Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Balancing Act in the Vondelpark

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Balancing Act in the Vondelpark

Article excerpt

LIFE can often be as sordid as a floor cloth, dingy and ragged from constant contact with the mundane. But it does offer wonderful moments. Like yesterday.

Taking one step forwards then two steps back, incipient summer was behaving with the coy timidity of a bashful bride, ready to burst into tears at any moment. In a fit of exasperation I decided to risk it and, grabbing Tonto, my faithful bike, I headed for the Vondelpark.

The sky was an indeterminate blue, with a touch of violet that threatened a storm. In the park, a sparse scattering of young people lay on the grass, stripped to the waist, exposing themselves to the risk of colds or worse in the fitful sunshine. After all, when you've tortured your flesh with thousands of stretch-and-flex contortions all winter, you can't let the weather stop you baking and tanning the final product.

But even narcissism was at a low ebb yesterday, confined mainly to willows batting feathery eyelashes at their reflections in the canals and little lakes. Beside them, the ubiquitous cyclists doodled along. The faces of Amsterdammers, usually topped by tousled mops of curly hair, are quite distinctive. There is a rugged, weather-beaten quality to them that contrasts sharply with the jovial blue eyes. As they grow older, Amsterdammers seem to stiffen into openness, into determined good humour as they cycle to their graves with a Greenpeace badge on one lapel and an Amnesty sticker on the other.

The floor of the park was the sharp drenched green of the polders, a colour that, like long afternoons in the swimming-pool, leaves you acutely conscious that the human body is 92 per cent water. In the sunshine, the reflection of heavy foliage and big trees gave the surface of the canals the magical green shimmer of ducks' backs.

As I cycled along, the strains of a violin reached my ears, a curious, jazzy melody accompanied by a drum. I rounded the bend approaching the Film Museum to find a knot of stationary cyclists gathered round a small amateur band. The quiet unassuming notes of a perfect evening raga made a dappled melody that blended with the light and shadow of the park. Like the others, I stayed awhile, perched lopsidedly on Tonto, one foot on the path, the other on the pedal, caught in the spell of the music.

In the background rose the imposing bulk of the Film Museum, its sunny terrace dotted with genteel coffee-drinkers whiling away the time at little tables. There was a vaguely gallic air about the made-up faces and fashionable summer outfits. But the Dutch can never quite carry it off. The young look too squeaky clean, their clothes too practical and their innocent complexions reflect their milk-based diets.

Round the next bend a surprise awaited me. The grass was littered with bicycles, their owners reclining beside them. I had brought a biography of Van Gogh to read and was heading for a sunny corner near the lake, when the slow repetitive strains of an Arab melody caught my ear. Beyond a vigorous football game, at the foot of a monument ringed with flowers, a group of Moroccan youths in Western clothing were playing ukelele-like instruments and small drums, and singing. The distant, archaic lilt evoked haunting memories of the ramayan groups of Trinidad. Then the tempo speeded up as flourishes, trills and a quickened drum-beat broke the monotony of the song.

There is a sudden flurry of activity to my right. In a spectacular whirligig of acrobatics, two Turkish youths flicker across the grass, their arms and legs interlooping in perfect syncopation as their bodies describe graceful arabesques high in the air to a smattering of hand-claps from the lounging spectators. Then four more youths join in, their shoulder-length curly hair whipping up and down as they spring into human pyramids vibrant with energy. They pause for applause, get it, and flicker down to the grass once more as though gravity does not exist. …

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