Wednesday 23 August 2023

Happy Places


Strolling.  I've never been good at it.  

I'm a fast walker, too fast probably.  My body sweats and complains the whole time but I persist.  I'm going somewhere, I'm walking somewhere, I get there fast.  There's no point hanging about.  Walking with other people becomes a frustration.  Why are you holding me back?  Why are you dawdling?

I walked along the side of the Amstel, along the Weesperzijde, and I still wasn't strolling.  I was still pounding my way along.  But this was a different walk.  I was so utterly happy.

Everything around me delighted.  The buildings, the people, the slow moving cars and polite cyclists.  The gentle breeze that rolled in across the river.  There were houseboats lined up on the shore, neat, preserved, one with a chicken coop with actual chickens pecking about.  I felt a lightness I'd not felt in a long time.

It's rare to get an opportunity to be utterly self-centred.  We live amongst structures of friends and family and people.  If you do exactly what you want to do, it will affect someone else.  Your partner won't be as happy as they could be.  Your boss will become frustrated.  You have obligations and duties and a whole set of other frameworks piled up inside your head.

I realised, walking in Amsterdam, just how deep those pressures were inside me.  I realised that I spent every day of my life buckling under obligations and options and "stuff I have to do".  No wonder I'm a little bit nuts.

Here though, it was just me.  Nobody around on the riverbank knew about my plans or what I was up to; they didn't care either.  I was entirely anonymous.  Anyone who cared about me or was aware of who I was was hundreds of miles away.  I had a schedule that was entirely my own, a plan I'd conceived and was executing without interference or discussion.  I was exploring a beautiful city at my own pace, visiting buildings I found interesting, being me without any other duress.  I wasn't strolling physically, but my brain was.  Finally, after too long, it was taking a break.

I realised my mind was gently drifting along.  Normally when I walk I have to have headphones on.  Something to drown out the noise of my brain, the darkness that hides there, the thoughts that swell up when I'm alone.  Here I was simply enjoying everything I saw.  That doorway.  That bar.  That woman.  It slipped into my mind and was appreciated, coveted, gently stroked before being filed away.  There wasn't any pain.  A little bit of me wanted to stay here, riding the metro, forever.

Eventually I turned away from the river and onto a green side street lined with houses that no doubt cost an astronomical amount entirely disproportionate to how tight and tiny they were. Balconies were laden with chairs and patio tables.  Parked cars hugged the kerb.  It was dense and yet silent.

It meant that arriving on the busy Wibautstraat came as a bit of a shock.  Suddenly there were tall buildings and a wide carriageway full of buses and trucks.  It wasn't a gentle avenue, as I'd become used to in Amsterdam: this was a through route, a busy highway, the Euston Road but with a Dutch twist.

I found Wibautstraat station outside the "Church" of Scientology.  I noticed that the signs outside for a Free Personality Test were all in English, not Dutch, and I decided this wasn't linguistic colonialism, but was instead the locals being too clever to fall for it and so they had to target gullible tourists instead.  

After the glorious sign at Spaklerweg, I was disappointed there wasn't something similar here.  Until I noticed the station name was actually inside the entrance - a nice stylistic choice, but not exactly great for people wanting to get about the city.  It meant that to get the name of the station and my fat head in the same shot, I had to go onto a piece of pavement between the edge of the entrance building and a busy cycle lane and squat.  I got quite a few curious looks.

Below ground again, the place where I was most content.  From here to the end of the 51/53/54, it was underground stations all the way.  Perhaps I'm secretly part mole.  Perhaps that's why I'm not so jolly wandering around the world as a human being.  A wide concourse under the street with its own snack bar lead down to the island platform.  

All the underground stations on the Oostlijn were built with artwork on the walls.  At Wibautsraat, it's large coloured letters, scattered along the trackside; they symbolise the newspapers and magazines that relocated to this area in the 60s.  

One quick train ride and I was at Weesperplein.  There's a run of W stations here - Wibautstraat, Weesperplein and Waterlooplein - which may be geographically accurate and a pleasing pattern, but caused no end of confusion in my brain.  I could never quite get my head around what order they came in.

There wasn't an island here, but instead two separate platforms opposite one another on the tracks.  The reason for this is that Weeserplein was designed as an interchange with an unbuilt East-West metro line, so passenger numbers were anticipated to be larger as people changed between lines.

The tunnels for the planned line were constructed , but never put into use for transit.  Instead they were repurposed as nuclear bomb shelters, and Weeserplein got a variety of "upgrades" that would enable it to be sealed off completely.  Personally I'd rather die.  I don't see the point in going down into a hole to live for months, just so I can re-emerge to some blasted wasteland.  If the four minute warning went off I'd go outside and welcome the blast with open arms - there was a report a few months ago that said Liverpool would be one of the first targets for a Russian attack, and I thought "good".  I've seen Threads.  I don't want to be scrabbling around in a feudal society while my teeth fall out.  Come friendly bombs, and fall on Scott.  

It means there's a huge circulation area above the platforms which was largely empty and unused.  Part of the recent refurbishment saw all the clutter being taken away to create open spaces in stations, which is admirable, but left Weeserplein feeling distinctly vacant.  Perhaps at rush hour it fills up.  The new East-West metro plans, which I first mentioned about eight hundred years ago, would finally create the interchange it's been begging for for nearly fifty years.

I picked an exit at random.  They all chucked you out onto the Weeserplein; it was simply a question of using Google Maps to reorient myself once I got up top.  I walked along the busy street, past an Asian tour group who politely lined up with their phones, one after another, to get exactly the same photo of a canal from a bridge.  I hope they all go home and have What I Did On My Holiday nights round each others' houses where they all have to look at 400 identical shots of Amsterdam.  Further along the street had been closed and filled with flower tubs.  I'm not sure if this was a permanent move, or simply part of some local festival, but it was remarkable how much of a change it made.  You don't realise how stress-inducing the relentless grind of traffic is, how it exists as a constant noise under your thoughts, until it vanishes.

At the top of the street, a series of angled shapes poked up from behind a low wall.  This was the Netherlands' National Holocaust Monument.  The area I was in had once been the Jewish sector of the city.  When the Nazis invaded, they first closed off the area, marking it out as a no-go area with signs, putting out roadblocks, raising bridges.  Jews from other parts of the Netherlands were forced to relocate to Amsterdam.  Then, of course, they began to send them away.  75% of Amsterdam's Jewish population were killed by the Nazis, about half of them in Auschwitz.  A once thriving section of the city was forcibly emptied and abandoned.  The names of the victims were memorialised in horrifying quantities.

Waterlooplein station is spread over a wide area of the city.  Its main entrance and exit is under the Stopera, the city's Town Hall/Opera House complex, but I was headed to a smaller entrance, tucked away under a bridge at the canal side.  Something about the way it was almost hidden appealed to me.  Again: mole person.

The tiled notice was visible through a glass window over the escalators.  Pedants will note that a strut of the window covers up the AT of Waterlooplein; I assure you they are very much present in the sign.  To be frank I'd rather you concentrated on that than my multiple chins.  

In an attempt to discourage anti-social behaviour, GVB has taken to playing music at their stations.  At Weeserplein it had been gentle classical music; at Waterlooplein it was Ebbs and Flows by Aaron Taylor.  I'm not sure what the thinking is behind this.  I sort of get that hyperactive teenagers don't really want to spend their time hanging around somewhere that's playing Debussy Preludes; it's not really a conducive atmosphere for a bit of light vandalism and rowdiness.  Ebbs and Flows, though, was quite a pleasing song; I'd loiter a bit longer to have a listen.  That makes me horribly middle aged, doesn't it?  Young people are listening to that and waiting for the bass to drop and I'm gently swaying along.  Although it didn't make me want to tear up the seats either, so job well done.

Waterlooplein's main feature is its tiled mural of the word WATERLOO in a delightfully 1970s font.  There was some suggestion of replacing all the original artworks on the line with new ones in the refurb, until there was a public backlash; we quickly become used to what was once brave and innovative and make it comfortable.  

99% of you now have Abba bouncing around inside your head.  

1% of you are thinking of Timothy Dalton at the end of The Living DaylightsI love all my readers equally, but I love that 1% just a little bit more.  

Happiness is being in an underground station, thinking about James Bond and Eurovision.  It's as blissful as I ever get.  

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