Monday the 7th of May – Welcome to the Red Light District
I’ve been here for three days now and am settled into Spuistraat in the Nieuwe Zijde area in Amsterdam. It’s the “new side” because it was built up after the “old side” in medieval Amsterdam. Everything is relative. My room is quite spacious, and one whole wall is large windows looking out onto Spuistraat, which provides continual slice-of-life entertainment as the building down the street is the back side of a police station, and the handcuffed freshly arrested are brought in around the clock.
It’s now 8:45 PM, and I’m going out for a beer as an excuse to take the trash (het vuil, which sounds almost like “foul” except with a damned ui phoneme) down to the street. Household trash is placed twice a week at collection points about twenty meters apart on the street. Street folks here pick through trash with just as much enthusiasm as in San Francisco.
I ended up simply going for a walk because as I shambled along I never saw a place that I wanted to have a beer in, so I just bought some batteries for my cassette player, which sounds really ordinary except that the entire transaction was conducted exclusively in Dutch and even included the tiniest bit of small talk. I celebrated when I got home by doing one whole side of a language cassette Bob lent me.
I’ve determined that if I shamble slowly enough, I can walk for several blocks without having to stop. So I shambled west on Lijnbaanssteeg over to Singel, north on Singel almost to its end and then cut back east to the first block of Spuistraat and then back down Spuistraat home. Directions, of course being approximate as no streets in Amsterdam join at right angles or remain straight for more than fifty meters.
God, this place is old. This afternoon I noticed that houses on this the street have dates in the seventeenth century on them, over a century before the American revolution.
And oh, is it ever blasé here in the Red Light district. In my block there are several ground floor windows in which women, for the most part beautiful, pose seductively at all hours, a gay brothel, a polysex porn and toy store, several “coffee” shops selling hash and marijuana, a “smart” cafe selling presumably legal drugs, a couple of youth hostels with a mixture of both squeaky clean and wholesome youths and maidens as well as some types who look like fairly advanced heroin addicts, all coexisting with the police station down the street. The church is in the next block.
Tuesday the 8th – The City That Doesn’t Sleep
Out of the house unwashed and unshaven at 1030 in order to hit EasyEverything (the best local Internet access facility) during their off-peak rates. Stopped at the mailbox along the way and was immediately faced with a language problem: There were two slots, both plainly labeled in Dutch but alas, neither label cognated well to either English or German. So I stood there clutching my postcards in frustration, not wishing to start my day by climbing back up two flights of stairs to consult my dictionary.
But I am nothing if not resourceful, so I accosted the first passer-by, a bewhiskered gentleman of approximately my own age, and demanded, brandishing the postcards address side up and pointing at the two slots, “Mijnheer, dit of dat?” (Sir, this or that?) Naturally, we fell into conversation. Alas, in English, but it turned out that he shared my interest in languages, and when he mentioned Quechua, I was able to counter with Aymara, but he trumped with a moribund if not totally dead Andean language I’d never heard of. Of course, with my current sieve of a memory, I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what it was.
At any rate, he was fascinating, and we both kept making polite gestures to conclude the conversation but kept thinking of other issues to discuss as we stood there talking for over an hour. He had a wealth of information on Frisian, and I am already thinking that if I can get my meds cranked around well enough, I really must spend a few weeks in Friesland, the Dutch part of Friesland since, according to my informant neither the Danes nor the Germans are anywhere near as accommodating to the Frisian language in their portions of Greater Friesland.
I finally tore myself away and strode off toward EasyEverything, only to be brought up short after about ten meters by the realization that no, my leg problem had not vanished in the night. So I reverted to my shamble for the remainder of the journey. I may be an old man, but God, do I hate having to walk like one! I must practice in the privacy of my apartment turning the shamble into an insolent, slow swagger.
Returned home after EE and was invited for tea by Rina, a neighborhood friend. Stimulating conversation in her rooftop garden on this beautifully sunny day. She described the butcher I went to yesterday around the corner as outrageously expensive and dwelt lovingly on his father’s business practices in those difficult years immediately after WWII. She gave me a couple of alternatives, both unfortunately up Singel and all the way across the Prinsengracht. Regarding other culinary matters, she’s my age, so she can remember her father’s disappearing overnight a few times in the winter of ’44 and returning with smaller and smaller bags of tulip bulbs. Not the tastiest variety, alas, but by that time the citizens were not finicky.
I also suffered during the war: chewing gum and chocolate were unavailable, and sugar was rationed.
After tea with Rina, I went out to the Albert Heijn, the local Safeway equivalent, and picked up another smoked mackerel, of which I devoured three quarters before it even got into the refrigerator. Oh, and before I forget it, I also picked up mustard. Albert Heijn had Grey Poupon and Maille and a couple of other French brands I didn’t know, and I had one of those in my hand before I spotted De Echte Zaanse Mosterd. I’d never had a Dutch mustard before, but the stuff is just wonderful, perhaps the best I ever ate. I had it smeared on a brotje (soft roll) with some Westphalian ham and cherry tomatoes. Yum.
I just now went to my window and was struck by an observation: This city really does not sleep…. at least not as much as San Francisco. There is constant foot and bicycle traffic all night long.
And OMG, the brickwork in this city!
Wednesday the 9th – Phoneme Hatred
Working title for a screed: “A Modest Proposal for the Improvement of the Dutch Language”, in which I hit some of the obvious points like the abolishment of grammatical gender and the ui phoneme, all done with such a light touch that even the Dutch will be amused by it. Better yet, I’ll see if I can get an appointment and enlist Beatrix to push this cause.
Popular Demand. I’m driven by it. So much so that I’m now so tranked out on Prozac that it has taken me five days to realize that This Is Not Jet Lag. It’s just the side effects of my meds as I’m no longer on my April drug holiday, an event referred to by the medical profession with its signal lack of humor as an STI (Scheduled Treatment Interruption).
I’m so mellow and unwilling to give offense that I courteously escort houseflies out my window with a tot straks (see you later) rather than tot ziens (goodbye).
I’m so overflowing with good will that should there be sufficient popular demand, I’ll tell my side of the story about the time a San Francisco police officer and I were chased through O’Hare airport by a thalidomide dwarf in leather. I don’t think I’ve written this one down, but I promise you that everyone I’ve told it to (not to mention a few dozen slack-jawed witnesses at O’Hare) has enjoyed it enormously. Perhaps I can work this story into a sociological essay on the Dutch total lack of shame, as evidenced by their disinterest in drawing curtains at night. At this point I am merely observing the phenomenon since I don’t know whether they feel that nobody would be so rude as to actually look inside or whether they simply don’t care whether anyone is looking.
It’s almost eleven and I’m off to De Bijenkorf (the Beehive, a Macy’s equivalent) to see whether a new shipment of underwear has arrived in the night. At this point, I seem to have spent as much on underwear as I have on rent, and I haven’t even been to the slinky places yet. I can assure you that if there is one thing with which Amsterdam abounds, it is levels and descending levels of slink.
After a quick stop at EasyEverything this noon, I realized that I’d not had anything to eat all day and was just dying to try an uitsmijter, a classic Dutch dish consisting of bread covered with ham topped with fried egg and surmounted with melted cheese. In other words, an open-faced Egg McMuffin. I found this little place called Het Korbeel right next door to the Casa Maria bar on Warmoestraat that was radiating the correct vibes, and sure enough, when I inquired about the possibility of an uitsmijter, a flash of recognition followed the usual blank look that I get when I say any word that anywhere contains a ui. I have never hated a phoneme like I hate the Dutch ui. I don’t know what it is about my ui that somehow makes the entire word unintelligible, no matter how long it is or where the ui occurs in it. I am trying to be grateful that now, after six days or whatever it has been, I can sometimes get close enough that that blank look gives way to understanding rather than an immediate switch to English.
It has occurred to me that part of the problem is that the Dutch, even in a place as cosmopolitan as Amsterdam, are unaccustomed to hearing anyone speak Dutch who was not taught it by his mother. Consequently, they are unable to understand Dutch spoken with a foreign accent. I would prefer to believe this than think they’re like the French, who are accused of simply refusing to tolerate bad French. In San Francisco, of course, we are continually hearing heavily accented English and are accustomed to it. That and the fact that so many of us can’t speak anything but English and thus have no choice but to listen to imperfect English.
When I got my Nederlands Egg McMuffin, I was shocked to see that it was three times as big as I had expected. There were three perfectly runny over-easy eggs atop ham lapping over the edges of giant slices of bread and lots of cheese. Unfortunately, it was so good that I ate all of it.
It’s such a gorgeous day today that I strolled through the Dam, stopping to rest while I watched a really funny Australian juggler work the crowd with continual shameless references to its generosity, and across to the Post, where I took a number and then sat comfortably while I waited. (Hey, USPS, what a concept!) While I waited, I did a little vocabulary building and was able to pull the whole thing off entirely in Dutch. I am now the proud owner of five airmail-letter-to-the-US-rate stamps, and handsome ones at that, although I didn’t ask for heel mooi. (Of course by now, I have already forgotten the word for “stamp.”)
Then to Albert Heijn on the way home to pick up some cocoa, sugar, and halfvolle milk as I am running out of brands of chocolate milk to taste and have so far found all of them excessively thickened. These people have been fed too much vla as children. (Vla is, I think, the only chocolate thing I have ever failed to consume all of. I tried it in 1988, and I remember it so clearly that I have never given it a second chance. It’s too thick to drink and too runny to eat. Vlaaaaaaaa!) But I digress. What the milk is half full of is fat, although like the US, they don’t tell you what percentage full fat is. And since I’m already complaining, I’ll mention that living on produce from the SF farmers’ markets for the past few years has spoiled me absolutely rotten. The fruit and vegetables here are frankly about like what I saw in Nacogdoches, Texas. I shall have to check out the produce at the Albert Cuypmarkt.
On the other hand, that uitsmijter that I had for lunch finally digested about 2000, so I went back to Het Korbeel for dinner. At lunch I had thought for a brief moment during my shameless continual eavesdropping that I’d made a major breakthrough in understanding Dutch but then realized that the two guys I could sometimes understand so well were switching back and forth between German and Dutch. They are apparently neighborhood flaneurs, as they dropped in while I was perusing the menu this evening, recognized me, remembered overhearing the lunchtime waiter override my Dutch with English, and spoke to me in English. Not to be outdone, I responded in German.
They left after a brief exchange in Dutch with the waitress, but I had scored points with the evening waiter and waitress, he from Munich and she a native, and I had a wonderful time with them both in a mélange of all three languages as I ate a really delicious perfectly lightly vinaigretted salad of smoked halibut, salmon, and squid with the proper (i.e., small) quantity of good greens, plenty of onions, and hothouse tomatoes as good as I can get this time of year in SF. I had never eaten smoked halibut, and it was excellent. My unabashed enjoyment of this dish got me a collusion of the waiter and waitress as they figured out where a new, cutting culinary edge fish smokery is located (it’s so new it’s not in their phone book) and marked its location on my map. High on my list for the next couple of days is to figure out the public transit and take the number 100 vehicle (whatever it turns out to be) from the Cenraal Station to the point where de Wittenburgergracht changes its name to de Oostenburgergracht and look for de sign saying “Vis Rookerij“. If it’s anywhere near as good as I expect, I’ll have to give some of my underwear to the poor to make room in my nice, cold checked baggage for the return to SF.
And since I’m going on about food tonight, I should mention that this afternoon I also picked up some extremely interesting eggs, from “Columbian Blacktail” chickens. The package has a picture of them out playing in a grassy field, getting plenty of sun, fresh air, and exercise. The text is just hilarious because of the connotational clashes between Dutch and English. The chickens are described as having vrije uitloop, and I get this image of a pack of them “freely loping out” like wolves, picking off a straggler banana slug, and pecking it to pieces. Maybe you have to see the package. Then again, it occurs to me that “free range” might amuse a newcomer to the States. Git along, little dogie, and all that.
I have begun to enjoy certain Dutch expressions. The language in some of its sound patterns in sentences like “Ik doe de duur dicht” (I close the door) is more and more making me think of the pronouncement of the late Duke Kahanamoku (the great Hawaiian surfer) on sharks, “I don’ bodda dem an’ dey don’ bodda me.”
Here’s a leafy terrace:
Thursday the 10th – Canal Boat to Grammar
This morning Rina presented me with a box of exquisite assorted bonbons from Puccini, which I had already spotted on Staalstraat. Turns out there’s a closer location on Singel, and Rina is quite clear they’re the best chocolatier in town. Delicious art, they’re at the Joseph Schmidt level, for sure.
Off later to celebrate friends’ third anniversary with a canal boat ride, which I had done on my first visit to Amsterdam, a single afternoon in April, 1966. Amsterdam hasn’t changed much, at least as seen from the canals, but the canal tour has deteriorated considerably. In 1966 the trip was narrated by a delightful young Dutch woman who did the whole thing with great humor and style in a continual blend of English, French, German, and, on my trip owing to the presence of a Swiss contingent, a bit of Schweitzer Deutsch. Now, there’s a cassette tape with word-for-word translations, a whole paragraph at a time, in Dutch, German, French, and English. Pathetic. And the pilot of the boat, who performed his job with none of the panache displayed by his predecessor, still had the gall to set out a tip bowl. I pretended I was a Canadian doctor.
After the tour, we walked over to Het Korbeel for an anniversary lunch. I had the chicken saté, which was so good that I ate every morsel. The waiter from last night was there, and we had an equally delightful waitress who I had the pleasure of making laugh repeatedly. My friends, by now thoroughly sensitized to this issue, were watching me like a pair of hawks, so I was unable to tip her what she deserved.
This is another gorgeous day, so I pulled myself together in the evening and went out to hit the Internet. Then I wandered over to Het Korbeel, having to fend off an extremely obnoxious Australian panhandler on the way. I have figured out that what makes me a target for panhandlers is not that I am well dressed or flashing an expensive watch or jewelry but rather partly the slowness of my progress, which makes me more accessible than people traveling at greater speeds, but mainly my facial expression. I’m having a good time, and my face shows it. Unless I am consciously thinking of it, I cannot maintain a noli me tangere stare.
Nobody is staying home in weather like this, especially since April was extraordinarily nasty and it warmed up only a couple of days ago, so the streets were absolutely thronged. Het Korbeel was almost empty last night, and I’d looked forward to being able to chat with last night’s waitress. I say “last night’s waitress” not because I’ve forgot her name but because, being Dutch, she has been very friendly and has gone to a lot of trouble to track down de Vis Rookerij, but she has not yet given me her name. Other than my friend Rina and a couple of bartenders whose names (and they’re probably aliases) are posted when they’re on duty, I do not know the name of a single Dutch person I’ve met, including those with whom I’ve had conversation for over an hour. I just love these little social differences. It must seem so strange to them when they visit America and have people giving their names early in a conversation. Apparently here you don’t give up your name until the second date.
Alas, Het Korbeel was almost completely full, and I decided that my anonymous waitress/benefactor would appreciate my custom much more, later. So I blundered over to The Queen’s Head, hoping to find “Dusty” tending bar. No Dusty; some cute twerp with no personality. But there were only three customers, so figuring that I could get into a conversation or at least eagerly eavesdrop, I ordered a jenever, de jonge (young gin), even more precisely, Ketel Een, the only brand name I know. My eavesdropping skills are improving. Depending on the subject matter and possibly the educational level of the speaker, I’m catching the drift of whole sentences now, at least occasionally, and I fairly often am able to pretty much follow conversations for short periods. This is highly encouraging, particularly since I keep being confronted with the realization that I have forgotten a word I supposedly learned yesterday…or this afternoon.
This is the first time that I have approached a language by first getting a grasp of its grammar, picking up vocabulary as I did so, but keeping my focus entirely on the grammar until I was comfortable with what a text I have calls “essential” Dutch grammar. For example, the text mentions that the subjunctive has almost completely disappeared in Dutch, even more so than in English, and exists only in a handful of stock phrases. It gives a couple of these phrases, and then moves on to more essential matters. Interestingly enough, I just yesterday overheard what was clearly another of these phrases and which happened to be an almost perfect homonym with the German Gott sei dank (God be thanked), but would of course be spelt differently in Dutch.
I’m beginning to realize that understanding the grammar gives you a solid framework upon which to hang every scrap of new vocabulary and thus makes remembering the vocabulary easier than it would otherwise be. Case in point, this evening I spoke of a young woman as de meisje but immediately corrected this to het meisje because I flashed on the grammar rule that, as in German, all diminutives are neuter. Het, incidentally, is pronounced pretty much like it looks when used as the pronoun “it” and when stressed as an article, but otherwise, it softens into a schwa followed by a t.
Suffice it to say that I got some good practice in as I finished the jenever and drank a small glass of beer and a bottle of apple juice before tottering home to write this while I polished off the Westphalian ham, again with that wonderful Zaanse mosterd and those “Cherry Tomaten” on part of an Italian roll. Such a good combination! and one I can have at home, especially if I’m smart enough to bring back a couple of jars of that mosterd to measure out with coffee spoons for myself and, if sufficiently deserving, my guests.
The seamy side of the Oudezijdsvoorburgwal:
Friday the 11th – The Great Smoked Fish Hunt
Fish has figured prominently in my day. After a brief stop at EasyEverything, I set out on the Great Smoked Fish Hunt. Having prudently studied my fine Falk map of Amsterdam, I saw that the location that the waitress in Het Korbeel had marked on my map was on a street with a blue transit line down it, and conveniently beside this blue line almost directly on top of my destination and rotated to align with the street was a little box with “s100” in it. By following the blue line, I determined that it went to, logically enough, the Centraal Station. And yes, there in the transit list at the station was s100. So I walked over to the Centraal Station, ignored the silly tourist info desks, stepped up to the ticket window, used my flawless Dutch to determine that the s100 was a bus as I had surmised, and purchased a strippenkaart (multiple-use ticket) after being told that the bus stopped across the canal in front of the church. Sure enough, after the hundred-yard trip to de kerk, there was in fact a series of bus stops, the last of which including the number 100.
Buses arrived in fleets, one after the other, all labeled with numbers in the low hundreds, but never the 100 itself. Eventually I broke down and asked a wholesome young woman when I might expect the 100 bus, and she reassured me that they ran on the half hour and that it was due momentarily. The bus arrived, and I joined the end of the throng to board it. However, when I handed the driver my strippenkaart and carefully pronounced “Wittenburgergracht, alstublieft,” which is harder than it looks, he responded with such a wealth of information that I understood none of it, other than that it was extremely negative. Before I could compose a reply, a kind passenger told me in English that this bus did not go to Wittenburgergracht and that I needed to go to the Centraal Station and take the number 22.
Back at the Centraal Station, I humbly stood in line at the tourist information window and eventually presented my case. I can now state with authority that persons wishing to go to Wittenburgergracht should ignore that blue line marked 100 going right down Wittenburgergracht and take either the 22 or the 32 bus. As I approached the last of the bus platforms fifty yards the other direction from the office and finally spotted the numbers 22 and 32, I saw that a number 22 was at the platform. Sensing that it was about to leave, I broke into a little trot and almost immediately behind me I heard a voice shouting, “Mijnheer, Mijnheer. De bril!” Thank God that I sensed somehow that the shout was directed at me and, equally importantly, for German cognates.
Somehow when I had made my first little leap into the trot, I had tossed my glasses out of my shirt pocket onto the street. I hope that I expressed my appreciation sufficiently. At any rate, nice wingtips on him.
I boarded the bus successfully, and it was almost anticlimactic when I handed the driver the strippenkaart, said “Wittenburgergracht, alstublieft,” and he efficiently stamped the second zone and returned it to me. The trip seemed shorter than it was as I unsuccessfully rubbernecked trying to read street signs while we zoomed along, but before I knew it I heard the driver announce “Wittenburgergracht.” Sure enough, as the bus pulled to a stop, I saw the street sign. And there, just across the street, on the corner, as promised, where Wittenburgergracht changes its name to Oostenburgergracht, stood “Frank’s Smoke House, Vis een Vlees Rookerij.” (Fish and Meat Smokery).
A couple were eating at one of the two tables, and there were two customers ahead of me at the counter, which was perfect as this gave me a few moments to compose my opening lines and to take a look at the offerings while the counterman chatted with the customers as he filled their orders. Oh, what a display of smoked delights…and a few things I was less eager to try like the smoked tofu and the smoked cheese. But he had duck breast, turkey breast, ostrich, three different kinds of beef one of which looked like Bündenerfleisch, cold-smoked salmon, warm-smoked salmon, eel, tuna, halibut, trout, and botervis, an Atlantic species that the counterman didn’t know the English name of. I skipped the warm-smoked salmon, the duck, and the turkey, not to mention the tofu and cheese, but got a hundred grams of all the fish, the ostrich, and the Bündenerfleisch look-alike as well as 200 grams of beautifully arranged whole eel fillets for de huisbaas, Rina. Actually huisbaas is sexually ambiguous, meaning a landlord of any sex even though in this case it does not seem to refer to Hans.
The counterman, it turns out, was Frank himself, who early in my stumbling inquiries volunteered that he was actually a “Jewish boy from Baltimore” in case I might be more comfortable in English. He was quite fun, and when I mentioned that I might be interested in taking some fish back to SF, let me know that not only did he have a vacuum sealer like Chris’ mother’s butcher in Germany, but he also had an export license that would serve to erase any possible doubt during customs procedures in these pestiferous times.
Since I was already in the store, I went ahead and had a salmon sandwich for lunch, and it was everything I expected. It was accompanied by a very soft, lightly carbonated juice drink that Frank selected for me. It comes in an attractive aluminum can the height of a classic American beer can but about three-quarters of the diameter, which gives it a sleek modern appearance and you, less. It is labeled, in English only, “Spa & Fruit Juice / Lemon-Cactus”. The English text of the smaller print reads, “Refreshing sparkling soft drink consisting of Spa spring water and high juice.” The fine print reveals (in the penultimate position right before the ascorbic acid) “natural extracts of fruit, cactus, and plants”, which ain’t giving nothing away about that “high juice.” The “high” is omitted in the German and rendered as “rich in” in the French and Dutch, which seems more accurate as it has no hallucinogenic qualities. I can say that with confidence since the stuff is so incredibly good, especially cut with about 25% most-expensive-brand orange juice, that I have consumed large amounts of it in short periods. I may have to give all of my underwear, well maybe just the tee shirts, to the poor to make some more space in my luggage.
Then, in the evening, to Pieter’s house at eight. Pieter is astonishing, the most interesting Nederlander I’ve yet met. He’s very well educated and was a gold mine of information on a wide range of subjects. One of the nuggets I gleaned is that it was only in the early 1930’s that the Dutch let go of the spellings that revealed the old dative case, which was the last obstacle in the path of combining the masculine and feminine grammatical genders into the common gender. Now knowing this recent precedent, I shall redouble my efforts to get Beatrix to stamp out the neuter gender. Unfortunately, I also learned from Pieter that Beatrix, being vastly more full of herself than Juliana was before she abdicated, has over the years created a kind of Royal Dutch, a language of which she is the sole speaker. So she may not be too excited by my linguistic proposals.
Pieter is nearly my age, but looks much younger and is really handsome, even handsomer than his son Bas, who was visiting while we were there and was almost as interesting. The downside was that Pieter is way too interesting to practice Dutch with. Oh well, we killed a couple of bottles of wine while we talked. Suddenly, it was eleven, and Bas gently reminded Pieter that Pieter had a date that evening with his boyfriend. Pieter left, and I invited Bas to join me for dinner. Alas, Bas’ girlfriend was expecting him, so I trudged off to the New King alone and ate that wonderful Indonesian pork dish babi pangang atop stir-fried noodles.
Stopped at EasyEverything to check my email, but lasted only moments as there was a truly obnoxious obese American in the next cube enjoying a series of increasingly louder conversations on his cell phone. I wanted to murder him. On the way home I realized that perhaps one reason that the crime rate amidst all this sleaze is so low is that it is impossible to commit a crime outdoors in Amsterdam in terrassen weer (terrace weather, weather so nice that everyone is outside on cafe terraces) without hundreds of witnesses.
And so, now that I’ve finished this and it’s 230 in the morning, to bed. OK, I lied. I had planned to go to bed, I really had; but before I could do so, I sat at my window, nibbling Puccini bonbons while I watched the prostitute in her window across the street three doors down from the police station do her best, which riveted even my attention, to attract a balding moth circling closer and closer to her door. But suddenly, a competitor I’d not even realized was in the race darted across from my side of the street into her door, and in moments, the red-lit curtains closed discretely.
It’s now 330, and the melatonin seems to be kicking in.
Interesting balcony treatment behind the Nieuwekerk on Gravenstraat:
Saturday the 12th – Sebastiaan op de Stoep
Up finally at noon, making a frantic dash over to de wasserij (the washery) to pick up my laundry, not having checked their Saturday opening hours and fearing that they might follow that brutaal (rude or inconsiderate, rather than brutal) German custom of shutting all the stores down on Saturday afternoon. Yesterday morning, after I had drawn on the last of my clean clothes, I had asked de huisbaas the location of the closest laundromat. In the afternoon, I’d bagged everything up and gone down Korte Lijnbaanssteeg around the corner on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal to the recommended wasserij only to discover that it was not self-service. But as it was still terrassen weer I quickly decided that paying them 30Fl. to wash and fold a whole week’s worth of clothes sure beat spending the afternoon in a hot laundromat figuring out strange machines, and they’ve got some real strange ones over here, even when all the damn buttons and dials are in English. On my last trip to London, I managed to dye a set of Liam’s napkins (not to mention an assortment of our underwear) a lovely lilac owing to forgetting for one fatal moment that the water temperature settings, which in my feeble defense were conflated with way too much other information, would of course be in Celsius. And when, I ask crossly, are we going to drop Herr Fahrenheit’s idiotic temperature scale and join the rest of the world?
Today, a teenage girl was working at the wasserij when I picked up my fluffy laundry, and we established that it was utterly ludicrous for a man my age to say dank U (thank you) rather than dank je (thank thee) to someone her age and that on the other hand I needed to be at least eighty and perhaps a little more senile to call her juffrouw (Miss), a word which apparently fell out of use before she was born, a fact ignored by all of my language materials.
Maybe I should have started this earlier, but upon my return to the states I shall begin a campaign to re-introduce use of the familiar pronouns in English. Between me and thee, we are missing a lot. Of course I wouldn’t undercut my position by mentioning that when I’m negotiating with Beatrix. With her, I’ll simply propose that if they’ll follow us in getting rid of the article “het” and adjective declensions, we will follow them by returning to use of the familiar pronouns. As a sweetener, I could throw in that we’d want to be a bit less quick to jump right into the familiar like they have recently been doing and that by our thus setting a good example, this ugly trend in Dutch might be reversed. I think she’ll buy it, and I’m really looking forward to our first meeting. I want to get things pretty well nailed down at this end before I bring Dubya into it.
Over to EasyEverything to send off Friday’s report. Then to Albert Hejin, to pick up food to go with the fish I’m taking over to Pieter’s for dinner. I got small tomatoes, red onion, capers, quark, and white bread (for toast) to eat with the smoked fish and, after pawing through the entire bin, what turned out to be a perfectly acceptable mango to accompany the smoked ostrich (you heard it here first).
Speaking of quark, I’d like to apologize right now to everyone I’ve misinformed regarding the pronunciation of this word in Dutch. By cunningly spelling it “kwark,” they are able to trick the populace into pronouncing it much as it is pronounced in German. To do the same in English, we’d have to spell it “kvark,”.
On the way home, I stopped in at Le Cellier on Spuistraat and picked up a pedigreed Chablis to go with dinner. Then, as an excuse to cool the wine, rested a bit before setting out for Pieter’s. Now heavily laden, I was motivated to seek the very shortest route and went south on Spuistraat to tiny little Mosterdpotsteeg, which is hardly any wider than a mustard pot and gets you over to Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal a good deal farther south than does Korte Lijnbaanssteeg, my usual alley east. Then, angling southeast across the streetcar tracks, you can catch Gravenstraat over across Nieuwendijk onto Zoutsteeg (mislabeled on my Falk map as Damraksteeg and littered with peanut shells rather than salt), which hits the Damrak right across from the center of De Bijenkorf. Then across the Damrak to the south of De Bijenkorf and angling across the plaza around the Herdenking monument, you are on Damstraat and a block later at the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Pieter was sitting on his stoep, pronounced and meaning stoop, across the canal a third of the block down.
With him was Thomas, an ex whose linguistic skills he had spoken highly of last night. I dumped the food in the kitchen, and we sat in the sun on the stoep sipping jenever chased with beer. At least I was sipping. Thomas, who clearly has a parrot perched in his family tree, is a young Brit who has got so good in Dutch that he is now working as a translator for some megaglobal something. He is almost as well read as Pieter, and I pumped them for Dutch lit recommendations at the Must-Read level.
We were silently joined on the stoep (pronounced and meaning “stoop”) by a very young, very handsome, very buffed young man. After waiting for a while to be introduced, I gave up and introduced myself. When he calmly responded that he was Sebastiaan, I lost it briefly and fell all over myself apologizing for my failure to recognize him and giving the excuse that a combination of his new haircut and my mental impairments had caused this failure.
Some confusion ensued.
It finally developed that this Sebastiaan was not ‘Bas’, Pieter’s son Sebastiaan, whom I had met last night, but rather Pieter’s boyfriend Sebastiaan, into whose nameless arms Pieter’s son had hurried Pieter off. Frankly, I think there ought to be a law against having a boyfriend the same age as one’s son who also has the same name as this son. Of course, in Texas, there is. But then, I’m not in Texas anymore.
But as I write this, I have just noticed that it’s three in the morning and my friend is in her window across the street. Ohhh, no she’s not anymore, but the light’s still on. I wonder, could it be last night’s moth, begging, begging forgiveness for not having fluttered sooner to her door?
Stay tuned, while I get a few hours sleep.
By now it’s Sunday afternoon, but I must backtrack a bit here to pick up my narrative where I left it last night when I went to bed.
After getting clear that Bas was Pieter’s son and Sebastiaan was his boyfriend, I continued to sip jenever and beer with Pieter, Thomas, and Sebastiaan but eventually grew so hungry that I suggested eating. They agreed, and I went to the kitchen and used what I hope is the dullest knife in all of Amsterdam to hack up the surprisingly good tomato, the onions, and the lemon onto a platter. Thomas artfully alternated the smoked ostrich and mango slices (eat your heart out, Jeremy Tower) on a separate platter while Pieter made a great pile of toast and I boned the trout (I missed three bones, but owing to the grace of God, they were all in my portion) and arrayed it on yet another platter with the eel fillets and the sliced halibut, salmon, tuna, and botervis. The Brits may have a name for botervis, but nobody here knows it and, as it swims nowhere near America, we sure don’t, in spite of its tastiness. We set out the kwark, kappertjes (capers), mosterd, and boter (butter) in their containers to give the table a rustic look. Sebastiaan supervised attractively. Thank God I as usual brought twice too much, as there were twice as many diners as I’d anticipated, and only a few scraps were left. As the wine merchant had suggested, the Chablis went very well with the smoked fish.
So Thomas left and Sebastiaan drifted off and Pieter and I talked until ten, when I finally came to my senses and got out. At home, I wrote the early part of Saturday’s story until too tired to continue. As it turned out, I should have kept writing, as a crowd gathered in the street to shout encouragement for two hours to their comrades serially visiting the working girl across the street. So I finally drifted off sometime after dawn was breaking at five.
A calm morning on the Oudezijdsvoorburgwaal:
Sunday the 13th – Pieter’s Little White Dog
Out of bed at noon, coffeed, medicated, showered, and shaved, I went off to EasyEverything to send yesterday’s email and then to De Bijenkorf to check out their house brand underwear, which I had seen advertised on sale. Alas, the only model I was interested in had disqualifying characteristics when examined, but I did manage to find a model in two other brands, Sloggi and Schiesser, that were irresistible. My appetite merely whetted, it having been days and days since I had purchased a pair of underwear, I trudged all the way over to Reguliersdwarsstraat, stopping a couple of times to rest, to check out a couple of stores I’d learned of.
On the way, I walked past the flower market marveling at the beautiful displays in quiet admiration until I spotted a carefully hand-lettered sign beside a spectacular flourish of tulips. My enjoyment of the sign vocalized itself with a whoop, as one who is beginning to feel that English would be improved by a few more reflexives might say. Unfortunately, whoops begin with a phoneme alien to the Dutch language, so I attracted some attention, attention similar to that I had attracted on my return from the vis rookerij when, perched a bit too precariously on a seat with no handrails and distracted by the sights as the driver hung an abrupt left into the station, I suddenly found myself on the bus floor uttering an involuntary “Whoa!”, two more phonemes absent from Dutch. Luckily, the bus came to its stop almost immediately, and I was able to crawl under it and wait until all the passengers had dispersed before slinking off to anonymity.
But I seem to have digressed. The sign at the flower market read, “Niet aankomen,” which, thinking that Dutch depravity had sunk to even lower levels than I’d already seen, I first translated as meaning, “These are clean-cut country flowers, young and fresh. Please don’t spoil their innocence by coming on with them”. Then I realized that it probably meant, “Don’t touch.” Sure enough, but what a letdown.
Discovering the underwear stores on Reguliersdwarsstraat closed, I stifled my disappointment and set out for home via Albert Heijn…without consulting my map. I insist that I was, at no time, actually lost. However, like Daniel Boone, I did find myself for a while bewildered. During this bewilderment, I gradually became aware of the most delicious music faintly, faintly coming from somewhere ahead. I remind you that not only is there no right-angle intersection in all of Amsterdam, but also that most streets curve enough that you cannot look very far ahead down any street to see, for example, the source of music. But it grew slowly louder, and increasingly seductive, as it drew me nearer. Then, there before me was a lovely open space partly shaded by elms, from which are now fluttering down in great abundance the half-inch greenish-white discs that I seem to remember are their seeds, it having been decades now since I’ve seen an elm seed owing to, well, a spade’s a spade, Dutch Elm Disease. Yeah, yeah, we gave them phylloxera.
As I walked into the open space seeking the source of the music, I saw that the space was the Spuiplein, which was pleasing because this meant that I was no longer bewildered although no closer to Albert Heijn than I had been a couple of blocks earlier. The music was being played by a young duo, she on the guitar and he on the Celtic harp, and it was so achingly beautiful that I stood there enthralled until I finally had the sense to sit down. After listening to several songs, I bought a CD. They call themselves Sunflower. Note: Delightful melodies. For once, music bought to sustain buskers proved even more enjoyable at home. You can order the CD from Sunflower, P.O. Box 18508, 1001 WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands, www.sunflowermusic.nl
Here’s the guy, Ed ten Hoedt:
And his partner, Margôt Limburg:
Then home via Albert Heijn and after a rest off to Pieter’s. Since we were still having terrace weather, Pieter was on his stoep. I joined him and we drank jenever and beer and ranged over a variety of subjects as the time flew, the sun set, and darkness fell. Pieter went off to change clothes while his little white dog and I amused ourselves watching the passers-by from the stoep. He’s actually a fairly reasonable creature, for a dog, but if you have to pick a flaw, he’s a little over-protective. What he sees as dangerous is anyone “different”, and he has a very keen sense of difference. He tenses when persons with darker skin walk past, he bristles if someone is limping or walking strangely, and he barks at folks with a crutch. The antithesis of a politically correct dog.
Pieter reappeared, dressed for dinner, and started buttoning up the house. Somehow, with a brain the size of a walnut, the dog sensed that a Great Adventure was in store and began frisking about for joy. Poor little thing is going to be disappointed, I thought. Wrongly. The disappointment was all mine as he joined us down the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. But I relaxed as I saw that he was really pretty well trained and didn’t stray far from us or bother others…much. As the street got crowded, Pieter produced a leash, which relieved me even more.
At Pieter’s suggestion, we went to Centra, a Spanish restaurant on Lange Niezel, but to my horror, Pieter brought the dog inside! Disgusting! In more civilized places, like San Francisco, they leave the dogs outside to piss and shit all over the sidewalk. Hell, even in Texas they don’t let dogs in restaurants! But nobody seemed to care here, and the dog disappeared under the table.
Pieter ordered for us in Dutch, and the octopus (de octopus) appetizer arrived almost immediately. This was by far the best octopus I ever ate. And just as we finished it, the zarzuela arrived in the large shallow iron dish in which it had been baked. It was a sort of Spanish cioppino: clams, mussels, and shrimp in a tomato-based sauce but with several kinds of fish instead of the crab. The bones from these fish made the sauce rich and gelatinous as it boiled down during the baking, and the dish, if no better, was as good as a cioppino. It was so good, in fact, that it was only as we were finishing it that the mind-numbing din in the place started to bother me and I realized that even though I had at some point unconsciously slipped off my outer shirt, I was soaked with sweat and near fainting. I excused myself and dashed outside for some air.
Almost every place I’ve been here has been uncomfortably warm, but this restaurant was literally stifling, so it’s quite a tribute to the food that I didn’t even notice it for so long. Recovered somewhat, I went back inside and was happy to learn that the waiter both understood and spoke Mexican. This was a great relief since the Spanish he had been speaking with the diners next to me was hardly more intelligible than Catalan. Which isn’t. A Catalan speaker once told me that they are quite accustomed, when speaking Catalan away from home, to have others edge gradually closer and closer as they strive to understand something that sounds so tantalizingly familiar but forever remains unintelligible. What really fried me was that the first time I had heard people speaking Catalan, I had edged closer and closer and then finally broken down and asked them what language they were speaking. I just hate being so predictable.
Outside, Pieter and I strolled down Lange Niezel to Warmoestraat as I excused myself from more drinks owing to my scheduled trip to Alkmaar in the morning. We were standing by this time in the center of the intersection when, slaloming recklessly through the crowd at high speed down Warmoestraat, came the skateboardling.
Heedless of any danger to himself, our protector sprang to our defense. Displaying great courage, he slipped his leash, inflated himself to three times his former size, and simulated a Great White Doberman. Snarling, growling, and barking at tremendous volume, he hurled himself savagely at the aggressor, seeming to seek the throat but in reality only down at knee level. Even so, he brought the skateboardling down without actually touching him.
After a brief show of the white feather from behind the skateboard, the skateboardling realized that the dog presented no actual danger, clambered to his feet, and began cursing and threatening him. The crowd would have none of it, and closing around our savior, we jeered the skateboardling down the street.
Manners learned the hard way stick.
Etymological note: “Skateboardling,” incidentally, is not to my knowledge found in any dictionary. Not yet, I fondly hope. I created it in San Francisco to describe one observed while having dinner with Bob Silverman at a window table on the Howard Street side of Chevy’s restaurant in 1988. Facing south. Chicken flautas. In the meantime, the question is whether I already took my meds.
Monday the 14th – A Surfeit of Art in Alkmaar
At nine this morning an artist friend met me at EasyEverything, and we walked over to the Centraal Station. He got us tickets to Alkmaar, and I started learning a bit more about the Dutch train system.
I also learned a bit more about Sebastiaan. (Not Pieter’s son ‘Bas’ but rather the other Sebastiaan, Pieter’s boyfriend.) I learned that Sebastiaan has lived on and off with Pieter and that on two occasions in the past couple of years, he has taken advantage of Pieter’s extended absences to rent out Pieter’s apartment to unsuspecting victims and use the money for deluxe vacations in the States. What I did not learn is why this accomplished con artist is running around loose, but it certainly did put a much finer point on his casual inquiry over dinner the other evening as to whether anyone were staying in my apartment in San Francisco now.
The train ride to Alkmaar was lovely, once I was able to focus on the scenery, and Adriaan was waiting at the station. We stopped first to let my friend take photos of a house of which he had been commissioned to do a painting. Just as we arrived, the sun made one of its brief appearances that day, and my friend was able to get photos of the house with and without sun. With equally great serendipity, the lady of the house happened to stop by while we were there, so I got to see the inside of a normal Dutch house and admire in fluent botanical Latin but broken Dutch her succulent collection, and the artist got a chance to meet the commissioner.
Then on to Adriaan’s. His neighbor was outside, so we first stopped to admire her garden and then her art. A really cozy house and a bit kitchy, but hey, she’s an eighty year old widow and that’s appropriate. Finally, into Adriaan’s. It was just breathtaking. Parts of the ceiling in some of the rooms were bare, but every other surface everywhere, horizontal or vertical, was covered with hanging or standing objets. I had not realized how utterly stark the houses of most of my friends are.
The two rooms on the second floor were devoted almost exclusively to religious art, the older the better. The first room was dominated by a 1 x 1.5 meter oil painting that Adriaan had had restored at great expense depicting some guy’s head being presented to a woman who seemed to be dissatisfied with the presentation. I can’t remember who they were, but the woman was not Salome as I guessed when he inquired. I should have ruled out Salome immediately, as the woman in the painting was overdressed.
The stuff was almost all from deconsecrated Catholic churches and included dozens (scores? hundreds?) of statues from the tiny to the life-size. I gained some points with Adriaan by observing that I hadn’t realized so much had escaped the Iconoclasts when the scales in the Netherlands had tipped from Catholic to Protestant and the Prots had destroyed every beautiful thing in the country that looked Catholic. But I lost all these points and more when, after he’d pointed out some Inquisition-era stuff, I inquired whether he had a manuscript recipe for roast heretic or perhaps a little reliquary containing an eyelash that had fallen naturally from St. Ignatius as he was questioning a man to determine whether he had as much faith as property. Almost everything was so unspeakably ugly that you didn’t even want to look for fine craftsmanship, and there was so much of it that despair set in before the search could begin. However, I did find near hilarity in seeing for the first time Christ crucified with nails through his hands and feet directly into Adriaan’s wall. It had never occurred to me that a cross would be required only when the execution was performed outdoors and a warehouse or barn wall was not convenient. It was exhilarating to see that Adriaan was a stranger to crosses of convention.
The downstairs rooms, completely secular, were not as hideous, but since everything was jammed in so, it was still hard to find any enjoyment. Amidst all that stuff, though, was one of the most delightful ceramic sculptures I’ve seen in recent years: An open music book, an inch or so thick, the left page showing a title and the composer, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, at the top of the page. The right, was a full page of music except for the gnawed hole with pieces of paper sticking out and a long, skinny, hairless tail. The title of the work: “Mice Love C.P.E. Bach.” The execution, in porcelain, was exquisitely detailed, and I regret that I cannot better describe this most excellent work.
Another Oudezijdevoorburwal shot:
Tuesday the 15th – Thy Melodious Tongue
In the afternoon, chocolate with friends at the Caffe van Daele, a gezellig (gemutlich) place across from Albert Heijn, where Sebastiaan spots us in the window and comes in. Hands are shaken as greetings are exchanged. I give him the space to chat with my friends. Each of them gives him the space to chat with the other. When it occurs to him that what he is not being given is the space to join us, he huffs out. Note: “give someone the space to” is a luscious piece of Est jargon that gained currency, at least in California, twenty-five years ago. It was often ludicrous in its application, as in the example reported around 1975 by Herb Caen in a conversation overheard on a bus: “So Werner fired him?” “No, but he gave him the space to resign.”
This afternoon, I got a laugh out of Rina by saying, “Gisteren, ben ik aan Heiligeweg gegaan en mij mes goet gescharpend hebben.” (Yesterday, I went to Holy Way and had my knife well sharpened.) [OK, that sentence presents a grammatical minefield in addition to the pronunciation issues, so the correctness confidence indicator is low.] Of course, you get only one chance to say the above, as it will take a day for your throat to heal afterwards. I use this as an example because it had gradually come to my attention that my lekker new Sabatier was not really all that sharp and that I might as well have it sharpened now rather than waiting until just before I give it to friends upon my departure. Praying earnestly, I reached for my dictionary. As I feared, the word for sharpen begins with sch, which makes the past participle unpronounceable. It is utterly impossible to fabricate a g and an sch separated only by that pitiful little phoneme normally represented by a schwa.
This is perhaps why, yesterday evening, I got a belly laugh out of a Dutch friend by informing him, “Ik studeer je melodieuze taal” (I am studying thy melodious tongue) immediately after choking my way through a sentence replete with g’s and sch’s.
I am going out later to Le Shako, where I will sit in wait for an opportunity to modify “melodieuze” in the above sentence with hartstikke (literally “heart-smothering”, but apparently there are connotational issues involved here as my uses of it have made most Nederlanders squirm nervously). I figure it’ll either bring the house down or get me thrown into the Amstel, which runs conveniently in front of the bar.
Here’s a view from near Le Shako:
Note on lekker: Lekker means “nice”, “fine”, or “good”, but unlike the German cognate, it can describe things other than food, which the Germans find just hilarious. To them, speaking of one’s lekker Sabatier presents an image of licking a knife. My research on just how far I can push lekker continues. Actually, hartstikke lekker has a nice ring, and I’m keeping my eyes open for really loathsome nouns to modify with this phrase. This morning I got a snicker out of Thomas by describing a Dutch undersecretary of finance named Bos that I watched on TV last night as hartstikke geil, which yes, means “hot” as in German but sounds in Dutch even hotter.
Cultural notes: I just watched a TV announcement for the forthcoming production at the Koninklijke Theater Carre of a new, very modern ballet by Matthew Bourne titled “The Car Man” and described as “erotische dans theater”, which the snippets sure are, but danced of course to music from an old favorite by Bizet. From what you see in the announcement, it’s gonna be just spectacular. Alas, it starts the 29th. Yes, eleven hours after my departure
Yesterday, I watched a breathtakingly beautiful contemporary ballet work for three male and three female dancers. A series of segments danced to solo piano compositions, only one of which I recognized, a Scarlatti sonata. The introductory material was in Dutch, and I had the TV going in the background while writing in the foreground, so I caught nothing about this ballet at the beginning and the credits at the end were so fast that I caught only “kamerballet” and “Nederlands dans theater”.
This ballet was immediately followed by In Absentia. Music by Karlheinz Stockhausen to which the wonderfully weird Quay brothers had added a film. It was introduced by footage of the brothers finishing each other’s sentences and of Stockhausen himself talking about his art in general and the film in particular. He ended by saying, in English, “the film iss the music” and repeated this to make sure we’d got it. It was stunning.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Dutch TV is nothing but high culture. I have seen some Brit stuff on it that so panders to the lowest common denominator that it makes American daytime television programming seem refined. Regarding the Brit imports, I must also add with my usual fairness that there is some comedy that is astonishingly funny. For example, a young actor named Sascha Baron Cohen hosts the absolutely hilarious Da Ali G show. Cohen looks Pakistani but speaks so rapidly and with such a thick cockney accent in his role as Ali G that the Dutch subtitles, rather than a language acquisition tool, are useful in understanding what he’s saying.
And there’s some provincial fluff. Throughout the afternoon and evening we were kept up to date on the illness and gradual death of the Amsterdam zoo’s oldest seal, ending with coverage at midnight of the disconsolate widow flopping around on the floor of the drained pool beside his corpse while the insensitive beasts standing around her were already talking about finding her a new husband. Actually, the death may not have been all that gradual, as I couldn’t help noticing that the widow was grieving in daylight even though all of the earlier hourly updates during the evening had described him as still moribund.
Wednesday the 16th – Anonymous at the Barber
This morning, I make a second visit to Frank’s Smoke House and pick up an assortment, including some halibut and eel as rewards for Herbert and Antionette for introducing me to this culinary treasure chest. Yes, after multiple visits to Het Korbeel, I finally pried from them their names.
I’ve been so long since my last haircut that I’m feeling very scruffy, and a friend has pointed out his kapper on Korte Lijnbaanssteeg between my apartment and de wasserij, so I pop in and, in an attempt to introduce myself, ask the barber my friend had identified as his whether she cut his hair, giving his full name. She denies all knowledge of this person, and plunged into despair, I think that once again, my pronunciation is so bad that they can’t understand me. But that hasn’t been happening recently…much. Admittedly, fairly often there’s a beat before they understand, but they do understand. Oh well. She offers to cut my hair after her current client and gives me coffee while I wait.
The haircut was utterly uneventful, quite boring in fact, since my Dutch is by no means up to the barbershop badinage in which I normally join with enthusiasm. But getting it provided yet another insight into Dutch social customs, or at least my friend’s personality, for when I mentioned having got the haircut to him, I also mentioned being unable to get the barber to understand his name. He was horrified. Quite upset, in fact, that I had divulged this information because this meant that he needed to find a new barber. I was flabbergasted, but finally pulled it together enough to point out to him that his barber was unlikely to remember a mystery name pronounced by an American in neophyte Dutch and associate this name with him on his next visit. Even so, he did not find this very reassuring. What is this thing the Dutch have with revealing their names? Surely all the Dutch don’t conceal their names from their barbers!
On my way over to EasyEverything I encounter The Little Druggie, and we instantly recognize each other. I had first met him when he panhandled me on my way home from my first visit to Frank’s Smoke House, and seeing that he looked young, clean, healthy, and in full possession of all his faculties, not to mention being really cute, I had inquired why he didn’t get a job. He observed that it was difficult for an addict to keep a job. I countered that he didn’t look like one or talk like one, so now might be a good time to stop whatever he was doing so that he didn’t start looking and acting like the real thing. But I relented and gave him a couple of florins, never expecting to see him again.
This time, we talk some more. I try a little outreach program and point out to him that our situations ought to be reversed. Here he is, still young, handsome, healthy, and smart and yet in the process of throwing his life away before he even has a chance to enjoy it. On the other hand, I had had forty years of wild abandon and great enjoyment and now was, old, sick, and half-crippled; so I ought to be the one using the drugs since I no longer had anything to lose. He should get out there and enjoy his girlfriends and all the physical pleasures while he was able to and then, after forty or fifty years of this, he could do his drugs. (I thought it would hurt my case to tell him that as one ages, his interest in recreational drugs dwindles.) He agrees that this is worth thinking about, and I part with a fiver as we part.
And now, a cultural note. This poster outside a herring shop is entertaining if you know that “Hup Holland Hup!” is the traditional cheer shouted by Dutch soccer fans when watching a match against a foreign team. And “haring” is “herring”. The line beneath the fans clearly at home in front of their TV translates as “Delicious at home with a buddy in front of the TV” Alas, this neither scans nor rhymes in English.
Thursday the 17th – Spruitjes!
I go with friends to lunch for Real Dutch Food at the gesellig old place down the street, De Keuken (“kitchen”) van 1870, where I eat spruitjes that may have been cooking since 1870. They disintegrate at the touch. Speaking of brussels sprouts, I saw a wonderful ad on Dutch TV for a finance company that illustrated the importance of proper marketing with a hilarious little scene. The proprietor of a corner produce store stands disconsolately in front of his empty shop watching the city traffic passing his street display on foot, bicycles, and in cars without even slowing. Glumly, he repositions a cauliflower. Cut. He reappears carrying a small blackboard, and as he sets it atop the display, we see that it reads, “Heden Spruiten” (Today, Brussels Sprouts). Pan to the closest passerby, a man who excitedly shouts, “Spruitjes!” as he jumps off his bicycle. His cry is taken up by others, as pedestrians run, people jump off bicycles leaving them where they fall, and motorists stop their cars so abruptly that others crash into them and they all leap out leaving the doors open, everyone shouting “Spruitjes!” (the only spoken word in the ad) as they mob the store, waving fistfuls of money as the proprietor frantically weighs and bags sprouts. Cut. Throngs of people in the streets, becoming a crowd packed tighter and tighter around the front door, shouting “Spruitjes!”
The Dutch were masters at combining ornate brickwork with stone:
Friday the 18th – Bjorn Borg Underwear
Wasserij pickup again, and I thanked the nice lady for putting up with my Dutch. Whereupon she patiently and slowly explained that she was German and could sympathize with my difficulties. We bonded…and agreed that German certainly is a lot easier to pronounce, even if not learned from one’s mother. This encounter put me in such an excellent mood that I went up the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal to check out Magna Plaza, an upscale three-story shopping mall with an atrium created from an existing rococo structure, the old postkantoor. Inside, it’s rather like a larger, frou-frou Crocker Galleria, but a quick check of the directory revealed that my intuition had not failed me. It listed, on the second floor (our third floor), a store with the seductive name Bjorn Borg Underwear. Using the escalator, I ascended into Bjorn Borg Underwear and saw that yes, this is where he markets that hartstikke lekker tennis butt. Regarding other matters, I discovered the next morning after I drew on my single acquisition, evidence that undercuts those rumors that he might be ambidextrous. Assuming that he outfits himself with his own products, he is exclusively right-handed, which resolves any question regarding his manual preference.
Saturday the 19th – Flamenco at the Duende
Up at five and can’t go back to sleep, so I drift over to EasyEverything at six to check my email. I discover that many of my readers have not been reading between the lines and seeing that all these adventures are 1) of shorter duration than they seem, 2) spaced out with rest periods at home and between events, and 3) involve walks on pancake flat terrain of distances never greater than four San Francisco blocks and usually much shorter, e.g. the arduous journey to EE out my door and down Spuistraat, right on Korte Lijnbaanssteeg, diagonally across the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal onto Nieuwe Kolk and through to Oude Brugsteeg and then left on the Damrak and into EE is a distance of about 175 meters. I can make it without stopping if I stick to my saunter. (From there to Het Korbeel, fifty meters. From there back home, 200 meters.) This also explains why it took me a full two weeks to pay a visit to Le Shako, my favorite place on my previous visit. It’s over 300 meters away.
Regarding these references to distances in meters: For 100 meters, just add an American football field to 400 inches. OK, but you already knew mathematics was not my forte.
After a brief rest at home, I trudge west 125 meters to the Noordmarkt, which has been touted as the finest of the local food markets. It’s good, and I pick up a superb truffled chèvre and some outrageously overpriced cherries; but overall, it’s not quite the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Then again, since the Ferry Plaza is focused on locally grown produce and is so outstanding there, perhaps this is not a fair comparison.
I returned home for a nap and awoke to discover the return of sunny weather. I realize that I’m going native, as my first impulse is to jump in the shower so I can go out somewhere…anywhere. Luckily, the clouds have returned by the time I get out of the shower, so I can write this and rest up for the Noche por Huelva at the Duende this evening, at which de huisbaas will be dancing. She has so often, so thoroughly stressed that attendance is not mandatory that I feel like I really have to go. Besides, it’ll be a chance to practice my Tex-Mex with non-native speakers, always more relaxing in any language since neither of you is all hung up over the grammatical gender of, say, a table.
I’d love to build a list of nouns showing great gender diversity across languages. Well, ok, across the ones that I know anything about. For maximum diversity, I’m thinking, we’d need nouns that are common gender in Dutch and neuter in German (which I suspect may prove to be too limiting right off the bat) and then, like table, are of different gender in those languages like French and Spanish that limit themselves to masculine and feminine. Table won’t work, of course, since it’s not neuter in German. (It’s formerly feminine but now common in Dutch, masculine in German, and feminine in French and Spanish, so it shows some diversity but I want more, more.) This competition is open only to persons, like myself, who can remain interested in this sort of thing without letting it become an unhealthy obsession.
Speaking of which, a friend has pointed out that I can satisfy my forty-year healthy curiosity about Frisian by hopping a train. In a couple of hours, I can be in Friesland, pick up a Fries-English dictionary at a corner kiosk, check into a cute little inn, and spend a couple of days in cafes mastering Frisian. Never can tell when it might come in handy. I could be at JFK during my return flight and overhear a couple of Frisians plotting overthrow of the government or something.
In the early evening, I walked the few blocks over to the Duende. It was an astonishing experience, to be sitting in a jam-packed Spanish bar-restaurant in Amsterdam listening to, and participating in, at a bystander level, an evening of flamenco singing and dancing. I try chatting up others in my version of Spanish to no avail. As enthusiastic over the performance as they were, none of them in my proximity, including Rina, could have even the simplest conversation in Mexican Spanish…at least not in my Mexican Spanish that the waiters in Centra could understand perfectly. For me, though, it was utterly surreal to be listening, in this setting, to music that had provided the heritage upon which the border Mexican music that I heard as a child over fifty years ago was based.
OK, another shot of NEMO, Amsterdam’s equivalent of the Exploratorium:
Sunday the 20th – The Right Woman
It’s either the charm or the chocolate…or maybe their powerful synergy, but in any case Rina has been doing my laundry of late. I did protest…a little bit…at first. However, the German lady at de wasserij and I still wave to each other when she’s at the front of her store when I pass by.
Today I had lunch with a Dutch friend whose mother is becoming demented. I tried to reassure him that when she gets crazy enough, there is a magic moment that occurs as suddenly as a light being turned on, after which her neuroses no longer drive you crazy. At that point, you can begin helping her out of pure love and pity rather than a sense of obligation.
Notes for “The Awful Dutch Language, with apologies to Mark Twain” – If they’re treating what they call the “long i” (“ij”) as “y”, which means that entries beginning with “ij” are found in indices immediately after “x”, then why don’t they complete their spelling reforms by breaking down and spelling the phoneme “y”? I suppose because ysvry (icefree) looks ridiculous. Then again, take another look at ijsvrij. What I have noticed, though, is that young Dutch people sometimes omit dotting the “i” and the “j” in their manuscript, which of course produces a “y”.
Regarding Dutch culture: I predict a tipping point in the Netherlands in a couple of decades or so when everyone with direct experience of bad treatment at the hands of the Nazis is either dead or so senile that they can’t remember it. After that point, owing to American foreign policy (especially as practiced by Dubya) on the one hand and British football (soccer, to us) hooligans on the other, speaking German here will get you a better reception than English.
We’re well on our way. There’s been a gasoline crisis here, and I’ve seen some riveting news coverage of obese Americans waddling out of their SUV’s in gas stations and spewing enough gasoline into them to take the average Dutch family in their car to Madrid…and partway back. The death blow, of course, is that as the camera focuses on the number of gallons pumped, it is also revealing the price per gallon. You do not need a calculator to figure out that the amerikanen are getting all that gas at a fraction of the European price since the price per gallon is not that much above the price per liter in Europe.
Regarding the Supreme Court’s striking down the California Medical Marijuana Initiative. It’s going to be real hard to enforce a decision overturning an initiative that 78% of the San Francisco voters (and doubtless a far higher percentage of the non-voters) is in favor of. Then again, I ask myself why I should give a shit about this since I don’t have that much interest in smoking the stuff now. At home, I’m still working on the second dab I bought (completely legally, my papers are in order) from CHAMP. Here, I bought some the first day and haven’t smoked any since my second day because it doesn’t help with any of my current medical problems, while it does disrupt thought. Keeping out of the way of onrushing vehicles (from stealthy bicycles sweeping silently in from any direction to clanging streetcars which at least stay on the tracks and are easier to spot) is tedious enough when you can think clearly. The interesting thing is that many of the people I meet here smoke it, so I am constantly having to thank folks and explain that I’d be bogarting that joint except that my mother disapproves. They rarely insist.
And actually, I lied. Dutch bicycles are not silent. There is a very faint scritch scritch scritch sound as the bicyclists vigorously thumb the lever that originally rang the now worn-out warning bell.
Regarding Dutch television: It reflects the society. I’ve discussed the lighter touch that is so refreshing. There is also such blatant sexuality in ordinary advertising and programming that it utterly astonishes Americans of my generation. Too, the other night as I surfed innocently through the channels, I blundered upon some of the hottest pornography I’d ever seen. A sex education show focused on various ways of increasing your partner’s pleasure. Trying not to be too prissy about it, I’ll just say that nothing was left to the imagination and that totally without being hams about it, the actor and actress sure did seem to be enjoying themselves. They were also beautiful and buffed, and I realized that here was the Right Woman I’ve been waiting for all these years. All we have to do is get rid of Prince Valiant lest he prove distracting. And maybe adjust the volume on some of my meds so that my interest might be a little less coolly objective.
Fries vs. Frisk, or Humiliation Retracted – In 1988 I met a Frisian speaker, and since then I have sometimes referred to the Frisian language as Frisk, which was my phonetic spelling of what I remembered hearing the Frisian call his mother tongue. My embarrassment knew no bounds when I was corrected by locals early in my stay this time. They kindly informed me that it’s Fries, thus rhyming with “Greece” in English. This afternoon, I logged in to Mr. Google on the Internet and discovered that I have been misled. Fries is the Dutch word for the Frisian language! The Frisians, their beauty exceeded only by their obstinacy, call it Frysk. Ha!
Here’s a bicycle/pedestrian ferry to Amsterdam Noord, the new suburb north across the IJ. Since the IJ is only about a kilometer wide, it’s more efficient for the ferries to be double-ended, and that blunt prow is lowered to become the gangway.
Monday the 21st – Busted at the Bijenkorf
This morning, off to the Vereniging Voor Vreemdelingenverkeer, which for some reason everyone calls “de VVV” (one of those strange local customs that make foreign travel so interesting) to gather information on a possible trip to Friesland. The civil servants at de VVV are very clear about exactly what their job entails. It is to give you information about lodging and major tourist attractions in the Netherlands. They are not required to give any other information about their country and are miffed if you bother them with other questions. Humph. I have now had my first negative experience with another human being in Amsterdam, well, except for an obnoxious Aussie panhandler last week and a very obnoxious Dutch-speaking panhandler last night although I spoke such perfect Dutch to him without even thinking about it! that afterwards I performed a short celebratory dance in the street for my companions. Cutting to the chase, my final line was: “Goest thou away” in the imperative mood. Actually, you don’t need to understand Dutch to get the idea when someone says, “Ga weg!” in your face, or for that matter, anything beginning and ending with a “g”.
After leaving the VVV, I stopped in at de Bijenkorf and discovered that Mr. Borg’s fine underwear is more expensive here than at his tony shop. I snag a couple of Sloggi items since I’m in here. The clerk looks at me, mentally runs me through his database and gets a hit on the Recent_Visitors table. Exposed! I can almost hear his hard disk grinding as his eyes narrow and he transfers me to the Known_Underwear_Nutcase table. I wonder which days he has off.
I slink over to the UofA branch at 139 Spuistraat. Alas, no Frisian here, in spite of what Mr. Google told me. However, a couple of helpful girls at the counter direct me to a sub branch at Spuistraat 210, which closes at 4:00 and which I thus cannot make today. I do have time to walk within this building to an office where I get information about their intensive classes in Dutch as a Foreign Language and a couple of suggestions for bookstores that might sell Frisian-English dictionaries.
I then walk up to the Spuiplein and check out the Athenaeum. I am disappointed to learn that they don’t have Frisian dictionaries. They do, however, have some excellent Engels/Nederlands-Nederlands/Engels dictionaries, and I select the second best, a van Dale in two volumes because the best, also a van Dale in two volumes, must weigh ten kilos and is more massive than I wish to carry. This is a hobby, dammit.
As I’m paying, the clerk mentions that I might want to visit De Ambassade van Friesland. I congratulate him on his wit, but the joke’s on me. Of course there is no Frisian Embassy, but there is a shop, specializing in things Frisian, with that name. He gives me the address and general location. I must take this guy some chocolates or, better yet, some Frysk delicacy.
Lugging the dictionaries, I pop in at Borg’s store on the way home and pick up that other interesting model. At home, I check my map. De Ambassade van Friesland is on Leliegracht, which is only 175 meters or so from home, but I can’t decipher the number. By now, though, I have determined that if there’s a number that you cannot read in something written by a Nederlander, it’s an eight. They do strange things with eights here.
A passageway on Java Eiland:
Tuesday the 22nd – The Frisian Problem
Today, I’m dragging friends off to the “Frisian Embassy,” but before I begin this tale, I must share with you one of the intellectual breakthroughs that I am currently enjoying: I’ve mentioned having made Dutch folks laugh with my delicious wit. It occurred to me this morning that at least some of the time it may have been my accent…or my grammar. Certainly, what was making all those folks squirm when I first used hartstikke was not some subtle connotation as I had guessed, but rather that the damn word is an adverb only and sounds really weird to the finicky Dutch ear when used, however gaily, as an adjective. Of course they sucked me into this error since, unlike English, French, German, Spanish, and other civilized languages, they don’t stick suffixes onto their adjectives to make adverbs, so the forms look alike.
I joke with a Dutch friend that I don’t want him speaking Dutch in his country dialect around me lest I be infected. He responds that the Frisian with which I am currently so obsessed is a dialect. I counter, nonsense, it’s a separate language, but with imperial chauvinism he gets the last word: “That’s what they say!”
Well, he’s wrong. My friends patiently accompany me to De Ambassade van Friesland, where I get my very first Frysk-Ingelsk Wurdboek while discovering that the Ambassador is an imposter and can barely speak any Frisian at all. He recommends that I go to Friesland to hear it. Instead, we go to the UofA subsub branch that according to the kind young women at the sub branch yesterday will have information on spoken Frisian.
I am directed to the Dialects division, where I talk to yet another of these informative young Dutch women who tries to help, but alas, the Frisian Department is on vacation. He won’t be back for a week, but I get his email address.
After a quick stop at the Post, we go to lunch at an outdoor cafe on Reguliersdwarsstraat. My friends wait on the terrace (we’re having terrassenweer again) while I visit the underwear store next door and discover the widest Olaf Benz selection I’ve ever seen. Light of heart and wallet, I emerge, blinking, into the sunlight and rejoin my friends. After lunch, I return home with my prizes…and my new dictionary. To put all this into perspective, the prizes remain untouched in their shopping bag even as I write this line the next morning, but I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening cuddled up with the dictionary.
A Brief Report on the Frisian Problem:
Six words for “you” although I have developed a fondness for familiar pronouns and find this worth putting up with.
Grammatical gender. Yuck.
Adverbial as well as adjectival inflection, and worse yet the set of inflection rules is much more tedious than that for Dutch adjectives although admittedly coming nowhere close to that for German adjectives.
Way too many strong (in the grammatical sense) verbs following vowel change rules so “muddled”, to quote the author, that she recommends just thinking of them all as irregular.
The heartbreaker, though, is maddening pronunciation issues. The good news is that the only guttural is an h that Mother taught me to make flawlessly nearly sixty years ago. Thus, no Dutch gutterals to strangle oneself with. This is the only good news. There are two g sounds in Frisian. One of them is described as “a voiced velar fricative found only word-internally in voiced environments” and will probably sound a bit harsh to the delicate English ear, not to mention being tedious to produce. The really bad news is the vowels. Omigod. The writer of the dictionary explains that all those things that sound like triphthongs are not really triphthongs at all but merely diphthongs with a glide. Somehow, this fails to reassure me. Especially when I look closely and see that yes, the dread Dutch ui is there, in both a plain version and fancied up with a glide. I spent months trying to stomp some of my East Texas triphthongs flat enough that the Germans could understand my English before I decided that it would be easier to learn German. I am not going to tiptoe through the triphthongs again.
My shock turns to horror when I see that for the first page of vowel values the author often adds at the end of her description “similar to” followed by an exemple out of French, German, or English. As she progresses through the values, though, “similar to” becomes “rather like”, “approaches”, or (my favorite) “vaguely like” and the language, Dutch. So you get stuff like “The first element is a sound between [ö] and [ö:], followed by a schwa offglide.” I leave the second element to your imagination.
My horror turns to terror when I start trying to understand the Frisian pronunciation feature called by my dictionary “breaking”. The author devotes half a page to a discussion of the effect of “breaking” on nouns alone. To greatly oversimplify, when you commit any act upon a noun, like, say, attaching a suffix, you are likely but not certain to cause an only partially predictable vowel value change in the accented syllable (which may or may not be reflected in the spelling). Oh please.
Dutch is difficult enough. Some of its sounds could be described: Purse your lips and maintain a light gargle immediately atop the larynx whilst humming, with the lips still open, measure nn of the Queen of the Night’s second aria. Then, for Frisian, throw in a few “offglides” and a bit of “breaking”. So much for spoken Frisian although I would still like to hear it.
Regarding the vocabulary: The Frisian-English portion of my dictionary runs to 830 pages, with a 300 page word list running the other way. The vocabulary expresses an active life outdoors. The Inuit supposedly had a dozen words for snow, although this has been, I think, conclusively debunked. Well, my English-Frisian word list has seven entries for floats that you attach to your nets. And strong words (not in the grammatical sense) too, lots of them. This stuff is about as loving as Klingan. A feature I particularly enjoy is the single word verbs (and typically not prefixes on a stem) that express such concepts as deabite “to bite to death” (as opposed to merely taking a nonfatal taste or two), posysjekieze “to choose sides in a conflict”, gizelje “to be imprisoned for debt or contempt” (as opposed to a more manly crime), and my favorite so far, plattraapje “to kick to a pulp/jelly” (as opposed to using one’s fist to achieve the desired consistency).
These are folks whose language has survived a thousand years under the Dutch, German, Danish, and formerly sometimes Norwegian thumbs. My theory is that nobody else is smart enough to learn how to speak this language well enough to give orders. The prevailing German theory thirty-five years ago was that the Frisians were not smart enough to learn a civilized language. Well, you gotta be either smart or tough to survive. Both is better but either will do.
The Lekker Report (for the German speakers): This, just in, “…(he or she) kan lekker neuken.” Neuken = ficken. My preferred, if a bit ideosyncratic, English translation, “…can tastily fuck.” This would be an excellent place to stick in hartstikke. Of course if you were being immodest, you could say, “Ik kan hartstikke lekker neuken,” producing a sentence that, even if it failed to get the desired result, would have at least one “k” in every word. And by the way, it occurs to me that when you’re in a Dutch kitchen, you should not say, when you plan to warm an item in the microwave, that you are going to “nuke” it. Especially not when oma is present.
Our friend the shibboleth. Finally, after constructing shibboleth phrases that are masterpieces of malignity in attempts to confound these supple Dutch tongues, I have blundered upon a naturally occurring shibboleth: “enthusiasm”. How sweet it is, to honestly and with purest innocence have no idea what word it is that folks who are otherwise disgustingly fluent are trying to say. To capture this sense of innocence, I tried to create a Garden of Eden metaphor, but kept ending up playing the serpent, as I immediately started plotting how to trick Dutch English speakers into uttering this word. Along similar lines, just in case you need this someday, “toothbrush” works splendidly for the French.
A bridge from Java Eiland to Amsterdam:
Wednesday the 23rd – Orgies and Tasty Drugs
On the way to EasyEverything this morning, I cross paths for the third time with The Little Druggie. Nice to know exactly how your loose change is going to be spent. He’s not looking so fresh and perky, and for the first time I get the sense that he is overdue for his dose. He invites me to join him as we stroll in a loop along the Damrak and the Nieuwendijk while he watches for a “friend” he really needs to see. I resolve to drift away immediately when spots this “friend” as I’d just as soon not get involved in the impending transaction.
As we stroll, he discretely points out people he knows, and identifies a gay man whose clutches he’s evaded after having taken money from him for sex, saying that the guy wants to “sexually abuse” him. I ask him, well, who’s abusing whom here, if you took his money and then didn’t deliver? He laughs and admits that I have a point but then counters, “But you give me money.” I point out the difference, that I wasn’t asking for anything from him. “That”, he says, “is why you’re so interesting, because I could tell you weren’t after my body.” And at that point, he spots his dealer, and I flee, never to see him again, but wondering, while he was right in intuiting that I never even considered sex with him, do I project asexual vibes now to everyone? Since I am now viewing sex as a historical issue, I suppose I project this, too.
Later, I take a box of asexual chocolates to the guy at the Athenaeum who told me about the Frisian Embassy. He was at lunch, but a charming coworker accepted it for him. Afterwards I feel guilty that I didn’t get chocolates for all the young Dutch women in the various branches of the University who were so helpful, but in their case it just seemed like they were doing their jobs particularly well. The guy at the Athenaeum, like the waiter and waitress at Het Korbeel, made a special effort to steer me to something extraordinary. For that matter, virtually every Nederlander I’ve met has been friendly and helpful. There’s a very high level of social consciousness here, and one of its most excellent manifestations is that it is apparently impossible to drop anything of any value on the street, as someone in the area will immediately call your attention to it.
Friends pay a surprise visit at 5:00. I give them drinks and complain about the surly clerk at the corner grocery when I had purchased a bun earlier. As I describe the encounter, they laugh and tell me that what I had actually asked for was a part of a piece of bread, thus giving the impression that I was panhandling…or crazy…or both.
It’s terrassen weer, so we can’t stay inside. We walk around the block to a nifty cafe I’ve discovered on Singel to discover that it’s closed. On down Singel, where we find the entire intersection full of yuppies yammering on cell phones spilling out of a couple of cafes on both sides of the canal and covering the bridge like ants. This is hopeless, so we turn left down to the other end of my block of Spuistraat and find a table at a quieter place.
The good-looking young couple at the next table are just all over each other. I notice that his enjoyment of her attention is enormous. She knocks her half-full wineglass off the table, thus bringing them up for air and providing a conversational opening. They’re both Brit immigrants, and they’re celebrating a successful job interview she’s just completed earlier. She’s already a bit pissed, as the British put it. She’s also delightful, and she and one of my friends go into such a riff on TV stuff that the rest of us are left struggling to keep up. The stud runs off to his apartment around the corner to bring jackets for them, and she takes this opportunity to tell us that they’ve been together only a month and that he’s the lekkerste neuker she’s ever had. I reassure her that he clearly enjoys her company as well. She gets my drift and laughs, saying he’s worried because he’s also attracted to guys but she’s encouraging him to do it as long as she still gets hers. The couple at the next table endorse her tolerant attitude and join the conversation. An American from SF and his Brazilian wife with their two cute kids, now living in Amsterdam. The boyfriend returns, looking spiffy in a new outfit and bearing a new top for her, to better match the jacket. She dips into the cafe to change tops. The new top is so fetching that, to everyone’s relief, the jacket is postponed. The American/Brazilian couple edge closer. The conversation turns to orgies and tasty drugs. I feel old. Very old.
And then I remember the fourth of July, 1976. A Bicentennial Independence Day Fireworks Watching Party in a North Point flat with windows looking out on Alcatraz, from which the fireworks will be set off. The hosts are gay men, but this is San Francisco and the thirty or forty guests are a fine mixture of sexes and inclinations. To prepare us for the imminent fireworks, our hosts have thoughtfully provided a platter covered a sixteenth of an inch deep with a tan powder. What a beautiful presentation, we all cry, licking our index fingers and closing in for tastes. Our hosts suggest that we start with two tastes and wait a bit before coming back for thirds. I notice that tastes come in a variety of sizes.
By the time we hear the explosions of the first fireworks, a festive air has swept the flat. Festivity turns to hilarity as we simultaneously realize that the fog has closed in enough that while we can clearly hear the fireworks exploding, all we can see through the fog is warm glows accompanying the explosions. Nevertheless, we all feel compelled to shout oooohhhh’s and aaaaahhhhh’s to celebrate especially nice warm glows, which more and more are, as the show progresses. The platter is passed around again and, just the reverse of a collection plate, licked clean by eager tongues.
It’s not just the fireworks that are especially nice. The warm glow lingers lovingly in the room. We feel chatty, happy, generous, and oh, so touchy-feely as the veterinary level doses of MDA take hold. Collectively, we observe that our fellow guests are clearly the handsomest, most beautiful, and most eminently desirable group of horny young Americans imaginable. Everyone has such wonderful, smooth skin, eager for touching and being touched. A few of the timid, or underdosed, slip away at some point, but plenty remain, and as the evening progresses and clothing is shed, we come more and more to resemble a pile of earthworms.
As the sun rises cruelly higher in the morning sky, we one by one come to our senses, disentangle ourselves from the pile, and wriggle off to our respective burrows to recover.
Note from a lapsed chemist: I’ll bet the stuff they’re calling “Ecstasy” or “X” nowadays is what we called MDA in the seventies, which would explain its popularity.
Meanwhile, back at the cafe, I get some assorted snacks for our tables, finish the single drink I’ve been nursing as the rest of them got drunker, pay off the waiter, and plead illness. I consider offering to baby-sit with the kids, but fear I’ll be thought a child molester…or worse yet, selfish. Besides, this being Amsterdam, the kids would probably find watching TV with me a poor alternative to less passive entertainment.
Thursday the 24th – The Spinner
This morning, I trudge off to EasyEverything and catch The Spinner, who recognizes me (not surprising since I always throw a coin…usually the fiver, which he doesn’t get many of) and demonstrates a new trick as well as some others that I admire that are not as showy as the stuff that he sucks the crowd in with (like flinging the spindle four stories into the air with the meter-long cord he manipulates at the end of two short sticks and catching it on the cord behind his back) but rather displays of exquisite fine control as he sends the spindle around arms and legs and bounces it back and forth in small, rapid movements. It really is just astonishing to see dexterity at this level, and I always watch until I feel self-conscious about hanging around too long.
He’s amazing. I’ve also been around often enough to identify his bodyguard…or his owner, whatever. The Bodyguard will not meet my eye, and I have never seen them converse or even acknowledge each other, but he is always present when The Spinner is working. Not in the same spot, but always nearby. And he’s not a fan because he’s watching the crowd rather than The Spinner. And I know he’s associated with The Spinner, Watson, because the only place I have ever seen The Spinner is on the Damrak near EasyEverything, where I go at least once a day and often twice. And The Bodyguard is never present when The Spinner isn’t.
I walk over to Het Korbeel for coffee and then back by The Spinner on my way to de Bijenkorf. As I cross the Damrak, I sense movement to my left and briefly divert my attention from The Spinner. I see an onrushing streetcar. It is close. The driver is cursing. I can’t hear him, but I can read his lips. He is very unhappy with me as he thinks about all that paperwork in store. However, I am pleased to report that even in my infirmity I am able to perform a standing broad jump that covers a distance greater than the width of an Amsterdam streetcar. A couple of onlookers applaud.
With more presence of mind, I’d have ripped off my shirt and performed a veronica as the streetcar thundered past. Then, instead of merely applauding, the appreciative audience would have awarded me both headlights and the bell. But I don’t think I’ll try this one again, as death by streetcar is way down on my list. It disrupts traffic while they clean up the mess, not to mention putting the driver to all that trouble.
Outside de Bijenkorf, I meet a man from Odessa. He spots me first because I am wearing my Odessa tee shirt and an unbuttoned L.L. Bean long-sleeve shirt which flaps open enough to reveal the front of the tee shirt. It takes me a beat to understand him as he walks up to me grinning because he is speaking Russian, which I don’t. I do, however, know the sound of it and remember that the word “Odessa”, the only word of what he’s saying that I recognize, is blazoned on my chest.
I tell him that I don’t speak Russian, but this is the American Odessa, in Texas. He doesn’t know Dutch, but he does pick up the three words “amerikanse”, “Odessa,” and “Texas”, so he tries English. I admit to having some English, and we talk about the Russian and American Odessas. He knows about Odessa, Texas, having met someone from there last year. The American one doesn’t have a beach, in spite of all that sand, but the Russian one doesn’t have Jack Jordan’s barbecue.
Inside de Bijenkorf, I check from a vantage in Men’s Sport Clothing. The coast is clear. The guy who knows me in Men’s Underwear is not working. I seize the opportunity to carefully examine the Claussen Collection. Jackpot. I find three that meet all the requirements. As I am chatting up the salesgirl at the kasse, my nemesis arrives to screw around with the register and watch us with a gimlet eye. She takes forever to tally up my miserable purchases, mess around with my credit card, shake out and refold every item, nestle them lovingly in tissue paper, line them up carefully on the counter, and tie them with a red ribbon. OK, I lied about the ribbon. Why does it bother me so that this guy has Got My Number? I mean it’s not like I’m buying silken bikinis with lace trim in pastels. (Not, of course, that there would be anything at all wrong with that. Heh heh.) But this stuff is all midlength white cotton, a more conservative fetish focus. Well, OK, some of ’em have a small amount of Lycra for clinginess.
On the way home, I pop in H & R, way less upscale than de Bijenkorf, but since I’ve never been inside, I am guaranteed anonymity. Their underwear selection is surprisingly large, and all at prices ranging from a quarter to a third of those at de Bijenkorf. I select one of each.
As I hit Spuistraat, I take a close look at Caffe Chocolata, on the corner of Korte Lijnbaansteeg. I read about this place last night and am annoyed that I have been living within sight of it for three weeks without noticing the fine print on the sign, “Fly Higher at Caffe Chocolata”. As the book said, they’re not the typical caffe with its luscious pastries and upscale clientele, but rather a coffee shop, meaning that it’s not really the coffee…or the chocolate…but rather the marijuana and hashish. But they’re way more refined than the typical Amsterdam coffee shop and specialize in hashish confections. Like a caffe, they display beautiful bonbons, luscious looking tortes, and pretty cookies. They’re also a much cleaner and better-lighted place than the standard coffee shop with its opium den ambiance, and their clientele definitely looks more upscale. Hmmm. If I don’t take the train up to Friesland tomorrow to listen to ten minutes of Frisian to confirm that it is utterly unintelligible…
Wait a minute! I’m standing right across the street from the “smart cafe” that I checked out a few days after my arrival. I discovered that they had psilocybin mushrooms, which I had just loved in the seventies and which are legal here, so without even thinking about it, I had bought a package out of the excitement of being able to do so. It was only after I got them back to my apartment that I realized that I actually had neither the time nor the interest to do them again. It’s just awful to have got so old that I’m no longer interested in sex and drugs.
Another Spuistraat building:
Friday the 25th – More Encounters with The Spinner
And what did we do today? After a brief visit to EE, I took the bus over to Frank’s Smoke House and planned my order with him. We settled on a couple of kilos of warm-smoked salmon (two sides), three kilos of smoked tuna (four big chunks), three-quarters of a kilo or so of smoked halibut (four nice fillets), and a 300g. or so chunk of smoked ostrich. I watched with fascination as he double vacuum sealed all these items in his space-age vacuum sealing device and tagged them with his logo as well as his EEU export stamp. I got him to promise to put nametags on everything in both Dutch and English just in case an overzealous customs creep can’t tell the difference between pork and ostrich, or beef and tuna. It’ll all be delivered Monday afternoon, as his delivery service doesn’t operate early enough to deliver it to me Tuesday before I leave for the airport.
To bring back to my apartment, I got a smoked chicken breast, some smoked pastrami (beef that he had first pastramied and then smoked), and a dozen smoked aal. Their nakedness was covered in the display counter, but their little noses sticking out from beneath the sheet discreetly clothing them were an irresistible come on. Lovelace was right. It’s what you can’t see that drives you wildest.
An aal is a small paling. Little smoked eels about as big around as my index finger and twelve to fourteen inches long. Like little golden garden snakes. You just grab them by the head, bite the throat out, snap their little necks, and with one dexterous motion, carefully pull the skin off as you would from a banana the skin of which had been slit down the outside. You are left with what looks like a foot-long skinned skinny chicken neck but has a much higher percentage of meat to bone. You just nibble it off the blessedly resilient backbone, as God in his everlasting love omitted the ribcage from eels. Hartstikke lekker!
On the way home, I catch one of The Spinner’s performances. I consider tossing an aal onto his tip coat, but settle for a fiver. After crossing the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, I stop at the Boulangerie on the corner of Korte Lijnbaanssteeg and notice, for the first time, a pile of éclairs. I gasp in delight, providing some amusement to a fellow shopper. She looks French, so I remark that I have not seen, since long time, these things delicious with the true custard French in the interior. I get a blank look. I had already determined through exhaustive testing that none of the bakers/staff speak a word of French other than the names of some of the classic pastries they bake. This is the first time in my life that I’ve been in a boulangerie/patisserie where I was the only person who spoke French. And in Amsterdam, yet. They call themselves cosmopolitan!
I meet a gay friend at six on The Spinner’s corner, where The Spinner is allowing an excited eight-year-old boy to try his hand. The kid goes at it with great joy but no skill. At the right moment, The Spinner retrieves his instruments and imitates a spider committing an act of self-bondage as he runs the spindle on its cord in and around and over and between his arms and legs and torso and head. Just spectacular control. The kid’s designer-dressed dad flips The Spinner a florin. Must be a Canadian doctor. Who else could throw one fucking florin after his kid has been provided such delight? I throw a five. Either my face is showing my contempt or my action speaks sufficiently loudly by itself, but in either case, the father glares at me and bristles aggressively. But then he suddenly jerks the kid away, harshly enough that I see shock register on a couple of faces in the crowd. I turn on my heel and find myself face to chest with The Bodyguard, who has somehow materialized behind me. For the first time, he meets my eye, and he allows himself the briefest of Mona Lisa smiles as, so gracefully that he doesn’t even seem to move, he lets me pass.
My friend and I take the streetcar to the Rembradtplein and settle in at a table on the terrace of a gay bar. We drink beer after beer with our preening fellows until the shade arrives and I am, for the first time here, a trifle tipsy.
Emboldened by all that beer, we lurch off for Dutch fast food. First, we hit van Dobben, an institution famous for its kroketten. Remember those budget-stretching salmon croquettes your mother made when you were young and salmon were an inexhaustible source of cheap protein? The kroketten look like that, but here are clearly made with less salable parts of cheaper things that have been sent to Friesland and kicked to a jelly/pulp. They are breaded and briefly deep fat fried and served rare, very rare. Whatever you do, eat gently or things ooze. They are so disgusting that I can barely finish mine. My friend goes back for seconds.
Next stop, Febo. My friend recommends the bami, but having just consumed one of his recommendations, I take a look at the menu for alternatives. I spot the fricandelles and ask him about them. He responds that he used to love them but then learned what was in them. I silence him before he can continue as I had already suspected that this was one of those things, like cervelle au beurre noir, that are best sampled before knowing the ingredients. It is delicious. Some very interesting textures, too, but, fresh from my experience with the kroketten, I keep my eyes closed while eating it.
Next, the Krokodil, where we have a beer and relish being the two youngest persons in the bar. On the way home, my friend drags me into a bar where many of the clientele are For Hire. Studiously keeping my eyes fastened on my friend, I drink a bottle of water. A spectacularly beautiful young man at my other elbow, unaccustomed to being completely ignored, is so frustrated by this new experience that he follows us outside the bar as we leave and accosts me. Unlike so many of us, he looks even better with more light. I mutter that I don’t understand him and we flee.
And so, home to bed. Well, after a feeding frenzy on the aal. There were no survivors.
An Amsterdam vespasienne (named after the Roman Vespasian, who put a tax on the urine from public urinals, noting that “Pecunia non olet” [money doesn’t stink])
Saturday the 26th – The End is Near
Brief excursion this morning to EasyEverything and a brief one this afternoon to get groceries. Culinary note: Prunes and chèvre. I may have read about this and forgot it, or I may have just invented it. In either case, it is heavenly.
At this point, I’m looking forward to having served out my sentence. I realize that as of today, this is the longest, since my discharge from the Army, that I have ever been away from my Cancerian nest. And I want to be in it right now, but I lost teleportation with the rest of my superpowers. Yeah, yeah, I should stop the whimpering and take my vacation like a man.
I had thought this trip to Amsterdam would help me clear my mind, and I suppose it has. But what has really become clear to me is that the plug has been pulled, the vortex has formed above the drain, and I’m in it. I thought you weren’t supposed to know it when you were crazy.
Another shot of the Sloterdijk Station:
Sunday the 27th – Even the Dutch
One of my bottomless pits of ignorance is Dutch history. Like many Americans, I had thought of the Netherlands as being innocent of Great National Evil )except for having had colonies) they get such a good press in the United States. For that matter, when I lived in Germany and traveled in Europe in the sixties, both courtesy of the U.S. Army, nobody anywhere said anything bad about the Dutch. Well, OK, maybe just a word or two about the driving, but the focus there was really on the Belgians. I learned decades ago that every nation on the planet, given the opportunity, has behaved as badly as its power would allow. I cannot imagine why I was somehow making an exception for the Dutch.
Even the Dutch have shameful episodes in their history. For example, in 1620, under Mr. Coen the Dutch (i.e. the East India Company with Dutch troops) took the island of Banda, captured several hundred of the Bandanese, and shipped them off as slaves. The remaining few thousand fled into the interior, where most either starved to death or threw themselves from cliffs as the reinforced Dutch approached. Coen complained in a letter to the Company, with fine dramatic irony, “It appears that the obstinacy of these people was so great that they had rather die all together in misery than give themselves up to our men.” Yes, terminal obstinacy. His letter is quoted by the eminent Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, so we can safely assume that this is not some vicious English calumny. I enjoy tossing this kind of information into the conversational pot to lighten things up when there’s been a bit too much talk about the Nazis. Once or twice there’s been a splash.
And lest I give the impression that the Dutch do nothing but sit around and talk about the Nazis, early May has two holidays in quick succession that tend to pick the scab off wounds. First, there’s Herdenking, which is the equivalent of our Memorial Day, but since their most recent war dead, except for the few they lost while trying to hang on to Indonesia immediately after WWII, were killed by the Nazis, the event gets them to thinking about the Nazis. Then, a few days later, there is a holiday celebrating the liberation of Holland from the Nazis. So one is treated to days of television coverage of German POW’s being marched off alternated with coverage of Canadian and American troops sweeping into cities and towns with the streets lined with weeping, cheering, very skinny citizens (there’d been universal hunger and much starvation the previous winter).
For those who think I am coming down too hard on the Dutch regarding their behavior in Banda, I must point out that most Americans are quite aware that for the past half century, the Dutch have behaved as a nation in an exemplary manner. I wish I could say the same about us.
And finally, for those who are offended by my occasionally being amused by Dutch expressions and quirks of Dutch grammar, please know that I find entertainment in all languages and am an expert on the idiocies of English, most especially those of American English. When the American people finally come to their senses and proclaim me Emperor for Life and Protector of the Language, I’ll excise a number of unnecessary linguistic complications, and I’ll take care of that spelling while I’m at it.
Beauty, Suffering, and Art: “Il faut souffrir pour être belle,” said Madame Pompadour or one of her sort in specific reference to the considerable ardor, lacking the blow dryer, of her hair style. And somehow this got transferred to the concept that the suffering of artists improves or even makes possible their art. I can put a finer point on this, at least with regard to my writing. There is what I shall call an “art window” during which I am at my most productive. The window opens when I am in enough discomfort that I don’t want to go out and do something fun, but closes when I feel so bad that I want nothing more than to lie in bed reviewing my sins. The volume of text that I have spewed out here in Amsterdam is testimony to the window having been propped open for much of the visit. I have spent far more time sitting in my room in front of my laptop than anywhere else. Well, OK, and watching Dutch television 1) as a language acquisition tool and 2) to learn whether the US is at war with China yet.
A Dutch friend comes over in the late afternoon, and I demo making my chocolate sauce for him because he is as fond of it as I am, which is inordinately. Now he knows how to fish. As his bill, I hand him a piece of paper and tell him to write down every dirty Dutch word he knows. I look at the list and find it way too short. During the cross-examination, I wring from him several more. My Dutch is now complete. I check my new dictionary and am pleased that it, too, is complete as it lists all of his words, with the vulgar English equivalent. And yes, Virginia, there are many synonyms.
Afterwards, I take him out to dinner at the New King, where I experience my first culinary disappointment there. Do not order the Egg Fu Yung with Crab. In the first place, it’s in an overpowering sweet and sour sauce, which I cannot imagine anyone equipped with taste buds serving with egg or crab. To compound the horror, the crab had obviously enjoyed sequential refreezings. The other dishes were as excellent as usual. Afterwards, to the Queen’s Head for a drink and then home to bed.
My newly enriched Dutch vocabulary served me in good stead on the walk home, as I was joined by a persistent streetwalker too strung out to speak anything but Dutch. Not only did I understand precisely what she was offering, but I was able to get rid of her by announcing that my interest was attenuated by my being a sixty-year-old flikker with AIDS. That and a couple of florins.
More anon…or probably not, as I leave for the airport at nine in the morning. It’s been fun writing this, and I hope I’ve given you some laughs. If nothing else, I’ve certainly shown you a different side of Amsterdam than that I stayed in on my previous visit in 1999. Living in the Red Light district, as I have this visit, alters one’s perspective. You see a much seamier side of life. The one thing that is entirely unaltered, even in the Red Light district, is the utterly delightful hospitality of the natives.
And finally, a drawbridge in operation: