2005 – Amsterdam by Foot

April 2005 – Another Amsterdam Adventure

amsterdamalleyThis is a sequel to the travelogues I wrote describing my visits to Amsterdam in 2001 and 2004. The main difference between this visit and the previous one is that thanks to the advance of medicine, I can now walk normally again. Sure does make a difference.

This visit, I know even more delightful Dutch folks, most of whom I’ve met through Rina and Rafaël. However, there are three local people who I know only via email because they found my previous Amsterdam travelogs and wrote to me. I’m looking forward to meeting them this visit.

As before, I still find Dutch vastly easier to read than to understand when it’s spoken. My progress in learning it is glacial, partly because no matter whether I’m here or in San Francisco I just don’t have time to seriously study another language, but mainly because I’ve lost enough brain power to inhibit learning anything.

I can also blame Rina, Rafaël, and Edward. I’ve told them that they have simply got to introduce me to some dull, uninteresting people so that I can speak Dutch with them and get some practice. With the Dutch people I’ve met so far, we’re having too much fun to slow down while I learn Dutch. So what I’m learning is what I’m assimilating without formal classes, stuff like the names of foods that I see in stores, words I learn from television and newspapers, and words I pick up from context when I’m listening to the Dutch speak to each other.

The focus this time is on food. I have brought exotic ingredients for a good many dinners, stuff like stone-ground whole yellow corn meal so that I can make “real” southern-style East Texas redneck cornbread from my maternal grandmother’s recipe. I figured the chance of my finding the proper cornmeal over here would be slim since it has to be ground to the correct size between polenta and corn flour and, equally importantly, has to be made from the right kind of corn.

I’ve also brought a suitcase full of California/New Mexico/Mexico chiles and herbs so that I can make authentic chili and mole and such. I’m gonna feed these folks stuff oma never made. I feared that my suitcases might raise an eyebrow coming through Dutch customs this time, as they were full of packets of strange powders of various hues, so I was looking forward to saying, “Well, Officer, if you don’t believe that’s habañero powder, you could just snort some and see.”

Alas, they let me in without examining my suitcases.

 

 

Woensdag 27 April 2005 – Arrival

This trip sure is starting out better than the last one since both me and my luggage got here on time. And my goodness, being able to walk properly certainly improves travel! What fun it is to be able to walk circles around Rafaël! Just kidding. Actually, I felt a little pang when he was exclaiming over how well I could walk and it struck me that a medical marvel such as I experienced is not available for him.

After settling in at Rina’s and making a preliminary gift distribution, I’m antsy to get out and buy some Dutch groceries, so we decide to combine this with a trip to Elandsgracht to check on the Cyberlounge, that wonderful place I talked about so much in Amsterdam by Segway where I simply plugged my PC into their LAN.

So Rafaël takes his bicycle and I walk with the PC in my pack. The ten blocks or so is pleasant although Rina’s fears are fully realized when we arrive at the location of the Cyberlounge and see that the space is now a dry cleaners. So much for the Cyberlounge.

On the way home we stop at the big Albert Heijn, which has been remodeled for the better although I no longer know where anything is. Among other things I get a jar of Zaanse mosterd, which I’ve been looking forward to for eleven months, and some sausages and milk and juice and chocolate milk and bread and eggs and potatoes and OK, four brands of milk chocolate-hazelnut bars since I can’t very well go eating the chocolates I’ve just brought across a continent and an ocean as gifts. And yes, I break down and grab a smoked mackerel even though I had earlier told Rafaël that this year I was going to hold out for de Volendammer’s mackerel instead of the supermarket stuff. See, it winked at me as I passed the case.

Rafaël helped carry everything home, and after I had a little nap we celebrated my first evening in Amsterdam by going out to the New King for babi pangang and sweet-sour chicken. I think I had in the past eleven months wound myself up into such a frenzy over the babi pangang that when I failed to see God at the first bite there was a minor wave of disappointment. Still, it was awfully good and somehow the two of us managed to get through all of it. And what a bargain at €19, with rice and tea.

Afterwards, we strolled somewhat circuitously back here, me snapping pics of graffiti and doorways and such, stopping at that French Patisserie on the Dam for hot chocolates mainly as an excuse to dawdle. Back here I was suddenly so tired that I pretty much shut down on Rafaël and crawled in bed early.

Rina’s given me a tip from her son Cyrus on an Internet place she thinks might provide services that will get me going, so I’ll check that out tomorrow. And open a checking account in a Dutch bank with the fistful of fifty peso Mex’s I brought in so as to get around the current weakness of the dollar. My, do those ever light up an airport scanner!

Here’s some graffiti on Mosterdpotsteeg:

mosterdgraf

 

Donderdag 28 April 2005 – The Martyr’s Internet Cafe

After a breakfast of smoked mackerel on toast with Zaanse mosterd accompanied by Rafaël’s squeals of disgust, I go hunting for the Internet cafe on Martelaarsgracht that Cyrus has told Rina about. I am not really all that martyred over the search since Martelaarsgracht is the name of the first block of Spuistraat when you’re coming from the Centraal Station, and the name of the Internet cafe is “The Internet Cafe”. Yes. A five minute walk from home.

It’s a clean and not-too-noisy place with positions set up so that your laptop is held at a comfortable height. I have ninety messages, mostly spam, of course, but still, some nuggets from the faithful. What a relief it is to have all my Internet needs met at a fairly reasonable price.

spuistraatwindowHere’s a well-used poster board on Spuistraat between my place and the Internet Cafe.

Just before noon Rafaël and I go to the ANB Bank and discover that since 9/11 foreigners have to have a work permit here to open a checking account. So much for that idea. The nice lady at the bank suggests that I drop by Rosmarijnsteeg to change the fifty-peso Mex’s. I realize that I need to check on the official day’s price of gold plus the weight of the mex to four decimal places as a precaution against getting fleeced, both of which I can do on my next visit to the Internet Cafe.

So we stop for tasty sandwiches at de Drie Graefjes, that little place huddled in the shadow of the Nieuwe Kerk there on Gravenstraat and then hit the Albert Heijn again. This visit I’m scrupulously saving all my receipts so that I can fully document just how much cheaper food is here in one of Old Europe’s most expensive cities. Remember the Good Old Days when Americans were the healthiest people on the planet and food in America was cheaper? Well, now all the Old European countries out-do us in all the health indicators. And here in Amsterdam at the most expensive grocery chain you get two liters (over a half gallon) of 2% milk for €0,96, 335g. of Zaanse mosterd for €0,82, a 170 ml. tube of mayonnaise for €0,29, a liter of mango/pineapple juice for €1,29. Well, somebody’s got to support our class of ultra-millionaires at the top of the heap, and it’s all of us down here underneath ’em. I’ve not seen anything that more clearly shows this than these grocery prices.

In the afternoon we walk with Rina and Hans over into the Jordaan to the bar on Prinsengracht owned by some old friends of theirs, Els and Rene. It’s her birthday. How awful to have your birthday two days before Queen’s Day. Kinda like a birthday on the 23rd of December…or as Amanda (who I wrote about in Amsterdam by Segway and who I’m delighted to see is there) puts it, on the 2nd of July. It’s quite a gesellig gathering, and I feel both out-of-place and very privileged to be brought to it since everybody else is either family or old friend. Luckily I had the wit about me to bring a bar of the California Bay Laurel soap that Rina likes, so at least I have something to hand to the hostess/birthday girl.

I try to be as unobtrusive as possible so that there’s not the spectacle of everything being translated into English for me, but of course this means that I understand about ten percent of what’s going on. It is so incredibly frustrating to be able to pretty much read Dutch and yet find the spoken language so difficult to understand. Near the end of our stay I get into conversation in English with one of the guests and find him just delightful. It turns out he spent a couple of years in Texas in the eighties as a visiting professor of art at the University of Texas in Austin, and I pump him for information about literature and Dutch culture/history.

For dinner Rina has cooked us hete bliksen (hot lightening!) I have arrived! I have finally got so close to some Dutch friends that not only have they admitted to me that there is a Dutch cuisine, something that is usually stoutly denied, but also they have actually cooked some of it for me! To make “hot lightening,” boil some pork belly and reserve the stock. Then cook apples and potatoes together in the stock, mash them, and serve them with the pork belly on the side. It is delicious.

Tomorrow, it’s the eve of Queen’s Day, and we have a tentoonstelling, the opening of a multiple artists’ show, at the stedelijkmuseum…a city museum.

 

Vrijdag 29 April 2005 – Queen’s Day Eve

It’s the eve of Queen’s Day, and even at noon there is electricity in the air. The day is lovely, and the weather forecast is for lovelier and lovelier thru Sunday, when record high temperatures are anticipated. The really good news about the warm weather is that I will be able to run around in my bright orange tee shirts, this afternoon the one emblazoned “San Francisco, California” and tomorrow the other one sporting a cable car.

I hit The Internet Cafe and send my first couple of emails and then walk west to the Moroccan shop on Haarlemmerdijk where, owing to my having taken a few deep, calming breaths before entrance, I am able to firmly establish with the proprietor’s young assistant that, owing to the near nonexistence of my Nederlands, we will be conducting my business in Français, but that it is going to be clear, slow French unless he wants to do it in writing.

It works. You have to be firm with these people, or they’ll just mow you down. Everything goes swimmingly, at least with the shopkeepers although I do hear one of my fellow shoppers behind me, after I had described the bread Rina wanted as “Turkse,” helpfully noting with quite adequate volume that the bread is “niet Turkse, maar Marokkaanse.” Alright, you bastard, you got me on two counts. It’s my yoghurt drink that’s Turkish, and even then since I was speaking French it should have been “à la Turk” or something like that. Grrrrr.

But while I’m reacting, I gotta say something about the San Francisco Chronicle articles on the anniversary of Thom Gunn’s death, most particularly the second part, which ran on Tuesday the 27th. The way the article read, it sounded like Thom was the only person in his whole damn house who ever touched a recreational drug…the Whore of Babylon attended by vestal virgins who were shocked, shocked! at Thom’s drug use.

Oh, please. Thom liked his drugs, but his use of them was no secret, and he was hardly alone in his enjoyment of them. I went to parties in that house in the seventies and early eighties at which pretty much everyone in attendance was twisted on something. More importantly, Thom gave us a fine corpus of first-rate poetry, decades of good teaching, and some incisive literary criticism…and he worked until he was nearly seventy. I’d call that being a productive member of society, and to get downright blunt about it, vastly more productive than any of his housemates. To the best of my knowledge, not a one of ’em has published a single book of any kind, nor had a distinguished career. So let’s cut Thom some slack.

Besides, he introduced Allen and me. He’d had us both (hey, this was the early seventies) and he knew we’d be the perfect couple.

But I digress. An air of gearing up for the coming festivities hung over the entire area this afternoon as I walked back home via the Volendammer Vishandel, where I picked up a smoked mackerel and 200 grams of those decadent sprat fillets. Then I took the Prinsengracht toward home and passed by a produce shop that had absolutely gorgeous marble-size spruitjes for €1,99 per kilo. Good grief, that’s about a buck a pound even with the current weak dollar. Hmmm. I betcha I could pickle some of them and surprise a few folks. It’s time I took my pickled Brussels sprouts bi-continental.

In the late afternoon I bicycle with Hans and Rina over to the Stedelijk Museum, where I am passed off as the husband of a nice lady we met in the elevator in order to get me in. See, the invitations are for two persons only, and Rina has only one. However, she is superb at arranging these things. The exhibition is also superb.

I can’t even begin to describe it fully, but I have to note that it sure did cover every conceivable type of artistic presentation…from performance pieces like this guy sitting at a table moving strange things around in bizarre ways while he whistled an accompaniment, to video presentations of various types, to some stunning sculpture including delightful ceramics. Etc. etc.

My neck is beginning to kill me, though, so I’m happy when we start back home. Alas, I’m distracted by another problem: see, today is the first time I’ve been on a bicycle since 1974. I can still ride one, of course, if a bit wobblily. The problem is that bicycling requires certain muscles that lay fallow from ’74 to ’01, atrophied under lack of blood supply from ’01 to ’04, and then remained unexercised after my stents were installed last September. So the pain in my legs from trying to keep up with Hans and Rina takes my mind off my aching neck. By the time we get back home, I’m a basket case.

2005-04-29louis2The bicyclist before the return ride:

But tonight is the 25th anniversary of Beatrix’s inauguration, and an enormous, elaborate stage has been set up in the Dam square in front of the palace for a ceremony. So after an hour’s rest I set out. The Dam is thronged, and I watch parts of the ceremony on the giant screens that are displaying it. Perhaps more interesting is the crowd, most especially its interaction with the Dutch cops.

I mean, here we’ve got all these well-muscled, jump-booted, club-carrying troops who are getting sassed by teenage punks of both sexes whose level of citizenship as best I can tell would be greatly improved by a quick swat…or in some of the cases two… and yet the cops are just totally laid back. I do love this place.

I come drifting back home through the milling crowds before the ceremony is over since I can’t really understand much of what’s going on, at least partly because not being a TV watcher, I don’t recognize any of the players except for the Queen. I notice on the return that even while there must be a hundred thousand people jammed around the Dam, the bars are full and spilling into the streets.

Tomorrow is Koningindag. Queen’s Day. Since it’s my first one, I plan to spend as much time as possible in the thick of it.

The whole city is decorated with sprays of orange balloons, and even tonight the canals are full of boats flashing psychedelic lights and blasting wild music, to which folks who I sensed were high on more than just life were dancing. If I were just a decade younger I’d pick up a little refreshment from the legal recreational drug store on the corner. Something psychedelic to provide a little extra **sparkle** for my day. This is just pathetic. Here I am in the drug capital of the world and somehow can’t spare time for it. Hell, at least I should buy a spliff to toke on periodically.

 

Zaterdag 30 April 2005 – Queen’s Day

Well, as it turns out, the city provides more than adequate sparkle, and I have no need of chemical augmentation.

Imagine the Castro Street Fair covering a quarter of San Francisco.

Just as in SF, vehicular traffic is banned from the thronged streets, and there is a double row of street vendors. People drink anything they wish freely in the streets, and there is a lot of well-amplified music, not only from bands but also from upper apartments with speakers in the windows. Some street vendors are selling food, of course, and there are others selling arts and crafts. Most restaurants have some kind of booth in front from which they sell a few items.

And then the differences begin. Here, there are vendors selling flea market items, pretty much everything. And in the residential areas, the great majority of the houses feature garage sales with the entire household out there, and the focus seems to be less on the commercial aspect than on the social.

And then there are the canals. They are full of boats ranging from barely more than rowboats with an outboard motor to giant canal boats full of tourists, but most especially there are flat boats on which there are powerful amplifiers blasting music to which a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd dances, rather like a float in a parade.

At least this is what it’s like in the Jordaan, where Rafaël and I go at noon. We join the crowd on the streets, which seem to consist mostly of couples although there are small groups and a fair number of kids with one or both parents.

Seeing the young couples hand-in-hand makes me think of Allen’s friend Laura, who had this boyfriend who was as handsome as he was studly, but who, if she had to pick a flaw, wasn’t as demonstrative as she might have liked. This changed immediately when she moved into the Castro. When they went out in the neighborhood, in which in the early eighties the pedestrians were overwhelmingly gay men, he started keeping at least one hand somewhere on her at all times…and encouraged her to do likewise. Alas, as she said, it was too good to last.

But anyhow, Rafaël and I are out with the idea of strolling down Raadhuisstraat and then drifting over across Prinsengracht to the Duende so we can see Rita’s group of flamenco singers perform. Raadhuisstraat is a hoot, and you see wonderful culture-clash sights….like the Peruvian Indian woman playing on that South American panpipe a haunting melody which after a few moments I realize is “The House of the Rising Sun.” That scores three continents and maybe twice that many cultures.

Unfortunately, I’m having such fun strolling along Raadhuisstraat that I neglect to steer us right onto the Prinsengracht, which ended up complicating the journey quite a bit. I didn’t really notice this, but at Prinsengracht Raadhuisstraat takes a bend of which, to quote Gertrude Stein, the asperity is subtle. This has the effect of pretty much doubling the distance between the grachts.

So when we come to Lijnbaansgracht and I realize that I’ve overshot Prinsengracht, I’m not concerned because I know that all I have to do is turn right on Lijnbaansgracht and then make another right on any of the next few streets, and we’ll run right back down to Prinsengracht.

The increased distances, though, cause Rafaël to experience a loss of confidence, or perhaps I could more accurately say that he senses my own loss of confidence and articulates it…repeatedly. But we eventually get back onto Prinsengracht and are much relieved when we go past Els and Rene’s bar and Rene reassures me that the Duende is where I think it is. Neither of us knows the name of the street it’s on, but we have it pretty well triangulated. No prob. Well, no prob except for the increasingly packed streets where simply moving forward has become a contact sport.

The canals, likewise, are jammed:

2005-04-30jam

We make it, though, and enjoy the spectacle of Rina and friends singing flamenco to celebrate the Dutch queen’s inauguration. I think she should have held out for a bullfight.

2005-04-30rina

Afterwards, we swing wide a bit to avoid the worst of the body-crush and soak up a lot of joy as we work our way back home. After a pit stop, we set out again east and discover a wildly different scene.

No families. Few couples. Many groups consisting wholly of young men. Still, an atmosphere of fun, and we drift over across the Damrak at the Bijenkorf and down Warmoestraat and end up sitting in on a bench watching the crowd in front of what used to be Het Korbeel but is now a sports bar. I’d drunk a Heineken while we’d made our four-hour journey to the west, but I go ahead and get really wild and drink a second beer there on the bench.

After which, I’ve had enough and head home, stopping as I cross the Damrak to get some Vlaamse frites at that stand there where they’re always just perfect. (I’ve gone native in several ways, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to eat mayonnaise on my french fries.) As I nibble them I walk back home along the route I took every day in 2001 between EasyEverything and Spuistraat 72, but tonight as I approach the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, the demographics take an abrupt turn.

Suddenly, in the Nieuwezijds Kolk, in the open space between the hotels, the crowd grows dense; and equally suddenly it becomes exclusively late teens/early twenties and only halfheartedly dancing to the music blasting from all sides. More like just waiting for the action to start. About a thousand of them, overwhelmingly men.

I feel very out of place and move carefully through the slightly sparser edge of the crowd until I get to the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, just as a troop of mounted police is cantering past. Things get ugly fast. The cops up their speed, and instantly the air is full of bottles flying at them, all or virtually all plastic, but still….

I notice two middle-aged couples who are, like me, moving purposefully to get across the street and away from this crowd while the getting is good. Groups of young people are shouting and running in both directions on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal while I dive into Korte Kolksteeg, the little street north of my usual Lijnbaanssteeg, so as to get over to the presumed safety of Spuistraat before the cavalry charges. Even though I can walk well now, I can’t run fast or far, and I want to get a corner between me and this scene….ideally two corners.

But even on Spuistraat there is an edge, and I feel a distinct sense of relief when I gain my doorstep.

After another rest I go out for a final loop to the west, guzzling my third beer for the day, but by this time the only folks left on the streets are younger and rowdier and all the vendors are closing down. The party is definitely over for most people, especially those over thirty.

So strange, the difference between the great, loose fun of the Jordaan during the day, like San Francisco street fairs but maybe even better, and the increasingly ugly vibes to the east as the day goes on. And yes, to be fair, I’ve seen bad behavior in The Castro on New Year’s Eve after midnight….and well, yes, seriously ugly incidents on Halloween from isolated troublemakers.

What I hadn’t seen is whole barrels of apples eager for a chance to go rotten.

 

Zondag 1 mei 2005 – A Day on the Island

Rina always calls it “The Island”. Place names associated with it are Blauwe Beugel and Westeinderplas, but as I quizzed Rina extensively about the exact wording I should use to describe the island and its location, my enthusiasm for exactness dwindled and ultimately we decided to just say “an island south of Schipol.”

Yet another advantage here is that I could already spell “Schipol”….and sometimes even say it well enough to be understood. Actually, I have crowed about this too much, and I’ll stop, but I just love it that finally, finally, my pronunciation seems to be improving to the point that almost all of the time now the Dutch understand what I say to them.
Next, I hope to be able to understand the first sentence of their replies. I always understand the second sentence of their replies because after the blank look I give them, their second sentence is always a translation of the first sentence into English. Well, in Amsterdam.

To get to the island, Rafaël and I join Hans and Rina in their Citroën, and she drives us down to a public parking area near a passenger ferry to the island, stopping on the way at an eel smokery for paling that turn out to be almost as good as those from Frank’s Smoke House. The ferry is a tiny little thing that would hold at the maximum twenty people, but the island is only about a hundred meters offshore. There is nothing on the island but approximately 100 square meter garden patches with cabins, and there are strict rules requiring that the cabins be temporary structures of canvas stretched over wooden frames. As best I can tell, they all abut a canal and have a moored boat.

The strict building codes do not apply to the boats, so they range from rowboats to what look like ocean-going yachts. I knew Rina had a boat, but somehow I did not expect a fire-engine red speedboat with a 35 HP Johnson. The boat itself is obviously British since the steering wheel is on the right.

She hasn’t taken it out since it was delivered after its new paint job, and there are some moments of difficulty. I help her wrestle the cover off and gas it up, but then when we all get in, it gives one little try and then the motor won’t turn over. Rina and I simultaneously diagnose an electrical problem since one of the battery cables was obviously loose, but when I dig the battery out and look more closely, I see that the clamp is loose because it’s broken. She gets tools, I kludge a connection, and then we set out. Rina heads for the center of the lake, gradually increasing the speed as we get farther from shore, but the boat won’t trim right (or whatever it’s called) until I switch places with Hans and get into the front passenger seat since I outweigh him considerably.

And then she gooses it and I understand. There is a channel marked with bouys running down the center of the lake inside which it is permitted to run motorboats at high speed. This is why Rina has the boat. Later, I see waterskiis tucked away in the cabin rafters. As we roar up to the end of the channel and back, Rina observes “The sailboats hate us.” Well, they also outnumber the speedboats twenty to one, and as much as I love Rina, I’d rather be sailing, especially, to be totally hypocritical about it, now that I’m too old to want to waterski…..much.

But then we go exploring the little canals and channels through the island, and I find it just fascinating to see how it’s laid out. Not only that, you get to see how people have created their own ambiance. What a vibrantly creative species we are!

Even so, the high point of the day for me is the ducks. This one has discovered that if she comes drifting up to your area and then waddles up on the bank and quacks prettily, you will have an irresistible urge to toss breadcrumbs to her. To get back at her for manipulating me so callously, I make her take the crumbs out of my hand. Then, to teach me not to offer her an empty hand, she pecks me when I do so. Luckily, ducks can’t peck very hard because I detect a serious level of annoyance.

Later, she goes and tells her husband, and he comes by. He’s a lot more skittish, but then hey, drakes are a lot prettier, too. Which somehow makes me flash on a line from Sandip Roy’s review of Siddharth Shanghvi’s The Last Song of Dusk: “Anuradha is so beautiful that when she leaves her parents’ home, peacocks line up to bid her farewell.” I just love Indian writers, so gloriously over-the-top.

We spend the entire day at the island, and by the time we get back there is no possibility of doing anything but falling onto my bed in exhaustion. The island getaway cabin is great fun, but like all vacation getaways, an enormous amount of work. It’s beginning to get to the point of diminishing returns for Rina, and it would have already done so for me.

Here’s the front of Spuistraat 72. The door on the left opens onto stairs leading up to the apartments, in the middle are the garage doors, and the door on the right is for access to the garage and studio where Rina makes flamenco costumes.

72spuistraaat

 

 

Maandag 2 mei 2005 – A Surprising Re-encounter

Today I go to Rosmarijnsteeg to see about selling some of my Mexes and discover that over here gold coins are dealt with by collectibles dealers who also typically buy and sell stamps and other items rather than just coins. These dealers are concentrated on and near Rosmarijnsteeg, and they tend to keep fairly creative hours.

I check with the first one who’s open, and his first question is how much I want for my coins. Well, hey, I tell him, I didn’t check this morning’s gold price but I want whatever the current market value is, minus a reasonable commission. He does some calculations and offers me a figure that seems like a serious lowball offer, and I’m real polite about it but tell him that I think I can do better selling them at home since all I’m trying to do is evade some of the weakness of the dollar.

A consultation with my guru afterwards reveals that my own calculation of a ballpark figure for the damn things was seriously flawed owing to an error too embarrassing to describe, but it now looks like the guy was not going for my entire hide at all. The question now is whether I go back and slither under his door and cop to this or do I go boldly where I’ve not been before and find me a fresh, new dealer.

Here’s some alley art on Nieuwe Nieuwestraat:
nieuwe8

Over to Edward’s in the afternoon for my first visit this year. I’ve been looking forward to it because he’s so entertaining, but it’s more than just entertainment. I have learned far more about Dutch history and culture from him than from anyone else. And he’s an inexhaustible fount of knowledge about the Dutch language.

Then again, he clearly takes some pleasure in my company also, and I suspect that part of this is that he enjoys talking with people who are eager to learn from him. That and the fact that most of the folks he talks to nowadays would probably figure that a dative case is a piece of luggage for use on a trip of less than twenty-four hours.

We talk over beers. This means that we go to the kitchen and pop a couple of tall boys, retreat to the living room, and sip them from glasses. When Edward’s entire beer is gone, he stands to go to the kitchen and I push my three-quarters-full can to him. When both cans are empty, we go back to the kitchen.

On our first return to the kitchen, Edward grabs a whole chicken out of the refrigerator, plucks the wrapper off it, and stuffs it in the oven. Hmmm, I think, he obviously has dinner plans, and shortly he gets a phone call that even with my limited Dutch I understand ends with his invitation to two or more people to come over. So as we near the end of the second pair of beers, I tell him that I really must go now and look forward to spending some time with him during this visit.

He asks me to stay, saying that a gay couple he knows, a German and his Dutch/Chinese lover, are bringing over some asparagus they’ve just brought back from Germany. He insists that this is purely spontaneous, and I waffle. I must add that at some point along here he has mentioned that an unnamed person is downstairs watching TV.

So we continue talking while I try to decide whether I should stay, and after a while it’s time to make another run to the kitchen. As Edward takes the chicken out of the oven, Sebastiaan comes into the room. My jaw drops.

Yes, Sebastiaan. He’s back. The same Sebastiaan featured in Dutch in Three Weeks. When I was visiting here in 2004, I heard that Sebastiaan was an involuntary houseguest of the state owing to a little misunderstanding with some other folks. I also heard that there was a separate incident with Edward involving a few items that weren’t nailed down, so I was frankly a bit surprised to see Sebastiaan again, much less to see Edward feeding chickens to him, but at least he’s now taking the chicken out of Edward’s hand…and disappearing downstairs with it.

And I see now that there’s noplace for this one to go but down, so for the moment I’ll just say that the best asparagus I ever ate was accompanied by ham and buttered boiled potatoes mixed with boiled eggs.

 

 

Dinsdag 3 mei 2005 – Death by Spruitjes

I sleep in. See, Edward keeps your glass full. Actually, this is the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve managed to stay in bed more than six hours, but I don’t feel good at all. Then I realize that this is what we used to call a hangover.

I get directions from Rina to stores where I can find the ingredients to pickle the four kilos of sprouts I bought yesterday as well the ingredients for the dinner I’m cooking tomorrow night. I score cranberry beans right next door at San Andrecito, the little Columbian shop, where they do not understand my Dutch but are quite happy for me to use my Tex-Mex. And it’s a damn good thing I have it because I didn’t see the pintos in their bean selection and was about to leave without asking. The cranberry beans are so close to pintos, they’re just fine as a substitute, and actually I like them better than pintos.

After a quick stop at The Internet Cafe, I set out west at about eleven for the first grocery stop, which turns out to be closed on Tuesdays, but it’s being closed causes me to miss seeing it, and I tramp all the way to the end of Westerstraat before I give up. The only grocery along there that was open had nothing I needed except the spinach.

I return here and get further tips from Rina and set out again, this time east. I stop at the recommended butcher on Lange Niezel for the pork shoulder for the chili. Nice guy. Doesn’t try to push the more expensive fresh ham on me and in fact volunteers that the shoulder will be better for chili. Of course he also encourages me to buy too much. Still, leftover chili is not a problem since it freezes so well.

Then to the Chinese grocery at Geldersekade 90, Wah Nam Hong, where some Chinese women customers are blocking the door with their carts, and I stand there politely waiting to enter until the manager sees me and shooes them aside with that outrageous Chinese male chauvinism. I mean, these are existing customers whereas I am an unknown male seeking entry. Then, after I’ve worked my way halfway through the store, aisle by aisle without putting a single item in my basket, he drifts past to check on me.

I take the hint and ask for hot peppers. I was almost there. Right around the next corner is a display of spices, and I find some of those little Thai peppers dried. But I go through the entire aisle, and still no mustard seeds. So I hunt him down and ask. Nope. On a whim, I ask about hua jiao, which I can no longer get in San Francisco. After a brief beat, he asks, “de Szechuan peper?”

“Ja zeker,” I say, and before I can show off by telling him the first character means flower and the second, pepper, he is already headed around to the last aisle, where there are lots more spices. There it is. The first time I’ve seen the stuff in years since there’s an embargo on it in California. I find it wonderful and near miraculous that a Chinese grocer in Amsterdam can understand my pronunciation of the Mandarin words for this stuff…and to compound the miracle, can understand my Dutch.

They also have bags of black-eyed peas, which I realize will be even more authentic than the cranberry beans. And as I leave I spot bags of fresh coriander and realize that even though the typical cowboy on a west Texas ranch never saw or tasted fresh coriander in his life, there might sometimes have been some of the powdered seeds in something he ate in San Antonio before he got too drunk, and that in any case the flavor would improve the chili.

Side note here on “…saw or tasted…”: Nowadays the order would be reversed, what with all the fussy eaters who reject all kinds of foods without tasting them. But those cowboys ate what was set in front of ’em, if they were so lucky as to have somebody feeding them. Otherwise, they ate what they could find, which under the circumstances was mostly beef.

Then down the street to Jacob Hooy, which is an old-time apothecary and herb and spice shop and quite a charming store. This is where I finally find mustard seed. Only the white, and at an apothecary price, but by this time I’m grateful for either.

sproutsBack here, I pull the two big bags of sprouts out of the refrigerator, wash them, and scoop them into a colander to drain. Then I set to work prepping them. The photo shows about a third of them in a colander. The 3″ paring knife is in there for scale.

What was I thinking when I bought four kilos of marble-size sprouts? I’m going to bed now. I have spent two hours on the damn things and am only about halfway through. Well, see, they’re so tiny that you have to be careful or there won’t be anything left. And also, since they are the last ones of the season, they’re a little shopworn and do require a bit of trimming.

Thank God I brought both my 6″ (160mm) chef’s knife and my 3″ paring knife this time (both sharpened to perfection and swaddled in newspaper by Jivano two days before my departure). You really do need razor-sharp knives for precision work like this. Those of you in SF: Jiovano’s shop is on 18th Street across and a few doors up toward the Castro from Bi-Rite. Give yourself a treat and take your damn dull knives to this man. Tell ‘im the Segway guy sent you. Late note: in 2009 the building where Jivano had rented the ground floor with an efficiency apartment behind the storefront for 35 years was purchased by the owner of Bi-Rite as part of his expanding empire in the neighborhood. Alas, his plans for the empire did not include a knife sharpener, so Jivano was forced out. Unable to find a place for a shop he could afford, he ultimately left the city.  Gentrification.

And OK, since I’m not holding much back anymore, progress was slowed significantly for one of the two hours by my having discovered a Dutch television channel running episodes of Desperate Housewives with Dutch subtitles. What a fine way to learn a language….and maybe lose a finger while you’re at it. Just kidding. Didn’t do either one.

 

 

Woensdag 4 mei 2005 – Dinner for Cora and Johnny

Up in the morning to address the sprout problem. I slept eight and a half hours! I’d like to get out a map and calculate just how far I walked yesterday, much of the time with several pounds of food in my backpack. Physical exhaustion is underrated as a sleeping aid. Works better than Trazadone….and doesn’t leave you groggy in the morning.

jarsproutsI finally get the sprouts prepped and blanched and jarred in a three-liter jug of Rina’s. That’s nearly a gallon. To help show scale in the pic, I put the jug on a garden chair.

I’ll leave ’em in there for three or four weeks, and by that time everyone around here will have saved me for me their little screw-top jars, into which I can transfer the sprouts.

Finally, I address the issue of dinner. And I start to remember various things I’ve forgot to buy…like the karnemelk, which I’m planning to substitute for American buttermilk in the cornbread, so I have to make a panic run to Albert Heijn. It’s down to the wire all afternoon as I frantically do various steps with one eye on the clock. I forgot to soak the dried beans overnight, so I have to use Julia’s one-minute boil and one-hour stand technique before I start the beans cooking.

Working frantically, I trim the ton of pork, render the fat, brown the cubed meat in it, and get the chili to simmering. I realize I forgot the beer for the chili and have to dash to the corner market for it.

For dinner Cora and Johnny come over to join Hans and Rina and me. Johnny is part Indonesian, and he tucks heartily into the dinner because, to his taste, Cora tends to under-pepper. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’ve already talked about smuggling in the critical ingredients, but a minor complication I hadn’t thought about was that grandmother went to her grave untroubled by the metric system, so to cook the cornbread I have to calculate what 425 degrees Fahrenheit would be on Rina’s oven (it’s 220 Celsius, to save you the trouble). A smaller complication is that of the measurements. A cup is almost exactly ten percent less than 250 ml., and I’ve been at it long enough that I know what teaspoons and tablespoons of various substances look like in the palm of my hand.

The cornbread turns out almost right although I did slightly under-cook it and frankly, it sure would have been improved by the use of bacon drippings instead of butter. I guess I’ll be forced to buy some speklapjes (half-inch thick slices of pork belly) and cook them a bit more than usual so as to render out some of that gorgeous fat to make cornbread with. No sacrifice is too great when I’m gathering ingredients to cook for friends.

The pork shoulder I got yesterday from that butcher on Lange Niezel makes real good chili, but then this is pretty much guaranteed since I used the cumin, oregano, and four of the chile powders I’d brought (arbol, California, cayenne, and pasilla) plus that fresh coriander I picked up yesterday. Oh, and a mixture of fresh garlic and some of Rina’s dried garlic flakes that you have to grind to order out of this entertaining little dispenser that’s impossible to get enough out of and you can’t take apart so as to get at the unground contents.

The chili is a little on the piquant side at first for Rina and Cora, but I notice that they ultimately go back for seconds.

I’m glad I chickened out on the blackeyed peas and went ahead with the cranberry beans because it turns out they’re all familiar with blackeyed peas, but none of them had had cranberry beans before. I cook the beans seasoned only with one minced carrot, and they are the last thing done. In fact we have to eat the salad as a leisurely first course.

The salad is an old favorite. Romaine, tomato (hot house, but not bad at all), and fresh coriander. Then I get to Rina squeeze and mix into this two eetrijp Hass avocados (there is truth in advertising, they are definitely “eatable ripe,” and they are about what you pay in SF for good avocados.) We mix in the juice of a lime, a minced garlic clove, and some salt. This salad is new to them, and they all love it.

The spinach I cook according to Julia’s standard recipe, braised in butter with a grind of nutmeg. I’m doing this instead of turnip greens, which would be more authentic but which I eat only when they are served to me. Julia’s spinach is hard to beat, especially since I’ve discovered how much improved it is by a few drops of pepper sauce, which of course my parents put on those turnip greens.

I’ve been making pepper sauce in California with fresh peppers, but here I used dried Thai chiles that I briefly microwaved in vinegar. I put the bottle of it out on the table. Johnny and I go for it vigorously. Hmmmm. It occurs to me that I might like turnip greens a lot better if I sprinkled them with pepper sauce. Gotta try this in the fall.

For the close readers: No, I did not forget to mention the onions. At home, I would have put onions in everything but the spinach. However, Hans is allergic to onions….but luckily not garlic.

For dessert, Rina has made a classic Charlotte using some of the Scharffen Berger chocolate I brought. The cake is delicious, and just stupefyingly rich.

It is such a joy to feed folks food they never ate before…especially when they enjoy it.

 

 

Donderdag 5 mei 2005 – Hot Breads and Nazis

One moment marred the otherwise perfect harmony of last night’s dinner. After everything else was on the table in serving bowls, the cornbread was ready and I pulled it out of the oven. Rina reached down to a bottom shelf – just inches above the floor and thus the coldest place in the kitchen – and pulled out a large ceramic platter that must have been a full two cm. thick, nearly an inch. We came as close as we ever have to an argument when I recoiled in horror at the idea of putting the cornbread on this thing that would instantly suck every last iota of warmth out of it.

Rina didn’t understand why I was being so obstinate about not wanting the cornbread to look nice on the serving platter, and after a difficult couple of moments I with only marginal good grace came up with the compromise of sticking this thick straw mat between the cornbread and the platter.

What Rina didn’t know is that there is in America, especially in the South, a tradition of serving hot breads that will immediately melt the butter that you put onto them. Often, you slice them open, put a piece of butter inside, and then close them back around the butter for a couple of minutes to melt the butter. This is done not just for cornbread, but also for dinner rolls (like small yeast-risen breads) and biscuits (not biscuits in the British sense, which we call “cookies” but rather small, unsweetened breads that are leavened with baking powders).

In our culture, all these breads must be hot to be fully appreciated, so they are the last thing brought to the table. Too, they are traditionally put in baskets with napkins draped over them to keep them as warm as possible as long as possible. There were even special baskets with something to retain heat in the bottom.

I was so focused on serving a traditional East Texas meal that I wasn’t thinking that the Dutch do not have the tradition of serving hot breads and that Rina would never have seen this. Of course we didn’t understand each other!

I just love comparative sociology.

Now, regarding today: surely nobody expects me to be doing anything exciting today after a day as full as yesterday.

It is kind of wonderful that I have been walking so much at top speed that I have shin splints….a mild case and actually a not completely unpleasant indicator that I sure am working my legs now. Besides, it makes me feel kinda jockly, a feeling one gets less and less frequently after he passes sixty.

Today’s pics are graffiti, the first from Mosterdpotsteeg, which is about ten feet wide and is mostly blank concrete walls. It’s hard for me to get upset about folks painting stuff on the walls of this stark alley.

On the other hand, even I have to call it vandalism when it’s on a brick building facing the Prinsengracht, which makes me feel guilty for liking Morcky Boy’s style.

Morcky Boy

Yesterday was Herdenking, the Dutch Memorial Day when the Queen marches from the palace across the Dam and lays a wreath in front of the monument, but I was so involved with dinner that I completely blew it off. In my defense I must whine that this is the first time that I’ve been here in May and missed it. Well, sort of. I watched it last year on TV instead of in person because it was cold and raining and I was being a big sissy.

Today is the anniversary of the liberation from the Nazis, and I’ve written enough about this in my previous accounts of visits, but speaking of the Nazis, I’m just sick and tired of all these liberals comparing the Bush administration to the Nazis. Oh, please. Sure, there are superficial little similarities like mounting a propaganda campaign to stir the citizens up against contrived external and internal enemies and get them so worried that they’ll happily give up their civil liberties one by one. But that’s just trivia.

Anybody with a grain of common sense can see that the Bush Administration is not a bit like the Nazis in the ways that really matter: The external enemy is the Iraqis rather than the communists, the internal enemy is the gays rather than the Jews, and most importantly, Bush is adamantly opposed to socialism.

And speaking of the Nazis, remember that little stir a couple of weeks ago when some meddlers had the poor taste to point out that the new pope had spent his youth as a Nazi but excused this on the grounds that he was forced to join as a child but had left the party when he grew older and understood what it was all about? Many pointed out that that paralleled exactly their own experience with the Catholic Church.

But enough of all that. A couple of folks had inquired how I managed to smuggle a couple of razor-sharp knives through the airports. Easy, I stuck ’em in my checked baggage. It’s alright to have kitchen knives in your checked baggage! It’s not like they’re explosives or something. And I need those knives over here. As much as I love Rina, I have to tell you that the knives in her kitchen are not going to be inflicting any serious damage on a modern Dutch tomato.

Unlike our limp-wristed California fruit, these dudes have got tough hides on ’em.

 

 

Vrijdag 6 mei 2005 – Three Old Hams

Up at six and write a bit. Then at seven notice that the sky is blue and the sun is rising, so I race outside over to the Singel with the idea of taking some more pics like those I got last year over on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal when the water was like a mirror. Alas, what is not present this morning but is also required is a dead calm.

Still, a nice day, and no more whinging from me about it being too hot, as it’s finally cool enough that I need my coat again. So at nine I finish writing the tale for last Monday and head for the Internet Cafe to email it. Gesloten. Closed tight. OK, I’m now picking up on the pattern. Their sign says they open at seven, but the morning after a holiday they sleep in. Hell, after Queen’s Day, they slept in for a day and a half.

But now I know they have a sister cafe just about thirty meters west on Nieuwendijk, so I head over there. The door’s unlocked, so I go in and tell the guy behind the counter I want to connect my laptop. He says they’re closed. I ask what time they open. He switches to English and repeats that they’re closed. Hey, dammit, I understood him. But it’s a game I can’t win in Dutch, so I ask him in pidgin English, “What hour you open?” Ten.

Here’s an interesting relic in an otherwise pretty much stripped alley. The wall it’s on is solid concrete, but they worked around this representation of “Three Old Hams” and preserved it. Note the date:

3 old hams

The highlight of the day is walking at noon over on Haarlemmerstraat all the way to the post office to get some stamps. Then back for a stop at the Marokkaanse place, where I start by closely examining his shelves of various foods from the other side of the Mediterranean. I find white mustard seeds at about half the price of Hooy’s and then find the black mustard seeds that I couldn’t find anywhere else in Amsterdam. I give a cry of delight and grab them, which gets the attention of the shopkeeper since while I was shopping all the other customers departed.

Since I have them to myself, I venture to explain in Dutch that as they can hear, my Dutch is even worse than my French. They do not contest this assertion, so we continue in the latter language.

This time we get to know each other a little bit and establish that the reason they haven’t seen me for eleven months is that I do not live here. I’m from San Francisco but like to spend May in Amsterdam.

I notice that the boss is training the new assistant well, because he’s quick to suggest additional items beyond those I select. I hold off for now, not wanting to let him have his way with me on just our second date, but I know I’ll be a pushover next time and buy all kinds of stuff.

 

 

Zaterdag 7 mei 2005 – The Perfect Cauliflower

Damn me. Exactly six months ago the timer went off on my OED and I was prompted to re-insert the CD so I could continue to use it. I remember now that at the time I realized that I was going to be in Amsterdam the next time it expired, so I should take the CD with me. Of course I forgot it. So now I have no dictionary other than a little one-volume Dutch-English/English-Dutch paperback while three hundred bucks worth of software sits uselessly on my hard drive. How come none of my supposed friends reminded me of this?

Have you ever been in a produce market and seen a specimen so beautiful that you simply had no choice but to buy it? Figuring out what you were going to do with it and when would come later.

I’m sitting here staring at what still looks like the most perfect cauliflower I’ve ever seen….from Albert Heijn, yet. Not that I don’t get excellent cauliflower at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and not that this thing could possibly taste any better, but still it’s unbelievably beautiful. This vendor has kept more of the leaves around the head, which serves both to protect the head from the scuffing that so quickly causes those brown spots and also to display it coyly.

Thus, instead of Carol Doda at the Condor, you have a princess with a bit of décolletage. Check out Herrick’s “On Julia’s Clothes” for an elucidation of this principle.

I don’t have any plans to be cooking for anyone for the next few days, so the only logical thing to do is cook it for my supper. But how? Following the rule that the finer the raw product, the more simply it should be cooked, I decide that what I’ll do is carefully cut off a third of the flowerlets into this soup dish, throw a tablespoon of water into the bottom, draw a plastic bag over the dish, and microwave it for two minutes. I do so after yielding to temptation and eating a few of the flowerlets raw. Yum.

I guessed right. In two minutes, it’s nearly ready but still has a little more crunch to it than I want in a hot vegetable. I pour out the remaining water, shower the cauliflower generously with shavings of the aged gouda I picked up the other day, and stick it back in the microwave for thirty more seconds.

It is perfect. The cauliflower is cooked but not steamed senseless, and the cheese, even though it’s aged long enough to be pretty hard, has melted well. How utterly simple and how delicious! Do try this at home, folks.

And since I’m talking about food: I’ve mentioned how much cheaper a lot of things are in Albert Heijn than back home in Safeway. Now, to be fair, I gotta point out that some things are just as bad and others are even worse. Like for example, citrus fruit in general is a lot more expensive here. This one’s not too surprising since it’s called “sunny California” for a reason, but still, that pair of limes I bought the other day was €0,99! And the other day I saw carefully sealed in plastic two heads of fresh garlic with perhaps four inches of white stem attached for €1,99. Oh puhleeeeeez. I was desperate for the lime, but fresh garlic will never cross these lips at that price.

Oh, and here’s another Morcky Boy sighting, just a couple of blocks beyond Albert Heijn on Spuistraat:

morcky boy

 

 

Zondag 8 mei 2005 – Mother’s Day Opportunity

First, I need to pick up on yesterday’s petulant complaint about supposed friends. See, it has long been clear to me that most of my friends, now that they have reproduced and reared the children to adulthood, have as their primary purpose in life to protect me from myself. (For my gay friends, this has been the sole purpose all along, other than way back when we were young, the occasional dalliance.)

nemoToday’s pic is a shot of Nemo taken last week from the top of the Stedelijk Museum.

Late yesterday afternoon I experienced a species of guy panic known I’m sure all over the western world: the sudden realization that the stores are about to close and you need to have a present in hand tomorrow morning. Yeah, like the eve of her birthday, your anniversary, Valentine’s Day, or yes, Mothers’ Day. It struck me that since Hans is far too dotty to think of Moederdag, I could pick up something for Rina in his stead.

So I race out to de Bijenkorf and hit their wonderful bakery/confisserie. It is packed with men of all ages, all of us wearing a similar expression: minor annoyance at being caught in this jam paved over with smug relief at having once again put ourselves in the position to please women in our lives.

Great male bonding. And like so much male bonding, we all know why we’re there, but our mission is accomplished without acknowledging this.

No sooner do I get home than Rina invites me to join them upstairs tomorrow when Cyrus comes by for Moederdag. I accept.

So this morning I take up the small box of Belgian chocolates for later as well as the amaretto-flavored breakfast cake from the Bijenkorf. Rina has made blinis and serves them with smoked salmon, chopped onions, fresh dill, sliced cucumber, and a tasty yogurt sauce. Afterwards, we have her cake and Cyrus’ cake and my cake.

Cyrus is an up-and-coming playwright, and in fact has a new play in rehearsal now. Oogverblindend (Dazzled). It’s a telephone conversation between a Dutch woman and an Argentinean man and is in English since this is the only language they share.

We get to talking about language and literature, establishing some common ground, and then he mentions some language issues in his new play. He’s been getting some flak from some folks about the English, complaints that it’s not perfect. I tell him that it is illogical to expect these characters to be speaking perfect English, but that I’d be happy to look at the script and address specific points.

He returns in the afternoon with a copy of the script for my examination.

So my adventures are going to be a little thin while I focus on his text. I am beside myself with delight that the premier will be toward the end of the month, and for the first time I’ll be able to attend one of his plays. Last year I attempted to watch the videotape of an earlier one, but my Dutch is simply nowhere near good enough.

In the evening, Rina drops in and is real motherly, glancing nervously out of the corner of her eye at my marks on the one open page of her son’s manuscript and asking how his English is. I reassure her that it is excellent and remark that surely she knows this.

She comes right back: “How would I know? We don’t speak English with each other.”

Good point, Rina.

 

 

Maandag 9 mei 2005 – Upstaged by the Cat

Today’s pic continues tracing the sordid career of Morcky Boy. This one’s on Nieuwe Nieuwestraat, which is really just a little alley, so the vandalism quotient is low. Not sure I understand what’s going on here. I’m guessing that the “I got speakers the size of y’r girl” was painted over Morcky Boy’s original design by a competitor. I wish I’d seen this one sooner because it looks like Morcky Boy did nearly the entire side of that alley but was in part painted over. Well, those who live by the spray can……

Morcky Boy

Here’s the other end of that alley, with Morcky Boy’s speakers still showing at top.

Morcky Boy

Did you ever hunt down a restaurant because of it’s name?

No, I don’t mean going back to one you’ve been to before or even going to a different branch of a franchise you know. (For example, the next time I’m extradited to Texas, I know very well that my first act upon leaving DFW in my rental car will be to descend upon the first Whataburger I spot.)

No, not that. I mean did you ever read an ad for a place that tells you virtually nothing, but you still feel a compulsion to go to it for the name alone, knowing full well that unless the place looks incredibly nasty you’re gonna have their specialty?

Well, I hadn’t either, before now. I’m looking at a full page ad that has hardly any text but rather is basically just a vehicle to carry the address (about fifty meters from the Internet Cafe) and the outrageously punning name: Al’s Plaice. I’m assuming it’s a British fish and chips establishment. I’m hooked. It’s just a matter of time until they reel me in.

Today I go again to the Marokkaanse shop and sure enough, I get that eggplant-tomato dish that the assistant was pushing last time. Well, it’s tasty, but nothing compared to the stuff they give me when I ask for baba ganoush, which their label calls “aubergine salade”. I also pick up more of that incredible Turkish yogurt, but this time in a fit of attempted virtue I get the 3.5% fat version. I mean, surely I can get by on a product with three and a half times the fat content of the yogurt I eat with enjoyment in San Francisco. I also get that Turkish yogurt drink and a few more goodies.

Back to my oars on Cyrus’ script. The subject matter is so heavy, man’s inhumanity to man and all that, that it is an effort to focus entirely on language. Progress is slow.

At suppertime, Rina’s old friend Dore joins us. It’s basically the same dinner I cooked for Cora and Johnny except that this time Rina cooks the spinach, the chili and beans are defrosted leftovers, and the cornbread turns out better. Oh, and instead of that rich Charlotte, Rina serves fresh strawberries with a scoop of sherbet.

Rina does not have one of the old black cast iron skillets that, like my mother and grandmothers, I use at home for cornbread. Last time I tried this teflon-lined square cake pan, and the cornbread stuck. This time I use with surprising success this floppy blue silicon thing that I’ve seen in Sur la Table in the Ferry Building when Sybil has dragged me in there. Yes, dragged. I don’t want to see all that tempting batterie de cuisine, but Sybil is astonishingly strong for her size.

Dore, like all of Rina’s friends, is a delight although she is upstaged tonight. The most memorable moment of the evening occurs during the interlude before dessert, when the 19-year-old cat shits on the table. I just knew in my squeamish American heart that there was a reason we didn’t allow pets on the dinner table.

And what does it say about ability to go native that, after a decent interlude, I am able to eat dessert?.

Well, I did demand a place mat.

 

 

Dinsdag 10 mei 2005 – A Clean, Well-Lighted Plaice

For a pic today, the first in my Welcoming Windows of Amsterdam series:

window1

I’m spending the day editing Cyrus’ toneeltext, which has nothing at all to do with toenails but rather means the script. Well, that and eating.

In the morning, I polish off a couple of braadworst (pork and beef sausages) that I fried, covered, with a spoonful of water to cook them through. Quite tasty with a toasted roll and Zaanse mosterd. For dessert I have a slice of Albert Heijn’s excellent raisin bread spread generously with that fine Turkish yogurt and the last large spoonful of the Bonne Maman kersen confiture (cherry preserve), which means I now have another empty jar appropriate for the Brussels sprouts when they’ve finished pickling.

Did I mention that I’ve been seeking out items packed in small glass jars so that I can get some vessels to distribute sprouts and, yes, chocolate sauce in. The chocolate sauce was such a hit last year that I want to make some again.

And oh, there’s something I need to get off my chest about that Turkish yogurt that I love so much, that’s so incredibly rich and creamy and thick that you can slice it if you’re careful. It’s 10% fat. I’ve never had yogurt with anywhere near that much fat in it. I bet 10% fat is illegal in California.

Since I’m on a fat rant now, I might as well tell you that I went to the Internet Cafe a bit late today and afterwards drifted over to Nieuwendijk 10, took a deep breath, and plunged into Al’s Plaice. It looks pretty much like what I expected. Franchise fish and chips, but since it’s in the Netherlands you have the option of topping your greasy fish and chips with huge blobs of mayonnaise or other fat sauces.

It seems a little pricey at €5 for the plaice (and how could I possibly eat any other fish my first time?), plus another €2 for the chips, but I’m already committed. Everything is cooked to order, so it’s ten minutes or so before my order is ready, during which time I read a British tabloid. Dear God, what sleaze.

When I near despair over the pit of perpetuated ignorance and poor taste that I see on the covers of the American tabloids in supermarket checkout lines, I must remind myself that our pit is situated right beside a bottomless chasm. They taught us everything we know.

That said, I do learn a few things about Prince Harry before my order is called.

It’s enormous. Well, I think, I can eat some of it and then take the rest home for tomorrow. There is this slab of fish, an elongated triangle about an inch thick, a foot long, and three inches wide at the large end. It is golden and crispy, radiating heat and reeking of good fryer grease, and it reclines on a bed of chips two inches deep.

I sprinkle the fish with vinegar and salt and start nibbling at the small end while eating exposed chips. It is very good. And very fat. As it cools, I’m able to eat larger bites. At some point I realize that I’m going to eat it all, and all of the chips, and just then, I feel a little twitch inside me as my heart downshifts under the strain of pumping my thickening blood.

Naw, it was just anticipatory indigestion.

Must edit this before my doctor sees it.

 

 

Woensdag 11 mei 2005 – A Lekker Sluis

Today’s pic is the first in this trip’s additions to my ongoing Lekker Report. For those who are just tuning in, lecker in German also means “tasty,” but refers only to food and drink, so the vastly wider applications of the Dutch cognate lekker are a source of amusement and horror to the Germans. Another delicious language clash occurs with the Dutch phrase te huur meaning “For Rent,” which the Germans confuse with Hure, which is understandable since beside nearly every red-lit window is a sign letting you know that short term room rentals are available.
lekkeresluis

I’ve seen far tastier sluices.

This morning I get a haircut from Rafaël’s kapper on Korte Lijnbaanssteeg, but it is not nearly as much fun as last year because this time the shop is full of customers. Thus, there is no space for linguistic limpers, particularly since one of the customers is a raconteur who entertains the others non-stop. I need to stalk the shop and find a time when I have my barber to myself so we can stumble along in my pitiful Dutch.

I had much more fun pickling the string beans (speisebonen) that I had bought yesterday to fit a jar I’d just emptied. This is the first time in my life that the limiting factor is containers.

Doing the beans lets me experience my first Amsterdam poink this trip. Yes, the sound made by the little button on the cap of a jar when the contents have cooled enough that air pressure overcomes the resistance and the button poinks down. I added that word to English years ago, and I used it in print five years ago in Blue Highways Lite. I think occasionally reaching out a helping hand to my language is the least I can do to repay it for all the joy it gives me.

With regard to poink, a quick Google search yesterday got thousands of hits on “poink,” which is not terribly surprising since it is such an obvious onomatopoeia along the lines of “clunk” and “plink” that zillions of folks would have thought of it. What I need to do is refine my search to see whether anyone else has used it to describe the sound made by a jar lid….and much more importantly, whether they did so before I did.

All that said, the real high point of the day is finishing my annotation of Cyrus’ script. I’ve marked every deviation from standard American English so that I can later discuss with him their impact on his audience. Cyrus’ English is so good that in the entire script there are only about a dozen usages that would not be immediately understandable to an American. The vast majority of my marks are for spelling and prepositions.

The spelling errors you don’t hear, and the preposition errors are all immediately understandable in English and probably easier for Cyrus’ main audience (the Dutch) to understand than the correct forms. Also, I don’t think Cyrus should change the instances I’ve marked in which he’s used an infinitive where Americans would use a participle because this is a characteristic of Dutch and is perfectly understandable to native English speakers.

But I’ll come out from behind the lectern now and regretfully curtail the grammar blather. I could go on. And on and on, yes I could, but for a reason that I expect to get a laugh later, I won’t.

 

 

Donderdag 12 mei 2005 – Dentition Disaster

For today’s pic, a plain-spoken window treatment on Singel a bit south of Raadhuisstraat.

 

treatment

Last night, I’m sitting here munching away at a bar of Albert Heijn’s premium milk chocolate with whole hazelnuts, and Rina knocks at my door. Only two big bites are left and they slightly slobbered on, so I wolf them as I warble “Kom binnen.” To my disappointment this last bit of the bar contains a rather large chunk of hazelnut shell, which I make a quick attempt to just chew up and swallow but then spit discreetly into a paper towel.

Upon arising this morning, I notice that my bridge is missing a tooth, and in no time at all I am up to my elbows in the trash can. Ewwww. That mackerel head has not improved in the past few days.

But then I retrieve the swaddled tooth and sit here contemplating it. Couldn’t somebody with telepathy or something have warned me not to try chomping whole hazlenuts that way? Disappointed by my friends again, I turn to more positive thoughts about what to do. A woman would start looking for a dentist, but we know what we have to try first, don’t we, guys? Yeah, glue. Some kind of glue. And then I flash on a tale by Peter de Vries from decades ago about his being in France and a filling coming out and his brilliant field expedient of filling the cavity with glue. I’ve forgot the details, but there was something about a subsequent hospitalization.

But tremendous strides have been made since then. No, no, not in the male brain. In glues! Let’s see. Kruidvat over on the Nieuwendijk opens in 18 minutes. They’ll have a state of the art range of glues, for sure. The modern superglues, the ones whose names start with cyano-something. If this fails, I can ask Rina about dentists.

Must edit this before my dentist sees it.

And yes, it could have been worse. I might have swallowed it.

 

 

Vrijdag 13 mei 2005 – A Great Western Adventure

Oh, I will tire of the graffiti soon, soon. But for now, here’s one off Spuistraat way down near the Spuiplein.

spui

Rafaël returned to town late yesterday afternoon, and I celebrated his return by taking “the family” (him, Hans, Rina, and me) to the New King. We ate obscenely. I ordered appetizers of the har gow, siu mei, and lumpia for starters and then half a roasted duck, an order of sweet-sour chicken, and of course an order of babi pangang.

(Quick review: the dim sum is good although I can easily do better in San Francisco. The duck and the chicken are fully up to the SF standard. The babi pangang is incomparable.)

We devoured it to the last morsel, along with two extra bowls of rice. That place is wonderful. All that fine food for €45. And to be fair, one thing that helps keep the price down is that none of us is much interested in alcohol.

The really splendid news is that my emergency glue job on my little bridge held through the meal.

Still, this morning Rina connects me with a dental office specializing in prostheses, and they say I can swing by anytime between 11 and 4. Rafaël needs to have some technical thing done to his new cell phone, and as luck would have it, both destinations are more or less due west of us, even though mine is way beyond his walking range and his roughly twice as far.

So we buy me a strippenkaart next door (this little multiple line ticket for all the transit systems) and walk over to the N Z Kolk streetcar stop to begin our journey. Rafaël is not real comfortable figuring out locations on a map, and this part of Amsterdam is beyond his range of knowledge, so it’s up to me. I feel like a fresh, new second lieutenant with a fresh, new map, and I sense that An Adventure is about to unfold.

I am not disappointed.

Our streetcar line goes pretty much due west and eventually crosses Hoofdeweg, where we exit since the address of Rafaël’s shop is on this street. I guess the number is to the left, but after we cross the vastness of the Mercatorplein, we discover that I’ve guessed wrong, and we trek back across the square and head right. The next disappointment is in how widely spaced the numbers are out here in the ‘burbs. It’s large public housing blocks, so we’ve walked nearly a kilometer when it becomes sinkingly clear that the number Rafaël has given me is inside a block that is being torn down. I break the news.

Rafaël calls the store up and extracts the information that they have moved to a nearby street. We tramp back and forth in mounting frustration trying to find the number and finally determine that it’s deep inside a square the entrance to which we have walked past twice. I am tired and Rafaël is exhausted by the time we finally get to the shop, so afterwards we take a lunch break and eat really tasty Döner kebabs in a nearby Turkse restaurant.

Refreshed, but apprehensive over what nightmare finding my destination holds in store, we limp over to the closest streetcar stop and, as luck has it, the first car that comes along is a line that crosses Bilderdijkstraat, where my dental office is. Whew. We don’t have to transfer. Better yet, this time we don’t even have to walk a hundred meters to the office.

I present my case to the young woman at the desk, and the look she gives me when I mention that I’ve temporarily repaired the bridge with superglue is, as best I can tell, identical to the look my new internist in SF gave me a few years ago regarding my cigarette smoking…which was enough to extinguish the habit all by itself. Back when the popes were directing our warfare as well as our sex lives, they forbade use of that look on Christians.

But with the infinite capacity of women to forgive us, she accepts my bridge for repair, warns me that the repair is not guaranteed, extracts my advance payment of €42,10, and tells me to return in an hour, which we do after hot chocolates in a nearby cafe. The journey home is uneventful.

For supper Rina is doing a cheese fondue with the avocado salad that I’ve recently introduced to Amsterdam, so after a little rest Rafaël and I go over to the deli in Hema to pick up a dessert. There is a wonderful language encounter when I’m questioning the shopgirl as to the appropriate dessert for Rina’s dinner, and Rafaël, finally fed up after a day of listening to me butcher the language with tradespeople, suggests that I not waste everybody’s time by stumbling along in Dutch. So I switch to English, but the shopgirl haltingly apologizes that she doesn’t know English.

Oh, tra-la, tra-la, sweet vindication is mine. Rafaël and the shopgirl’s supervisor, who I now realize is lurking there to train the poor little thing, would clearly prefer to just shove us aside and efficiently take care of this matter themselves. But no, since there is nobody behind me waiting, the knowledge that we are both foreigners emboldens the girl and me. We handle it by ourselves, ignoring the pained expressions that play on our auditor’s faces as we regularize the conjugations of irregular verbs, talk circuitously around elementary vocabulary we don’t know, chew our way through horrible pronunciations, and employ extensive gesticulation. Oh, what fun we have.

And we get the job done. I walk out with the top-of-the-line torte, which will make it difficult for the boss to fault the girl. And hey, this is Hema, so that’s only €8.

I just love these win-win-win situations.

And my goodness, I hadn’t eaten cheese fondue in nearly forty years, and I’d forgot how good it is.

 

 

Zaterdag 14 mei 2005 – Infinitive vs. Participle

OK, the pic of the day is a transom on the Keizersgracht. It means “the three little hills” but the significance of this escapes me.

3hillsI walk Rafaël to the Centraal Station at eight, where he’ll catch a train to Schipol and fly to San Francisco for a visit.

Around noon, Cyrus comes by and we spend a couple of hours going through his script, talking about the implications of his language choices and tidying up a few rough spots. I discover that the reason Cyrus’ English is so good, aside from Rina reading English stories to him when he was a small boy, is that he has been watching American television all his life. No wonder his accent and command of idiom are so good.
Sigh. I am sick with envy of folks who are fortunate enough to be exposed to another language as children before that window of opportunity slams shut and language acquisition becomes a process of brutal memorization of grammar, vocabulary, and idiom, accompanied by painful approximation of sounds you didn’t hear as a child.

Nevertheless, talking about the manuscript is a joy on a couple of levels.

First, Cyrus is concerned with social commentary, and he is as outraged as I am by mendacity in political figures. Not wanting to give away the plot, I’ll just say that Oogverblindend is heavy-hitting and does not spare the royal family.

Second, I get a rueful laugh at myself. I am just getting warmed up talking about the Dutch tendency to use infinitives where we would use participles when Cyrus interrupts me with the information that he had not really been keen on grammar in school and doesn’t know what either of those things is. You can imagine my disappointment, as I had several good examples to wallow in.

Double sigh. Here is absolute proof that he has learned my damn language the natural way, more or less effortlessly, while I am having to piece his together word by painful word. Fair? You be the judge.

Coffee on Rina’s roof-top terrace afterwards. Hans and Rina’s apartment is not large, but quite comfortable, and as they’ve reconfigured the building over the decades, they have somehow managed to end up with four nice terraces for themselves. One off their kitchen/dining area on the roof of the large room I stay in, one on either side of their bedroom/living room area on the next level, and one on the roof of their bedroom/living room.

It’s a beautiful afternoon with just enough coolness in the air to make the sun feel particularly good, and we bask like lizards.

 

 

Zondag 15 mei 2005 – Keukenhof

This is really a rather special day. In the first place, I’m doing my second solo venture on the Dutch train system, my only previous one being from the Centraal Station one stop to Sloterdijk and back last year. This time I have to change trains in Haarlem because I’m going from here to Lisse. To be precise, I’m going from here to Hillegom since Erik’s house in Lisse is closer to the Hillegom station, a tiny little thing way out at the edge of this village.

hillegom station

Erik is my first Dutch fan to write me in Dutch (obviously, I write him back in English), and he has invited me to come down to see the famed Dutch flower show, the Keukenhof.

The Keukenhof? Been there, done that….in April of 1966. It blew me away back then, and I sure am sorry now that a couple of years ago at the bottom of my pit of despair I threw away all my old slides, because it would be very interesting to see what it looked like back then. Well, I still can’t imagine anyone else wanting to see all that stuff, but I never dreamed I’d want to see it again myself…..much less that I’d ever be able to go to the Keukenhof again.

But I am. What’s more, I get to know a delightful Dutch man with whom I keep discovering communalities.

Erik’s English is excellent, but I find it interesting to compare his command of the language with that of his wife and his older son. His wife doesn’t know anywhere near as much English as Erik, but she has even less “foreign” accent than he does. And the son! He’s virtually accentless. I hate him. What’s worse, it later strikes me that since he’s spending a good deal of time at on-line gaming, talking with his fellow gamers, he would know current American slang (at least that of young people) better than I do. I hate him more.

Erik and I walk from his house to the Keukenhof, and we spend the afternoon there. It is beautiful. I suppose the high point for me is still the precisely-engineered beds of flowers in patterns, but then my memories from last time are vague. One thing that does strike me though, is that now the grounds seem more like a forest with meadows for flowers. And then I realize that it’s the same trees, just thirty-nine years taller.

What I don’t remember at all from last time is the greenhouses. A half dozen of them, some huge. And inside, stunning displays, in some greenhouses flowers brought in from outside but in others stuff that stays inside year round… like spectacular orchids and bromeliads. Also, there are really creative examples of flower arrangement….at least as good as Ixia in San Francisco…including some really kinky botanical bondage.
The day is gorgeous, pleasantly cool with warm sun, and the cafe terraces were full of folks in a festive mood. This is the last weekend. The show closes for the year next Thursday, and yet it is so well thought out that even though a few of the beds are a bit shot, the great majority still look great. Also, in various places there are plants covered with buds…backups against an extended run of warm weather.

After the Keukenhof the rest of the family joins us for dinner at a good Greek restaurant. Erik and the older son and I all have the mixed grill. What is it about men and platters stacked high with roasted meats? A special treat is the ouzo. I drink that stuff about once every ten years and just love it every time. And yet somehow it seems to require a long interval between consumptions. Why is that? And no, I had only one glass.

After dinner it’s time for me to come back here, but there’s a little delay and so as we park at the Hillegom station, Erik warns me that the train is due momentarily. And yes, as we walk briskly across the parking lot, Erik spots the train coming. We break into a run across the station, up two flights of stairs, over the tracks, down two flights of stairs, and across the platform into the waiting train. Me with a pack on my back.
This time last year I couldn’t walk ten meters without stopping to rest. Am I recovering or what? I would have wept for joy, but I was panting too hard.

On the return trip I jump out of the train at the Sloterdijk station so that I can try for a few pics while it’s illuminated by the setting sun. It’s a gorgeous gigantic tinker-toy assembly. God, is it ever beautiful.

I should, of course, have asked to take pictures of Erik and his family, but it embarrasses me to do that. And of course I can’t take somebody’s picture without asking permission, so that’s why you see so few pictures of people in my tales. And yeah, I know it’s illegal to go to the Keukenhof and not take pictures, so here’s yer damn flowers.

Keukenhof in 2005

 

Late note:  It turns out that i had not thrown out all my slides and found some of the Keukenhof as it was in April, 1966.  Note that the trees then were barely more than saplings.

Keukenhof in April, 1966

 

Keukenhof, April 1966

Keukenhof, April 1966

 

Keukenhof, April 1966

Maandag 16 mei 2005 – Body Language

Today’s pic, a defaced door on Spuistraat:

yellow

A relaxing day, at least at first. I loll around the house writing and snacking until Rina and Hans are up. Then I go up and have coffee with them while running the slide show of my Keukenhof adventure…with spellbinding narrative delivered in English (for Rina) and pidgin Dutch (for Hans) by the photographer.

I also do a demo for them of the online van Dale Engels-Nederlands/Nederlands-Engels dictionaries that Erik gave me yesterday. Boy, are they ever wonderful to have…like for example to help me read the Netherlands guidebook he also gave me. I just love Erik, a man after my own heart, with agendas right out there on top, and hey, those online dictionaries mark a noticeable upturn in my rate of language acquisition.

In the early afternoon I go to the combination opium den/coffee house/internet cafe a few doors down Spuistraat to check my mail. The place is actually very pleasant and the connection is swift. Unfortunately, it is quite a lot more expensive than the Internet Cafe, which enforces a good walk and equally importantly allows me to plug in my laptop.

Afterwards, feeling a need to mingle with society, I hit the streets. Mosterdpotsteeg is less than twenty meters long, and as I enter it I pick up on the body language of the three young men at the far end. I can think of nothing else, but one thing that does improve with age is your sensitivity to body language. I’m making notes on graffiti so I can give accurate locations for those I immortalize, and I give these guys only a brief glance. I can’t even tell you their ethnicity.

But what I instantly and with complete certainty know without even looking at all closely at them is that they are in their mid-teens and they are loitering. They are up to something, something if not illegal at least frowned on. Whatever it is, though, presents so little threat to me that I don’t even look at them as I pass within a foot of them, scribbling in my notebook. All this, solely from the briefest glance at their body language when I entered the alley.

But my interest is piqued when, three or four steps later, I pop out of the end of the alley onto the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and right around the corner here come three big cops. And I know from their body language that they are headed into that alley. I dart glances over my shoulder as I cautiously cross the traffic lane, and when I gain the middle of the elevated island where I’m safe from cars, I stop and turn to watch, anticipating the unfolding of a little drama.

Nothing happens, though, before I sense movement out of the corner of my eye and realize that however safe I may be from cars and trucks, I am not safe from the buses that run in the elevated streetcar lanes because one is approaching at about 50 KPH and is much too close to even slow significantly before contact.

It astonishes me how rapidly I can act under duress. I instantaneously know that I do not have time to cross in front of the bus to the possible safety of the auto lane, nor do I have time to swivel my body to look the other way to see that no streetcar or bus is coming from the opposite direction to allow me to safely leap backwards into the other transit lane. So what I do is a little vertical toe hop one foot (30 cm.) backwards into the space that would be left in between them if transit vehicles were rushing at me from opposite directions.

As it is, nothing is coming, which is just as well because Dore told me of how, immediately after a moment of inattention, her husband found himself between two streetcars going at full speed in opposite directions on the Damrak. Two multi-car streetcars. He survived without a scratch and was able to get to the sidewalk under his own power, but then his legs failed and he couldn’t walk for thirty minutes until the shaking had subsided. Well, yes, being battered to shreds between two streetcars would be a death so hideous that it would bring a thin little smile to the lips of the late Vlad.

OK, I know that in San Francisco I am eighty-three times more likely to be assaulted by a fellow citizen, but at least there the streetcars are slow and noisy, especially the new Breda streetcars. As Chaucer might have phrased it, had he had streetcars, ain’t no Breda never snuck up on nobody.

My interest in the administration of justice obliterated by my close call, I pop over to Xenos to pick up some more stuff in small glass jars and discover a bin of electronic insect-killing devices that look like badminton racquets with strings running only one direction. They’re on sale for €4. How can I lose? I then head over to Geldersekade to hit the Chinese market but find that it’s closed for Pinkster…as is every other Chinese market….a clear conspiracy if I ever saw one. (Pinkster is the Dutch name for the Christian holiday Pentecost.)

On the way home, I recall Erik having mentioned there being a good Thai restaurant on Zee Dijk, so I stroll down it to see if anything looks likely. The Little Thai Prince has just got to be the one, and I discover that their Tom Kha Kai (which is the way the Dutch spell Tom Kha Gai) is very, very good once I have got the kitchen to issue me a small vessel of hot pepper sauce, the pepper having somehow unaccountably been omitted during preparation of the dish. Next time I’ll try their version of larb duck.

Finally, back home, stuffed and tired, I prepare for the evening’s entertainment. I know very well that what I represent to a mosquito is billions of delicious red corpuscles frolicking inside a large soft-sided serving vessel, so I concoct a diabolical plan. I shall take my shirt off, open the door to the garden, and sit in wait, half-naked bait under a warm yellow incandescent lamp, my elektronische muskietemepper discreetly at my side, my thumb hovering over the activation button and my eyes glinting slightly in anticipation of my first kill. The instructions say “geen speelgoed” but I know this really means that it’s not a plaything for children.

I’ve put my hearing aids in ’cause I wanna hear ’em sizzle.

 

Dinsdag 17 mei 2005 – Cheese

What’s really happening is that I’ve run myself to exhaustion, and am spending most of the day in bed, which gives me a chance to catch up on the adventures since there’s sure not going to be one today.

Today’s first pic is of some more of Spuistraat’s interesting windows, these on the police station across the street.

copwindow

The second pic illustrates an attitude exemplified in San Francisco by those folks who buy new SOMA condos next door to a dance club, wait a decent interval (say, six months), and then start trying to get the club closed down because of the noise. Or those folks who live just over the hill from me who had perhaps the most mean-spirited sign I’ve ever seen trying to regulate parking in the space in front of their house. It just deep fat fries me that I failed to get a pic of that sign before they took it down….or more likely, they stopped putting it back up after outraged readers tore it down or wrote comments on it.

arriviste

 

The Amsterdam sign is saying that the folks do

n’t want houseboats in the canal in front of their house….where they have been since, oh, the sixteenth century. This particular sign is on Singel and is especially delicious because the windows next door to it are red-lit.

But my connection with this issue in Amsterdam goes back to last year, when I took a pic of the Oranjebrug. Yesterday I was talking about bridges with Rina and showed her the pic, and she remarked the she knew the folks who lived in the houseboat barely visible through the bars of the bridge railing. Seems that some people had bought the building in front of the boat and then started making suggestions to Rina’s friends as to how their houseboat might be beautified. They didn’t take the suggestions, but they did realize it was time to paint. That’s why the houseboat is now fire-engine red.

But there’s still room here to talk about cheese, prompted by my just having finished reading a short novel that Cyrus gave me. Cheese, written by a Belgian writer named Alfonse de Ridder under the pen name Willem Elsschot, was first published in 1930 but was translated into English only in 1965. It has since been rediscovered over here, and was retranslated in 2002 for a BBC production. It’s comic social satire and at the same time ultimately a poignant tale tracing the attempt of an Antwerp clerk to go into business for himself and elevate his social standing.

Back in SF my friend David has been, well, fixated or something like that on a Dutch cheese that friends of his have been smuggling in to him for years. It’s a moderately well-aged gouda, and he particularly enjoys it with Comice pears.

A while back when I was sick, David and Sandy sent me a care package from Harry and David (no relation) containing their “Royal Riviera” pears. These are Comice pears, but I have known people who were unaware of this and who thought they had to pay David and Harry’s outrageous prices for them year after year. Clever marketing, guys.

Anyhow, when I got this package, I thought, how sweet of David and Sandy and pity they don’t know I’m not much for pears. So they sat there until they were dead ripe and clearly about to rot, and since I can’t bear wasting food, even stuff I don’t care much for, I took a bite. That was all it took. Now I stalk produce markets for ’em, teasing out the season.

David likes to eat oude gouda with them, especially this stuff his friends have been supplying him. This spring he gave me a chunk of it big enough that I could see that the brand name was “Old Amsterdam.” Generous enough, in fact, that when I was in Rainbow Grocery one day this spring I recognized the label and realized that I was seeing on their shelves the same cheese I had in my refrigerator.

This discovery somehow takes a little of the glamor out of it even though it does mean that if Something Awful happened to the friends….or to the relationship, David could trot down to Rainbow as he wiped his tears on his sleeve. Oh, but there I go again. In the first place, David is way out of trotting range, and in the second place, he’d use a handkerchief.

But yes, about Old Amsterdam. I was pleased to see that Albert Heijn stocks it and will sell me as much as I can carry for €13,60 per kg. I was even more pleased yesterday to see it on sale for €10 per kg, and I picked up a chunk for David then since I’m going native and can’t resist a goed kop.

But I really just bought him that piece for the sentiment of it because I’ve discovered Kaasland. It’s on the way to the Volendammer Vis Handel and the Marokkaanse winkel and the Albert Heijn on Haarlemmerweg, and it’s a bit more upscale than Albert Heijn without being so snooty that the prices are too high. I’ve been experimenting with their goudas, and they’ve got at least a couple that beat Old Amsterdam.

Of course the best thing about Kaasland is the artwork on their bags: Mice in sunglasses sitting at a table under an umbrella, nibbling at pieces of something yellow in one hand while holding pieces of bread in the other. A serving dish of olives graces the table, and there are beverages with straws in them.

 

Woensdag 18 mei 2005 – A trip to Schouwstraat

Out in the morning to my favorite toko. My dictionary says this means a store, particularly an Indonesian grocery, but Rina seems to use it to refer to Chinese groceries. In either case, I’d bet a bag of rice that it’s a holdover from colonial times. Well hey, motherlands pick up words from their colonies. Today, Arabic words are already in common use among the US military. It’s just a matter of time until they enter the civilian vocabulary throughout the empire. Yes, we call that implement a spade. Or we should.

Today’s pics are of a drawbridge over toward Frank’s.

near Entrepotdok

bridgeartyThen to Frank’s Smoke House for my first visit this trip. I have an excellent smoked pastrami sandwich for lunch and talk with Frank. It’s really good to see him again.. I take away some smoked halibut, some tuna, and some mackerel and set out for home via the Pelikaanbrug, which I actually use for the first time rather than just admire.

Back home, I discover that Cyrus and the kids are available tonight, so Rina helps me call the nice lady that Erik has set the deal up with, and I go on an Amsterdam bus adventure over to Noord Amsterdam. (Actually, I mean under to.) I try unsuccessfully not to think of drowning rats gasping in the dwindling air pocket in the upper left corner of the bus ceiling as we plunge merrily into the maw of the tunnel with the waves of the IJ licking at its lip.

As a visitor, you try not to fret over whether, at any given moment, you are actually standing below sea level since you know that much of the time here, you are. How can the Dutch be so blase about this? But then, of course, one’s own potential natural disasters generate little fear. I think of the tourists in SF worrying about earthquakes while we residents fully understand that it’s just a matter of time until the Big One hits with its unprecedented devastation and loss of life and what’s for lunch?

I’m pleasantly surprised when we survive our trip through the tunnel, and after that the ride becomes a delightful adventure, made even better by the kindness of the bus driver. See, when I’d entered and presented my strippenkaart for stamping, I’d told him “Pulmerweg”, the main street near my destination over in Noord Amsterdam, but then driver asked me where on Pulmerweg. Ahhhh, it’s another strip off the kaart if I go past a certain point. So to be sure, I tell ‘im the end, and then add “Schouwstraat” as I show him the street name on my notes. He stamps three zones, as I’d been told was the fare.

I’m following our progress on my map, but well before we get to the point I plan on exiting the driver calls “Schouwstraat”, and I take this as a warning to get off. Sure enough, the bus hooks a left immediately and I realize that I’d made an erroneous assumption about the route. He didn’t have to do that. That was not the name of the stop. My friends all complain about how awful the Dutch are to each other, but they sure do treat me well.

A few blocks away, I pick up the copy of Hoe God Verdween uit Jorwerd (English title: Jorwerd – The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe) for Rina from the schoolgirl who’s had to buy it for class and who sheepishly admits that she didn’t really get into it after I’ve raved about what a fine book it is. I guess you have to be older to appreciate deaths of villages, but I’ll say one thing for the schoolgirl. Her accent, like that of so many of the younger generation here, approaches perfection.

So then I hike back to the bus stop, ride back into town, and bail out one stop before the Centraal Station so I can walk back via my slagerij on Lange Niezel. Alas, he doesn’t have that gorgeous fresh ham today, so I get the shoulder again, this time deliberately getting too much so I can do some serious trimming and use the trimmings to make chili tomorrow.

Back here I trim the pork, brown it in the casserole, and top it with the fruit to ready it for the final hour in Rina’s oven. Soon, soon, I’m gonna post a recipe for this dish, as everybody I’ve ever served it to loves it. And when I do I’ll include a warning for those folks with state of the art ovens about some pitfalls, one of which nearly ruined this dish before I knew what was happening. Hint: you don’t want the upper element on when you’re trying to boil the juices down at the end or you will end up burning the fruit.

The kids are back this afternoon from two weeks in Spain with their mother, and they are tired. Even so, it is a joy to see them interact with Cyrus. A lot of love going around the table. Rina has cooked asparagus and potatoes to go with my pork and fruit, so we have a very tasty meal. She’s also got some fresh strawberries and serves them with a lemon sorbet for dessert. Yum.

 

Donderdag 19 mei 2005 – The Grand Unveiling

spuidoor2Today’s pic, a door on Spuistraat:

I start the day off right by getting up at seven and, while my coffee is brewing, take out of the refrigerator the chunks of less desirable pork trimmings that didn’t go into last night’s pot and start browning them in this pot that a couple of sausages have passed through. And then I throw in the stock that I had cooked some potatoes and carrots in along with a generous dash of oregano and cumin and, because I am out of fresh garlic, as much as I can stand to grind of that stupid dried garlic of Rina’s that you have to give yourself carpal tunnel syndrome to get out of its container. And yes, a generous couple of teaspoons of pico de gallo, a chile mixture from San Francisco that didn’t get into the last batch of chili.

I have to keep throwing splashes of water in, but by nine it’s done enough, and I stir in a heaping tablespoon worth of my cornmeal. Yes, we know I should be using masa, but I don’t have any. Nor do I even have any wheat flour or corn flour. And hey, the cornmeal works fairly well even though the grains are large enough that they are noticeable. Still, the taste is delicious, and I eat it on toast. Twice. OK, a non-traditional breakfast.

One advantage of being a friend of the playwright’s mother is that I got in the mail today a free ticket to the première. Another advantage is that mothers talk, so I’m amassing material for the unauthorized biography. The process of befriending his children has begun, but I will draw the line at going through his trash.

Today’s the day. The grand unveiling. Rina’s been fattening me up for three weeks, and now it’s time to take me to market….or actually the communal swim bath.

See, when I was here last year Rina talked about going to the communal baths with Hans, her son, and her grandchildren. The look of utter horror on my face when she suggested that I might join them was sufficient to make her drop the subject.

The Dutch are so mentally healthy about this sort of thing that it’s hard for them to grasp how awful the concept of multi-generational family nudity is to an American.

However, after my ability to walk was restored last September and I had re-joined a gym and lost some of the weight I’d gained, I recalled that back in the seventies I’d gone to nude beaches, so I mentioned to her when we were planning this visit that I might consider joining them. After all, they weren’t my family.

She immediately took me up on this. Then, as the spring progressed, I got cold feet about it and began to hope that she wouldn’t remember my offer. Fat chance. She was just biding her time. Luckily, nobody else is available, so it’s just Hans and Rina and me.

On the way to the baths, I make an amazing discovery. Because it may be the handsomest modern drawbridge in the world, I photographed from several angles last year the Pelikaanbrug, a pedestrian/bicycle drawbridge over the Nieuwe Vaart from the straat of the same name to the Wittenburgergracht across from Frank’s Smoke House. Well, the Pelikaanbrug has a studly big brother, a drawbridge open to vehicular traffic across the Noord Hollands Kanaal. In its own way, it is every bit as beautiful as the Sundial Bridge, and unlike Calatrava’s masterpiece, it’s got moving parts!!!!Noordhollands Kanal drawbridge Rina offered to stop, but I want to take my time and photograph that sucker from several angles. I would love to just happen to be lurking there when they had to raise it so that I could run out into the middle of the stopped traffic and get good shots of it from the roadway, too. For that matter, why has it only now occurred to me to want to take a pic of the Pelikaanbrug in operation?

Thermos Sauna den Ilp is astonishing. Three swimming pools at three temperatures, two outdoor and one indoor. Three saunas with different features, one of which has huge IF lamps that toast you from two sides simultaneously. Two herb baths, whirlpools, and steam baths, plus a long list of other features of which there is only one of each.

And since Rina has taken me there in the middle of the week in the off season, there are mercifully few people there and most of them are, like me, way too old to be beautiful anymore. Nor am I any fatter than the majority, which is also a great relief. Not that I can see all that much since I have left my glasses in the pocket of the robe that you get to wear when you’re not in one of the facilities. That way I’m so blurred nobody can see me very well.

 

Vrijdag 20 mei 2005 – More Body Language

For today’s pic, I have a recent addition to the Lekker Report, this one parked on Spuistraat. I would love to tell you it was delivering something disgusting, and it probably was, but to be fair I have to say that the items I saw on pallets looked like beverages.

lekkertruck

In the morning to the Morokkaanse winkel. See, I finally learned how to spell that. And damn me, a kind reader with exquisite gentleness let me know that even though my spelling of that word has been improving, it remained a hairsbreadth from perfection. Well, two hairsbreadths. It’s Marokkaanse.

On the way back I stop at Albert Heijn to complete filling my backpack, which is the limiting factor in my shopping.

As I walk down Haarlemmerweg I notice a shop with the name “Harlem” on its window, and I wonder why they’re not spelling it with two a’s. Is this an older spelling or what? And then I notice in smaller letters below the name, “soul food and drink.” Ummm, yes.

That thrill is barely over when I sense that I am being overtaken by a stampede. Many large animals are coming up behind me at a full gallop, but before I can turn to assess the danger, they are thundering past me in the street. A half-dozen firemen, fast and big. Legs like tree trunks that shake the ground with every stride. They radiate sheer power. I mean, the Amsterdam cops are tall, but they run to a lean, chase-down-the-evildoer look. These guys can toss pianos aside as they pluck citizens from the flames with their other hand. They shake their truck as they pile into it and roar off.

Nothing seems to have happened today, so there’s space to pick up on a subject I introduced recently: body language. Being so certain that I had read the body language of those kids reminded me of an incident from thirty years ago.

The week before Thanksgiving, 1973, Richard Nixon held a news conference to deny any involvement whatsoever in that silly little attempted burglary thing that some weirdos had been caught at in the Watergate complex.

He stood solid, square, and forthright behind the lectern, looking right into the camera and radiating plain-spoken honesty. The camera faced him dead on, so the lectern obscured all but his steady, upright chest and shoulders, his firm jaw and clear gaze.

And during the speech, for a brief moment, five seconds or so, the camera cut to a side shot that showed him holding firmly to the lectern so that his upper torso was still, but from the diaphragm down he was writhing like a serpent. He looked rubber-jointed, his body was twisting so.

He radiated guilt.

So a few days later I’m in East Texas at the home of one of my father’s sisters, along with her husband, her sister, and my mother, all fervent Nixon supporters. And I casually asked, in my brightest tone, “Well, did anyone see the President’s speech the other day?”

There was a long pause, unusual in itself among these women. And then uncle Haywood, not a man to indulge in unnecessary chatter, growled, “He looked like a sheep-killin’ dawg.”

And not another word was said by anyone for a long moment until one of them changed the subject.

I never heard any of those people ever say the word “Nixon” again, because anybody over a certain age who saw that five seconds of body language knew in his heart that however much he might support Nixon’s political policies, Nixon was, at that moment, lying through his teeth.

And what that did was remind folks of little incidents they knew about but had been able to repress. Like Jerry Brown’s disclosure that Nixon’s tax man had a miracle typewriter in his office, a typewriter that was able to go back in time to a point before it had even come off the assembly line and write a letter supporting one of Nixon’s tax deductions. Yeah. But folks hadn’t seen the typewriter’s body language, so it was easy to laugh it off and joke about how they wished their tax man had such a wonderful machine.

But once they’d seen Nixon stand there lying to them, it got a lot harder to discount all that other stuff. I believe that five seconds cost Nixon his presidency.

Yes, body language counts.

This is why it is now so important to restrict media access to our leaders, to make sure the folks asking questions are carefully screened, to control the camera angles that are permitted, and to make sure that our leaders don’t even see anyone opposing them.

Otherwise, who knows what might slip out.

 

Zaterdag 21 mei 2005 – TENMINSTE HOUDBAAR TOT

lightpostToday’s pic, a light post on a bridge over toward Frank’s. This Amsterdam School metalwork seems always to be on the brink of collapsing under its own over-ornateness, and yet I still like the stuff.

This is another adventureless day. One reason some of these days are adventureless is that I keep hoping to connect with Edward again, but the door has not been answered on any of the half-dozen times I’ve been by since my last (and only) visit. Did I say something wrong? Or is it just that he’s out of town? I recall his mentioning that he would be out of town part of my visit, but can’t remember just when.

At any rate, today’s high point is a very quiet supper with Hans and Rina. So I have space for some observations, for example that the Dutch can occasionally out-German the Germans. I’m looking at the wrapper from a little 75 gram bar of Verkade milk chocolate that I bought last week and hope will be the last bar I buy this visit because I’m admitting to myself that I have gained weight since I got here and that the chocolate bars, at five hundred and something calories for a little one, may be involved.

But while I was looking for the calorie count to bludgeon myself with, my eye fell on the following block, which reads as follows:

TENMINSTE HOUDBAAR TOT/ BEST BEFORE:
21 SEP 2006 16:46

Is that really saying what I think it’s saying? Are they really giving an expiration hour and minute? implying that if you start eating it on the 21st of September, 2006 at 16:43 in the afternoon, you have only three minutes before it turns to ashes in your mouth?

OK, another observation, the frankness of European television, even in the commercials:

For example, those for the new Renault Megane. This is certainly a first….an automobile whose finest feature is being touted as its really cute butt in an advertising campaign that dwells lovingly on the butts of its would-be occupants.

 

Zondag 22 mei 2005 – A Hoofddorp Excursion

One sign you’ve got old is that you see your vacation is winding down when you look at your dwindling prescription med supply. I’ve got two weeks left and I’m feeling the breath of the wolf. How could I possibly have frittered away an entire month? I mean, you know, this time I’d really thought that I’d maybe get around to darkening the door of, say, a museum….or go to a concert or do something organized.

But all is not lost. At least I manage to get to the Spuiplein to catch a Sunflower performance. Yes, Ed and Margot, who I discovered back in 2001. Except this time Margot has delivered their second child, another son, last Monday and is taking the day off. Ed is radiant. Unfortunately, my photographic skills have not improved, and I get no pic worth saving. What I do get a copy of an earlier Sunflower CD.

My attempt to track down the author of the Pelikaanbrug so that I can learn more about it and its big brother over the Noord Hollands Kanaal is fizzling out, but what I have been able to do, and very easily, is discover the location of the Calatrava bridges that Erik had told me about. They’re just on the other side of Schipol, and in fact I think I caught a glimpse of one of them on the way back from the island a couple of weeks ago without knowing what it was.

I should have known, since Calatrava’s bridges are so distinctive, and there can be no country on earth with a greater need for bridges than the Netherlands.

I have instructions on how to get there thanks to a wonderful site by Ivar Hagendoorn that I discovered while Googling on Calatrava. Check out this site! I’d love to meet this guy.

But even though I have Ivar’s instructions, we know how I am about not liking to over-plan things and wanting to leave plenty of room in schedules for spontaneous changes…and how this results in opportunities to discover gaping loopholes in seemingly airtight instructions.

So we know what I do, don’t we? I simply stroll down to the Centraal Station, get a return ticket to Hoofddorp, and go to the platform. My train doesn’t come, but this time it’s not my fault as there is an announcement over the PA system that I understand well enough to figure out that my train has been cancelled and that I need to go to another platform. Which I do, and after a moderate amount of anxiety end up in Hoofddorp. And find the stop for the 145 bus easily. And take some pics while I wait for the bus.

hoofddorp

What also happens while I wait for the bus is that the weather changes. Clouds gather, the temperature plunges, and a chilly breeze develops. All making less attractive the prospect of taking the bus to a point way out in the country, hiking a few kilometers along the canal while taking pics, and then picking up the train in the next village. Especially since I had earlier decided that it would be ridiculous to carry a coat on this journey… or an umbrella.

And then the bus comes and its destination is not Leiden but rather Marnixstraat in Amsterdam. Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. A frantic re-examination of the bus schedule reveals that on Sundays, of which this is one, the bus runs on a very limited schedule, and the next southbound bus will be in three hours.

So I abort the Calatrava mission but salvage some utility from the trip by returning home via the Sloterdijk station, where I get out and take a few pics of this tinkertoy wonder. I love this station.

sloterdijk station

 

Maandag 23 mei 2005 – Bridges

Oh, what a successful day.

To begin with, Cora drops by for a pancake breakfast upstairs and brings me a CD of Nienke Laverman singing fado, the Portuguese version of flamenco. The twist here is that we have a Dutch woman singing this stuff in Frisian. Yes, a niche market.

And speaking of niches, the pancakes are made with Arrowhead Mills Buttermilk Pancake and Waffle Mix that I had brought over for Rina at her request. Well, see, some American tourists had brought a bag of the stuff with them and left the unconsumed portion behind. Rina had tried it out of curiosity and just loved it. It does make good pancakes, but the question I have is why in the world would somebody bring his own pancake mix to the Netherlands? Sure, I bring lots of food in, but the stuff I bring is all stuff that I want to feed the natives, and more importantly, stuff I don’t think they can buy here. For example, the five different chile powders that I brought this time to make Texas chili with.

I mix some of these chile powders with powdered oregano and cumin and give them to Cora so she can make a batch of my chili for Johnny, and I also mention that if she continues to be nice to Rina, she may get one of the jars of Brussels sprouts that will be ready in a few days.

In the afternoon, I take a bus over to Noord Amsterdam to check out the Pelikaanbrug’s big brother. Great fun although there are a couple of, well, encounters with bus drivers. In the first place, I know that several buses run over that bridge, so I can take any of them, assuming that it stops near the bridge. The first one of these that comes is a 36, and I simply ask the driver if he stops by the bridge over the Noord Hollands Kanaal on Lijndoornlaan because I want to go there and take photos of it and return.

Apparently I am the first person to make such a bizarre request, because he seems rather taken aback. Still, he more or less cheerfully stamps three strips on my strippenkaart, and sure enough, stops just this side of the bridge.

I swarm all around the bridge, taking pics both at grade level and down at canal level on both sides. And then ask a woman pushing a baby carriage along the canal the location of the closest bus stop going back to the Centraal Station. Afterwards, I realize that she might have directed me to the one that was just out of sight a few meters away at this end of the bridge if, instead of going on and on about the beauty of the bridge exclusively, I had thrown in just a word or two praising her baby.

Noordhollands Kanal drawbridge

As it is, she directs me back over the bridge a few hundred meters down the road, and as I approach the stop, I see that a bus is coming. I break into a run and manage to get into the stop as the bus rolls up. He doesn’t slow, and I frantically wave at him. He grudgingly stops, and then chews me out when I board, which I don’t understand and which flusters me enough that my Dutch gets even worse, but I think I effectively communicate that I am unfamiliar with Dutch bus protocols. Alas, my friends are not sure what I did wrong.

In the early evening, Rina takes me on a ride around the city on the Ring, pointing out some stunning architecture along the way. That and the amazing bridge they call “The Bra” because that’s what it is shaped like. And then there we are down at the southwest corner of the city and it seems almost wrong not to drive just a few more kilometers down to find the Calatrava bridges, about which I’d been raving so much that I’d got Rina curious.

So we head toward Hoofddorp with the idea of cutting over to the bridges when we can see them. At some point below Hoofddorp I spot what I think is the “mast” for one bridge, but the first place that seems reasonable to cut over is marked as the exit for Nieuwe Vennep. So we take it and turn right at the canal that I just know in my heart is the one the bridges are over.

Rina is not so sure this is the right canal, so she pulls up where a couple of guys have stopped to access an ATM, and we bail out. Before we get up to the guys, Rina, with the exquisite chauvinism exhibited by city dwellers everywhere, articulates her fear (and mine) that these local yokels won’t know anything about bridges by some weird Spaniard. So she leads the inquiry by telling the guys that I’d come from all the way from California specifically to see these bridges. Then I chime in that they are by the Spanish engineer Santiago Calatrava, and one of the guys just lights up with delight over our interest.

We city folks must remind ourselves that after they’ve finished milking the cows and digging up the potatoes, village people often learn to read and write, not to mention access the Internet and even, gasp, appreciate beauty and take pride in having it locally.

Calatrava bridge at Nieuwe VennepTurns out all three of the bridges are just straight ahead. The first is the big one. So big, in fact, that Rem Koolhaas made the somewhat snarky observation that it seemed a bit excessive to build a hundred meter bridge over a ten meter canal. Well, maybe he’s right, considering that there’s no flood plain, but it sure is a beautiful hundred meters.

Rina stops the car and we explore it, me snapping pics like mad even though Ivar has much better things posted. We also drive past the other two bridges, and I’m thinking that when I pick up my rental car on the first, I’ll swing by these bridges “on the way” to Friesland.

Note: Better photographs of Calatrava’s work can be found on the excellent website of José Miguel Hernández Hernández.

Did I mention that I’m feeling this compulsion to go to Friesland to see for myself whether God is as dead in Jorwerd as Geert Mak says He is? (In Hoe god verdween uit Jorwerd, (How God Disappeared from Jorwerd, but translated into English as Jorwerd: the death of the village in late twentieth-century Europe). I’m renting a car because, if I remember correctly, there is no longer any bus service to Jorwerd. Well, yes, Greyhound discontinued service to Garrison, Texas over twenty years ago. That was my mother’s village, and over my lifetime I watched it disintegrate in a process similar to Jorwerd’s.

I cannot too strongly recommend this book. Here’s a review.

 

Dinsdag 24 mei 2005 – Best Men’s Hair

Pics today are a couple more Calatrava shots, the first a detail shot of the big bridge and the second a shot of one of the small bridges, this one not a centimeter bigger than it has to be….so there, Koolhaas.

Calatrava bridge at Nieuwe Vennep

Calatrava bridge at HoofddorpIt’s the second day of the French Open, and mainly I sit around here watching tennis all day while pretending to be writing. I keep telling myself that even though it’s the French Open, there will be plenty of tennis available for me to watch back home, but I just keep finding excuses to watch.

The best excuse, of course, is that by listening to the Dutch commentary I am getting practice in hearing Dutch and learning a few more vocabulary words since you often know what they’re saying from the context. I mean, surely there’ll be lots of opportunities to work “unforced error” into conversations on subjects other than tennis.

Or I could be watching a political press conference and comment, “faaaaaaaaaaabulous topspin!”

I haven’t figured out how the TV scheduling at Rina’s works yet, but this should come as no surprise since I haven’t really figured out how scheduling works yet in SF. Over there, I just rely on the Chronicle’s sports section to tell me when and where tennis is being played. Over here, like over there, there’s a little magazine that supposedly tracks everything, but in both places it’s too much trouble to figure out. Luckily, over here Rina has access to only about fifty channels, so what I do is turn the damn thing on and go thru the channels from the beginning until I see a tennis court. When coverage on that channel ends, I surf until I find another channel with a tennis court.

Doing so, on various channels I caught Mary Pierce’s match yesterday, Justine’s easy victory this morning, a good part of Safin’s slaughter of Sluiter this afternoon, and almost all of ageing Andre’s loss to Jarkko Nieminen, the Finn who will if nothing else certainly win the award for Best Men’s Hair. Oh, and he knows it, yes he does. The cruel cameras caught him repeatedly with his hands on it, and he wasn’t just quickly brushing it out of his face in a business-like manner, either. He was fluffing it up. Don’t even think about denying this, Jarkko, we got you on tape.

 

Woensdag 25 mei 2005 – Oogverblindend Première

Pics this time are a couple more from Sloterdijk, these interior shots. Popular demand.

Sloterdijk Station

Sloterdijk Station

Gasquet vs. Wessels. What fine tennis that is. But we’re not here to watch tennis, so it’s off to the Albert Cuyp Markt with Hans and Rina and the grandchildren. The grandchildren are along because tonight is the première of Oogverblindend, and of course Cyrus is very busy. These kids are so much fun. Kyra’s still pretty shy, but there’s no longer any question whether she can understand my Dutch.

We’ve got her stroller out of the garage and her into the stroller. Rina has her hands full with something, and I’m behind the stroller out of Kyra’s sight line. I ask whether I can push her instead of oma, and there is no sound, but the little head is shaking “no” so vigorously it’s a blur. But then, no wonder we communicate so well: she was born the day I arrived in 2001.

What we’re doing here is shopping for food for tomorrow’s dinner, and the Albert Cuyp Markt is a fine place to do so. We don’t really have anything quite like it since it’s a combination of farmers market and flea market that also has a number of snack food stands. Furthermore, it is situated on a street lined with cafes and restaurants food stores of all kinds. Excellent shopping. I have a fun exchange with a fowl merchant over the fine fat chicken of his I’m purchasing to cook with spices smuggled in from California.

To take a break, we stop in at the Bazaar, a new place that Cyrus has recommended that serves North African foods. I hope to eat dinner there, as we just snack on an assortment platter that is quite tasty, the highlight being the best falafel by far that I have ever eaten.

Back home on television, it’s Nadal vs. Malisse. Well, it doesn’t hurt to have Roland Garros stadium in the background while I’m resting. For some reason I don’t understand, I never really liked Malisse, but now, for the first time, I do. And I know what it is. It’s pity. I’d feel sorry for anybody with only a net between him and Rafael Nadal. It’s just not fair to hit winners and have them slugged back to an inconvenient place in your court.

Afterwards, Malisse is being interviewed, and he’s really charming off court. Also, I learn something else about him. He speaks very fluent-sounding Flemish, and I grow to like him more even though I can barely understand a word he is saying. Then again, the other day I was watching a Dutch program that provided subtitles for the Flemish speakers.

I’d like to see more of that. Routine subtitles in the language that folks are speaking. Wouldn’t that be a kindness to foreign learners everywhere? Not to mention allowing the average American to understand what they’re saying on British television.

In the evening, I’m off to the première. As is so often the case, I manage to mess things up. Somehow I get into the lobby of the theater next door to the one where Oogverblindend is playing. And wait for Rina…and wait…and wait…and finally discover I’m in the wrong place. (In my defense, there was stuff all over the walls about Oogverblindend.)

I race next door, where Rina is so traumatized worrying about what has happened to me that she hands the usher the wrong tickets, and there is this frantic scene that is resolved only when she is finally reduced to declaring that she is the mother of the playwright and that those three seats right there on the front row are for us.

The performance is stunning. Even for me, and since I’d spent a couple of days analyzing the script word for word and then spent a couple of hours discussing the language in it with Cyrus, there were no surprises for me.

As I mentioned earlier, there are only two characters, a Dutch woman and an Argentinean man. The woman is played by a Dutch television soap opera star (Georgina Verbaan) who is making her stage debut. She is excellent, and her English is flawless. Her pronunciation is virtually perfect standard mid-western American.

The other character is never seen. He’s purely a telephone voice, and the Dutch actor (Rene van Asten) speaks as I might expect a well-educated Buenos Aires surgeon to speak, with good English but with a Spanish accent that is slight but perfectly consistent throughout the performance. Mr. van Asten also handles with great sensitivity the gradual deterioration of his character’s voice.

Afterwards, about 90% of the audience troops next door to a bar/cafe to talk about the show. What a wonderful idea!!!!!! Why don’t we do this? The fringe benefit is that I get to meet another of Rina’s delightful friends, a woman named Ingrid.

Rina takes me backstage, and I compliment the actors. Turns out Ms. Verbaan found me distracting because I was taking notes. Well, sorry, but I didn’t realize she could see me for the floodlights, and it certainly didn’t show in her performance. Besides, I just had to make notes about the changes Cyrus made to the text on my recommendation. I forgot my hearing aids, so I missed a few words here and there, but it sounded to me like he took all the preposition and conditional tense errors out. (Not that there were that many of them.)

I think he ought to put ’em back in. For goodness sake, nobody gets those perfectly in a language he learns as an adult. (Well, nobody except my German friend Chris and my Dutch friend Danny.) I really believe that at the premier, the English in Oogverblindend was too good to be realistic since the characters were both speaking English as a foreign language.

Then again, George W. Bush hasn’t yet taken my advice, either.

 

Donderdag 26 mei 2005 – Mole for Joke en Roos

OK, another Calatrava pic, this, the underbelly of the large bridge:

Calatrava Bridge at Nieuwe Vennep

The first thing is to decant the three liters of pickled Brussels sprouts (spruitjes) into the small jars Rina and I have been gathering, taking the opportunity to sneak in another Thai pepper, some dill seed, and some black mustard seed into each jar. I get nine jars worth plus half a jar for my refrigerator. The taste is a bit different, but they’ll do.

And now to address tonight’s dinner. I’m doing a mole, so I gotta get yesterday’s whole chicken on to poaching, as I’ll need to let it cool and tear it off the bones and then concentrate the stock with the bones so that I can use this in the mole and the rice.

And while I’m jarring the spouts and poaching the chicken I sneak glances at Coria vs Djokovic. Coria’s court coverage is just awesome, and I love watching him play. However, today’s match is marred by Djokovic’s repeatedly going on sick call. I can’t understand Dutch well enough to catch what is wrong, but no bandages are applied, and he looks healthy enough to me. Besides, he doesn’t retire until well into the third set…after winning the second.

Then again, I have to remind myself that when I was at my sickest, my self-pity knew no bounds because I didn’t look anywhere near as sick as I was and thus didn’t feel like I was getting the sympathy I deserved. I’m trying to write that as a joke, but alas it’s at least partly true, so I gotta cut Djokovic some slack.

But back to the mole. I’m using the “Tierra Mole Crumble” that I get from Lee at Tierra Vegetables. You can order this stuff online from her or pick it up at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays, and I think it makes the best mole I’ve ever eaten. It also takes all the tedium out of making mole but still has enough steps and makes enough of a mess that you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

To Lee’s directions I’ll add a couple of points that I’ve developed. First, if you grind the stuff up in the blender before her first step of sautéing the dry mix, straining the mole later is much easier. Second, instead of the lard that she uses to sauté the dry mix, I just use the schmaltz that I’ve taken off the stock I’ve made from the chicken bones and skin. In any case, though, the amount of fat is so small in proportion to the amount of dry ingredients that you have to stir absolutely constantly or it will stick and burn.

Lee’s instructions call for a quart of stock, but I’ve found that I need more, or the mole is as thick as peanut butter. I don’t want the sauce running all over the plate, but at the same time I do want it thin enough that it will mix easily with the chicken without tearing it completely up. If you were doing a mole to put onto whole poached thighs, it could be thicker.

But I’ll stop, so as to snatch this narrative back from the brink of a recipe. Speaking of which, there is popular demand for additions to my online recipe collection, and when I get this tale posted, my next project will be to add some new recipes. I have enough European readers now that I will be adding metric conversions to future recipes…and maybe even, don’t hold your breath, retrofitting them into the existing recipes.

While the stock is cooling, I run over to the Nieuwendijk and pick up a liter of Van de Linde IJs for banana splits featuring my chocolate sauce. It’s really a hot day, so a cold dessert will be good.

As a cold appetizer I’m serving some of Frank’s smoked tuna with alfalfa sprouts (instead of shredded daikon) and Zaanse mustard (instead of wasabi). In this manner, I expect to trick the Dutch into eating the tuna like sashimi instead of like smoked fish, in other words, without toast.

Rina’s doing my avocado salad that everybody here seems to like, and to brighten it up we got some arugula and fresh coriander.

Tonight’s guests are Joke and Roos, who turn out to be great fun. They also like my food, which is a plus. Roos knows a great deal about cooking, and she brought me this Spanish fig cake that I’m dying to try but have decided to take back to SF. I’d bought Surinamse rice since I couldn’t find Calrose, and Rose knows exactly how to deal with it.

Joke is more knowledgeable about American literature than any Dutch reader I’ve met so far other than Edward, and it is a great joy to get her takes on some of our writers. I’d love to be able to spend some time with her talking about literature.

What a great evening.

 

Vrijdag 27 mei 2005 – Faithless Woman

The second day of the heat wave. I walk over to Frank’s Smoke House and find myself nearly roasting on the hot streets, but I do manage to bag some more bridge shots…along with the tuna and salmon.

I found this impossibly cute little thing over the Entrepôtdok called the Nijlpaardenbrug, and to help those who don’t know what Nile Horses are, the sign is shaped like an elongated hippopotamus.

Nijlpaardenbrug

And what was I thinking when I photographed the Pelikaanbrug from Kattenburgergracht? It’s even better from the Nieuwe Vaart side.

Pelikaanbrug

Early dinner with Rina and Hans so they can race over and take care of the grandkids since this is only the third night of the run of Oogverblindend and Cyrus is understandably interested in being at the performance. One of the joys of staying here is that I get to see Rina in both grandmother and mother mode, the mother mode being her gathering the local newspapers to read all the reviews of Oogverblindend.

De Volkskrant found it “fantastisch“, Het Parool gave it “erg goed“, the NRC said “goed“, and De Telegraaf and Allgemeen Dagblaad…well, what do you expect swine to say about those marbles in their trough?

And since I’m talking about Rina, her cat is jealous. Not the senile one, but Tutankhamun, the young tom. Rina and I are having coffee at my little table in front of the open garden doors, talking and laughing and having a good time, and I sense something is wrong. I take a step over to the door and look up, and there, balanced precariously at the very end of the neighbor’s window sill twenty feet up a sheer wall from my garden, is Tutankhamun. He can see only our feet, but he hears our hilarity, and he radiates outraged jealousy as he strains to see whether it’s as bad as it sounds, whether she’s scratching around my ears the way he had thought she did for him alone.

I sing a bar from The Pirates of Penzance just to drive him over the brink, “Faithless woman, to deceive me, I, who trusted so.”

 

Zaterdag 28 mei 2005 – Death by Vowel

For pics, a bit-of-everything shot through the Pelikaanbrug:

Pelikaanbrug

Plus a look into the hippo’s mouth:

Nijlpaardenbrug

After another futile trip over to Edward’s in the middle of the afternoon, I return home via a stroll down Kalverstraat to the big bookstore, where I flirt with a two-volume Frisian-Dutch, Dutch-Frisian dictionary until reason prevails. I keep toying with that old plan to just skip Dutch and head straight for Frisian…..then I remind myself about those thirty-something damn vowel sounds, plus the nasalized forms that a number of these take before certain consonants. Death by vowel, since most of them don’t occur in English and thus verge on impossible to ever get right unless you hear them as a child.

Then I paw a 2002 Grote Bos Atlas, a graphical display of knowledge feast, but I decide I’d rather fill my suitcase with food than books. I can order these books off the internet from SF and probably get them for less even with paying the shipping. What I can’t do in SF is get some of the foods that I can bring back.

I get back here in time to watch the last couple of sets of Safin vs. Ferrero. It’s always nerve-wracking to watch Safin play because you never know when he’s going to disintegrate. Today, he takes the first two sets after hard fights, blows the third 1-6, but somehow pulls himself together and takes the fourth in a tiebreak. He drives me crazy. He was a tennis god in the Australian Open this January, but I don’t think he’s been even close to winning a tournament since. Still, I watch him every chance I get.

This is one of those days in which nothing of note seems to be happening, so I’ll use this opportunity to mention that there may be some radio silence in the near future. I have a reservation to pick up a car at Hertz on the 31st, so of course the forecast is for rain. Well, hell, I figure since it rains all the time here anyhow, I might as well see the countryside in its natural state.

I’m kinda antsy to see Fryslân. And maybe to pick up this Frisian grammar I’ve read about that’s in English, Frisian Reference Grammar by Pieter Meijes Tiersma. I’m thinking surely there’s be a bookstore in Leeuwarden (spelled Ljouwert by the Frisians) that’ll have it since the Fryske Akademy is there.

So I probably won’t have time or inclination to be writing while I’m traveling although I will, of course, be checking my email if at all possible. You all know how I am about typical tourist stuff, but I have to say that I expect to be unable to resist taking the auto ferry over to Terschelling or one of the other islands.

You know…waves lashing at the railings while the captain tells the white-faced crew to act casual about it but go ahead and batten the hatches.

Well, at least it’ll be a rental car.

 

Zondag 29 mei 2005 – Italian Butter Beans

beurspleinToday’s pic is a window on the Beurs Plein, that square between the Beurs and the Bijenkorf:

To begin the day, coffee and pastries with Hans and Rina. The pastries are from that place on the corner of Korte Lijnbaanssteeg and the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal that had the excellent eclairs in 2001 but I banished for life in 2004 for 1) no longer having the eclairs, 2) shortchanging me, and 3) giving me attitude when I called them on the shortchanging. Actually, I could have forgiven all those things, but there was a final charge: the croissants weren’t any good.

However, since the pastries that Rina served this morning are so good, this puts me in the position of cutting off my taste buds to spite the bakery. Forgiveness is under consideration.

Nalbandian vs. Hanescu, who takes the first set 6-3. Nalbandian takes the second set in long rallies that are really exciting to watch, but I have to run out to try to catch Ed and Margot at the Spuiplein since it did not occur to me last week to take them a little something to celebrate the birth of the new kid.

Ed and Margot are not there, but this is not really a surprise since I know they don’t play the Spuiplein every Sunday. I am disappointed again by the absence of Wil Wiegant, who had the really great postcards of his work last year, but luckily this time there is a woman named Marijke van der Zwaag with postcards of her excellent drawings of plants for only €0,80. Also, she and another customer enjoy my comment that it is much better to send one of these back to San Francisco than a picture of a canal boat. See, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re fracturing the language if you’re saying something nice.

Mr. Fixit’s project this visit is to repair the silverware/utensils drawer. The right back end of it has come unglued, and the drawer is literally falling apart so that it’s a trap waiting for the first incautious tenant to open it a little too fast and utterly destroy it. Rina and I cannot find the clamps that Hans must at one point have had to make frames for his paintings, so together we slather the composition-wood mitered joint with glue and the wrap the drawer front-to-back and side-to-side with heavy elastic from her costuming supplies. It works.

For supper, I’m cooking Italian Butter Beans (see my recipes) for Rina and Hans, so I stop at Albert Heijn for tomatoes and spinach. (I brought Iacopi’s dried beans from California.)

The tomatoes are dreadful, but I have no choice since I’m determined to make the dish. I really should use canned tomatoes, but I don’t know enough about local brands to buy the right ones here.

On the other hand, the spinach provides one of those happy caveat emptor moments that you can experience in markets everywhere. I examine a 300 gr. bag of house brand spinach leaves. It’s bit expensive at €1,49 but I know without looking that that bin of loose leaves over there will be way too expensive to use in beans. And then I look more closely. The bagged stuff is showing its age, and the occasional rotten leaf is visible. The loose stuff is gorgeous, every leaf prettier than its neighbor. But wait, what’s that sign saying? €0,69 for 500 grams? How can it be that loose spinach leaves so beautiful there’s no point in picking through them are about half the price of rotting bagged spinach? And at a very good price, too, by SF standards.

Rina’s doing a salad to go with the beans, and I try cooking cornbread again. It’s my third try, and the first that actually comes out completely right. The first was way underdone, the second wasn’t quite right, but this one is finally good enough that both Hans and Rina have seconds.

However, cooking it is a nightmare. Rina has this state of the art Miele oven that will supposedly do everything. I mean you can set the damn thing so that the upper heat source is on, the lower is on, or both are on, all with or without the convection fan.

The only problem is that we cannot seem to make it get any hotter than 190 C if only the lower heating element is on. And Rina goes on about how the recipes in the official Miele recipe book routinely have you changing the cooking mode and temperature during the middle of the cooking period. I come right back that grandmother had her hands full adding wood during the cooking period, and I don’t want to have to change the way I cook cornbread in order to fit the eccentricities of this damn oven.

And then I flash on my sordid software career, when Oracle Applications first started competing with those of SAP. A serious selling point we made was that SAP forced the user to change his way of doing business to fit the new software…just as this German oven is forcing me to change the way I make cornbread. Hmmmmm, and yes, my Volkswagen forced me to change the way I drove, too. Is there a pattern here?

At any rate, I ended up heating the oven to the correct temperature with both burners on, sticking the cornbread in, changing the setting so that only the lower burner was on, and after the temperature had dropped slowly to 190, we turned the upper burner on for a while. And then switched it off and then back on again, and so in this manner managed to get the cornbread cooked all the way through without burning it on top. Whew.

But it worked.

 

Maandag 30 mei 2005 – Major Breakthrough

The pics are doors across the street from me on Spuistraat, first the Scientology church and then the police station:

churchdoor

copdoorToday I make a quick dash to the former location of the Ambassade von Friesland, hoping to pick up Prof. Tiersma’s West Frisian Grammar, but the Ambassade is no more. So then I hike on to the Athenaeum and talk with the wonderful clerks there. Alas, no Frisian grammars in English, but as usual I do find a couple of other entertaining books.

And yes, I do it, folks, a major breakthrough on this visit. I enter a museum….and stay inside for many minutes. The Amsterdams Historisch Museum, past which I have walked on countless occasions since it fills a good portion of the southern end of the block bounded by the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and Kalverstraat. It is full of paintings that for me displayed more dramatic irony than anything else since they were commissioned by the kind of mercenary folks Multatuli satirized in Max Havelaar.

Of course I might feel differently if I knew more about art and could speak knowledgeably about brush strokes….or if I were a rich merchant like the smug swine in those paintings, folks like Safeway’s infamous Steve Burd, a fine Christian faced with the agonizing decision of whether to let go of a few million bucks in bonuses so he could continue giving his employees health insurance. Naw, they wouldn’t appreciate it.

I shouldn’t go to museums, at least not historical museums. The greed and ostentation they display upset me.

For supper I eat leftover Italian Butter Beans with Hans and Rina. Rina pressure cooks some lamb, and it is just divine with the beans…like they were made for each other. I make fresh cornbread, and this time the verdammte Miele pretends that there was never any problem at all with achieving and holding 225 Celsius with only the lower burner on, so the cornbread turns out perfect. I hate that oven, it’s too much like a computer.

Early to bed tonight, for in the morning I depart for Friesland.

 

Dinsdag 31 mei 2005 – A Hellacious Day in Fryslân

Oh, what a day. I pick up my Ford Fiesta at the Hertz office on Overtoom. This is pleasant little car, and after a very jerky start out onto the street in the first stick shift I’ve driven in several years, I manage to get out onto the ring with only minor trauma and then easily find N 247, the little country highway north that Rina has recommended instead of the freeway.

There’s hardly any traffic leaving town, so I cruise along comfortably at 80 KPH enjoying the countryside, and in just a few minutes I’m at the first town, Monnickendam. Then it sinks in that three inches on this map is only about fifteen kilometers. Ummm, yes, this entire country would fit into four or five California counties.

Something else I’ve noticed but that hasn’t really sunk in until now is how often we don’t really have a distant horizon here because there’s a long low green hill nearby. And that that long low green hill is really a dike and that I am below sea level.

I’ve planned this route so that I can drive north across the Afsluitdijk, the engineering marvel that has successfully controlled the body of water that used to be called the Zuider Zee but has now been partly reclaimed from the sea and turned into polders. I say “successfully” acutely aware that with every centimeter that the ocean level rises with global warming, the more difficult it will be to keep the sea from re-enacting the great disaster of 1953 when thousands died as the sea retook a great deal of land that the Dutch had grown accustomed to thinking of as theirs.

Unfortunately, you can’t really see very much just driving along the top of this great dike, and the prime view area at mid-dike is closed today for construction.

So I’m up to Harlingen in no time, but my idea of taking the ferry over to Terschelling is thwarted by 1) intermittently rainy weather and 2) arriving at the ferry terminal and pulling into the information parking area in front of the building and getting an €40 ticket because it is illegal to park there without some kind of special something. Frankly, I found the signage quite misleading and would have protested vociferously in the States. Actually, the sign was so misleading that I’d have gone to court in SF just on principle. But of course I grin and bear it here since I’m a visitor. Grrrr.

That puts me off so much that when I finally find a legal place to park in this underground garage from hell and get into the terminus and then can’t understand the fare structure, I am emotionally unable to ask any more questions and just blow the whole thing off.

And then when even trying to figure out how to pay for my parking turns very frustrating, all I can think of is getting out of town as quickly as possible, so it is quite a relief to set out for Jorwerd. Here’s a sublime bridge on the way in Frjentsjer (that’s Franeker for those of you who are still not reading Frisian).

Frjentsjer bridge

I find Jorwerd easily because these little towns are calm and easy to drive in, but Jorwerd is nothing like what I expected, mainly because I have fallen into the trap of making too many parallels between the decline of the Dutch village and the decline of the East Texas towns that my parents were from.

In the first place, the gentrification process Geert Mak described did not occur at all in East Texas, so there were more houses in Jorwerd than I had expected, and almost all of them looked quite spiffed up. This stands is stark contrast to the utter dilapidation of the East Texas towns, in which the majority of the buildings are decaying and many are actually falling down. Here, the collapse of the social structure was not accompanied by the collapse of the physical structure. Oh, and I also notice that there is still bus service to Jorwerd.

The cafe/bar Mak described is still there and has tables with furled umbrellas outside, so it is clearly open for business some days even though it is closed today and I can find no indication on the front doors or windows of its opening hours.

Jorwerd churchThe whole town, in fact, seems like a deserted movie set because in the entire few minutes I’m there I see only one human being, a woman in a car who stops only long enough to mail a letter near the church.

Where is everyone? This approaches surreal.

So I decide to head into Leeuwarden and check out the Fryske Akademy and maybe get Professor Tiersma’s West Frisian Grammar there or at a nearby bookstore. This goes fairly well at first because I find a parking garage that I correctly figure out is near the center of town and that I fully understand. Ha! A crumb of success.

And then I immediately spot an imposing public library and realize that hey, they’d know about bookstores and language academies by virtue of being bookish. The ladies I speak with are very nice, and very tolerant of my Dutch, but I can’t get a street name clear or even the exact name of the bookstore they are recommending. And of course now that I’m halfway across the country from Amsterdam and actually needing information rather than merely wanting to chat, nobody on this trip so far has offered to discuss any of this in English.

And my lungs would fill with the North Sea before I would ask!

So when I walk out of the library and admit to myself that I really don’t even understand what direction to go after I take the first left, the bubble pops and I give up. Somehow, the idea of even spending the night in Leeuwarden is no longer an option.

The day so far has been one stressful incident after another and I realize that instead of this trauma, I could be having a good time in Amsterdam. To help me in my decision, it starts raining again.

When I get back to the garage, I hop in the car and make a beeline back to Amsterdam. Well, no, not a beeline but rather a route that requires not a single stop nor a single question of anybody nor even a single glance at any map. I just follow road signs that list cities to the south.

And it isn’t too much farther than the shortest way to go via Zwolle although when I get back to Amsterdam I somehow fail to get onto the ring in the correct manner and end up picking my way across the northeastern part of the city to the Centraal Station before I recognize where I am.

From there I more or less follow the streetcar route to the Hertz office on Overtoom with the intent of asking them where the closest gas station is so that I can fill up, not having seen a gas station for quite some time before I got to the city. However, when I finally pull into the garage at the office and get out of the car, my relief is so great that I just tell them to go ahead and charge me their exorbitant rate for gas because I cannot bear to get back in that car. €40 more and worth every cent.

The streetcar ride back to Rina’s is wonderfully relaxing.

After I pull myself together at home for a few minutes, I walk over to Edward’s and find him on his stoep. He got back in town just an hour or so earlier. I take him out to Centra, where we have exactly the same dinner we did in 2001: the pulpo appetizer and the zarsuela for two, the deluxe version. They are both very good, but the zarsuela doesn’t seem to be quite up to the previous standard…and I can’t help noticing that this time the restaurant is not jam-packed full even though the prices do not seem to have gone up since 2001.

Then again, the problem may be that I have been idealizing this dish for four years and have so magnified its excellence that it would of necessity be a disappointment now.

This year Bobo has been left at home, so there is no possibility of his repeating the act of heroism he performed on Warmoestraat in 2001. See “Pieter’s Little White Dog” in Dutch in Three Weeks.

We have a beer in the Casa Maria and plan for my cooking a dinner at his place on Thursday. And so to bed.

 

Woensdag 1 juni 2005 – New Nieuwe Haring

I did it. I drank a Dr. Pepper. Well, see, I’ve been jonesing for a Diet Dr. Pepper, and you know how it is with addicts, when the preferred substance is not available, they’ll happily do the closest substitute they can get their hands on. It was cloyingly sweet and full of calories…but it got me off. (Note for the foreign speakers: in this context the idiom “get off” means to have a satisfactory drug experience.)

Speaking of drinks, I had an aha experience in the Internet Cafe this morning. You have to buy a drink there, and early on I discovered their tasty little bottles of Persikennektar, peach nectar. Yeah, very similar to that toxic stuff I try not to buy in SF. So today as the first golden droplets frolic across my taste buds it strikes me that yes, I’m now wearing thirty bottles of this stuff around my waist.

Rina and I install new blinds. Well, my part is mainly trying to convince her that she doesn’t need to buy a new blind for the doors since only the one for the windows is broken, but she doesn’t listen to me. I guess I should admit that she’s right in that the new ones really don’t match the old ones all that well. Besides, they were on sale.

Today it’s Canas vs. Puerta, who I’d never heard of but who is playing so well that he gives Canas a hard battle… I mean, 30 shot rallies and all in a match that goes on for five sets with Puerta the ultimate victor.

In the afternoon I go by my butcher on Lange Niezel and pick up a couple of kilos of pork shoulder and a bit of fat to brown it in. See, I’m cooking a chili dinner tomorrow night at Edward’s. Almost the same menu as the first chili dinner I cooked upstairs, but this time I’m more familiar with local ingredients, so it can only be better. Edward has expressed his great love of chiles, so one thing for sure is that it will be hotter than last time.

I go ahead and deliver the pork and a few other ingredients to Edward, and he feeds me a nieuwe haring. Today is the first day of the season, so they really are “new.” The ones they were selling yesterday….and which are still available at a much lower price than the new ones….are now over a year old. This is the first time that I have actually eaten a new nieuwe haring, and it’s good. It’s better than the old nieuwe haring. What it is not better than to my taste is smoked mackerel…or Bismark herring, which here is called suure haring or something like that.

Today’s pics are the handrail of death on the back of the Post Kontoor on Spuistraat and another poster, this one on Mandenmakerssteeg.

handrail

posters

 

Donderdag 2 juni 2005 – Chili Dinner at Edward’s

For pics, how about another sighting of one of Morcky Boy’s efforts. I’m beginning to realize that the depth of his talent has already been plumbed, but still…..

Morcky Boy

 

And oh, some veiled buildings on the other side of Singel at the southern end of my block on Spuistraat.

veils

I have coffee and my breakfast special upstairs with Hans and Rina. My breakfast special is a couple of pieces of Albert Heijn raisin-sunflower seed bread smeared with Bonne Maman cherry conserve and topped with that 10% fat Turkish yoghurt. Soooo good.

And then after a quick stop at the Internet Cafe, it’s time to head over to Edward’s to start cooking. I get the chili meat cubed and browned and simmering and the blackeyed peas going, and then Edward takes me out on a wonderful tour of the city in his motorboat. We head down the canal in front of his house on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal out into the IJ and then over southeast down the Nieuwe Vaart under the Pelikaanbrug! Of course I’ve forgot my camera.

Then we get into areas I don’t know at all and he takes us over to Borneo Eiland and down the dead-end canal between the Stokerkade and Timmermanstraat, and I get to see an architectural marvel: A row of houses with individual plans but with a height limit….and surely some kind of central planning authority because no two are alike but all are excellent. I would love to be able to fit in a visit to the land side of these houses, but that will probably have to wait until next year.

For the boat trip, Edward provides snacks, which include Amsterdamse uien, sweet-sour pearl onions dyed bright yellow, I assume with turmeric. Delicious. Stay tuned for a new West Coast sensation that I think I’m gonna call “San Francisco Onions.” Who’s to know?

His friend C arrives shortly after we get back, and the pickled Brussels sprouts are a hit, especially with her. As are the chili, the blackeyed peas, the spinach, and most especially the cornbread, which turns out right…after much anxiety since his oven has no temperature indicator.

The highlight of the evening, though, is a major language breakthrough. I took some pride in that Cyrus’ children now understand me…at least some of the time, but now I’m understood by my first Dutch dog. Yes, Bobo.

While I’m browning the meat he’s hanging around the kitchen expectantly. But he’s doing it in a non-pushy way and looking at me with those big eyes, and I can’t help recalling his putting his little life on the line in 2001 when he thought I was in danger, so I decide I’ll reward him. In my most authoritative voice I order him to sit… in Dutch, of course, since I can hardly expect him to understand English…. and he immediately does! Thus getting himself an especially nice, hand-selected cube of lightly-browned pork.

Actually, I think I already had the piece of pork held up between thumb and forefinger, so he would have probably have intuitively sat if I’d told him to fly, but I didn’t think of this until too late.

What I did realize is that by pretending to understand my Dutch, quite a few people around here are also getting fed.

I’m so easy.

 

Vrijdag 3 juni 2005 – Dancing Robot

For pics, window treatments on this hotel that goes through between Spuistraat and Singel down toward the Spuiplein.

nhhotel

singelwindow

Out to Vandekamp’s on Lange Niezel for pork for tomorrow’s dinner. Then to Frank’s Smoke House to pick up items for the return flight and to say goodbye to Frank. I timed this vacation wrong by setting it up to leave on a Tuesday because Frank is closed on Sunday and Monday and doesn’t open until long after I have to be at the airport on Tuesday. So I’m nervous about buying too much.

Davydenko vs. Puerta. I love watching Davydenko play, and he takes the third and fourth sets, but finally gets worn down by Puerta’s raw power. He’s so beefy he makes Davydenko look positively skinny.

More wonderful television ads. One of this season’s best being that spectacular animation in which a Citroën C4 reconfigures itself as a dancing robot. Check it out.

 

Zaterdag 4 juni 2005 – Dinner with Otto and Amanda

At coffee this morning Rina is telling me about their dreadful dinner last night with Hans’ brother and his wife, saying how happy she was that she hadn’t taken me along since the brother and his wife have got very eccentric and difficult. Among other things, they are getting after her to move out of her house into an apartment without stairs, as they have done. She mentions that because they don’t have stairs, they’ve got fat. I make some comment about this, and she explains, “No, no. Not American fat.”

Hans is off at his group, so Rina and I bicycle over to the market on Kinkerstraat. It’s not all that far beyond the place on Elandsgracht where I Segwayed almost every day last year for Internet access, but I have the same problems as I did on my other bicycle foray a month ago when we went to the museum. That one trip did not restore the bicycling muscles unused since 1974, and I can barely stand by the time we arrive.
Still, the joy of going to a market with Rina takes my mind off my legs, and they recover as we stroll through the market. See, we both know a lot about food, but our areas of knowledge only partially overlap, so we can entertain each other continually by commenting on various things we spot.

What we’re officially doing is looking for things to accompany the pork stewed in mangos and prunes and the potato dish. We settle on a kind of Dutch flat green beans about 10″ (25 cm.) long that she ends up steaming with, of all things, a chopped red bell pepper. She dresses this dish with a squeeze of lemon and a bit of butter, and it is fabulous. The closest bean in San Francisco would be a Romano, and I’ll bet they’d be delicious cooked that way.

I also pick up some cheeses to take back to SF and a couple of small eels to snack on. See, once you rip the skin off, you can just nibble them off the backbone…eel-on-the-cob.

Otto and Amanda are here for dinner. I met Amanda last year and just loved her. This year, it’s been Otto this and Otto that and Otto the other until I finally determine that Otto and Hans were childhood friends and thus knew each other before Hans and Rina met as teenagers. The three have been tight friends all these years. Otto is gay, and he and his lover of thirty years socialized and vacationed with Hans and Rina until the lover died a few years ago.

Rafaël and Rina had decided that I would not enjoy Otto, but the more I heard about this guy the more I doubted them. So I finally convinced Rina to invite him for dinner.

Well, he’s certainly a strong personality and a man of conviction. And I find him very entertaining and very informative. He lives about a hundred or two meters from that bridge over the Noord Hollands Kanaal that I love so much and that Ivar (or maybe it was Erik) popped my balloon on by telling me that the design was actually rather common.

Well, tonight Otto stomps the remains of my balloon into the dirt by telling me that that bridge was in fact a scandal because it was made obsolete two years after its completion by a fixed bridge elsewhere that now makes the canal impassible for large vessels. Because there were design peculiarities in this bridge that caused extensive delays and huge cost overruns and because even the simplest drawbridges cost several times what a fixed bridge costs, Otto is outraged over the waste of money.

And damn me, I still think it’s beautiful. Here’s some detail on it:

Noordhollands Kanal drawbridge

 

Zondag 5 juni 2005 – The Dutch 8

Over to the Spuiplein, where I catch Ed and Margot’s stand-in playing and give Ed a bag of dried California nectarines… for “some extra energy for the new mother.” He’s pleased. I make another try at getting a decent picture. Every year I tell him I’m a writer, not a photographer. I’m pretty sure he believes me now.

OK, French Open finals. Nadal vs. Puerta. Two big left-handers getting a taste of their own medicine. I wonder who beat Federer and realize that I haven’t even tried to look at this tournament for a couple of days now. And oh, are Nadal and Puerta evenly matched…at first, but gradually Nadal gets his number. I applaud Nadal’s rise. Now he and Federer can be the Scylla and Charybdis of men’s tennis.

There is a commercial for the new Kia G2B that is a feast of material for the Lekker Report although the damn thing was going so fast that I couldn’t keep track of how many aspects of that vehicle were lekker, but it was just one after another. And it occurs to me that I should mention, for those folks who think I might be unfairly teasing the Dutch on this matter, that the Dutch can dish it out, too. Don’t even get them started about the anachronisms of Flemish….or better yet about the silliness of Afrikaans. I think you have to be Dutch to understand what is so ludicrous about calling pansies gezichties (little faces).

Oh, the mystery of the Dutch 8 is solved. Back in 2001 I noticed that the number eight was as often as not illegible when written by a Dutch person, frequently looking not like any number at all. I finally figured out why by watching Rina write figures. Now it can be told: the reason Dutch 8’s look so weird is that the Dutch begin writing them in the wrong place. Rather than starting in the top right corner as God intended, the Dutch start in the middle! No wonder it gets all mis-shapen. And to be fair, I kinda like their fours, sixes, and nines (all of which are legible) better than ours.

And OK, a couple of sightings on the Singel, a poster off Raadhuisstraat and the very discouraging back door treatment used by the University of Amsterdam:

singelposter

backdoor

 

Maandag 6 juni 2005 – German Tourists

In the morning I take pics in the neighborhood while walking over to the post office to “do” a package to Erik in Lisse. I’ve been parceling out all the spices and American foods I brought that I didn’t use in cooking.

And then in the early afternoon I use up a couple more strips on my strippenkaart to make a last trip to the Albert Cuyp Markt as an excuse to get a full order of the falafel at Bazar. There were a couple of pieces of falafel on the assortment platter I got a couple of weeks ago, and I want to confirm that it’s the best falafel I ever ate. It is. Bazar is located at Albert Cuypstraat 182, and I look forward to having dinner there during my next visit. Check out their web site.

Of course you can’t go through the market without buying a few things, so I pick up a bargain zehr oude boerenkaas which was such a good buy that I can’t lose, I tell myself, and a chunk of that astonishing almond bark that is the best I ever ate of its genre.

On the way back I get out of the streetcar at the Mund and hit the flower market for something for Rina. They have little Kalanchoe blossfeldiana in pots for only a couple of euros, and somehow they seem the perfect thing to leave for her since the K. blossfeldiana was one of the very first succulents I got when my infatuation with them began in the seventies. Besides, they’re pretty and hardy.

From there I walk over to say goodbye to Edward and have just a delightful encounter on the way. I don’t what it is about me, but I am routinely accosted on the street by strangers with questions. Part of it, of course, is that being old and small I clearly present no danger to anyone, but I like to think that I also radiate a willingness to help others… and perhaps even the ability to do so.

At any rate, either Amsterdam is positively infested with Germans, or there is something about me that particularly appeals to them because fully half of the persons who ask me for help over here seem to be German. Anyhow, I’m crossing that last little finger of the Amstel before it fully fizzles out into the last two canals on the Oudezijd, and a couple of women of approximately half my age spot me, perform target acquisition, and move in for the kill. I know this while they’re still some distance away from, yes, their body language.

Sure enough, they ask in really dreadful Dutch the location of the “Centraal Bahnhof”. You think I sound like a Nazi when i’m trying to speak Dutch? No, beside the real thing, I sound like a poor imitation. But with these women, instead of speaking Dutch full of German words, I speak German full of Dutch words. However, they understand me easily and confirm my directions by asking, “Immer gerade aus?” With great effort, I manage to keep a straight face as I agree.

A little background here. When I met Amanda last year she told me about some German tourists one day asking her directions to something, and her response was to burst out laughing. The reason she did so was that the correct answer to their question was ‘Immer gerade aus, (Keep going straight ahead) but unfortunately this was also the classic instruction given by the Dutch when indulging in their national sport of mis-directing Germans. So when these women asked me, “Immer gerade aus?” all I could do for a moment was think of Amanda’s tale.

Anyhow, satisfied that I’m a reliable source, they ask about the Bijenkorf, and we end up in a pleasant little conversation about European department stores and eventually establish that I learned my German when I was in the American army in Germany and they were toddlers.

As we conclude our conversation and I turn to go, I notice that we (or at least I) have been a source of entertainment for the folks seated near us in a sidewalk cafe terrace. Obviously our conversation in German has been pitched loud enough to be understood by some onlookers, as they are sitting there smiling. (Almost every Dutch person i know says he can’t speak German, but somehow they all seem to understand it perfectly well.)  When I catch their eye and laugh, they do, too. I would love stop to talk to them, but I want to try to catch Edward.

oudeveilHere’s a veiled building on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal on the way to Edward’s:

Edward is home, and among other things, he tells me that my luscious bridge over the Noord Hollands Kanaal may be the one that’s notorious for a reason Otto didn’t mention: owing to a design flaw the moving part jams on extra hot days, and it has to be squirted with water from the canal to shrink it enough to work.

Look, I’m not Japanese or anything, but it seems to me that the point may have been reached at which there is only one honorable act remaining for the designer of this thing.

And this does it for this year’s visit since my flight home is tomorrow morning. It’s been fun. Now I need to get home and rest and dig out from under six weeks of mail and see the UCSF Medical School geniuses about getting my neck fixed and start making tayberry jam and chutneys and beans and starving myself for summer camp.

Oh, and about that K. blossfeldiana. It was clearly the perfect choice because when I got home and gave it to Rina and went to put it in the right spot on her deck I couldn’t help noticing that I had given her the exact damn same plant last year and had put it in the “right” place. Well, at least I’m consistent.

 

Wednesday 8 June 2005 – Safeway

I got in last night and am now experiencing the expected jet lag, but I’m so excited about being in this very different country that the first thing I do is indulge in my favorite activity when arriving in a new country – buying groceries. There’s nothing in the refrigerator except sodas and beer and stuff like mustard and such that will last for months. I go to the supermarket called “Safeway.” I love the clever play on words in which the company implies that the products sold there are safe for consumption …that’s so American. The store is located at the bottom of a vertiginous hill unlike any in the Netherlands. Hopefully, the vehicle will be powerful enough to get me and my supplies back to the top.

Safeway (it’s pronounced as it looks although the accent is on the first syllable) is a typical American supermarket with enormous piles of items. Thanks to the dollar being so low against the euro, almost everything is fairly cheap, and some things are real bargains. The fresh fruit is unbelievably cheap and delicious. However, even with the monetary leverage, some things are more expensive, especially dairy products and pork. Still, the euro goes a long way here.

I’m looking forward to one adventure after another in this strange land full of obese laissez-faire capitalists and religious fanatics hunkered down in SUVs, and I’ll share the better tales with you. I already have one piece of good news. That little sore throat that had bothered me for weeks seems to have resolved itself without medication now that I’m not speaking Dutch.

marketwiresAnd hey, here’s a pic on Market Street near the Ferry Building to celebrate my return. My friend Dick may have created a monster decades ago when he spoke to me about the abundance of beauty.

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