May, 2004 – Amsterdam Again?
What follows is the sequel to Dutch in Three Weeks, the travelogue I wrote describing my stay in Amsterdam in May, 2001. There’s a lot of water through the canal since then.
The walking problem I was whining about turned out worse than I expected. Walking became increasingly difficult, and a couple of months after I returned I was diagnosed with intermittent claudication. To say the least, I took this news badly, and to my shame pretty much gave up hope, sinking into a slough of sloth, gluttony, and despair for two and a half years.
But then, at Thanksgiving of 2003 my doctor substituted another med for the Crixivan that I’d been on for seven years, and in January I began experiencing inexplicable bouts of happiness. I mean, there was absolutely no reason to be happy. I couldn’t walk any better. My life was still a meaningless waste. Why in the world was I happier?
Finally I figured out that the only change in my life was the med change. In addition to helping destroy my ability to walk normally, the Crixivan had been impairing my mental faculties and depressing me all these years, which explains why I wasn’t able to deal with the additional burden of not being able to walk well until after I got off those meds.
Finally ready to have some fun again, albeit walking-impaired, I checked with Rina and she agreed i could stay with her in May. And then I checked with the airlines and ended up booking my first flight since my trip to Amsterdam in May of 2001. What made the whole thing possible was that Air France was kind enough to let me take my Segway along for free as a handicap assistance device.
So this time I was going back to Amsterdam already knowing some delightful Dutch folks there (and no Americans), so I anticipated that the stay would be even more fun than my previous. I was right. I just love the Dutch. They horrify and delight me. This time I met many more of them and learned a great deal more about Dutch society while having some adventures that I hope will have entertainment value. I can also honestly say that my Dutch has improved. Unfortunately, considering how little I remembered from 2001, that’s not saying a lot.
30 April 2004 – The Journey to Amsterdam
I got off to a bad start because turning the Segway over to Air France for shipment was less than totally confidence-inspiring, the employees never having dealt with one of these before. Still, they were all very nice and I got a vigorous giggle out of the young women at the business class lounge when I told them I’d given up trying to pronounce French correctly and was going to Amsterdam to work on Dutch.
This illustrates the difference between French and German attitudes about Americans learning Dutch: The French think it’s silly while the Germans think its sinful. Just kidding….mostly.
My flight companion is a young French neurologist returning from a convention in SF, who tosses his stuffed backpack and skateboard into the overhead bin alongside my stuffed backpack and control bar for the Segway, which is my second carry-on item since I didn’t want it banged around loose in the bottom of the box they put my Segway in.
We chat over a delicious meal, by far the finest food I have ever eaten in an airplane. I cannot resist ordering the foie gras appetizer, and it turns out to be a perfect piece I can only describe as a slab…or maybe a foie gras steak. Having eaten all this foie gras beside a doctor, I really had no choice but to have the fish as the main course, and it was unexceptionable.
Between bites I learn that this is really an exciting time to be a neurologist because major advances are happening right now in the treatment of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and MS. No cures, but some significant slowing down of the progression of all three, and exciting possibilities in the pipeline. I also notice that this is a really exciting time to be seeing a neurologist if this guy and the pack of others in business class he was joking around with are any indication as to what French neurologists are looking like nowadays. I had assumed they were members of some kind of athletic team. Track and field. That lean, buffed look. Yow!
After dessert, we medicate ourselves, and I must admit that I experience a soupçon of envy over the rapidity with which his kick in before mine take effect. I always knew in my heart that doctors kept the best stuff for themselves, but I’d never seen proof. Blessedly, mine take over before I start gnashing my teeth.
We emerge in time for breakfast, which is, alas, back to normal airline food. My omlette, in fact, is downright rubbery and I quit eating it after core samples from every region come up similar.
When I debouch at De Gaulle, I am disappointed to see no wheelchair awaiting me, but figure it can’t be all that far and shuffle along hugging the shoulder as every person on the packed plane passes me on the left. I am exhausted by the time I get to the main floor, and I drag myself to the nearest office and ask for help. It turns out that my connecting flight to Amsterdam is two buildings over, so they call for a shuttle bus which eventually arrives and takes me to the correct building.
I am stopped at the security check and told that my control bar assembly must be checked. I point out that I have just carried it on Air France from San Francisco. It must be checked. I speak to the supervisor. It must be checked. I turn around and see that there is a kilometer long line for the checkout counter and that I cannot possibly get through this line in time to make my flight. It must be checked. How could they have known of my diabolical plan to take up religion, become a fundamentalist, knock forty years off my age, uncripple myself, and take control of the aircraft by brandishing the plastic handlebar assembly from a Segway? Curses, foiled again!
A kind young security woman takes me in hand and somehow gets my control bar checked. I try to give her a twenty in appreciation. She refuses, saying, “It’s my job.” I offer her the extra box of fresh cherries that I had stuffed in my pack (there are more in my suitcase) even though in spite of her help I have missed my flight. She accepts. I have the sense that in Europe at this time of year, a little charm and a box of cherries could get me laid…were I on the market…and the make. Have some fresh cherries, m’dear.
They schedule me for the next flight to Amsterdam…in three hours. I give them Rina’s number and ask them to warn my welcoming committee. I go to the gate and sit in the closest available chair, so exhausted that I fear going to sleep and missing another flight. Fortunately, the chair is not comfortable enough to sleep in, and I awaken over and over as I pitch forward. Three hours passes rapidly in this fashion, and soon I am able to board. I am asleep before the plane takes off, and the entire flight is a blank.
I come to as the plane lands at Schipol. I get off and immediately find my control bar on the carousel, all beat up and missing the caps over the function change button and the recharge port. I grab it and amble across an endless plain to the baggage office to inquire about my suitcase and the Segway, which I had been told had been sent ahead on my scheduled flight. No, I am now told, they were held for the flight I was on. I shuffle back across the plain and yes, my suitcase is on the carousel. The gigantic box containing my Segway is nowhere to be seen. I trudge back to the office and present my claim check for a 32 kg. package. They have no record of this package. I explain the value and importance of this package. They have no record of this package.
They tell me that missing baggage usually turns up the next day….and if not then, within five days. I fill out some forms. They give me some papers. I give them Rina’s phone number.
I drag my suitcase, backpack, and control bar through the security exit and find Hans, Rina, and Rafaël, long-suffering souls who are at the terminal for the second time since Air France didn’t call until after they’d left. They help me to the train, and we take a taxi home, where I face the prospect of 29 more days of glorious vacation. I give Rina and Rafaël their presents, but otherwise I do not unpack.
To keep from thinking about the nightmare life here will be here without the Segway, I agree to walk to Albert Heijn with Rafaël to lay in some groceries. It crosses my mind that I may well be leaving them for Hans and Rina, but I am trying hard to be positive about this.
I must say, Albert Heijn takes my mind off my troubles. There are few things I enjoy more than grocery shopping in other countries. Actually, it would be a great exaggeration to say that I mind grocery shopping back at home, but over here it’s always great fun, perhaps because I am combining the pleasure of buying food with the pleasures of seeing new packaging and presentations, discovering new foods, and building vocabulary. I also find it fascinating to compare prices. Fruit is more expensive here, but some other things are so cheap I do doubletakes. Like the Echte Zaanse Mosterd that I raved about in Dutch in Three Weeks, still available and only €0.85 for 335 grams. That’s nearly a pint!!!! Or a 350 gram whole smoked mackerel (Albert Heijn house brand) for €2.60.
Note: That € character is the symbol for the euro. It’s an abbreviation of the “€€K!” that people say when they see hotel prices.
It’s also good to go walking with Rafaël because what with his short legs, the pace that we can maintain and the distances we can go are about the same. By the time we get back home, it’s ten at night and I am twitching with fatigue but still not sleepy. I take two ibuprofen, two lorazepam, two cyclobenzaprene, a melatonin…and a trazadone to make sure. They work. [Hmmmmm. Remind me to edit this before my doctor sees it. She worries so. That’s bad enough, but she also looks at me that way.]
Sunday 2 May 2004 – Wheeled
I awaken at six, feeling quite rested. First things first, I write up a draft yesterday’s adventures and burn the file onto a CD with the idea that I can upload it at EasyEverything and send it to everyone. It’s a dank day as I shuffle over to EE and discover that the place has become a sleazy pit with only a small fraction of the former terminal space, most of it now devoted to tables of cheap and dreadful junk for sale. Since there are no attendants, there is no possibility of uploading the contents of my CD.
Nevertheless, I figure out the ticket machine and get an €2 ticket. Then I discover that the machines are so poorly maintained that I can barely get them to work well enough to access email. So much for EE.
The day grows danker as I notice on my return to Spuistraat that it sure was a lot easier to make this walk last time I was here. I check with Hans and Rina to see whether Air France has called with news of my Segway. No word. I call the number on my certificat. Alas, they don’t where it is, much less when I might see it.
Rafaël and Rina are standing at either shoulder urging horrific threats and insisting that I make Air France aware that I am going to be taking a taxi for distances over ten meters and will be saving the receipts for them, but my calmness over L’Affaire du Segway Perdu astonishes me. Yes me, moi-même, who in my protease inhibitor phase could go crazy over imagined issues or totally wig out over a parking space, now utterly calm in the face of an actual problem. I merely convey to them my hope that they are aware that without the Segway my mobility is seriously impaired. They reassure me that considerable resources of Air France are now dedicated to surveillance for my device.
Rafaël and I head out for de Bijenkorf to get maps since I have forgot to bring mine, and besides, a gentleman cannot have too many maps. What a fine department store the Bijenkorf is! (And ok, here’s a link to a tourist information site’s take on the Bijenkorf in English.) The closest equivalent in San Francisco would be Macy’s, I suppose, but this thing is Macy’s with a bit more panache…more like the KaDeWe in Berlin. The selection of maps is enormous, so large that going through them to find the best ones is tedious.
I have been trying for years to let go of some of my obsessive thrift. However, friends have tartly observed that, considering what’s left, I certainly must have had a lot to let go of. Well, depression-era parents and all, I did. Or I do, whichever. Perhaps that’s why I am so comfortable here. One little example: After I settle on only four maps, we are headed for the kasse when I spot a display of a book titled The UnDutchables. A senseless pun, actually, but the subtitle is “an observation of the netherlands: its culture and its inhabitants,” written by a couple from Lafayette, Colorado. I snap it up. Rafaël is aghast that I am about to buy a €20.50 book, “Too much!” but when I am adamant, he snatches the book out of my hand and selects one from the middle of the stack so that I don’t get one that’s been all pawed over.
My amusement over this evaporates when it strikes me that I do exactly the same thing when I pick up free newspapers like SF Weekly in San Francisco. I try to convince myself that I am justified in this because in San Francisco the first couple of papers at the top have been downright violated while the books in the Bijenkorf have merely been politely touched by hands with clean fingernails, but no, it’s the same thing.
On the way out, we tie each other to the mast to get through the strait between Men’s Underwear and the Bakery. Actually, he’s not into underwear, and I’m over it now and am devoting all that energy, and money, into baked goods….as the most casual glance at me, even fully draped with loose clothing, reveals. We let our guard down too soon, though, and are seduced into that lekker little snack shop on the left just before you escape out the north door. Well, OK, in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll rephrase that and state that although there was no kicking and screaming, I did drag Rafaël in. But then I must add that once I got him in, like Patty in the bank, he was an enthusiastic participant.
We do restrain ourselves, though, because Hans and Rina have invited us to go for a drive in the country… out to IJmuiden to eat supper at a little fish shack. IJmuiden is one of those Dutch words that cause a brain crash upon first sight. Actually, like many of them, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. Roughly speaking, the first syllable is about like “A,” as in the first letter of the American alphabet, the third is “dun,” as in to request the repayment of a debt except that the “n” is inaudibly soft, but the middle syllable is “m” with a ui phoneme. I have to brag: my pronunciation of that nasty little phoneme is improving, and now when I utter a word containing it, I am often understood. I took more pride in this before I realized that the folks who have been doing most of the understanding tended to be those who had had previous exposure to my pronunciations, but I comfort myself in that at least some learning is taking place.
IJmuiden is only about 25 km west of Amsterdam, and Rina takes a scenic route that often gives the feeling that we are “out in the country” rather than being on the edge of a major metroplex in a densely populated country. The drive is entertaining also because of sights like a wind farm and a collection of huge oil tanks with odd things painted on them. Like “Oiltanking,” which makes only partial sense to me in either language. Can anybody explain this to me? I just love Dutch humor, but it is sometimes a bit too subtle for me.
The high point of the drive, though, is when Rafaël’s cell phone rings. I stifle annoyance because I so despise the things. I expect to be issued a couple of cell phones when I arrive in Hell. But I digress. I think Rafaël is joking when he says, “Air France? Just a moment,” and hands me the phone. He’s not. They’ve found my missing box and can deliver it between ten and midnight, an offer I accept. Jubilation prevails. Appetites are stimulated.
The fish shack is just like those on American coasts: you are encouraged to believe that the fisherman brother (sometimes a cousin) of the restaurateur delivers his catch right off his boat every afternoon, and it is cooked immediately after the flopping ceases. Umm, yes…local halibut, squid, salmon, and shrimp.
I notice that the young waitress is really coming down hard on her “r’s” and ask Rina about this. She’s not sure, maybe it’s a coastal accent, but she does mention that today’s urban youth are using as one vehicle to demonstrate their rottenness the willful and obstinate refusal to trill their “r’s” properly. Ah, the eternal ability of youth to find ways to get under the skin of their parents, who, in this case, look forward with horror to the prospect of non-trilling grandchildren spewing ugly little flat English “r’s”.
Afterwards, Rina takes us a few kilometers away to a restaurant/bar overlooking the sea. A bit gusty on the terrace, so we stay inside for coffee and take in the view. It’s lovely, but frankly, not a bit nicer than looking at the Pacific. What it does have, though, is amazing parabolic kites that seem to have the wingspan of a condor, much larger than the men flying them, and you can see that the men are having to work to keep from being pulled off their feet, as they are bracing themselves at 45 degree angles while the kites hold them up. YOW! MUST HAVE ONE! Rina says there’s a bit of a scandal going on because some smaller persons (men and boys only, of course) have been injured owing to being too stupid to let go soon enough at a critical moment. [Editorial qualifier mine.] On the way back in, she points out a place that she thinks would sell them, but it’s really at the outer limits of the range of the Segway. I could carry the recharging cord and NL adapter, but I do hate being dependent on the electricity of strangers.
Back home, Rina and Rafaël argue almost convincingly that I really must not ride the Segway tonight owing to my having neither a warning bell nor a light, and I reassure them that of course I never ride the thing at night in San Francisco and that all that will be necessary will be just the briefest little test run a few meters back and forth in front of the house. They don’t seem all that reassured, particularly since Rafaël is spreading horribly exaggerated tales of my recklessness that he supposedly witnessed during his last visit to San Francisco.
Rafaël and I chat until about 10:15 and then I can stand it no more and decide to escort him down to the door and just hang out down there with a pocket full of battery bolts and a hex wrench set in my hand. Rafaël continues to hang around, and then Rina drops down, and then Hans, and finally I realize that they are just as excited about this delivery as I am. I tell Rina we’ll let her know when it arrives, and she goes back up.
Finally, at 11:30 an appropriate-looking vehicle arrives, and a woman with a clipboard in hand jumps out the passenger door. The driver wrestles the box out as I’m signing for receipt, and as they get back in the van, it occurs to me that a more prudent move would have been to have just taken a glance inside the box before I signed. Oh well.
I tear at the box with my bare hands as Hans and Rina arrive with a little knife. Yes! All three pieces are present. I tip the platform over on its side and start threading bolts through the first battery as they huddle around. Once the other battery is bolted on, I attach the wires, slide the control bar back into its sleeve, and, holding my breath, touch the key to the keypad. The light comes on, and I relax.
I mount and glide a few meters down the bicycle lane…and the few meters back, carefully watching for the bicyclists zipping back and forth even though it is midnight. I do it a few more times at increasing speeds. In the open space off both bicycle path and sidewalk, I do a bit figure-eighting and some free-form flourishes, terminating with a fairly brief spin since I haven’t taught myself to do that head thing to keep from getting dizzy. They lap it up.
As do the cops who have just come out the door of the station down the street. I sense that their healthy curiosity is mixed with calculated assessment as to whether I might be committing something actionable. I’m sure it was just an unconscious tic, but one of them was definitely drumming his fingers on his ticket book. So much for the midnight show.
Monday 3 May 2004 – Segwaying with Rafaël
I segway over to Rafaël’s on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal to join him for our first excursion on wheels, and we begin by heading for Frank’s Smoke House. My nagging little doubt is realized when we get there and see that it’s closed Sunday and Monday, but as we’re lingering in front discussing our next move one of Frank’s employees opens the door. Afterwards, the idea occurs to me that his coming to the door might have been prompted by more than pure generosity even though the Dutch routinely display a heart-warming level of kindness and solicitude for visitors. But still, I somehow doubt that he had too often seen lingering outside his door a dwarf on a kid’s bicycle accompanied by a gray-haired man balanced on a strange contraption.
When I tell him how delightful I found Frank on my previous visit, he responds that Frank is on vacation but will be back in nine days. I look forward to this reunion. Meanwhile, undaunted by our failure to shop at Frank’s, Rafaël and I set out for the Albert Cuyp Markt.
En route, I discover that Rafaël’s concern for my safety on the Segway is a form of projection. His recklessness in traffic and his blithe disregard of traffic regulations are horrific, and I take my first Amsterdam spill when I realize too late that he is leading us into the maw of a forbidden zone full of onrushing cars, swerve a trifle too abruptly into a legal (and safe) area, and end up falling just as I am about to regain control. I berate him vigorously and articulate my resolve not to follow him when the signage and/or signals and/or common sense forbid entrance.
Which brings up the question of the anarchist streak the contemporary Dutch exhibit. Best I can tell, it’s not a streak but rather a broad swath. This trait seems to be exaggerated in the young, but they came by it naturally. One evening in November of 1998, I learned from a gentleman a bit older than I that a law had recently been passed forbidding pissing in the canals. He felt this was an outrage and that it was the duty of every man to exercise this God-given right whenever he felt the urge, which he was demonstrating as he spoke.
And wonderful Rina, my kind host, my age and a grandmother, has already more than once observed that they don’t really follow a particular rule/restriction having to do with where one can ride his bicycle. “It’s just there for the tourists.”
We eventually get to the Albert Cuyp Markt, where we have belegte brotjes (little sandwiches made by filling a soft roll with something tasty) at a shop Rafaël likes and then hit De Volendammer Vishandel, which I remember fondly from my last visit and where I now buy some paling (eel) to take to Rina’s as an appetizer tonight…and since I am in the shop, 200 gr.. of the sprat fillets. Yes, that’s what I said: sprat fillets. I mean, sprats themselves are small luxury items, but sprat fillets are serious decadence one step removed from nightingale’s tongues. Oh, the shame. I can just see it now:”…aged 63 years, of a surfeit of sprat fillets…”.
To avoid this infamy, I shall divide them into 50g. portions and limit myself to one per day. Now I’m wondering how long they’ll be detectable in my blood. After this blowout I should probably stay clean until it’s determined in November whether the citizens, as part of the War on Terrorism, will be subject to Mandatory Random Testing for smoked fish consumption.
After the shopping Rafaël and I are passing through Gravenstraat, and he’s kidding me with that wonderful mock outrage of his about my taking pics of stuff that’s sure not in the guidebooks when he spots the window of De Twentsche Club and wants a pic of it. I get the window with him in front:
Twentsche is the adjectival form of Twents, the dialect that Rafaël speaks, and these folks take the same pride in it that people from, say, Houston do in theirs. And get much the same reaction from speakers of the standard dialect in their respective countries. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find a Houston dialect club in New York. You gotta stick together when you’re surrounded by others.
Which makes me recall somehow getting an invitation the autumn after Allen died to a huge gay party for Texas expatriates in a spectacular Victorian on McAllister Street between Scott and Divisadero. It was so strange and wonderful to be at a party in San Francisco where everyone spoke with a Texas accent.
More than one person has warned me that whatever I do, I must not learn any Dutch pronunciation from Rafaël. Ummm yes, I try to imagine what it would be like to listen to a Nederlander speak Houston English. Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
I should mention that all through this excursion, Rafaël has been marveling over and over that for the first time in his life, everyone is staring at his companion and barely even noticing him. Always happy to provide little services for my friends, but this may be the first time in my life I’ve acted as a decoy…and if it isn’t, I don’t want to hear about it.
The dinner is a multi-level delight. The food is delicious: Spanish cherry peppers cored, marinated, and stuffed with a marscapone-like cheese. Smoked eel on toast. Buttered white asparagus with copa. Little new potatoes boiled in their skins. And sugared strawberries with an astonishing vanilla-ice-cream-like substance that Rina tells me is the almost the only item for sale in a little shop across from Hema on Nieuwendijk.
Better yet, I keep discovering additional levels in Rina. Like her knowledge of architecture. On the way back from our excursion to IJmuiden, she took a small detour out at the western edge of town to run us through a housing project called “Eigen Haard” designed by H. P. Berlage and a classic example of Amsterdam School architecture. Fascinating buildings with, dare I say this, almost Escherian whimsy.
Tonight she lends me a book with brief descriptions and small pictures designed to lead you through the top 100 modern buildings in greater Amsterdam. As I leaf through this book, and as I see more and more of the Amsterdam School, it occurs to me that, well, there are probably a good many living architects who think of this school as architectural wanking.
I just love that word. I heard it first in London in May, 1998. Liam was driving us somewhere and, in a red-faced, bulging-neck-veined ‘roid rage at a fellow motorist, issued a torrent of abuse ending with “you wanker!” My inquiry as to the meaning of this word only partially defused the situation, but the knowledge that he was, in fact, dead wrong coupled with a closer look at Liam – clearly both enraged and very, very strong – helped the other motorist to take the tongue-lashing with reasonable grace.
And finally, I seem to have made a breakthrough in communication with Hans. He does not speak English, but he understands me fairly well when I substitute English words. Better yet, now I’m starting to understand him. The sad part is that now that our communication is better, the signs of his Alzheimer’s are clearer.
Since we’re talking about medical conditions, and to end on a brighter note, I must announce that I have taken up drinking again. My doctor will be pleased. Normal people drown their sorrows, but as my interest in life declined, I gradually found it just too much trouble to have the daily drink for her. Now I’m getting back into it. Am I weird or what?
Tuesday 4 May 2004 – A Cold, Wet Ride
After writing in the morning, I decide to spend the rest of the day happily and wirelessly connected to the Internet in the 350-meter-range hot spot at the Heinekenplein, which I am thinking is going to be the best of the connection possibilities that I’d tracked. It’s high time I got online.
I start by jumping on the Segway and heading for Frank’s Smoke House. I immediately notice an advantage of going out by yourself. Giving up the companionship lets you choose your pace, which allows you to see much more. If you are following a determined bicyclist, you have to keep your eyes mostly on the pavement. Amsterdamers are proud of not having the potholes found in most American cities, but there are still pavement irregularities that are quite sufficient to down a Segway.
Being able to take in the scenery has a nearly immediate reward. About halfway along the Prins Hendrikkade from the Centraal Station to Kattenburgergracht there is on the left toward the IJ an extremely interesting modern building. It’s really quite dramatic, and my new map has a graphic depiction of it with the word, “NEMO”, I later check with Rina and discover that this has nothing to do with Disney or Pixar. Rather, the reference is to Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, and the building serves as the equivalent of San Francisco’s Exploratorium…a hands-on science museum for children that is in fact greatly enjoyed by children from 3 to, oh, 75. The architect is Renzo Piano. Rina has a connection and may be able to arrange something special.
All my life I have blundered into situations in which “something special” is arranged by kind friends. Like the time back in the mid-eighties when my friend Charmazel had got an appointment as a Reader at the Huntington Library. The tourists get to go through the display room and peer through heavy glass at an Elsmere Chaucer, an early Gutenberg Bible, one of those copies of Songs of Innocence and Experience that Blake printed and hand colored, and other showy things. Pleasurable enough. But the Readers, and only serious scholars like Charmazel are given appointments as Readers, have work space of their own and are given free access to the stacks!
Yes, the stacks. The stacks where the enormous collection of rare books that Mr. Huntington gathered from all over the world is kept. The enormous collection that Huntington’s heirs ended up using as a tax write-off so that they could keep for themselves most of the 666 gazillion dollars that Huntington amassed by plundering California. To ensure our cringing gratitude, their name is chiseled in granite over the door.
But anyhow, since Charmazel’s dear friend Louis was visiting from San Francisco, she took him in to meet the library staff who, like everyone else, just loved Charmazel. And since we were already in there we kind of swung through the stacks on our way out and I got to reach out with trembling fingers and remove from a perfectly ordinary looking library shelf 250-year-old first editions of works by Dryden, Swift, and Pope. I didn’t hold them long for fear my hands would start sweating and sully them.
And since we were in the library, there was nothing to stop us from strolling over into the botanical garden, which in those days was open to the public only on Sunday afternoons unless you had a letter of admittance. These letters were obtained by requesting them politely by letter in time for the garden to reply before your visit. No telephone calls, please. We said hello to Charmazel’s gardener friends on the way to the largest outdoor cactus and succulent collection in the world. I started addressing them all formally in Latin, but then dropped this stuffiness, fell on my knees, and kissed as many as possible before Charmazel’s patience was exhausted. But there I go, digressing again.
At Frank’s, an employee I don’t recognize comes to the counter, and when I start ordering in Dutch, I am somehow dumbstruck as I try to think of something that I can say in Dutch while he cuts my halibut and tuna. So I stand there saying nothing, and I fear that I have come across as unpleasant at best. A highly unsatisfactory experience, and the chill of it strikes me harder as I am examining my map to plan a general route over to the Heinekenplein.
Contributing factors are that the wind is gusty, there’s a bit of mist in the air, and I am wearing the thin cotton windbreaker that I foolishly brought on this visit instead of my little black jacket. However, I am not deterred. I should be, but I’m not. I decide to go on out to the end of the Oostenburgergracht, turn right, and consult the map again after I cross the Amstel, a terrain feature I feel sure I can’t miss.
Almost immediately I encounter one nifty piece of modern architecture after another. I must study the Guids voor Moderne Architectuur in Amsterdam by Paul Groenendijk, Piet Vollaard, and Piet Rook that Rina lent me. It covers about a hundred 20th Century buildings but, alas, was published in 1987. The contemporary architecture here is just breathtaking, and while I’m as much of a San Francisco chauvinist as anyone, I have to say that our offerings are just plain pitiful in comparison. What I particularly love here is instances in which stunning new buildings are nestled with those hundreds of years old and, because the new is in scale with the old, the combination works. Well, it’s of course more than just scale.
But it is sure not pic weather today. As I ride along, the wind picks up and the mist becomes a drizzle. I close the last inch at the top of my so-called windbreaker. And then I encounter an Albert Heijn in a neighborhood where I feel more comfortable leaving the Segway. Don’t really need much, but might as well grab a few items since I’m here. Besides, it turns out to be just as warm and dry and toasty inside as it looks.
As I pick up other items, I’m looking for flour so that I can make the cream sauce for that Asparagus Cockaigne in Joy of Cooking that everybody likes and that I plan to make for Hans and Rina since it is high asparagus season here and I really enjoyed Rina’s white asparagus last night. Of course the hidden agenda is that I’m going to make this dish with green asparagus to demonstrate that, contrary to the bias of de Duitse volk (by which I refer to the Germans, the Dutch, The Luxembourgers, and the northern half of the Belgians), green asparagus can actually be eaten with enjoyment by humans…and with a lot less tedious peeling by the cook.
As I shop, I am struck by how often we identify common foods by their packaging long before we are close enough to make out words on the container. For example, everybody knows that salt occurs naturally in a thin cardboard cylinder approximately 8″ high and 4″ in diameter. The cylinder is most often blue but can take other colors. Unfortunately, these conventions frequently do not cross international borders, which adds another dimension to shopping in a foreign country when you are after a specific ingredient and forgot your dictionary and have no idea what the packaging looks like over here.
After an extended search, I leave Albert Heijn without the flour. Apparently, flour is simply not sold at that branch. To celebrate my exit, the drizzle increases to a light rain that, as I gain speed, seems more like sleet. As I cross the Amstel I decide that I don’t really want to sit in the Heinekenplein today.
But since it’s so cold and wet that I don’t want to stop long enough to consult my map, I decide to just follow the Centrum signs until I spot something I recognize. Somehow, at the time, this seemed perfectly reasonable. Perhaps my brain was already so chilled that thought was impaired. This may have also been a factor in my going ahead and running at full speed until the thought penetrated through the cold that rolling along at high speed on wet bricks set in a herringbone pattern with deep gaps between them would, if I fell, simulate falling onto a giant cheese grater at 20 KPH. I slow down a trifle.
I finally admit to myself that I really do have to stop and look at a map when it sinks in that, after following a lot of Centrum signs, 1) I have no idea where I am or even what direction I am going and (2 I have traveled a considerable distance. I also remember that in many congested cities the Centrum signs are designed to direct tourists in automobiles in a wild goose chase to keep them from impeding downtown traffic. By this time my hands are not functioning well because of the prolonged cold and wet, so I’m fumbling a bit trying to get my pack open when I happen to look up at the street sign on the building around the corner of which I have moved to try get out of the main blast. It is Prins Hendrikkade. And then I look around and realize where I am. I have somehow made a giant semicircle and am now back about four blocks from Frank’s, little closer to home than I was thirty minutes ago when I decided that I was so cold and wet that I had to immediately head for home.
I finally arrive home seriously chilled. I take off my wet clothes and jump in bed, so exhausted that I fall asleep for a couple of hours. When I awaken, I realize that it is nearly 8:00 P. M. on Herdenking, the Dutch equivalent of Memorial Day, when the Queen emerges from the door of the old palace, walks slowly across the Dam, and places a wreath at the foot of the monument to the war dead. Other dignitaries place wreaths beside hers, and there is a two-minute silence. Owing to the weather, I elect to watch this on television.
I am profoundly moved by the ceremony, as I am by the honesty of Dutch television, which shoots the event from a distance sufficient to reveal that on this cold, rainy evening so few citizens have turned out that the Dam is not completely filled. Sure, there are thousands of people present, and if the cameras had just zoomed in a little bit, the impression could have been given that the square was jam-packed. Like that footage shown on American television of Iraqis thronging the square as Saddam’s statue was pulled down. What the American audiences didn’t see was the footage and stills shot from other angles that showed that the throng was in fact only a hundred or so Iraqis artfully arranged in front of the statue.
For the remainder of the evening, Dutch television shows wartime films, including a very interesting documentary on the Dutch Nazi party, the National-Socialistische Beweging der Nederland, NSB for short. My Dutch is far from good enough to follow this very well, but I do catch a particularly delicious piece of Dutch humor. At one point during an NSB rally, when the leader shouts “Heil Hitler!” a heckler shouts back, “Heil Rembrandt!”
Wednesday 5 May 2004 – Apple Pie and Obesity
On the Segway I can keep up with the average Amsterdam bicyclist, who tends to roll along at my maximum speed. Did Dean Kamen take this into consideration during the design phase?
Since Hans and Rina are, like me, in their sixties, they go a trifle slower, which is good because they seem to share some of Rafaël’s sense that whoever and whatever it is, it will yield right of way to them while I, less bold, tend to fall behind sometimes because Dutch pedestrians smell my fear and take advantage of me. Then again, San Francisco pedestrians vigorously exercise our right-of-way over all vehicles at all times. We also enjoy the highest pedestrian fatality rate in the nation. Late note: This is no longer true. We’ve been eclipsed.
So Hans and Rina and I go to the Albert Cuyp Markt, where we stop first at a sidewalk cafe directly across the street from my favorite vishandel where the counterwoman patiently lets me stumble along ordering my fish in Dutch, Nazifying every other word. On the terrace, we have obscenely large, American-size, wedges of apple pie/cake topped with a mountain of whipped cream as big as a medium-size grapefruit. I nearly make myself sick, and still don’t finish it.
Now that I am so disgusted at the sight of food that I am unlikely to make impulse purchases, Rina leads me through the double row of food stalls. The produce at the Ferry Plaza farmers market has spoiled me. The fruit here looks uninteresting, the vegetables look merely OK, but even when I have just eaten, the fish and meat look great…and are very attractively priced.
After we leave the market, Rina leads us to a little store that sells Spanish food. Somehow, even a ride as short as a couple of blocks restores me, and I purchase a little box of porcini cream, a jar of pickled mussels, and a wedge of cabrales cheese.
More or less on the way home, we go through the woningbouw (public housing) “De Dageraad” by Amsterdam School architects M. de Klerk and P.L. Kramer. It’s strange. Amsterdam School architecture is always interesting, and the exuberance of the detailing fascinates me, but at the same time I’m kind of wondering whether it’s actually good. One thing for sure, it provided work for a lot of bricklayers. Milwaukee, eat your heart out! Here’s a pic of one of the doorways:
Back home, I am so tired I sleep through the afternoon. After all this rich food for days, I cannot face any more, and for supper I boil three little potatoes and eat them with a light sprinkle of salt. They are delicious. For dessert, I boil another one and eat it with about half a teaspoon of butter.
Since I’ve been here I’ve had a nagging feeling that there is something wrong with the picture. Something, somehow, doesn’t look right! This feeling has grown until today as I am innocently looking at the East façade of the Berlage’s Koopmansbeurs (the Stock Exchange, which is a marvelous building that is considered the beginning of the Amsterdam School and I am thinking is perhaps its apex). What has been bothering me suddenly snaps into focus: nobody is fat. I whirl around and scan the hundreds of people visible from my vantage. Not one fat soul can I spot.
Since then I’ve kept my eyes peeled, and yes, I occasionally see one. Some have been at a distance, but alas, most of those I get close enough to hear are speaking English. Still, my friend Chris tells me that the Germans are right behind the Americans in this obesity race, just as they are now beginning to purchase SUV’s. Ugh. I am also informed by Dutch sources that there is an alarming increase in the number of obese younger children in the Netherlands.
In San Francisco we are so politically correct that the morbidly obese are trying to get us to refer to them with hideous euphemisms like Persons of Size. And to our eternal shame, enough outcry was raised to down the funniest billboard in recent memory. An advertisement for a gym: “When the aliens come, they’ll eat the fat ones first”. Sometimes plain talk is called for. Like in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, that wonderful last movie that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford came out of retirement to make. Crawford, whining: “Oh, if I weren’t in this wheelchair…..” Davis, cruelly: “But ya are, Blanche!”
Thursday, 6 May – Finally Connected
I get up resolved to go visiting down the list of connection possibilities i’ve researched until I find something acceptable. In the first place, I require either the ability to upload the material that I am writing or better yet the ability to plug in my laptop. In addition, I am just too refined a creature to use the typical internet cafe here, what with cacophonous music that would be unbearable even it were at a reasonable volume, sticky furniture, and equipment so poorly maintained that selected keys don’t work or the mouse buttons operate only after two or three tries.
So once again I head for the Heinekenplein. The day is almost pleasant, and I chain the Segway and sit on a bench at the edge of the plain. Before my laptop finishes booting I am visited by three rather scruffy-looking individuals who are oh, so friendly and extremely interested in my laptop. I speak lovingly of its lack of features, it being the instrument of an impoverished writer who couldn’t pay the extra money for all that video and game capability.
Nevertheless, their interest remains high until they notice a couple of cops entering the square stage left. Without seeming to be in any rush at all, two of them simply melt away and are in a moment just plain gone. Hmmm. That must take practice.
The third, apparently having no current warrant out, nonchalantly remains.
By this time my laptop has booted and sniffed out the wireless connection. Unfortunately, even though it can smell the connection well enough to describe it, somehow it cannot connect well enough for me to access either my email or the internet. So I shut down and close the laptop as my new friend continues to ask about its features, now, its weight. I tell him two or three kilos, and as I am starting to stuff it into my pack, he asks to hold it.
Up to this point, I’ve been trying to gently discourage him by continuing to focus on manipulating the laptop and have not been making much eye contact with him, but now I give him a flat tone, “I think you know what three kilos is” and hold his eye. He decides that even though nobody is within twenty feet of us and the cops have crossed the square and are gone, there are too many people in sight to fight me for the laptop. So he immediately backs off and drifts away.
Next stop: Amisted Hotel at Kerkstraat 44. What a pleasure it is to be in a clean, well-lighted place with excellent equipment producing the only sound, a faint purring. The place is really quite nice except for the tiniest bit of attitude from the proprietor. (See, it’s a gay hotel, and we invented attitude. Unfortunately, we failed to patent it, and it rapidly spread into the public domain.) Alas, they cannot upload data from a CD of mine, nor can I connect my pc directly. Oh well. I’ll go back just to have a clean, quiet place to surf.
So onwards to Elandsgracht 144, the Cyberlounge. This one advertises that you can plug your own PC in, and there is truth in advertising. And no sooner than I get plugged in and try to get my email, the proprietor comes up and shows me how to tweak the outgoing mail path to their special requirements. He also kindly writes me a file with my existing outgoing path and pastes it on my desktop so that I can restore it when I return home.
An additional feature of the Cyberlounge is that there is a spot out in front where I can chain the Segway in plain sight of my work station, which always contributes to my level of relaxation here in the bicycle theft capital of the world.
When I get home, I’m tired out from all the excitement/drama of the hunt followed by the exhilaration of the success. So I have a supper of plain potatoes again….well, OK, with a small (OK, reasonable) chunk of smoked mackerel. Just a fish and potatoes guy, that’s me.
I must be “going native.” I read recently that in parts of the East Indies, a native slur for a person of Dutch ethnicity was “potato”.
Friday 7 May 2004 – Africa or Germany
Rainy day. Cold and rainy day. Again. This is Spring? Yes, I knew that “global warming” referred to the world in general and that some parts of the planet, e.g. Western Europe, would actually be colder after we’ve diverted the Gulf Stream with too much Arctic ice melt, but I hadn’t realized the difference would already be felt. Just kidding…I hope.
In the morning, I go out to the Bijenkorf and get a Sachertorte at their fabulous bakery and then stop at Von der Linde on Nieuwendijk to get some of that ice-cream like substance to go atop the tort. They call it ijs. I’m cooking supper for Hans and Rina and Rafaël tonight, and this will be the dessert.
There will be little plates of olives and such around, and I have picked up some croissants at that nasty little boulangerie/patisserie at the corner of Korte Lijnbaanssteeg and the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. This is the place that I mentioned during my previous visit as remaining in my favor because of their excellent éclairs even though nobody spoke French. Well, now they pretend to understand French but don’t, bagging one croissant for me when I’ve politely asked for four. And are surly about it when I politely ask, in Dutch, for three more croissants. And short change me. And get huffy when I point this out even though the amount is only 5 eurocents. It’s the principle, dammit. I would say au revoir, but I won’t be back because as the final straw they don’t do the éclairs anymore.
A positive note is that Rina and I cook well together, and she acts as sous-chef, just as I did for her the other evening. The appetizer is the Spanish pickled mussels that I bought at that little tienda that Rina led us to the other day. To accompany them, Rina puts a dry herb mixture into a bit of olive oil. The pickled mussels were so good by themselves that it would never have occurred to me to do anything else with them. But, oh, am I ever glad she thought of this because that mixture is divine. The herb mix is Dipper brand “Tuin van Toscane” (Tuscan Garden).
The main course is Asparagus Cockaigne, a recipe from Joy of Cooking that everyone likes. A child could do it since all you have to do is lay some cooked asparagus spears into the bottom of a shallow oven-proof dish, top them with sliced boiled eggs, pour a heavy cream sauce over it all, sprinkle unsweetened wheat germ or bread crumbs over the top, and stick it in the oven at a reasonable temperature until it’s very hot all through.
A side course is boiled potatoes because I cannot seem to get enough of the little new Dutch potatoes boiled in their skins. We have superb produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, but I have never had a potato I liked any better than these little Dutch ones I’m getting at Albert Heijn.
For bread, we have the croissants from the unboulangerie. The final insult is that they are not good.
For dessert, it’s the Sachertorte with the Van der Linde ijs. And as a lark, this afternoon at a little tourist trap souvenir/grocery/cards/etc. shop on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal I picked up to accompany the torte this really strange fruit I’d never seen called Red Dragon Fruit….a total ripoff at €5, but I was too curious to resist. Now we know. It’s beautiful inside. Kinda like a white-fleshed kiwi with black seeds and a red trim. Unfortunately, the taste was so forgettable that nobody would ever buy a second one. OK, maybe it wasn’t properly ripened or something, but for €5 I’m not eager to try another.
Oh, did I mention that there were two more guests at dinner – Tutankhamen, and Ra. Eastern short hair Siamese. The most gorgeous and, especially Tutankhamen, most lovable cats I have ever met. They are friendly without falling all over themselves, and you. They love being petted but are not pushy about it unless you initiate contact. They are adorable in every way and in this house are not so much cats as Persons of Felinity.
The cats are also all over the table, even during dinner, which of course just horrifies Americans. What is it about the Dutch and their hygienic, germ-free pets? Then again, I have to remind myself that the Netherlands ranks higher than the United States in every single measurable health determiner, the bottom line being longevity. I guess these statistics demonstrate the perils of socialized medicine that we’ve been warned about all our lives…ummm, yes, the glorious American freedom to die from inadequate medical care.
For that matter, why do Americans pay so much more than Canadians and Europeans for prescription medicines? Question number two: How many billions of dollars have the pharmaceutical companies spent on marketing, especially advertising, over the past decade? Number three: How many billions have they donated to political parties and politicians during the same time?
And OK, to be fair, non-prescription meds are a lot more expensive over here. You simply don’t see those 500-count bottles of 200 mg. ibuprofen that we get so cheap at Walgreen’s.
After dinner when we’re all sitting around stuffed and a bit buzzed and happy, Rafaël suggests that I might want to live in the Netherlands, “After all,” he says, naming the most horrific places he can imagine, “it’s not like it’s Africa or Germany.”
Saturday the 8th – Babi Pangang
To start the day, I Segway over to the Noordermarkt and pick up a few things. A piece of smoked chicken sausage that turns out to cost a lot more than I had thought from the signage and that I’m now dreading trying because either way, I lose. A piece of comté cheese that I later determine to be considerably inferior to the comté I get in SF…at about the same price. An experimental avocado because Rina has complained that she can’t get a good one here and the ones I see, if a bit pricey, look like small Hass…and turn out to taste like them, too.
The other produce was simply unconvincing, but I cannot continue to live on cheese, fish, milk, wursts, yogurt, chocolate milk, bread, desserts, chocolate milk made from fresh milk and dry mix, eggs, and prepared chocolate milk that is somehow super-sterilized so it needs no refrigeration and can be packed in those squishy boxes that only recently have begun appearing in any number on San Francisco grocery shelves and which the most cursory examination reveals to be a recycling nightmare.
At 4:15 I set out for Edward’s place on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal via the excellent liquor store/wine shop about 50 meters south of me on Spuistraat. €24 for a liter of Bushmill’s. ‘Bout like home, I think. Crossing the Dam (the square between the palace and the war memorial), I stop for a moment to watch a carriage pulled by a splendid horse of a sort we sure didn’t see on West Texas ranches in the middle of the previous century. (And as an aside here, it just occurred to me that after about five years or so, the fact that they were born in the previous century is going to sink in for a generation of schoolchildren and make them feel old before their time.)
Note: In Dutch in Three Weeks I used the pseudonym Pieter, but he’s agreed to let me use his real name, Edward. In all of these travelogs, only a couple of names have been changed, and no, i’m not telling you which ones.
But back to the horse. He’s a pleasure to watch just standing there. He’s better, though, when he’s walking. But when he goes into what, damn me, I don’t know whether is a canter or a trot or some pace I don’t even know the name of, he is magnificent. In the first place, the pace itself would be a joy to watch in any horse. It’s like watching a juggler. How does he do that? There doesn’t seem to be a transition. I mean, one moment he’s walking and the next moment he’s in this other complicated pace.
But I’m holding out on you. The best part is that he’s got hairy lower legs, and this hair has been gorgeously coiffed so that it hangs down in smoothly increasing abundance from his knees to his ankles (OK, you know where I mean) and flares out over his hoofs and is cut perfectly straight parallel to the ground a half inch above his shoes.
This is a horse prancing in bell-bottoms. If I had hair like that I’d spend my life in a canter… ideally not attached to a carriage.
I’m making the trip to Edward’s on foot because we’re planning to go out to dinner at the New King, where there is no place to leave the Segway. To minimize walking I can head directly home from the restaurant. I can no longer maintain the insolent, slow swagger I cultivated on my previous visit, so now I have developed a window-shopper’s stroll.
Anything to not walk like a victim, but the operant word here is slow. The up side is that the pace is ideal for photography. Take a few steps. Stop for a pic. Take a few steps. Stop for another pic.
Edward continues to astonish me. I ask him if he’s read Geert Mak’s superb history of Amsterdam, and he says he has. I ask him if Mak currently writes for any of the Amsterdam papers, and he says that Mak freelances now. Then he volunteers that he and Mak are in the same “year club” from their university days and are good friends. These “year clubs” are a Dutch institution of which I had not read. If I have it right, they always consist of ten people (all men? if so, are there women’s year clubs?) in the same graduating class who somehow select each other and more or less bond for life.
I have been dreaming of the New King for three years, so I am quite ready to eat at five. Rafaël and Edward are horrified at the earliness. Finally, I bludgeon them out the door at six. The New King is almost empty when we enter at 6:15 and we get a corner table upstairs. They waste a lot of time mulling over the menu, but I already know what I want. That wonderful little shrimp-on-toast covered with sesame seeds for an appetizer and the babi pangang for a main course. Of course we’ll share everything.
The toast is good without being quite so spectacular as I recall. They both order the wonton soup, which I taste. It’s very good, but again not really stellar.
The main courses arrive: This omelette-like thing in an overpowering sweet sauce that Rafaël likes. A snow pea with chicken dish, and the babi pangang, which is a three-inch-thick slab of pork belly that must have been very slowly roasted at a low temperature to get it tender without breaking down any of the fat, and then finished under the broiler at very high heat for a short time so as to get a crispy exterior.
One order of this is about the size of an American football cut in half horizontally. It is sliced vertically into half-inch squares three inches tall and attractively presented atop about a flattened tennis ball’s worth of baby bok choi. It is three-quarters fat marbled with streaks of meat.
I stifle my disgust at the sight of all that fat stacked up there and carefully rake two pieces onto my rice. Looking at it as little as possible, I spear a piece and gingerly bite off half.
It explodes in my mouth in a fireworks display of flavors and textures. It is deeply, gravely wrong that something this harmful should taste so good. Swept with alternating waves of self-loathing, greed, self-pity, and voracity, I rake a quarter of the platter onto my plate. As the meal progresses, I have a few more slices to make sure I get my full share. The snow pea with chicken thing tastes very good and is actually nutritious.
While we eat, the restaurant fills completely and becomes a cacophonic, stifling madhouse. The bill for all this food and drink is €48.85. Edward and Rafaël say that €50 is enough. I point out that this means that I am leaving a tip of a princely €1.15. To shut me up, Edward, who owns a house that must be worth well over a million bucks, tosses €1 onto the tray. We fight our way out into the fresh air, passing a couple of employees with whom Rafaël exchanges friendly banter. He explains to me that he’s a regular. Hmmmm. I need to reassess my attitude toward tips here. Maybe unlike our waiters they really are paid a living wage if the waiters still like him after he’s been giving them one buck tips on fifty buck tabs.
zondag 9 mei – A Formal God
For the first time since my arrival, I “sleep in”, and it is full daylight when I am awakened by the faintest of knocks. It is Rina inviting me up to join her and Hans in eating the Mother’s Day breakfast that their son had arranged to have delivered. All three of us gorge on this and still, there are leftovers. Stuffed, once again. I’m getting kind of paralyzed by the amount and richness of the food I’ve been eating.
To Edward’s after a rest to try to digest the feast. As usual, the conversation ranges widely. I don’t think I have ever met anyone with whom I enjoy talking more than Edward, and he seems to be as fascinated as I am that there are so many parallels in our lives and that our interests and tastes are so similar even though we were born on different continents and didn’t meet until we were sixty.
Today’s conversation focuses on language.
As everyone is aware, I am fascinated by comparative familiar pronoun use, and Dutch usage does not disappoint. I mentioned in 2001 Rina’s girlish giggle, “It makes me feel so young!” when a twenty-something shop girl addresses her with the familiar…”Dost thou want anything else?” Since WWII, especially in the cities, the familiar pronoun has so proliferated in casual speech that by now the formal is rarely heard…at least in more casual situations.
Unlike the Germans, the Dutch use (or used) the formal u to aunts, uncles, grandparents, and God. Until WWII, u was commonly used to one’s parents, and it is still used in certain circles…like the haute bourgeois.
Well, regarding the God issue, I’m not so sure that the Dutch aren’t right. Remember the King James Bible? All that thou and thee and thy and thine? Doesn’t it seem just the tiniest bit arrogant to be addressing God with the same familiar pronoun that you use to your wife, children, and servants? Didn’t it strike any of these people that God might not feel that He had given you any reason to leap to the conclusion that you were on a first-name basis? Shouldn’t you wait until He definitely lets you know that your intimacy with Him is sufficient that henceforth you may address Him familiarly as thou?
Another matter: It is widely written that Dutch is phonetically spelled. Well, in comparison to English, yes. However, I keep discovering exceptions. Part of the problem, perhaps, is its solution. Unlike English, in which spellings were largely fixed centuries ago and are clung to no matter how poorly they reflect actual pronunciation, Dutch spellings are under constant revision under the auspices of the Nederlandse Taalunie, a committee composed of equal numbers of Dutch and Flemish speakers.
I am merely passing along the accusation, but it has been written (by Bruce Donaldson) that the focus of the Dutch speakers is to make certain that the approved spellings do not look German, while the Flemish speakers are making sure they don’t look French. To that I’ll add my own observation that all members of the Taalunie work together to make certain that spellings don’t look English, especially when the sound is very similar.
This may be somehow behind all those words ending in -tie in which the “t” is pronounced “c.” Thus “politie” (the word describing the folks who work across the street) is pronounced for all practical purposes like the US pronunciation of their counterparts but in three syllables, the last of which is “seee.” Good thing I’ve never had to shout, “Help! Police!” since I learned this pronunciation only last week. And yeah, yeah, a similar situation in English is all those words ending in -tion, pronounced “shun,” but English is not called phonetic.
To me a dramatic example of an instance in which Dutch spelling is definitely not phonetic is with regard to the ending of the first word in compounds. The long-standing rule on this was that if the first half of the compound “conveyed the idea of plurality” it had the plural “n” ending. Thus, to use Donaldson’s example in Dutch, A Comprehensive Grammar, we write kippepoot because the leg belongs to one chicken but kippenhok because the coop normally contains multiple chickens. In practice, as you can imagine, chaos reigned.
To bring order, the Taalunie ruled in the late nineties that the “n” ending would be used in all cases except for certain very specific exceptions. Well, OK, this does improve spelling consistency. But what it ignores is that, with the exception of growers of root vegetables along the German border, scarcely anyone in the Netherlands now actually says the “n.”
So what we have here is the “n” as a silent marker of literacy. I saw a beautiful example of this the other day in the Athenaeum Boekhandel. I had grabbed a handful of Dutch novels in English translation and then gone by the dictionary department to see whether there might be a new Frisian dictionary. Didn’t see one. As a helpful young man was searching their database, I noticed that he keyed in “woordenboek.” Of course any halfway literate (Dutch) adult would certainly know that their word for “dictionary” contains a silent “n”.
Alas, the new Frisian dictionary was temporarily unavailable, but since I was in there I went ahead and bought the big, two-volume van Dale English-Dutch/Dutch-English dictionary that I had had the sense to pass up on my last visit owing to its weighing at least ten kilos and costing over a hundred bucks. Older and wiser, I made the purchase this visit when I had just purchased four novels already translated, I am considerable weaker, the weight is the same, and owing to the dramatic difference in the exchange rate, the price is now over a hundred fifty bucks.
Here’s another entry in the Doors of Amsterdam series. This one’s on Singel pretty much directly behind Rina’s place:
maandag 10 mei 2004 – The Hidden Chicken
In the morning out with Hans and Rina shopping over northwest of here on Haarlemmerstraat. The pattern that we’ve fallen into is that Rina leads on her bicycle, Hans follows on his, and I bring up the rear on my Segway. This way Hans is sandwiched between us and I’m there to get him back on track when he gets disoriented.
I’d confided with Rina before that I knew exactly what she was going through because I’d seen my mother slide into the pit of Alzheimer’s, just as Rina had seen her parents go. I’d also told her that I’d cared for Allen while he was dying, but I hadn’t told her about his brain damage from toxoplasmosis.
Now I tell her some tales, like the time I called Allen from work and, trying not to use that patient tone of voice that is so easy to fall into, said, “Allen, take that chicken out of the refrigerator so it can come up to room temperature, and I’ll roast it for our supper.”
Thirty minutes later Allen calls back. He can’t find the chicken. Now I ask you, where can a full-grown chicken evade detection during a thirty-minute search of the refrigerator? In the meat keeper, of course. Out of sight…out of mind. Rina says Hans is already getting the same way.
First stop is a Moroccan store, where Rina buys lamb and I pick up a way-too-large jar of Lebanese tahini, a liter of Egyptian mango nectar, and a half-kilo tub of Çiftlik Turkish-style yogurt. If I were going totally Turkish on this, I’d track down a ‘g’ with a circumflex accent over it (for yogurt), but hey, I don’t want to go overboard.
What is clearly overboard is that yogurt, which is the best I have ever eaten. It’s closest in taste to Nancy’s (available in, at least, the western half of the US), but maybe even tarter and definitely not all wimpy and runny like nancy yogurt but rather quite thick, the texture of a not-so-fluffy chocolate mousse.
Only after we left did it strike me that I could probably have spoken with the proprietor in French rather than pidgin Dutch. Anything but English, and I’ll definitely try this when I return for more of that yogurt.
Then off to the Cyberlounge to do my email and a bit of surfing. And on the way out pick up this cute little optical mouse all ready to plug and play and for only €14 to rescue me from death by touchpad. I thought I’d get used to the touchpad when I was forced to use it daily. No way. No more. Besides, there is the additional pleasure of the user manual for the mouse: “Do not use aggressive substances, such as white spirit, to clean the mouse.” Me, I keep my aggressive substances chained in that little cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. I Google on “white spirit” and come up with “…a colourless liquid derived from petrol.” Whew. Best I can tell, they’re talking about paint thinner.
There is also a language breakthrough at the Cyberlounge. Not long after my arrival, the proprietor tells me he thinks it’s just wonderful that I’m trying to learn Nederlands and all that and could we just go ahead and speak English now. I’m wondering whether it’s the grammar or the pronunciation…or maybe an especially toxic compound.
Then I stop at the cafe/bar on the corner of Torenstraat because we seem to having a few minutes of sun and I don’t want to waste them. I grow fonder and fonder of that place and have a cappuccino on the terrace and chat with folks about the Segway. The thing makes me very self conscious because everyone is so interested in it. I try to stop to answer questions when anyone asks, but I always work into the conversation that it is geen speelgoed (not a toy) and that I can’t walk well.
Later in the afternoon I walk over Edward’s with the idea of taking him to Centra, but he’s not in. I compensate by going to Centra alone and eating the marinated octopus appetizer that I remember so fondly from my 2001 visit. It’s still good.
dinsdag 11 mei – A Gay Introduction
Tonight’s the big night. I am to be introduced to a homosexual: Hans’ brother, who is within a year or two of my age and who ran for a number of years in the eighties and nineties what was apparently a very successful gay disco here. Rina thinks we might enjoy talking with each other since our heydays overlapped although on different continents, so she has invited him to dinner.
Actually, I’ll bet The Brother and I will have some tales to tell. Little vignettes. Hmmm. Like more of mine about Liam, of whom I’ve recently spoken.
I met Liam in the early eighties because of my myopia. It was when I was in the limousine business, and on my days off and when I was between orders, I would go to my gym in the morning. The gym was a serious gym, but as in all gay gyms, a certain amount of cruising went on. To keep from being distracted, I put my glasses into my shirt pocket as I approached the gym. I did my workouts utterly oblivious to everyone else since at a distance of more than three feet, they were all just blurs.
Liam was excruciatingly handsome, spectacularly buffed, and entirely unaccustomed to being invisible. His frustration mounted until, unable to bear being ignored, he cornered me in the sauna, where I could see him. I took him home. Later, we became friends.
Over to de Bijenkorf at tenish to pick up a dessert for tonight. I settle on a chocolate mousse torte with an enormous topknot of dark chocolate ribbon. I drop the cake off at home and then take the Segway to get some olive bread at “Crumb and Crust”, a little bakery on Haarlemmerstraat. The Dutch just love English names on their stores. From there, with one eye nervously on battery gauge, I press on toward the Cyberlounge via Prinsengracht. I haven’t recharged the batteries in a couple of days because while Rafaël is out of town and I’m not riding long distances, I want to give the batteries a therapeutic complete discharge, which entails the risk of making the last part of a return journey on foot pushing the Segway.
After the Cyberlounge, I’m really nervous about how much farther I can go on this charge, so I head home carefully, but with their eternal perversity, the batteries sense that there’s no way they can maroon me this time and get a second wind. They damn sure didn’t do that about three weeks ago when they first failed as I was hitting the bank at 18th and Castro. By the time I came out of the bank they had not recovered enough to get me to 19th Street. When I came out of the grocery there I didn’t get fifty feet. But see, that time they could sense that we were two and a half real steep blocks from home. This time, I swear when I got home there was more charge than when I left, and I must have run up and down the block in front of my house for thirty minutes before I could use the last little bit.
Dinner is fab. I love pitching in preparing dinners with Rina. She’s done a wonderful lamb dish, with a sauce of the lamb cooking liquid brightened up with a serious blob of harissa, a north African pepper paste. I help her prepare couscous and garbanzos and roasted eggplant and tomato with fresh basil, oil, and balsamic vinegar. And oh yes, cucumbers in yogurt sauce. We arrange all this with the lamb in a huge shallow bowl.
The Brother is named Rob and we relax with each other quickly. I would love to talk to him more about the gay scene in Amsterdam twenty years ago, just to compare it to its counterpart in San Francisco. Among other things, we talk about Dutch social conventions, and it comes out that not everybody in our generation is quite so happy about the modern tendency to use je (the familiar pronoun) to strangers. Rob confessed that unlike his sister-in-law who “feels so young”, he finds it a bit grating to be addressed as je by a twentyish clerk and wants to say, “To you, kid, I am u!
Afterwards, Rina leads us down into that little open space in front of her garage that I shall henceforth refer to as the Rinaplein so that I can give Rob a test ride on the Segway. Observing that he’s had a bit too much wine, he demurs, but at their request, I demonstrate a few flourishes, which I need to do anyhow so as to squeeze the very last ions out of the battery before I recharge it tonight.
Why is it that the cops come pouring out of the station every time I use the Segway for anything other than prudent forward motion at moderate speed in the correct lane? Makes me nervous.
woensdag 12 mei – Harry Muslisch en Huisvuil
For breakfast, I have that fine Turkish yogurt on a toasted brotje with some of excellent artisanal cherry jam I picked up at the Noordmarkt last Saturday. I really must see if I can find Turkish yogurt when I get back to San Francisco.
I realize now that I should have been giving a few more specifics about routes I’ve taken for folks who track stuff on maps. So I’ll start now. The usual route I take from Spuistraat to the Cyberlounge is to go south on Spuistraat, cross Raadhuisstraat and then take the second right onto Oude Spiegelstraat and go straight ahead across the bridges over the Singel, the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht.
Then I veer into Elandsgracht, which has been filled in and, since it is no longer a canal, if you ask me ought to get its name changed to straat. I have never understood the naming conventions here, but what seems to happen is that once a name is given it sticks even when it is no longer appropriate. Rina explains that it’s a question of the status conferred by a canal address. Once a gracht, always a gracht.
Usual fairness department: Now that I think about it, the only time street names get changed in California is when we rename them for some contemporary political figure after a pig symphony of squealing from folks who don’t want their street renamed to anything else, much less the name of the honoree. And yes, as much as I loved Cesar Chavez and supported his cause, I still say “Army Street”. It’s been only fifteen years or so.
The Cyberlounge is located at the very end of Elandsgracht, just a door before Lijnbaansgracht, well, actually, just a door before the eponymous straat on this side of the gracht which in this case really is a real gracht with actual water flowing through it. My plan after I leave the Cyberlounge is to simply follow the street named Lijnbaansgracht in this great gentle arc until the gracht beside it empties into the Singel gracht and the street goes over a bridge onto the Haarlemmerplein. Then I’ll simply cruise down the Haarlemmerdijk until it becomes the Haarlemmerstraat watching for the Albert Heijn that’s out there somewhere because across the street from it is Rina’s favorite fish store. No problem at all. Can’t miss either one.
And don’t. And discover that the store is named Volendammer Vis Handel and is a branch of my favorite fish store over at the Albert Cuyp Markt. Ha! Two great minds. Well, at least two great fish eaters.
Later over to Edward’s, where we talk about literature. In previous conversations, I have broached the subject in an attempt to get some recommendations for Dutch literature, especially works that have been translated, but our conversations flow so freely and exhibit such spontaneity that pursuing a specific goal is difficult.
This time I’m determined. Furthermore, I take notes. Edward speaks highly of Cees Nooteboom and recommends Rituals, both as a novel and as a movie. He likes Marcel Möring and mentions In Babylon. He seconds Hans’ brother Rob’s recommendation of Gerard Reve and W.F. Hermans, although without Rob’s enthusiasm. And finally, he discusses Harry Mulisch, who he admits through clenched teeth is unfortunately the finest living Dutch writer.
I have been bringing up the name of Harry Mulisch for several years now, ever since I read his astonishing The Discovery of Heaven, and I have not heard a single nice word about this man. Not one. He is universally (at least in the Netherlands) despised, found disgusting, or at very least felt to be ludicrous. And everyone with whom I have spoken (and this includes folks who do not do much reading, especially of “literature”) has his favorite Mulisch anecdote. Oh, the charges I have heard!
Almost everyone starts with the arrogance, that Mulisch will be the first person to tell you that he is the Netherlands finest writer…ever, probably the world’s foremost writer. And then the supreme sexism, that he profoundly regrets having had to spend so much of his time writing, otherwise he could have brought incredible pleasure to even more thousands of lucky women.
Skipping over all the rest, I’ll record the complaint against him that impressed me most. The other day at a gay bookstore, a young man, who like so many of the incredibly helpful Dutch was going way out of his way to help me, leveled the Ultimate Charge: In school, he had been forced to read Mulisch and worse yet, study his work. Oh, say it’s not true, Harry. And look, I’m sorry, but somebody had to tell you.
But we’ve been at the sublime too long. Now let’s get down in the dirt. Let’s wallow in the foul garbage. Yes, het vuil. What do we do with it? Well, on Tuesday and Friday in the early morning (and to Amsterdamers there is redundancy in that phrase) a truck comes down Spuistraat and an orange-clad crew grab bags of trash and individual larger items and toss them in. Where are the garbage items? At the designated spots, at the huisvuil markers every fifty meters or so (and I have to say that there are few words in Dutch harder to say than huisvuil. Two ui phonemes in one little word meaning “household garbage”.)
And where do you put your recyclables? (As of now confined to paper and glass although you can get an €0.25 refund at the store for certain plastic beverage bottles, and metals are screened out of the routine trash.) You put them a few steps away in the designated underground bins, which are periodically emptied in the most spectacular fashion. A big truck with a crane arm comes around, grabs the top of the bin, lifts it straight up out of the ground, swings it around over the truck, and somehow triggers something that makes the bottom abruptly open and shower the contents into the truck. Pretty dramatic the first time you see it, and this one is right out in front of the Cyberlounge, so I got to see it many times. Here’s the container on its way up out of the ground.
And here it is being swung over to the back of the truck:
Some writers give you travelogues with pictures of museums. I go for stuff that’s harder to find elsewhere. Screens out the excessively sophisticated.
donderdag 13 mei – Alley Art
Rina and I are having a little sigh over how our bodies have turned against us, and we’re thinking back to how it used to be when we were young and buffed. She says she would look at her legs critically and couldn’t decide whether they were too large or too small, but what she knew for sure was that she wasn’t happy with them the way they were.
Today’s pics were taken in alleys. Art is where you find it. I’m realizing that after I finish the Amsterdam Doors series and the Amsterdam Alleys series, I could do another on Amsterdam Bridges, which has got to have more bridges per capita than any other place on the planet.
I really do need to put some more effort into watching Dutch TV, but the two best programs for language acquisition both have their problems. A man in his sixties can bear only a fairly small amount of children’s programming since it tends to segue without warning into stuff like the Teletubbies, which is not improved in Dutch, especially since the show seems mostly to consist of jumping up and down, waving ones arms, and grunting, cooing, and squealing. Consequently, I wonder how it was that Jerry Falwell decided that the one with a purple triangle on top was pushing a gay agenda. Seems deep in the closet to me. No, Jerry, not the teletubby.
On the other hand, the stuff that’s being shown on the news of Abu Ghraib Prison is disheartening, to say the least. I think, well, maybe this is from a Dutch bias, so I go to CNN. Exactly the same stuff except that the CNN photos are prudish, but the more prudish the better in this case.
There might be some satisfaction in being able to say, “I told you so,” to my fellow Americans if our invasion of Iraq hadn’t turned out so much worse than I had ever imagined possible.
This afternoon, it’s over to Edward’s again, and he and Rafaël and I go to a gay Chinese place called New Season on Warmoestraat across from the old police station. This place is positively serene compared to the New King, and it’s not even hot and stuffy inside. We have the Malaysian rijstaffel for three, which consists of ten dishes besides the soup. I am beginning to wonder whether rijstaffel as a way of eating is over-rated. Can there be so many good little dishes that they all blend together and then none is memorable? Hmmmm. Well, maybe not, since I do love dim sum. At any rate, the food is excellent and abundant and we barely finish it.
This time bill is €57 something and they grudgingly concede that leaving an entire €60 would not be completely outrageous since the service was so fawning that it verged on complete….as in those massages delicately described as “complete.”
vrijdag 14 mei – Me and My Pump
I’m planning my day when Rafaël arrives bearing a couple of Bolletjes. Nasty-looking things, actually, that I’ve seen in various little fast food places and can just tell are something like Twinkies and will make me want to assassinate the mayor or at least can be used in my defense after I’ve done so.
Speaking of which, I was interested to read last month that Senator Feinstein got up at the funeral for the SF police officer recently slain in the line of duty and called for the death penalty for his assailant. I wrote letters to the San Francisco Chronicle (ignored) and the Bay Area Reporter (printed) pointing out that she had not called for the death penalty for Dan White at the funerals for George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Is it somehow worse to kill a cop when you’re running from justice than it is to assassinate two city officials in cold blood in their offices? What disgusting politics!
Biting into one of Rafaël’s Bolletjes and finding it tasty was somehow depressing. All these delicious things to eat and every one either filled with fat or served with a large glob of it on the side. Sigh.
Later, I segway over to Frank’s Smoke House. What luck, there is no other customer. As I admire today’s items, Frank comes out from the back. I announce, “Goede dag, Mijnheer, ik ben terug!” I add in English, “I was here three years ago.” although I could have said that much in Dutch.
There is a brief beat and he says, “San Francisco?” And we’re off. He mentions that he has read some of the things I wrote about him on my last visit. He is such a delightful guy. I tell him about the Segway and show it to him. He’s interested, and we schedule a demo for next Tuesday afternoon. I just love giving test rides on this thing, especially to folks I already like.
I drop off the fish and then head out for the Cyberlounge. It’s a gorgeous day, the first really pretty day we’ve had, and rolling over to Elandsgracht is a great pleasure. And since I am taking the same or similar routes to, from, or both every day at similar times, it finally happens: a bicyclist who has seen me before chases me down, wanting to talk.
I give him the standard spiel, graciously allowing him to wrest the conversation into English after I’ve stumbled through a couple of sentences. Every day I’m picking up a bit more Dutch, but my rate of acquisition is pathetic.
After I return from the Cyberlounge, I admit to myself that I simply don’t have the energy to go, as planned, to the regular Friday afternoon meeting of a group of Edward’s friends even though they will doubtless be fascinating folks. Rina, bless her heart, calls Edward to let him know I can’t make it.
But since I’m downstairs, and since the afternoon is warm and sunny, I’ll make the quick little trip over to the big bicycle shop on Haarlemmerstraat and get that bicycle pump with the built-in air gauge that I’ve been eyeing. That much I can do, and I do.
The pump is beyond sleek, compatible with both types of valve stem, and radiates fine workmanship and serious overkill capability. I could blow up the Goodyear Blimp with this thing, not, of course, that it would do any good to pump the Goodyear Blimp full of air.
I am distracted from my pleasure with my purchase on the return trip when a black Mercedes SUV, which in principle radiates really nasty vibes in narrow Amsterdam streets, turns its entitled ass onto Haarlemmerstraat only to discover that a small delivery van is partially blocking the way, leaving enough room for a normal automobile to squeeze past but problematic for this shiny obscenity. It seems even more out of proportion here than they do in San Francisco.
What traps the SUV hopelessly is that the Dutch pedestrians refuse to give up a single centimeter of the sidewalk upon which it might wish to encroach, even for a second. And the bicyclists, the bicycle lane blocked by the delivery van, completely fill what’s left of the street. No way they’re going to let this voracious pig have any of their asphalt. So he’s stuck. So am I, of course, because there’s no way I’m going to run the Segway out into the raging current swirling around this swine.
But hey, I’m in no hurry. I’ve got all afternoon. I don’t use any electricity to speak of when I’m standing still, and I’m enjoying the show too much to leave before its over, which, all too soon, it is as the van moves on. My prayer that the van has another delivery in the block is not answered, and the Mercedes escapes to block traffic another day, the driver’s soul perhaps a little crisp around the edges but probably not, considering the sort of mentality that would be required to buy one of those things. All the arrogance of the SUV plus ostentation!!!
When I get home and pull the Segway into the privacy of Rina’s garage, I can’t resist using the pump immediately to check the air pressure, since I’m nearly certain the tires are significantly over-inflated.
I can’t figure out how to use the damn pump. I fiddle with it for some time but cannot get an airtight attachment to the stem. There is no instruction manual other than a card telling me what a fine instrument I have and that its compatibility with both kinds of valve stem is complete. I guess they figure that anyone smart enough to tie his shoes and thus get to the store is smart enough to know how to use this thing.
Now what do I do? Hans’ and Rina’s bicycles both have the Schrader stem, so they wouldn’t know. I don’t know a single person here who I’d expect to know how to fit a hand pump onto a Presta stem. If I were a woman, I could simply go back to the place I bought it and ask either the nice young man or the totally sweet and charming young woman how to do this. Well, I guess I could do that if I were being pursued by Apaches.
Or I could simply ask the friendly tekkie at Segway who responded with humor when I wrote last week asking for information, but alas I later made the mistake of telling him a little too much. His businesslike reply when I admitted that I had been running around on the Segway for several days after having blasted a bunch of air in with an unregulated air hose does not leave me feeling totally free to get down deeper into confessions of cavalier incompetence.
So I’m stuck. I apply logic. I see threads in various things that obviously must somehow be screwed into other threaded things. And then there’s this lever thingy that seems to thrust something in the middle out, clearly intended to depress that thing inside the valve stem that we used to have a name for…..hmmmmm….. the valve, maybe?
I give up, crawl upstairs, sleep for a few hours, get up, happen to look at the tekkie’s email, and realize that I have misread it and that the Segway uses the Schrader rather than the Presta valve stem. The pump is compatible with both systems. The reason I can’t get it to connect is that I am trying to connect the wrong side of the hose to the Segway. Horribly embarrassed but much relieved, I go back to bed.
Now you perhaps understand why, when I was setting up the trust and it came to the part about the conditions that would be required to declare me incompetent and put me away, I made it necessary to get the agreement of two doctors, a chiropractor, a Unitarian minister, and a Scientology Clear.
zaterdag 15 mei – Hellish
Zaterdag is pronounced just like it looks if you say the a’s like in “father,” lightly trill the r, and unvoice the g, which turns it into more or less a German -och. Pile enough simplicities like this up, and you’ve got another language. And speaking of simplicities, I think it says a lot that “Louis” is Lodewijk in Dutch.
Today’s pic is of the building that guards the entrance to the pedestrian pathway out to the spectacular Nemo building, of which I have written.
Slowing down the pace, I write in the morning and then segway over to Cyberlounge at noonish. It is most definitely terrassen weer, terrace weather, so no seat in the sun at a sidewalk cafe is unoccupied. Hmmm. Hoist by my own petard, I realize that in order to make the observation that I have planned following this paragraph, I must first confess that there was the tiniest bit of exaggeration in my whining about the uninterrupted lousy weather the past two weeks. Yes, I admit it, there have been on a handful of occasions during the past fourteen days, brief periods never exceeding a couple of hours and normally measured in tens of minutes in which the sun actually shown. A miserable, pallid sunshine but nevertheless sunshine totaling maybe six hours.
And now, the observation: within five minutes of the appearance of the sun, the terraces are full. It’s as if people are lurking inside the adjacent buildings fully dressed to go out and watching intently for the sun to trigger a race with their neighbors to the closest terrace, from which they then disappear almost as rapidly when the clouds return. The past two weeks have not been warm, and many of the terraces are not protected from the wind. But today, today the streets are thronged.
This contributes to a luxuriantly fine few minutes during the journey when Wolvenstraat is completely blocked by a giant truck that can’t get past an illegally-parked car. Among the vehicles ahead of me behind the truck is that carriage pulled by the horse in bellbottoms about whom I wrote the other day. The truck turns right at the next corner and the bicyclists caught behind the carriage one by one slip past on either side.
Which leaves me stuck behind the carriage. I don’t want to go whipping around it in one of the brief passing opportunities and cutting in right in front of the horses, thus causing a runaway carriage as the frightened horses bolt. Besides, I’m in no rush, and somehow, I take some entertainment in the cognitive dissonance evoked by being on a Segway stuck behind a horse and carriage in an eighteenth-century street on my way to the Cyberlounge. Quite a lot of entertainment, actually.
Afterwards, Rafaël comes over and we walk out to shop for books in a couple of nearby stores that Edward has recommended. No hits today because I poop out before we get far enough south on Kalverstraat, but I look forward to tomorrow’s planned motorized excursion to the Spuiplein, where I’ll listen to Sunflower and then pop into the Athenaeum, a highly academic store where I know I’ll find some language treasures. Sometime fairly soon when I start studying Hellish for all eternity, I expect the following linguistic features: grammatical gender; nouns, adjectives, and adverbs fully inflected for all five genders; all verbs irregular except for a handful of exceptions; thirty tenses; twenty second-person pronouns; ten cases; six moods; and all words containing a ui phoneme or a tedious consonant…or both.
On the way home, I pop in Albert Heijn and pick up some ordinary necessities. I am also tempted beyond my power to resist by a dainty little 196 g. package of speklapjes. To put it another way, this is a pair of half inch thick slices of pork belly together weighing about 7 oz. At home, I cook them very carefully, so that none of the fat is wasted, thus creating a rough home version of babi pangang.
Did I mention, Rafaël has cruelly observed that I do not seem to be losing girth? And that if anything…….
zondag 16 mei – Sunflower
I’m out of the house at 7:15 to make sure I catch Rafaël before he leaves town. I need to get him to renegotiate our meeting with Lucy because I didn’t remember a prior commitment when I agreed to meet her next Saturday. The day is going to be gorgeous. Even now it’s quite nice, a bit cool but the sky is solid blue and the rising sun is coming in at a good angle to heighten interest here and there. At this hour on Sunday morning, hardly anyone is on the streets, so riding the Segway is a pleasure since I’m not having to dodge other vehiclesand pedestrians.
Besides, the elms are pretty much fully leafed out, so the Oudezijds Voorburgwal in Rafaël’s block doesn’t feel so much like the femoral artery in the red light district circulatory system that it really is. I decide to kill a little time taking in the sights before I ring Rafaël’s bell. I roll over to the canal edge and am just blown away. It’s a dead-calm morning, which turns the canals into mirrors. I never dreamed the OZV could be so lovely.
And to bring the tone back down to earth, here’s an entertaining doorway across the canal from Rafaël’s.
And well, to bring us back up, here’s what I’m guessing the street looks like to some of the denizens stumbling around this early:
OK, that’s the reflection in the canal. I turned the pic upside down to paste it in here.
So much for meeting Rafaël. He’s not answering his bell and I don’t want to bother other folks in the house. So I head for the Spuiplein, oddly enough located at the intersection where Spuistraat dead-ends into Spui. On Sundays, artists erect on the Spuiplein a double row of perhaps twenty stalls where they sell their works. Some pretty good stuff, actually, and one of them has had the wit to have some of his paintings reproduced on postcards that he sells quite reasonably. Wil Wiegant. Nice guy. He’s on Gomera Art Forum
But I’m saving the best aspect of the Spuiplein till last: Sunflower. Remember my raving about them in Dutch in Three Weeks? Well, you can go home again. I listen for a while and then buy another CD. This one titled Gentle. You can buy their CD’s on their site: Sunflower
Soothed with sound, I waft over into the Athenaeum and purchase All Souls’ Day and The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom and Siegfried and The Attack by Harry Mulisch, the only four English translations in stock of books by recommended authors. While I’m in there, my eye is caught by the van Dale Groot Woordenboek in two massive volumes Engels/Nederlands – Nederlands/Engels that must weigh ten kilos together. I grab these without looking at the price and head for the kasse with my six books. This attempt at self-deception is thwarted by my failure to have €217 in cash, and I am forced to use a credit card and cannot avoid seeing the total. Well it’s not like I’m squandering this on chocolate or something. On the way back home I stop at my corner cafe and have a totally tasty pastrami sandwich. I should have started eating their food sooner!
Over to Edward’s for cocktails. We are joined by one of his tenants and talk mostly of my recent book purchases. They approve. I’m a bit tired and head home instead of joining them for dinner somewhere. At eight on Sunday night, the crowds on the OZV and Damstraat are mostly drunk and thus socially aggressive and not at all shy about wanting to talk about/touch/wrest from me the Segway, but by now my skills at broken field running are improving. Then too, drunks are easy to evade.
But everyone this evening is really chatty. A couple of gorgeous girls (I mean, young women) in front of the university on Spuistraat stop me for a couple of minutes while patrons at my corner cafe supervise from twenty meters. I don’t even try to get past the cafe, and pull in and talk with three guys who turn out to be Brits. I accept their offer of a beer since I’m only fifty meters from home. We chat. At some point one of ’em throws out a line that calls for a declaration, so I get blunt in two words: “I’m gay.” They decide they are, too. And two of ’em say they’re in the Netherlands for the requisite time so they can get married legally.
As we’re winding down, another threesome sits at the next table. I suspect them of being straight because they look like recently retired professional soccer players. You know, heavily muscled with banged-up hands, arms, and faces, not a stereotypical gay look. I field their Segway questions for a while before I announce my intent to give a little demo to see whether I’m too buzzed to ride. I’m not. I make it to Rina’s door without incident.
mondag 17 mei – Sisi Fruitmania
Out in the morning to Cyberlounge and then, old-hand skilled navigator that I am, across on Marnixstraat all the way without stopping or consulting a map to what I intuit is the Haarlemmerplein without ever seeing a sign.
And so, hooking a right onto Haarlemmerdijk I cruise along very carefully watching facades to my right so that I won’t miss that wonderful Moroccan place that Rina and I had approached from the other direction and of which I remember neither the name nor even the location other than that it was on south side of the trail of streets named Haarlemmersomething.
I spot a post office first, and since I had been dreading walking to the main Post Kontoor where there is no place to leave the Segway, I was real happy to see that parking would be easy. How easily we accustom ourselves to changes. Three weeks ago I would have been dumbfounded at the concept of “parking is easy” in reference to a Segway since one of the very finest features of the Segway is that parking is sooooooooo easy because all you have to do is chain it to the nearest fixed object. Alas, in Amsterdam, you are not the only one who wants to chain something to a fixed object. Bicycles. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of bicycles.
Thus, near every fixed object that is not a proper bicycle stand are signs ranging from the universal symbol of a bicycle inside a circle with a bar through it, to the graciously formal, “no bicycles, if you please,” to the more abrupt, “don’t place bicycles here,” to the horrific “to give thee warning, if thou placest thy bicycle here it will be put through a machine that grinds it up and extrudes it as a couple of feet of chain-link fencing.” So a legal place to chain your fiets or in my case fietsje is difficult to find, particularly one that because of its atypical shape can only be attached to things in atypical ways. I should also mention that almost all the illegal places are so festooned with bicycles that there is no space to attach anything else.
As I’m about to pull away from the post office, I get into conversation with a bicyclist, joined by a couple of pedestrians. I must say, as much as I dislike stereotypes and all, that persons who come up to me and want to talk about the Segway tend to be better-looking than usual, and in Amsterdam that’s saying a lot. And when I say “persons” I mean folks of all ages and sexes and inclinations. Those two young women who stopped me yesterday afternoon in front of the university were so gorgeous and buffed in the lean Dutch way that merely answering their questions made me feel like a dirty old man.
Anyhow, as I leave my bicyclist I inquire whether he knows of a Moroccan store on this side of the street somewhere around here. I mention that the Moroccan is a nice guy who sells some aubergine spread (baba ganoush) and some Turkish yogurt that are the best of their genres that I ever ate. He tells me the place is only a couple of blocks down the street.
Yes, as I suspected, the Moroccan speaks French, and I’m expecting it to be a pleasant relief from struggling with Dutch, but before we even get going, he is distracted by something outside and runs shouting to his door. It is the bicyclist with whom I had just been chatting. The two Moroccans have a rapid fire conversation in Arabic but suddenly the shopkeeper turns and looks at me with a great smile on his face. Clearly, the bicyclist has passed on my inquiry about the shop…and my kind words. Well yes, there is nothing sweeter than a compliment given you by someone who never dreamed it would get back to you.
The bad news is that when the shopkeeper comes back into the store and we start talking, I discover that I have forgot much of my French, and I find myself stumbling around horribly. Little did I realize that the Dutch that I’m acquiring would be at the expense of my French. Sigh.
At least I can still eat. Culinary alert, folks. You read it here first. To 250 ml. of Yayik Ayrani (otherwise known as “yogurtdrink” and made in the Netherlands according to Turkish methods) add a roughly equal amount of Egyptian mango nectar. Mix well. Serve chilled. The mango nectar by itself is so thick and sweet that it’s cloying. The yogurt drink by itself has a pleasant tart taste but has the texture and appearance of milk of magnesia and thus has too many negative associations to be fully enjoyed on its own. However, their combination is so delicious that it’s a good thing I didn’t have a gallon of each component on hand.
I tell you one thing, as soon as I return to SF I’ll be checking the Turkish consulate for the names of the shops where they buy their yogurts and yogurt drinks. Late Note: When I returned to San Francisco I discovered that once again, I seem to have unnecessarily invented the wheel. Somebody beat me to it. Millennia ago. It’s called kefir and many fruit flavors of it are sold in San Francisco markets. It tastes very much like that mixture I concocted above.
A popular soft drink here that I don’t expect to be seeing in the US is the “Sisi Fruitmania,” which I found cloyingly sweet.
After a midday rest I go out on foot in search of the DVD that I read about in a Dutch gay magazine (well, after all the kind help I had to buy something in that gay bookstore). The DVD is of the six shows that Sacha Baron Cohen made for Dutch television. Cohen is famous for his alter ego as Ali G on British television, and I mentioned having seen one of his shows in 2001. His new alter ego is Bruno, an amazingly stupid gay Austrian interviewer, the opposite in every way but the stupidity of Ali G. In these six shows for Dutch TV, Cohen conducts interviews in America of various Americans from all walks of life, including a professional football player and a skinhead, who share only one thing in common: They are unaware that Bruno is a famous British comic. So the interviews are, well, straight. I can’t wait to see this. Late Note: These shows were chopped up and televised in America in late 2004.
dinsdag 18 mei (tiisdei 18 maaie) – The Frisian Alphabet
And since we’re thinking Frisian thoughts now, the dates henceforth will be in both Dutch and Frisian.
I just watched a Dutch TV program that has me twitching with joy. Rina has told me that an educational program having to do with Frisian would be airing this morning, and so I tune it in while it’s in progress. This bizarre individual wearing a bright green, strangely-styled suit and behaving eccentrically is conducting a sort of quiz show for kids that seems to be focused entirely on spelling and choosing correct words. He pronounces a word and then asks the kids to write down their choice of three alternative sentences using it: A, B, or D. We all know how much I love grammar, so my enjoying a grammar and spelling program should not elicit surprise. So where’s the joy, you ask?
Well, I’m sitting there listening closely trying to catch words I know and perhaps learn others from context when it sinks in that the program is not in Dutch but in Frisian. These are kids from Frisian-speaking homes who are being encouraged to acquire some literacy in their home language. And then a great rush hits me: I seem to understand the Frisian as well as I can understand Dutch!!!!!!
Not, of course, that this is saying a lot, but still, how can it be? I have heard very little spoken Frisian even though I know the spelling of a modest number of Frisian words and their approximate pronunciation. Part of it is that in a program like this, the meaning of many words is clear from context. Still, I seem to be understanding way too much although I’m certainly not complaining. Am I genetically hard-wired for this or something?
Besides, it strikes me what utter perversity it would be to cut cleanly through to Frisian without learning Dutch!!!!!! Het spijt mij, maar versta ik geen Nederlands. Kun je Fries of Engels spreken? (I’m sorry, but I don’t understand Dutch. Canst thou speak Frisian or English?) Yessssss! I was placed on this planet for a reason, and I just now discovered it.
It is not, as I had feared, documenting business software.
And you thought you caught me in a typo, didn’t you? Well, by now you’ve had plenty of practice, I know, but that “A, B, or D” above is not a typo. The first time I heard it, I thought I mis-heard him. But then he said it over and over. It was definitely D. Oh, but of course. Frisian doesn’t use the letter “C” except in combination with “H” to indicate a voiceless velar fricative with which Frisian words do not start. Since “C” neither stands alone nor begins words, the third letter of the Frisian alphabet is D.
woensdag 19 mei (woansdei 19 maaie) – The Buick and the Oldsmobile
Stopped in this noon to see if I could catch Rafaël’s kapper in the shop she and her husband have on Korte Lijnbaanssteeg right around the corner. What luck. She’s in. And has no customer. And speaks little English!!!!!!!! (Well, or would rather speak Dutch than English. OK, is willing to speak Dutch to me for the duration of a haircut.)
I got my last haircut from her (in 2001) in silence because I couldn’t think of anything to say and she volunteered nothing, but this time we clicked. And talked pretty much nonstop for the whole haircut, making it one of the most enjoyable haircuts in my life.
And speaking of neighborhood pleasures, I just noticed this statue about a block away from Rina’s on a bridge over the Singel. It’s Multatuli, the author of Max Havelaar. Well, see, when I was here in 2001, I didn’t know about this work, so I read it only last year. It’s sort of the Dutch Uncle Tom’s Cabin in that it called to public attention some of the abuses of the Dutch colonial system. Unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it’s also full of delicious social satire.
Then over to the Cyberlounge and stopped at that Albert Heijn there on Elandsgracht on the way back, a better place to shop than the Albert Heijn of Death off the Dam. Seems to have pretty much everything the other has except for the hot deli, and it’s much easier on the nerves. More importantly, I feel comfortable leaving the Segway outside it, and since I can stop every day, I don’t need to totally fill my pack every visit.
Today’s interesting encounter on the way back home is with another bicyclist (they can easily chase me down). We talk about the Segway, I give him an introduction and a test ride, and he tells me about one of his inventions. He’s a fascinating guy, and I’d love to see his work/inventions. Take a look. His name is Fred Abels
After a nap back here it’s over to Edward’s, where the conversation turns on automobiles. In the fifties, Edward’s family had Oldsmobiles, but then they lived on the coast where there was relatively more space. Too, at that time, the European auto industry had not ramped up and there were fewer cars, so there was no competition for parking and an Olds would not be out of place.
In the late fifties in Odessa, Texas I was a member of an Explorer Scout troop that had some elements more typical of a gang than a scout troop. Like, for example, our tendency to plan and execute events without bothering the adult leadership with our trivial little stuff. Like the time we were challenged by another troop to an overnight game of Capture the Flag in the sandhills out toward Crane. This version used small paper bags that we filled with a mixture of sand and flour to chunk at opponents. The idea was that the bag was supposed to rupture upon contact and thus mark the slain, but this technology was dramatically improved upon by the introduction, thirty-five years later, of the paintball gun.
Anyhow, that game ended prematurely about ten o’clock at night when the leaders of the other troop finally decided that our adult leadership, which we kept protesting had been unaccountably delayed and was due momentarily, was not, in fact, going to show owing to not having been informed of the game. So we went off somewhere else in the dunes and turned on each other.
On the way back into town the next day the question arose as to whether my parents’ 1955 Rocket 88 Oldsmobile was in fact a faster vehicle than the 1956 Buick owned by Bill Danley’s parents. The answer to this question, we realized, was easily obtainable.
I would say that I left him in the dust except that the road was a very well paved, straight as an arrow, West Texas oilfield asphalt highway. So I’ll just say that owing to greater acceleration, I left him way behind and he became, if not a speck, certainly a distant figure in my rear-view mirror. I may have let off a little since I was unaccustomed to going a hundred and somethingteen miles per hour, but then I noticed that he seemed to be closer. He was. I floored it again, but still he grew closer and closer until he finally passed me, and I swear he was still gradually accelerating. Turned out that old saying about the Buicks was true: They could pass anything on the road except a gas station.
donderdag 20 mei (tongersdei 20 maaie – The Cop on the Segway
Ascension, or as we Frisian purists say, Himelfeartsdei. Rina had warned me that I should lay in all the supplies for tonight’s dinner on Wednesday since most stores would be closed today. So I did. What does not even cross my mind is the possibility that an enterprise as godless as the Cyberlounge would be closed, at least not until this morning when, as I am traversing the deserted streets on the way, I keep seeing emptiness where merchants last in the dooryard bloomed. [OK, at least in the flower shop next door to the Cyberlounge.] By the time I get to the Cyberlounge, though, I am emotionally prepared to see the Gesloten sign.
Nevertheless disheartened, I don’t even bother to swing by the Moroccan place to see if they sell that excellent yogurt drink, but for variety try a slightly different route home. On the way, I am stopped by a couple of guys on bicycles, and we get into a talk. I mention my surprise at seeing virtually everything closed in a country as secular as the Netherlands, saying that I hadn’t thought very many of the natives were still believers. They come back to me that what they all still passionately believe in is holidays.
Lunch with Rafaël at Franken & Kok, which I have finally determined to be the name of the place up on the corner. I eat their pastrami sandwich again, since it was so good the first time. Rafaël has an uitsmijter, of which I expressed insufficient envy to get even a taste but which I will have the next time I go there. Eat your heart out, Egg McMuffin.
I cook dinner tonight with Hans and Rina and Rafaël. Cyrus swings by with his kids, Rina’s grandchildren, and after a rapid calculation I suggest to Rina that there’s plenty of food to share. Cyrus, faced with the prospect of rustling up something for himself and the kids when he gets home, quickly accepts the invitation. I’m delighted he can stay, as I’ve not met him and Rina has told me enough about his films that I’m curious.
Dinner is smoked tuna (from Frank’s) on toast, Pork chops Louis with apples and prunes (the recipe for which will eventually be included in my recipes section), Potatoes mashed with their skins with garlic poached in butter and fresh chèvre (you heard it here first), and green beans with lemon and butter.
For dessert, Rina has poached pears in wine and topped them with melted Scharffen Berger chocolate that I had sent her via Rafaël last winter. To push this totally over the top, I bring down the remaining quarter of a tub of the Van der Linde IJs.
It’s a very enjoyable dinner during which I experience a breakthrough. I understand my first Dutch kid! Whether he understands me is iffy.
Likewise, I sometimes have a little trouble understanding, in a different sense, the adults. I think what’s going on is that we have here a couple of generations that are in total revolt against the prudery of their Calvinist forbears. I wrote in 2001 of the frankness of Dutch television. Well, it’s not confined to television.
I mentioned that Rina has told me about her son’s films. She has also described his butt in terms normally reserved for the pages of a steamy soft core novel. This is the man who has provided her a couple of cute and incredibly sweet grandchildren! And yet she talks about how gorgeous his butt is to a gay man, albeit a retired one. I make sure my eyes never go below mid-chest.
After dinner it’s a Segway demo and test rides down on the Rinaplein. Daddy goes first. His son, Ivar, is twitching with a mixture of fear and desire. As usual, desire wins, and after only the briefest instruction in English and pidgin Dutch, he’s got the concept and can run the thing around on the Rinaplein. Darling daughter of course wants to do everything big brother is doing.
Cops from down the street appear. I now realize that the reason I keep seeing them during midnight demonstrations on the Rinaplein is that this is when their shifts change. For the first time, we get into a little conversation. They tell us they don’t know what to do about the Segway, “It’s not on the books.” Which suggests that having this thing flaunted in their faces for three weeks has spurred them to closely examine the books.
One cop, looking about 25 years old, accepts the invitation to do a test ride. I explain that it’s a question of giving up control and letting the machine have its way with you, that women and young men like him find this much easier than old men like myself with our control issues. All the while I’m explaining, he’s saying in that typical Amsterdam cop way, “ja, ja, ja,” which means they’re not listening to a word you’re saying.
So as soon as I let go, he’s fighting it like a bucking broncho….just like I did the first time. Well of course, who besides old men would have control issues? Cops. Cops of any age, sex, or nationality.
Put down the nightstick, Officer, and try it again.
vrijdag 21 mei (freed 21 maaie) – The Trek
I’m try to do as little as possible today so as to have energy for this afternoon/evening, when I plan to meet Edward at a cafe where he regularly meets on Fridays with some literary friends. What a civilized practice!
The cafe is way beyond my walking range, and it’s not really appropriate to be taking the Segway, so I stop at Albert Heijn and buy a strippenkaart. (It later turns out that I have purchased a card that is to be used only by the handicapped and persons over 65. Well, hell, your honor, I was in too much of a rush to puzzle out all that fine print and just bought the cheapest one under the assumption that it didn’t include as many rides. Nevertheless, it was accepted by the attendant in the streetcar, and I don’t feel like I’ve really cheated the government on this one because the machine kept my 80 cents change and for an even more important reason that I’ll relate shortly.
I take the streetcar nearly all the way to the Albert Cuyp Markt to get to Edward’s cafe, and we have a pleasant time there although it bothers me enormously that I don’t understand Dutch well enough to participate in the conversation. On the other hand, I just hate forcing Edward’s friends to speak English, so I convince them that they should speak Dutch. So then I’m back to square one and can’t understand the majority of the conversations around me. Sigh.
After a few more beers we head out to a neighborhood Greek restaurant for a fairly good dinner. Edward has brought his little white dog with him, and for the second time in my life I get to experience taking a dog into a restaurant. (I wrote about the first time in Dutch in Three Weeks.) I swear, it would be only slightly more strange for me to be taking a dog in so that the chef might stuff it with rice and roast it for me, and yet the waiter is clearly quite accustomed to folks bringing their dogs in and provides a bowl of water for Bobo. I just love being in different societies and seeing life in strange new lights.
After dinner we stroll the half block back to the streetcar stop, and I get to experience another different social dynamic. Only moments after we begin waiting, passers-by warn us that the streetcars have stopped running. We’d do the same thing in SF, but I have my doubts whether we’d be so quite so quick to do so.
Being immediately warned that the streetcars are not running is the good news. The bad news is that we are a long way from home, and I’m on foot. In a situation like this, getting a taxi is nearly impossible, but Edward chivalrously offers to stroll along at a pace that I can maintain to keep me company, so he turns what would have been a very unpleasant trek into quite a fine walk as he recounts the history and significance of the buildings en route, the standout being a really bizarre Chinese theatre near the Rembrandtplein.
Despite the entertainment, it is quite a difficult walk even though we stop several times to let me sit and rest, so it is very late by the time I finally crawl up my stairs and into bed, no longer feeling the least bit guilty about buying a handicap strippenkaart. Turns out the entire streetcar system was shut down and was not restored until the following day. As an American I have marvelled at the efficiency of the system, and it is somehow reassuring to learn that it is not, after all, absolutely perfect. On the other hand, it still seems more reliable than San Francisco’s Muni Metro. Here’s a bit of alley art in Mosterdpotsteeg, just off Spuistraat:
zaterdag 22 mei (saterdei 22 maaie) – Barbershop Quartet
Off to the Noordermarkt in the morning. It’s a pretty good market and has several vendors I like, especially the cheese stall with a superb fresh chèvre. Besides, it’s close. I take the egg folks an Albert Heijn egg carton and pick up a ten of free-range eggs from pampered Dutch free-range chickens. Hmmm. A “ten-pack”? How come it sounds just fine to say “pick up a dozen” but not “pick up a ten”? And why is it that American chickens lay eggs in dozens, not tens?
From the market, I take Prinsengracht around to the Cyberlounge. Never again. Amsterdam doesn’t have many potholes, but what it does have is some streets with brick surfaces so irregular that they must be taken at no more than half speed on a Segway, and even then it’s nerve-wracking. Worse yet, you don’t get to see anything other than the road directly in front of you because you dare not take your eyes off the pavement.
Then over to Frank’s Smoke House for a smoking demonstration and barbershop quartet. Yes, that’s what I said, barbershop quartet. What a wonderful cultural dissonance it is to listen here in Amsterdam to the Barbershop Harmony Quartet of Apeldoorn. Lead: Hans Vissink, Bass: Teun Dupain, Bariton: Roel Oterdoom, Tenor, Jan van Huffelen.
Oh, and here’s a rack of salmon just out of the smoker:
Back here for a nap and then Rafaël joins me and assists in Phase I of the Great Drug Hunt. See, I’ve just noticed that I have only three of my Wellbutrin left, and since I’m thinking that they are all that’s standing between me and madness, I need to get an emergency resupply to tide me over until I get home, where the other bottle, the one that I should have brought because it was full, awaits.
So we check at this apotheek on Damstraat and the efficient young lady tells me that I can have my pharmacy fax them the prescription. Ha. How simple. I call Walgreen’s using Rafaël’s cell phone, and they agree to send a fax. To celebrate, we go to the New King.
The babi pangang does not look so disgusting this time. In fact, I find rather attractive the paper-thin crunchy brown top over a generous band of opalescent, glistening fat surmounting a rich vein of tender flesh over another wide band of creamy fat and finally, a thin, toothsome foundation of flesh. Even so, I agree to share it, and Rafaël orders a sweet and sour chicken dish that is by far the best version of this old chestnut that I have ever eaten. The babi pangang is divine.
And oh yes, I have been warned that I cannot expect to alight at Schipol and start feasting my way across the Netherlands on babi pangang because even though it is routinely found on Chinese menus, nobody else’s is as quite as good the New King’s.
Back home, I watch Mrs. Doubtfire with Dutch subtitles. Robin Williams is an astonishingly talented man who improves the city of his choice by his very presence. Besides, I learn a little more Dutch.
zondag 23 mei (snien 23 maaie) – The Great Drug Hunt
Owing to the Great Train Wreck on Friday, the schedule is still seriously disrupted, and Rafaël elects to postpone his departure. Accordingly, he telephones me and wants to do one of our bicycle/Segway excursions. I can read him like a book, though, and I know his hidden agenda is to once again wallow in the previously-untasted pleasure of standing back anonymously and watching the crowds gawk at his companion. I’m being used. But then again, I’m getting a free tour guide, so who’s using whom?
I’m also getting some free thrills. I set out on today’s adventure by warning him that I am going to be leading because I do not want to again be led into dangerous and illegal areas by a man supremely confident that no matter what their tonnage or speed all vehicles will stop or, if that were not possible, at least swerve to avoid him. What I quickly discover is that it’s real hard to lead when you don’t know where you’re going.
He immediately leads me into the maelstrom at the Centraal Station. Yes, the underground bus lane, which is exactly the width of a bus plus a generous ten centimeters on either side. All the busses sweep through this thing at approximately triple my maximum speed before it opens up into slots for the various lines, and of course he leads me into this with perfect timing so that we are chased through it by a bus enraged at our illegal presence in this lane slowing it down. You cannot will a Segway to go faster than 12 MPH. I sure tried.
Somehow surviving this episode, we head over to the apotheek to pick up my meds. They vigorously deny receiving a fax, any fax, from San Francisco. Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. So we kill time for a few hours until Walgreen’s opens. I call and get the pharmacist I spoke with yesterday. He assures me that he sent the fax within fifteen minutes of my request. He says he’ll try again and gets the voice phone number of the apotheek from me so that he can talk with them.
After thirty minutes, Rina comes by, so I sic her on the apothecary. She grills them while they deny ever having seen a fax from SF in their entire lives. After another hour, I call SF again. The pharmacist tells me that he has spoken with the apothecary and that although he does not really understand them it does sound like they received today’s fax.
I tell him that in despair I have been checking into alternate sources of supply and, this being Amsterdam, have found some folks who will not only provide me the meds, they will also throw in a free introductory sample of heroin. He applauds my wit.
Back to the apotheek. This time it’s the young woman who yesterday told me that the US pharmacy could fax them the requisite information. I painstakingly spell out my name again in Dutch and explain in Dutch that my US pharmacy has sent them a fax detailing the medicine I need.
She ducks into the back and returns brandishing a fax black with data and declares that it is not acceptable because it is not from a doctor. I remind her that yesterday she told me in English that the pharmacy could send the details to her. She reminds me that the critical word yesterday was “prescription” and that this is defined as coming from a doctor. I start to ask whether she expected the largest pharmacy in America to have spindled hard copies of the original doctor’s prescription that they could fax to her, but decide that at this point a free heroin sample is becoming attractive. Besides, the lower cost of the underground meds will help defray the cost of all these international phone calls on Rafaël’s cell phone, which has singularly unattractive rates.
I thank her with feigned graciousness and leave. Could she possibly not know that she is not the only game in town?
And no, I have not found The Little Druggie that I wrote about in Dutch in Three Weeks. Haven’t seen him this visit. Alas, that’s not too surprising, as addicts tend to fade away…at least the ones I knew in San Francisco did.
And here’s a piece of alley art off Warmoestraat:
maandag 24 mei (moandag 2 maaie) – I Score
Rina comes in at nine to let me know that she’s talked to her friend at the doctor’s office and that a prescription for my meds is about to be faxed to the apotheek. I am greatly relieved to be getting this stuff through authorized medical channels. It had struck me that the purity level of the underground wellbutrin might be lower than that of the accompanying heroin.
Once again I go to the apotheek, but this time they finally sell me my meds. Next, I go to the doctor’s office and drop off a bottle of Beringer Merlot from the liquor store up the street and an attractively packaged dark chocolate confection from the Bijenkorf “voor de bureau.” Oh, sometimes I get away with making Dutch up as I go. Mostly, I don’t, although some of the failures, like this one, could well be attributable to my pronunciation. Then again, it took a couple of repetitions of “for the office” before Rina’s friend understood that the bag I was handing to her was an expression of my appreciation for the help of her and the doctor.
Then back here to rest because I’m going to do a collaborative supper tonight with Rina. Appetizers of aubergine spread on stokbrood and Turkish marinated stuffed peppers that turn out to be a great disappointment because the skin on them is like plastic. For the main course, a small chicken stuffed with dried apricots and prunes and then lovingly smoked (by Frank’s Smoke House, of course), and while it’s very slowly warming according to Frank’s directions, we go upstairs and watch a videotape of a documentary that Cyrus made. I sense that this thing is fabulous…out there on the edge, but my Dutch is just not up to this and we reluctantly stop the tape after a few minutes. Bummer.
I really must do a class or something. The other day Rafaël pointed out in an English-language newspaper an advertisement for Dutch Language Courses. It’s also occurred that I could probably buy my way into UC Berkeley’s Dutch courses. This is complicated by knowing deep in my heart that I should really hole up in Köln and improve my German or in Paris and work on French. Sigh.
Fresh pineapple with Turkish yogurt for dessert.
dinsdag 25 mei (tiisdei 25 maaie) – Java Eiland
In the morning, Hans, Rina, and I set out on a trip to Java Eiland, which is just out there in the IJ about 300 meters due east of the Centraal Station. To get there, we take a ferry from behind the station because Rina has a thing about boats and, to be fair, because it’s a lot more scenic than going by bus. The whole island is a housing development that was planned down to the last detail although the eastern end looks like it was done by different architects. Soetens was involved, and here’s a row of houses that look like they might be his:
Here’s a cafe in the eight-story eastern end, obviously open only nights and weekends. The whole development is utterly deserted since it’s the middle of a workday. Clearly the only folks who bought places here are young professionals.
In the evening I go out to poke around on the Damrak, and in a moment of insanity on the way home I stop at the hamburger place on Nieuwezijdskolksteeg that Rina has identified as the best in Amsterdam. I had been warned against the hot dogs here but a few days ago just had to try. Not one of the awful street stands, but rather in a legitimate-looking shop on Damstraat in front of which a pack of tourists were wolfing them with gusto. That none of ’em were speaking English or German should have got through to me as a bad sign. The dog was dreadful.
Well, the hamburger was not dreadful, but neither was it good. No wonder Rafaël goes into such ecstasies over the hamburgers at In and Out Burger when he’s in California. This is one thing that the Americans do better….much better. What gets me is that I knew this. Forty years ago when I was living in Germany there was not a decent hamburger to be had in the entire country. Even the ones on American military bases were marginal.
On the other hand, what I wouldn’t give to have access back in SF to some real Frankfurter Würstchen now that I know how to make my own chili. I could do chili dogs as good as the ones served at the White Pig in Lubbock until it closed a decade or so ago. Hmmm. I can see me now: a little pushcart stand with my health department permit, and I could peddle them at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Let’s see: “Tio Terlingua’s Texas Chili Dogs.” I betcha I could make money at that, especially if I offered the chili in a choice of “real or mild.” Well, maybe better catch the Würstchen first.
woensdag 26 mei (woansdei 26 maaie) – Tennis on Dutch TV
Out early to Cyberlounge, and on the way back I get into a long conversation with a man named Waldo Bien on a bridge over the Keizersgracht. What is it with me? I meet people under the most innocuous circumstances and then accidentally say something that happens to be right down their alley and discover that they are just fascinating. We were talking and I somehow got into a brief rant about how in the computerization of everything we were sometimes actually doing harm…as in the case of the computerization of the card catalogs in major libraries. Nicholson Baker, among others, has written about how incorrect data entry plus various data deliberately omitted during conversion guarantee reduced utility.
It turns out that Mr. Bien is a board member of the Free International University of Amsterdam Foundation, an organization that focus on the preservation of knowledge…and while it has a web site, does not use email because of the avalanche of trivia that email brings.
I stop at Albert Heijn for some groceries, and as I pass the meat counter, a 230 gr. package of speklapjes somehow leaps into my shopping basket and hides beneath things until I am in the checkout line and it is too late to return it to its proper place. I am so happy that you cannot buy this stuff at home. I pan-steam them gently and eat them as I watch French Open coverage.
It’s Coria vs. some unheard of fellow Argentinean named Monaco, who has Coria down 4-2 in the first set before Coria finally wins 7-5. He grinds Monaco into the clay in the second set, 6-1, as I sit here telling myself that even though Coria is one of my favorite players, this is after all not a very important match which Coria is virtually certain to walk away with and I really ought to get out there and do something Dutch.
When I return, Coria vs. Monaco is over and Justine Henin-Hardin is playing some nobody who is actually giving her a pretty good fight until I fall asleep.
When I wake up they are in a rain delay waiting for the beginning a game with Andeeeeeeee, which is as good a time as any to point out a few weaknesses of Dutch tennis coverage. First, the announcer, and there is only one, continually runs out of things to say, and you are left to watch the rallies accompanied only by the court sounds when you could be listening to the inane chatter of a pair of announcers. But no, on Dutch tennis coverage, the announcer speaks only between points and analyzes the game only during changeovers, when the camera just sits there showing the court instead of giving us entertaining commercials. Discussions of the players’ sex lives, table manners, family tragedies, and financial prospects seem entirely ignored. Worse yet, the lack of commercials makes bathroom breaks difficult.
You want surreal? I’ll give you surreal. It’s sitting in Amsterdam listening to Dutch commentary on Andy Roddick playing a Frenchman named Mutis in Roland-Garros stadium. It just struck me: This is how God wants me to learn Dutch. It’s a lot easier to understand stuff when you kind of know what’s going to be said. For example, the commentator just said, “Dat was mooi!” after Roddick made a beautiful shot.
Rafaël joins me and I explain the beauty of what he is seeing. Well, some of it. Andy is self-explanatory. And so Andy takes the first set and the Frenchman is putting up a bit of a struggle in the second set when suddenly there is this announcer saying coverage is over. What! screamed Matte. You show an entire match of Coria vs. a nobody but cut the number 2 player in the world off before his match is over!!!!!!!
And then I think about sports coverage on American TV, which in international events consists almost entirely of coverage of the American players and routinely ignores matches of the highest ranked players if they’re not playing an American. Well, now I know what it feels like.
donderdag 27 mei (tongersdei 27 maaie) – Goede Kop
Today I experience the ultimate stereotype in the Dutch love of getting a goede kop, a good buy. See, I have figured out that I want to purchase an inexpensive DVD player here so that I can take it back to the states and use it to play European DVD’s, thus getting around the region coding that the manufacturers use to keep us from playing DVD’s from the wrong continent.
So a few days ago I shopped around a bit and found a nice little Sony for €100 at the Bijenkorf. When I told Rafaël about this, he got the model number from me and asked me to postpone purchasing it. This morning he announces that he’s found the same model cheaper at a different store, to which he will lead me. So off we go.
And the horror all comes back. He has no real concept of stopping for red lights, and almost immediately I’m a nervous wreck trying to keep up with him while avoiding being run down. He rides like a madman, and then I realize his hidden agenda. He’s doing this to take my mind off how far he is taking me. We end up being so far to the west that I feel like IJmuiden must be just around the corner when he finally pulls up in front of a store.
We go in, and yes, there is my Sony. Priced at €97. We have ridden halfway across Amsterdam to save three euros. The whole scene descends into the ludicrous when I realize that the box will not fit into my pack, and I have to scrounge scrap cord to rig a harness to carry it with.
This is what the Dutch mean when they say “een goede kop”!
Dinner tonight with Hans, Rina, Rafaël, and Rob. Rina does a chicken with lemon and couscous thing that is delicious. I add braised spinach and stuff some spanish pimientos with gorgonzola as an appetizer. Rob brings a very tasty chocolate torte for dessert.
And yes, for you technical folks who didn’t read my mind and save me from myself, when I got the Sony DVD player back to San Francisco and plugged it into my Sony television, it wouldn’t play the European DVD’s I had brought. A brief check down at Eber Electronics, where I’d bought the TV, revealed that European DVD players are incompatible with American television sets. So I mailed the player to Rina. A very well-traveled player: made in Japan, shipped to the Netherlands for sale, carried on an airplane to San Francisco, and then mailed back across the continent and the Atlantic to Amsterdam.
And on a brighter note. They sure can stack them bricks up in Amsterdam. These are on the Prinshendrikkade:
vrijdag 28 mei (freed 28 maaie) – A Great Misadventure
What a nightmare day. I wake up at 3:30 AM realizing that I have not plugged the Segway in to charge overnight, so I run down to the garage and do so. Don’t think I ever really went back to sleep. I go down at five to nine and find the Segway in balancing charge mode and go ahead and set out for the Cyberlounge anyhow, arriving at 9:05, only to find it gesloten… as it was yesterday until at least 9:30, so I don’t wait.
Back here and then to the VVV at the Centraal Station, where a huge pack of tourists rush in and form a long line while I am locking up the Segway. After ten minutes, only one of the three windows had moved, so I give up and come back here and get train information from Rafaël and Rina. After an hour, I go down and plug the Segway in to try to top off the charge to make up for what I wasted this morning.
At 12:30 I go down and find the Segway not finished charging on one cell but set out anyhow. At the Centraal Station I get the train to the Sloterdijk station. It is stunning. Absolutely beautiful.
But why, we ask, am I at Sloterdijk? Well, remember Fred Abels? The fascinating engineer/artist I met a few days ago? He’s invited me to his studio/shop and given me a hand-drawn map so that I can find it. It’s way out in this industrial park to which the closest train station is Sloterdijk. I’m to Segway out there and see his creations and give him and maybe some others a chance to play with the Segway a bit. Great fun for all. Well, that’s the plan.
My first mistake is to run right past Basisweg for at least half a kilometer before I realize my error. So that’s one kilometer of my charge wasted. And then I follow Basisweg for several kilometers as it turns into Hornweg as shown on my Falk map. But as I get farther out, I have more and more trouble correlating Fred’s hand-drawn map and my map, and out in the industrial park they are not exactly generous with street signs. Too, it’s clear that there are some streets that do not appear on either map.
Finally, when I get to a point at the end of what looks like Hornweg on my map but does not seem to be labeled as such in reality, I ask directions of a couple of young Dutch men in a delivery van. I ask them where Hornweg is, and they do not know. Or at least as best I can understand them, they do not know. This throws me into a panic because surely delivery people would know street locations, particularly since it sure does seem like a major street.
What makes the situation really worse, though, is that folks out in the sticks are less quick to jump right into English the way city folks do the instant I make a mistake or show a lack of comprehension. No indeed, out here there is plenty of opportunity to practice my Dutch now that I’m not sitting comfortably in a terrace cafe sipping cappuccino a block from home but rather am way out in the godforsaken wilderness of an industrial park getting a little nervous about being trapped out here with my battery exhausted.
Seeking to clarify the unthinkable, that they don’t know where Hornweg is, I swallow my pride and ask, “Spreken jullie Engels?” (Dost thou-all speak English?) They don’t.
And at this point, the real screw-up begins. I panic. I don’t even try French or German or Spanish. I don’t even try going to one of the buildings that line the parking lot to ask somebody else. No, I jump back on the Segway and head out blindly back nearly a kilometer to the circle, where for reasons that now seem utterly inexplicable I hook a right for about a kilometer until I get to this place that looks like it’s maybe a cement factory or something, and I pull into their driveway and roll up to the gate house.
The middle-aged man at the gate is friendly, and when I ask the location of Hornweg, he bursts into a long, complicated explanation that loses me after the first two words. I desperately attempt to get clarification, and obviously fall into my tendency to substitute German words for the Dutch words I don’t know or forget. His friendliness chills perceptibly, and he switches to fluent German, speaking even more rapidly and confusing me even more.
Do I tell him I’m not German? No. Do I tell him I can’t understand him? No. Do I ask him if he can also speak English? No. I am somehow paralyzed. My fuses are blown, and I stutter out thanks and give up. I turn right out of his driveway and go another kilometer until I hit a street, where there is a sign with the names of both streets on it. I am at the intersection of Australiehavenweg and Amerikahavenweg, and my electricity gauge indicates that I need to go back to the Sloterdijk station the shortest possible way. Now.
So I head back, going slowly and taking little breaks to prolong the battery life, and I make it within fifty meters of the station before the batteries give up. It occurs to me that I can maybe find a pay phone in the station, figure out how to use it, and call Fred, but what am I going to tell him? That I have exhausted the battery on a wild goose chase?
At least I got that pic of the Sloterdijk train station.
And the battery recovers enough during the train ride back to the Centraal Station that I get within a block of home before it dies completely.
As I rest, I review how utterly neurotic my behavior this afternoon was. Why is it so damn hard for me to ask anybody for anything? And why, when I couldn’t get an answer out of the delivery men, didn’t I go to one of the adjacent buildings to ask for help? Why did I waste almost all my reserve of electricity blindly striking out in another direction and, when I got to the next inhabited area, couldn’t I tell that guy I wasn’t German and didn’t understand him?
The Dutch are the most helpful people on the planet! (Especially if you’re not German:-) All too often, they have gone out of their way to offer me help. And yet here, when I really need it because not getting it will mean standing Fred up, I cannot bring myself to ask.
Sigh. I email him an apology the next day, but don’t hear from him, not that I deserve to.
After all the effort and tension of the day, I am starving, so I go upstairs to ask Rina and Hans to go to New King with Rafaël and me. Cyrus’ first wife is there with her year-old baby. Rina has mentioned that she is closer to Amanda than to Cyrus’ current wife, and I take a liking to her immediately. It turns out that she can join us for dinner.
Tofu with gai lon in oyster saucece
Salt and pepper shrimp
Yes, we have two orders of babi pangang. Hey, it’s my next-to-last day.
Afterwards, it being a lovely evening, we have coffee on a cafe terrace on that square by de Waag.
Amanda is just delightful and we hit it off. She’s very much the foodie and travels widely seeking new treats. But she says that sometimes after a few days of new treats in a foreign land it’s good to rest one’s palate by getting back to the basics for a meal. She tells about how the first time she was in Italy, she and her party realized that after eating all that wonderful Italian food for a number of days, they needed something a little more down home, some comfort food, so they headed for a Chinese restaurant.
They were ordering in English and so-so Italian and, not seeing the babi pangang that graces every Chinese menu in the Netherlands, asked for it. The waitress said they didn’t have it, but Amanda and her friends thought there had to be some misunderstanding and started describing it…in English. The waitress had been through this before, and she cut them off, “I don’t speak Dutch.”
Yes, only in the Netherlands (well, and Indonesia) do Chinese restaurants offer babi pangang….thus Italian waitresses know that anybody who’s demanding it has got to be Dutch.
zaterdag 29 mei (saterdei 29 maaie) – Instant Payback
This is my last day, and it’s gorgeous. In the morning I dash out and take pics of bridges in the area to the north of the Haarlemmerplein across the railroad tracks and west of the Westerdok. For example, cute little old things like the Zandhoekbrug:
And modern monsters like this railroad drawbridge:
Afterwards, I set out for Frank’s for some of his smoked fish to take back to San Francisco. There’s plenty of time, and as I roll casually along I realize that I have forgot my pack at home and thus have nothing to put the fish in nor my hex wrench in case of a Segway computer crash. No prob. I’ll just use a bag from Frank’s and be careful to shut down properly.
Alas, I crash the Segway’s computer for the first time in a couple of weeks when I stop for some pics 4/5ths the way to Franks, and since I have neither my cable lock nor my hex wrench, I have to push the Segway home. By the time I get there, I’m beat. Worse yet, now I have a very short window before Lucy’s arrival.
So I dash back off to Frank’s, and since I’m in a rush, it’s crowded. Finally, it’s my turn. He tells me he has found my previous writing about him on Noehill when he did a search on “franks smoke house”. He regrets that he no longer sells the cactus juice drink, which makes it clear he’s read every word. I’m flattered.
But now down to business. He has five aal, the little eels, in the case. I ask for three, saying I don’t want to be greedy. He responds, “This is a commercial enterprise,” and wraps all of them for me. As we are deciding upon the best items for me to be taking back, considering possible delays without refrigeration, a woman comes in the door and barges up to the counter and interrupts us with questions. I turn and glare at her. Her husband pretends not to notice. I keep glaring at her while she talks. Frank gives her a short answer and then speaks to me. I turn back to him and complete my transaction….a couple of hundred euros worth. He steps in back to do the vacuum packing, and I use this time to turn and glare again at the woman. Well, maybe not glaring this time, but definitely looking at her with the blankest possible look on my face. She makes eye contact and says something. I just keep looking at her. she clears her throat and remarks on how nice the selection is. I say nothing. She turns away. I continue to stare at her until Frank comes back in with my fish. I pay him and leave.
I’m racing back home so I won’t be late to meet Lucy, when I brush the curb with my right wheel and crash hard. Very hard. My pants leg is torn open and my knee gouged badly. Clearly this is karma from glaring at that woman in Frank’s. Well, is it petty to be annoyed at folks who are so damned entitled that they get to push ahead of everyone else because they have just a few questions?
Perhaps not. What’s petty is allowing your annoyance to show as rudely as I did. Luckily the Segway still works, and even though I have torn a big hole in my best Dockers and gouged a chunk of flesh out of my left knee, I haven’t broken any bones and can continue my rush home.
Lucy and Rafaël are a little bit early, so they are waiting as I drag myself up the stairs. I wash out my wounds and discover that I can see the bone. Fortunately, there are no large blood vessels in the open area, so I improvise bandages with folded paper towels smeared with betadine and held in place by wrapping tape. I put my torn, bloody pants back on because I don’t want the betadine to ruin a fresh pair.
I Segway with Lucy and Rafaël to Franken and Kok to sit in the sun and drink coffee. Lucy’s very interesting, and I’m sorry she had to see the mess I made of my leg. Worse yes, being a woman, she’s concerned about infection. I assure her that I’ll monitor it closely back in SF, where I have medical insurance.
Back home, I collapse into bed and sleep for a couple of hours. Get up and watch some of Hewitt vs Verkerk in the French Open. Alas, Hewitt wins in five.
In the evening, I hobble over to Edward’s for a goodbye dinner. Superb soup and a delicious spaghetti bolognese. And so to bed. It’s over.
Epilogue: I had worried about how long it would take me to get back home, at least partly because of all the problems on the way out but also because I somehow entered the EU without my passport being stamped. This suggested at least the possibility that my leaving the EU or entering the US might have complications since I was not properly in the EU in the first place. I sensed that this situation might confuse a bureaucratic mind.
Fortunately, my return to SF was uneventful except for the arrival, when I was greatly disappointed to discover that Air France was unable to resist achieving a perfect 000 batting average by once again misplacing the Segway. What should I expect for free? And besides, at home I have the car to get around in, so I’m not dependent on the Segway the way I am elsewhere.
Oh, the aal? Well, Al and Bob were so disgusted by the skinning demo as I ate mine, that they passed on theirs, so I got to eat them myself later…and then share the remaining two the next day with Sybil, who is not at all put off by eating snake-like creatures.