This city, unfolding outward like the concentric ripples of a pebble tossed in water, is dotted, generously, necessarily, with bridges. sometimes staggered, sometimes symmetrically logical, they punctuate the expansive brackets of the canal belt, transforming beelines into meanders, gracefully relieving the flatness, inspiring photographs, and fantasies, and marriage proposals.
The railing, ornate here, though few notice its lavishness, prods me into awkward parentheses. the sky is bright it is a clear, cold january afternoon
and the noonday shadows are sharp and outspoken. this bridge spans the outermost of the renowned inner waterways, and from where i stand, i see i see life on the busy shopping street moving to and fro, and life on the water bobbing nder my booted feet. there are worse things in the world, i know, than being stranded on the corner of this road, and this canal, on this particular winter’s day.
i glance upward pigeons line the rooftops, patient, poised, alert; and suddenly, suspecting sustenance somewhere below, they swoop. they have no fear, but unsuspecting pedestrians panic, veering to avoid the ferocious flapping wings.
one young woman shrieks: “flying rats!” and cowers into her companion’s side. “real rats are much worse”, he responds. he knows this, unfortunately, for a fact. “real rats are thieves; the airborne ones, well, they’re just beggars”. he drapes an arm around her shoulder, and they stroll onward, past the musician with his fiddle and his open case. they have places to go, and people to meet, and no loose change.
there are, say the statistics, nearly thirteen hundred bridges in amsterdam. they are not all grand and decorative – iron wrought into intricate curves and lacquered green – like the ones that divide this street into short uncomplicated blocks. some are drawbridges, angular and wooden. some are compact and sweetly curved: a few of these are visible from where i lean. some, of course, are not quaint at all, merely functional, but further afield, and largely unappreciated.
the sun disappears behind | are, to me, a form of
an impertinent cloud. i reach into my left pocket for my gloves, and a five euro note flutters to the pavement. as i stoop to its rescue, a ragged woman zigzags across the tram tracks and rasps, “that’s mine!”. her teeth are brown and sparse, her eyes agitated. “i don’t think it is”, i reply, “since it just fell out of my coat.” “it is too”, she insists. “I lost it. i did. on this bridge. i’ve been looking for it all morning!” i raise my eyebrows dubiously, sadly. “i don’t think it is”, i repeat. she skulks away, muttering something about revenge, and remembering my face forever, but i know she will be possessed by a different devil before she reaches the next corner.
i wait, wedged among the wheels and frames and saddlebags cycling is not permitted along the length of this street – tramway traffic is too heavy, generally – but bikes traverse its width at regular intervals, and the bridges here, being solid and free and easy to locate after a day, or a night, on the town, are prime parking spots. double-locked and triple- locked, the two-wheelers urban art, with their improvised additions, their dents and scratches, their whimsical colours and patterns. i am not alone in my admiration: visitors from around the world linger, giggle, and discuss, and capture, for the folks back home. “the thing is..” the woman pauses, pulling her partner’s sleeve for emphasis. “the thing is: all they care about is age and beauty these days. so i’m not so young, so i’m a bit rusty: i can still get the job done, can’t i?” she pulls harder. “can’t i?” he shifts his gaze from the shortness of a cyclist’s skirt to the familiar long face beside him, and says fondly, “of course you can, dear. of course you can.”
i’m hungry. there is still no streetcar in sight. the sandwich shop across the road does its usual thriving midday trade; customers wait patiently in a civilised queue that spills out the door, down the three steps and onto the sidewalk. one person enters, and one leaves; they nod politely to each other, and hurry back to the office, to the shop. the flimsy wooden chairs under the blackboard menu brownies! whities! dressed turkey!- cast emphatic silhouettes against the wall, and the slatted bench at the water’s edge remains empty. it’s too chilly to picnic. sandwiches are difficult to eat with mittened hands. i tighten my scarf i wait the narrowness of these downtown streets means bending over backwards, looking up past neon and graffiti to see the righteous gables; the expanses of glass, on the other hand, mean that the window displays, by way of the reflections alone, unwittingly include the lyrical curves and poetic angles of the buildings across the way. this is double vision at its loveliest: today and yesterday, solid and fleeting, modern and traditional, silk and stone, suspended in transparency. i watch the water.
these tall, elegant buildings shelter shops, and restaurants, offices, and private homes. many of them have an enviable view, through the stately trees, of the water, but not a panoramic one: actual houseboats are few and far between in this part of town. the rowboats moored here are derelict now, in use only by ducks and coots; but, come spring, even the least seaworthy will be in great demand. the glass-topped tourist boats that cruise the canals and the harbour are never idle: i watch one slide silently under this very bridge. i can hear the tinned text: “this, ladies and gentlemen, is the leidsestraat; ici, mesdames et messieurs….” cameras click in unison.
i have been immortalised, once again, and i sometimes wonder how many photo albums i grace, and how many households have watched me as a bit-player on small screens, diminutive and distant, walking, talking, laughing, waiting… the sky darkens suddenly, nudging the streetlamps into a tentative glow, and i have had enough of going nowhere. as the first raindrops fall, i hear a curved screech from the square beyond, and the streetcar, finally, and very very full, arrives.