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Monday, June 13, 2011
With its often overcast sky, its tall houses reflecting into the canals, and with streets dedicated more to bicycles than either cars or pedestrians, Amsterdam is a nearly impossible city to experience. There seems to be no way to see it.
When I checked into my hotel, the Eden—comfortably located in the midst of nearly everything—my room was not ready, so tired as I was from the travel, I determined to take a look at the renowned red light district nearby. But hardly had I got out of the hotel door, when a bicycle crashed into me, throwing both me and the rider onto the concrete. "Watch where you're going," he shouted out in English.
"Are you okay?" I asked, checking my own pained limbs simultaneously. He stood, shook himself off and sped away.
I had not noticed that what I thought was a walkway for human beings was the lane for masses of speeding bikes. At some points in the narrow streets, it was safer to duel with the car than with the revered two-wheeler.
The red light district, so I discovered, no longer exists—except for heterosexual men desperate for a quickie. I should have realized that there is no longer any need of printed pornography since the computer stores images and even whole movies so conveniently. The entire area is on the remake, slowly gussying itself up as a tourist destination, with only some isolated back lanes of glass covered booths wherein dreadful looking prostitutes await, pounding the glass as any man passes. Busloads of tourists were told that "here you can get whatever you seek," but I no longer believed them. There were only a few gay stores left, and some of them were now sleek boutiques filled with Sadomasochistic costumes and machines for which I could not even imagine a use.
I visited a couple of lovely bookstores, and returned to my hotel, which was certainly not elegant, but comfortable enough, even if I had to sit at the lobby-located bar to use my laptop. But then, I like to write and drink.
For dinner, I asked the concierge to suggest an old-fashioned Dutch restaurant that might serve fish, since I was in the mood for it, and could only imagine that with all the water hereabouts fish should be as bountiful as in Scandinavia. He suggested Sluizer on Utrectsestratt, perfect for my taste!
I saw wonderful platters of fish being served, but inexplicably ordered Weinerschnitzel with pommes frites. What I hadn't expected, but quickly perceived, was that nearly any food in both the Netherlands and Belgium would be accompanied by mayonnaise and other sauces. I chose not to participate in the national passion for cholesterol.
The next day, I would be leaving by an afternoon train to Paris, so, after an early continental breakfast, I hiked about the neighborhood in search of another room, since I'd been told that when I planned to return to Amsterdam for a few days after my travels in France and Belgium, the hotel was booked up. Several other hotels looked suitable enough and were accommodatingly priced, but they also had no rooms available. Finally, I spotted a small hotel facing the same canal opposite the Eden. The man behind the counter, who seemed also to own the small establishment, appeared to be gay, and rooms were available, so I booked.
Returning more than a week later, I was asked by the same gentleman if instead of a room I might like to stay in a nearby apartment the hotel owned or even on the houseboat docked in the canal in front. I was tempted by the latter just for the oddity of it, but the weather look chancey, and a bobbing, rain-splattered night appeared in store, so I chose the apartment. It was not elegantly decorated, but certainly had a sense of student-like flair, with furniture, it appeared, like the kind you find at Ikea. A rather large living room faced the kitchen and dining room, with a commodious bedroom with a large double and single beds behind sliding doors. It was perfect, I realized, since I was too tired to walk endlessly about the city in search of something to do. Most of the museums, I was told, were being restored, and had closed down large numbers of their galleries. Amsterdam still seemed bleak and difficult to get an image of.
I walked the flower market, I marched through Rembrandt Square, I wandered the opera house nearby, dropped into pubs, and met for lunch with Tom Möhlmann from the Dutch Translation offices, along with the vivacious Diane Butterman, who was translating the complete poems of Lucebert for us. At that pleasant lunch, on the top of a department store, I could, for the first time, actually glimpse a vista of the city. Perhaps I should have visited several churches, seeking out their bell towers. But I was happy at the large, circular table the hotel had provided for the apartment, upon which I had placed my laptop.
I wrote several pieces and, in pausing, stared down from the flower-leaden balcony at the mobs of soccer fans below, totally pleased with myself.
Bicycles spun down the streets with an abandon I no longer had to dodge.
One evening I ate what amounted to a feast at a nearby Indonesian restaurant, a delicious meal. I returned to Sluizer, this time to eat the previously-proffered fish, and the next night dined upon an overly rich meal of French oysters followed by veal medallions smothered in a sauce of mushrooms and sweetbreads with mashed potatoes patterned into small, dumpling-like mounds at Flo Brasserie. An economics professor and his psychologist wife conversed with me from the next booth over. Hearing I was a poet, he informed me that one of his colleagues uses Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as the perfect metaphor for economic theory. I laughed, thinking to myself, "Oh, those clever Dutch. They've found the perfect role for Frost!
The next morning a taxi appeared, the driver helping me carry the big suitcase I'd come to call my "maiden aunt" down the stairs, maneuvering it into the trunk, then whisked me away to Schipol Airport, where I was charged $100 for the burdensome aunt.
Amsterdam, June 8, 2010