On a summer Friday in Amsterdam, rain trickled down the sidewalk and emptied into the canals, reflecting the dismal grey of the low storm clouds. Drenched tourists huddling under awnings and umbrellas braved the deluge for entrance to the Netherlands’ most coveted museums and attractions, rendering the city streets nearly deserted.
Instead of spending the day museum-hopping alongside hordes of damp tourists, I donned a raincoat to save myself from the leaks in my umbrella and ventured out to Amsterdam’s western canals, whose extensions structure the city-center in concentric U-shapes, bounded on one side by the IJ waterfront.
After three days in Amsterdam, I was not accustomed to the quiet. In lieu of puttering motor boats gliding down the waterways, rain pattered softly on the slippery cobblestone sidewalks. Sometimes I would see a splash of color, distinct from the navy-grey canal houses and brown brick walkways: a yellow raincoat or orange umbrella through the rain, quickly disappearing behind a corner or doorway.
I caught glimpses of only a handful of Amsterdammers trying to avoid the rain, skittering up the steps of the tall townhouses that line each canal in the city. A door clicked shut and, after a few seconds, a light switched inside of the house, and life began again.
Outside, I felt as if I were sitting alone in a vacant movie theater, watching silent film reels. Instead of a movie screen, these reels were projected onto paned glass framed by white windowsills. Light and liveliness emanated from the windows of homes with a warmth that contrasted with my position outdoors on the overcast, chilly sidewalk.
The weather had suddenly transformed private, quotidian Amsterdam into a muted screening. Ordinary scenes of life behind these beautiful, narrow homes were suddenly made very public, backlit by yellow lamps and lights that glowed through the rain. From window to window, silent stories shone through the downpour, playing from house to house as I passed by.
Standing at the edge of the Keizergracht canal, a light flicked on and illuminated a kitchen on the ground floor of a townhouse across the waterway. A man began setting dishes and a wine bottle on a small table while another pulled a bowl out of the refrigerator and a pot off the stove and doled out dinner. Along the Prinsengracht canal, a young family hopped out of a passing tram, a father and mother pulling their daughter through the drizzle towards a narrow navy townhouse. As her father fumbled with his keys, I could hear the girl’s echoing laughter as she splashed from puddle to puddle. From my post on an adjacent bridge, I could see soggy tendrils of blonde hair escaping from her hood. Once inside, a lamp illuminated a living room, and through the window I could see the mother peeling off her daughter’s raincoat and kissing the top of her head. The little girl leapt onto a sofa and pointed a remote at an unseen television. The room suddenly glowed green, then purple.
In another window along the Prinsengracht, a mother cuddled her baby, staring outside at the rain. Her only movement was the rhythmic pat pat of her palm against the child’s tiny back. She stood so still while gazing into the dusk – now growing darker and colder, encouraged by the storm clouds and the setting sun – that I could swear she was a wax figure inside a life-sized diorama of Amsterdam, an exhibit in a museum of my very own.