In June, days in Amsterdam stretch on for 16+ hours. The afternoon sun, even on partly-cloudy days when it’s a pleasant 23ºC outside, is blindingly bright. It takes my mind back to much hotter (40ºC+) and considerably lazier afternoons of school summer vacation spent binge-reading comics.
I came across an article in The New Yorker that prognosticates how Greenland would change as the global warming progresses and causes the years old ice sheets to melt. While it touches on many serious topics such as the race for mining for minerals and tensions with Denmark, this passage caught my attention:
Today, Greenland has fifty-six thousand residents, twelve thousand Internet connections, fifty farms, and, by American standards, no trees. (The native dwarf willows top out at about a foot.) One Greenlander I met, who’d recently left the island for the first time to attend a meeting in upstate New York, told me that his favorite part of the trip had been the noise of the wind sighing through the leaves.
“I love that sound,” he said. “Shoosh, shoosh.”
I realised the other day that since reading this article, I’ve been growing more appreciative of the sound trees make when their branches sway in the wind. With summer in Amsterdam at its peak, and the trees in the park covered in fresh leaves, they also make for a subject I find very calming to shoot - especially when it rains:
We walked through the warren of narrow streets in the old town in search of a place that’d serve us breakfast. Along the way we encountered several houses that were being repaired or renovated. It must take special skill to manoeuvre heavy construction equipment into these streets.
As someone who grew up in a crowded neighbourhood in a middle-class part of Delhi, the narrow streets were at once oddly familiar and completely alien. There were hardly any people around and nor were there any children playing street cricket.
After breakfast, we queued up outside Real Alcázar de Sevilla. The queue moved at a moderate pace and some 30 minutes later led us into a poorly lit room with ticket counters. Before we could buy the tickets, our bags had to go through an x-ray machine - much like the ones at airports.
Real Alcázar is complex of several buildings built over several centuries (between 11th and 16th) in the Moorish style. Some of these used to be administrative offices, others were living quarters of the royalty. Their walls were covered in colourful ceramic tiles while their arched entrances and roofs were covered in intricate floral and geometric patterns carved in plaster1.
The palace complex was also dotted with several gardens where countless orange trees were decked in, well, oranges2. In one garden, peahens and peacocks roamed freely.
The complex even had a bathhouse.
After spending a few hours hopping from building to building, we stepped out in search for the next landmark on our list - Plaza de España. Despite the offline map on our phone, we managed to lose our way. We were still in the historical center so we simply enjoyed the views till we managed to put ourselves back on track.
No amount of seeing pictures of Plaza de España on the Internet prepares you for its grandeur in real life. The building dates back to early 20th century and was built for the 1929 Ibireo-American exposition - a product of the same 19th century tradition of World’s Fairs and Expositions that gave us the Eiffel Tower. The building is semi-circular and is flanked by two impressive 74-meter high towers on either sides.
It is separated from a huge D-shaped courtyard in front by a moat. You can rent a small rowboat and go around in the moat. Several graceful, arched bridges with ceramic balustrades3 connect the courtyard to the building.
The sound of vendors selling castanets echoed through the building’s corridor regularly and kept reminding of not a piece of Flamenco music but of this Italian baroque aria:
I half expected a Baroque orchestra to join in but that was never going to happen…
As we were leaving, we spotted a Nikon DSLR lying on a bench in the courtyard. There is no entrance ticket to Plaza de Esnpaña as it’s basically a very grand public space that happens to be a tourist attraction. So there weren’t any ticket counters or officious looking liveried people that we could entrust the camera to. While we stood there wondering what to do, a middle aged lady with a worried look on her face came running to the bench. The moment she spotted the camera lying there, her concern turned into a big smile. She picked the camera and thanked us profusely. I felt a twinge of guilt for getting so genuinely thanked for our mere indecision.
After dinner we spent the evening walking through the main tourist/shopping district.
I was mildly amused by these ads outside a branch of Bankia Bank that pomised mortgages no matter how crazy your dream house was:
Thankfully, by the time we reached our apartment, I was too tired to dream up or of any crazy houses.
When I was a child, my sister received a board game as gift for her birthday. Before you played the game for the first time, you had to take oval stickers with colourful illustrations of rubies, opals, jades, diamonds etc. printed on them, and paste them on the shoulder (the place where the gem goes) of yellow plastic rings. The game was very imaginatively called ‘Rings on your fingers’. For some reason, the design of the roof in one of the chambers reminded me of this game - probably because the roof resembled illustration of one of the gems. I later read that the chamber bears the name ‘Patio de las Muñescas’ (Patio of the Dolls). Rodrigo Caro, a 17th century Spanish historian had speculated that this might be because children used to be raised here so perhaps the chamber triggering an obscure childhood memory isn’t all that odd…↩
These weren’t the kind you could eat - they are bitter and grown mostly for ornamentation. It doesn’t stop people from trying and leaving the half-eaten fruit around.↩
To be honest, I couldn’t ascertain if they were made of glazed ceramic, covered in curved ceramic tiles or merely painted over.↩
April doet wat hij wil - April does what it wants - goes the Dutch saying about tempramental April weather. A few days ago I was walking to work on a day eager to live up to the saying - a bit of rain, a bit of sunshine and even a rainbow:
I wanted to recompose this shot, but just then someone drove an ugly white moving truck and parked it on the bridge. I went closer to the bridge and tried another composition that’d exclude the truck. However, it doesn’t quite have the same drama as first one:
My biggest gripe with phone cameras is the lack of depth of field and with apps like these I am able to scratch that itch somewhat. I am sure it’s only a matter of time before the software and improved optics allow you to emulate the depth of field and bokeh of SLR lenses right on your phone.
It was easy to see things that were happening in that space - both with hardware (e.g. Lytro) and software, and call that depth of field in phone cameras would go mainstream soon. Last month I upgraded to iPhone 7 plus and have been playing with the “depth effect” that the two lenses on its back, coupled with some clever processing in software, enable.
You switch the stock iPhone camera app to “Portrait” mode and if you have a subject at the right distance, it’ll show you a live preview with blurred background. While I’ve had best results with human subjects (it’s called “Portrait” mode after all), the effect works with pretty much any animal, plant or object. That said, results with non-human subjects can often be unpredictable - the software might blur too much or too little of your subject. For a particularly infuriating example, if you look closely in the picture below, you’ll see that it missed the sliver between the top of the tulips. It also blurred the stalk of the rightmost tulip too much so it seems to magically float in the air1.
Had it not been for the straight lines of the rails of the boat in the background, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed this. Still, I am not convinced enough to stow away my 135mm prime lens. At the current pace, the technology will probably threaten it in 3-4 years. I am quite enjoying shooting with the new camera though - not so much for the simulated depth of field but for the better quality of pictures in low light at 28mm due to bigger aperture (f/1.8 vs f/2.2 on iPhone 6 plus) and the extra reach of 56mm.
The wife asked me to share it on facebook pronto. No one would notice this on their tiny phone screen, she said. She was right.↩
The words “two-and-a-half-hour flight” get me nostalgic about numerous flights I used to take between Bangalore and Delhi. In Western Europe, a flight that long gets you to many different countries. It’s a comfortable duration and that played its part in getting me and the wife to agree on Seville as a location for a short vacation in February. For its duration, the flight packed in a fair bit of geographical diversity.
We landed in Seville around noon. Luckily, just as we stepped out of the airport, we spotted the bus that’d get us to the part of the old town from where we could walk to our apartment.
We knew pretty well that vegetarian food and Spain don’t go together. We entered the food court we had chosen for lunch close to our apartment with low expectations. And still, we despaired a little at how meager our choice really was.
After lunch, we walked along Canal de Alfonso XIII to enjoy the late afternoon sun. Coming from Amsterdam, the sun felt as novel as the television antennas on the roof of colourful houses across the river.
We always find the first day of a vacation in a new city a little disorienting. At 5:00 PM it was already a little late to visit any landmarks or museums so we walked across the Puente de Isabel II bridge and explored the neighbouring district of Triana.
We came back just after sunset and lingered around the El Carmen - a small chapel and its belfry built in early 20th century in a neo-moorish style .
The market alongside it had already closed and we were too tired to do groceries and cook in our apartment. We therefore made the defeatist but convenient choice of picking a roadside Dominos for dinner. Landing a vegetarian pizza was not a problem but even with google translate by my side, I couldn’t manage to order sparkling water in Spanish. Apparently agua con gas doesn’t work. Here in the Netherlands, the colloquial way of ordering sparkling water is to ask for Spa Rood1 - the brand is synonymous with sparkling water. I wonder if I missed a similar trick for Spain.
If we were younger, we would’ve picked this shop selling churros and potato crips. A pizza from Dominos is no health food but theres are only certain degrees of unhealthiness that our bodies permit as we age.
Spa Red - because fizzy water of this brand comes in a bottle with red cap↩