Of all the people on the face of this green earth, I never thought I would be the one reviewing this book. Indeed, I began this year by writing a blog post about my new year’s resolutions, confidently predicting that, whatever happened, I would not begin to exercise. Yet a month later I found myself in a sportswear store, perplexedly looking at running gear. What happened?
Nothing, really. Unlike Peter Sagal, my foray into running has not been the product of any personal troubles or existential crises. I am 27, too old for my quarter-life crisis, too young to be worried about entering middle age. I haven’t gotten married yet, and so have not had to endure any difficult divorce. I haven’t even had a bad breakup recently. I just decided to try something new, out of a sense of curiosity.
When I was in high school, you see, I dreaded the day when we were made to run a mile in gym class. It seemed like such an impossibly long distance. I was chubby and out of shape, so I could never make it the whole way without walking a considerable portion. Later on, at the ripe age of 17, I had to go to physical therapy for my knees after overstretching in Tae Kwon Do classes. These experiences convinced me that running was not my bent. But last February, feeling experimental, I decided to see whether walking a lot in Europe had inadvertently made me capable, finally, of running a mile without stopping. And it had.
Judging from this book, my experience was not typical. Running seems to be one of those hobbies, like meditation or prayer, that people pick up after some sort of acute trauma. Sagal got into running as he entered his forties, facing a midlife crisis which was to include a difficult divorce. As a comparison, it took the Buddhist author, Pema Chödrön, two divorces to become a celibate nun and celebrated teacher. (Lacking this experience, I am neither particularly enlightened nor especially fast.) Indeed, Sagal’s divorce haunts these pages as a kind of bitter undercurrent which seems to put many readers off. For my part, I do not require radio comedians to write about their ex-wives with saintliness.
I doubt I would have enjoyed this book half as much if I had bought the print version. Sagal is a radio personality, and the audiobook has his skillful delivery and signature voice. Using the audiobook also means that you can listen to the book while running. This is what I did, pledging that I would get through the book’s five hours and twenty-five minutes in five runs or fewer—and I succeeded. Listening to bald man who has struggled with his weight, and who had little natural talent to begin with, was great motivation as I shuffled my own soft body through Madrid’s Retiro Park. Now, here is an athlete I can identify with.
Apart from recounting some of his marathon experiences—which included the 2013 Boston Marathon, where he witnessed the bombing—as well as a few other running anecdotes, Sagal offers a bit of advice—all of it very sensible, and most of which I do not follow: don’t over-train, run with a group, eat healthy, etc. Most interesting to me was Sagal’s advising runners to go without headphones, in order to experience their environment and to mindfully monitor their bodies.
In fact, the way that Sagal describes running often reminded me of meditation books I have read. Both practices involve spending a considerable amount of time alone, paying attention to one’s breath and one’s body. Both practices are supposed to relieve stress and make one generally happier. And, as I mentioned, people tend to turn to these practices when they are having a problem. It is curious that focusing on the body can have such strong therapeutic effects.
One major difference between running and meditation is competitiveness. Runners are relentlessly challenging each other and themselves. This may not be wise, but it is fun on occasion. This foolhardy spirit of competitiveness has led me to sign up for Madrid’s half marathon on April 27. If you are standing near the finish line that day, and you wait long enough, you may see a tall, sweaty, teetering American stumble across the finish line. Wish me luck.
The train slowly creaked into motion, taking me away from Amsterdam Centraal. My hand was still a little bloody from cutting it on the bicycle; and my stomach was full of kebab (I haven’t properly visited a city unless I sample the local kebab), which is never an exactly pleasant sensation. Soon we were speeding through the Dutch countryside. What was most striking about the scenery is how amazingly flat it is (being largely recovered marshland); the only thing that broke the skyline were distant church spires.
I was on my way to Belgium. Now, this modest member of the Low Countries has a special significance for me. Growing up, I had a close friend from Belgium. His parents worked for the United Nations and so they ended up living in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I didn’t know anyone else from Europe, so my impression of the continent was shaped by my experience with my Belgian friend and his family.
They were an impressive bunch—tall, blond, active. I remember once witnessing the parents have lunch; to my amazement, they were eating salads! (My friend took every opportunity to eat junk food when he visited my house.) I heard strange stories of tasty waffles and french fries (which, the Belgians reminded me, weren’t really French). Finally, in my last year of high school, my Belgian friend had to move with his family to Tokyo, and I was permanently left with a hazy impression of a far-off land where everyone lived in cozy little houses eating salads and waffles. Now I could finally see Belgium for myself.
My train rolled into Brussels, and I got out to find my Airbnb and to explore the city as best I could in the remaining hours of daylight. Brussels cannot help but be at least a little disappointing to someone who has just finished visiting Amsterdam. While the Dutch city is full of personality, Brussels immediately struck me as bland and anonymous. I felt as if I could be anywhere: Germany, France, Italy, Spain… Was this the place I had been dreaming about all these years?
My impression of the city considerably improved when I found my Airbnb. It was near a street full of attractive restaurants (yes, including kebab), and it was a surprisingly beautiful apartment for the price I had paid. The host, who spoke excellent English, worked in the movie industry; so the flat was decorated with many posters and other movie paraphernalia. This was some real European culture.
I had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city. After checking in I hightailed it to the main attraction of the city: the Manneken Pis. I wonder how the Brusselites feel that the identifying sculptural icon of their city is little peeing boy. Perhaps they have a good sense of humor, as the statue seems to indicate. In any case, I confess that I did not feel the profound sense of awe and wonder that the statue can inspire. But maybe this was because someone had cheekily dressed the statue up for winter, so his impishly naked form was buried under heavy fabrics. (Apparently this is the usual state of affairs. In the post-war European recovery and boom, the relieved and happy Belgians took to dressing their iconic statue in an ever-increasing assortment of traditional costumes. The young urinating rascal apparently has a wardrobe several times bigger than even a dedicated shopaholic.)
Five minutes from the “little pisser” is the central square of the city, the magnificent Grand Place. This expansive plaza contradicted everything that I thought I had observed about the Brussels. For it is not plain, generic, or blandly modern. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful central squares that I have ever seen, comparable to the Marienplatz in Munich and Prague’s Old Town Square. It gives the visitor that unmistakably pleasurable sensation of being, without a doubt, in Europe.
Dominating the Grand Place is the old gothic Town Hall, which looks strikingly similar to the New Town Hall in Munich or the Town Hall in Vienna. And this is no coincidence, since both of those neo-gothic edifices take their inspiration from this genuinely gothic construction. The hall has survived fires and bombardment to serve as an archetype for the secular gothic style. Facing the Town Hall is the King’s House. This building—an administrative building that now houses the city’s museum—gets its name from the King of Spain (specifically, Philip I of Castile, the first Habsburg king in the Iberian peninsula); and thus it serves as a strange reminder of the erstwhile dominance of this Lowlandish nation by the Mediterranean country.* Apart from these two imposing spired structures, the rest of the plaza is dominated by guild houses, which look like ornate apartment buildings. One of these is called Le Roy d’Espagne, and could very well refer to me.
*You might be interested to learn that the word “flamenco” means “Flemish” in Spanish, and in the past was used for anything deemed extravagant. Thus it came to be applied to the genre of music, which of course does not come from Flanders.
My next and last stop (the sun was already setting) was the Cathedral of Brussels—or, more formally, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It has only been a proper cathedral for sixty years or so, since Brussels falls within the diocese of Mechelen; and that city already had a cathedral. Oversized church or a properly-sized cathedral, it is an attractive building—made in the formidable French gothic, with its two towers standing like bulwarks over the city. The inside is correspondingly impressive, though little stands out for comment besides a resplendently decorated baroque altar. In sum, it is a worthy cathedral, and its front porch offers an attractive view of the city—especially during sunset. The worst that can be said of the building is that, like so much of Brussels, it blends in with other parts of Europe so seamlessly as to lack character.
My short time in Brussels was spent. The sun had set, and every attraction would be closed. I had decided to spent the next and final day of my trip visiting Bruges, so it seemed unlikely that I would be seeing anymore of the nation’s capital. This meant that I would not see the enormous Atomium, a steel sculpture of a unit of an iron crystal (and not, as some wrongly say, of an iron atom). I would also miss the Museum of Fine Art, which is so good that W. H. Auden dedicated a depressing poem to it. Indeed, I would not see any of Brussels many fine museums—which include those dedicated to trains, musical instruments, and comic strips. I had to choose between all this and Bruges, and I chose Bruges.
I ate dinner in a fish and chips shop (Bia Mara), bought some Belgian beers (Leffe) in supermarket to drink in the Airbnb, and then walked back to drink delicious beer by myself and to post photos (edited for extra saturation) on Instagram. Obviously I was having a great vacation.
But before I leave Brussels, I wanted to share some of what I learned about Belgium during my time there. I found, to my great surprise, that the country is still a monarchy; and the old royal palace (now unused by the royal family) stands in the city center—a palace which, if I can judge from the photos, is as bereft of character as the rest of the city. I also learned that Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union, with much of the organization’s offices located here; indeed, sometimes “Brussels” is used as a synecdoche for the EU. The presence of so many thousands of native and foreign bureaucrats in the city has not helped its reputation as a tourist destination. Perhaps this helps explain why the city gives such a strong impression of being anonymously European—it really is at the crossroads of Europe. NATO also has its headquarters here, only adding to the mix.
Yet it is not only Brussels that has something of an identity crisis. The whole country is split strongly and starkly along linguistic lines. In the south there is Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country; and in the north, the Dutch-speaking Flanders. Brussels straddles these two regions uncomfortably, situated somewhat north of the Wallonian border and yet predominantly French-speaking, although it is nominally bilingual. From what I understand, those in the French part of the country rarely learn Dutch, and vice versa, leading to little intermingling and consequently little feeling of camaraderie between the two regions. The result is a strangely bipartite country, almost as if two smaller countries had been uncomfortably welded together.
This inner division expressed itself in the famous attempt to form a governing coalition that followed elections in 2010. After a record-shattering 589 days without a working government, the Flemish and Wallonian parties—who, you will remember, typically do not speak one another’s languages—finally managed to form a working alliance and elect somebody. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong independence movement among the Flemish. Much like Catalonia in Spain, Flanders is the most affluent area of the country; and there are some who think the region would do better if not attached to Wallonia. After all this time, it seems that many Europeans still have not learned to live with one another. Unfortunately, when Europeans do live together, the result can be a city like Brussels.
The train ride to Bruges was, if anything, more flat and watery than the trip from Amsterdam down to Brussels. I had never known why the Netherlands and Brussels were referred to as the “low countries” until this trip. There is hardly a hint of elevation to speak of. To pass the time, I read a selection of the works of John Ruskin, the eccentric Victorian art critic who was obsessed with the Alps; and he even went so far as to suggest that the inhabitants of flat regions have little notion of true grandeur. Clearly he had never been to Bruges.
When the train pulled in to Bruges’s station—taking slightly over an hour, and passing Ghent along the way—I could hardly contain my excitement. Bruges is one place I had never expected to visit. Indeed, even the day before I was unsure whether I should visit Bruges or stay in Brussels. Rewatching a few scenes from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges convinced me that I should opt for the first option; sassy Irish hitmen seemed a welcome improvement over European bureaucrats.
Bruges is among that small class of cities, such as Venice or Toledo, whose every corner is picturesque. It is an adorable place. The downside of such places, however, is that they quickly become overrun by tourists. Though I was there during the off-season, I did not get a strong sense of local life; there seemed to little more than tourist attractions, gift shops, and overpriced restaurants. Still the city is worth it. I don’t know when exactly humankind lost its ability to make such splendidly pretty places; nowadays we only build such quaint dwellings using CGI.
I was delighted with everything—the narrow cobblestone streets, the brick houses with step-gabled roofs, the canals crossing this way and that. I just wanted to walk into one of the little houses, build a fire, start a family, and spend a happy life eating waffles and drinking beer. But I contented myself with taking lots of mediocre pictures, which is at least less of a commitment.
Why is Bruges so beautiful? The answer, as in so many cases, is money. Bruges spent the late middle ages as a commercial superpower, strategically situated near the English channel between Germany, France, and Spain. Merchants took advantage of a channel which led from the city’s harbor out into the ocean. Yet the good fortune was not destined to last. As with Seville’s equally lucrative river port, Bruges’s channel silted up and commerce, not usually loyal, moved elsewhere. This led to a long, slow, grinding decline, which was only broken centuries later when tourists realized that, as a result of this process, the city’s beautiful building had survived intact. Two World Wars also left the city unscathed, giving the contemporary traveler a time-capsule of a city.
The skyline of Bruges is dominated by three towers. The first I encountered was the city’s cathedral, St. Salvator’s. For such a stately purpose, it is a fairly homely building—at least when compared to such gothic monsters as the cathedral in Brussels. Built of brick and lightly decorated, its inside is restrained and calming. The next tower is that of the Belfry. This enormous protuberance stands proudly over market square, the central plaza, sprouting out of a lower building like an oak from a grassy field. In Bruges featured the tower in a starring role, such as when Colin Farrell tells a group of pudgy Americans that they shouldn’t try to climb to the top, and that he’s “not being funny.” As an out of shape American myself, I took Farrell’s advice and admired the Belfry from the ground.
The last and tallest tower belongs to the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), a mostly gothic church which nevertheless, like the rest of the town, is mostly built of brick. But the church is more famous for what it contains that for its tower. First there are the gilded tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy. Charles the Bold was cut down in battle and initially buried nearby; but his great-grandson, Emperor Charles V, had him and his daughter moved to Bruges. Strangely, however, modern researchers have been unable to find Charles’s body—though Mary’s corpse did make it to its intended location. In any case, the tombs are impressively lifelike and appropriately resplendent for noble bodies; and it was gratifying to find the forebears of the family which would one day come to dominate Spain: the Habsburgs.
Yet most people do not pause at the tombs for very long, since in the next room, in the center of an altar, is a work by Michelangelo. Few works by the dour master can be seen outside of Italy, and fewer still in such a small city as Bruges. The subject is simple: The Madonna and Child, with Jesus resting tranquility on the Virgin’s knee, who is looking just as pretty and angelic as she does in the Pietà in St. Peters. If you are familiar with Michelangelo’s work, it is not difficult to spot the master’s touch here. Every element is just so finely executed—the poses, the fabric, the composition—that the statue immediately calls out to the viewer.
It seems strange that this should be so. I have seen hundreds of statues of this same subject, many by masters of their craft. How could Michelangelo take something that so many able men had been trying to do for so long, and do it better? This is the mystery of genius, I suppose. But could he have created such superlative art had not so many artists paved the way before him?
I should mention that this statue has been stolen and replaced twice: first during the Napoleonic invasions, and second during World War II. Luckily, violence and greed have so far left the statue intact, and have restored it to its rightful place.
It is difficult to write adequately about Bruges, I find, since you cannot give an accurate impression of the city by going through its parts, one by one, as a writer must do. So much of the experience of visiting consists in being lost in picturesque streets, surrounded by ever-changing views on all sides. Focusing on individual sights would detract from the impression of the whole. Nevertheless, there are some areas of the city that are worth singling out. One of these is Markt, or Market Square, the center of the city. This is where the famous Belfry can be seen. On one side of the square, the neo-gothic Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Court) rises in brooding majesty; while on the other, a row of pretty, brightly colored apartment buildings lightens the city’s aspect. In the center of the square is a statue of two Flemish heroes, Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who helped lead an (unsuccessful) uprising against the French in the 1300s.
Another important plaza is the Burg Square, where Bruges’s City Hall is located. Compared with that of Brussels, this city hall is rather unprepossessing, though it is yet another excellent example of secular gothic architecture.
Near the city hall is Bruges’s most impressive church: the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Though ornately decorated, the church does not look like very much from the outside; indeed I hardly noticed it at first, since the rest of the city is just as attractive. But what I found up the staircase took me by surprise. This is the Chapel of the Holy Blood, dedicated to a vial of Jesus’s blood-stained cloth—supposedly picked up during the Crusades. If memory serves, there was a line of the faithful waiting to do reverence to this holy relic, and so to obtain divine favor. I didn’t join in. But I did admire the church. A vaulted, wooden ceiling focused all attention on the far wall, which is decorated with a colorful 20th century painting of the bloody scene. The walls on each side, and the ceiling above, are decorated in pleasing geometric patterns; and the stained glass, too, is of high quality, only adding to the swirl of color in the space. It is a rather cheerful place for worshiping blood.
I realize that I have come this far without mentioning the canals. The city is criss-crossed with watery channels, another legacy of its days as an active port; and this has earned the city, like Amsterdam, the nickname “Venice of the north.” As you can imagine, the constant presence of water only adds to the city’s considerable charm. The canals prevent Bruges from feeling constrained and claustrophobic, like so many medieval cities. One of the most photogenic spots in the city is the bridge crossing the Minnewater—a sort of pond that used to serve as a mooring-place for ships. From there I spotted a band of roving Spanish musicians, dressed in capes and strumming guitars. Were they street musicians, or just on vacation?
My last stop for the day—and what turned out to be my best experience in Bruges—was De Halve Maan brewery. (I thought that the name meant “half man,” but it means “half moon,” which I think is somewhat less cool.) This is a historic brewery, going back to the 1850s, right in the center of the city; and they give tours. I signed up for the next English group, waited a bit in the gift shop, and then embarked on a journey of discovery. Photos were not allowed, so I can’t give a detailed account of the tour; however, it was 45 minutes well spent. Our guide, a deadpan Flemish woman, took us from the modern brewing equipment on the ground floor, then up several steep and slender stairwells to rooms displaying antique brewing equipment. (Some of the staircases were so precipitous that my life flashed before my eyes; the tour is not well-suited to those with mobility issues.)
This was my first brewery tour, so I was eager to learn how this marvelous liquid is created. The process of making beer is at once extremely complex and beautifully simple, consisting of four natural ingredients (water, barley, hops, yeast) mixed, strained, heated, cooled, and aged in such a way that the end-result is a fizzy, bitter, refreshing and slightly intoxicating substance. I was certainly inspired to have a drink—and, luckily, the tour comes with a beer at the bar downstairs. As another added bonus, the view of Bruges from the top of the brewery is excellent, and photos are allowed. I left the brewery quite impressed with the company. They still make all their beer on site (though it is pumped through an underground tube several miles away for bottling).
What makes Belgian beer so special? Well, I am not exactly an expert in the subject. But even in my dilettantish tasting of Belgian beer, a definite flavor emerges: rich and sweet, almost like brown sugar. In contrast to many English and American ales, the bitter, floral flavor of hops is never very pronounced. Instead the beer is heavy and scrumptious, like a good dessert. Much of the brewing culture in Belgium dates back to medieval monasteries, a tradition which has led to the country’s beer culture being listed as UNESCO intangible world heritage. Without doubt Belgian beer is one of the treasures and pleasures of Europe.
So ended my day in Bruges. Now it was time to return to Brussels and then to Madrid. Thankfully I took the time to examine my Ryanair boarding pass that night, or else I would not have realized that (of course) Ryanair does not fly out of Brussels’s primary airport, but out of the South Charleroi airport—considerably more difficult to get to. But who could complain about early flights and inconvenient airports when Belgium is the reward?
I arrived at my Airbnb late—almost midnight—after illegally riding the bus to the outskirts of the city.
I can never get used to these transport system where there are no turnstiles for the metro and where you cannot simply pay the busdriver. Instead, you must buy a ticket beforehand and validad it yourself. This makes the temptation to ride for free very difficult to resist, especially if it’s late and you don’t know where the ticket machines are. In Madrid or New York, if you try to ride a bus for free the driver will kick you off; and if you jump the turnstiles you can get a big fine. But in Amsterdam, you will only face consequences if the metro inspectors catch you. And what are the chances of that?
My Airbnb host was a relaxed fellow. I suspected that he enjoyed the free availability of marijuana in the city. In any case, he very kindly offered to lend me his museum pass, which allows any resident of the city to get into the museums for free. Unfortunately for me, I had foolishly planned ahead and bought my museum tickets online. The money was spent—and for nothing. This was the last time that I travelled responsibly.
It was a cold February night and I was hungry for dinner. The only place open was a kebab restaurant—not fast food, but genuine kebab. It was delicious. Biting into the spiced meat, I knew that Amsterdam was going to be a special place.
I woke up early the following morning and set off for the Van Gogh museum. Instead of riding illegally again, I decided that I would take the time to walk through the city. The weather was cold, grey, misty, and threatening rain. Despite the circumstances, however, and even though I hadn’t had breakfast, the city immediately caught my attention.
Amsterdam is among that small class of cities whose every avenue announces its identity. Even outside of the historic city center, it is impossible to forget that one is in Amsterdam. For one, there are the bicycles. There are thousands of them—hundreds of thousands. It is said that there are more bikes than people, and what I find online seems to confirm it: the population is around 820,000, while there are over 880,000 bikes. Why anyone would need more than one bicycle, I can hardly guess. Nonetheless it is an inspiring sight. Every corner of the city is crammed with pedalled contraptions; and there is more traffic on the bike lanes than on those for cars. But pedestrians have an extra worry when crossing the street.
The style of architecture is distinct, too. In the center there are the crow-stepped gables—creating the Netherlands’ distinctive skyline. Also distinctive is the use of brick. Everything seems to made of the baked clay blocks, giving the city a dark, brooding, and quasi-industrial feel. Certainly it is impossible to mistake a single street of Amsterdam for one in Madrid.
But perhaps the most distinctive touch of Amsterdam are the canals. Like much of the Netherlands, the city itself rests on what was previously swampland. The canals were used to redirect the water, thus making the land available to build on while providing convenient transportation within the city. The canals have also, historically, been useful in the city’s defense. The Stelling van Amsterdam is a system of forts surrounding the center, with low-lying ground that can be flooded to create a watery barrier too shallow for boats. Unfortunately for the Netherlands, this system of defence, however elegant, was rendered obsolete by advances in military technology—such as bombers.
Nowadays, the canals are mostly just pretty to look at. And they are plentiful. There are 165 canals, which is more than even Venice has; and well over a thousand bridges are needed to connect all the isles of land floating between them. Personally I found the constant presence of running water to be extremely charming. The canals make the whole city seem to breathe in the open air, counteracting the somewhat cramped aspect of the city’s narrow buildings.
The final result is a beguiling mixture: wide vistas and narrow alleys, crowded footbridges and bustling bike lanes, historic brick husks concealing modern interiors.
As I walked, listening to the soundtrack of Phantom Thread, I was lost in an aesthetic reverie—marvelling at every new perspective afforded to me. Each shop window and city street gained a strange significance, each one a kind of monument to past and present lives. The cold and the dark gave the city a melancholic hue; but it was a sweet sadness, the kind of sorrow one feels at all beauty, knowing that it is temporary. This, then, was my first and final impression of Amsterdam: the beauty of everyday life.
My first stop was the Van Gogh Museum.
Few museums dedicated solely to the art of one man can be ranked among the great museums of the world, but this is one of them. The institution is situated in a sleek, modern building in Museum Square. The museum received its collection—the largest in the world of Van Gogh’s works—from the artist’s family. After Vincent and his brother, Theo, passed away, his unsold work fell into the able hands of Theo’s widow, Johanna. She, in turn, left the collection to her son, named after his uncle, Vincent. The museum only opened its doors in 1973; before that, Van Gogh’s works were held and displayed in the state modern art museum, the Stedelijk.
No photographs are allowed inside the museum, which is likely a good thing, since otherwise there would be far too many selfie-takers clogging the halls. Thus, I will have to rely on my memory. On the ground floor there is a series of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. His oeuvre is particularly rich in self-portraits, perhaps because he was prone to melancholy self-examination, or perhaps because he simply could not afford other models. In any case, they are milestones in the history of art: an attempt at introspection whose nearest literary equivalent is, perhaps, Montaigne’s Essays. When the portraits are arranged chronologically, one can see the progression in his style, from lumpy forms of dull browns and greys, to bright blues and yellows in dashing lines. His best self-portraits achieve a mesmerizing stare about the eyes, comparable to the intensity in Michelangelo’s David.
Next, the visitor ascends the stairs to enter the main collection. The exhibit begins with some of Van Gogh’s influences. One of the most important of these was Jean-François Millet, a French social realist who often painted rural scenes. Van Gogh was himself a passionate believer in painting from life; and in his early years especially he was fascinated by poverty and peasant ways. Many of his early sketches (which are on display) are of workers in a field or townspeople attending a mass. Van Gogh got a relatively late start in the craft (27, which is good news for the rest of us) and his early work displays no technical brilliance, to say the least. But it does show, if my eye may judge, a keen emotional sensitivity to the world around him, especially to the toil, drudgery, and misery of life. There is nothing in his work that can be called frivolous.
I came well prepared, since I had just finished reading a collection of Van Gogh’s letters (highly recommended). You may imagine, then, how much of a treat it was to see the artist’s work laid out chronologically after I had worked my way through his life. Again, what most strikes the viewer about Van Gogh’s early work is its lack of color. He seems to have had almost no interest in pigment. This is epitomized in his early masterwork, The Potato Eaters. He shows us a scene of peasants eating a humble meal. It is not an inspiring sight. The men and women have heavy, almost simian features, reminiscent of Goya’s black paintings (though I do not think Van Gogh ever saw them). The oil lamp illuminates the hovel with a sickly light, which reinforces the ill and withered look of the painting’s subject. Van Gogh shows us an ugly truth, horridly naked, and yet made monumental in its composition.
Vincent’s style underwent a dramatic change when, after enduring years of isolated poverty and estrangement with his family, he moved in with his brother, Theo, in his Paris apartment. Theo was an art dealer, and Paris the art capital of the world, so Vincent was well-positioned to take stock of the dominant artistic currents of his time. In Paris he saw the work of modern masters like Monet, Seurat, and Cezanne, and befriended many other prominent artists (most famously Gauguin, who later came to stay with Vincent until they had a quarrel). The most immediate consequence of this exposure was Vincent’s discovery of color. Compared to his earlier work, the paintings he started to produce were bright and joyful, though still burning with intensity.
I would also like to add a curiosity I learned on my visit: that Van Gogh was enamored of Japanese art. Like many artists of the time, he collected Japanese prints. He even went to far as to copy them, producing his own versions of works by Hiroshige. His copies, though lacking the lightness and clean execution of the original, are well done. And he even went so far as to write Japanese all around the border of the painting (though I don’t know if it is proper Japanese, since I do not think he could read the language).
Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s years in Paris are some of his worst documented, since he was living with his brother and so had no need to write him letters. Nevertheless, it is clear that the artist was busy practicing his craft. The Van Gogh museum even has a study that he made of an object (I remember it was a small statue of an animal, but I cannot remember which). Van Gogh’s distinctively heavy brushstrokes also begin to make their emergence at this stage. In another room, a recreating of one of his paintings is on display under a microscope, so that the visitor can see the swirling textures of the master’s paint up close. This habit of daubing on pigment in glooping quantities caused his paintings to have an almost sculptural feel, something that no poster or print can capture.
After two years Van Gogh left Paris for more the amiable climate of southern France. Here is when his real mature period begins. While his early works tend to focus on humans in action, his mature style was more focused on scenes: buildings, rooms, landscapes. One painting which epitomizes the change is The Yellow House, depicting the building in which he rented an apartment with the naive hope of turning it into an artists’ colony. Far from the center of focus, the people in the work are anonymous shadows, only serving to illustrate the city street that is his main focus. Van Gogh also painted his room. Here the painter’s expressionism is especially obvious. The perspective is warped; it is not quite believable as a space. But the bold yellows and light blues convey a sense of joyfulness and peace, which is nevertheless somewhat belied by the faint whiff of poverty one senses from looking at the barely furnished room.
But Van Gogh’s most famous painting from this period is likely the Sunflowers. Van Gogh made multiple versions of this painting; the most famous of these is at the museum. It is a masterpiece. The painting has the strong and instantly memorable visual impact of the best graphic design. Yet it is better than any design, of course. With his thick and skillful dabs of paint, Van Gogh makes the sunflowers almost tactile. Though more abstract and more beautiful than any real sunflower, one almost feels that she can reach into the painting and grab one. But the emotional effect of the painting goes far beyond its obvious visual properties. As in all of Van Gogh’s best work, the dominant feeling is joy, immense joy, struggling with and overcoming equally intense feelings of despair. During his stay at the Yellow House, Gauguin created a valuable image (also at the museum) of Van Gogh at work on the sunflowers.
Needless to say his dreams of founding an artists’ colony failed. Van Gogh was hardly the figure to command a movement, not least because he was tetchy and unyielding. For example, he constantly clashed with Gauguin over the necessity of drawing from nature. Gauguin believed in letting the artist’s imagination run wild, free of constraint, but Van Gogh insisted that great art only resulted from close observation. In any case, their falling out had as much to do with Van Gogh’s worsening mental state as with his opinions. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh attempted to attack him with a razor; later this same night was when Van Gogh famously severed his ear.
This led to Van Gogh’s hospitalization and eventual suicide—and also to the most productive and extraordinary phase of his career. It is still unclear what ailment plagued the artist in his final years. His lifestyle—smoking and drinking heavily, frequenting prostitutes and possibly contracting syphilis, eating scantily and sleeping sporadically—no doubt contributed. The museum has a display of various hypotheses: Freudian theories of repression, bipolar disorder, sunstroke, digitalis poisoning. Likely we will never know for certain. Whatever the explanation, Van Gogh struggled heroically with his worsening condition, creating an oeuvre that rivals any in the history of art.
One of these remarkable late paintings is his Almond Blossoms. The twisted branch of an almost tree in bloom stretches across the canvas. Beyond is the blue sky, as if the viewer is below and looking up at the boughs. It is a painting of extraordinary calm. One wonders how a man recently admitted into an asylum could conjure such a tranquil image of nature in its simple beauty. And here, once again, we see the artist’s talent for reproducing the emotional effect of nature, rather than nature herself. For the painting is impossible to mistake with a photograph; the brush marks are visible, the flowers are not finely detailed. Yet the painting gives the sense of lying on grass, looking up at an almost tree—the cool breeze, the gentle sun, the fresh smell of spring—better than any photograph can.
Among the final paintings on display is Wheatfield with Crows. This is commonly said to be Van Gogh’s last completed painting—though no reliable record exists of it being so—and so critics are apt to see in it signs of depression. Certainly these are not difficult to find: the brooding, stormy sky; the windswept field; the black birds heralding death—and all in a style of extraordinary intensity. But to me this is not the work of a man tired with life, bent on leaving this world. Indeed, though it is hard to argue that the painting is happy, I still sense in it the same joy that one feels in Sunflowers: the awe in the face of a natural spectacle, the wonder at the basic scenes of everyday life. That the same man who painted this would, shortly later, shoot himself in a similar field, beggars my imagination.
Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, confinement, and eventual suicide form an essential part of his myth. No doubt he was dogged by a serious illness, which at times sent him into delusional fits. Yet it is very much disputable the role that Van Gogh’s mental illness—whatever its cause—played in his painting. Some have argued that it contributed to his creativity, giving him a unique vision. One can equally well argue that his art was a way of staying sane and fighting off his demons. Personally, I am averse to this modern tendency to diagnose everyone who seems odd, different, or eccentric with a mental disorder, equating different forms of genius with conditions or illnesses. Such diagnoses strip the individual of his agency, and even of his individuality. More importantly, post mortem diagnoses are impossible to prove.
This did it for the Van Gogh Museum. I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most extraordinary museums that I have had the pleasure of visiting. Fortunately, another one was just around the corner. So after a quick sandwich in Bagels and Beans—a local chain, very tasty—I was on my way to Amsterdam’s other major museum: the Rijksmuseum.
The Rijksmuseum is the Netherlands’ national museum, comparable to Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid. Founded in 1800, the museum is located in a grand, palatial building—appropriately Dutch in design—right in the center of the city. In it can be found some of the finest examples of Dutch art, including many famous paintings by the Dutch Golden Age masters. It is a necessary visit for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of art.
Aside from a small collection of Asian and Medieval art, the museum’s collection really begins in force with the Renaissance. Here we see the beginning of portraiture as we know it: the attempt to capture the personality of one ordinary individual through a close concentration on their features. We see characters of various sorts—the proud, the crafty, the self-indulgent, the vain—at times ridiculous, yet rendered iconic through the painter’s brush. It is one of the great mysteries of art that it can transform the unique into the universal by emphasizing what is most unique. Perhaps this is because we are all different in the same ways.
The museum does not only contain paintings. There are also ornate chess-sets, statuettes, altarpieces, and even what were supposed to be unicorn horns (in reality, the tusks of narwhals). And there is a fascinating section devoted to colonial art—both art collected from, and inspired by, the Dutch colonization of the Indies. Here we find ornate cannon barrels, one with the head of a dragon, as well as small dioramas depicting colonial life. Also on display are delicate luxury items, such as furniture, candelabras, and mirrors—even an ornate harpsichord. Nearby are the 19th century paintings, among which are excellent examples of Dutch landscapes and portraits.
Yet the museum’s most valuable treasures are gathered together in the Gallery of Honor. And just as Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, occupies pride of place in the center of the Prado, so does Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch dominate the central gallery.
This painting is justly famous for its revolutionary take on a group portrait. Traditionally, a portrait of this kind—not of nobles, but of the local militia—was a formal and static affair, with the participants lines up in rows according to their rank. Rembrandt cracks this convention wide open with this work. Every person is individualized, and everyone is engaged in some sort of action. As a result the group portrait is full of bustle and even confusion, as each character is busy loading their riffle, having a chat, or gesticulating heroically. It is difficult to imagine this chaotic rabble of men marching in formation, but easy to imagine them relaxing in a pub. Only a master of portraiture such as Rembrandt could have put together such a marvelously memorable image out of such seemingly unpromising material. And if any evidence was needed of his technical ability, examine the foreshortening on the lieutenant’s spear in the foreground.
Another, somewhat lesser-known master of the Dutch Golden Age was Jacob van Ruisdael, who was the preeminent landscape artist of the period. One might think that the Netherlands is an unpromising land for landscape painters, since the Dutch countryside is so flat and domesticated. But Ruisdael has shown us otherwise. Personally I find his use of color and texture mesmerizing: the fluffy clouds floating in the light blue, the varying greens of the trees and the dull browns of the dirt—it all comes together in such a way that the ordinary beauty of daily scenes emerges. I particularly like his Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede for its brooding, grey sky silhouetting a lonely windmill—perhaps an ironic comment on the force of technology as compared to that of nature.
My favorite painter of this period, and the one that most perfectly captures my impression of Dutch life, is Johannes Vermeer. Here we see something almost entirely new in the history of art. Rather than focus on the forces of nature, the royalty, aristocrats, or wealthy merchants, we have a focus on the most absolutely ordinary of daily, domestic scenes. The most famous example of this is The Milkmaid, which shows us a serving woman engaged in pouring milk. Again, it is the most typical and unromantic of gestures; and yet Vermeer, with his fine attention to daily, manages to imbue into this gesture an extreme pathos—an elemental poetry.
Another one of my favorites is The Little Street, which shows us a typical, middle-class street in the city of Delft. The buildings are in the homely, Dutch style, made with step-gabled roofs of brick, and they are a little bit worn by the weather. Inside Vermeer allows us to spy on a woman at work, washing clothes. Nearby, seated in a doorstep, another woman is sewing; while two children are searching for something (or playing a game?) underneath a bench. Again, the painting is poignant for its very ordinariness. Vermeer shows us the quiet nobility of these neighborhood scenes, normally taken for granted and yet necessary for life to go on. And in the process the artist has created an image more impressive than the full-length portrait of Napoleon, dressed in the most pompous of imperial outfits, in another gallery of the museum.
In a word, I found in the Rijksmuseum what I had also found in the Van Gogh Museum, and indeed in the city itself—a celebration of the beauty of everyday life.
My next destination was Amsterdam’s infamous Red-Light District. This is so-called because of the red lighting used to advertise a prostitute’s service at night. The area is famous, not only for the working women displaying themselves in shop windows, but also for the many peripheral sex-related businesses: sex shops, sex shows, and even a museum of prostitution (which was what I decided to visit).
Ironically, perhaps, the red-light district in Amsterdam is in the most historic and beautiful part of the city. Canals criss-cross this side of town in a circular pattern, making all foot-travel a labyrinth of alleys, narrow streets, and foot-bridges. Hardly a street goes by that does not reveal another picturesque view of the city. It was a clear February afternoon, with the blue sky gradually turning pink in the sunset, and shadows gradually extending across the canals. I was there before dinner, so the area was fairly quiet. Indeed, apart from a few signs, it was difficult to know that I was even in a red-light district. No scantily clad women graced the windows overlooking the street. This meant that I could take pictures without fear. From what I hear, the women get angry when people photograph them, and may even leave their perch in violent pursuit.
Before I relate what I learned in the Museum of Prostitution, I wish first to cover another of Amsterdam’s famous markets: marijuana. Now, you may be surprised to learn that marijuana is not legal in the city; it is decriminalized—or tolerated, in other words. The result is the same, however: a visitor may consume weed without fear of the police, and even buy small quantities with impunity. This is normally done in “coffee” shops. I did not visit one of these during my stay—I was traveling alone, so it didn’t seem like a good idea—but I have heard ample stories of friends smoking too much, or eating too much of an edible, and repenting afterwards. Well, maybe next time.
The Museum of Prostitution is dedicated to Amsterdam’s other great vice: sex. It is right in the center of the red-light district, in a space that was formerly used by call girls. The ticket came with an audioguide, in my case narrated by a Russian sex worker. The museum itself is designed to replicate the spaces used in these circumstances, complete with bathrooms, beds, and chains. I learned some interesting facts along the way. The standard deal is to pay €50 until the man finishes—which normally takes less than 10 minutes. A working girl makes more money with a faster turnover, you see. The guide also told us about some of the dangers that prostitutes face, even in a highly regulated industry like Amsterdam’s, as well as some amusing stories about customers. Really, the most striking thing about the museum was how un-sexy the experience is made to seem, for both client and purveyor.
I especially appreciated the information about prostitution throughout the world. In most of the United States it is absolutely illegal. In Spain, it is decriminalized to be a prostitute, but pimping is illegal. In France it is legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it—a curious situation. In Amsterdam it is highly regulated, with a certain number of legal permits. Window prostitutes only constitute a moderate portion of the business in the country, with street walkers, sex clubs, and escort services rounding out the rest of the market. I have heard people say that STD testing is mandatory, but this is not actually true—though I am sure that many prostitutes regularly get tested, and condom use is universal.
Unfortunately, despite the increase in legal protections, the industry is still rife with problems. Prostitutes are far more likely to suffer abuse or rape. And since prostitution is still illegal in much of the world, and in any case there is a lot of money to be made by unscrupulous people, human trafficking, especially of underage girls, is still a serious problem. This has led to some crackdowns by the authorities. Coffee shops have not escaped this legal limbo, either, since although it is not illegal to buy or possess marijuana in small quantities, it is illegal to grow or buy it in large quantities—which leads one to wonder where these coffee shops get their supplies.
Though I was not inspired to try it for myself, I left the museum greatly impressed by the huge and so often ignored role that the world’s oldest profession has played, and still plays, in society. To pick a relevant example, Van Gogh was a dedicated patron of brothels. At one point he decided to live with a prostitute and her young child—despite the protests of his family and friends—and after his self-inflicted wound to the ear, he delivered the severed appendage to a local prostitute. And this story is just one of millions.
Sex work has been a constant presence in the history of every nation; yet this indecorous profession has consistently been pushed into the shadows. It is something we prefer to ignore, even if we all know it exists. Personally, despite its shortcomings, I think that the Dutch approach is far better than American prudishness. If we simply admit that, one way or another, sex work will continue to exist, we can install the necessary safeguards to make it safe for its practitioners. Pretending it does not exist only serves those who prey on the vulnerable.
I only had a long weekend to spend on this trip; and I had decided, perhaps too ambitiously, to visit both Amsterdam and Brussels in the three full days I had available. This meant that, after my long day exploring the treasures of Amsterdam, I had to catch a train the following afternoon. Only the morning remained to see more of this enchanting city.
I decided that my time was best spent in renting a bicycle. Amsterdam is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world; and if you want to see the city from the perspective of a native, this is the only way to do it. So I trekked from my Airbnb to Centraal Station (listening to Frankenstein on audiobook, whose dark gothic tone did not quite match the bourgeois beauty of the city), deposited my big orange backpack in a luggage locker (they are located beyond the train turnstiles), and rented a bike from a place called MacBike (no relation to Apple).
It was a simple contraption with a few gears and decently working brakes. Somehow, while I was adjusting the seat for my overlong legs, I cut myself in my palm. It did not hurt at all; in fact I didn’t notice until after several minutes of riding; but it bled quite a bit and the scar lasted for months. Thus I bloodily made my way into the city. I was quite nervous at first. My riding skills are reasonable, but I felt intimidated by the rules of the road. I had never signalled, passed on the outside lane, stopped at a stop sign, or dealt with intersections on a bike. And I can hardly do those things in a car in any case. But once I got my biking legs back, I felt marvelous as I drifted down the historic city streets.
Bicycles are one of the most extraordinary inventions our species has blundered upon, and I think many cities could be vastly improved by following Amsterdam’s example and relying more on bike transport. They require no fuel except the food you eat, are fast enough to quickly navigate most city centers, need little space to store, produce no pollution, and as an added bonus promote healthiness and well-being. I remember watching a presentation by Bill Nye while I was in high school in which he told us that bicycles are the most energy-efficient form of transportation known to man. They are also quite relaxing and enjoyable.
As you can tell from this paean to bicycles, I was having a splendid time. But it was difficult to navigate the city, since I couldn’t follow any maps on my phone while I was riding. After several wrong turns and detours, then, I found my way to Vondelpark, a very pretty green space with twisting paths for walking and biking, and a little pond running down the center.
As I rode through this park, I had one of those surreal moments when one seems to be seeing oneself from a distance. I had heard of people visiting Amsterdam and renting bikes back when I was in high school, but never did I imagine that I might do the same thing myself one day. Yet here I was, less than ten years after graduating high school, pedaling around in this beautiful foreign city before my train left to Belgium—another place I never imagined that I would visit. It seemed too good to be true, like I was living somebody else’s life. This was an irrational reaction, since it is not as if biking in Amsterdam is objectively more pleasurable than biking in, say, my old university. What made it special was that, throughout the years, I had unconsciously invested the experience with an exotic, unreachable quality; and now I was finding that, far from unreachable, it was the easiest thing in the world.
In an hour I had arrived back in the train station. It was to be my last glimpse of the city before my ride to Belgium. The experience only confirmed what was, from the start, my constant impression of Amsterdam: the appreciation of ordinary pleasures, the celebration of daily beauty, the quiet contentment with the simple things in life. It is a city of high culture but of little pretense, of hard work yet of an easygoing attitude. I hope to return someday.
There is a legend that, if you see the frog on the façade of the old university building, you are destined to return to Salamanca. Well, I saw the frog on my first trip, three years ago. And sure enough I returned.
Salamanca is without doubt one of the best daytrips from Madrid. Like so many places in Spain, it is extremely photogenic. Here is the evidence.