Travel Stories: Amsterdam is a city too.
I woke early. I made a pot of tea. I drank that tea as I worked for three hours, only getting slightly distracted by Facebook and Twitter. Then I went upstairs and pulled on my running clothes. After only a short internal debate with myself, I left my apartment, locked the door behind me and tried to fall into a steady running pace. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and my knees weren't aching as much as usual. When D'Angelo's cover of Prince's "She's Always In My Head" came on my iPod, I grinned wildly and sang along.
I ran past a man sitting on a bench with a stack of cards. Not a stack of 52 cards, but several more. His pile twisted and turned like a vulnerable Jenga tower about to topple over. He seemed to be sorting through them and separating them. I wondered why for a long time after I'd passed him by.
On the bridge which crosses my nearest canal I stopped and with the sun behind me, lighting up the pinks, purples and whites of the flowers that are arranged in boxes there, I took a photo. I waited for some cyclists to get in my frame and I took another.
Then I turned the other way to see if I could get a shot of the water on that side or if the morning sun was still too low in the sky.
It was, which I was disappointed by because I could see a boat perfectly positioned in the centre of the canal. It wasn't moving. It appeared to be hovering in the same position. I squinted against the sun and made out the word "Politie" on the side and two uniformed figures standing on it looking ahead of them. Beside the boat was an empty space along the canalside, which is unusual as the canals in the suburbs are lined with local residents' boats.
Must be a sunken boat that has drifted into the middle of the canal. I explained to myself, always so eager to have answers to unknowns.
I started running again and left the bridge, making my way down the opposite side of the canal to where that sunken boat had gone down. Ahead of me was a small crowd. Women with pushchairs on the pavement, people by the side of the road, with one foot still on the pedals of their bike, two postal workers and a trio of teenagers with school bags on their backs. They were all gazing out across the water, in the direction of the police boat.
I slowed to a stop and followed their gaze.
At first I couldn't see anything. Then I saw a head pop up out of the water, covered in black neoprene. Before I realised it was a diver, in front of the head emerged a flash of orange which kept coming.
Isn't it funny how you instantly recognise things you've never seen before? Because lying on an orange plastic board, dangling from a chain on a crane, was a dead body. Something I've never seen before.
I was more than twenty metres away so my view wasn't perfect but I saw enough to know what I was looking at and to be shocked by it, my breath evaporating in my throat and my mouth hanging open, useless. I remember what shocked me the most was the colour of his skin (and I somehow instantly knew it was a man). It was a horrid, drained shade of grey-green. A colour that was anything but human. Despite my shock, as I watched on, I found myself questioning if the bulge that peaked above the orange sides was fat or swelling from being under water so long.
It didn't take long for them to pull the body on shore and out of sight, into a tent that had been set up especially. Then I saw the crowd on the other side; firemen, ambulance workers and policemen stood with their arms folded, or hands on their hips. In the water two black heads bobbed in the brown water. All were watching the body.
It was then I started to think about those people. How this was not unusual or shocking or the type of event that would stay with them forever and ever, like I think this short memory will with me.
I felt a heady mix of guilt and gratitude. Guilt that I was so oblivious to their day-to-day reality of trauma and tragedy. And gratitude that they take that on themselves.
For much of our last year living in Amsterdam, I have moved around the streets, canals and green spaces as if it's the living museum so many come to see. But as I watched this scene unfold, I suddenly realised that Amsterdam is a city too. A city where people live, and people die. After the guilt and the gratitude, I felt silly for not fully appreciating this.
Of course, this wasn't my first exposure to city-life in Amsterdam; we have noisy neighbours who have too many house parties, I hate how taxi drivers always get to close to our bikes and there have been more than a few occasions where I've come inches from colliding with another cyclist in rush hour. Rubbish lines our street more often than I'd like and I've had to wash vomit off our front steps more than once, but for the most part, Amsterdam stays as pretty as you'd imagine. And it's an easy city for tourists to come, see and enjoy. Likewise for expats as we still struggle to get a grip on the local language and too easily rely on the Dutch's excellent English.
But Amsterdam is a city too. And cities are places where people go through all stages of living, even the ones that aren't pretty or visitor-friendly.
This made me realise that it's the same everywhere I travel. All these cities that I've been recently, where I've wandered around with my camera in my hand and a map open on my phone, searching for something, anything, everything. How naive I was to only think about what would look best on my blog or in a snapshot on my phone.
What I mean to say by this is, we shouldn't visit a city and expect it to be something it's not; a place where bad things don't happen; a place where people don't get hurt; a place where there is only beauty or where ugly stays hidden from eyesight.
I hope I remember this, and to some extent embrace this, in Amsterdam and as I travel, even when the hard, difficult and ugly is staring me in the face.
Frances M. Thompson
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