Amsterdam is the city where Rembrandt painted his famous “Night Watch” in 1642, and I have dreamed of traveling to view this monumental work (as well as the nighttime lights that illuminated its creation) since my teens. Back when I developed this dream, I didn’t know the painting was originally a day scene that got its nocturnal name from the dirt it collected over the years, nor did I know that Amsterdam’s evenings were synonymous with city dwellers unabashedly leaving their curtains open and red lights taking on meanings that have nothing to do with traffic. Needless to say, my romantic notions about the painting and its city were quickly dashed, but I still yearned to visit the Netherlands to see the “Night Watch” in person. My hopes were subverted again, however, when I entered the Rijksmuseum this weekend to find a velvet rope and five feet of floor space separating me from this masterpiece. I stood in front of the painting for what must have been at least an hour and examined it from every possible vantage point in the gallery, but at such a distance from the canvas I was unable to see the brush strokes and details that make art worth viewing in person in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, the masterwork’s magnitude (an approximate 12 feet x 14 feet) was stunning in person and I will always remember how I felt holding my fiancé’s hand while staring up at it for the first time, but the moment simply didn’t live up to my expectations without being able to see the brush strokes.
As my days and nights wear on in this city, I realize I’ve been finding more texture in its streets than in the museums. This is to say, I feel the rush I was expecting to get from Amsterdam’s National Gallery when I’m simply perusing souvenir shops or pretending not to notice an elderly woman slip into pajamas by chandelier light stories above a dark street. It is so strange to finally see the painting I’ve dreamed of for more than a decade only to learn it’s the rain-speckled cobblestones, canals and windowpanes that bear Amsterdam’s real brushstrokes. But, this just goes to show that you can’t anticipate what a place will be like before you travel there any more than you can anticipate the future before you’re living in it. I guess I’m content with this fact, but I refuse to stop setting unrealistic expectations and dreaming of galleries where there are no velvet ropes or panes of glass between me and the paintings. Fantasies of the future and foreign lands are half the fun after all, aren’t they?