FUCHS EXPATRIATE DISPATCH
"Dude, Where's My Ear?"
Have you ever tried to sleep in your own lap? The overnight train from
Darmstadt to Amsterdam is cattle-packed right to the doors. I have to
evict some poor guy from my (reserved) seat, then get busy trying to
find, for a full six hours, a bodily position that might conduce to
something more sleep-like than the jerky, hallucinatory fugue state I
Finally, at 9AM, I strike land at Amsterdam. Though, that's precisely
the wrong term for itAmsterdam is built on a series of U-shaped,
concentric canals, and is sometimes referred to as "the Venice of the
north." Albeit it's not sinking; perhaps stoned tourists are lighter.
That's hardly a fair barb, though. We spent a bit of time wandering
through the red light district, avoiding the gazes of the prostitutes
behind glass, and even spending a half-hour in one of the "coffee
shops." (Which is how they inexplicably refer to the hash bars here. On
my first few minutes in town, I actually tried to get coffee at one. "No
coffee today," scowled the guy over the big display case of weed.
"Machine broken today.") But Amsterdam is hardly defined by vice. If
anything, it's defined by an open, accepting spirit, and a generally
Take for instance the, erm, HomoMonument. This was installed in 1987 as
a memorial to the gays and lesbians who died during the Second World
War, as well as those who have fallen to AIDS, since. I initially got a
number of snickers out of the name of this thing. (Including my
aspiration to maybe pick up one or two HomoMementos at the nearby gift
shop). But, it's quite a serious, and lovely, and touching affair. It's
situated in a square in front of the city's largest chuch, Westerkerk
and actually, significantly, within sight of the Anne Frank House. It
consists of two trianglesone raised, one sunkenat the corners of a
much larger triangle, which juts out over the water of one of the
canals. The inscription, in Dutch, reads "Such an infinite desire for
I mention the HomoMonument right off, because it felt to me like
Amsterdam is just that kind of place.
Albeit also a heavily-touristed one. Crowds of holidaymakers thronged
the al fresco dining patios, and coursed across the graceful bridges
(Amsterdam has more than a thousand) over the canals. In all fairness,
we were here right at the high season. Also, it's a pretty nice breed
of tourist: They seemed not to shout, but quietly read their Lonely
Planets, and toted their colorful "Van Gogh Museum" poster tubes.
Which is another poignant note I might strike. Ali and I considered that
if all of these people had bought Vincent's images while he was alive,
he would have done quite well. (Heck, even if they had been paying
poster print prices.) But neither poverty, nor depression, nor critical
and commercial failure deterred him: He turned out an amazing 800
canvases in a mere ten-year career. (He decided to become an artist at
age 27, after working with little success as an art dealer, a teacher, a
preacher. He killed himself, with a gunshot to the chest, at age 37.)
More than 200 of those paintings live at the Van Gogh Museum.
M: "Here we are again. Another gallery. Our third?"
A: "I've actually only ever been to three. I've been meaning to
Van Gogh's work is arranged chronologically, and thus by location
marching inexorably, and disturbingly, toward his death. But so many of
the pieces are brilliant, and one gains insight into the progression of
his work. "The Cottage", 1885, shows his brush strokes starting to
thicken up and, moreover, we agree, depicts a scene at once peaceful
night is coming onand forbodingso is a storm. "Roofs in Paris",
1886, shows his introduction to impressionism on arriving in France.
He did a lot of self portraits due to not being able to afford models
and all. In "The Sea at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer", he seems to be
trying to see how much paint he could reasonably pile up on the canvas.
But that's part of his charm, isn't it? 8^)
Ali saw "The Bedroom" years earlier, in another cityand had a print of
it hanging on her wall for years after. (I commented on how odd it was
for her and this canvas to be reunited in Amsterdam, after all this
time. Think of them going their separate ways, then intersecting
again.) I felt strongly that "Sunflowers" just really hangs together. It
is so balanced. Maybe I'm just conditioned to think so, but this really
looks like a masterwork to me. Though it's not one of Ali's favorites,
she agrees that there is something special about it. "Wheatfield With
Crows", another of his most famous, was painted in the final weeks
of his life, when he was deeply depressed. It may have been his last
painting, and some see the coming of the crows, and the cut-off path,
as portents of his death.
Amsterdam was booked when I called beforehand, and we were hugely lucky
to show up and get a room at a place called the Amsterdam Weichman, on
the spot. This is run by a slightly dizzy American (he charged us for
the room at check-in, and kept trying to do it again each time he saw
us), and his sharp-tongued Dutch wife. However, they let us what turned
out to be the only room in the place with a balcony. With its doors
thrown wide, this opened onto a view down on the canal, and the bridge,
and the lane, and the stately townhouses across the way. I spent a lot
of time standing on it looking out, and Ali spent more. (Sometimes we
even stood there together.)
Scene From Beside The Canal
Michael Fuchs, Intrepid Explorer
Alison Henry, Darling of the West End
Nameless Piano Player
Fuchs & Henry are strolling a peaceful canal in the Netherlands. They
hear piano music, and stop beside the open doorway of an apartment.
Inside the apartment, out of view, a man is playing a piano concerto.
Fuchs & Henry lean against the stairs to listen for awhile.
Fuchs (gazing across the canal): Hey. Look. There are, erm, two
extremely scantily clad women standing in doorways over there. Are they,
um, for sale?
Henry: No. They're just sunbathing.
Fuchs: Ah. Well, that's a good thing, because I'm out of cash.
Henry: I've got some.
Exit Stage Right.