2008 – The Fall of Amsterdam

8 September 2008 – Still More

I’m off to Amsterdam again, for still more adventures during my first autumn visit…thus the title.

San Francisco 3rd St. DrawbridgeTo get us ready for Amsterdam, here’s a pic of SF’s 3rd St. drawbridge, which somehow lacks the, ummm, delicacy of Amsterdam’s. Take another look at those humongous counterweights:

My damn legs have failed again, but luckily this summer the new, improved, kinder, gentler, and eminently more sensible Dutch Transportation Minister lifted the ban on the Segway, so I’m taking mine again to permit me to get around better.

Which is just as well because I now have a new Amsterdam correspondent who this spring started a Dutch Cooking blog (in English, yet) with interesting recipes and recommendations for food shops and restaurants. I’m dying to visit all of ’em I don’t already know, and since many of her favorite places are in her own part of town rather than Rina’s, they would be very tedious for me to get to without the Segway.

The hitch is that although KLM is happy to fly the Segway over for me as a handicap assistance device, like all the other airlines they will not ship the new lithium-ion batteries, so I’m having new cells installed in my old NiMH batteries. To make life more entertaining, there was a production delay at the company, and I’m sweating their arrival in time for my departure.

Meanwhile, I’m frantically trying to complete my preparations. You know, stuff like getting my new notebook PC ready for its maiden voyage: I spent yesterday trying to trick my Dutch dictionary into running on it, a day of hacking and cursing that ended in failure after I had finally painfully translated pages of technical Dutch off the damn website and downloaded the file that would permit the thing to run under the Vista operating system, only to discover once past that hurdle that it no longer liked the serial number I had used on my previous computer. Grrrrr. The master plan now is to see if I can get Rina’s delightful young engineering student neighbor Alexander to help me read all those Dutch instructions and figure out what I’m doing wrong.

And hey, I’m trying, but is it really fair for the instructions accompanying a Dutch-English/English-Dutch dictionary to be only in Dutch? I mean, if I could read Dutch well, I wouldn’t need the dictionary, now  would I?

Other preparatory excitement here includes passing the rules and riding test for my BART Disabled Segway rider badge, which I’ll take with me to brandish in case I get any flak.

Rina and I are both slowing down, so there’ll be a less frantic social schedule and I’ll be cooking less. Gonna give ’em a break this year on the chile verde, so I won’t have to lug tomatillos and Pasilla chiles, but I am taking a selection of chile powders for chile con carne as well as the Tierra foods mix that simplifies making mole poblano, which the Dutch just love.

And hey, the cornbread is also a favorite, so I’ll take a couple of pounds of cornmeal since I haven’t been able to find the right grind over there.

And then for gifts: 12 oz. bottles of dark agave nectar, assorted El Rey chocolates, packages of Mexican saffron, green Tabasco sauce, decorated muffin papers, and bars of California Bay Laurel soap. For Rina’s grandchildren, more American coins (state commemorative quarters and presidential commemorative dollars) and kids’ books in English.

Tuesday-Wednesday 16-17 September 2008 – KLM Forever

Oh, have things fallen together or what?! I went down to Casa Guadalupe and told my favorite checker that I was going to Amsterdam and wanted to make posole there but didn’t want to carry canned hominy with me. She agreed with my speculation that they might carry a form of dried hominy that would work as well, and she led me by the hand to the right stuff. I got four pounds, both fresh and dried pasilla chiles, and also some Mexican saffron and epazote for gifts.

Other good news was that Battery Refill down in Ontario came through, and my NiMH Segway batteries arrived last Thursday in time for me to get in two of the elaborate, eighteen hour conditioning procedures before my departure.

The next day, my official BART Disabled Segway Rider placard arrived, which I needed under the new rules to get to the airport on BART. I took the placard on a trial run on Saturday when I rode the Segway to say goodbye to Sybil at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, and this time nobody was bristling with indignation over my riding in the market since it was clearly a handicap assistance device….well, except for one guy who walked across the nearly empty hallway to complain that I should be holding the Segway upright while I talked with Sybil because someone might trip over it even though at that hour the corridor was virtually empty.

What is it about that market that attracts such an anti-Segway crowd?

At any rate, since it establishes street cred, I plan on carrying the placard routinely.

My neighbor Jeff is kindly moving my car on street-cleaning days for the first two weeks of my trip, and he also took the time to drive me to the airport in my car since I’d got a little nervous about whether the boarding pass I’d printed was legible enough, my printer having chosen to start printing badly just as I desperately needed to print the pass.

The flight over was made more interesting by conversation with the man seated beside me, an Estonian who now lives in San Francisco and who had some interesting insights on the Russian character.

KLM got my Segway here intact except for a chunk of the left fender. But then, as I told the nice lady who offered to fill out a damage report, I couldn’t really complain since I was so grateful for their shipping it free. Fair’s fair.

In spite of the handful of sleeping pills. I didn’t really go to sleep on the flight, so I was just exhausted when Rina picked me up at Schipol. By the time we got me unpacked and I’d shown her all the goodies I’d brought, I was ready for a nap and slept nearly until Rina returned from feeding Hans his supper at seven.

We walked thirty meters down Spuistraat to the Afghan takeout place for tandoori chicken, bami, potatoes, and their incomparable curried spinach; and by the time we’d finished it and talked a bit, it was ten and I crawled into bed and slept until seven-thirty the next morning, which was all day back in San Francisco.

Oh and just to prove I really got here, a pic of some fine Dutch humor on the baggage carousel at Schipol:


Donderdag 18 September 2008 – A Brush with the Law

An action-packed day, most especially since with no discernible jet lag I somehow seem to have adjusted overnight to the GMT+1 time zone, nine whole hours earlier than San Francisco.

I start the day off by learning another little cultural tidbit. The Dutch share our folk superstition about knocking on wood to ward off misfortune, but in my generation they are a bit more precise. I knock on Rina’s tabletop, and she immediately demonstrates the correct way by knocking on the underside of the table. See, it doesn’t work if you knock on painted or even varnished wood. Has to be bare.

And learning that sort of thing, folks, is why I come to Amsterdam. Museums, schmuseums.

In the morning I do a little food shopping and, as on every visit, am struck by how incredibly cheap so many foods are here, even considering the weakness of the dollar. For example, when was the last time you saw a can of small sardines in olive oil for 99 cents, 335 grams (1 ¾ cup) of superb Zaanse mustard for 78 cents, a 250 gram box (the standard size sold in America) of Droste cocoa powder for €2,49, or Blooker cocoa (which I think is quite good) for €0,99, a liter of milk for 80 cents, a 200 gr. bar of Cote d’Or chocolate (an expensive brand and my favorite) for €1,75, etc. etc.? Folks have been warning me all my life about the horrors of socialized medicine. This must be socialized food.

And since I’m out, I hit the Moroccan place for some of that obscene 10% fat Turkish yogurt and the Volendammer Vishandel for a smoked mackerel and 100 gr. of smoked eel. The shopping is especially successful because not one word of English is uttered anywhere except in the Moroccan place, and that’s only because I get tongue-tied around folks I know, and the shopkeeper recognizes me and speaks to me in English when I come in. So I’m too excited to confine myself to a single language, and we talk in a melange of English, French, and Dutch.

At five, Rina and I ride over to the nursing home to see Hans, she on her bicycle and me on the Segway. Soooooooo much better than trying to wobble along on a bicycle since it hurts too much and I annoy all the natives by getting in their way.

Centraal Station bike parkingSpeaking of bicycles, here’s a shot out in front of the Centraal Station that illustrates the ubiquity of the bicycle in the Netherlands:

The nursing home is sad, of course, as they always are. And it’s perhaps even worse because Hans is in a large one where the patients are segregated by condition, so everyone on Hans’s floor is at least totally senile if not raving mad. Hans can no longer walk and is sitting in a wheelchair screaming when we arrive. Rina wheels him around the corner to a sidewalk cafe, and I talk to him and feed him dried cherries while she gets coffee for us and ice cream for him. After she spoons him the ice cream, we go back into the home and she feeds him his supper.

Afterwards we ride over to the new public library, the Open Bare Bibliotheek Amsterdam. Click on English to get a translation, but i can tell you here that it is not the butt nekkid library.) This astonishing building has somehow miraculously appeared since my last visit (with a handsome conservatory of music beside it) between the Centraal Station and the Stedelijk Museum. The exterior is stunning. All provincialism aside, I can think of no new building more handsome in San Francisco.

We chain our vehicles and ascend the broad, low steps to the entrance, and I feel like I’m entering a temple on a planet circling Arcturus. They do well for their gods here. We step inside, and I am at once struck by a sense of great beauty and spaciousness. The rooms in Dutch homes and restaurants tend to be cozy, if not small, but their public buildings, like ours, boast large interior spaces.

And it’s not just a pretty face. I’m standing there awestruck, looking at the escalators rising six stories in a central atrium and notice a large sign on each floor announcing the main content… like in a department store. Of course instead of 3rd Floor – Men’s Underwear, it’s 3rd Floor – Novels.

And oh, it’s sleek. Every floor has a great variety of gorgeous and comfortable seating, and rows of computers. We ride higher and higher and I marvel that every floor has its own aesthetic. On the fourth floor, there is live music: a country band is playing….American country.

On the seventh floor, there is a restaurant, and it’s the modern version of a cafeteria with stations where you can serve yourself small, medium, or large salads that you compose yourself from a huge selection of ingredients. Other stations offer filets of various meats and fish grilled to order while you watch, pizzas, soups, breads, desserts, and many beverages.

Neither of us is terribly hungry since we had a late lunch, so we both go for soup and salad. The cream of mushroom soup vies with that served at Tangerine on 16th Street in San Francisco, and I compose a salad of delicious braised vegetables: endive, fennel root, red sweet peppers, and mushrooms, plus some grilled eggplant. We split a large, rough grainy roll.

We enjoy it all on an outdoor terrace with a spectacular view of the eastern part of the city and then retreat indoors for a dessert, mine rating only a “good” and thus the only weak point of the meal.

repurposed cartsHere’s some art on the way to the library. In San Francisco the shopping carts have been repurposed, instead, by the homeless:

Ah, but the fun has only started. As we’d approached the library I’d noticed that my electricity gauge was getting pretty low and remembered that I’d used the Segway for a couple of trips back in San Francisco before taking it to the airport.

When we start home, the very real possibility of running out of electricity looms, and Rina accordingly leads us on a shortcut through the grounds in front of the Centraal Station. Of course since she’s Dutch, it’s a totally illegal shortcut, and about halfway across we are busted by a cop for riding our vehicles in a pedestrian-only zone. He lets us off with a caution.

And yes, of course I could plead handicap vehicle, but in another country I don’t want to play the entitled American asking for the special privileges that I damn well demand at home.

So we slowly walk the remainder of the way across the station square before we remount our vehicles, which is just as well because right after we make it to Spuistraat and cross Nieuwendijk, the Segway bleats its out-of-power warning and I jump off. We walk the remaining hundred meters home.

I end the evening by sitting here typing while waiting for the Segway batteries to cool off so i can plug it in for charging, realizing as I glance out the windows that I have come full circle and am sitting in the same room I occupied in 2001. And yes, the police station is still directly across the street, and the building to the left still houses working girls posing provocatively in their windows.

It crosses my mind to stand in my window as I remove my clothes for bed, but I fear the cops might glance up from their desks and know some silly rule against this, perhaps involving my lack of a prostitution permit, and I’ve already had my brush with the law today.

Vrijdag 19 September 2008 – Culinary Expedition

Rina and I ride to Aldi (a cut-rate grocery) this afternoon and pick up some bargains on items we know we’ll be needing for dinners. Our next stop is this ultra upscale kitchen supply store named Duikelman over near the Albert Cuyp Markt. Rina wants to buy a juicer for Cyrus’s birthday, and we agonize over which model even though in the secret places of our hearts both of us know that she will end up buying the heavy metal luxury model for €400 rather than the partly plastic €200 starter version. I mean, are you going to cut corners on a healthy food preparation item for your only child?

The day is gorgeous, so the ride back across the city with the juicer in a huge box slung with heavy cords off the Segway handlebars is entertaining. No poufty rich guy toy here, this is a working vehicle, and oh a heavily laden Segway does attract attention.

I’m noticing that Rina’s cats are much friendlier when I have smoked mackerel on my breath. And since cats have short memories, the older one, Tutankhamun, has forgot his jealous rage from a couple of years ago (see “Faithless Woman” in Amsterdam by Foot) and is eminently strokable to the point that he rewards me with a loud purrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

In the evening, we take Rina’s car over to dinner with Colette and the grandkids, Kyra and Ivar, who live over to the east of Frank’s Smoke House. Colette serves us a very tasty couscous dish, and I dive back in for seconds. She goes off to a late meeting, and the kids give me guided tours of their rooms. Tons of toys, but it’s a two-income family with a doting grandmother, and I cannot imagine any kids anywhere more deserving of toys.

Here’s the development they live in:


And their view:


We bring the kids to Rina’s for the night, and I give them Segway lessons in the huge garage space, which is now empty and is the perfect environment for an introduction. Like all kids, they are immediately at home on it, and while Kyra is taking her first trial, Ivar sets up three boxes in a row to form a slalom run for his second trial.

The day is made perfect when Rina’s neighbor arrives, and I offer him Segway lessons plus a couple hours use if he’ll give me access to his wireless network. He agrees. He also takes to the Segway immediately, and when I upgrade him to the expert key, he roars (or perhaps “zips” would be more appropriate) through Ivar’s slalom run.

Upstairs, I give the kids the American commemorative quarters and dollar coins I’ve been saving for them, and call it a day. Well, after connecting to the wireless network and mainlining my email. Such a relief, as I was jonesing.

Zaterdag 20 September 2008 – A Narrow Escape

I breakfast with Rina and the kids, and we have a linguistic breakthrough. The Segwaying last night may have tipped the scale, or perhaps it was the coins; but in any case this morning the kids are much quicker to supply me with Dutch words I’m grappling for. The real breakthrough, though, comes when I ask Ivar if he understands something I’ve said and he gives me the thrill of having my grammar corrected by a 12-year-old boy….nothing serious, only one of those minor unnecessary complications with which Dutch abounds. I mean, why can’t they just use English word order?

These are the most delightful kids I’ve ever seen, and certainly they’re the nicest to each other. My sister and I were good kids, as kids go, but we squabbled constantly. I’ve never heard a cross word between Kyra and Ivar although both parents assure me that she can goad him beyond his endurance.

In the afternoon I ride out behind the Centraal Station to take pictures of the new architecture. Like this Music Building on the IJ:

Music Building on the IJ

And hey, do they ever give good metro station:

Stijn comes over in the evening and we go to a small Japanese restaurant on Zeedijk diagonally across from the Little Thai Prince. We agree that they will walk and I will ride the Segway because while I could walk that far, I would be maddeningly slow for anyone else. On the other hand, if you wanna run, I can keep up with you on the Segway.

The owner/chef greets Stijn, who’s clearly a regular. She steers us to the house specialty, a Japanese version of the Chinese fire pot. The waitress brings a gas-fired burner with a large shallow pot on top and sautées some onions in it. Then she fills it half full with stock and brings a platter of thinly sliced beef, tofu cubes, mushrooms, baby spinach leaves, and a green I don’t recognize. She puts an assortment into the simmering broth, beats an egg in a six-inch bowl for each of us, ladles a bit of the broth into our bowls, and shows us how to take things out of the broth into our bowls.

We’re on our own to add more meat and vegetables as required, and we all do splendidly although I’m having to re-learn how to use chopsticks now that my index finger doesn’t operate right from being broken a couple of months ago. However, as is the case in so many areas, I compensate for lack of grace with enthusiasm.

We part with Stijn in front of the restaurant, and weave our way home through the Saturday night crowds. A festive evening, and all goes well until after I’ve walked the Segway through Lijnbaanssteeg with what Rina views as unnecessary obedience to a silly little law. I get back on as soon as it’s legal and roll across Spuistraat, but as I turn onto the bicycle lane Rina urgently hisses, Get off!

I do, and just in time, for between us and her door there is a police ambush, and they are ticketing bicyclists who don’t have front and rear lights, which of course I don’t, even though every American woman I know has expressed horror that I ride at night without them.

I get a delicious thrill as we walk past the collared pack of law breakers squealing excuses involving their mothers’ funerals as the cops keep writing. Matte Gray, Successful Scofflaw.

And Rina? Well, she’s Dutch. Her lights, cheap-ass things, stopped working a couple of years ago and she hasn’t seen a replacement model she likes yet.

I don’t ask whether she’s looked in a store.

Zondag 21 September 2008 – Busted Again

Surely you didn’t think that I could come to Amsterdam and not take pictures of bridges. Like this one, on De Ruiterkade just behind and a bit to the west of the Centraal Station:


Or this spectacular engineering confection connecting the Bimhuis, a music hall, with the Piet Heinkade:


I start the day with a trip to Hema for some bicycle lights. I don’t understand why they stock such a wide variety since clearly few Dutch bicyclists buy them. There’s nothing that looks like it could be bolted onto the Segway, but then I spot a package of two little LED lights, one white and one red, only €4,95, inclusief batterijen. They’re not to light your way but rather to light you up, and they have clips that can fasten onto a lapel or collar or shirttail.

Ummmm, they could probably even be fastened onto a helmet, but I won’t know about that until I return to the states. Well, see, the Dutch have this little thing about helmets, and nobody wears one unless he’s a racer. An ordinary civilian wearing one would look like a ridiculous poseur, and Give Me Death before I would bring down that level of shame on the American nation.

Today is a car-free day in Amsterdam, and there are virtually no cars on the streets. It’s another beautiful day, and bicyclists and skateboarders and pedestrians are swarming and the terrace cafés and bars are jammed. In the afternoon I do a grand loop on the Segway through Haarlemmerstraat and Brouwersgracht taking pics and then stop for coffee at P96, Els and René’s bar/café, which has a terrace floating in the canal and is oddly enough located at Prinsengracht 96.

I meet Rina at the nursing home as she’s finishing feeding Hans, and we ride over to a little Turkish place nearby where we have a supper of a wonderful soup and a Turkish bread that’s rather like thick pita….and a baklava-type dessert.

Rina comes in about 10:30 this evening from choir practice, and we’re sitting here sipping juice and she sniffs suspiciously. Smells like speklapjes in here, she says.

Busted. And laughing too hard to even think of denying it. See, when I was in Albert Heijn this afternoon, a package of ’em somehow jumped into my shopping basket. And then when I got home and she was already gone, I had to cook one and gobble it for a mid-day snack. The smell of pan-seared fresh pork belly lingers in the still air.

But hey, I’m soon going back on my diet since it struck me this afternoon that so far this visit I’ve been consuming approximately 75 gr. of chocolate and a medium bag of kroepoek daily, and this is unsustainable. Kroepoek are those delicious wafers made largely of ground-up shrimp, shells and all, that have been pressed into discs and then fried like potato chips. I can buy the uncooked discs in San Francisco, but they’re a big hassle to fry up. Here, all the grocery stores have them in bags ready to eat, and they are way too tempting.

Well, before I go on the diet I’ll have to go ahead and finish that 0,826 kg package of speklapjes. For those who haven’t read my disquisitions on the speklapje during previous visits, that package contains basically a lifetime allotment of saturated fat.

Maandag 22 September 2008 – Canvasburger

Brouwersgracht traffic jamHere’s a shot from yesterday afternoon of a Brouwersgracht traffic jam. At a point with double mooring on both sides of the canal, a scull frantically ships oars as a motorboat churns through. That’s six abreast.

In the afternoon, a shopping adventure because I need soda for the cornbread that I’m planning to cook tomorrow. Rina and I tear Albert Heijn apart looking for it, and then she asks for help to confirm its nonexistence. But no prob of course because I remember seeing it in San Andrecito, and I swing by there on the way home.

The dudes hanging out in front are very interested in the Segway, but I’m in kind of a rush so I don’t offer ’em a trial ride as I often do. I go inside and am trying unsuccessfully to explain to the clerk what I want, and one of the outside guys comes in to help. He understands before I have to switch from Dutch to Tex-Mex, but alas, soda is temporarily out of stock.

Back outside, I offer the helpful guy a trial, and he eagerly accepts, as do the other guy and the clerk. Then I ask them who else might carry soda, and am told that Surinamese and Chinese markets often stock it. Bingo.

I whir off across the Centrum to that Chinese toko on Geldereskade where I’ve found exotic items like hua jiao. I don’t see that chauvinistic manager who a couple of years ago endeared himself to me by understanding my pronunciation of hua jiao, so I walk around to the checkers and ask one for natrium bicarbonaat, not thinking that this would be the equivalent of walking into Safeway and asking a checker for sodium bicarbonate.

She immediately summons the new manager, but he, too, is perplexed. Then I have the wit to tell him it’s something like bakpoeder, and he leads me to that section. I am confronted with a whole shelf of baking powder variations from all over the planet, so I start at the left end reading the ingredients of each variety. All are mixtures of components of typical baking powders, and as I get to the middle of the shelf, hope begins to wane. And then, out of the corner of my eye I spot at the right end a bright yellow box with a familiar logo. Yep, Arm and Hammer® Baking Soda, rushed in from New Jersey.

In the evening I meet Rina at the nursing home. For Cyrus’ birthday we ride way the hell across town over the Amstel and then south on Wibautstraat to this very strange, totally hip restaurant named Canvas at the top of a building that formerly housed De Volkskrant, a local newspaper.

Cyrus and Kyra and Ivar are there, as is the kids’ mother, Colette, and Cyrus’s lover of a couple of years, Elena. A festive evening is had by all, although not because of the food. I apparently luck into the best thing on the menu, the Canvasburger, which I was unable to pass up owing to its name. It is quite good, even if the meat is a bit overcooked. The fries are excellent. Nobody else is at all impressed with his selection, and the crême brulée I have for dessert is pitiful. The brulée is good enough, but the crême is downright watery and hideously over-sweet. To put a fine point on this critique, I’ll add that I ate only a few bites. Yes, it was that bad.

And as if all that isn’t adventure enough, I run out of electricity again as we approach the Dam on the way home. With the new batteries you have to do this tedious conditioning procedure so as to get maximum performance and life out of ’em. This means that you have to do a full charge, wait two hours, unplug it for ten seconds, do a second full charge, and then run the batteries all the way down. Repeat this cycle four more times.

Oh yes, after you’ve run the batteries down, you have to wait two hours before charging them. This wouldn’t be difficult if you were using the Segway as a toy, but when it’s your main form of locomotion, working the procedure into your life becomes central.

Dinsdag 23 September 2008 – Jolanda

SpuistraatLet’s start with a pic from a few doors down Spuistraat:

Today, we cook dinner for Jolanda. It’s just the three of us because the couple we’d invited woke up this morning sick.

Chile con Carne, Anasazi beans, cornbread, and the green salad Rina and I have done so many times because everybody here likes it: romaine or other mild lettuce, rocket lettuce (usually called arugula in the States even though we already had a perfectly good English word for it), tomato, green onion, minced garlic, and avocado mashed up as a dressing.

The dessert is an Apple Charlotte Rina made, and I just love it, which is particularly impressive since apples are way down on my list of favorite fruits.

Jolanda is delightful, and I am seriously impressed when I discover that she will be bicycling home in the rain tonight, a distance of fifteen kilometers since she lives way out toward Schipol. One tough woman.

One other aspect: I find her difficult to understand. At first I attribute this to her perhaps speaking more rapidly than Rina, but finally I figure out that she’s saying a number of words quite differently. Turns out she’s from way down south by Limburg, where they talk funny.

Speaking of funny, what’s not funny at all is sitting here in Amsterdam fiddling while my nation burns. Editing Some Assembly Required every day keeps me abreast of the collapse of the American kleptocracy. Stuff you don’t hear on Fox like how Paulson is saying we shouldn’t go after the billions of bucks his banker buddies made while they got us into this mess because we need to keep them happy so they’ll get us out of it.

One thing for sure about this bailout: it ain’t you and me that’s getting bailed out but rather folks who can’t keep track of how many houses and airplanes and yachts they own. And to be sure, the plutocrats will be talking about how there’ll need to be some belt-tightening all ’round. Of course. In the hyper-inflation scenario some analysts expect, when the New Dollars are issued at one to a hundred of the tired old dollars, the folks who’d been getting along at $30,000 a year will be facing the prospect of living on N$300. Won’t be quite so hard for those who’d been wallowing in $30,000,000 a year to buy their rice and beans on N$300,000.

Speaking of rice, here’s another Spuistraat sight, the little Afghan place just north of Lijnbaanssteeg where Rina picks up takeout (afhaal). Their spinach may be the best in the world. Tell ’em I said so.

Woensdag 24 September 2008 – Dogtroep

I have no pictures of tonight’s performance, so I’ll have to make do with one of a wonderful little bridge between the library and Nemo, a children’s science museum:

No, today’s title is not Hondtroep or Dogtroop but Dogtroep, a bit of both languages. Here’s their site. Rina’s been a fan since their inception in the seventies, and she grabbed soon-to-be-sold-out tickets for us the instant they went on sale. Glad she did.

In the first place, getting there is fun. Part of the group’s gestalt has always been putting on performances in unlikely places, especially industrial sites, and this one is no exception. Way the hell out in this industrial park north of the city where you can get good and lost, which we do. We finally find the site mainly by the clue of all these cars parking alongside the road out in the middle of nowhere a hundred meters from some large manufacturing buildings and disgorging flocks of folks not dressed like the night shift but headed for the buildings.

We walk a few meters from the foot of a full size wind turbine turning slowly in the gentle night air, a privilege that had never been mine. I cannot understand why some people hate them, for to me they are beautiful kinetic sculptures and it is thrilling to be so close to one.

The thrills have just started, as the site is the grounds of a cement factory, and as we enter, floodlights illuminate a huge crane dangling an enormous clamshell bucket and scooping up gravel from a great pile, only to rotate a few degrees and slowly release it, forming another pile that grows as we watch.

While this is happening, a large ferry approaches the adjacent dock and disgorges first a band playing strange but interesting music and then about half the audience pours off, those who’d paid extra for an offsite dinner and entertaining transport to the performance site. When they are seated with the rest of us in the stands, the performance begins.

I’d been concerned that I’d be unable to follow it even though I’d worn my hearing aids and brought extra batteries. No problem, as not a single word was spoken during the performance…. just the instrumental music that I assume was composed for the occasion.

I was going to try to describe some of the events, but then I Googled Dogtroep and found numerous reviews of performances (and look again, some are in English). Better yet, there are videos. Google it yourself.

What none of the accounts I’ve read mentions is that, perhaps because the group has lost its main funding source, this fall’s performances will be the last, so they are packed with old fans, which means that most are my age. It approaches the ludicrous to include one of my pics after talking about these masters of visual form, but here’s a wall-climbing gym down behind the library:


Donderdag 25 September 2008 – A Day in Enschede

OK, let’s start with a note for the 5.97 billion people on the planet who are postponing their study of the Netherlands: “Enschede” is pronounced by the natives there to rhyme with “day”.

Oh, and don’t get old. I packed soooooooooooo carefully for this trip. Even down to carrying an extra set of batteries for my hearing aids. And then I left the damn things sitting there in a saucer where I couldn’t possibly miss them. Oh well, people can just speak up … as usual.

P1020602In the late morning I shoulder my backpack containing my computer, my toiletries, and a change of clothes. I shuffle to the Centraal Station and catch the train to Enschede. Every time I ride a Dutch train I’m impressed with the whole system – fast, clean, comfortable, and almost always on time. Here’s the head of a Darth Vaderish model at the Enschede station. The mouth opens wide sideways as it roars across the countryside, gobbling everything in its path:

Danny has taken the bus in from Losser and meets my train. She escorts me to my hotel, and when I tell her I hope it wasn’t too difficult for her to find, she reassures me that she knows it well since she’d enjoyed a great loss there when she was a girl.

I’d wanted a fleabag since it was just to sleep in, but fleabags are not advertised on the Internet. At least Dutch ones aren’t. So the cheapest place I could find within hobbling distance of the train station was the Amadeus at €80, but it is quite nice, by my standards verging on luxurious, and I recommend it to the throngs flocking to Enschede, especially those who are a little deaf and not bothered by its proximity to the train tracks.

We troop up to my room and sit there talking for an hour while I rest my legs, and then wave goodbye to the desk clerk and manager as we set out on a tour of the city center. Like so many places I’ve visited, Enschede is nothing like what I expected. Somehow I’d pictured this cute little small city untouched by time other than perhaps the oxcarts having been replaced by motor vehicles.

I neglected to take into consideration some historical events: Like first that Enschede for most of its existence was a small town, so there were never very many imposing buildings. And then the Great Fire of 1862 wiped out most of what had been there. And then during WWII, British and American planes that had unused bombs on their return flights just dropped the bombs wherever they saw lights, and alas, Enschede is so close to the border that it was accidentally bombed over and over throughout the war. And finally, in 2000 the local fireworks factory blew up, destroying 200 homes and damaging 1,700 homes and businesses. So all things considered, Enschede is not the best place to go looking for quaint old buildings.

Besides, Enschede has never been known as a bastion of progressive taste, so the bottom line is that aficionados of bland contemporary architecture have lots to see. Still, it’s a pleasant town and we wander slowly through the city center, which is all auto-free. We have coffee (well, I have coffee while Danny sips some healthy swill) while we plan dinner.

We agree that I have backed off somewhat on my compulsion to feed her. We also agree that in a perfect world I might back off a bit more. So the compromise this year is that we will go to a grocery store and pick things we both eat…which means certain fruits and vegetables for which we check the provence, and breads that list the ingredients on the wrapper so we can avoid additives we don’t want. Thank God and United Fruit for providing us the banana.

We return to the hotel to eat our healthful supper, and then set out on another foray, this time in a loop that includes the public library, which is surprisingly large for a city of this size and a very comfortable space. We have some fun examining the holdings, and I get to display mock shock at it not having any of David Foster Wallace’s works … as if any American library in a town that size would have a single modern Dutch title.

Here’s a shot of an well decorated wall near the library:

When we return to the room for the third time, I am somewhat relieved that the nice ladies who were at the desk earlier have finally gone off duty, since in some towns an eyebrow or two would have been raised over the spectacle of an old lecher taking a much younger woman up to his room over and over and over throughout an afternoon and evening.

Later, I walk Danny back to the train station to meet her bus, and when I return to the hotel join a couple of muscular mid-thirties men at the bar who are in conversation with this cute bartender/night clerk. My Dutch is still at a low enough level that I can follow only bits and pieces of a conversation I’m not a part of, but we introduce ourselves and I contribute as best I can. When I ask the men where they’re from, they say they’re from up north and I respond, “Uit Friesland?”

Wrong guess. They stoutly deny this with mock outrage that I sense is only partially mock. Not the least bit Frisian, they’re electricians from Groningen, working on the building under construction next door. We spend the next few minutes in that favorite Dutch sport, Frisian bashing. It’s usually only a matter of seconds after the establishment that no Frisian is present that the word obstinaat comes up.

After the electricians have tottered off under the influence of about ten beers each, I talk for a few more minutes with the bartender in English. Well, hey, unlike the electricians, he’s fluent in English, being a student at the local university. Besides, I’ve exhausted all my Dutch small talk and am ready to get an eastern take on Dutch language and literature and social structure.

The upshot is that he recommends the works of Michel Houellebecq. In the past, I’ve refrained from reading bleak authors with difficult names, but it looks like I’m going to have to make an exception for Houellebecq since he keeps coming up.

And so, after one too many beers, I crawl up the stairs to bed, but let’s conclude with a pic of an apartment building across the tracks between the hotel and the station:

Vrijdag 26 September 2008 – Washandje

I wrote last February in Journal 2008 about my astonishment that Rina had brought her own washandje on her visit to me in San Francisco, and I speculated that the reason for this was that the Dutch, when preparing for a visit to a barbarous land would naturally pack amenities they wouldn’t expect to find Over There.

Wrong again. When I drag my pitiful, hungover carcass out of bed this morning and stumble into the bathroom, I discover an array of containers with condiments like various soaps and shampoos and unguents, a stack of thick fluffy towels, a comfy bathmat to keep my little toes safe from the cold tiles, a huge radiator to preheat the room to toasty, but not a single bathcloth … or washandje. Yes, Watson, it looks like the Dutch carry their own everywhere.

Hmmmm. Betcha they also carry a plastic bag to stuff the cold, wet thing into.

The Dutch are very big, though, on public amenities. Here’s an interesting one in a square near the Enschede train station. You jump up on it with your feet on that disk and hold onto that thicker upper area. Then by throwing your weight around, you bend the flexible pole to one side and let it fling you back the other direction. I report this not from personal experience but rather from observation of persons much shorter than myself squealing with delight on it. Maybe I can sneak back under cover of darkness and give it a try. We need some of these in San Francisco, like say beside bus stops to while away the wait:


And before we leave Enschede, a final observation: Even with all my language weaknesses and bad hearing, I sure can hear the locals bang on those terminal “n’s” that are ignored way out west in Amsterdam.

Here’s a view inside the station that caught my eye:


Damn me. As I’m handing my full fare second class ticket to the hofdcontduktor when he comes through checking tickets outside Almelo, it strikes me that I read somewhere that there’s a discount for the aged on Dutch trains … or was that just for a strippenkaart? Grrrr, now that the financial world is crashing in flames around me, I really must learn to hunt bargains better.

Tempting as it is to sit in a seat with a table and write up my adventures, it is even better to watch the views out the windows, bucolic fields where sheep may safely graze, not to mention the cattle and horses. The pigs are kept out of sight. And then, since this is the Netherlands, there is a town every few kilometers, and I get to admire the architecture in the little towns. I really must take another train trip if I’m able to come here again.

Zaterdag 27 September 2008 – Posole with Edward

Here’s a view across the IJ behind the Centraal Station. Overhoeks is a new neighborhood over on the north bank of the IJ across from the Centraal Station. I was interested by all the plays on “over”, but it somehow doesn’t seem quite as much fun in English when I roughly translate the stuff on the left side of the tower encouraging you to live, work, be green (in the sense of enjoying the parks), and visit the film museum Over There.


I get up this morning and set some hominy simmering since it takes so long to soften up. The master plan is to serve a posole to Edward this evening as I see him for the first time this visit.

But first, a word on weather. I sit here writing, one eye on the keyboard and one eye on the windows, in hope that I can catch a break in the rain long enough make a dash to the market and back.

Look, I’m a desert rat. In my formative years, rain was something that was badly needed, but it was always thought of as an unpleasant event from which you needed to take shelter. You got all wet if you had to go out in it. I remember when I was a kid hearing for the first time that song “Walking in the Rain” and being shocked to realize that the singer had not been unavoidably caught in the rain but rather, against all reason, had sought the experience.

Eskimos supposedly have a dozen words for snow. I betcha the Dutch have at least ten for various types of cold rain, of which there has been way too much this visit. It might be easier for me to buck up and bear it except that the Dutch all act like the rain doesn’t bother them.

Me, my body is composed of such a large percentage of highly refined sweeteners that I’m sure I would just dissolve if I got too wet. Not the Dutch. I’ve tried to do semi-scientific surveys by counting the number of pedestrians/bicyclists per minute passing my windows and calculating the difference in when it’s raining and when it’s not. There may be weaknesses in my methodology, but it sure does look to me like a brisk little rain is only a negligible deterrent to travel.

But then, I’ve also noticed that Dutch bicyclists sport a wide variety of protective clothing, raincoats and rainsuit ensembles that would make travel in the rain both drier and warmer. The pedestrians carry umbrellas. I actually own umbrellas myself, but I don’t recall ever owning a raincoat in my life. If it’s bad enough for a raincoat, I just stay inside.

Well, at home I do. Our San Francisco rains are almost invariably intermittent, leaving opportunities for excursions between them. They don’t stop much here, at least this time of year, so I’ve broken down and borrowed this bright yellow slicker from Rina.

It serves me in good stead. I get all the ingredients over to Edward’s and have a fine afternoon and evening learning more about Dutch literature and social history while I feed him. I just love folks who’ll teach me things while I feed them. Every time I learn from someone else about a Dutch literary or historical work, I discover that Edward has already read it and can give me a review of it. I’ve felt that I returned the favor to some degree by recommending American novels with which he was unfamiliar even though his reading in English and American literature is extensive.

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen, but it still made me gnash my teeth to have him mention a favorite of his, a best-selling English-language writer whose very existence had not come to my attention, the Scottish writer Iain Banks. Worse yet, using the name “Iain M. Banks, the guy has written a number of best-selling science fiction novels focused on the battle between secular values and entrenched theocracy. Guess which side he’s on.

Here’s a shot looking down the Oudezijdsvoorburgwal from Edward’s stoop, taken, like all my pics, during a break in the rains.


Zondag 28 September 2008 – De Taart van m’n Tante

I keep mentioning Dutch bicycles. Hard not to, they being ubiquitous. They also bring out that anarchist streak I’ve dwelt on before, but now I have a pic that speaks eloquently on this subject. Alas, it speaks in Dutch, but I’ll translate: The sign says that you may not park your bike or motorbike here, that there is a designated parking area elsewhere, that if you park your bike here it will be removed, and that this will be an unpleasant experience for you. The level of compliance needs no translation:

Oh, my, I have a wonderful afternoon meeting and getting to know Karin, whose excellent Dutch Cooking website I’ve mentioned before.

I’ve brought her some exotic items from SF, like decorated muffin papers (which they don’t have here) as well as Mexican epazote and saffron (which I’m assuming are also in short supply), and she suggests that we meet at De Taart van m’n Tante (My Aunt’s Tart), a gloriously kitsch pastry shoppe where the pastries vie with the interior in decorative overkill.

We exchange our gifts (she’s brought me some beautifully wrapped homemade kruidnoten, a traditional Dutch cookie) and have pastries that are nearly as delicious as they look and coffee that is at least as good as I’ve had anywhere in Amsterdam although to be fair, I haven’t sought out fine coffee here the way I do in San Francisco.

Both of us being serious foodies (she’s a professional!), we have lots to talk about, and I pump her for local food suggestions that she hasn’t written about yet. She teaches me a new expression groente juwelier, literally “vegetable jeweler”, an upscale produce market where the gorgeous fruit and vegetables are displayed like jewels … and priced accordingly. Ahhh, we definitely have “vegetable jewelers” in San Francisco, the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market is full of ’em.

There’s nothing like meeting a fellow foodie, so we chat until they chase us (gently) out at closing time. What a wonderful afternoon!

Speaking of conversation, a Dutch friend (not Karin!) recently told me about having a business lunch with the Dutch film star Rutger Hauer and having great difficulty conducting their conversation because one middle-aged woman after another would walk up to the table and, without even a polite “excuse me,” literally stick their heads directly into Hauer’s face and go on about how much they adored him. One even demanded that he stand up so she could hug him.

Even though Karin is attractive, she’s not famous yet, so we didn’t have a problem with interruptions. The only problem, actually, is that I couldn’t talk her into trying the Segway. I find it ironic that women are much harder to talk into trial rides even though they find getting accustomed to a Segway so much easier than men.

And oh, I’ve held my breath as long as possible, but here’s another old drawbridge pic, this one over close to the Waterlooplein:

near the Waterloo Plein

Maandag 29 September 2008 – Can’t Go Back There Again

Here’s a shot of a leafy façade on, I think, Nieuwe Nieuwstraat:

In preparation for tomorrow’s dinner I go out shopping at the Volendammer to pick up some eel filets and have the joy of being a sufficiently regular customer that the nice meisje recognizes me. At home, I get great joy out of being a regular and dealing with the same clerks, and it’s just as pleasant here.

Of course some places it’s a little harder to be a regular, like for example at Vleeschhouwerij D.Reinhart, around the corner from Rina’s on Lijnbaanssteeg. I don’t know what it is about that place, but somehow it encourages me to shoot myself in the foot almost every time I go in there so that I have to stay away for a while until I figure they’ve forgotten me. I wrote last year about my gaffe over not understanding the guy’s very simple Dutch. Well, today I outdid myself.

See I’m trying to be friendly and chatty and get some Dutch practice in during my shopping, so thinking the guy will be pleased, I tell him I had heard his osseworst was recommended in de Dikke van Dam, a culinary book by the Amsterdam food critic Johannes van Dam, the title of which is a clever play on words on de Dikke van Dale, the popular name of the largest standard Dutch Dictionary. Well, see, like the dictionary, Mr. van Dam is fat.

But when I say this, the guy gives me this perplexed look which rapidly turns to clear understanding that he is now dealing with a madman who should be humored lest he turn violent, and I leave with no further conversation. I’m halfway to Rina’s when I realize that, perhaps thinking too much about the clever pun on the dictionary name, I had actually told the guy that his osseworst had been recommended in the dictionary.

Madman? That’s me.

I’m still in a state of shock over this when I’m fumbling for my keys at Rina’s and am asked directions by some passing Italian tourists. To make up for my inadequacies at the butcher’s, I come down as hard as I can on my g’s so maybe they’ll think I’m a local rather than a crazy American.

Inside, Rina and I have coffee, and I pull out Karin’s kruidnoten, which Rina pronounces excellent.

Here’s Karin’s recipe for the Kruidnoten, but I should mention that by American standards the Dutch tend to overspice sweets, so Americans might want to cut back on the spice quantities Karin uses. Well, see, they cornered the East Indies spice market in the 17th Century, so they’ve had plenty of time to get accustomed to using them generously.

Dinsdag 30 September 2008 – The Chicken Part

In the morning I’m out shopping and then get in kind of a rush because of the rapidly gathering clouds, so I elect to jump a curb at the edge of the Dam to the south of the palace, a maneuver I’ve been successfully executing routinely during this visit, my justification being that Amsterdam is not as generous with wheelchair cuts as San Francisco and often there are busses and trams bearing down on you at high speed and you really need to get to safety rapidly and don’t have time to dismount, lift the Segway up over the curb, and remount before you are ground under the wheels.

And OK, I admit it. I may be old, but I’m still a guy, and there remains even in my decline a good deal of pleasure in demonstrating vehicular virtuosity. Alas, pride goeth, and it goes especially hard when the fall is before large numbers of onlookers. This time I misjudge the curb ever so slightly and do this spectacular pratfall on my butt in front of hundreds of Dam tourists. The good news is that the fall occurs after I am on top of the curb and out of the path of the tram. But at least after the driver’s shift he can tell the other drivers about the exotic one that got away.

Tonight Rina and i are doing dinner for Dorothea and John, a simple one, actually, as all we’re serving them is rabbit, potatoes, carrots, and cornbread. The rabbit is pre-seasoned and cut-up, and is cooked in the aluminum pan it’s sold in.

I had met Dorothea before and enjoyed her, but i’d never met John. Turns out he’s an entertaining raconteur who has lived all over the world and has some tales to tell. Yes, indeed. Perhaps the funniest was being in a restaurant in Indonesia when a Malaysian waitress, little suspecting that this white man knew her language, referred to him to another waitress using a vulgar term for a sexual part of a chicken. He burst into laughter and suggested, in Malay, a different sexual part more appropriate for his gender, whereupon the waitress, mortified, gave a little squeal and dashed from the room, never to be seen again.

Which reminded me of when I was first in the limousine business and worked for a company in which the great majority of the owners were Israeli immigrants. They routinely used Hebrew or Yiddish, depending on their background, as a secret language when they were around goyish relief drivers like me. It took them a while to figure out that Yiddish was close enough to German that I could understand far too much of what they were saying.

Your language is a secret only when you and your brother are the last living speakers.

In subsequent episodes, I’ll be mentioning Rina and me taking the ferry across the IJ to Noord Amsterdam for dinner. Here’s the ferry, shot at an angle so that its symmetry is not obvious. Actually both ends are identical, and its propulsion system is reversible, so it never has to turn around but rather on both shores just runs right straight into its dock and lets the ramp down.


Woensdag 1 October 2008 – Nearly Rendered

Rain squalls punctuated by sunshine. I make a photography expedition over in the neighborhood of the library and then head over toward Frank’s Smoke House. On the way, I pass by this interesting building and take a couple of pics:

troopsAs I take the second pic, the troops come swarming out and surround me, giving me an opportunity to practice my Dutch and explain that I am not a German spy but rather a harmless San Francisco tourist out innocently photographing their beautiful city. They explain that taking photographs of Dutch military installations is in dreadful taste, and I quickly agree that even though there was no sign identifying this place as military, if I had looked a little more closely I would have noticed that they were standing there in the shadows in crisp uniforms well tailored to their lean, muscular bodies….or something like that.

Eventually, we agree that it really isn’t necessary on this first offense to render me off to a foul dungeon in Suriname for additional questioning, and they let me go.

Frank’s has never been so anti-climactic, but I do drop €30 for a pitifully small bag of smoked halibut and smoked eel. It was just wonderful in the good old days when i had lots of disposable income and enjoyed disposing of it on large amounts of luxury food. I say hello to Frank and give his employees Segway rides, then take the scenic route home, so scenic that I finally have to admit I am a bit, ummm, “turned around”, although certainly not actually lost, especially when I blunder onto the Amstel and know that all I have to do is follow it downstream to eventually end up someplace I recognize since it empties through all those canals into the IJ. Alas, after following it a short distance I decide to take a short cut which, as they all too often do, turns out to be the long way ’round.

But still, I get home just before the rain starts in earnest. Later, Rina comes in with a gift-wrapped present. I’m a bit surprised when it’s cold to the touch, but when I open it I see why. She knows what I like: it’s a package of speklapjes. Oh, this army marches on its pork belly. And speaking of armies, Rina says she didn’t know that place was a military installation, and she’s lived here all her life.

In the evening, the rain stops just before we set out for the ferry to Noord Amsterdam, where Cora and Johnny are treating us to dinner at the Goudfasant the Golden Pheasant. It’s cavernous and fun, and I have a good ceviche salad of local fish and an excellent sautéed dorado with steamed mussels and couscous. I like Cora and Johnny a lot, and look forward to cooking another of my Mexican dishes for them since they liked my chile last year.

Luck is with us, and we make it back home with only a very light drizzle, but the day ends with a hideously embarrassing experience due to my encroaching senility. Luckily, each of my friends knows only a selected subset of my blunders. Put all together in one squirming pile, they would be compelling evidence that I have certainly reached the point of being a danger to myself and perhaps also to society.

After Rina and I retire to our chambers, I sit writing for an hour and a half so as to wind down from the day’s excitement and to allow the Segway batteries to cool before the recharging process. Then I grab my jacket and go downstairs. I step out onto the sidewalk, and as the door catch clicks, I’m reaching in my pocket for my keys. They’re not there. My mobile phone is upstairs. I don’t remember Rina’s number so as to call her from a pay phone or plead with a passer-by to phone her with his mobile.

To help me focus, a cold rain starts and the wind picks up.

I step back to assess the situation and see Rina’s lights. Thank goodness, she’s still up. So i ring the doorbell. And wait. And wait. And then realize that good grief, those lights are mine, and I can’t see Rina’s from the street. I check my pockets again. No money, no passport. The rain picks up.

I ring the doorbell again. And again, and finally Rina appears, astonished to see me on the street since she’d seen my light on and door open and assumed I was in my room. My apologies have never been more heartfelt, and I accompany her upstairs for my keys and a few more apologies before I go back down to the garage to set the Segway charging.

Donderdag 2 October 2008 – Verwijderd

I’m running it full tilt until I crash, but I am held back by periods of simple exhaustion. This morning Rina and I take advantage of some sunshine between showers to shop the Bijenkorf for a new coffeemaker for her birthday, her old Braun being battered by years of hard use into an embarrassment to its race.

The place is jammed, today being the first of their annual Dwaze Dagen, literally “foolish days”, when prices are slashed to marginally affordable from their normally astronomical levels.

She leads me to the escalators on a route straight through Men’s Underwear. My heart batters my ribs, but I make it through and calm myself in the socks and shirts. On the kitchenware level we have great fun admiring €999 espresso makers and tableware that looks quite handsome until we notice that the little dessert plates are €10 each. No coffeemaker that seems right, in any case.

It strikes me that very soon great bargains will be available at garage sales on stuff like this back home as folks lose their jobs and then their apartments. I remember in the late eighties when the gay men in San Francisco were dropping like flies from AIDS, as you walked through the streets in the Castro there were estate sales on nearly every block with nice things at dirt cheap prices.

We make it back here just as the showers resume and luxuriate in smoked eel on toast since we saved so much money by not buying anything. She leaves for an orthodontist appointment just as the sun comes out again, which would be a perfect opportunity for me to whiz over to the library and take some interior pics.

Alas, I am suddenly so paralyzed with exhaustion that I can barely remove my clothes before I crawl into bed for an afternoon nap. Maybe when I return home I can talk my doctor into prescribing a maintenance dosage of amphetamines to get me through the days.

So I sleep through the afternoon and then Rina bicycles and I Segway across town to Linnaeusstraat to pay a visit to her friend Harm Jan and his lover Mark. Enroute, a mist turns to a drizzle turns to a light rain.

Wow. What delightful guys. The agenda behind the visit is that they are considering trying to do an apartment exchange next year with someone in California, so the visit starts with a tour of the apartment. The good news is that during the tour I discover that we are soulmates with overlapping interests. Harm Jan is an artist who is also fond of houseplants, and wonder of wonders, he especially likes succulents and I’m able to spew out the botanical names of many of his plants.

Mark is a crossword puzzle designer and language maven, and when we enter his study I notice in the bookcase a long row of books bound in red. Obviously a complete something. I step closer and see that it’s a WNT (het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, the Dutch equivalent of the OED.) I never dreamed I’d see one of these outside a library, and in shock I take a volume down to see what it looks like. Hmmmm. Very much like a volume of the OED except that it’s a more reasonable size and is thus easier to handle. Well, and it’s in Dutch and thus much more difficult to read.

Speaking of language, here’s a shot you see everywhere. Someone puts up a sign, and then someone else comes by and corrects the spelling. The error here is easy to understand somebody making since terminal “d” in Dutch is pronounced as a “t”. Oh yes, it means bicycles will be removed, a sign most Dutch clearly view as an idle threat.

verwijderdThe bad news is that the apartment is on the third and fourth floors, and there is no place at ground level to charge the Segway or to even get it out of the weather. This is a complete deal breaker since three flights of stairs is itself enough of an agony that doing it even once a day would grow very old, and trying to get around the city without the Segway would be so difficult that the joy of the visit would be seriously impaired.

It’s raining hard on the return, and even with the hooded slicker the return to Spuistraat is grim. I’m quite disappointed that Mark and Harm Jan’s place is not doable for me, but still, their being so enjoyable takes much of the sting out of it.

Vrijdag 3 October 2008 – Goudfasant Again

Ahhh, a sunny day, so I whirr off to get a pic of the interior of the library. Some event is going on in front of it, but this gives me an opportunity to experience one of the finest aspects of the city. The cops. They are so relaxed, so nice, so genuinely helpful that it’s always a pleasure to encounter one. They are also breathtakingly handsome. Good combination.

Here’s an afternoon shot I liked, and no, it’s not the Swedish Embassy:

In the evening, Rina and I ride over to the Goudfasant in the rain again, this time to celebrate Rina’s birthday with Cyrus, Elena, Kyra, Ivar, and Otto. A good time is had by all, but the icing on my cake is looking closely at the restaurant logo and discovering that the name of the restaurant is actually the Goudfazant and that I’d been misspelling the name because I’d just written down what I’d heard my friends saying in their Amsterdam accents. They don’t voice the z, much to the horror of the Dutch nation outside of Amsterdam, who mock them mercilessly for this trait, often using a stock sentence involving seeing the sun setting in the sea, all those words starting with “z” in Dutch but pronounced in Amsterdam as if they started with “s”. So actually, I’m kinda proud of myself for faithfully reproducing what they were saying.

On the way back home, I do my bit for Dutch/Moslem relations, delighting a scarfed woman by giving her daughter a Segway lesson while we wait for the ferry. I have to let go of my bigotry and keep reminding myself that there are lots of decent Moslems who ignore the hateful and/or downright stupid parts of their religion, just like the decent Christians do. OK, some of my bigotry.

Oh, and you’d think that if there were really an Allah in heaven, he would have rewarded my good deed by stopping the rain for the remainder of my journey home, but no, it increased.

Didn’t think so.

Zaterdag 4 October 2008 – Flamenco Fiasco

Technically, today is Rina’s birthday, and I finally convince her to let me pay for last night’s dinner as a birthday present so we won’t have to stress ourselves out going all over town hunting some kitchen appliance that she can fall in love with and i can buy. I am much relieved to finally get her birthday taken care of, but it takes some serious convincing since in the Dutch tradition you are supposed to provide the refreshments for your own birthday.

It rains all day, but that’s just as well, as Rina is concerned that I haven’t made enough of the posole. And i’m concerned that the maiz mote that I’d cooked for hours yesterday is still not soft enough, so I keep cooking it, adding the meat of another chicken. And we both keep tweaking the seasoning while the meat of the first chicken totally disintegrates and the dish takes on a leaden character unlike my previous efforts.

Rina and I cook well together, but what I realize today is that in the past each of us has taken ownership of certain dishes and has scrupulously provided only peeling and chopping input into the other’s dishes. Too many cooks supposedly spoil the broth. We proved today that it takes only two to spoil a posole.

In the late afternoon, the rain stops, and I get this shot of the façades north of Torenstraat on the Singel lit up from the side:


Later, before the rain starts again, we take the botched posole over to the rehearsal and dinner that Rina’s flamenco troupe is holding for a visiting troupe from Spain. It’s at the building where Rina’s troupe rehearses way over North and East from Spuistraat. Not sure what the neighborhood is called, but I think it’s too far to the North (and maybe also to the East) to still be in the Jordaan.

The evening goes badly from the start, and somehow I cannot get comfortable.

None of the Spaniards speaks a word of Dutch, only a few speak any English, and my Spanish is no longer good enough for much more than shopping and pleasantries. What I find rather strange is that although all the Dutch present are members of a Dutch flamenco group, only a couple of them seem to speak Spanish. And lest that sound snarky, I’ll add that they all seem to be somewhere between quite capable and absolutely fluent in English. Alas, the room is noisy, and I have trouble adjusting my hearing aids well enough to understand anybody in any language.

The two groups sing for each other and attempt to sing together, but this is their first try, and they don’t know each other’s songs. Frankly, I think the Dutch group sounds better. They have a couple of quite competent guitarists and a good violinist. Jolanda (from the dinner last week) is very good on a hand drum and also a strange, stick-like rhythm device, but she really comes to the fore on the flute. Nanda and Isabel are both capable on castanets, and others whose names I don’t know are good at various instrument.

Unfortunately, when they are all singing the volume is too great for my hearing aids to deal with, and I have to remove them. Then, when we take a break from the singing and I try to help with serving the food, I feel like I’m just in the way and finally become so uncomfortable that I beg off and leave. Unchaining the Segway, I realize that i’ve followed Rina over into a part of town I’d never seen, and during my attempt to retrace our route backwards I finally admit to myself that it’s not looking very familiar at all, but at least it’s not raining. And then, my homing pigeon kicks in and I sense that “over that way” I’ll be back in familiar ground. Sure enough, I cut under some railroad tracks and the next major cross street is Haarlemmerweg. As I approach Spuistraat, the rain starts up again. Whew. Once again, I slip through the net.

Zondag 5 October 2008 – Death and Testosterone

It rains all day long without cease. Hadn’t realized that when my friends said that the winter rains were here, the implication was that they wouldn’t stop until spring. Just kidding. We did have several hours of sun in between the showers on both the first and the second of the month. So since it’s raining, here’s a pic from a day with some sun. And, yes, it’s Amsterdam, so of course DHL delivers by boat:


While Rina spends the day with her flamenco group, I sit here writing.

I’ve been thinking… at first about the recent untimely suicide of David Foster Wallace. Many suicides are not untimely, of course, but his sure was, damn him. It means there’ll be no more byzantine novels, no more scintillating short stories, no more fine essays. Why, why, couldn’t he have continued to live a life of utmost misery while he kept on cranking out that stunning prose for the pleasure of us readers? It’s not fair.

And then I got word the other day of the accidental death of Christopher Andrews, a former colleague. You cannot imagine how I suffered.

See, I had been despising Christopher for years over our interaction at Oracle; and yet, the instant I heard of his death, my joy in hating him was snatched away, and all I could feel was guilt over the intensity of my former dislike, the guilt made more piquant by pity for him and sorrow for his survivors.

In January of 1960 when I was a freshman at Texas Tech, three classmate acquaintances from Houston who lived in my dormitory went off one gorgeous morning a hundred miles north to Palo Duro Canyon for a day of exploration. It was a beautiful day, sunny and unseasonably warm, and it is understandable that at 18 or 19 years old they would not have looked at a weather report before setting out and seen that a blizzard would be howling down the plains that afternoon. So of course they were dressed appropriately for the lovely day. And when they parked their car at the edge of the canyon and clambered down, they might have noticed dark clouds to the north on the pancake-flat plains, but since they were from the Texas coast, they could have had no clue as to the significance of the clouds or how rapidly and how far the temperature would drop when the blizzard arrived.

And down in the canyon they could not have seen the clouds grow closer and closer until the blizzard hit. At that point, they could have saved themselves.

They could have scrambled back out of the canyon into the teeth of the blizzard and made it to their car and driven cautiously back to Lubbock with the blizzard at their back and the heater going full blast and told us all about how they nearly got caught and how it sure did get real cold real fast.

Instead, they decided to huddle together under an overhang and build a fire to wait out what they must have thought was just a little weather disturbance that would quickly pass. And even then, if they’d taken turns foraging for firewood they might have made it through the night and waited until the wind subsided the next day and then had the strength to get back to the car. But they didn’t.

At some point in the night finding pieces of dry wood became increasingly difficult, and they got colder and colder and decided to leave their semi-shelter for the car. They all climbed to the rim of the canyon. The strongest one stumbled to within 200 yards of the car, even though he wouldn’t have been able to see it at night through the snow. And at that point it probably didn’t even cross his mind before he lost consciousness that the keys were still in the fallen driver’s pocket, a few hundred yards behind him.

They paid for their ignorance with their lives.

Christopher Andrews’ death was in every way the opposite. He did all the right things. He was an experienced hiker, saw the storm coming, and understood the danger. He had protective clothing. He knew the terrain. He took the shortest route toward safety and would have made it but for one tiny accident…he slipped. And fell into a declivity and was too badly injured to climb out. And even then, he triggered his emergency rescue signal and could have been saved … if the storm had not thwarted rescue attempts.

Jon Krakauer’s fine Into the Wild interweaves a reconstruction of the last two years of the life of a different Christopher, Christopher McCandless, with the wilderness adventures of several ascetics and outdoorsmen, including Krakauer’s own near death experience. Reading this book or Craig Childs’ even finer The Secret Knowledge of Water might help us understand why men – and it is rarely women – put themselves at risk, place themselves in situations in which a single slip, a minor miscalculation, can mean death.

Then again, it may not be necessary.

An explanation may be as simple as the desire to maximize quality of life. I look at myself and see that here I am nearly seventy, increasingly fragile, and running full tilt on my Segway, fully aware that no matter how cautious I am, it’s dangerous. And pressed, I’d admit that now and then, usually right after a fall or close call, my level of caution might be higher.

That hilarious and embarrassing little pratfall I described taking the other day in front of all those tourists would have turned out quite differently had I fallen in the path of that streetcar rather than a meter to the side. In San Francisco I can legally ride the Segway on the sidewalk like a wheelchair because of my disability, but I very rarely do because I feel so antisocial towering over the pedestrians. So I ride all over town in the streets, watching traffic as best I can but fully aware that some SUV could swerve just a yard to the side and take me out from behind in an instant.

And hell, it won’t take an SUV to do me in because I’ve banged myself up pretty thoroughly in various falls all by myself. My left hip and shoulder got kind of bent or something in a fall several years ago so I can’t lie very long on that side, and I smashed my right hand last January badly enough that even after two surgeries and extensive rehab therapy I’ll never get full function back. But none of that is stopping me.

Eventually, my injuries or just the increasing exhaustion will ground me, and then if i’m still alive I’ll sit at home with a shawl over my legs and get some writing done. But until then, the risks are part of living life to the fullest.

That is why we put ourselves in harm’s way. Well, that and the testosterone.

And not to abruptly change the subject, but since Amsterdam is all about boats, here’s one i liked:

Maandag 6 October 2008 – A Rude Encounter

Today there’s a break in the rain, and I rush out first thing for some grocery shopping, stopping first at the Volendammer to place an order for the 13th for three whole smoked eels and three smoked mackerels, all vacuum sealed in that bulletproof plastic of theirs for the journey to San Francisco. Why don’t I buy eel filets like all the Dutch do, you ask? Well, I’ve discovered that when I present the whole eel – eyes and teeth and all – and then skin it before the diners’ widening eyes, most Americans are so grossed out that I get the double pleasure of showing them the eel and then consuming it all myself.

Afterwards, I go across the street to Albert Heijn to get supplies for tomorrow’s dinner. Remember how I’ve gone on about how cheap many foods are here in this socialist paradise? Well, I just paid a bit over $3 each for a pair of medium size avocados. Good old capitalist supply and demand.

To compensate for this extravagance, I pick up a couple of 250 gr. boxes of that good Blooker cocoa powder for €0,99 each, which is about an eighth of what they’d cost in America if they were even available. I don’t understand how this is possible, since the last time I checked there were no cocoa plantations in the Netherlands. Well, maybe way down in the south.

I also have a minor thrill getting back here. See, across the street, one of the working girls is washing her windows to start the week out right. Well, they get all steamed up.

I call out a cheery Goeie dag, Mevrouw (G’day, Ma’am).

She is rude.

Dutch public art, on the other hand, is delightful:

Dinsdag 7 October 2008 – Dinner for Doré and Jane and Davy

I’m not advertising it to the guests, but they’re getting a free worming with dinner. Yeah, I throw some epazote into the Anasazi beans although I don’t use enough to kill more than the wimpiest worms since I’m adding it for flavor and am a bit too cautious at that. I can barely taste the epazote when the beans are done, which I suppose is just as well considering that it would be an entirely new flavor for the Dutch.

Since I didn’t bring the mole crumble from Tierra Foods back home, I attempt to make mole poblano from scratch and end up confusing myself by looking at too many recipes online. Somehow I end up with a mole that tastes nothing like any I’ve ever eaten and unfortunately is not all that good. At least the beans and cornbread turn out well.

Here’s a modern arrangement over by the Rembrandt Plein:

Woensdag 8 October 2008 – Dinner at Wayne’s

The comedy of errors continues. I painstakingly find Wayne’s street on my maps and plot a route. It’s not that he lives all that far away, but he’s just a little south of the part of the city i’m familiar with. And somehow, in all my route plotting i end up on a street parallel to Wayne’s and present myself at his street number. When nobody answers the bell, i whip out my mobile and phone him, saying i’m downstairs.

After a couple of minutes, he calls back, and eventually i figure out that i’m on the wrong damn street and finally get to his door. The dinner is superb. Tournedos Rossini and all that with a crème brûlée for dessert. Somehow i lost my notes and don’t have the names of the delightful guests. Sigh.

Lophophora williamsii taking advantage of the southern exposure in a “Smart Shop” window on Spuistraat. Ate some of these with my friends Dick and Harry while Harry was ranch sitting out from Santa Fe in about 1972. It was the first and last time i ever bonded with a horse, but that’s another story.

Donderdag 9 October 2008 – Dinner with Elly and Leo

I spend the day resting, trying to will myself into aborting a little cold I have caught, not that I ought not to be grateful for having enjoyed perfect health, or at least perfect respiratory health, since my arrival.

In the evening I take Elly and Leo to dinner in the Jordaan. I lead them to Vlaming on Lindengracht but discover that my reward for praising it so highly last year while eating there four times is that it’s now so popular that reservations are required, and we are turned away.

Luckily, they know of De Reiger (the heron), three or four blocks away at Nieuwe Leliestraat 34, where we have quite a nice dinner although rather more upscale. Enough upscale that when they offer to pay for the wine, I let them.

There is a visiting Flemish family at the table beside ours whose inherently high level of friendliness is enhanced by plenty to drink, but their accent is so different I can barely understand a word they say. It reassures me that Elly and Leo have to get them to repeat themselves quite a lot.

I find Elly and Leo just delightful and always have a wonderful time in their company.

Here’s a shop on Haarlemmerweg that fascinates me because “Mof” is politically incorrect Dutch ethnic slur for “German”, equivalent in harshness to “nigger” in American English.

Vrijdag 10 October 2008 – The End is Near

Senility strikes again. I seem to have somehow misplaced my notes for the last four days of my visit, so I’ll have to just summarize. Also, i realize that on one of the evenings above Erik and Barbara took me out to eat, but now i’m so addled that i can’t remember when or where.

P1020812I mentioned earlier learning groente juwelier to describe an upscale food store where the produce is displayed and priced like jewelery, rather like a somewhat higher end Whole Foods, a US national chain. Today Rina took me to one on Overtoom:

On Saturday I spend the afternoon and evening with Edward. I cannot imagine growing bored in Edward’s company, as he is a thoroughly entertaining person. And having said that, I have to laugh at myself as it strikes me that the reason Edward is so entertaining is that he happens to be interested in the same things I’m interested in. Of course he’s entertaining!

On Sunday I meet Harm Jan and Mark at a café over beyond the Spuiplein, and I discover that they’re even more fun than they were at their home….and like Edward, interested in the right stuff.

On Monday the 13th I pick up my smoked eel and mackerel at the Volendammer in the morning, pack in the afternoon, and in the evening Rina takes me to the New King for a farewell dinner of Babi Pangang. Do go there and have that dish if you ever make it to Amsterdam.

On Tuesday the 14th, Rina drives me to the airport. Remember how on my arrival I told the nice KLM lady I didn’t feel like I should submit a damage claim for the smashed fender on the Segway since they’d brought it over for free? Well, they demanded 50 euros to fly it back. I am so proud of myself for not mentioning my previous generosity when they slap me with the bill.

Back home in San Francisco, my senses perhaps sharpened by a month in Amsterdam, what do I discover but a drawbridge whose very existence i’d somehow overlooked for going on forty years. It’s over Mission Creek on 4th Street, a block west of the 3rd Street bridge I started this tale with. It’s just as indelicate as the other bridge, but it, too, still works.

Stay tuned for a decent shot of this thing although it’s now November of two thousand and damn eleven and i just now got around to inserting the 5 October item cobbled together from rudimentary notes. See, back in November 2008 i discovered that i’d somehow lost my detailed notes.

And folk, that’s it. I’ve admitted to myself that I no longer have the strength to make another trip to Amsterdam, as much as i’d love to do so. And now that it’s too late, I’m ashamed that I didn’t work harder studying Dutch between visits so that I might have got better at it. Still, I made some wonderful friends and did my best to be a benign representative of my country.

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