How does a story start? Some writers are able to sit down and plot out a whole book about a place they’ve never seen. I admire those people, but I’m not one of them. I need to know a place and be able to picture it in real life before I write about it. While this is sometimes a disadvantage, real life sometimes takes pity on us poor realists and gives amazing handouts. One of these inspired my children’s novel, The Lizard Garden.
During a trip to the Netherlands my family and I walked from the Amsterdam train station to the Rijksmuseum. It was a long walk on a hot day, and the streets were jammed with people. I kept an iron grip on my purse while turning around to count the children. Intent on these two things, I wasn’t looking for whimsy when we turned the corner and saw a large, dirty square with a public garden in the middle of it. At first glance the park seemed completely ordinary, with patchy grass, a brick and iron wall, and dozens of large bronze lizards grazing on the lawn and sunbathing along the wall.
Wait, WHAT? What IS that I’m seeing?
It’s amazing what the mind readily accepts as normal. The enormous reptiles (mostly monitor lizards and iguanas) fit so naturally into their surroundings that it took a few seconds before I processed the fact that they shouldn’t be there at all.
Internet access throughout the rest of our four-week Dutch trip was spotty, and it wasn’t until after I returned home that I learned more details of this utterly bizarre and oddly charming outdoor art gallery. From the Amsterdam map I could tell that the area was called the Leidseplein, but Wikipedia didn’t mention my reptilian friends. Neither did the blurb for the Leidesplein at TripAdvisor, so often a helpful source of travel information. I didn’t read all the reviews, but the ones I did read said things like, “Great little square in heart of the theater district, lots of awesome restaurants, convenient to tram stop,” or, “This is the place to go if you want to visit some nice cafes or a weed shop.” Clearly these people had different priorities than I did, but more than that, I was concerned for them. Were they blind in addition to stoned? On the other hand, how nice of Amsterdam to provide a free hallucinatory experience for all the tourists who don’t want to get drunk or smoke pot! Truly this city has something for everyone. I highly recommend.
After a bit more research, I discovered that the statues, crazy as they might seem, were inspired by even crazier real life, which is perhaps why they could fit into the area so easily. Back in the 1600’s, a cafe owner named Blaauw Jan (“Blue John”) Westerhof amused himself by creating a small private zoo in his back garden. Here’s an anonymous artist’s depiction of the place as it might have appeared in the 1800’s. Sadly, I see no lizards here:
Hans van Houwelingen, the artist who created the Leidseplein’s modern zoo, explains his purpose for the statues. “They are lizards, more than they are sculptures, many of them and spread throughout the garden, constantly on the move and underlining the chaos. A deep well in the garden suggests their provenance, their presence and their disappearance. They don’t speak about the space itself, but electrify it.”
Indeed they do. And the ten unplanned minutes we spent on our way to see the old Dutch masters has provided a lasting memory of delight.
For more about the statues, see the artist’s website: http://www.hansvanhouwelingen.nl/info-eng/00-eng-blauw-jan-2.html. If you’d like to read my book, here’s a link to The Lizard Garden on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Lizard-Garden-Anne-E-Phillips/dp/153972512X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1484838417&sr=8-1&keywords=the+lizard+garden+anne+e+phillips