Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Europe 2009: Amsterdam (Monday, July 27)

Today, it was finally time to do some of the traditional touristy things.  I intentionally saved them for Monday, figuring crowds would be smaller.  I trekked down to the Museumplein, where several of the museums are clustered.  The Rijksmuseum is undergoing major construction, so only had a small portion open, and a long line out the door.  (Looks like I’m never supposed to go to that museum, since my last trip here in 1981, it was also closed [due to Liberation Day, I think].)

Heading toward the Van Gogh Museum, I went through the free part of the Coster Diamonds Museum, but opted out of the paid part (€7.50); the ticket booth was all the way through the downstairs, by which point I had got that museum out of my system — I would likely have bought a ticket if they had been sold at the front.

Next was the House of Bols museum, the oldest distillery in Amsterdam and creators of Gen.  Genever (which was dubbed “Dutch Courage”) was copied by the British as Gin.  Bols is best known today for their myriad of fruity liqueurs in bottles shaped like juggling clubs used in “flairtending” (think Tom Cruise in Cocktail).  The bottles were repeatedly said to be designed “by bartenders for bartenders” but they never mentioned the blatantly obvious juggling club antecedents, which was an odd omission.  This tour (€11) ended with a Genever cocktail (I had a Holland House — strong lemon flavor) plus tastings of a couple of the liqueurs (I tried the Dark Cacao and Peppermint).  I bought a spherical Bols shot glass as a souvenir.

The Van Gogh Museum (€13.50) had only a couple people in line, so I paid for this one.  It was good enough, I suppose, with one floor all Van Goghs, arranged by date so as to give a through line of his work.  In the end, I decided I didn’t much care for his work.  The early stuff was incredibly dark (all blacks and browns), much of his middle stuff had such whacked out perspectives that it detracted from the work for me, and his later stuff became more abstract.  Only his flower pieces really hold any enjoyment for me, and I bought a set of espresso cups with his “Butterflies and Poppies” image on them (a painting I don’t think I had ever seen before).  The other two floors were dedicated to some of his contemporaries, none of whose names (other than Gauguin) were familiar to me and none of which I can recall now.  One set of lithographs struck me: a series called “In Dreams” by Odilon Redon, with one image being a floating head with white skin and a huge shock of black hair; almost certainly an inspiration for Morpheus (from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman), although I’ve not heard of the connection before.

Passed up at the gift shop: a nifty flower vase made of folded waxed cardboard, which will fold flat or pop out into a double vase with Van Gogh imagery on it.  Too expensive, but I considered it for a Christmas present.

Near the Dam Square, I stopped to get my obligatory Amsterdam t-shirt — black with red print “Amsterdam” and the “XXX” city logo.  (Hmm, I wonder if “triple X” = porn stems from the Red Light District?  Must research.)

(The web has conflicting stories.  One theorizes that since “XX” stands for kiss, and since it was once illegal to kiss a woman in a film more than three times, films that went beyond this limit were labelled “XXX”.  Sounds contrived to me.  Another equates it to the “XXX” on kegs of beer, indicating a level of quality or strength.  I couldn’t find any connection to Amsterdam, to newspaper editorial signoffs, or to shirt sizes.)

I planned to go to the Hash, Marijuana, & Hemp Museum, just a few blocks down canal from the Anco, but passed out for a nap instead.  Dinner was a Chinese place, something bland but with a good bit of veggies which I probably needed.

Unlike many other regional cities — be they European like Dublin or American like Atlanta and Houston and Boston — I had a very hard time detecting a Dutch accent.  I usually hear accents fairly quickly and start adopting them unconsciously within a day or two, but not in Amsterdam.  I guess it’s such a melting pot, especially in the Centrum, that it evens out.  By when I left, the best accent I retained was something that seemed a little Italian tinged, if anything.

Amsterdam’s sidewalks are edged by dark colored curbs, carved (I guess, or maybe molded — hard to tell) and in segments with puzzle-piece interlocks.  Very cool, but they vary in height from an inch or less to about 8 inches.  And probably because of the dark color, my peripheral vision identifies them as “street” rather than “curb”, so I have had a very hard time with them.  I keep suddenly stepping off the curb and onto the actual street.  It’s amazing that I didn’t twist my ankle with the number of times I did this.

Amsterdam also seems to be loaded with steep stairs with shallow steps.  I tried to stumble into the basement at the Argos, and the stairs at the Anco were a trip to get the large suitcase up, since they were shallow, steep, and curved!  Most fascinating were the ones at Mauricio’s apartment, which were about three stories up but only 1.5 deep.  It’s a good thing I already tend to take steps with my foot sideways to increase surface area.  (To make matters worse, I racked my shin on the bed frame at the hotel, and then hit the exact same place going up the stairs at the Argos.)

The weather in Amsterdam has been fantastic, but the humidity has been through the roof.  This made the late night walk on Sunday night terrific, but Sunday was increasingly thick and miserable, turning to rain a little bit.

Amsterdam is incredibly flat.  Reminds me of the drive from Houston to Galveston.  No visible landmarks other than town water towers, unlike the West Coast where we always have mountains to navigate by.  Patrick and Chris told me that I had to go about 100 km outside the city to start getting to some hills.

Amsterdam is loaded with bicycles, especially in the Centrum, where there are 50-100 bikes for every car.  (And none of the mountain bikes or 10-speeds everyone has in the States.  These are either single or 3-speed bikes, and all with bag racks on the back.)  The flatness of the Dutch countryside and the narrow streets in the Centrum are undoubtedly the cause of this, making it reasonably easy to bike anywhere you need to go; I imagine it is also quite expensive to own a car here.  It is quite cool to see the racks of bikes, 50 to 100 or more per rack, every slot full.  There were a number of tandem bikes (that’s a bicycle built for two, Daisy), and I even saw one with four seats, for the entire family.

Beyond the bikes, though, are the scooters and motorcycles, especially the scooters.  Probably 8-10 scooters for every car in the Centrum.  Lots of Vespas, naturally, but I saw Sym and Kymco and Yamaha models, too, and some lines I didn’t recognize.  Apparently no helmet law, either.

Updated on February 9, 2010

Updated on May 12, 2010:
Moved part of this post to the Sounds Kinky-er blog:

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