Shooting Amsterdam: Moped Madness

Jonathan Groubert conquers his wheels.                                     © Matt Peyton

Jonathan Groubert, Journalist + Fixer, files this report from a two-stroke engine.

Matt Peyton’s plane landed at Schiphol Airport and I started to sweat. I’m a fixer. I’ve lived in Amsterdam for 23 years, and it was my job to lead this unknown-to-me American photographer on a shoot through the Dutch capital. Shooting every neighbourhood in an area of 240 square kilometers was daunting enough, but somehow I’d managed to agree to do it on scooters. I hate scooters. They go too fast on the too-narrow bike paths; they’re dangerous, they’re polluting and, oh yeah, I’d gotten hit by a car while driving one on Crete 15 years ago. After that, I’d sworn off scooters forever. Matt, on the other hand, drove a motorcycle and kept egging me on to find one with a really big engine. Mercifully, scooter rentals in Amsterdam were limited to a modest 50 cc’s and a maximum speed of 35 kms an hour. Even so, I was terrified.

The first day was easy. We mounted up and started working through our shot list in the western part of the canal belt. That’s postcard Amsterdam: canals, 16th century warehouses renovated into expensive apartments, charming cafes, boutiques and markets. For Matt, it was an embarrassment of riches and for me, short shots on the scooter.  I planned it this way because I knew what was coming: Amsterdam’s largest and most challenging borough, Noord.

Torrential rains smashed into the ferry that crosses the IJ canal. Matt and I motored off the canal straight to a cafe to wait it out and stare at a map of Noord; a vast part of the city, seldom visited by tourists or me. When the rain let up, I hooked up some bluetooth headphones to Google Maps on my phone and followed the lady’s voice as she mispronounced the name of every single location. The waterfront by the old NDSM shipyards were well on their way to becoming Amsterdam’s Williamsburg, so that was an easy shoot of giant hangars filled with artist ateliers and cool pop up cafes in former hot houses. After that, we headed into the great Northern unknown.

First on our list was what appeared to be an abandoned sport park, which left Matt unimpressed. Then a little square followed by a search for the perennial elusive proper toilet. Noord seemed to be filled with villages time forgot until we got to Molenwijk. Our list told us take shots of the local Albert Heijn supermarket. Not a fascinating prospect and, in retrospect, perhaps a red flag. From the outside, Molenwijk seems like a leafy, tree-lined park that happens to have a few Stalinist-style apartment buildings in the middle.

The second we motored in, a group of about 15 kids waved us down and then surrounded us. It seemed like good-natured fun until they grabbed at Matt’s equipment. One demanded I give him a ride and started grabbing at the handlebars. I hit the gas and Matt and I pulled into a nearby shopping center in search of the supermarket. A group of drunks on benches eyed us suspiciously. Matt and his camera with giant lens dismounted and headed into the shopping center while I stayed with the bikes and equipment. Suddenly he was back: “Let’s get outta here. They’re chasing me.” Some locals did not take kindly to Matt’s gonzo shooting style and had told him as much. We got on the bikes, headed to the perimeter of the tree line and carefully biked around Molenwijk.

© Matt Peyton

The next area, Kadoelen, was populated by adorable, tiny cookie cutter houses, neat garden and teeny canals and bridges. It was adorable and I thought the excitement was over. Then my scooter took a dangerous swerve and then another. I stopped and looked at my back wheel. Flat as a pancake on a lonely bike path, far from a real road. I called the scooter rental who promised they’d be there in an hour with a replacement. Matt was getting agitated, “We need a Plan B, man!” We called a local scooter repair shop but they were on vacation. Suddenly a truck turned up with my new (and I do mean brand new) scooter. We were back in business.

Plan A comes through for Jonathan and Matt.                  © Matt Peyton

We headed off towards a golf course, North of the sacred periphery that separates Amsterdam from the rest of the county: the A10 Ring Road. As we passed under the A10, Noord’s concrete urban landscape immediately gave way to green pastures and dikes. Matt was in bliss. “This is what I pictured when I came to Holland!” He pointed us at a nearby village called Zunderdorp and kind of disappeared for while. I heard his scooter’s engine going back and forth in the distance as he shot the camera’s flash card full of dikes, tiny drawbridges, green fields and black and white cows.

The sun turned sienna as we motored straight from the dikes of Zunderdorp all the way down to the ferry at Noord’s southern tip. We managed to shoot most of Noord in just one day and….I got good pretty good on that damn scooter. - Jonathan Groubert

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