Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Poffertjes. If ever a day demanded poffertjes, it is this. In France, I had glorious little tartes, in Belgium I had chocolate, and in the Netherlands soft, warm, sweet little pancakes drenched in butter and powered sugar.

This morning, I’m dining at Sarah’s Pancake House, a name that seems destined for a suburban strip mall somewhere in America, rather than in an elegant arcade of shops in downtown Amsterdam. So far on my trip, I have described the rain as “misting,” “spitting,” and even “pounding.” By now, it’s starting to feel positively biblical. How long did the flood keep Noah at sea? Forty days and nights? We’re nearly half way there.

With that in mind, Sarah’s is a Godsend. There is just one young woman waiting tables this morning, and she seems to be doing all the cooking as well. In no time at all, she whips me up a warm plateful of poffertjes. These slide into my stomach so happily that I decide to order another. Why not? I’m in no hurry to go anywhere.

I chat for a bit with a family from Ohio, who have settled into a table next to mine, but eventually decide that I really should get up and do something. I had planned to take a train to Enkhuizen to visit the Zuiderzee museum, which recreates an old Dutch village with its assorted crafts and trades, but it’s an hour away and a bit expensive, and given the weather outside, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for the idea. I settle on Plan B instead—a far shorter ride out to Zaanse Schans, which offers a similar (if more touristy) experience for free.

On the long walk down to Centraal Station, I see a woman, dressed in a business suit, complete with skirt and high heeled pumps, lumbering with her bike up a humped-back bridge. She holds an umbrella in one hand and is attempting to steer, quite unsuccessfully, with the other. And the look on her face is one of complete and utter loathing. She is wet and miserable. It may sound cruel and unsympathetic, but deep down this pleases me. I was beginning to think that the Dutch were ridiculously kind and patient in all things, morally superior to the average American who insists on driving their car a quarter mile down the road to a grocery store. Well OK, as a nation of committed bike riders, they are morally superior, but at least they are reasonable enough not to enjoy it on a day such as this.

Against all odds, however—and on this, the very last day of my trip—the weather turns into quite a surprise. Soon after I arrive at Zaanse Schans, the sky breaks. The ground is still muddy, slick enough to cause to me fall painfully on my backside along the edge of one of the canals, but I hardly care. I wander through the gift shops, stop for lunch in a tavern called De Hoop op d’Swarte Walvis, and then gaze out on the village’s famous windmills. At the beginning of the 18th century, there were about 500 windmills in the Zaanstreek. In the village of Zaanse Schans today, only six remain, but they are beautiful.

I am sorry to have missed Enkhuizen, but this comes close to the Dutch landscape I had long imagined, even if I am too late to see the tulips fields.

Back in Amsterdam, I use my remaining hours to tie up loose ends. I climb to the top of the Westerkerk belfry for a fine view of the city. From here, I can see the attic window where Anne Frank once sat, imagining a life she would never live. I grab dinner at a Chinese restaurant near Dam Square, and then set off to see another classic image of the Netherlands I’ve long had in my mind’s eye. When I think of Holland I think of tulips and windmills, drugs and prostitutes.

For me, at least, Amsterdam’s “Red Light District” ultimately falls short of expectations. In an effort to improve the city’s image, some of the picture windows have been filled with fashion displays. Others contain scantily clad women who appear to be completely disinterested in their profession. Some gyrate absent-mindedly, others are fixing their makeup or filing their fingernails. One is reading a book. A liberal attitude towards sex seems to make the entire enterprise seem far less sexy.

After a brief look around, I head back to my hotel for the last time. Tomorrow, I have an early flight back to Philadelphia, where life as usual will resume, as if uninterrupted. Along the way, I see a coffee house sign that reads: “Are you sober? We can help! We’ve got the real ABSINTHE.”

Absinthe is a potent liquor of seductive green, made with wormwood and anise. Starving artists like Degas, Manet, and Van Gogh used to drink the stuff, as did Ernest Hemingway. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, he called it “that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea changing liquid alchemy,” and once he moved to Spain and Cuba, he used it to recall the better life he had lived in Paris as a young man.

For a fleeting moment, I wonder what Absinthe would do for me, and for all that I’ve experienced on this trip. Would it allow me to re-imagine the dreary gray landscapes I have seen in shades of ochre, turquoise, and pale green, as it apparently did with Van Gogh? Would it soften the edges of my memory, as it did with Hemingway? Years later, the scenes he recalled became his “moveable feast,” a meal born of longing that could be savored time and again, though the ingredients in their initial incarnation were often bleak.

I glance up again at the sign. I think maybe I should go in, but probably not. Time has the same gentle effect, after all. All of the memories we retain are selective, and those that last longest are often unpredictable. In the end, as Alain de Botton writes in The Art of Travel, we are driven—all of us—by the same basic impulse. It is to say: “I was there. I saw that, and it mattered to me.”

That is what I have done here. And for everything else, there is PhotoShop.

2 thoughts on “Tuesday, June 16, 2009

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