Saturday, June 13, 2009

I am traveling in style this morning, on a 1st ticket from Brussels to Amsterdam, an opportune result of booking early with Thalys online. I settle into an extra wide seat, log in to the free wifi onboard, and await any other unexpected and delightful amenities that might come my way.

To my initial chagrin, however, there is a group of loud Australians just across the aisle. There are four of them in facing seats and on the table between there are countless miniature bottles of alcohol.

So, they’re clearly drunk Australians. Great.

One of them pulls out a laptop to make a video call on Skype to a friend back home, but it doesn’t seem to work well. Yelling into the microphone, he says: “You’re frozen, Bill. Gee, you don’t look good frozen.” They are far too rowdy and obnoxious for their age, and yet against my better judgment I find that I’m actually beginning to like these guys. That is, until the conductor makes a sudden interruption in Antwerp. I sit anxiously through the trilingual announcement, only to discover amidst a clamor of angry voices and heaving suitcases that we’ve all been ordered off the train.

Over the past few years, I’ve been to France and Italy, all the while speaking very little French and Italian. My strategy has been a practical one. It is to concentrate on the essentials, to know the polite words that lubricate the gears of travel in a foreign land. Bon jour and buon giorno. S’il vous plait and per favore. Merci, madame and grazie, signore. For this trip, I listened to and rehearsed the basics in Dutch. Goeiedag, alstublieft, and dank u wel. But nothing has prepared me for this. I am drowning in a language I do not understand, hoping for an explanation, and straining to follow the complicated instructions I’ve been given.

Here is what I am able to piece together: There is a signal problem on the track ahead. The high-speed Thalys train I was on is scheduled to return to Paris later in the day, and in fear it will be late, it has been sent back to accommodate other passengers at our expense. Abandoned on a platform in Antwerp, we are given a set of options. We can wait here for a slower, regional train that will continue to Amsterdam if and when the problem on the track is resolved. Or, there is a train on Platform 6 leaving immediately that will take us to Kapellen, or Kessel, or some other town with a K-sound—I’m beginning to lose a grip on the details. From there we can catch a bus to Essen, and then yet another train to Amsterdam.

The mutinous passengers around me scatter, and for a moment I hesitate, feeling the weight of solo travel more than I ever have before. I decide to stay put and hope for the best. By now it’s well past lunch, and my stomach is growling, but it’s not clear when the train will move, so I can’t chance walking away to grab a sandwich. Nor is there food available onboard. When we depart at last, that much becomes clear. The 1st class ticket I purchased on a high-speed train has been converted into a slow and rather dirty means of transport.

I think again about the kind conductor I met outside of Ghent. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you’ll get there in the end.” I suppose it’s still true, but at the moment I can’t seem to rally my mood beyond a limited stoicism.

I do, in fact, get there in the end, but a bit worse for wear and definitely hungry. It’s 5:30 PM by the time we arrive at Amsterdam Centraal Station and I haven’t eaten since breakfast. The journey from Brussels was to have taken an easy two and a half hours, but it was a grueling five and a half in the end.

I take a cab to The Toren, a charming hotel that faces the Keizersgracht canal, and rush through check-in with the hope of begging someone at the Anne Frank House to let me in. Weeks ago, I had made a reservation online for 4:30 PM, thinking I had two hours of leeway, but my appointment time has come and gone and the fine print on my confirmation e-mail warns that my purchase is non-transferrable and non-refundable.

I rush around the corner to find that the line to buy tickets is still outrageously long at this late hour, stretching down the street towards Westerkerk, but I enter through a fast-lane door instead and present my expired reservation to the clerk, ready and almost eager to unburden myself of the day’s events. She glances down, then up at my face, and seems to grasp all that I feel.

And then she smiles.

It’s not a problem, she says. I can go straight in. She hopes I enjoy my visit.

There is a song by Joe Purdy that I like called “I’ve Been to Holland.” With a driving beat, he sings:

I don’t speak the language,
And all of the anguish,
It causes me to ask twice.
I don’t know much,
But know that I love the Dutch,
‘Cause they don’t have to try to be nice.

I exhale then, and feel the tension of the day melt away. In the mad rush here, I’ve hardly had the time register my surroundings. It occurs to me that I’ve been to Holland now, too, and nice can’t begin to describe it.

My visit through the Anne Frank house is all I had hoped it would be, and the gravity of the surroundings soon sets my mind straight on the absurdity of the day’s frustrations. The bookcase hiding the staircase to the Secret Annex is still there, as are the magazine clippings Anne glued to the wall in her room, including a photo of a young Princess Elizabeth of England. On the wall of the dining room there is a map of Normandy that Otto Frank used to track the advance of Allied troops. I stop and think about my visit to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery and am struck by the sad end of that chain of events for Anne and her family, the van Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer. It was help that never came. Following their betrayal and arrest in August 1944, all but Otto died at the hands of the Nazis. Anne herself succumbed to typhoid at Bergen-Belsen, within days of the death of her sister Margot, and just weeks before the camp was liberated by the Allies at last.

I stare at Anne’s diary with its red gingham cover and tiny Dutch script, then at a quotation on the wall:

Perhaps it had to be that this one Anne Frank moves us more than all the other countless victims whose names remain unknown. If we had to share, and could share, the suffering of each one of them, we should be unable to go on living.

When I make my way back out onto the street, I find that the night has grown pleasantly cool. I settle on a causal dinner at De Prins, a traditional brown café just down the street on the Prinsengracht canal, where I feast on an Indian wrap made with chicken, lentils, spinach, cumin, madras curry, cashew nuts, and mint yoghurt.

By the time I leave, the street lights are starting to reflect into the waters of the canal and small bulbs are springing to life along the archways of the city’s bridges. Amsterdam is beautiful at night, and in spite of all, I am glad I came.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Well now, I might just write Joe Purdy a letter this morning to inform him that not all Dutch people are nice.  I need to purchase a tram ticket and on a Sunday morning can’t find either a tourist information office or a local market that’s open for business.  At the Hotel Toren, however, they tell me that I can buy a ticket from the driver onboard, so that’s what I set out to do. But as luck would have it, the man I stumble upon doesn’t like it one little bit.  In fact, he is so disgruntled by my neophyte behavior that he barks at me to stand aside while others board, which gives him ample opportunity to mock me in front of all of the other passengers. At least they have the courtesy to look away.

The incident rattles me and makes me angry, but I make matters worse for myself by jumping off the tram too early.  So here I am, quite disoriented, somewhere near Leidseplein, not sure which way to turn to get to the Rijksmuseum, and the pounding rain surely isn’t helping matters. 

Amsterdam is a handsome city—it really is—but it doesn’t seem to welcome pedestrian traffic.  Cars and buses are buzzing about, trams lines are intersecting at odds angles under a spider web of electric wire, and then there are the bicycles. Bicycles everywhere, in the streets ignoring traffic signals, and on the sidewalks evading the traffic in the streets.  I haven’t felt this uneasy about stepping off a curb since I tried to cross Piazza Venezia in Rome.  I have become the hunted, dependent for survival on the stereotypical niceness of a nation. 

My bucolic visions of Holland have long included tulips and windmills.  Who knew their citizens also had a suicidal instinct?

By now, I’ve fully embraced the spirit of “getting there in the end.”  I find a small patch of earth that seems to be blessedly free of any vehicle’s path. I hoist up the umbrella, unfold the map, and with calm efficiency reroute myself according to the morning’s demands.

When I enter the Rijksmuseum at last, ticket in hand, I consider it a small victory in my ongoing battle against the fates.  And it really is.  Granted, the vast majority of the museum is closed for a multi-year renovation, but the highlights of the collection have been condensed into the Philips Wing in an exhibit simply titled “The Masterpieces.”  There may be maniacal tram drivers and a pelting rain outside, but here is some of the finest and most jolly art of the Dutch Golden Age, and the sight of it lifts my mood at once.  There is a smiling couple painted in vigorous brush strokes by Frans Hals, Rembrandt’s mammoth “The Night Watch,” and a trio of small, intimate portraits by Vermeer.  I may have spent much of my time on this trip missing Italy, but frankly, when it comes to art I prefer this subject matter to a constant stream of “Annunciations” and “Last Judgments.”

The weather outside is still quite nasty, so afterwards I head to the Van Gogh Museum nearby, where I grab a salami sandwich and an almond cookie at their cafeteria before heading in to the exhibits.  I also pay a few extra Euros for the audio guide.  Before long, I am so immersed in the visual and the auditory experience they provide, that I’ve lost all track of the time.  This may just be my favorite museum ever.

Van Gogh’s paintings are presented chronologically, beginning in the 1880s with rather somber works, like “The Potato Eaters.”  Next comes Paris and Arles, then Saint-Rémy, with its swirling brushstrokes, brilliant yellows and cobalt skies.  And finally, there is Auvers, where “Wheatfield with Crows,” executed in the last week’s of Van Gogh’s life, lead the eye down a solitary path under an angry sky, deep into the world in which he shot himself.  Paired with narration from the artist’s letters to his brother Theo, it’s a moving and wholly satisfying experience.

By late afternoon, the sky is starting to clear, and I am grateful to have a pleasant opportunity to wander through Amsterdam’s canal belt.  I stop to admire the “Seven Countries” houses, built in 1894 to showcase the architectural styles of Europe—one townhouse has an onion dome from Russia, while another looks like a Venetian palazzo—then I walk along the floating flower market on the Singel Canal to admire the tulips, and across to a fine view of the Zuiderkerk before heading back. 

The clerk at my hotel recommends De Luwte for dinner, a fine choice just around the corner from The Toren, and there I enjoy a guinea fowl with fresh herbs, wrapped in pancetta. 

Afterwards, I set to walking again because the sky is clear and because Amsterdam is just so very lovely at night, with the fairy lights on its bridges reflecting like strands of pearls into the water below.

Monday, June 15, 2009

When I look out the window of my hotel room this morning, I see a sky that has once again surrendered to a spitting rain. I don’t have any energy left for surprise or disappointment. I’ve planned all along to visit Delft today, and to Delft I will go. For the sake of drama, I might as well add “come Hell or high water,” but I fear tempting both, especially since we are teetering on the edge of the latter already.

Keen to avoid the city trams, I opt to walk to Centraal Station, a massive railway hub. Its elegant brick exterior and Dutch gables make it look remarkably like the Rijksmuseum, which makes sense since both were designed by the same architect in the late-19th century. It reminds of a more elegant time, when travel was an occasion and not just a logistical complication.

The ride to Delft is an easy one and though I arrive late in the morning, the streets are virtually deserted and the shops mainly closed. Between the quiet and the gray fog that has descended, the entire town has an air of mystery about it that I quite like. I wander along the canals towards the market square, stopping along the way in amusement at the names the Dutch give to their streets. There is Poppesteeg and Nickersteeg, Minderbroer and Boterbrug. When I turn onto Hippolytusbuurt, in my mind’s eye I create an image of a portly hippopotamus holding an umbrella, like some whimsical character in a Dr. Seuss story.

Delft is best known for two things: blue and white pottery, and the artist Johannes Vermeer. I spot a Royal Delftware shop facing the Markt, with a row of decorative tiles above the door and an assortment of vases on the window sill, but shopping can wait. I decide to head first to the Vermeer Center nearby.

In truth, there’s probably not enough here to justify the €7 entrance fee. Vermeer was one of the great painters of the Dutch Golden Age, but few of his paintings survive, and of those, none are in Delft. Instead, the displays include interactive media and reproductions of all 34 of his known works, as well as a reconstruction of his studio where visitors can pose among the props he used time and again in his paintings. It’s clever, but not worth more than a short visit.

From here, I walk to the Oude Kerk, with its leaning tower, to see Vermeer’s grave, and then up to the Molen de Roos, a windmill built in the early-18th century. I circle back to the Markt for lunch at a café dubbed the Willem van Oranje, and then visit the Nieuwe Kerk to see the funerary monument to the real Prince William of Orange.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, or the decline of religious belief in the Netherlands more recently, but I find that I don’t like Dutch churches very much. They strike me as rather cold and bare. But the experience does remind me of a 17th century painting of the Oude Kerk by Emanuel de Witte that I saw recently at the Met in New York. The tag on the wall beside the picture was amusing because it seemed incongruous to the scene itself. Someone—probably a misguided art historian—had written about the “spiritual environment” and the “intangible qualities” of “space, light, and mood,” that were reminiscent of Vermeer. Yet Witte had clearly depicted two young boys carving graffiti into one of the church’s pillars, while a dog lifts his leg to urinate on another. The fact that the same theme was used repeatedly by artists in addition to Witte is puzzling, but it demonstrates, at least, that the spiritual and the mundane do coexist, which is more appealing to me than the cavernous museums these churches have become today.

My last wish for the day’s itinerary in Delft is to see the Oostpoort, a graceful gate that was once part of the medieval fortifications of the city. Walking there from the city center is simple, but viewing it properly from across the canal is not. There is a bridge in front that should pivot to allow boats to pass, but when I arrive it’s askew and clearly malfunctioning and there are barriers down to prevent pedestrians from crossing. When a daring kid tries to sprint across anyway, he’s quickly grabbed by a guard and led back to shore. I wait with an increasingly restless crowd for a half hour or more, which annoys the guard further. He puts his hands together and gestures outward to indicate that we should walk either up or down the canal to the next bridge to cross, which is a considerable distance up and back again. I hesitate, not sure if it’s worth the effort on tired legs, all for the sake of a photo op, but I resign myself to it in the end.

Afterwards, I rush back to the train station, but the afternoon is waning fast. I had wanted to stop off in The Hague to see Vermeer’s “View of Delft” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring” at the Mauritshuis, but in my haste and exhaustion I get off at the wrong station, Den Haag HS rather than Den Haag Centraal. I walk about, disoriented, and then decide I wait for another train. By the time I reach the museum at last it’s after four o’clock and the galleries close at five, leaving time enough for a quick peek at the Vermeers, but little else.

For dinner, I stop in Haarlem and at random pick Trattoria Piazza Viva, where their panzerotti and the waiter’s cheery bona sera fill me with warm memories of Italy. As luck would have it, I stumble across a gelateria by St. Bavo’s Cathedral and feast on a nice dish of ice cream for dessert in the city’s central square.

Once again, the day’s rain is gradually giving way to a beautiful evening. Back in Amsterdam, the air is pleasant and cool. In a moment of inspiration in front of the station, I buy a ticket from Holland International for a canal boat tour, where I end the night reclined lazily on a seat by the window, hoping that the last, feeble rays of sunshine will warm my face.

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.