men and a young Dutch girl. The two men were trying to entice her to stay with them. I decided to intervene and Diane’s height grew as we approached. I asked if she was okay and she said she was but we invited her to walk with us. She asked us what we thought about what ‘they’ had done to the beautiful park. I said I was shocked at the sight of the litter and asked who paid for it to be cleaned up. She said the government paid but it made her sad that there was so much destruction. We left her at the gate and vowed we would return to the park in daylight before catching our plane home.
After our last huge breakfast on Saturday morning, we left our cases in the reception area hoping they wouldn’t be stolen and headed off to the park once again. We found another gate and now in full daylight we could see some of the destruction the young Dutch girl had complained about. Whilst the litter had gone there were huge areas of burned grass, blackened and foul smelling. The park however seemed so different in the daylight. It was full of people exercising and hundreds of people riding bikes. For the second time only during our visit, there were small children enjoying the sunshine with their families. The herons seemed to have gone back to their own family life too, perched high up in nests we watched them tend to their young whilst the cootes sat motionless on their eggs. We wandered on the pathways avoiding the more obvious cycle tracks and started to enjoy the light under the willow trees, the impromptu daffodils growing out of the branches of trees and the other wild flowers dotted here and there. Fitness fanatics were everywhere and there were groups of people working out in very different ways. Some raced their bikes, some played a game of football in a plastic bubble whilst others were yelled out by lifestyle coaches who insisted they wave a heavy chain secured by a tree or gallop like a horse whilst the thick rubber around them was held securely by the trainer. It was like being in an outside gym. Everywhere we looked people were working out. No wonder we hadn’t seen any overweight Dutch, despite their less than healthy cuisine, they all seem to be slim.
We wandered and had coffee in the sun, finally deciding we would have one last go at panning shots. We walked the length and breadth of the park trying to find a seat on the edge of the cycle track that also had a fairly clear and uncluttered background. There were bins in the way or people working out or we were too close to the track itself. After at least an hour of searching we found a seat and tried to capture the bikes and their riders. Life on a bike is interesting in Amsterdam. The cyclists carry strange things, they chat, hold hands, make phone calls and text actually everything we do on foot they do on a bike. It is so amusing to watch the bikes and a great way for photographers to end a wonderful holiday that was so full of contrasts.
Despite the thousands of bikes and the precarious way in which some of them are ridden, we had enjoyed our stay in the Netherlands enormously. The Dutch are so friendly and welcoming, bus drivers wait for you to run and trams and buses spew out the hard to pronounce names of places, making it so easy for a tourist. To fully enjoy the Netherlands the traveller must leave the city at some point and explore. In the countryside, there is a wonderful calming and charming world of waterways, small towns and wooden houses, here you will find the wonderful essence of the Dutch and their wonderful way of life.
We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic to creativity. When we get home, home is still the same, but something in our minds has changed, and that changes everything.
Jonah Leher, The Observer