Archive for November, 2009

Who Knew?

Driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike with Wilco in the CD player, I became aware that visually, Winter has begun to dominate the landscape. The remains of Autumn have become more and more vestigial. Like most such observations, this one led on to another.

There in the heart of some of the worst of the country’s post-industrial mess, the NJ Turnpike driving south between Exits Twelve and Four, I discovered that the late-November weeds, shrubs and trees flanking the highway were simply gorgeous. The season’s first really hard freeze has yet to occur and the muted colors of the foliage, now fading to near monochromatic browns, are still infinitely varied. The seemingly random arrangements of different species of grasses, plants and trees combine in a natural architecture, offering surprising and beautiful configurations of shapes and values.

All of the above emerged at seventy-miles-an-hour, amid the eighteen-wheelers, clots and breaks of traffic and hidden within an overall surrounding environment of sprawl and clutter. Hmmm.

Three Days In Amsterdam

CIMG1254Amsterdam is the perfect European city for Americans. Almost everyone speaks English, and making it even better than London, the accents are more exotic. We arrived at Amsterdam’s Schipohl Airport early on a gray Friday morning, dragging our luggage to the light rail line that would take us from the airport to the city’s Centraal Station. We had agreed to try and do our unaccompanied, seven-day, two-city, Amsterdam and Paris trip without resorting to taxicabs.

The initial confrontation with the complexities of public transit in a strange city is almost always a painful process. It usually takes me several hit and miss encounters with ticket kiosks, exact fare rules, or pressing buttons to open subway doors. While we did manage the light-rail connection into the city. Finding our hotel, just blocks from the station, proved a minor ordeal with the inadequate, schematic tourist maps we were carrying. Jet-lagged, confused and over-packed, we wandered around trying to figure out where we were until a busy woman setting up a produce market stand grudgingly pointed us in the right direction.

The hotel, modern and crisp, was located in, gasp, “the Red Light District.” Ah those liberal Dutch. While it was still the morning rush hour when we wandered in search of our hotel, I noted that the numerous “Coffee” shops we passed were in full swing, with customers lounging on sofas, and I suppose, inhaling to their hearts’ content. I thought, “hey is this a great town, or what?”

Refreshed after a brief nap, we went out to discover the charms of Amsterdam. The rings of tree-lined, interconnected canals, the bow-to-stern barges and houseboats, the eccentric, centuries-old Dutch architecture, cobbled streets and the bicycles everywhere combine to create a wonderful sense of being in a one-of-a-kind place. In a comfortably down-to-earth café, I ordered my lunch, a roast-beef sandwich with egg and mayonnaise, and a large draft of Heiniken. We’d been told that Dutch cuisine was less than stellar, but with my comfort-food palate, just about everything we ordered suited me well. Thus fortified, we began walking, a process that barely stopped for any of our waking hours during the three days we stayed in Amsterdam.

The canal-side streets, block after block of them, flow with the canals themselves in concentric rings defining and demarking the old city of Amsterdam. Each turn of the head is another photo-op, another perfect Netherlands motif. I began snapping and had to exercise a force of will to cease, to say “enough.” The day was sunny and there were shopping streets, book-stalls, street musicians and cafes with outdoor seating for coffee, pastries or wine. We were in search of the St. Nicklas’ Boat Club, a non-profit, cooperative canal boat tour service, an open-air alternative to the larger, glitzier glass-covered canal tour launches. But like so many cooperative ventures, the enterprise had run aground and was no longer operating. More wandering, more pastry, more wine and back to the hotel for a break before dinner.

One residual piece of three centuries of Dutch East Indies colonial history is Amsterdam’s array of Indonesian restaurants, a cuisine I’d never experienced. On a recommendation, we selected a “Rice Table” offering at Indrapur, one of the tonier Indonesian eateries. Rice Table meals are an Indonesian version of Chinese Dim Sum or the Iberian Tapas. In deference to my Irish heritage, we chose a “mild” (a misnomer) selection of over twenty different and exotically flavored small dishes, every one of which was a treat. Returning from our East Indies meal, we caught a tram to a mid-town carnival and rode a giant Ferris wheel up and over the lights of the city. There was a brightly lit, ten-story swing with seats for two that swung out over the carnival below. I dared my wife to no avail. Two nights later we were on it.

Our second day in Amsterdam day came on cold and wet. With rain jackets, umbrellas and our new competence at navigating the city’s tram lines, we arrived early at the already crowded van Gogh museum. As a lifelong fan, I was thrilled to discover, along with so many favorites, a couple of stunning landscapes I’d never before seen. More walking in the drizzle through a half-dozen block street market, more tram riding and then a surprisingly good lunch in a pretentious restaurant with annoyingly indifferent service. Much more walking, window and actual shopping, until exhaustion and the proximity to our hotel got us back to our room for a break.

Relatively restored, we headed back out into the rain for dinner. We were to have a meal of traditional Dutch cuisine, another recommendation. When we arrived at the address, the Dutch eatery had been replaced by an Italian restaurant. At a more Dutch place down the street, we were told we could be seated in fifteen minutes and that we could wait in the bar. After a half hour, we left. Back out in the rain and several streets away, we passed a small bistro named Prego. Why not? We were seated and began what was to be one of the best meals of the entire trip. Two aging gays were running the place and the vibe was a pleasant as it was unostentatious. The food was first rate and creative. I had wild boar, my first ever, and my wife a fish dish. Everything was just right and the dessert more than just right. After warm farewells from our host and our waiter, we headed out once again into the chilly drizzle and toward our king-sized hotel bed.

Sunday, our last full day in Amsterdam, began with the Hotel’s inclusive and first-rate buffet breakfast. Then, a one-hour canal tour on a glass-covered boat accompanied by a large group of Chinese tourists. Strangely enough, my canal photos taken from water level proved less pleasing than those taken ashore. The loop of the city by boat and the accompanying sound track was instructive.

One of the sights from the boat was the lineup of visitors waiting to tour the Ann Frank House, an Amsterdam attraction as famous as the canals and the van Gogh Museum. For better or worse, I opted to pass on the Ann Frank house, feeling as I do that I’m already too well aware of the horrors of the all too recent past. Prior to this trip, a friend had given me tourist information on Amsterdam that included a brochure from the “Dutch Resistance Museum.” The brochure rightly celebrates the heroism of those who dared to actively resist one of the most brutal terror regimes in human history. On the other hand only a single allusion notes the existence of the NSB, the Dutch National Socialist Party, the active collaborators with the Nazi Occupation. Over 100,000 Dutch Jews perished during the war, the highest death rate per capita in the occupied Western European countries. That and the fact that 100,000 Dutch citizens volunteered to serve in the German armed forces, mostly in the Waffen SS on the Eastern Front, speaks for itself. And finally, the Frank family, like so many of the resistance heroes, was betrayed to the Nazis, it seems, by a fellow Dutch citizen.

More shopping, a lot more walking, some lunch, dinner, more photo taking and finally back to the hotel and bed. On our way back through the Red Light district, I noted that by comparison, the coffee shop scene with its stoned college kids and dreadlocked skateboarders appeared downright wholesome.

In the morning, I managed one last stroll around the canals before leaving to meet our noon train for Paris.