Thanks to the beautiful autumn we’ve been having, I’ve had the chance to go walking in lots of different parts of Amsterdam lately. I vary my destination based on which friend I am meeting up with, how long I have until the next predicted rain shower or if I am in another neighbourhood for some errand, and I usually try to loop through a park if possible.
The other day I needed to pick up second hand gum-boots that I’d found via Marktplaats in Sloten, an area of Amsterdam where I rarely go. While planning my route on Google maps I spotted a small green area and decided to take a look on my way back.
At first I thought I couldn’t enter the park and that it was just a green wetland for birds as there were many coots and geese pecking around in the grass undisturbed. But I cycled around the perimeter until I found an entrance and a plaque with the name Natuurpark Vrije Geer.
The sky was grey as I walked along the path. The park had recently undergone maintenance as lots of reeds and grasses had been cut around the remaining shrubs and trees. It was quiet, with birds flitting here are there among the willows, tall reeds, ferns and autumn colours…
I also came across trees laden with funny fruit that look like a small brown apple with tentacles. Some light googling later on led me to the Dutch name mispel (or medlar in English) which is a plant that has been cultivated since the Roman times and carries fruit into the winter. Apparently you eat the medlar when it is overripe and has become sweet like apple sauce. I’m curious to try it!
Back home I read up about the history of the park. I found out that in the 90s the city of Amsterdam was rapidly transforming meadows and nature in the area into constructible zones and also threatened to run the tram line through this space. There were protests against this, which led to a local referendum in which over 200 000 people voted. Luckily 90% voted against housing construction and that’s how the park is a thriving ecosystem to this day. I found it interesting to read that the municipality was surprised that so many people showed up to vote for keeping a piece of land barely anyone was aware of before. To me this is an important reminder of how vital it is to involve citizens in decisions that impact their environment.
In the last few days, we’ve been blessed with some beautiful weather, and I’ve been trying to soak up warm rays of sun while it lasts. As the measures to curb COVID-19 get stricter again in the Netherlands, I realise how lucky I’ve been to be able to go on safely-distanced walks with my friends in the months since the start of the pandemic.
Though in the past my modus operandi was heading out my front door spontaneously and strolling through my neighbourhood by myself, since March I’ve had the joy of regularly meeting with different friends for a breath of fresh air in one or the other of Amsterdam’s lovely parks, instead of going to the cinema or sharing a meal.
The rhythmic motion of putting one foot in front of the other is so grounding and perfect for catching up, hatching plans and dreams, and speculating on how the next months will unfold.
We also discuss mundane things like latest tested recipes or series we are bingeing, watch goats hidden among high nettles or hunt for the corner of the park which catches the very last rays of sunlight… making these moments a real balm in moments of loneliness, difficult decision making and uncertainty about the future.
Sometimes our walks include an ice-cream, a good coffee or a ginger ale with a side of fries, but just the act of simply getting together and airing thoughts that have gotten stuck in a loop, and sharing a chat and some laughs is enough for me to feel human again.
Some days all you really need is to hang out with a friend, unrushed, just catching up while taking a leisurely walk around the neighbourhood and supporting a small business (and enjoying delicious vegan cakes in the process;).
Then taking a further stroll through the park even if the weather is grey, watching the birds and marveling at the fresh green of spring leaves, while having inspiring talks about upcoming creative plans and ideas for the next months, and plotting how to keep each other accountable…
This week in our meditation course, we made a list of our daily routine activities and were asked to indicate which ones we find depleting and which ones nourishing. A very interesting exercise, especially because many of those activities turned out to be depleting on one day or nourishing on another, depending on circumstances or state of mind.
An example for me is cycling to work. Being within cycling distance of work is part of the life choices I’ve made, and I am so grateful to be able to do so. I particularly love the 10 minutes of the ride through Vondelpark. As I cycle through the park, I find myself tuning in to admire the frost on the grass, focus on how the slanted rays of sunshine come through the trees, spot the storks that have come back to nest and feeling the fresh air on my face as I pedal along.
However some days I am less in tune to the nourishing side of my commute than others. When it is extremely cold, raining cats and dogs or simply still dark, I often find it hard to enjoy the ride and focus mainly on getting to my destination. Also, part of my commute involves riding through the city center with lots of traffic, not to mention the major road works that have been going on outside our office for 6 months. I experience that part as loud and stressful, and very depleting. My challenge is to be more mindful in this part of the ride and to accept being in that moment, instead of wishing it was different. Let’s see how that goes!