at the screen, not panicked or disturbed but mystified. What was it that I wanted to say to a mixed bag of cyberean readers? Oh hey... why not talk about today's shoot in downtown Amsterdam? The show's producer reads my site, and I will warn her now that what I'm about to say will make her cry, smack her head on her monitor and cry out "Why me, Oh Yahweh, Oh Wolfen, why?" and so forth. Okay then.
At twelve sharp we leave an interview with a meteorologist at his office just outside Utrecht and head into Amsterdam. By the time we veer off the A1 into the drempelled heart of the city I realize that I've left my city map in my hotel room. Whatever, I say, and instruct my camera guy to turn left, right, wherever, until something familiar appears. This sounds horribly haphazard, but I've been doing this job for a few years now and have found that it's actually a really effective way to hack into the middle of an unknown, crowded, dog-shit strewn city. By one o'clock we're at the Central Station, mere blocks away from the address and with half an hour to spare. A five minute walk. I've even got a map for the city centre and can use it to navigate reliably.
We get horribly, horribly lost. Like all major cities, Amsterdam is full of snaky one-ways and deadends and promising streets that end in a harbour all of a sudden. We circle around the street we want until 1:20, when suddenly Sint Blahblahstraat pops up on our right. We turn down the road, nearly squashing a dozen tatooed bicyclists in the process, and find it easily: the Klompenboer, the only maker of wooden shoes by hand in the city. But parking is another story. If you've ever tried parking in downtown Amsterdam, you'll get a sense of our pain, but if you try it on the only day of a public transit strike you will double up and wail in agony.
Repeatedly we make the wide circle - Klompenboer; stadium; bridge; Nieuwmarkt; Klompenboer - without success. Eventually we find a loading zone and I run to the address. But on first look, it doesn't seem to be a shoe factory. It's a crowded toy store full of stuffed animals. Whatever, I'll go in and ask for the guy. I walk in and see that one wall of the store is actually a wide set of stairs and a blocked-off escalator leading into a bunker-like basement. I can see at the bottom of the stairs a lone guy chopping at a block of wood with a curious-looking hatchet. Around him in the fluorescent lights lie piles of wood shavings and wooden shoes. The shoe 'factory' is actually an abandoned part of the subway once intended to shelter people from nuclear assault. It's one of those spectacular tricks of architectural layering that you find in cities like Amsterdam, London or Sydney. It's really cool, kind of desolate, even cinematic - but it ain't kids' show material. The salesgirl calls the shoemaker up. He turns out to be a very friendly guy, shaven-headed and wiry, with a pair of wooden shoes painted to imitate blue-on-white Delft ceramic. He even helps us find a parking spot.
Unfortunately, he's not quite as helpful when it comes to the shoot itself. His English is not as good as I had hoped, and his answers tend to be brief and dismissive of detail. Did he make all the shoes on the wall behind him? No - those are from a factory. Do you use all those great machines? No. Do you paint the shoes as well as make them? No - his mother does the painting. Will his mother be in today? No - she never comes in on Monday. Can we get some kids down here to watch you make shoes? No - he has to organize a group. There's a group coming in tomorrow, as a matter of fact. But not today. This is turning out to be the kind of shoot that we joke about but cannot imagine really happening. Between shots he drinks beer and smokes American Spirits.
On to the demonstration of his work. He hacks a block of wood into the shape of a shoe with unbelievable speed and skill. Then he places the shoe on a workhorse and starts shaving it down with a razor-sharp foot-long blade hooked into the horse on one end. After that he clamps it and gouges out the interior. Great, we say - what next? Now we dry it. How long does that take? A week. Well, what do you do to it after that? I sand it. Can you sand this? No, it's not dry. Can you fake it? No, there's no point. Can you do it for the show? No, there's no need for that.
After a bit of this he says that he rides a unicycle, so we film him outside riding his unicycle around. The few people we approach on the street to interview about wooden shoes wisely decided that they can't speak English. We jump back into our car and head into a rush-hour traffic jam. To ease our pain we drive past Utrecht, past our hotel, onward into a weird little city called Soest, one of those ass-end cities of Europe that no tourist ever visits. We find a restaurant called Der Droom Grill Room, which looks shabby and slightly frightening, but it turns out to be the most incredible Turkish food I've ever had. Viva la Soest.