Aimless in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is extremely photogenic. If it’s not the onion-ring canals, it’s the assortment of gables on gingerbread houses, a delight for any architecture lover.

My neck was a little sore after three days, craning to look up from cobblestone streets.

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From left, every other house: bell gable, neck gable, pointed gable

I can only imagine how steep the staircases inside must be. Hotel Museumzicht gave us a good indication. This lodging was a great spot to watch tourists come and go from the Rijksmuseum and play on the iconic I Amsterdam letters as we ate breakfast and planned our wanderings for the day.

 

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We walked by poems waiting to be finished.

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Old buildings with sun-kissed bricks.

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Tulips like lipstick shades.

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Bicycles everywhere: parked, ridden, dodged. Apparently there are about 600 000 bikes in Amsterdam on a given day. We didn’t dare bike in the city but we took a lovely excursion to the country which I’ll write about later.

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The holy and the profane keep company mere steps from each other. We walked towards the Oude Kirk (city’s oldest church, built in 1213) in broad daylight to stumble upon women in windows scantily clad, a red light emanating above the glass. Hello Red Light District.

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Oude Kirk

Whereas the Red Light District is easy to find, the Anne Frank House (turned into a museum) is remarkably camouflaged. The tour guide on our nighttime canal boat tour pointed it out and I would be hard pressed to find it again. No distinct gable or sign. The only giveaway is the often long line. Visiting the house is a sobering, moving experience well worth the wait. I had reread Anne’s diary upon arriving in Amsterdam and many of the quotes from it were projected on the walls. You get to walk behind the moveable bookcase into the cramped quarters of the Secret Annex where the Franks, along with four other Jews, hid for two years before being anonymously betrayed to the Nazis. I reflected in my journal afterwards that it was heavy but also hopeful. The haunting words of a thirteen-year-old girl have left their mark on the world.

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Anne Frank’s House is the one right in the middle with the straight roof and tree in front.

Right around the corner, near the Westerkerk (West Church) is a sight with a very different mood. Irreverent Dutch humour at its best.

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Frites stand parodying Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel

Amsterdam closed out our trip to Europe, and it was a great place to end. People were friendly, food was delicious, art was incredible, and the city was easily walkable. I’m obviously not featuring the cities we visited in order because Nice and Venice are still to come, but hopefully you enjoyed some snapshots of the fascinating place that is Amsterdam.

Hiking the Cinque Terre

This summer weather has got me reminiscing about the summer temperatures we experienced in Italy last October.

The place we soaked up the sun the most was in the ineffable Cinque Terre: five tiny towns built into cliffs along the Italian Riviera, connected by hiking trails and trains.

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Vernazza harbour

We made our home base Vernazza (about 500 residents), the second town from the north. We visited all five towns and agreed with Rick Steves that Vernazza “is the jewel of the Cinque Terre.” My next favourite is Manarola.

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The trail towards Monterosso

From Vernazza, we left before 10am to hit the coastal trail in the Cinque Terre National Park to the largest and northernmost Cinque Terre town, Monterosso. My tip: leave before 10am to avoid all the (mainly senior) hiking groups that come through with walking sticks, and go from Vernazza to Monterosso if possible. There are a lot of steep steps getting out of Monterosso and we were glad we were going downhill rather than uphill for those.

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Looking back at Vernazza

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I could do breakfast with this view every day

It’s a beautiful walk that took about an hour and a half. We timed it to arrive there for lunch and have a swim in the Mediterranean. I loved looking back at Vernazza and picking out where we had enjoyed our breakfast made by our lovely Airbnb host on her balcony below the castle.

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Approaching Monterosso

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A jeweller had hauled this table with all his supplied up the trail to tempt tourists like myself to buy something along the way. Guilty!

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Enjoying the Mediterranean. That’s my hubby all the way out on those rocks.

To make the most of our limited two days in the region, we hopped on a train to Corniglia  to hike back to Vernazza so we didn’t spend any time retracing a route we already walked. You can also take a boat from Monterosso to the other towns but the one town it doesn’t stop in is Corniglia because there’s no harbour there, so that’s why we opted for the train. (At the time we went, the coastal trail between Riomaggiore-Manarola and Manarola-Corniglia was closed).

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It’s a similar one and a half hour walk from Corniglia to Vernazza. Since we did this section in the late afternoon/early evening as the sun was setting, it afforded amazing photo opportunities, and it’s like we had the path to ourselves.

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Corniglia behind me

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Apart from Nice, we spent the least amount of time in the Cinque Terre and yet it was one of our most memorable experiences. My husband and I both talk about going back there in a heartbeat. After the busyness of Paris trying to cram in all the museums and historic sites,  it was a literal breath of fresh air to be outside in the sun, slow down, and enjoy the magic of these crayon-coloured towns.

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Another shot of Vernazza from the castle

 

Of Light, Shadow, and Context

I recently read some of my poems at The Writer’s Studio monthly reading series at Cottage Bistro.

One was about an artwork the Artist and I stared at the longest out of all the art we saw on our Europe trip last fall: The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, a Catholic church in Rome decorated in the ornate Baroque style.

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At the reading, I mentioned how we typically enjoyed the experience of seeing art in churches more than in museums and galleries for a couple reasons: 1) churches were often less crowded 2) there’s something significant about seeing art in the context it was made for.

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Take Caravaggio’s painting above. The Calling of Saint Matthew is one of three paintings Caravaggio was commissioned to make for a chapel, off to the left side of the nave, dedicated to the disciple. A dramatic swath of light cuts across the canvas, mimicking the way the natural light from the chapel falls on his painting—something Caravaggio was aware of as he was making the work.

Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow) got me noticing dramatic plays of light and shadow across the canvas of Rome.

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I’ve begun thinking about other artworks we saw in churches that wouldn’t be the same if we had seen them on the nondescript walls of a museum or gallery.

The photograph above shows a view of St Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s soaring four-columned bronze canopy (called a baldachin or, as Rick Steves refers to it, “God’s four-poster bed”) that sits above the altar and below the dome is one such example. As soon as you walk into the massive cathedral, there is so much height and width to feel lost in (it covers 6 acres!) But the relentlessly long nave acts like the shaft of light in Caravaggio’s painting, leading your eye to a focal point.

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This seven-story bronze canopy hovers over the Eucharist table, emphasizing the significance of this sacrament and enveloping it in a kind of “holy space” if you will. You get a sense of how big this sculpture is for it not to look dwarfed in the largest church in the world. The canopy connects the congregants gathering around its base to the dome above, lifting your eyes, as cathedrals brilliantly do, towards heaven. The bronze and gold also draw your eye to Bernini’s similarly coloured sculpture in the apse behind, enshrining the chair of St. Peter and the alabaster dove window that turns natural light into artificial rays of gold.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was a treasure chest of artworks and our favourite place for viewing art in Venice. The heroic-scale Titian painting behind the altar beckons you closer, the light flooding in from the windows amplifying the light of glory the Virgin is ascending to.

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Titled the Assumption of the Virgin, this artwork is infused with energy and motion. All gestures lead your eye up—from the earthbound apostles with reaching hands to the putti’s arms holding the cloud and to Mary’s raised arms. Notice how the colours do this too. Titian forms the base of a triangle out of the red-clothed apostles on the ground (Peter and John), with Mary in red as the apex, emphasizing her translation from earth to heaven.

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Photo by Didier Descouens from Wikipedia.

Even the shape of the painting, with its rounded top, mimics the choir-screen arch you see when standing in the centre of the nave. So much intentionality. I love this consideration between art and space and wish the experience of stepping into modern churches was as inspiring.

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What art have you seen that wouldn’t be the same in any other space? Maybe you’ve come across it in a church, or maybe it was in a gallery or museum. I’d love to hear!

Literary Paris

Before I travel somewhere, I tend to immerse myself in literature about the place. It’s part of my pre-trip research. And I’m not talking Rick Steves or Lonely Planet (though I did my fair share of reading those too). I’m talking about fiction and memoir.

My pre-Paris reading included Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn, and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

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Taking my first picture

Pieces of these books returned to me on our one-week stay in Paris last fall. Upon emerging from the metro at St-Germain-des-Prés, the first thing I take a picture of (after pinching myself that that is all real) is the café Les Deux Magots made famous by literary and intellectual patrons such as Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and James Joyce, to name a few.

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While we didn’t eat at Les Deux Magots, we did have breakfast at the neighbouring rival Café de Flore one morning, which boasted an equally impressive clientele. In “A Tale of Two Cafés,” a chapter in Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik muses on why the Flore has become more popular among Parisians since the late 1990s. We wanted to experience this legendary ambience but it came at a high price. And while sitting on the terrace watching a morning unfold was lovely, the slow and snobby service left a bad taste in our mouths, even though we expected it to a certain extent given we are tourists with obvious English accents and backpacks. Next time I would just go for their hot chocolate which is apparently a must-have.

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Ernest Hemingway cropped up again in The Latin Quarter. We visited his former apartment at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine and ate our last dinner in Paris overlooking Place de la Contrescarpe, a square he mentions several times in his memoir. We also tracked down Gertrude Stein’s apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus.

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Ernest Hemingway’s apartment

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Gertrude Stein’s apartment

Plaques indicating where famous people were born, lived, died, or did something remarkable are commonplace. I loved walking down seemingly “normal” streets (which really don’t exist in Paris), only to discover a plaque with a very famous name on it. Even on the tiny rue Visconti, the site of our Airbnb, playwright Jean Racine died and author Honoré de Balzac established his printing house. Tons of surprises like this awaited us upon arrival and added joy to our wanderings.

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“Home” for the week was down this charming, narrow street

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Keeping company with Balzac’s printing house

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Where Voltaire died

Other sites we planned for, like the apartment in Montmartre where Vincent Van Gogh stayed when he lived in Paris at 54 rue Lepic. It was his brother Theo’s. A pair of dried sunflowers hang from the third floor shutters, marking the spot. (As an aside, “0” is our first floor and their 1st is our 2nd floor, etc). In Amsterdam, the last city we visited on our one-month European trip, I bought Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo and that was a perfect way of coming full circle from our beginning in Paris.

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Can you spot the sunflowers? (three floors up from the blue door)

And of course no talk about literary Paris would be complete without mentioning Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore you can get lost in in its own right, cozying up with a book on a couch next to its resident cat, reading the inspiring quotes on the walls and stairwells, breathing in the smell of old paper, playing the worn piano (though not after 8pm), chatting with fellow bibliophiles, and feeling like you are in literary heaven.

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On Emerging from a Station of the Metro

We arrive like children on the first day of school
Backpacks bigger than our bodies.

Overeager smiles, no sleep the night before
Pointing at everything.

That church! That café! That door!
Everything so old it’s new.

The city moves faster than our fingers
We learn to get out of the way.

I try out the language like I cross the street—
Quick prayer for minimal damage.

When people are kind
The lights along the Seine double their glow.

You eat a baguette as you walk
Because you can do anything!

Paris is the girl who brings the best lunch to school
The rest of us hoping she’ll share.

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Paris to the Moon

When a friend found out about our first trip to Paris this fall, she said, “You must read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.”

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Considering I love the French language (I requested a Collins French dictionary for my 14th birthday) and reading about their culture, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this collection of essays on Paris. I had read Hemingway’s memoir but not Adam Gopnik‘s, a staff writer for The New York Times who lived in the French capital from 1995-2000 with his wife Martha and their newborn son Luke.

It was a very serendipitous read. Many months before knowing about the book, The Artist and I had booked our accommodation on the Left Bank in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the 6th arrondissement. We/I chose it because of its artsy and intellectual heritage. This district had a vibrant café culture in the 20th century where Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the like would think their thoughts, exchange their thoughts, and write their thoughts.

I wanted to feel a part of that, even if the area is more glam than bohemian now.

Guess where Gopnik and his wife lived during their time there? Saint-Germain-des-Prés, literally just a few blocks from where we’re staying! I basically read this book with a map in my other hand so I could follow his daily visit to the butcher and baker, his favourite walk pushing the stroller across Pont des Arts, his run around Luxembourg Gardens (using the busts of Delacroix as his reference point) and his route to fulfill un café crème or bûches de Noël craving at Gérard Mulot or Ladurée.

After reading so much guidebook-type information on Paris, it was refreshing to vicariously live “ordinary” Paris. When Gopnik mentions iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, he talks about it in the context of something unexpected, like a news story that involved a clash between an American tourist and a French elevator operator. He uses this story as a springboard to philosophize on a key difference between the two cultures (absolute professionalism versus absolute tourism). I’ll leave it to you to guess what ideal goes with what culture.

I love how Gopnik can take the simplest things—for example, an error message on his fax machine (erreur distante)—and find a parallelism with French intellectuals and politicians who flash the same message “whenever they run out of paper or ink or arguments.”

But it is his reflections that come out of raising his son in a new place that stay with me the most (and provided some chuckles).

He swam, I realized, exactly the way that after five years I spoke French, which also involved a lot of clinging to the side of the pool and sudden bravura dashes out to the deep end to impress the girls, or listeners.

Midway through the book, Gopnik confesses the real reason he and Martha packed up their New York life and moved to Paris was to avoid raising their son with Barney and all that that inane purple dinosaur represents in American culture.

‘We want him to grow up someplace where everything he sees is beautiful’ we said, and though we realized that the moment our backs were turned our friends’ eyes were rolling, we didn’t care. We knew that our attempt to insist on a particular set of pleasures for our kid—to impose a childhood on our child—might be silly or inappropriate or even doomed. We couldn’t help it, entirely. The romance of your child’s childhood may be the last romance you can give up.

(spoiler alert: life doesn’t turn out the way you plan, leading to some hilarious moments in the “Barney in Paris” chapter).

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I share the author’s romantic inclinations and could picture myself writing a book like this, my own Paris to the moon adventures while sitting in a garden or café. While we’re only there a week and I have a tendency to sightsee ambitiously, this book makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.

We love Paris not out of ‘nostalgia’ but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look . . . I see the moon these days from Paris because I once saw Paris from the moon.