Tuesday September 1, 2015
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Penny Vegter

After nine years as an expat in Asia, Penny Vegter, a British writer, has returned with her family to Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Physically back in Europe, her spirit lingers in Asia... especially at sundown.

SEPTEMBER 1 ― Several buttocks, to be precise, plus their “forward-facing” equipment and a bevy of bosoms. All of them naked, yet coated in elaborate body paint. And I can testify that every centimetre of those bodies had been painted.

After two months away in (comparatively) conservative France and England, this was my adopted city’s wink to welcome me back into town. Cycling past this colourful crew, I kept my glances discreet and rearranged my face to give an impression of nonchalance. I’m trying to fit in like the locals, remember. But then I noticed our Dutch neighbours looking as baffled and amused as I felt and it occurred to me that there are still some things that will surprise even the unfazed Amsterdammers.

A Google search revealed that August 15th was Amsterdam Bodypainting Day and what I’d seen was the march through the streets that followed the application of the paint itself on the Rembrandtplein — an appropriate spot for the job.

Rembrandt would have been proud. ― Picture by Dr FeelgoodRembrandt would have been proud. ― Picture by Dr FeelgoodReading this, my respect for the body painting models soared: to walk naked through the streets covered in body paint took (ahem) balls; to stand naked and in public while it was applied would have taken real courage.

Bodypainting Day was started in 2014 in New York City by Andy Golub to celebrate the promotion of body acceptance, artistic expression and human connection through art. There are a number of philosophies behind the event, from the building of trust between artist and model, and the importance of being yourself free of status symbols, to reclaiming public spaces and examining the purpose of art.

It was certainly an arresting event and one that I expect will gain in popularity in years to come, especially in this city that revels in the freedom of self-expression. Next year I’ll be prepared for the parade, but still wildly unlikely to model for it.

On the topic of popular events, last week Amsterdam hosted SAIL, an event that claims to be the largest free public event in the world. As the name suggests, this extravaganza of tall ships and other noteworthy vessels celebrates the city’s maritime legacy, having been first held in 1975 to mark Amsterdam’s 700th jubilee.

The first event was such a success that it was decided to repeat it every five years (a huge amount of organisation is involved) and, since then, SAIL has gone from strength to strength, with ever more boats and tourists visiting from all over the country and, indeed, the world.

A mere handful of the thousands of boats at SAIL 2015. ― Picture by Penny VegterA mere handful of the thousands of boats at SAIL 2015. ― Picture by Penny VegterLast week, thousands of boats in a huge variety of shapes and sizes accompanied the “stars of the show” ― a stunning array of tall ships from many different countries ― along the North Sea Canal and into the IJ harbour behind Amsterdam Central Station.

There were so many masts visible in this area that it was easy to envisage the city as the vibrant port it was during its Golden Era, when The Netherlands ruled the waves.

Not only sailing boats are represented; newer naval craft and unusual vintage ships also sailed majestically into the harbour, to periodic bursts of cannon fire, while pleasure crafts carrying merry (most boats in Amsterdam are well-equipped with on-board bars) spectators chugged alongside.

A lot of Amsterdammers have been grumbling about how many events are being held in August (and the consequent surge in visitors to the city), but event organisers need to capitalise on good weather in this country while they can.

This is probably the reason that the Amsterdam Grachtenfestival (canal festival) took place over these past few days — a celebration of classical music held in diverse locations across the city, including physically ON the canals themselves.

Spectators can rock up to these concerts on foot or by bike, but of course the real way to see them is from a boat floating on the canal itself. This is where you’ll see the die-hard culture vultures reclining in comfortable boats, a glass in the hand, a bottle in the ice bucket.

Spectators watching a concert from their boats on the Prinsengracht. ― Picture by Dr FeelgoodSpectators watching a concert from their boats on the Prinsengracht. ― Picture by Dr FeelgoodAmsterdammers might grumble, but there’s nothing quite like relaxing with friends while classical notes drift across the water at dusk, bouncing gently off the walls of monumental buildings.

Although Europe is struggling economically and geopolitically at the moment, European countries have always cherished their history and culture. The policies and funding that support and enhance their heritage — whether buildings, art or cultural festivals — serve in turn to boost tourism and national pride.

SAIL is a perfect example of a cultural event founded on heritage that boosts its country’s economy, lifting the spirits of tourists and residents alike.

While we lived in Asia, we were frequently disappointed by the ease with which historical buildings were pulled down in pursuit of a capitalist “here and now” dream.

In our part of India, for example, historical bungalows were frequently pulled down to be replaced by steel and glass apartment blocks; an entire walled village hundreds of years old had a highway built through it; and officials were easily persuaded by a wad of cash to fell trees that stood in the way of developers.

For the sake of future generations, national pride, aesthetics and — ultimately — tourism, I would urge people and politicians of Asia to treasure their history and the homes and monuments that enshrine moments in time. Imagine Venice without palazzos, England without cottages or Amsterdam without the magnificent houses from its Golden Era.   

They would be charmless, in stark contrast to the glorious, varied, historical and atmospheric Amsterdam that tourists flock to today.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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