The flowers smelled better this year, there is no doubt. First, there was the explosion of fragrances that hit me as I walked by the garden at Artis in March. The rows of purple hyacinth were a delight for my frozen senses. Then, there was the lilac on the Dijksgracht, a lovely surprise, especially since I had never seen lilac in Amsterdam before. May, the time of its blossoming, would find me in Romania, visiting my family, or traveling. And then came the roses, crawling on façades as if for a better view, red, pink, white, and my favourite, yellow. They were everywhere, turning the city into one big garden. Ah, the time of the roses, the most beautiful time of the year in Amsterdam.
In the still city, the air seemed clearer, allowing for some of the most unforgettable sunsets. The streets turned into promenades, with more people walking rather than biking, which is pleasantly unusual in Amsterdam. I saw strangers smiling at strangers – also very unusual – as if they were glad to see each other, glad to know that they were not the only ones walking aimlessly in the silenced city, glad to experience together the sun going down over the waters of the Oosterdok.
How sweet the first encounter with friends, after more than two months of staying in. How delicious the first takeaway coffee in months, the first portion of fries on a terrace, the first bouquet of lilies picked-up from a florist. How wonderful to sit down by a canal in the Old Town, a beer in hand, and realize that, against all odds, the city is still here, now more welcoming than ever, the sun still shining, and just look at those little ducks trying to build a nest by the bridge.
Walking back home along the Sarphatistraat, the trees moving in the warm breeze, I am thinking that life is not cancelled. Joy is still possible. A tram is passing by, one I would normally be in, but by now I am already used to walking everywhere. How come I haven’t walked more before? When this is over, I say to myself, I might never take the tram again. I’ll just walk.
How peaceful to stroll along the Kadijken at sunset. After the fall of roses somewhere in July, hollyhocks rose high against the walls at the Hoogte Kadijk, white, pink, red or purple, and on warm evenings people gather for dinner around improvised dining tables in front of their houses. So as not to disturb their family affair – and for other known reasons – I step onto the street. I walk right into the orange light that ends the day and the windows on the right shine like golden tinfoils.
By the water, on the Nieuwevaart, I gaze at the thousands of liquid stars that are born each moment when the light touches the water, and a sound I know so well, one that I thought forgotten, stops me right there. Could that be it? Yes, yes, it is. It’s the rowing of a boat. Row in, row out, a perfect cadence of wood and water, ancestral almost, and a boat sliding over the surface. There he is, whoever he might be, in the middle of a modern European capital, the man who is rowing his boat. No electric power, just manpower. And no rush. I sit there and listen to this pure sound as one would listen to a piano concert, until the man and his boat dissolve into the evening.
Walking through a maze of bushes, trees, and flowers, originally the garden of a bourgeois summer house in the Watergraafsmeer, I hear the gravel cracking under my feet and, finding shade, I sit on a white bench resembling a wedding cake. Pears almost ripe are hanging from a tree at my left, bees are pollinating the red lilies at my right, and everywhere I look I see the wild flowers of summer, a symphony of blue and red and yellow, no perfume, just saturated colour. On the way back home, I take a short walk in the nearby Frankendael Park, just to hear someone calling my name, a distant friend, now with her newborn daughter playing in the grass.
Last summer, at the Weesperzijde, on the streep of grass along the river, one could swear he or she was at the beach. There was no place left to drop a coin. More Amsterdammers were leaving their homes, crossing the street barefoot and in bathing suits, towels hung over their shoulders, ready for a swim. Not much of a beach feeling this time, but there are still spread out terraces where to sip a glass of wine and the view is just as good: the Amstel, the lilies, the gladioli, and the sunflowers.
And suddenly the heat comes, the real heat, the kind of heat that doesn’t let you sleep at night, and the city is hit by a wave of hedonism once again. It is a controlled kind of hedonism, it has to be, but even so, you have the uncovered chests on bikes, the improvised picnics and barbecues, whose smell you can feel up into your home, and the children, noisier than ever, jumping off bridges into the cooling, unsanitized canals. Neighbours take camping chairs out of the storage and gather by the water until the light of the day is gone. At night, their place is taken by youngsters smoking weed. Ah, the pleasures of summer in Amsterdam.
No place seems more inviting on hot evenings than the Veemkade, the large promenade along the IJhaven, with plenty of space for everybody. To walk the dog, to run, to bring furniture and food from the house and call it al fresco dining. The ones who are lucky to live here – not so lucky in cold weather, when the wind hits strongest in these former docklands – open the windows, their homes becoming one with the street. The spectacle is even more impressive at the ground floor, where the house simply pours into the quay. Sunset-tinted rosé in glasses, boats waving Dutch flags at their tail, and above it all the sun, a ripe peach ready to call it a day. The black man, tall and slender, makes quite an apparition as he walks among the idle, almost naked bodies, moving as if against the tide, in his brown suit with pink elbows, a hat on his head. His pace is quicker than that of a flâneur, yet calm and gracious, arms swinging without interruption. He carries nothing but himself, no bag, and there is no distraction to set him off course. Who is this wonderful man and where is he going?
To experience the city at night is a whole different story. The picnic and barbecue people are now out of sight, imbued with alcohol and sunshine, the children fast asleep in bed after a thorough wash. It’s quiet again. Even the water is still, and the canal houses are checking their image in the dark, unmovable mirror. This is the time to cross the Amstel on the Magere Brug, lit like a make-up mirror, and head toward the Reguliersgracht, where Amsterdam becomes what it has always been: a city of water. Soundless, a dining boat appears from under the bridge, and from the few items still standing on the elegant tables you can tell it is well past dessert time. Time to go home and sleep, and let Amsterdam have a rest, too.