Thursday, May 02, 2019


Rembrandt’s House, our first art gallery for today, is a genteel museum for nice middle-class old people, with free audio guides which explain, in the clear patient tone of professional care workers, who Rembrandt was and how he lived his life.

He lived his life badly, as it turned out, since he declared bankruptcy in middle age and lost his large house to his creditors. The audio guides were far too well-mannered to consider why an enormously successful artist and art dealer might go bankrupt, but his fondness for rare antiquities and the finer things in life (which in the 17th century mainly ran to pineapples, fake marble paneling and leeches) may have had something to do with it.

Once out of Rembrandt’s House, we had a little brunch and then took a wander through Amsterdam’s Botanic Gardens. Both Benny and I appreciated the tropical greenhouse, partly for the rich biodiversity of plant life, but mostly because it was blissful being somewhere warm and humid after days of chilly Dutch weather.

Later, as I was strolling towards the lake, admiring the swathes of flowers and foliage, I noticed a young woman standing on a little bridge, staring out over the water with a sweet, thoughtful expression on her face. For almost a complete second, I thought, “Isn’t it nice that in this age of stupid social media, constant distractions and FOMO, people can still be moved to quiet contemplation by the beauty of nature”. But, after almost a complete second, it seemed to me that something felt off. Then when I glanced around, I noticed her boyfriend standing on the shore a little way off, taking her selfie for her.

She wasn’t moved to quiet contemplation by a beautiful garden. She was playing being moved to quiet contemplation by a beautiful garden for Instagram. I wondered if this was what these people’s lives are like – constantly performing the role of a person living their best life rather than actually being a person living their best life?

A friend of mine who knows a lot of drag queens once told me that the danger of drag is that the drag persona almost always takes over the performer’s life in the long run, because the drag persona is fabulous and fascinating and the ordinary man underneath it is just a normal, comparatively boring person. He becomes a slave to the oversized personality of the drag queen. I wonder if on some level Instagram is just drag for straight women - a scintillating, commanding public face that eventually strips all life and agency from the girl behind it.

I left the girl on the bridge to her profundity cosplay and went off to our final museum for the day; Micropia, the world’s only museum of the microscopic. Every exhibit has microscopes set up to allow patrons to observe algae, tardigrades, mould, eyelash mites and other tiny monsters that cause you to cringe when you realise that there’s hundreds or thousands of them on your skin at this very moment. There are also exhibits demonstrating how bacteria causes both good smells (cheese) and bad smells (sewage), and the role bacteria and viruses play in every aspect of our lives. On a more macro level, there was also a pile of foliage literally seething with leafcutter ants, who were kept in their habitat by a swirling moat – if you’re a little myrmecophobic, as I am, it was grotesquely fascinating.

Poor Benny was menaced by the HIV. But I’m pretty sure that’s not a first for visitors to Amsterdam.


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