2007 – Amsterdam for Free

2 May 2007 – Here We Go Again

Amsterdam for Free is yet another of my Amsterdam travelogues, written in May 2007 in case there might be somewhere on the planet someone who has not already had more than enough. I cringe in embarrassment when I look back at the appalling ignorance I displayed in the earlier tales. However, except for correction of typos and libels, I am leaving all that earlier stuff unedited because this way readers can see how much I’ve learned about Dutch language and culture since 2001.

As in the past, I’m taking to Amsterdam various foods that are not readily available there so that I can cook Southwestern American regional dishes for my Dutch friends. This means carrying with me things like fresh tomatillos, fresh pasilla chiles, an assortment of chile powders, whole corn meal, and Bay Area dried fruits, most especially cherries and apricots for Rina.

Speaking of foods, here’s what I’m leaving at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market:

Chard at Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market

And an Embarcadero palm:

Embarcadero Palm

Donderdag 3 mei 2007 – Back in Amsterdam

I arrived yesterday after sleeping most of the way over here on what had to be my smoothest and easiest flight across the Atlantic ever. The greatest joy of KLM’s daily flight from SFO to AMS is that since it departs at 3:10 PM PDT and they serve dinner ASAP, you can then knock yourself out with a handful of sleeping pills while you cross Canada and the North Atlantic. They serve breakfast as you reach the Scottish west coast, and you arrive in Amsterdam at 10:00 AM without really feeling that you have somehow leaped ahead nine hours.

garageroomRina picks me up at Schipol, and when we get to Spuistraat I’m just blown away by what she has done to create a very comfortable living space at the far end of her garage, complete with everything but a bath. Almost any man would be quite comfortable here although I think many women might be a bit iffy about sharing their bedroom with a Citroën ZX 1.4i. Still, the price is right: zero. Thus the title of this year’s tale.

And oh, I’ve been thinking about calling my roommate “Cittie” but then realized she may be a male. I’m not sure. I think you have to look under the hood to determine the sex, but even at my kinkiest, I never got into inter-species relations.

After I get settled in, which mostly means unpacking all the food I’ve brought, we bicycle to Albert Heijn and pick up some essentials. The usual suspects: milk, butter, cheese, quark, eggs, mustard, bread, cocoa, coffee, sugar, fruit juices, cactus sap, speklapjes, etc., all at prices so low as to make a Californian weep…and then change party affiliation from Democratic to Trotskyite Workers Party. Hell, 72 cents for 250 grams (over half a pound) of fine butter would convert all but the staunchest Republicans. Why, one asks, does the standard-size 370 gram jar of Bonne Maman Kersen Confiture cost nearly $5 in San Francisco, but €1.95 in the most expensive grocery chain in Amsterdam when the only detectable difference is that in San Francisco the label is in English and reads “Cherry” instead of “Kersen”?

And of course Rina is outraged that I would pay €1.95 for the expensive spread when I could buy a less famous brand for half the price.

Vocabulary review: speklapjes are those wonderful centimeter-thick slices of uncured pork belly. You can gently sauté/steam them until the flesh is tender without disturbing the thick layers of glistening, succulent fat.

This afternoon brings the first Adventure. Knowing that everything electric I’m bringing works equally well on 220 volts, I somehow neglected to bring my plug adapter, and so Rina and I bicycle over to an electrical supply store on Haarlemmerstraat. I dash in for a quick purchase, but after a couple of minutes Rina gets curious and comes in without locking up my bicycle, and yep, when we come out, it has stopped waiting for us.

Amsterdam is notorious for being the bicycle theft capital of the world, and now I’ve seen it in action.

I use this as an opportunity to let her ride back home alone while I make a detour on foot via the Moroccan shop to get some of that 10% fat Turkish yogurt that I just love. To my delight, both the owner and his assistant break into grins upon seeing me. Then again, how many weird Americans have been shopping there every May for five years, joyfully butchering both French and Dutch?

While I’m in there I get some of that toxic Mango nectar that I don’t allow myself to buy in San Francisco as well as some almonds because I also forgot all the stuff I had in my freezer. Well, yes, I’m sure I can buy good nuts here for The Pie, but somehow I doubt I’ll see pecans from Rattlesnake Ranch.

Rina has a backup bike with a broken chain, so later I walk it over to a repair shop on Westerstraat, where I discover some weak areas in my Dutch vocabulary. On the way, I spot a delightful Bauhausy building on Prinsengracht nestled between a couple of 17th century neighbors. How strange that I never before noticed this building since I’ve walked or Segwayed on that block many times, it being just this side of the Noordermarkt.

bauhausy

Vrijdag 4 mei 2007 – An Amsterdam Incident

I started taking pics of gevelstenen (facade stones) last year. Here’s one on the Herengracht:

hggevel

Otto drops by with this very tasty Frisian sugar bread, which we have with coffee, and then the three of us bicycle over to the verpleegtehuis (nursing home) to see Hans. It is shocking how much he has gone down since last year, when Rina was still caring for him at home, particularly since we are all the same age. Now, he no longer knows Rina and can no longer even communicate. The three of us talk with, or rather at him, but he shows little sign of awareness of this. Part of the problem is that the home keeps him sedated because he has become violent. That this has to be done is dreadful, but consider the alternatives.

What finishes breaking my heart is seeing Rina and Otto sit there on either side of him holding his hands. Hans and Otto have been friends since they were five years old, and by chance they were together when Hans and Rina met as teenagers. A tried and true friendship.

hansviewA view from Hans’ nursing home:

And now, a little background on Otto…and me:

My first visit to Amsterdam was in the spring of 1966 when I was in the Army Security Agency stationed in Heidelberg, Germany and doing cryptosecurity inspections. My “territory” included various US military facilities in Germany and France…and one Dutch/US Army missile base out from Het Haarde here in the Netherlands. I stayed in a hotel in Zwolle and had Sunday free to drive to Amsterdam to spend the day sightseeing. I wrote in Dutch in Three Weeks about taking a canal boat tour and being able to remember that the appearance of the city from the canals has not changed all that much. Of course off the canals, the changes are dramatic.

What I didn’t write about then was an incident that I still remember vividly. After the canal boat tour I had several hours before I needed to head back to Zwolle, so I strolled around sightseeing and taking photographs. It was a pleasant afternoon until I encountered three handsome young men about my age walking toward me.

In retrospect, I realize that they were probably gay, but at the time all I knew about gay was that such a thing existed. Well, on some level, I also knew I was one, but I was years from admitting this to myself, much less accepting it. What I knew back then was that these guys were astonishingly attractive, so much so that after they had passed, I without thinking turned to look back, only to see that two of them were looking back at me. And thus caught me looking at them and exposed me as a latent homosexual.

Luckily, I was at a corner, and in shock I turned it, took a few steps to get out of their sight line, and ran, turning in opposite directions at every corner. I ran until I was exhausted, which was some distance since I was in good training. I had never been so freaked out in my life, and as soon as I could make my way cautiously back to my car, I fled the city.

How strange, to think back to that visit and realize that at that very time, although I would not meet them for thirty-five years, Hans and Rina were a young married couple who were socializing with their dear childhood friend Otto and his male lover. Yeah.

Meanwhile, back in America, our loving priests and ministers were teaching their flocks to hate us….and us to hate ourselves. I expect God to give them an appropriate eternal reward for their splendid job at both tasks, oh yes I do. I can forgive the ordinary men and women and children who those evil scum brainwashed. I find it hard to forgive the ones who are doing the brainwashing…and, with the exceptions, to the best of my knowledge, of the Unitarian and Episcopal churches alone, they still are.

This is part of why I love the Dutch. Their tolerance is so relaxed and unforced that they don’t even think of it as tolerance.

Note: Since 2007, the United Church of Christ, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have, at least for the time being, stopped persecuting gays.

Zaterdag 5 mei 2007 – Reinhart

Here’s today’s gevelsteen. The words mean “In Three Beanstalks” but I have no idea what this signifies:

boom

Meanwhile, the adventures continue: At 8:00 this morning Rina and I are frantically rehanging curtains and cleaning. Actually, she’s mostly off the hook on the cleaning because the new tenant understands that, since the previous occupant left only last night, there is literally no time to do a thorough job before he and a couple of muscular friends arrive at 9:30 to move him in.

I walk over to the Noordermarkt and pick up a chicken for the trial-run posole that I’m making for Rina’s and my supper. To my astonishment, I find beautiful fresh green garlic at three stalks for €1,0, somewhat less than the price at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, which ratchets my appreciation of the Noordermarkt upwards.

zakkenHere’s a sign at the market entrance telling you that pickpockets are shopping, too:

The highlight of the day occurs just around the corner from Rina’s on my return. I’d stopped at Vleeschhouwerij D.Reinhart to pick up some gelderse rookwurst, a sausage recommended by Johannes van Dam, Amsterdam’s premier food critic. Vleeschhouwerij is an archaic word for “butcher.” Literally, “flesh hacker.” My Dutch study in the weeks before this trip has paid off because merchants this year are not usually feeling a need to switch into English on me. Everything goes swimmingly in Reinhart’s until, at the end of the transaction, he mutters something I don’t catch.

Emboldened by my recent successes, I tell him he needs to say that more slowly. He accommodates this request by carefully and very slowly pronouncing, “T-o-t ….. Z-i-e-n-s” (literally, “until we see each other again,” the equivalent of “goodbye” and one of the first phrases that any student learns). I burst into laughter, and he kindly joins me.

That tears it. Tomorrow I’m wearing my damn hearing aids.

Zondag 6 mei 2007 – Wil Wiegant and Geert Mak

Being here in this island of tolerance and anarchy is so liberating that I snap my fingers at convention. Like this morning, for example, I wake up about five, so well rested that there is no other choice than to get up. I have coffee with a couple of slices of toasted raisin bread piled high with cherry confiture and Turkish yogurt, but am still hungry. So I microwave the leftover half cup of experimental posole. But that’s only a few bites, rich as it is, and then I remember that huge cauliflower and the big chunk of Gouda.

Yep, Bloemkool Lodewijk, that dish I invented last year and have been recommending to deaf ears ever since, despite my claims that it is as quick and easy as it is nutritious and delicious. Hell, maybe it’s too easy since all you have to do is cut up some cauliflower into flowerets to cover a plate, toss in a tablespoon of water, slip a plastic bag over the plate, and microwave it until the cauliflower is nearly done. Take it out, open it up, ouch ouch ouch, strew shredded Gouda or maybe some crumbled fourme d’ambert over it, slip the bag back on, and stick it into the microwave for thirty more seconds so that the cheese is melted and the cauliflower is no longer crunchy but not steamed senseless. All it needs is a few grains of salt. How can something this good for us be so tasty?

Now it’s 7:30, I’m pleasantly full, and if I hadn’t drunk that pot of coffee, I’d crawl back in bed.

Speaking of gourmet foods, have I told the tale about the time Allen and I were throwing a dinner party and the table conversation drifted around to the drabness of the cooking of most of the mothers in our generation? My own mother was an exception, but many of them did routinely overcook vegetables and have spice collections consisting only of allspice, cinnamon, garlic powder, and black pepper. The guests were really getting into this bashing until one of ’em tartly pointed out that if in his childhood his mother had served the dinner we were enjoying, the whole family would have turned up their noses at it.

A moment of silence fell while a wave of embarrassed sympathy for the poor old dears swept the room.

In the late morning I drift down to the Spuiplein in hopes of catching Sunflower (see all my previous Amsterdam tales), but they aren’t there today. Still, the trip is more than worth it. On the way, there are photo ops, like this poster box:

layers

And this street art:

polegraffiti

I browse through the art fair in hopes of finding postcards by the woman who had the drawings of herbs last year. She’s not here today, but then from several booths away I spot Wil Wiegant‘s work. He’s back. Here’s another link. I discovered him in 2004, and looked for him in vain in ’05 and ’06, which I mentioned in Amsterdam by Segway and Amsterdam by Foot.

When I walked up to the booth this time and started telling him what a pleasure it was to see him again after missing him for two visits, a thoughtful look crossed his face and he asked in English, “Are you the writer?” “Jazeker,” I said, trying to wrest the conversation back to Dutch, but when he said that he had recently been Googling around and found my comments on him, I was too excited to even try to speak Dutch anymore.

botenDo I love it or what when I discover I’ve given folks a thrill? I eagerly bought a fistful of his wonderful postcards, but while we were talking and I was picking around in the cards, he dug into a folder and drew out four of those really spectacular folded cards from 2004 I’d loved so much that I’d hoarded the last one until a few months ago. I thought it would be greedy to take ’em all, so I just grabbed three. He also pulled out a really touching card reproducing a painting of nine stylized sailboats he’d done when a dear friend had died unexpectedly. Wil lives most of the year in the Canary Islands, and all the words in his paintings are Spanish. This one, he’d translated into Dutch on the card, which I’ll render in English as “Eight boats for the living and one boat for the dead.” Powerful painting, great card, delightful guy.

But the thrills aren’t over. I walk over into the Athenaeum in hopes of finding a forlorn copy of the now apparently impossible-to-obtain English translation of Geert Mak’s De Eeuw van Mijn Vater, in English My Father’s Century. Actually, I can no longer google up any reference to the existence of an English translation, so misinformation regarding its existence may have occurred.

The nice young woman leads me to the Dutch-Works-in-Translation section, and what do I spot but an English translation of Mak’s In Europa, which several of my Dutch friends have been raving about and which I didn’t know had appeared in English. My joy is so great that I decide I’ll follow through on my earlier threat to try Mak’s De Eeuw van Mijn Vater in the original Dutch. That is, until I find it and see that the damn thing is three inches thick!!!! I paw through the Mak selection and determine that, even though he’s a journalist, he apparently doesn’t publish anything short. Well, for now I’m confining my Dutch reading to newspaper articles…short newspaper articles. Well, and emails from some of my Dutch friends.

Oh, and speaking of eeuw, I know that word in five languages, but can pronounce it understandably in only four. My attempts in Dutch have provoked snickers.

Maandag 7 mei 2007 – Long May the New King Reign

chopThe gevelsteen of the day:

Rina’s new tenant, Micha, is a nice guy and really cute if “cute” can be used to describe a young man going on seven feet tall, well, maybe only 6′ 8″. Damn, the Dutch are big, or rather, tall, especially the young ones. Those my age tend to be a more reasonable size, like me.

Micha is a talented web designer, photographer, and cinematographer. Check out this beer commercial he did.

Rafaël arrives in the late morning, and we spend a delightful day together, mostly hanging out at the Dam square watching the sightseers. In the evening we stage my 2007 return to the New King with Rina. For an appetizer, we have the har gow, shrimp bonnets, which frankly are nothing to rave about. Should have had the sesame shrimp on toast, which has been excellent in the past. For main dishes, their sublime babi pangang, very good sweet and sour chicken, and excellent snow peas. OK, they stumbled a bit on the har gow this time, but it is a great joy to keep going back to a restaurant that maintains high quality year after year. Long may it reign.

But back to speaking of how tall the modern Dutch are: When I arrived on this visit I was struck by a splendid illustration when I first sat on the new toilet in Rina’s garage and felt that somehow, something was wrong. Oh, of course. I’m accustomed to having my heels touching the floor rather than perching there like a little kid. Even their damn toilets are taller now.

And finally, some detail off the police station across the street:

copdetail

Dinsdag 8 mei 2007 – A Nightmarish Night with Rafaël

He warned me, oh yes he did. Last night Rafaël sleeps on the left bed while I lie on the right bed listening to him snore. It is astonishing that someone so small could make so much noise…and it is not a monotonous sound that might lull but rather, like that of a talented songbird, entertaining variations on a theme. I jump back in bed the moment he leaves at 10:00 and fall asleep as I hear the door catch.

At 5:30 in the afternoon I walk off into the Jordaan to find Thijssen, the cafe where I have agreed to meet Wayne for drinks. I find it easily at Brouwersgracht 107 and then check out Vlaming, the restaurant a block away at Lindengracht 95 where Wouter cooks.

Enroute, I encounter some interesting gevelstenen, like this flying calf except that it sure looks like a horse to me even though “kalf” does not mean “horse” in any language I know:

kalf

 

and this, which I don’t understand at all other than being clued in that lootsman is an archaic spelling for loodsman, a maritime pilot.

lootsman

At Vlaming, Wouter’s not working, but I go ahead and try a roasted pork loin with saté sauce and the frites (French fries). Both are very good. Afterwards, I walk over to Thijssen, encountering on the way this bizarre gevelsteen. I tear my hair out trying to figure out what archaic Dutch word or words are represented here. And what are those strange characters where you’d expect to see a date?

fishtree

Finally, I give up and send it to my friend Danny, who I now understand is wasting her talents in Losser and ought to move the big city and become a famous police detective. Elementary, she says, all you have to do is read the letters backwards, which yields LINDENGRACHT, which is the street the house is on, the gracht (canal) having been filled in at some time in the past and turned into a boulevard.

Those strange characters on either side of the trunk? Just look at them upside down to see “1972.” So what we have here is a twentieth-century parody of a gevelsteen, and a good one at that. Fish in a damn tree, indeed.

At Thijssen, I have beers with Wayne. He thinks Wouter is a better cook than the guy on tonight at Vlaming, so I am eager to try the place when Wouter is on.

Polymaths (and polyglots) like Wayne just delight me, but the highlight of the evening is when he compliments my “ui” phoneme in a Dutch place name. (We’re speaking English because the subjects are way beyond my pitiful Dutch vocabulary, and besides, with folks like Wayne whose English is practically perfect, I get tongue tied.) His compliment makes me delirious with joy since up to now I’d been congratulating myself when I hit that phoneme close enough to be understood.

Later it occurs to me that that may have been what Wayne was complimenting.

Woensdag 9 mei 2007 – A Most Unsatisfactory Experience

In the morning off to the Kinkerstraat market with Rina, which is great because going to any market with Rina is fun. Well, that said, getting there is less than fun, as I find it nerve wracking to weave through the swarms of other bicyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles with Rina. See, she has forty-five years of bicycling experience on me, so she has a clear sense of her spatial relationship to the others. Me, I never know which way the bastards are gonna swerve around me…or at me, so I’m a nervous wreck when we arrive at our destinations.

Here’s a plain door enroute:

plaindoor

and a fancy door:

fancydoor

The afternoon was even more fun because Rina kept Ivar, her grandson. Yes, the one I was so eager to be able to talk with. The good news is that the little fart, even though he doesn’t know many English words, speaks them without a Dutch accent. And yes, I grill him on our voiced and unvoiced “th” and our “w.” He’s got all three dead on. I explain successfully in Dutch that those sounds are very difficult for the Germans, and the first two, for the French. Next, I’ll try him on our “hw,” since that’s also difficult.

Hell, they can’t say that one in Houston. Try it for yourself: ask a native to name the largest aquatic mammal….or depending on who you’re asking, the biggest fish. And yes, what I’m calling the “hw” sound is spelled “wh” even though it’s pronounced with the “h” before the “w.”

Alas, when I try to explain about the American coins I’d brought for him and his sister, I’m in way over my head. I should have worked on vocabulary in this area, damn me. Still, I did some specific prep for the kids: I can shriek, “Watch out for that car, thou careless kid!” and politely ask, “Since thou hast thy vegetables eaten, may I thee some dessert offer?” And yes, I stuck the main verbs at the ends of their clauses in the English version to give the sentence more of a Dutch flavor….you know, like a well-aged Gouda.

The big news on the kids, though, comes from Kyra, the granddaughter. Cyrus brings her over later, and I immediately start talking to her in Dutch. After I tell her how good it is to see her again, I ask, “Canst thou understand me?” She shakes her head “no,” not being old enough to grasp that by doing so she is giving herself away. Later, though, I get her to speak a few words to me, and Rina gets her to say “thank you” in English for the coins I’d brought. I respond, “You’re welcome,” coming down hard on the “w” to help her learn it. Oh, and never fear, I’m doing my very best to speak Standard Midwestern American to them. After all, Cyrus would never forgive me if I made him the laughingstock of Amsterdam by infecting his kids with a Texas accent.

Donderdag 10 mei 2007 – Posole and Chile Verde

Here’s a pic of the Ramada Inn down the street, an imposing modern pile of bricks:

ramada

And an older pile of bricks to the west on the Singel:

bricks

Today, I cook my first dinner this visit. It’s for Dore, Jacques and Kitty, and of course Rina and me. For a first course, I’ve made a posole with Dutch chicken and herbs and mild peppers, but jalapeños and dried hominy that I’d brought with me. I also put out a basket of tortilla quarters fried in sunflower oil. For a second course, Rina makes a salad: some perfect baby rocket lettuce (arugula for the Americans), a delicious green that looks like a cross between spinach and kale that she calls wilde spinazie (“wild spinach,” whatever its name in English is); some barely acceptable tomato; a chopped small red onion; and, for a dressing, a couple of Hass avocados mixed with some minced fresh green garlic, a dash of salt, and a squeeze of lemon.

Then the entrees: Anasazi beans simmered with a little carrot and red onion in the pot I’d used to cook a couple of speklapjes. No sense in letting the least bit of that delicious fat go to waste. And Chile Verde with all local ingredients except for the fresh tomatillos I’d brought. (For the basic recipe, see “Chile Verde” in Feeding Amsterdam or for more detail “Chile Verde” in my Recipes.)

A question of Rina’s triggered the realization that another way of doing chile verde instead of browning the meat and simmering it down for hours in the pureed vegetables would be to use chunks of pork loin roasted/broiled so that they are barely cooked and still juicy inside, and then serve them sauced with the cooked-down vegetables. Ummmmmm. That wouldn’t be at all traditional, but I bet it would be delicious. Gotta try that, especially since they don’t have trichinosis over here…or at least they didn’t the last time I checked. May want to re-check that. Stay tuned. Alternatively, follow the progress of that Tragic Amsterdam Outbreak on CNN.

And last, “The Pie” ( see my Recipes). This is the first time I’ve dared try make this here, and I feared that subtle differences might conspire to make the recipe fail. I mean, even the damn electricity is different here, and I fear that a vicious 220 volts, unlike the kinder, gentler 110 that was traditionally used in our internationally acclaimed electric chairs, might bruise the meringue. And using pecans I bought in the Kinker Markt since I forgot the Rattlesnake Ranch ones from Texas. And other factors like the sugar crystals not being the same size and no indication on the container of the local heavy whipping cream equivalent as to its butterfat content. On the other hand, an egg is an egg is an egg. OK, a chicken egg.

To my great relief, The Pie turned out well. The crust, in fact, was so light that it was a bit too fragile, but everybody loved it anyhow. Actually, everybody liked the whole dinner enough that they asked for recipes. Oh, make me give you my recipes.

We have the pie down in my room with coffee and limoncello, this fabulous Italian drink that Rina brought back from her last visit, lightly alcoholic and spritely lemony. And talked enthusiastically until midnight. Delightful people and good food, a winning combination.

And oh, I waited until the after-dinner conversation to tell folks the doubtless apocryphal but still entertaining story of the origin of posole. It is known that stews of corn and chiles and various meats were found in Central American cultures in antiquity. It has been said that posole originated when, after the beating heart had been ripped out of a captive and offered to Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, the thrifty priests didn’t want to waste the rest of that good meat. Just a story, surely, as I can’t imagine religous people doing something so awful.

Vrijdag 11 mei 2007 – A Serial Lady McBeth

Some more neighborhood sights, a doorway with a message that I’ll translate as “I can begin. I want to persevere. I will (or shall, as McArthur put it) succeed.”

beghinnen

And just to lighten things up a little bit, here’s the Dutch way of suggesting they’d prefer you didn’t climb this pole:

 

dontclimb

I’ve been holding out on you regarding Wednesday’s visit with Ivar and Kyra. After I left, Kyra remarked to Rina that she didn’t like my hair long. See, I’ve been doing a hair experiment the past year, and it’s now longer than ever, even in the late sixties – early seventies. Actually, it’s hanging over my collar in the back and down to the tip of my nose in front, so I have the pleasure of shaking or brushing it out of my eyes hundreds of times a day. Alas, the disks in my neck have deteriorated so badly that I am rewarded with hours of pain whenever I do that excellent little head snap thing to fling the hair out of my eyes like the way cool guys did in the sixties. Well, il faut souffrir pour être belle.

I’ve been greatly enjoying all this hair except for the increasing hassle washing it presents. Then again, I’ve discovered that it actually hangs down and looks better if it’s not all dried out from being washed every day, so I’ve started washing it less frequently. It just struck me that factors like this may be involved in the existence of that entire aisle of Hair Stuff in the drugstores. Hmmmm. May have to try putting something other than soap and water on it. Otherwise, the only down side of the hair is that it has not been real popular with my friends.

No, indeed. Some have been downright outspoken, and my barber has been very grudging about it. Also, it has not escaped my attention that the few friends who have claimed to like it are, by and large, my kinder friends, so acts of charity may be occurring. Still, I’ve been reluctant to stop the experiment.

But the instant I heard that Kyra didn’t like my hair long, it became a question not of whether but when I would get it cut off. Rina and I are going to a seventies-theme party tomorrow, so the hair is perfect for that. And Dutch barbers, like American ones, mostly take Sunday and Monday as their days off, but come Tuesday I’ll be faced with the question of whether I go to Rafaël’s kapper around the corner on Lijnbaanssteeg or whether I hang on for two weeks and let my San Francisco barber have her way with it.

I’ve written before about how a number of women have frightening levels of influence on me. You know, stuff like my quitting smoking not because of all the health issues but rather because I couldn’t bear the look my new internist gave me over it. Still, these have all been women in my generation. I’d never dreamed I’d be susceptible to a six-year-old. The horror, the horror. I mean, if she learns at six that she can push men around, might she not later abuse this power, perhaps even becoming a Dutch Lady McBeth? A serial Lady McBeth, leaving a trail of victims over many decades?

Preview: Stay tuned for a tale about this brutaal young clerk at Albert Heijn. That’s in both the Dutch and the English senses, as she was brutally rude. She absolutely thrashed me…in an Anthony Swofford sense. It was dreadful. I slunk home, whimpering. In future, it will not be the shortest line in Albert Heijn I pick, but rather one, any one, where she’s not checking. She’s gonna flay me alive anytime she sees me, and she knows how.

Zaterdag 12 mei 2007 – Seventies Party

This morning I just had to go out to the Noordermarkt to see whether that vendor had fresh green garlic again. I’m eager to get some more because, like most Americans, most Dutch have never eaten it. I must have seen it many times before I “discovered” it since it has a short season and looks so much like skinny leeks…or large green onions.

So I go out, and wonder of wonders, the vendor has it again and this time in two sizes: thinner ones about two feet long for three for a euro and fatter ones a bit longer for fifty cents each. Ferry Plaza prices, but hey, it’s a luxury. And unless you’re doing that obscene (and obscenely delicious) garlic-as-a-green-vegetable dish in my recipes, you don’t need a large quantity of it.

At the Noordermarkt, I’m close to the Moroccan store, so I stop in to pick up another kilogram pail of that fat Turkish yogurt and the Egyptian mango drink….and discover that they have some green chiles that may be exactly what I need for the posole and the chile verde. The clerk says they’re flavorful and not too hot, so I’m eager to try them the next time I cook a dish that incorporates chiles.

As it turns out, I’m so swamped with invitations this time that when Rina and I have finished drawing up the schedule for the rest of my stay, it is clear that I’ll be able to cook only three more times. Once for Otto and Stijn and An, and then a week later for Erik and Jostin and Eric’s new girlfriend AnneMarie, whom I haven’t met. I’m hoping to cook during the last week for Wouter/Wayne and some of their friends, but they’re young and hard to schedule.

I still haven’t eaten at Vlaming when Wouter is cooking, but that variation on chile verde I was talking about earlier would work just fine in Vlaming. They already roast chunks of pork tenderloin on a skewer and serve it with a saté sauce. All they’d have to do is find the ingredients to make a chile verde sauce, and I spotted what looked like a very close relative of Mexican tomatillos in the Kinker Markt the other day….and saw a vendor at the Noord Markt selling something labeled as “tomatillo sauce,” so clearly they are merely rare rather than completely unobtainable here.

But I digress: On the way back I stop in at the Volendammer and get a smoked mackerel, and for lunch Rina and I eat some of it on toast spread with mustard and chopped red onion. Yum.

I’m out trying to get some pics of gevelstenen this afternoon when I encounter a pack of Brit tourists. Good grief. These folks are from one of the areas where the regional accent has such strong and frequent glottal stops that they sound like they’re being briefly choked after every other word.

Tonight we go to a seventies theme party across Het IJ (the body of water that connects the Amstel river to the IJsselmeer) in a Noord Amsterdam industrial area where there are warehouse-like buildings cut up into artists’ studios. Rina is wearing a wonderfully authentic seventies outfit, complete with those ridiculous platform shoes.

70sgal

She has outfitted me in one of Hans’ old shirts from the seventies, plus a vest that she has tailored to me for the occasion.

Also, she has found a false mustache in a costume shop and cut it in half to make a splendid pair of sideburns that in dimmer light match my hair, and she has painted my fingernails silver. She assures me that in the seventies she routinely painted her hopelessly heterosexual husband’s nails various “non-feminine” colors although I don’t recall nail polish on many guys back then other than David Bowie and Alice Cooper, and I wasn’t too sure about them. Still, I’m trying to be in a Go-along-with-it-and-be-a-good-sport mode.

70sguy

The party is in a large atelier, and at one end a band called “Landslide” is covering seventies hits, in English, and quite competently. The crowd laps them up, most old enough to remember the seventies although for the large part they look like they were barely teenagers then.

Something like half the crowd are enthusiastic, and good, dancers. I get out on the dance floor with Rina, pointing out that the last time I danced was over twenty years ago and that I was not any good at my peak. Not to my surprise, she’s one of the good dancers, but my legs will barely get me through the song.

The party is great fun until I discover at midnight that it will be a great social gaffe to leave before 2:00 or so. I suggest that Rina simply tell the host and hostess (who are almost the only people she knows there, anyhow) that I am old and sick and need to go to bed. She’s aghast. Apparently one of the social customs here is that you can’t use advanced age and illness as an excuse to leave a party early. I hang on for another half hour, and she concocts this elaborate fiction involving critical appointments in the morning for which I must prepare myself.

The more I learn, the more things I discover I don’t understand.

Zondag 13 mei 2007 – Moederdag

I wake up at 10:30 and start Mothers Day out right by taking up to Rina the chocolate truffle cake I slipped off and bought yesterday afternoon at the Bijenkorf. I love that store even though I now go only to their bakery. As usual, on the day before Moederdag, the shoppers in the bakery, most particularly at the fancy cake counter, are overwhelmingly men, looking both a little frazzled owing to the long lines but nevertheless pleased with themselves.

The up side of the leg problem that I’m having this visit is that I have learned a Dutch phrase that vies in strength of imagery with achter de geraniums (“behind the geraniums”), which describes a shut-in who looks out at the world from behind his window box. This new one is etalage benen, literally “shop window legs,” meaning that you have to take a few steps and then stop and pretend to be window-shopping. That’s me, except I’m taking pics.

Speaking of geraniums, here’s the ones behind which live the old dude who maintained for years that sidewalk flower box I wrote about last year. Alas, no flowers in the street box this year. Sadder yet, no songbirds trilling in the cages above the window. They were wonderful amid the clamor and bustle of the street, and, like most things, I appreciate them all the more in retrospect now that they’re gone.

geraniums

And since we’re looking at windows in the neighborhood, here’s one a few doors down. It reads, “He who doesn’t know his history, doesn’t know his future.”

geschiedenis

Maandag 14 mei 2007 – Cactus Sap and Kroepoek

 

More neighborhood pictures, a door pull I rather like:

doorpull

and another piece of street art:

espresso

I spend the day mostly lolling around my room and nibbling delicious local foods. The foods available here are part of the joy. It’s not so much that I can’t get good food in San Francisco. Oh no, one look at me now belies that. It’s that I get different good food here and stuff myself with it.

Well, except for the cactus sap (OK, in case somebody forgot, “sap” is the Dutch word for juice, but somehow it sounds a thousand percent better to call it “cactus sap” in English even though the bottle label no longer calls it that but rather “Spa lemon-cactus” in English. On previous trips, I was going through a bottle every couple of days. This time, I bought some as usual on my first trip to Albert Heijn and still haven’t finished it. And I’ve eaten only 100 gr. of sprat filets and two smoked mackerels so far.

On the other hand, I have discovered bags of kroepoek, the little ground shrimp wafers that I haven’t seen in their already-cooked form in San Francisco. I have determined that, for me, the serving size is entirely dependent on the size of bag I buy.

And speaking of food, I just performed a little experiment. I’m about to go up to have a chef’s salad supper with Rina to use up that “wild spinach” and rocket lettuce and other leftovers along with some smoked chicken breast I happened to have, and it occurred to me that I could boil a couple of organic eggs. But of course they’re refrigerator cold. I think about tucking one into each armpit for a few minutes but fear that would impact my typing. Then I realize that I have a few dirty dishes in the sink.

But of course. I gently place the eggs in with the dirty dishes, add hot water and a little squeeze of detergent, and wash the dishes very carefully. Then I drain out the detergent water and rinse all the dishes in hot water individually as I dry them, leaving the eggs until last. Then I cover them with warm water in the electric teapot and set it going for ten minutes. Voilà. Clean Eggs Louis.

For dessert, Rina serves some of that spectacular truffle torte I gave her for Mothers’ Day. And so, to bed, visions of lunch with Dore tomorrow dancing in my head.

Dinsdag 15 mei 2007 – Lunch with Dore

Rina drives us over to Dore’s for lunch. I take her a small bottle of dark agave nectar and a bag of Anasazi beans, neither of which is readily available in Amsterdam. Rina generously contributes some of the dried cherries and nectarines I brought.

Lunch is, as always at Dore’s, excellent. Actually, Dore upstages me, which is not a problem since my gluttony and gourmandism are greater than my pride. Oh, upstage me, do.

She serves this excellent dark Dutch bread with a good butter and five cheeses: a Camembert, a soft goat cheese, and three hard goat cheeses, all of which I like a lot and one of which is akin to that superb one made by the Bay Area’s Capricious Cheese. And some sliced rare-roasted lamb, asparagus in a mysterious good dressing, and an astonishing salad composed of baby spinach, green peas, and a mystery fruit that just has to be a cross between a poha and tomatillo. They look like rather small pohas, but even though they are golden, they have neither the sweetness nor the tartness of pohas. Gotta try to track this thing down.

Dore is not volunteering where she got them, and I realize in hindsight that she was not so much agreeing with my speculation that they were a poha/tomatillo cross as she was being non-committal…which makes me want to track them down even more. Just good, clean fun among cooks. Heh heh. Here’s the lunch, where you can see the poha-like things…barely. Look closely into the blue bowl immediately southwest of the meat and cheese platter:

spread

A really delicious lunch with fresh strawberries for dessert in the garden. I wrote last year about the garden, and it’s still wonderful…and wonderfully eclectic. In addition to dozens (hundreds?) of plants I don’t know, she has everything from an artichoke to a Haworthia! No kidding. Here’s an aloe:

aloe

Since the spring here broke all records for warmth, more plants are in bloom this year. The most spectacular of which being a tree they call goudenregen “golden rain.” It’s entirely covered with ten-inch sprays of golden-yellow flowers, and I’m pretty sure it’s Laburnum x watereri. I’ve seen a few others in the Jordaan, and they do brighten up a block.

gouden

I had mentioned when I wrote about last year’s lunch that Dore’s husband is an architect and that I’d tried unsuccessfully to photograph a building of his over by the Bijlmerplein. I bring this up and learn a bit more. She pulls out some brochures and clippings, and I see that his firm has spectacular buildings under construction all over the world. I am an anchovy in a sea full of very talented, very big fish.

On the way back from Dore’s, I see a restaurant with the name “Small Talk Eating House.” This represents the Dutch fondness for using English names for businesses and products, but in this case, it is not as well done as most. “Small Talk Restaurant” would be fine, but “Eating House” grates because it’s not good English. What someone has done there is try to make a direct translation of the Dutch eet huis, which is, as best I can tell, simply an old fashioned term for “restaurant” that is now used for more downscale “homey” places.

I’m sorry, but “eating house” sounds just ludicrous to me although, to be fair, I’m sure nowhere near as funny as some of my attempts at speaking Dutch sound to them.

And finally, on a more mundane note. I kinda fluffed up my hair in preparation for lunch, and now that I am out of the immediate glare of Kyra’s disapproval, I’m not sure it looks so bad after all. Besides, I never really liked my ears, and they are now presenting less and less of a problem.

This evening I have a great need for some comfort food, so I boil four of those delicious little Dutch potatoes and eat them with butter. I love those little things so much that I’m tempted to throw some into my checked baggage on the way home. Alas, since I’m sure nobody has ever tried to bring potatoes in before, this would doubtless be viewed with such great suspicion that they’d just grab me as I came off the plane and throw me into one of our secret detention centers until I confessed to their worst fears during an interrogation personally supervised by Alberto Gonzalez. “More. He’s still holding out”.

Woensdag 16 mei 2007 – Medicate Me Now

There are strange noises this morning at my door. I’m expecting Rina because we’re going shopping for the ingredients for tomorrow’s dinner, and I hear the door to the street open, but something’s different. An extended conversation is in progress. Finally, my curiosity overwhelms me and I step to the curtain.

And there’s Rina with Kyra! She’s talking with Colette, her daughter-in-law whom I’ve only briefly met. Turns out that Rina and I will be able to shop at a more leisurely pace because Rina now does not have to go over at noon and pick up Kyra. Better yet, I get to spend some time with Kyra, and it goes very well from the beginning. She doesn’t have much to say yet, but she understands me very well.

Of course some of it is as much body language as spoken. The three of us are sitting at my computer looking at the pics of Rina and me in seventies costume, and then Kyra shows Oma (grandmother) a little scrape on her finger, a small abrasion that’s not quite bleeding. I say, ik heb iets voor dat (“I have something for that”) and take three or four quick steps into the water closet where I have my dop kit. The tube of antibacterial ointment is in plain view, and by the time I have grabbed it and turned around, Kyra is standing there holding her finger up in the medicate-me-now position. Is that cute or what?

Sigh. I should have been straight and had kids. Well, at least until they were teenagers and I gave up and shipped the most troublesome one off to a correctional academy, as Voltaire wrote, “pour encourager les autres.”

I can’t walk very well, but I can still walk. And if we put all the groceries plus Kyra on Rina’s bicycle, this slows her down enough that I can keep up on my bicycle. Just kidding. She intentionally slows down out of kindness. And we put some of the groceries in my saddlebags.

Shopping is even more fun with Kyra along. Six years old and she’s already a young woman, shopping for clothes and jewelery with equal enthusiasm….and facility. At one point she observes to Rina that I sure do waste a lot of time looking at food. Ummm, she may have said “spend.”

The high point of the shopping is when Kyra finds a dress she likes and asks Rina if she can have it. I seize the opportunity and buy it for her, as it is not very often that I get opportunities to buy ladies dresses.

In the late afternoon I shuffle over to Vlaming with the idea that since Wayne has told me that Wouter cooks there five days a week and I have determined that he’s not there on Mondays and Tuesdays, he’s bound to be there tonight.

lindenHere’s a building on Lindengracht that I like:

I have a beer while I chat with the owner, and then I decide to order the kannibal toast appetizer, which is what the Dutch call steak tartar and which I haven’t eaten in many years. In its glory in the mid-seventies, the Trident in Sausolito served a huge entree of it glazed with a mayonnaise-base sauce and sprinkled with capers and chopped onions.

The owner moves off to talk with other customers, and I pick up Het Parool, an Amsterdam newspaper that I like, mainly because the vocabulary is more formal and thus easier for me to read. I’m picking my way around in the front page articles, and then flip to page two, where there’s an article about an E. coli outbreak in the water supply for several towns just south of Amsterdam, and they’re warning everyone down there to boil their water.

As I finish devouring the story, my pile of raw beef arrives, attractively presented on toast points and garnished with capers, chopped pickles, and a pale green mayonnaisey sauce. I look again at the map delineating the outbreak boundaries, wonder briefly what color E. coli is, and oh what the hell, tuck in. It is superb, the sauce is delicious, and the portion is generous.

Wouter? Well, he’s not present. I’m thinking now the situation might be, to paraphrase Saki, “He was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, he went.”

Donderdag 17 mei 2007 – A Different Mole

For pics today, some neighborhood stuff, like the Internet Café on Nieuwendijk that I’ve been going to for years out of loyalty even though since the Bulldog is cheaper and closer, I’ve been going there more frequently this year. It’s not like either place is much affected by my patronage since both make most of their money on pot sales.

freeworld

And speaking of drugs, here’s the “smart shop” on the corner where you get your hallucinogens and such:

DSCN5325

It’s dinner for Stijn and An and Otto tonight. Posole again, this time with pork, that giant dried corn called maiz mote that I picked up at San Andrecito, and the “flavorful and not too hot” green chiles I got from the Moroccan. Actually, it’s a damn good thing I tasted a tiny shred after I’d chopped one in, as I shudder to imagine what that guy would call “hot”.

The usual salad since the Dutch can’t get enough of it, the greens of the day being “wild arugula” from Italy and local maché. Then mole, rice, and Italian butter beans. Oh, and appetizers of some buffalo mozzarella I got at the Noordermarkt, some string beans I pickled for Rina last year, and some Spanish mussels in a spicy sauce that Rina found at Aldi yesterday.

With what I now recognize as my arrogance reaping its customary reward, I let Rina convince me to make a mole poblano from scratch since she really really loves the one I’ve made for a couple of years using Tierra Vegetables‘ “Mole Crumble”, which I forgot in my freezer at home. I warned her that we just didn’t have the energy to spend the days it takes to do a full version, but then I went online and looked at several recipes and decided that we could take some shortcuts here and skip an ingredient there and produce something similar.

Don’t tell Lee, but she could double her price for that “crumble” and I’d still buy it.

What Rina and I come up with bears little resemblance to the classic mole poblano dish that Lee’s “crumble” produces. In all honesty, it’s not bad….but it sure isn’t what I was trying to make. Oh well, we console ourselves that the guests don’t know what to expect….and they don’t, so they’re delighted….and now that Rina and I are over our disappointment, we’re pleased, too. In fact, my only real regret is that after dinner I realize I could have made my Italian Butter Beans recipe instead of just boiling the beans with carrots and fresh garlic. Sigh.

For dessert, Rina has made this delicious and paralyzingly rich chocolate torte. The after-dinner conversation was wonderful even though I missed a lot since it was, at my request and as it should be, overwhelmingly in Dutch. I know way more nouns than anything else, so I can usually track the subjects of conversations, but I’m weak enough on verbs and idiomatic expressions that I miss much of what’s being said about the subjects.

Otto is an interesting and enjoyable man, and I am touched by his loyalty to Hans…or the shell of what used to be Hans…but he sure is loud, and a lot of the dinner conversation is folks talking at once and thus impossible to follow even if it had been in English. Still, great fun.

And to be fair, I keep forgetting that as I get deafer, I’m talking too loud, myself.

Vrijdag 18 mei 2007 – German Bicyclists

I decide that it will be easier to walk forty meters up Spuistraat to the Bulldog and use their wireless network than it will be to climb three flights of stairs to connect with Rina’s DSL. It is. The fringe benefit is that I get to see this pack of German tourists on identical yellow rental bikes.

bikes

Tonight, it’s dinner with Betty and Ko way over in Noord Amsterdam literally 500 meters from the edge of the built up area. Before dinner, Ko drives us in a three kilometer loop through this achingly quaint little farm village and the farms themselves, which smell just like my second cousin’s dairy in east Texas did sixty years ago. I’d love to get some pics of those teeny old pedestrian drawbridges between the farmhouses and the fields that make the Nijlpaardenbrug look gigantic.

At one point Ko stops the car so I can get pics of the “Bra Bridge”.

brabridge

To see it, we have to scramble up the side of this long, low hill, and I am reminded that, as is usually the case in the Netherlands, that “hill” is really a dike and that this entire area, including Betty and Ko’s house, is a polder and sea level is over my head. The water you see on the left in the pic below is the IJsselmeer, which is the bottom end of what’s left of the Zuider Zee. It doesn’t show clearly in the pic, but that water is at least five meters above the level of the water you can see on the right, which is where the car is parked.

polder

And yes, when I’m in California’s Death Valley, sea level is 85 meters over my head, but in that case instead of a couple of flimsy earthen dikes there are two ranges of mountains between sea and me.

bettydinBetty and Ko are wonderful people, and Betty is a fabulous cook. For dinner we have two appetizers, one of melon with the Dutch equivalent of prosciutto, which with admirable frankness they call rauwe boeren ham – raw farmer’s ham.

The other is a delicious mushroom paté with asparagus. The entree is rare roasted beef with baby fava beans and noodles in a delicious sauce accompanied by an excellent French cabernet. The desserts are stewed fruit with ice cream and the chocolate hazelnut torte I brought from the Bijenkorf.

Ko is in the printing industry, retired from working at Het Parool but still doing some consulting, and he has a fine collection of books, including Dutch translations of the second edition of Harold McGee’s food encyclopedia, On Food and Cooking, and some classic French culinary works like Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, the Larousse Gastronomique, and more that I don’t remember.

The apex of the evening for me is when I tell about seeing the German tourists on bicycles and add that this time, they’re renting the bikes, which gets me a laugh and some points with Betty and Ko since they were not aware that I knew of the still-passionate Dutch resentment of the Germans’ confiscating their bicycles during the war. Being invaded and enslaved? Oh, they can forgive that, but don’t touch their bicycles.

Zaterdag 19 mei 2007 – Early Opposition

This morning I go out to Frank’s Smoke House for my first time this trip, taking the bus from the Centraal Station. I have a nice chat with Frank while I’m picking up some eel, cold smoked sable, and warm smoked wild Alaskan salmon that clearly flew here first class. The only other customer, a Dutch banker, finishes his sandwich, joins the conversation, and we talk about specialty foods available both here and in the US.

I get in a plug for the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, and the banker regrets that he’s never been able to go to it owing to the main market being on Saturday. I’m impressed that he knows this and say so. I get my points by mentioning that I’ve been pleased to find fresh green garlic here at the Noordermarkt the previous two Saturdays, and then Frank gets his by deploring its short season. Culi freak competition. I love it, like peacocks displaying their plumage for the other guys before they take it on the road for the hens.

And then I make one of my poor choices by deciding I’ll just stroll slowly back home owing to it being a gorgeous sunny day. One thing I now know for sure is that Frank’s is way out of my current walking range. On the way, though, I get a pic of a light on the Pelicanbrug:

pelikaanlight

And a modern building that has been catching my eye for years:

newarch

It takes me three hours, partly because I compound the error by stopping for a quick tour through the Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum Amsterdam). What was I thinking? You have to walk in museums, so it’s not a rest stop.

Still, the museum is not large, and it’s worth a visit. It seems to be a well-balanced assessment in that it’s arranged chronologically and shows very clearly that after the Dutch army held off the Germans for four days, which was three days longer than the Germans had expected, there was virtually no resistance at first. Almost all Dutch public officials remained in their offices and cooperated with the Germans at the beginning of the occupation, reasoning that the Germans would replace them with members of the Dutch Nazi Party if they resigned.

And then, over the next three years, they were one by one removed for dragging their feet or quit in protest when they could no longer stomach the increasing tightening of the screws. Similarly, the displays show how the Germans, at first in relatively innocuous ways, put in place more and more restrictions against the Jews, identified and located them, and finally began shipping them off to camps.

Resistance to the Germans grew and grew among the populace until the country was finally liberated. Unfortunately, it did not grow fast enough to save the Jews, 78% of whom died. Geert Mak stated in his History of Amsterdam that this was the highest percentage of any occupied country¹ and that it happened because the cooperation with the Germans was so high in the early years of the war that the Jews had already been shipped off before resistance reached effective levels.

What I learn from this is that early opposition is critical, and when I flash forward sixty years I see George Tenet, who in his memoir published this spring says that when he was head of the CIA in 2002 he was fully aware that the Bush Administration was distorting the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s capabilities in order to justify a preemptive invasion.

Michael Scheuer, the former CIA analyst and expert on Islamic terrorism who was given the space to resign because of his increasingly public opposition to neocon politics, points out that Tenet was a sufficiently big fish that if he had been willing to tell what he knew and resign in protest back in 2002 instead of waiting until 2007, he could have saved his country from the hideous debacle in which we are now involved. I’ll add that, instead, Tenet allowed himself to be bought off with the Medal of Honor, doubtless broken for ease of handling into thirty pieces.

And now that I’ve flogged Tenet, it’s my turn. One did not need Tenet’s resources to see back in 2002 that the Bush Administration had decided to invade Iraq and was working on justification. I saw it, and I squawked about it enough that I cost myself some friends. And then, like Tenet, I let my country down by shutting up. Well, except that Tenet didn’t speak out in the first place, I didn’t entirely shut up because I kept preaching to the choir, and I wasn’t offered a medal for my silence.

On the other hand, I did write in Feeding Amsterdam about a door guard running out of the fabulously restored San Francisco Federal Courthouse at 7th and Mission in 2005 and telling me I couldn’t take photos. And how I politely asked to see his supervisor and rather less politely told the supervisor what a ludicrous, ineffectual, and ultimately unenforcible policy this was.

I also wrote that I felt like organizing a flash mob of a few hundred people with cameras swarming around the building and snapping pics like mad. I never got around to figuring how to incite a flash mob, but this March Gloria and I went down to our just-completed Federal Building across the street from the courthouse to take pictures of Tom Mayne’s stunning architecture.

Then we walked through the neighborhood, and as we passed the courthouse I brazenly photographed it in plain sight of the guards. Over and over. No response. Nothing. Are photographs now permitted if you are accompanied by a tall blonde? I would prefer to believe that they stopped trying to prohibit photographs because enough of us were outraged at the absurdity of that ban and spoke up.

One of the side exhibits at the Dutch Resistance Museum is a room simulating an underground press, full of period artifacts. Hidden speakers play at low volume a tape loop of a running press. Now we have the Internet.

Hmmm, a fringe benefit of having trouble walking again is that I have more time to sit in my room pecking out diatribes.

¹ Yes, you saw it here first, a travelog with footnotes: When Mak wrote that the percentage of Dutch Jews who died during WWII was higher than that in any other occupied country, he was excluding Latvia and Lithuania because so many Jews were slaughtered by locals there. In his later work, In Europe, he discusses death rates in the upper ninetieth percentiles for the Jews in those countries. In Latvia, less than 2% survived.

Zondag 20 mei 2007 – Dried and Flaked Dragon

One of the things I love most about being in a foreign country is all the different foods, things you simply don’t see in San Francisco. Like dragon. Dried and flaked it’s common here, but I haven’t seen it fresh yet. I’m assuming it would taste something like frog or snake.

dragon

On the other hand, last Wednesday there were lovely horse cutlets in the butcher shop at the front of the Kinker Markt, and on sale, too. Unfortunately, I’d already bought pork for the posole. Next time, since I’ve already made it with chicken and don’t want to repeat myself.

And OK, Dragon is the Dutch word for “tarragon.” Well, hey, my resistance to temptation has its limits.

Today, An and I go with Rina to “The Island” off Blauwe Beugel where she has had a little cabin and garden for over twenty years. I am pleased to report that again this year I am able to seduce a duck with bread crumbs, and this time also her four teenage children.

ducks

It is such a relaxing day that there’s not much to tell since I’ve already written about the island itself in Amsterdam by Foot. Here’s a pic of the garden:

eilandtuin

Well, the day is mostly relaxing. The island is right in the middle of the E. coli outbreak, so An and I agree that boiling water for drinking and washing dishes would be a reasonable precaution. My goodness. To think that my grandparents didn’t have running water in their houses until their children were adults, so if they wanted hot water, they had to heat it on a wood stove.

My generation of Americans will be recognized (if we aren’t already) as the luckiest people in the history of mankind because most of us will not live long enough to suffer much from the increasingly lower standard of living that competition for dwindling oil and water supplies will soon be causing. We will be the only generation in history to have the myriad benefits of cheap power and water all our lives. Our parents didn’t and our children won’t.

When I say “our,” I refer primarily to the US but also to Western Europe. The scale has already tipped, but we have it so good that the effects are still subtle, in the US mainly measurable only statistically in terms of widening income gaps and mortgage foreclosures, and in Western Europe, in similar increasing income gaps and decreasing health care benefits.

Europe suffered widespread devastation in our parents’ generation during WWI, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War. At the beginning of our generation it was torn apart again by WWII. After that, though, the standard of living in Western Europe improved continually like ours did, but then overtook ours in the last two decades of the century.

This event was particularly shocking to Americans of my generation, who were accustomed to thinking of countries like Spain as places where you couldn’t drink the water rather than where you could find health standards like lower infant mortality, longer life expectancy, etc. that were better than ours.

Fifteen years ago, when the scale had just tipped, I mentioned something about this to one of my cousins. She responded flatly, “I don’t believe it.” Actually, there are doubtless Americans who are so brainwashed that they still wouldn’t believe this…but are highly unlikely to even hear it since they get all their information from tightly controlled sources.

Elsewhere, it is now evident that the standard of living for the lower quartiles, and not just in Africa, is already well in decline (for a detailed and thoroughly documented discussion, see Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums).

Look at poor Mexico, as Porifiro Diaz observed, “so far from God and so close to the United States”. Their economy has been devastated by globalization and international trade agreements that are making it increasingly difficult for the poorer people to survive. I am not one to argue for unlimited immigration, but I can sure see why more poor Mexicans are taking increasing risks, and dying in increasing numbers, in their attempts to get into a country where they can find work, however difficult and/or dangerous.

Meanwhile, as their solution, we see the wealthy hunkering down in gated communities defended by armed guards, electrified fences, and moats stocked with piranha. Just kidding about the piranha….well, to the best of my knowledge. What I’m not kidding about is that the Waltons (last year having slipped to 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th richest persons on the planet but still unable to provide health insurance for all their employees) are doing their part to prepare for the future by funding propaganda for the permanent repeal of the estate tax.

Or take the court ruling that because Ken Lay died after conviction but before sentencing, his widow gets to keep millions of dollars that he and his cohorts stole from every household in California, money that we will be paying back for another twenty years with the highest electricity rates in the nation. By that logic, a man in financial difficulty could rob a bank, run home and hand his wife the bag, shoot himself on the front lawn, and the bank would be unable to recover the stolen money. I see no difference except that Mrs. Lay is a rich Republican.

Or consider that large corporations like Arthur Anderson and more recently, Halliburton are moving their headquarters operations to places like Bermuda so as to avoid payment of those pesky US taxes…and to escape prosecution for their crimes. Yes, they loot their country and run. I cannot believe that anyone other than a lunatic fringe Libertarian could think this is right. If we can’t prevent this, we could preemptively invade Bermuda and nationalize the bastards. Just .

Maandag 21 mei 2007 – Vlaming with Wouter

Tonight, I take Rina to dinner at Vlaming. Now that I’ve learned how to shift “my” bicycle to a lower gear, I am discovering that bicycling at low speeds is superior to walking because I can continue rolling forward while I rest my legs. Unfortunately, bicycling is agonizing in other ways.

The Dutch have been on bicycles all their lives, and watching them weave through each other is like watching Balanchine’s “Serenade” in fast forward mode. I cannot understand why they do not continually crash into each other, but somehow, they all miss each other by centimeters.

I, on the other hand, present an annoying obstacle as I wobble along at slow speeds, and they ring their bells furiously as they swarm around me, shouting “Let op!!!!” (“Watch out”) and swerving around me at the last second, turning me into a twitching neurotic because I don’t know which way they are going to swerve. Rina, meanwhile, is gliding through all this chaos like the Queen in a carriage….well, except that the Queen isn’t peddling.

Still, it’s going much better than usual since the route to Vlaming is not on main streets. Then my cell phone starts ringing and I nearly wreck the bicycle after I realize what that noise is and attempt to dig the phone out of my pocket as I stop. Too slow, and I miss the call. Worse yet, I see that Anonymous has left a voice mail. I suspect Erik.

See, I’ve taken the phone with me for the first time this trip because I’m kind of expecting a call from Erik to coordinate tomorrow’s visit, but I haven’t taken the time to go through the agony of figuring out how voice mail works.

Here’s some facades on the way:

facades

And a gevelsteen, the doves of compassion:

mededogen

In the restaurant, I see a different cook in the kitchen but can’t decide whether it’s Wouter since I haven’t seen him in a year. After much waffling on my part, Rina cuts through the indecision and asks a waitress if the cook is Wouter. Yes. But then I continue to waffle about whether I should bother him by announcing my presence, especially since the place is busy.

Again, Rina leaps to the rescue. She procures a pen from the waitress, and I write Wouter a note on a coaster saying I’m in town and would enjoy seeing him. Then, when it’s clear that I do not have the courage to deliver the note, Rina hands it to the waitress, saying it’s a love letter. Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Well, fair’s fair, since I’d pushed her buttons by not wanting to contact him.

Wouter waves at me from the kitchen when the note is delivered. With our entrees, Rina and I have shared an order of the mixed vegetables (haricots verts, sugar snaps, and mushrooms, all cooked just to the point of tenderness), so we have room for dessert. We both opt for the crême brulée. They do the shallow dish version here, which I just love because that way you get more of the crunchy topping. The topping is perfect, and the custard is delicious, but if I had to pick a minor flaw, I’d admit that the custard might have been a tiny bit too soft. But then, maybe they prefer softer custard here rather than that awful hard stuff Americas like.

When Rina and I are standing to leave, Wouter bounds out and says hello. It turns out he’s off Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and I’ve just somehow missed him. So we agree to plan a meeting and I take his number.

After dinner, Rina and I stop at Els and Rene’s bar, just fifteen meters out of the way on Prinsengracht. Els tells me that Rene has had chemotherapy but is bouncing back from it although he has already gone to bed this evening. The bar is quite an enjoyable place set on three levels with entertaining sight lines, and in the canal in front of it they have a terrace boat where you can enjoy your drinks in nice weather.

Dinsdag 22 mei 2007 – Erik, Annemarie, and Jostin

Isabella Allende, whom Roberto Bolaño had dismissed as a “scribbler,” tartly observed shortly after his demise, “Death does not make you a nicer person.” That came to mind when I read the other day of Jerry Falwell’s transition to his new eternal residence. I also read in the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle Mark Morford’s fine column that, after an introductory paragraph, consisted entirely of Falwell quotations, all egregious.

In case anyone has forgot, Falwell was one of our loving Christian leaders. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Falwell said on his TV program, The 700 Club, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”

This afternoon, I’m frantically setting up an appetizer in preparation for meeting Annemarie and seeing Erik and Jostin again. For the appetizer, I’m breaking up and thinning the leftover chile verde and serving it with Turkish yogurt and some tortilla chips I fried this morning. I’m also cleaning my room and cramming Dutch vocabulary… like delen so I can make my joke about sharing my bedroom with a Citroën.

I demonstrate my frantic mode when they arrive, but finally relax and get drinks in their hands and appetizers on the table. It’s so good to meet Annemarie, and Erik and Jostin are as delightful as ever. Annemarie, Erik, and I eat a few bites of the chile verde dip while Jostin, being seventeen, polishes it off.

I take them to Vlaming even though Wouter is not cooking tonight, and we are not disappointed. That is a really good restaurant. Lindengracht 95, did I mention?

Here’s a pic on the way, a yellow veil I like:

yellowveil

And here’s one on the way back. That’s a pill on his tongue. Just as in England, in the old days before literacy was widespread, all the shops had formulaic symbols indicating what they sold. I have no idea why the black moor with a pill on his tongue became the symbol of the druggist. Nowadays these shops sell only non-prescription drugs.

drogist

After dinner, we retire back here for coffee and for them to meet Rina. Erik brings her a nice box of Leonidas chocolates. Good touch. Annemarie is very enjoyable, so I feel guilty that I get distracted over Erik and Jostin putting their heads together and helping me better understand and use my mobile, which is what the Europeans call a cell phone. Hmmmm. Well at least some of us do that, too. After all, the name of my US phone service provider is T-Mobile.

Woensdag 23 mei 2007 – An afternoon with Wouter

Wouter comes over at 1:00 and we spend the afternoon talking mostly about food and cooking. It’s sunny, so we go out to the sidewalk cafe that has seating on the wide bridge over the Singel a block south of Rina’s.

But it’s not all food. The conversation also covers current political crises and language. I’ll skip the politics for once and cover a linguistics issue….that the speakers of various languages differ in what they find difficult in other languages.

For example, the Dutch “ui” drives English speakers crazy. After we’ve learned not to pronounce it “ooey,” we discover that we can’t hear the difference between it and the Dutch “ou,” much less pronounce this difference. The Turks have trouble with the “ui” too, but they can’t hear the difference between it and the “ei,” which don’t sound at all alike to English speakers.

Wouter tells me of a recent exchange he had with a Turkish kitchen helper. The guy had asked him a question about onions that just didn’t make any sense. Desperately trying to understand, Wouter incredulously asks the Turk: “Een rode ui? (A red onion?)

“Nee, nee,” responded the helper, “Een kippe ui.” (A chicken onion.) See, he couldn’t pronounce a distinction between ui (onion) and ei (egg).

Another complication in the Amsterdam accent is that “n’s” are either dropped entirely or pronounced so softly that folks like Turks and Americans can’t hear them. On the other hand, people in the eastern part of the Netherlands still pronounce all their “n”s.

My friend Danny, who is from the eastern border, commented to me regarding the western pronunciation, “It gives me the creeps.” I responded, “You should hear what they say about you.” It’s just like Americans from the north and south finding each other’s accents funny.

Upon more reflection it occurs to me that some readers, like for example those who are not language mavens, may not partake in the full hilarity of the above discussion. For those folks, here’s a pic of cute little facade out somewhere between me and the Moroccan shop:

littlebalc

And another, good use of red:

redgarage

In the evening, I make The Pie to take with us tomorrow. Much easier this time, now that I’ve done it before over here.

Donderdag 24 mei 2007 – Dinner at Elly and Leo’s

In the morning, I help Rina install some additional braces to support the new blinds in her front apartment in hopes of keeping folks from breaking them so easily.

On the way out to the post office, I spot a veiled building on the Singel (I think) that appeals to me:

greenveil

And since I’m doing veiled buildings today, here’s another, over on Westerstraat:

kneppers

I’m going to the post office to pick up some makeup stamps so I can send a few postcards. My leftover stamps from last year are now eight cents short owing to a rate increase, which feels just like home. I do love the post offices here where you take a number and then sit comfortably on well-padded benches while a display board shows which number is being served at which window.

Unfortunately, when it’s my turn and I explain what I want, there is great negativity that I don’t understand, and I have to let him tell me in English that because they don’t have eight cent stamps, I’ll need to bring in the cards with the old stamps on them, and then he can add an electronic makeup. I love their benches, but it sure would be nice if they’d sell small denomination stamps, too. I guess you can’t have everything.

In the evening, it’s dinner at Elly and Leo’s down the street. I wrote last year about how delightful they are, and they’ve not changed. This year, Elly’s sister Ria joins us, and she is also great fun. I’m feeling very guilty about this dinner because it’s my turn to feed them, but I’ve had to cut back on my cooking this time owing to my mobility issues and also because to cook I need Rina’s kitchen, and Rina is just run ragged now with all the demands on her time. Among other things, she feeds Hans his evening meal every day.

When I heard Elly and Leo wanted to invite me, I announced that I wanted to bring an appetizer and the dessert so I could feel better about accepting. Just to make sure, in the afternoon I stop by that excellent liquor store down the street, where the guy takes mock offense over my even considering the possibility that he might not have Limoncello. He’s got three varieties, and unlike the situation with scotch and balsamic vinegar, the prices are in a narrow range and I can afford the best.

I bring cold-smoked paaling (smoked eel) and koolvis (smoked sable), and warme rerookt zalm (warm-smoked salmon) from Frank’s Smoke House along with half a loaf of a local white bread since the Dutch have this thing about needing to eat toast with eel…and I think it’s good, too.

Before the fish appetizer, though, we have Pastis. It had been a while since I’d had this, and I had forgot how good it is. That stuff could replace chocolate milk as my favorite beverage, and it was all I could do to refuse Leo’s offer of a second glass.

The menu:
A green salad with an absolutely correct vinaigrette.
Steamed new potatoes
Enormous perfectly steamed white asparagus accompanied by smoked ham, boiled egg, cold smoked salmon, and melted butter.

Ahhh, what better combination than ham and asparagus? But as I dig into a second serving of the asparagus I discover that it is so good it needs nothing else, not even butter. I’m a little sorry over this discovery because white asparagus is sold at the farmers’ markets back home, but it requires more peeling than green asparagus, and it is priced by the stalk. Fortunately, it has a very very short season.

For dessert, The Pie that I brought, which goes over very well.

Toward the end, I pull out my tale about seeing the pack of German tourists on bicycles and, as usual, the punch line about how this time, they rented the bicycles gets laughs. My goodness, do the Dutch in my generation ever love that line. Actually, the other day at a café an older gentleman with whom I was chatting observed with what I hope was not a tiny hint of regret that the younger generations have nothing against the Germans.

At this point I test my theory that Americans have replaced the Germans as the least popular foreigner, which leads to some reassurance. The Dutch know that, while American foreign policy does reflect the views of many Americans, Bush won election the first time by a quirk in the American electoral process augmented by a purely political ruling by the Supreme Court and the second time by a small majority. They also know that the great majority of Americans no longer support Bush and that last fall the Democrats were returned to power in both the House and the Senate, largely because more and more Americans had come to understand that they had been led into the war under false pretenses.

We talk about propaganda and I discover that the folks at last night’s dinner watch CNN news only when they feel like being horrified by a right-wing slant. This shocks me, and I tell them I think CNN is noticeably less biased than Fox, but then I learn that Fox News isn’t broadcast over here. Just as well, considering that they’re shocked by CNN.

For all our problems, one thing for sure that America has done right is that somehow, we have the ability, all too rare in the world, to let go of the past and start over. After perhaps the bloodiest civil war in all of human history, the vast majority of us were able, at least after one generation, to get on with life as it was rather than carefully teaching our children to nurse old hatreds.

I have Irish ancestors, but one of the most awful things I ever saw was a film clip of a bunch of Irish men, their faces contorted in hatred, screaming abuse at a crying little girl whose mother was walking her to school. What animals, I thought. And then I realized that the little girl’s mother – consciously, willingly, and with forethought – was deliberately leading her daughter into that situation. She was as bad as the men. Sickening. All of them loving Christians, stewing in their own hate of the other flavor of their religion. They deserve each other.

Vrijdag 25 mei 2007 – Random Acts of Kindness

Wonderful bilingual pun: The Rookies – a hotel, coffee shop, and restaurant. Background: a “coffee shop” in Amsterdam is a place where marijuana and hashish, in addition to coffee and soft drinks, are sold. A coffee shop that doesn’t sell marijuana and hashish is called a café. More background: The marijuana and hash bought in a coffee shop can be smoked on premises but not on the street. Well, not legally on the street. The Dutch word for “to smoke” is roken, and following the byzantine Dutch spelling rules, the stem vowel is doubled in some derived forms of the word. Thus, “rookies,” especially if pronounced with a long “o,” could mean “the smokers” even though the standard words for smokers are roker (male) and rookster (female). I may be reading too much into that.

OK, how ’bout some more gevelstenen. Here’s one that’s easy to interpret:

ship

And another that you have to work a bit on before you realize that it’s The Red Oil Mill:

roo

At noon I amble around the corner to Reinhart’s on Lijnbaanssteeg for some of their ossewurst. I get two varieties, the smoked and the raw. Well, the smoked is smoked for only about a centimeter in, and the raw is totally raw. Oh, it’s so good I don’t stop until I’ve finished it. Well, you know it won’t keep.

In the afternoon, I go down to Albert Heijn for some more of those yummy kroepoek that I luckily discovered only this visit since it would be a great exaggeration to describe them as nutritious. At least this time I buy the small bag, knowing that I’m gonna eat the whole thing no matter what size it is.

And then I drift over to the canned vegetables department, not because I actually need any canned vegetables but rather because some of the vegetables are sold in 225 g. glass jars with reusable lids, perfect for chocolate sauce or anything else I might make for gifts, and I have discovered that the doperwten (baby English peas) are delicious.

But where are they? There are big jars of them and little jars of a variety of other things, but no doperwten. Grrrrr. But I see that the display is in some disarray and the shelf is very deep, so I start reaching back into the dark interior and bringing forth small jars for examination. Nope. No doperwten.

And then I pick up on the body language of a young woman who has drifted up in front of the vegetables to my left, and I sense that she is after one of those in front of me, so I step aside with a smile to give her access since I’m determined to paw jars until I come up with the doperwten.

But she, too, doesn’t see what she wants. She reaches back into the recesses of the shelf and pulls out a small jar. She examines it and hands it to me.

It is the doperwten.

I am gobsmacked. I burst into laughter and start stuttering, “Hoe? Hoe? (How? How?) Je bint….mindreader. (Thou art mindreader) I had to throw in the “mindreader” in English, being too stunned at the moment to think of a way to say this with my limited vocabulary.

She joins me in laughter and says she was just guessing, but it sure does give both of us a good laugh. Random acts of kindness do that.

Zaterdag 26 mei 2007 – Dinner with Jacques and Kitty

There comes a moment at the end of training when the student is given a sink-or-swim opportunity to demonstrate whether he has successfully absorbed the knowledge and techniques that he was taught. That moment came for me this morning. Yep, I soloed.

A bicycle journey all by myself. No native guides, no bearers. Alone. Just me and the bike and the cobblestones and thousands of swarming Dutch bicyclists trying to run me down or at least throw themselves in my path while in the bushes lurk Amsterdam’s most accomplished bicycle thieves, waiting patiently, patiently for me to make the slightest error in chaining Rina’s bike up.

But I prevail. OK, I chicken out at stopping at the Noordermarkt since I can’t think of anything I need, and I nearly chicken out at the Marokkaanse shop because there is simply no place to which I can chain the bike. But then I realize that it’s not like I’m going into Albert Heijn, where I’m deep in the bowels of the store and can’t even catch a glimpse of the bike until I come back out. No, here there’s a huge front window I can put the bike in front of, just locking the back wheel lock, and I keep one eye on the bike while I buy my yogurt with the other.

And then at Albert Heijn I get lucky and there are several unoccupied slots in the bike rack in front of the store. I use one for a three-for: The Volendammer Vishandel, Albert Heijn, and that cheese store on the corner.

Here’s a lamp on the Singel that I like:

DSCN5172-1

And a late afternoon shot of the buildings on the Singel facing west in the block to the north of Lijnbaanssteeg:

DSCN5159

In the evening, Rina and I bicycle over to dinner with Jacques and Kitty. Rina brings a plum bombe from the Bijenkorf, and I bring a bottle of limoncello and some chile powder from Hatch, New Mexico. All I can say is it sure is a good thing I like being upstaged because Jacques serves a fabulous tapas dinner that has so many courses I’m bound to leave something out, but I’ll try.

On the table at the beginning:

Cold dishes:
A variety of breads
Assorted olives
A salad of the best tomatoes I’ve yet eaten in Amsterdam with basil and buffalo mozzarella
Serrano ham with melon
Herb poached chicken thighs
Fritatta
Marinated anchovies
Clams in a white wine sauce
Meikaas wedges dressed in an olive oil sauce
Broiled and salted long green peppers

Hot dishes:
Chorizo
Meatballs in tomato sauce

Brought to table afterwards as separate hot courses:
Fried whole fresh anchovies
Shrimp in a tomato cream sauce

Dessert:
Mixed fresh berries with balsamic vinegar and black pepper
Blackberry bombe
Tiny amaretti

To drink: various wines and a very tasty sangria, of which I have two small glasses in an experiment to see whether I’ll be as hung over as I was after dinner at Elly and Leo’s.

Other guests, Els and René. Conversation is overwhelmingly in Dutch, which is what I want, but this means that I miss big chunks of it. I’m making progress, but what I really need to do to learn the language is live here…and I just can’t see myself leaving San Francisco.

I test-drive Wouter’s tale about the “chicken onion,” and it goes over pretty well. So there, all you doubters…me being the main doubter, wondering whether my pronunciation is good enough to pull this one off.

As we’re saying our goodbyes at the front door, Jacques tells a heart-warming story of an humble citizen’s quick-witted victory over his city’s bureaucracy. The other day Jacques stepped out onto his doorstep and saw a crew of city gardeners unloading weapons of botanical destruction. Alarmed, he went inside and grabbed his camera. He stepped back out and asked the men what was going on. When they told him they were removing a non-standard tree, he says, “Well, you’re going to be famous as the men who destroyed the nest of Amsterdam’s last remaining breeding pair of ringmussen (ringed sparrows).”

He stood there with his camera in his hand as they talked it over among themselves, packed their tools, and left.

Well, there is a nest visible in the tree although Jacques is coy about any actual occupants.

Zondag 27 mei 2007 – Vlaming Again

Recovery day. And this time it can’t possibly be a hangover because I had only two small glasses of sangria. Apparently it’s just staying up past my bedtime plus advanced age and gluttony.

At noon I wobble out to check my email. Oh, have I mentioned that the well-dressed matron I talked about last year in Feeding Amsterdam is still soliciting at her doorway this year? Can’t keep a good girl down. Ummmmm. Well.

Here’s another Spuistraat enterprise, a gay porn shop or maybe a gay brothel, or both:

whynot

And a wonderful vine just down the street. I love that Amsterdam School (I think) building to the left of it:whiteflowers

In the late afternoon I go over to Vlaming because this could well be my last opportunity to see Wouter. I get there at 5:45 with the idea that I’ll be able to say hello/goodbye to him and give him a bag of Hatch chile powder. My plan works, and we get in a quick chat before the first other customers come in.

Annemarie had had the tuna steak the other night, and I could see across the table that they cook it right at Vlaming, by which I mean it’s dead raw in the center. It’s garnished with rocket lettuce leaves (arugula), but what I couldn’t see across the table is that it is delicately sauced with a sesame seed and soy mixture. A problem with this dish in many restaurants is that the steak is served up to its knees in a puddle of soy sauce and thus soaks up enough soy flavor to mask everything else. Here, there cannot be more than half a teaspoon of soy, just enough to provide a subtle flavor. Attention to details like this marks good restaurants.

I have frites (French fries) with the steak, and they are as good as ever. At the end of the meal I discover that Wouter has comped it, which I certainly appreciate although it makes me feel like I’m taking advantage of them. Well, maybe not, since it is my fifth time to eat there, I’ve brought four other people in, and I’ve touted it to a good many local gourmets. At least, when I pay my bar bill, I throw in extra to compensate for the lost tip on the meal.

Maandag 28 mei 2007 – Tipping Point

Today I have a thrilling moment. I’m walking on Radhuisstraat over the Singel and suddenly I see this young woman on a bicycle who is rolling forward as she is looking back over her shoulder at some distraction. Oblivious to the oncoming bicycle, another woman with a toddler in hand is stepping into the crosswalk.

Without thinking, I shout, “Look out!” and the bicyclist stops in time.

Well, what’s so thrilling about that? you ask.

Actually, what I say without thinking is “kijk op!” in Dutch without translating from English.

Students of foreign languages are always told that they must learn to think in the new language although I don’t recall anyone ever saying how you were supposed to do this. Well, I have caught myself thinking individual words in Dutch, but somehow to say a phrase aloud in an emergency without thinking feels like a tipping point.

Let’s celebrate with another gevelsteen, this one being the Surinamese Coffee Barrel:

koffie

and the Tangled Yarn:

wargarn

But since I’m talking about language today: Flushed with recent successes, I’ve started trying to soften my “z’s” to emulate this distinctive feature of the Amsterdam accent. Hint for Americans who’ve never tried to soften a “z”: Stop voicing it, which turns it into an “s”.,

One more language bit: Rina gave me what is, with the exception of something tasty to eat, my favorite gift: a tee shirt with something clever on it. And better yet, it’s in Dutch and involves a play on an old Dutch proverb: “Beter een goede buur dan een verre vriend” (Better a good neighbor than a faraway friend.) The front of my shirt reads “Een goede buur…”, which make every Netherlander think of the proverb. The back of the shirt reads “Doe mij maar een verre vriend” (Just be a good friend), which is what I have to do since I can’t be a neighbor. Do I love this or what? I’ll be wearing it until it’s hanging on me in tatters.

Dinsdag 29 mei 2007 – Bicycle Barricade

In the morning I bicycle over to the Volendammer on Haarlemmerdijk to order five mackerel for pick up on Thursday. On the way, I realize that even though I’ve never seen a whole eel in there, they would probably sell me one with some notice. Sure enough. So I back off to four mackerel and go for two eels. The entire encounter goes very well, entirely in Dutch even including mentioning that I’ve been taking their mackerel back after my May visit every year. I understand immediately every question they ask me, and I explain that I’d like them to vacuum seal the entire order in that heavy plastic they use.

But the absolute best part of the encounter comes when I’m about to use a German word and pause, trying to think of the proper Dutch word, and instead of switching to English on me, the young woman supplies the word in Dutch! Oh, go to the Volendammer with a fistful of euros and buy lots of fish! Tell ’em Mijnheer Bryan uit San Francisco sent you. Oh, they have a couple of other convenient locations, too, like one on Albert Cuypstraat.

Then I walk up to the post office to get the makeup postage on my cards and swing by Albert Heijn to get some cheese to take back. Three aged Goudas: one called Rembrandt, Old Amsterdam for my friend David, and the Prima Donna extra rijp so I can take it to 24th Street and wave it in Charles’ face.

Back here, I feed lunch to Rina and her delightful young neighbor, a mechanical engineering major named Alexander who does repair work for her. He is very knowledgeable about architecture and gives me some tips as to places he thinks I might like. We talk about Calatrava and I mention Rem Koolhaas’ snarky comment regarding Calatrava’s building a hundred meter bridge over a ten meter canal.

Alexander comes back with a bit of Dutch gossip as to how when Koolhaas was in New York to check out progress on a building of his under construction, he had to phone the construction foreman because he couldn’t find the front door.

Well, OK, a mitigating factor was that the building had undergone a number of design changes, so supposedly he couldn’t recall which design was actually being built. Still, I imagine this dish has been savored cold in the Calatrava camp.

Not having read my tales, Alexander asks me my impression of the Dutch, and I tell him that they delight me…and on one level, horrify me, the latter case being their casual disregard for minor regulations. I explain that the typical American is much more likely to obey minor regulations without thinking, but that the main reason for our obedience is that regulations tend to be more strictly enforced in America.

As an example, I tell him that nowhere in America would the police have to construct, as they did last year at mouth of Lijnbaanssteeg twenty meters from the busy back door of a major police station, a set of barricades impossible to negotiate on a bicycle in order to prevent bicyclists from disobeying the pedestrian-only signs!!! In previous years I had on numerous occasions seen bicyclists squealing in outraged protest as a cop said “ja, ja, ja” as he wrote them a ticket for this infraction, but this enforcement had so little effect that the police had to give up and use barricades.

Speaking of police and such, here’s an interesting sign. I have a feeling it is not pointing the way to the nearest dollars:

yellowsign

Oh, did I mention that a major plus about Alexander, I mean, besides his intellectual attributes, is that his hair is longer than mine. Yep, although he wears it in a ponytail like Wouter does. May not get mine cut off after all, especially since a fair number of Dutch men my age are also still letting their freak flags fly. It’s interesting to observe that Dutch men seem to wear their hair however long they damn well want, from buzz cut to shoulder length.

Here’s a transom light I like:

windowlight

Tonight, Rina takes me to dinner at Humphreys, located on the Nieuwezijds Kolk so close that even Rina would walk to it. A good buy. Large portions of good food at a reasonable price for what it is. Prix fixe menu with around eight choices each for first course, second course (all accompanied by generous side dishes, and dessert. Very limited choices of wine by the glass.

Perhaps the high point of the meal is that there was only one word on the extensive Dutch menu I didn’t know. Pat, pat, pat. Well, better retract the self-congratulation since I can’t recall the word now.

I have the carpaccio, dressed with a bit of fontina-like cheese. Tasty, if a bit chewy. The coq au vin is good without being great. And for dessert, a chèvre-like goat cheese with roasted peppers that was excellent. Reminds me of Patricia Unterman writing in her legendary review of Maxwell’s Plum that since they used only the finest ingredients, the less they did to something, the better it was.

Woensdag 30 mei 2007 – Marken

Sun, glorious sun for the first day in a week. Rina drives us out in the country, taking a route right past the polder where Betty and Ko live. The destination is Marken, an impossibly cute Dutch village in which many of the houses during much of its history were on stilts owing to the iffiness of the surrounding dikes. It is preserved to a crisp, rather like a Dutch Williamsburg.

marken

In Marken, some of the folks there are wearing the native costume, just as the folks in Williamsburg dress in colonial attire. Rina says that when she went to Marken as a child, everyone was still wearing the traditional dress, but then not to attract tourists.

Here’s a shot between the houses:

between

In the museum, we watched an informative film showing how the dress was fixed according to age and sex: children up to six were dressed alike, all wearing skirts. Then, from six till adulthood, they all wore a different costume that included pants for the boys. Adults wore something else. How strange that seems to us now. Ummm. Well, then again I notice that now in Amsterdam the young people are dressed virtually identically in those ridiculous low-rise, pre-distressed jeans. Ummm, and then I recall that at that seventies party we went to a couple of weeks ago, several of the guests had somehow dug up bell bottoms.

There are three drawbridges in Marken, named after the most recent Queens. Here’s Wilhelmina’s:

DSCN5627

And Juliana’s:

Marken really is cute, but good grief, we ambled a distance that could not have been 200 meters, with a rest stop for coffee and pie in the middle, and I was so exhausted by the time we got back to the car that I could barely think. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so eager to get back home and see a doctor. Well, except for that time in 1970 when I was getting acquainted with the locals right after I’d moved to Midland and acquired a social disease.

After a rest, I create Spinazie Lodewijk by mixing some of that Turkish yogurt into warmed up leftover spinach I’d cooked the other day with nutmeg, coriander, and mixed peppers. I am shocked at how good it is and plan to wow San Francisco with it.

Donderdag 31 mei 2007 – Dinner at Joke and Arjan’s

In the morning I go to the Volendammer to pick up fish. Alas, their suppler delivered no eel this time, so I get an extra mackerel. I had brought a few of the new American $1 coins with Washington on them for Rina and the grandkids, and I brought the leftover one in for the young lady who on Tuesday had given me the Dutch word I needed instead of switching to English. A small reward for a kind gesture.

OK, I promise. After these, no more gevelstenen ever again. The first one is the Flying Vo, whatever a Vo is, and frankly it looks to me way too much like that thing called a “kalf” i showed earlier:vliegende

The second is the Flight out of Egypt:

vlught

And finally, since they’re small, one that required some real sleuthing but which I finally figured out. T is the abbreviation of het (the), WAPEN is Coat of Arms, VA is an abbreviation of van (of), and Tessel is the West Frisian spelling of the island of Texel. Whew:

twapen

On the way back, I stop in for goodbyes at the Bulldog. Nice guy. And also much friendlier than his alternate, a good-looking young woman with a sharp tongue on her.

At 3:00, I bicycle over to Edward’s, and we have a good talk as usual. Then, as is routinely the case at Edward’s, someone new arrives.

Ali.

About whom I’ve heard too much. But who is charming, and he is carrying a bag of large anchovies, which he fries for us. Edward makes a salad of cucumber and boiled egg. Alas, I can only nibble, as I am having dinner later and must leave at 6:00.

At 6:30 Elly drops by with a wonderful tee-shirt for me from the Mark Raven gallery, and we say our goodbyes.

Then Rina and I take the tram to Joke and Arjan’s way over in eastern Amsterdam out of my charted territory. They have a really nice apartment with a lean, almost minimalist look that appeals to my eye.

Joke is an avid reader of American novels and has an impressive collection of books. She and Arjan have collaborated on the dinner, and it is the healthiest dinner I’ve had this visit, and that certainly includes all I’ve given. The menu:

Warm cucumber soup that is as delicious as it is unusual.
Excellent bread
Moroccan sausages…a merguez type.
A mixture of couscous, green peas, and tiny bit of broccoli that is deceptively simple and just delicious.
Ice cream

They are a charming and gracious couple who I would really like to get to know better on my next visit.

And the best thing of all is that Joke has to go to work at six the next morning, so we get to go home at what I consider a reasonable hour to get some sleep before my return flight.

Vrijdag 1 juni 2007 – Home at Last

Up at six. Rina has guests coming in early and can’t give me a ride to the airport, so I use a cab for €50. No way I can possibly drag my suitcases to the Centraal Station with my legs this way.

I read about half of Mak’s In Europe on the way back since there’s no way to sleep on a flight that leaves Amsterdam at 11:00 AM and arrives in San Francisco at 1:00 PM. That is such a fine book. I recommend it highly.

And what a joy it is to return to San Francisco. No matter how much I’ve enjoyed myself on a visit elsewhere, it’s always a great thrill to get back.

Now, I can relax and be home…well, before I relax I need to perform my first act upon arriving anywhere – hit a grocery store.

Here’s a shot at the front door of Rainbow Grocery, a health-food-oriented, worker-owned place where you can get good deals on bulk staples and spices, recycle your batteries, and get lots of attitude if you ask ’em why they don’t sell meat:

DSCN5701

And here’s the freeway offramp in front of the store:

freeway

At some point while I was enthusiastically shopping for food with Rina, she turned to me and remarked, “You know, you should have your ashes scattered at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.” After I stop laughing at this wonderful idea, I tell her it’s not legal.

Like a true Dutch anarchist, she says “Oh, that doesn’t matter.”

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