Amsterdam’s architecture under dramatic May skies

What the title says…

Het SieraadHet Sieraad

Somewhere in KinkerbuurtSomewhere in Kinkerbuurt

The windmill near ErasmusparkThe windmill near Erasmuspark

Tweede KostverlorenkadeTweede Kostverlorenkade

June 6, 2021

My Covid-19 vaccination story

PostNL informs you via a notification in their app when a mail is on your way. They even include a picture of the envelope so you can guess what to expect. The wife uses the app diligently so she knew a few hours in advance that my invitation to get vaccinated was on the way. When it arrived, she tore it open and booked me a spot online at the earliest possible date.

My invitation to get vaccinatedMy invitation to get vaccinated

My vaccination center was somewhere near Schiphol Airport. It would take two changes of public transport and an hour to reach. I didn’t want to risk being late for something this important, so decided to call an Uber instead. Uber now offers you a choice between a regular cab and a green” option - meaning an electric or a hybrid taxi. Since they were the same price, I picked the latter. Because there are way more regular cars out there than electric, it can take a while for your ride to arrive. In my case it was a 15 minute wait on an unseasonably cold and rainy May morning.

As I sat in the cab with my mask, my glasses fogged up. The driver asked in an English accent, which was at once familiar and marks you as being college educated from somewhere in the northern part of the subcontinent, if I had considered getting laser surgery. I mentioned my eyesight was probably too far gone for it and that I didn’t find wearing glasses inconvenient (of course except when they fog up when I wear the mask). He went on to regale me about how his wife had signed up for her LASIK surgery but had also negotiated a surgery for him for the same price1, the weeklong recovery period that followed and an emergency visit to the surgeon when he had foolishly rubbed one of the eyes.

He then told me about how extenuating family circumstances had brought him to the Netherlands from Dubai in 2009. Back then, Europe was in the throes of the financial crises and so he could not find work in his preferred line of work. This was relatable given the wife’s struggles when we had arrived here in 2011. By the time the crisis blew over circa 2013, he had sat out for too long. Unable to reintegrate back into the workforce, he started driving a cab instead. Apparently the regular cab companies in Amsterdam pay well. However, driving a regular cab requires waiting for the next customer for hours at a time. He didn’t enjoy this. So while he could earn two to three times what he’d make on a typical day with Uber, he drives for Uber exclusively.

Naturally, our conversation then drifted towards how the Covid lockdowns had affected him last year. I was relieved to learn that the government provided adequate financial support and he didn’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Once the lockdown lifted after three months, things weren’t as good as 2019 of course - mostly because the high frequency and relatively higher value trips between the airport and the city center were way down - but he got by.

We soon arrived at the vaccination center. He dropped me near the entrance and took off for his next ride.

The vaccination site looked like a temporary (semi-permanent?) structure purpose built for, well, vaccinating people. The entrance door opened into a waiting hall where everyone queued in lanes made by stanchions and stood on the designated yellow stickers 1.5m apart. While there was enough room to keep your distance from the person ahead of you, the ones adjacent felt uncomfortably close. At least everyone was properly masked up. There were notices on the walls prohibiting photography. Wall-mounted LCD screens switched between important vaccination related information, such as the common side effects. Midway through the queue, a couple of guys asked to show the invitation letter - not unlike the security queue at an airport where you’d be asked to show your passport and boarding pass. Just the mere possession of a printed A4 sheet in my hands seemed to satisfy their curiosity. In the early days of the vaccination program, there were reports of people simply showing up at the vaccination sites and pleading to be vaccinated. I guess they might’ve turned those sorts back from here. The queue moved fast - though more people kept joining the queue at the rear end. It was certainly a busy day. Outside, the drizzle was turning into a downpour and I worried that either we’d have to get closer together or people would be left outside in the rain. None of this happened. Given that I hadn’t been at a gathering of humans this large - indoors or outdoors - in over a year, perhaps my anxiety was justified.

At the end of the waiting hall was the main vaccination area. There were two parallel rows of booths where the vaccines were being administered. All white, gleaming and brightly lit. Very reassuring. The sort of reassurance you want a vaccination site to exude. But first I had to walk a few paces to my right and present my vaccination invite, a form with miscellaneous questions about current medication, upcoming surgery etc. and my identity card at the registration counter. A man wearing a face mask at the other end of the Plexiglas examined my paperwork, logged something in the computer on his desk and asked if this was my first dose. It was hard to hear him through the Plexiglas. There was a microphone on his desk he was supposed to speak into but I guess he must’ve been new. Voices were raised, languages were switched (him English, me Dutch and vice versa), the microphone was rediscovered and my paperwork was returned with a yellow sticker affixed to the medical questionnaire.

I walked back to my spot at the entrance of the vaccination hall and waited five or so minutes for my turn. I was told to go to booth 13 and present my paperwork once more. The person at the booth again logged something at their computer and told me to come inside. At a shelf behind her, 4 syringes, presumably pre-filled with the vaccine, were already resting on a kidney dish - ready to go into arms. Another person offered me a seat, told me to hang my backpack and my jacket2 on the hooks attached to the temporary partition wall and present my arm for the jab. I felt nothing, not even a pinch. But as the Band-Aid affixed to my upper arm and the printed paper handed to me would indicate, at 9:21 AM, 0.3ml of Pfizer/BioNTech COMIRNATY vaccine had been administered to me. I collected my things, muttered tot volgende keer3 and walked out at the other end of the hall.

Attached to the vaccination room was the waiting room where everyone taking the shot was supposed to wait for 15 minutes and watch for any severe side-effects that would require medical attention. It was a large hall with rows of cubicles that had a chair to sit on. If you spotted an empty cubicle you just took it or you waited until a Red Cross volunteer found you one. I found one quickly and my 15-minute wait was uneventful.

It was pouring outside when I stepped out. I called for a cab and waited in the busy parking lot outside the vaccination center with my umbrella. Having chosen a regular cab this time, I didn’t have to wait for long. This time, Uber assigned an elderly sikh gentleman with a large black van. As I settled down in the cab he asked me what I had been here for. I mentioned Covid vaccine and he was justifiably alarmed because he misheard it as covid testing - a reasonable confusion given the testing site’s close vicinity to the vaccination site. I reassured him that I wasn’t experiencing any Covid symptoms and was here just for the jab. We spoke about the recent terrible Covid outbreak in India and were thankful that no one in our immediate circle had been affected. The remainder of the journey passed in silence and soon I was home.

The whole thing took some 2 hours. I felt fine during the day and could attend to work normally. At night my left arm was a little sore so I slept lightly but otherwise didn’t experience any adverse side effects on the first night. On the second day the pain in the left arm had already subsided and the right arm was beginning to develop a dull phantom ache in sympathy. On the fourth day I felt tired - it was as if I had been walking for hours. A couple of hours of sleep put an end to that but the next morning it took some effort to get out of the bed. By day five I felt completely normal. Curious to see what the second does will bring and hoping that the wife will be getting one soon so we can start taking our first tentative steps towards some semblance of normalcy…

  1. We joked that it was what the shops here call een betalen twee halen’ - literally pay for one, take two.↩︎

  2. The vaccination invitation had reminded me to wear something that’d make it convenient to bare my upper arm. It’s just that weather-wise, May can be a weird month here. On some Mays, I’ve comfortably stepped out in a t-shirt, while others, like the one this year, require a thick jacket over it.↩︎

  3. Translation: till next time. Given the second jab scheduled a month or so later, felt like an appropriate goodbye.↩︎

May 24, 2021

Cherry blossoms and rose-ringed parakeets

Come spring and the cherry blossoms are among the first ones to bloom in Amsterdam’s Westerpark. Last year, a few more of these had been planted along the pedestrian path near the entrance. They looked spectacular this spring.

Cherry BlossomCherry Blossom

They also seemed to attract a lot of parakeets who feasted relentlessly on their flowers. Were the parakeets not moving, I would’ve mistaken them for an exotic tropical fruit growing amongst the cherry blossoms.

A parakeet amidst cherry blossomsA parakeet amidst cherry blossoms

A parakeet amidst cherry blossomsA parakeet amidst cherry blossoms

A parakeet amidst cherry blossomsA parakeet amidst cherry blossoms

A video showing the havoc they wreaked.

May 22, 2021

My last flight

It’s been more than a year now since I stepped inside an airport, let alone an airplane. The last time I flew was on a trip back from San Francisco after finishing my onboarding at my new employer. There are things about that trip that in hindsight feel downright rash:

  • The very act of being inside an economy class seat surrounded by strangers without face masks

  • Waiting for hours in the immigration queue inside a tightly packed arrival hall at the SFO airport with people from at least three more flights from who knows what parts of the world. 1.5m distance between people wouldn’t have been possible had the hall been twice as big. And of course, without face masks. That’s just how we rolled back then.

  • Catching a cold but soldiering on under a regimen of DayQuil and NyQuil1.

Now of course, a little over a year ago, we wouldn’t think of any of this as rash. The world was sleepwalking into a pandemic. And yet, back then, unburdened by thoughts of things lying in wait for us just weeks down the road, the trip was wonderful.

Visited the Golden Gate Bridge:

Golden Gate BridgeGolden Gate Bridge

Admired the graffiti covered walls of Chinatown (which was surprisingly2 empty):

A graffiti in ChinatownA graffiti in Chinatown

Enjoyed walking through the city pausing at random bookshops and cafés for breaks.

Met some old friends, and couldn’t meet others as the trip was cut short by a week - not out of superabundance of caution for the unfolding pandemic but because of a recruitment event3 that required me to be back in Amsterdam.

On our last morning in San Francisco a light fog hung high in the air. It shrouded high-rises and gave the city a slightly surreal feel. While crossing a street, I saw a giant painted portrait of Greta Thunberg through this fog-filtered light. Little did I know then that shortly we’d be forced to give up flying collectively in numbers and for a duration perhaps beyond her wildest dreams.

Morning fog in SFMorning fog in SF

A portrait of Greta Thunberg in SFA portrait of Greta Thunberg in SF

One last act of rashness on that trip? Taking an Uber Pool (do they even offer that as an option these days?) to the airport. Rendered somewhat less rash by sheer luck - no one else happened to share the ride.

  1. All the good stuff they just let you self-medicate with in Murica.↩︎

  2. Perhaps not. Given the drumbeat of news about a deadly virus doing rounds in China, people had apparently started avoiding the neighbourhood.↩︎

  3. A meeting where we had > 100 people attend in a somewhat cozy venue.↩︎

April 17, 2021

The Night mode on iPhone

As the winters begin to set in, the days in Amsterdam get shorter. One doesn’t have to stay up very late to do night photography.

I had first tried long exposure night photography some 15 odd years ago in London. It would involve carrying a tripod, setting up the camera (then a Canon EOS 350D), hitting the shutter release and waiting a few seconds. I lacked experience and the tripod I had then (a hand me down from an uncle) was a little rickety so it’d take a few attempts to get a good shot. But the end results always made it worth it.

The wife recently got an iPhone 11 and I was both sceptical of the recently introduced Night Mode and at the same time very keen to try it. So we went for a walk around the block after dinner and I took a few shots. I was immediately hooked:

Westerdok on a still Nov nightWesterdok on a still Nov night

The night mode turns on automatically and depending on brightness of the scene, picks an exposure of 1 to 3 seconds. You release the shutter” (I use the volume control buttons on the iPhone) and hold your hands steady and that’s about it. Tripod not required.

Since then I pester the wife to borrow her phone regularly. Expect to see more night time photos in the coming days.

Westerdok on a still Dec nightWesterdok on a still Dec night

Around PrinseneilandAround Prinseneiland

Something a little Blade Runner-esqueSomething a little Blade Runner-esque

My only gripe so far is that while the default” iPhone 11 lens supports Night Mode, the ultra-wide does not. Something they have remedied in iPhone 12. I am hoping that if I hold out another year, the zoom lens in the next revision will get it as well.

p.s. The wife pointed out that at a time when a lot of people would be traveling to run away from the cold and rainy Amsterdam weather, last year most people were stranded at home. So probably more than the usual amounts of homes had their lights on. To say nothing of extra Christmas lights. Also note the wide range of warm and cool tones of lighting.

p.p.s. I am also amazed at the dynamic range of the Westerdok shots. Despite many blown highlights, see how much detail of each house’s interiors is visible.

February 6, 2021

Discovering Vilhelm Hammershøi

I was at Munich’s Kusthalle in Sep 2019 to see an exhibition of works by Canadian impressionists. I was carrying a small backpack which wasn’t allowed into the exhibition rooms. I turned back and located the public lockers to leave my bag in. Not only were they all taken, there were already one or two people ahead of me waiting for someone to come back and release one. I eventually located the paid cloakroom where I could drop my bag off. The walls of the cloakroom were plastered in promotional material from past exhibitions. It is here that I first saw a poster from an exhibition from many years ago, titled, Hammershøi - this modern Nordic Vermeer. The poster featured a girl at a piano - probably a hat-tip to Vermeer’s The Music Lesson.

Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and Hammershøi’s Interior With Woman At PianoVermeer’s The Music Lesson and Hammershøi’s Interior With Woman At Piano

I thus discovered Vilhelm Hammershøi whom I now consider as one of my favourite painters.

Of late, I’ve been revisiting his works and have been mesmerised by them. I find his muted color palette and his depiction of shadow and light very soothing. They remind me during these days of being locked down at home, when we’ve all had more than our fair share of looking at doors, walls and windows, that even the banal, if you pay attention, is beautiful.

Interior From Strandgade With Sunlight On The FloorInterior From Strandgade With Sunlight On The Floor

p.s. Talking of Vermeer, there was a documentary a few years ago about someone trying to recreate The Music Lesson. Worth a watch.

p.p.s. I miss traveling, among other reasons, for the serendipitous discoveries one would make along the way.

January 30, 2021