Rijksmuseum’s very special Vermeer exhibition

In Oct last year, I had written about having procured tickets for a very special Vermeer exhibition being organised by Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Mansi1 and I visited 3 weeks ago.

A few weeks before the start of the exhibition, the museum had posted a wonderful guide to the works for Vermeer2 with English audio by Stephen Fry. It really helped me appreciate the works more. I would highly recommended a visit to the online guide even if you don’t plan to attend the exhibition.

A couple of days before our visit we received an email with a link to a short video that clearly explained how to reach the exhibition.

Since this is a special exhibition not open to regular visitors of Rijksmuseum, after our tickets were scanned, we were issued wrist bands so we could move freely through the exhibition area without having to show our tickets again. The exhibition was quite busy. It took a few minutes longer than it usually takes at museums for a turn to get closer to each painting.

No amount of seeing Vermeer’s works on a computer screen prepares you for how lively the paintings look in real life. You can only truly appreciate Vermeer’s renown for capturing light once you’ve seen his works in person.

We also noticed details that we had somehow glossed over when looking at Vermeer’s works digitally. For example, the reflection of the girl in the window pane in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window:

Vermeer - Girl Reading a Letter at an Open WindowVermeer - Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

In my last post had I expressed misgivings about having booked tickets to the exhibition months in advance. I am now glad I booked when I did. The exhibition has been quite popular and it’s been very difficult for people to get tickets:

Sold out message at the Rijksmuseum websiteSold out message at the Rijksmuseum website

The exhibition hasn’t entirely been without controversy. There was some kerfuffle in the media here about Rijksmuseum not having been entirely forthcoming about the fact that not all paintings would be around for the entire duration of the exhibition. People visiting the exhibition after March 30 would miss out on The Girl with the Pearl Earring as it goes back to The Mauritshuis

I was personally a little disappointed that Vermeer’s Art of Painting wasn’t part of the exhibition. I had wrongly assumed that it would be because Rijksmuseum had featured it in their guide to works of Vermeer on the museum web site. Well, at least this one is not in the private collection of some royal family - so I now have an excuse to visit Vienna’s Kusthistorisches Museum.

  1. aka the wife’↩︎

  2. Hope this link keeps working past this exhibition. Rijksmuseum sometimes apply a different standard of stewardship to their online content than what they exercise over their collection. Or perhaps my expectations are misplaced - some things are meant to be ephemeral.↩︎

March 15, 2023

A week in Malta - Day #0

The dark, grey and wet Dutch winter that followed an unusually warm start to the year had began to get under our skin. We decided to head for a short trip to sunny1 Malta.

Fewer things about modern air travel are more annoying than being stuck in the seat of a plane well past its designated take off time. Our flight to Malta was held up for an hour because of some confusion with the flight’s manifest. A head count was taken but that didn’t resolve the matters to the authorities’ satisfaction. Eventually, the ground crew and the flight crew went from seat to seat checking our boarding pass and seat numbers. The identity of the person who had checked in but not boarded the plane was thus established and we were cleared for take off. Fortunately, their baggage had not been checked in or we would’ve been held up even longer.

Air MaltaAir Malta

We landed in Malta around 4 PM after a flying time of about three hours. A long bus ride took us from the airplane to the airport terminal. The latter was plastered with advertisements for ride sharing apps. Bolt is huge in Malta but we also saw Uber billboards vying for our attention. The sun was still out but it was nippy and also colder than we were expecting. Our baggage arrived within a few minutes but due to a mix of this being our first ever visit to Malta and poor signage, it took us another 30 minutes to locate our Bolt cab to the hotel.

The traffic in Malta reminded me of Athens - not quite as bad as say Delhi or Bangalore but not quite smooth either. The rocky, arid terrain was redolent of Athens too. For an small island-country, Malta definitely felt geologically more diverse than the tedium of flat land and water that is the Netherlands. There were parts during our ride where the cramped roads and construction of houses reminded me of Delhi2.

The weather forecast for our stay was mixed. Showers were expected with a high probability the next day. When our cab pulled in to the hotel’s kerbside parking, the sun had just set. We could see a curtain of rain move in from the sea.

A curtain of rain moves inA curtain of rain moves in

  1. The reality turned out to be more like relatively sunnier”.↩︎

  2. Just to be clear, that is not meant as a compliment.↩︎

March 11, 2023

Anonymity and loneliness

Big cities afford you anonymity. But big cities can also be lonely at times. Some pictures from a trip to London in Oct 2022 that explore these themes:

February 12, 2023

The design of bus time tables: Amsterdam vs Malta

You can tell how much attention a city or a country pays to its public transport from the design of its bus time tables. A recent trip to Malta and a brush with public transport there made me appreciate ones in Amsterdam even more.

Let’s take a closer look.

A bus time table in AmsterdamA bus time table in Amsterdam

The header clearly shows you the name of the stop, the mode (since some stops service bus and trams), the route and the end destination. A mini line map shows all the stops current stop onwards and their accessibility by wheelchair. There is even a QR code that you can scan to get live timings for buses departing from that stop.

The main body is divided into three sections - one for regular working days, one for Saturdays and one for Sundays and public holidays. The sections share a common header with 24 columns - one for each hour. The minutes are listed under the respective hours. Not only is this easy to scan, it also acts like a histogram that shows which hours have the most frequent service at a glance.

The minutes double up as a histogramThe minutes double up as a histogram

We use 24h time (aka military time’) in the Netherlands so it does keep the design compact by not having to designate each hour as AM or PM.

The footer has miscellaneous information including costs.

Contrast this with the time tables in Malta.

A bus time table in MaltaA bus time table in Malta

While the header clearly tells you the bus route, the destination and the current stop, it doesn’t show you other stops along the route.

The body is about as easy to scan as a busy spreadsheet. Sure, you have three columns for weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays/public holidays but the use of alternating grey and white color for each column is about the only concession they make for readability. Each of these columns are further divided into two columns listing the arrival times of the bus from earliest to latest. You have to scan this list carefully to locate the hour you are interested in. You don’t get a sense of which hours have the most frequent service and which ones have none. You can however look at time tables for two separate routes side by side and easily tell which is serviced more frequently by looking at the length of the tables.

Bus stops in Amsterdam increasingly have a display that shows live timings of buses running on that route. That and the ubiquity of internet-connected smartphones makes me wonder if these printed timetables would soon become relics that you’d only find in a museum.

February 4, 2023

2022: My year in Music

The 2022 I ended yesterday felt like a very different year from the one that I had started. The wife and I had received our booster shot on 31st Dec 2021. It was arranged at the last-minute and we knew from the last two vaccines that we’d probably be spending the first two or so days of the new year in bed recovering. That’s exactly how it went down. And it’s easy to forget now that the Netherlands was also under a partial lockdown for most of January1.

So to go from there and be able to travel internationally for work and leisure, have family and friends over in Amsterdam, change jobs - and a month or so into the new one, get COVID - 2022 was quite packed. And the discovery of new music (new only in the sense that I heard it for the first time this year) kept pace with it. This is the 7th iteration of my annual playlist making exercise. And like annual playlists before, this one too has music in many languages (Basque, Bengali, Catalan, English, French, Spanish, Italian to count a few) spanning multiple genres. And oh, I also started learning Spanish seriously. To be able to understand fragments of lyrics of some of the Spanish songs in this playlist gave an extra dimension to them.

I found these tracks in all manner of places. Stole (borrowed?) a couple from the playlist of a colleague I was seeing in person in San Francisco for the first time in over two years. Shazamed one at an ice-cream parlour in Athens. Found one when Apple Maps egged me on to explore the favourite haunts of a famous LA-based artist (whom I hadn’t heard of) but instead, I chose to explore the artist’s latest album. And of course, the algorithmic recommendations from Spotify were a big source too.

Without further ado, I present to you, the 2022 musical retrospective:

The 2022 playlist on Spotify

  1. Exhibit A: This government press release announcing opening of shops, barbers etc. till 5:00 PM in the evening↩︎

January 1, 2023

My Avatar 2: The Way of Water review

The wife and I watched Avatar 2 (aka Avatar: The Way of Water) in 3D HFR yesterday and hated it.

Let’s start with the most celebrated thing about the movie - the visuals. To my eyes they seemed overdone. They were like a cross between a video game cutscene and one of those demo reels they run on giant TVs for sale in electronic stores.

Even the story had the depth and pathos of a demo reel meant to sell OLED TVs.

Avatar has always felt like a thinly veiled history of colonisation and settlement of North America. The sequel wasn’t any different. If anything, Avatar 2 solidified this notion (spoiler)1. The rest of the plot felt like a hodgepodge of pop culture tropes and set pieces from Moby Dick to Jaws to Free Willy.

I would’ve left the hall mid-way through the movie but did not out of respect for other people in our row. The hall was quite full for Christmas night and everyone stoically persisted through the movie’s 3h+ duration.

We are told there are 3 more sequels planned (Avatar 5 is scheduled to come in 2027!). I think I will pass. It feels like Star Wars all over again where the franchise is milked aggressively to the point that even the staunchest fans greet the newest release with indifference.

p.s. Me and some friends were distraught at the font choices they had made in the original - big, yellow Papyrus for subtitling dialog in Na’vi. This hasn’t changed in Avatar 2. However it did feel like they had cut down on the amount of dialog in Na’vi by quite a lot so one didn’t see it much. Since all English movies in Amsterdam carry Dutch subtitles, I was worried that some scenes would suffer from subtitle overload (Na’vi -> Papyrus in English -> Dutch). This didn’t come to pass because Na’vi here was directly translated into Dutch (Papyrus). Also the sub-titles (the regular Dutch ones they show here throughout the movie) didn’t distract, interfere with 3D, cause headaches/nausea etc.

  1. Due to worsening conditions on Earth, the star people” are coming to settle Pandora and not just for extracting unobtanium.↩︎

December 26, 2022