Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"I Once Went To Amsterdam"

The following experiences took place forty-five years ago.  Please forgive the memory gaps. 

London – where I was living at the time, “the time” being 1967 – is not a long distance from Amsterdam, where I had chosen to spend a week’s vacation, because my guidebook and bible – Europe On Five Dollars A Day – said the food was good, and I was tired of eating English food, which was not.   So I went.

As a result of its geographic proximity – please forgive any aeronautical inaccuracies; someone told me this and I believed them – the plane takes off from London – I would not be enjoying any further English Channel boat crossings, as my previous experience involved a prodigious amount of throwing up, the kind where you are so emptied out, you see chunks of double-dip chocolate birthday cake from when you were seven as it was passing back out – where did this sentence start?...oh, yeah, the plane takes off from London, and, since the travel distance is so short, it shoots very closely to straight up in the air to a prescribed mid-point, and then, rather than making a parabolic loop, which if it had, I’d have wound up in India – it hurtles back down at a similar “‘steep’ isn’t the word for it” trajectory.

As a result of the plane’s virtually “straight up and straight down” flight pattern, I was unable to hear for a day and half. 

My temporary deafness proved extremely unhelpful at Dutch “Immigration”, as my response to every question I was asked was,


Citizens of the Netherlands are renowned for their even temperament, but my seeming intransigence left at least one blond-haired Border Officer red in the face.  My inadvertent unresponsiveness could have easily landed me in an Amsterdam prison, but I wasn’t that scared, imagining superior prison food and a vase of fresh-cut tulips in every cell.

Once again, my budget-conscious guidebook directed me to an accommodation a five-dollar-a-day traveler could afford.  I am not talking about a youth hostel, with its barracks-like sleeping arrangements, but an actual hotel, in what I am sure was not the best part of town, but was safe-feeling enough to walk outside in the dark without fear of winding up as a chalk outline in a CSI: The Low Countries investigation. 

And it was friendly area as well.  Women of varying shapes and ages, slightly over made-up and under attired, draped themselves over windowsills and smiled at me as I passed by.  I felt immediately welcome.  That never happened to me in London.

What stands out about Amsterdam?  When you ordered a glass of draft beer, the bartenders used a kind spatula-like gizmo to skillfully skim the surging head off the amberish liquid, so that customers would not be shelling out good money for a half-a-glass of foam.

Also, you could get meatballs out of a vending machine.  You put a Kroner, or whatever, into the slot, you flipped open the “exit receptacle”, and a warmed-up morsel of molded meat came rolling down into your hand.  I don't know what I liked more, the taste or the novelty, though now recalling the taste, I imagine it was the novelty.

There were also numerous street vendors hawking pickled herring, but – and I would say this holds true even today – I’d have to be really hungry to slip a salted miniature fish down my gullet. 

The centerpiece of cheap but good eats, which came highly recommended by my penny-pinching guidebook, was a place specializing in steak and French fries.  The steak was generously portioned and delicious.  And when I’d gobbled down all my fries, a kindly waiter came by and asked if I wanted a refill. 

I knew that Holland had been a colonial powerhouse in past centuries.  But I could not imagine it competing in our contemporary dog-eat-dog global economy if they were giving away free French fries.  When this practice was initiated, I could envision spies from other nations catching wind of such generosity and codedly scribbling, “They’re getting soft” in their secret missives. 

One day, I spend an entire afternoon standing on an “island” in the middle of a busy confluence of surrounding streets, unable to get off.  In whatever direction I ventured, there did not seem to be any, even momentary letup in the traffic – a teeming torrent of automobiles but mostly bicycles – that would permit me to mercifully cross the street, and return to civilization. 

I recall finally surrendering to my fate, and sitting down and writing post cards to friends and loved ones announcing that I was stranded on a traffic island in Amsterdam and would likely never see them again, should someone not, at some point, fly over and come to my rescue.  Of course, for anyone to receive those post cards, I would have had to escape the “island” to mail them.  (In which case, of course, I would not need help anymore.)

I visited the obligatory tourist attractions, the neighboring art galleries – one for the old classics, one for modern works of art – greatly preferring – being me – the old stuff.  That Rembrandt sure could paint. 

It occurred to me that painters hundred of years ago could paint as skillfully and evocatively as anyone today, or even more so, where on the other hand, practitioners in other disciplines, were no place. 

The Seventeenth Century Internet?  It was pigeons!

If you find this observation lacking depth, insight or, perhaps, value, there’s an understandable reason for that – I was drunk when I thought of it.  Even though it was only eleven A.M.  The reason for that is because, before taking in the galleries, I had enjoyed the Heineken Beer Tour, where visitors were ushered around the production facilities, after which we were led into a long-tabled room and given free beer.  Then, when our resistance was at its lowest, we were pedaled Heineken-related memorabilia to commemorate our visit. 

I retain to this day a Delft-china beer mug with a hand-painted windmill on it.  A sober Earlo would have easily said, “I’ll pass.”

I also made a pilgrimage to Anne Frank’s house, climbing the steep, narrow staircase to the families’ secret hiding place.  Among other personal accessories, penciled notations on a wall, delineating the children’s height increases.  Just like we have in our kitchen.  It is not an easy place to visit.  If you stand quietly, and you hear the stomping jackboots clambering up the staircase, coming to get them, and ship them off to the camps, and, if I’d been in Holland during that era, I’d have been with them. 

(For a shocking but hilarious – hilarious because it’s shocking – alternate rendition of a visit to Anne Frank’s house, read the David Sedaris’ essay on the same subject.)

I saw a wonderful movie in Amsterdam, the British romantic comedy-drama Two For The Road, with, of course, a Dutch audience, and then proceeded, with much of that theater crowd, to a nearby bar, where I heard them singing along to a current Beatles tunes blasting over the PA. 

I had barely spoken to anyone the whole trip, but I felt comfortable with a crowd who’d enjoyed the same movie, and were rocking to the same tune.  I asked a nearby – probably female, that is generally my M.O. with strangers – if she liked the Beatles, only to discover that, not only she, but everyone in the bar, spoke no English whatsoever.  They were clearly conversant with the Beatles lyrics, but apparently had no idea what they meant.  (Full Disclosure:  There are some Beatles lyrics I don’t understand either.)

My remaining impressions of Amsterdam are vague.  Well, actually, gone.  What remains is a wisp of a recollection of a place I enjoyed visiting.  And would some day like to visit again.  If only to see if they still sell meatballs out of a vending machine.     

Nah.  The Board of Health probably closed that racket down.  Sherms! 

Good thing I got in under the wire. 


Mac said...

I haven't been to Amsterdam for years but I'm pretty sure the vending-machines meatballs don't exist anymore. That's like bacterial Russian roulette.

Sérgio said...

With "Kroner" you probably mean the old dutch "Gulden" (the coin to put in the vending machine)?
Regarding the meatball from the machine: I think that the FEBO still sells that in Amsterdam:http://www.febodelekkerste.nl/catalog/?v=2&lid=1&id=16
Enjoyed reading your post! Cheers