bart plantenga
Boatspotting

Nina Ascoly, IJ Triptych, photographs, 1996

I’m a boatspotter. I sit and eat or write or drink and stare out the window. Not an ordinary window with an ordinary view but a triptych of glass 3 meters high and 4 meters across. Outside this abandoned makeshift office facility (converted by squatters in the late ’80s into ateliers and living quarters) along the Westerdoksdijk, is a spectacular view of the Shell Research complex across the water in North Amsterdam. At night its intricate mosaic of lit cubicles and network of lights, pipes and stacks resembles the inside of my old transistor radio which served to escort me through childhood nightmares induced by Roger Corman’s drive-in renditions of Edgar Allen Poe stories.

Early mornings I beg (as if yearning can influence fate) for the sun to come out from behind the research centre and chase the damp chill from my room. I wait. I wipe condensation (evidence that my body is still warm and breathing) from my window to prepare my view for the watching that will sustain me. I wait for the window to fill up with a life I don’t have. The squadron of swans with the sinister aspect of aim sights on old rifles, crane their necks searching for floating sustenance under my floor.

There is nothing to do but wait (Ik heb een kamer. I have a room, I read in my Dutch lesson book.) in this industrial sector abandoned by industry and left to colonists of this post-colonial calm, venturesome settlers, nest hunters, and urban pioneers living in converted quarters, ensconced in surreptitious abodes. The former workshops and smithies of artisans have been converted into big windowed living interiors. A massive granary-silo (A grey Gothic imposition against the low sky) 200 meters down the coast has housed Amsterdam’s largest squatter community for years. (Mijn kamer is aan de achterkant van het gebouw. My room is in the back of the building.)

A rusty “floating” parking garage flanks the left of my studio which juts out into the fat busy river IJ, poised precariously upon its posts. I live on water, ON the water, am 25% water, 45% beer (which is 98% water) 25% urine, and 5% trace metals. Docks for cargo and pleasure ships flank my right, with the central train station in sight. The walk to the most enchanted section of Amsterdam, that horseshoe ring of canals in the heart, is about 10 minutes. I do not ask myself or anyone why it is that the more ancient districts of any city are its more humane.

The IJ (for the sake of non-Dutch speakers, somewhere between eye and aye) is a dramatic river which connects the North Sea with the harbour of Amsterdam and the old Zuider Zee, now a chain of interconnected lakes: IJ-Meer, Markermeer, and IJsselmeer. (Het IJ loopt langs mijn raam. The inlet called the IJ runs along my window. I improvise.) I live not far from where fresh water turns to salt. Brackish is the marine term for that no-mans-land where the two co-mingle. There is some understood boundary defined by laws of chemistry which keeps them mostly sequestered, keeps one from infiltrating too far into the other. This is where I do my boatspotting in this land of wet (although martinis, gin and Dutch humour tend to be dry).

What, might you ask, is boatspotting? Well, in a polite, best-light approach, it’s a form of meditation. Or a method for transferring the terrors of modern living in an alien context to a more amiable locale; or making some sense of one’s surroundings; or decorating the passage of time with lyricism. Like one might paint a dreary room, boatspotting renovates the dinginess of our less tangible interiors. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour rendered poetic. Procrastination in the guise of documentation.

(De schepen varen voorbij, en er is altijd wat te zien. I discovered that ships drift by my window all day long, and there is always something to see). Huge rusty barges loaded to the brink of sinking with mounds of sand (how can something so heavy float?) pushed by tugs; massive, elaborate tankers with personal automobiles on rooftops and potted plants and lace curtains in cabin windows — VERTROUWEN — their length limited only by the tensile strength of available materials; LASH ships, modern freighters designed to carry nearly any cargo in steel lighters or barges, each lighter 18 by 9 meters and capable of handling 500+ tons of cargo (this is what I read that I have written that I have read); elegant ancient sailboats (how do the crews know which rope does what?); windjammers — CINDERELLA — of luxurious lacquered wood; old modest motorboats gurgling along; eclipse-inducing luxury liners (its inhabitants staring with opera glasses into my humble abode and I staring back at them—what a strange way to encounter strangers, this détente of observer observing the observer); menacing cargo boats — GRAVELAND, AMBULANT, NOBODY — gloomy and unadorned; police boats skittering across the surface like water spiders; trawlers, their prows padded with thick braids of hemp; sleek pleasure boats — STARLIGHT, ROYAL PRINCESS — with well-tanned faces aimed at small instants of sunshine; fishermen in rowboats outfitted with small sputtering eggbeater motors (as I write this the regular fisherman is right outside my window, 50 meters off, standing in his old boat, casting his line).

All these vessels have names emblazoned on their bows. Romantic names, superstitious ones, exotic, mythological ones — ORION, BLOOM — hearkening to other worlds, names of lovers lost, or of mothers dearly departed? I can only speculate. And that I do as I sit at my big slab of desk doing whatever it is I do. Listening to the cheap radio that shorts out whenever it feels like it. I tap the volume knob to bring back Clifford Brown which seems to ride atop the IJ’s various currents. I notate with utter enthusiasm the names of all the ships as they pass. I interrupt the most holy — ESTRELLA — thought in my writing to notate one in my notepad. Interrupt card games, dinner and John — GRAAFSTROOM — Coltrane on the radio to shout out the name of another — ANIMA — vessel as if shouting out — BORNEO — its name will aid in unveiling its secret — SIRIUS, HIRUNDO, DIADEMA, CONDOR, MEERVAL, SATURNUS, FURY, SPECULANT, ISALA, ROPE OF SAND, ALEMARIA, TOLERANCE, KOOLE ZAANDAM, CONFIANCE, SAILOR BOY, LOMBARDIJE, MUTABEL, CALENDULA 10, ORCA CLUTE, LENTE-WIND, BRANDARIS –

Like mantras that transfer us to realms beyond our own — ANWI-Ja — the mere notation and pronunciation of these names transports me, as someone else, to somewhere more appropriate for my internal demands. Because a soul is like other internal organs—if not properly fed it will begin to feed on — SALA KAHLE — itself and eventually find its way into the marrow, devouring even that and then we collapse — SFINX, PRINSENGRACHT, AQUA VITA — like a damp shopping bag from a store that has gone out of business — ERIC-B, LUMARA, TABERNA, REMBRANDT, AFRA, CUBA, MINERVA, MONIQUE, RHEIN KONINGEN, NOISELY, EARLY BIRD, GALAXIE, TOUCQUET, JULES VERNE, PARTIZAN, KAMELEON, OREADE, ORION — The pace of these vessels, their peculiar syntax, the way they float by — RECINA COELI, FLEVO — has an effect on my own movements. I am drawn into their tempo. Lulled into the languor of their — CONTENTO — sway. I sit, watch, contemplate, inhale the head off my beer, take a deep — NEVADA — breath. The ships’ ancient progress regulating us the way a pacemaker regulates a heartbeat. The very idea of flotation — ALCHIMIST LAUSANNE — and cadence has always implied the technology of a device. In my case, bobbing along on the serendipitous rhythms created by the river of — BLUE SEA — words.

One way to neutralize the invasiveness of the passersby, the tourists with their recording devices, their passive voyeurisms, disposable cameras, and their eyes like dim specks of corrosive dust floating in air, is to wave back at them. I had never waved at passersby before in my life. But now I wave back at the tourists’ dark faceless heads in the well-lite tour boats — PRINCESS CHRISTINA, MEERKWAARDIG — some wave back. And then I just stare. Stare at their stares. What happens next?

Now I understand why prostitutes in the Red Light District get incensed when tourists try to take their picture. They are snatching an image from its glorious heart, making off with an implement that will enhance their own prurience and esteem; leaving behind nothing but the empty crumpled film box and a flatulent spectral haze along the cobbled streets.

The Dutch really are a seafaring people. They are at ease on the water. They gulp down raw herring, have robust cheeks, are drawn to the sea. Heads stern in the breeze. Fishermen under umbrellas in a downpour continue to fish on a Sunday morning. And my grandfather was a sailor….

The MANTA, a sailing vessel, passed into the fog (grimy as if it has been coloured in with a discarded eyebrow pencil) just beyond the parking garage like a lodge pole pine floating into the mouth of a sawmill. Sending out fibrillating wavelets glimmering across the calm surface of the IJ.

It is night (Ik zit graag op mijn kamer. I love to sit in my room.) and I place my head on my pillow with all the care with which a priest places the host upon the tongue of a cunnilinguist. Or the way Afghani’s build their tea houses with decks spanning the gurgling creek to fulfil the same function as the Zen garden — inner peace and contemplation.

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Since I wrote this in the late ’90s, everything in that area has changed dramatically. De Silo, an old grain silo converted to an art squat where people lived and worked from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, was also the HQ of pirate station Radio Patapoe. The transformation into a mix of upscale and social housing was completed in 2002. The banks of the IJ between the Silo & Central Station have become unrecognizable: from peaceful derelict land to the bustle of upscale and touristic overdevelopment. Meanwhile, desolate Noord has emerged as a booming hotspot for art, pleasure and innovative architecture. In the year and a half I lived on the IJ, I collected the names of nearly a thousand ships. AQ