February 20, 2012

On coming back to Amsterdam

In our flat in Bangalore, a print of David Lorenz Winston’s Solitude used to hang on the living room wall. It depicted a tree standing alone in the snow. In a city where the merest hint of temperature falling below 10 ºC would break weather records, it was the unlikeliest of landscapes.

Solitude by David Lorenz Winston

The first time I saw snow was during a brief spell of precipitation in London in 2005. It didn’t linger for long and resulted in no perceptible change to the landscape.

My next encounter with the elusive white substance was in Leh. We woke up on a fine, sunny April morning to find the entire town covered under inches of snow. We also saw all of it melt the very same day. This encounter with snow therefore, was a little unsatisfying. And while we could now brag about having played in snow, we knew that since we had gone all the way to the Himalayas for it, it would always sound a bit disingenuous.

We spent the winters in Amsterdam in anticipation of snow. We gladly put up with shorter days and dull afternoons that were, as the wife would exaggerate (but only just), slightly brighter nights. We took the soaking wet mornings, the chilling, vengeful winds and the inconvenience of putting on layers of clothing before stepping out, in our stride in the hope that it would all culminate in a day of proper snow. But all we got through December and January was a lot of rain with some hail and other indistinct frozen forms that water takes when the mercury dips below 0ºC, which even our untrained eyes knew to be not snow.

In late January, all of Europe came under a sudden cold spell. The phenomenon that goes with the catchy name of Arctic Snap had resulted in snow all the way to Rome. A German colleague had once remarked that while the Dutch were brilliant at dealing with water they didn’t know what to do with it once it solidifies. We had heard all too many horror stories of train disruptions, flight delays and nights spent waiting at the airport, to plan our trip to India at a time when the likelihood of snow was pretty low. While in India, we learned from tweets of friends that Amsterdam was covered in the very snow we so wanted to see and had sought to avoid.

While we were sipping iced macchiato in 27ºC Bangalore afternoons, my colleagues were cycling to work in chilly -3ºC mornings. On the day of my arrival in Amsterdam, the maximum temperature was to be a merry -4ºC. The wife was coming back a week later, so she bid goodbye with the following piece of sound advice:

The Amsterdam I came back to was a city very different from the Amsterdam I had left just days ago. From my plane’s window I could only see a sea of white. The wind turbines, usually the first thing I spot before landing at Schiphol, were well camouflaged. And trees made it seem like I was about to land inside a print of Solitude.

Our house is a 10 minutes brisk walk from Amsterdam Centraal Station. Till I stepped out, I didn’t realise that the footpaths were covered in snow too. Dragging the suitcase over the snow was a lot of work. The suitcase’s wheels were completely useless and I wished they would transform into ice skating blades. The open courtyard of our building was covered in snow too:

The courtyard of our building upon my return from India

On reaching home it occurred to me that I hadn’t checked out my public transport chip-card and would have to walk back to the station again. This time I carried my camera along.

Spot the pigeon

Ways to keep warm in snow

The canals had begun to freeze while I was in India but by now the ice was thick enough that people could walk or skate on it. The inhabitants of the canals — the ducks, the swans and the seagulls looked a touch excited at this development. They would cluster around pools of unfrozen water and would do something that I can only describe as a strange ritual dance.

Birds acting a touch restless in the frozen canals

A few swans chose to sit lazily on the sheets of ice. On seeing one of them I had my heart in my mouth. I thought the poor bird was frozen but to my relief it got up and waddled on the ice.

The swan that wasn't frozen after all

I could see floating sheets of ice even in the river across the road from our house.

Even the IJ had begun to freeze

I was returning to Amsterdam on a Sunday and on Monday my office was moving to a new building. The 5th floor cafeteria of the new building offers what they’d called in tourist brochures breathtaking panoramic views of Amsterdam”. We could see Rijksmuseum from the older office. I would always regret not having been able to click it in snow, but the views from the new office did make the regret a little more bearable.

The view from the 5th floor cafeteria of the new office

The week at work was as heavy as a month. By the time the wife returned on Saturday, the whole city was buzzing with excitement. Everyone and their pets had descended on the frozen canals. Half of Amsterdam was skating on the ice. Some were dragging their children on improvised sledges. People living in houseboats on the canals had thrown parties and invited friends and relatives over. A few enterprising souls had setup makeshift stalls selling mulled wine. It was like being at a very unusual picnic.

Carnival on the canals

Thin ice

People of all ages ice skated with equal enthusiasm

Amsterdam looks peculiar from the canals below. It’s a perspective you won’t see unless you live in a houseboat or hire a boat.

One of the bridges from a frozen canal

Getting ready for the ice skating races

One of the bridges from a frozen canal

One of the bridges from a frozen canal

It was strange standing under a bridge on a frozen canal and watching the traffic pass me by. You can hear me breathe heavily in the video below. The temperature was dipping fast and the cold from the ice below was beginning to creep up my feet.

As I sent of pictures of our adventure that evening to family, my sister wrote back pointing me to this Wikipedia article about artistic depiction of winters in Europe. This 400-year old painting by the Dutch artist Hendrick Averkamp caught my attention. Barring a few minor details, this is exactly how the scene at the canals that day had looked like:

Winter landscape with ice skaters - Hendrick Avercamp

The more things change, the more they remain the same?

P.S. That evening, when shopping for groceries at the neighborhood Albert Hijn, the radio played Madonna’s Frozen’. We’d like to think it wasn’t coincidental.


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