*disclaimer: Even though I had a wondrous time in Amsterdam, you really never want to go west of the Dam. Stay away from the Jordaan. It is too special and amazing to be spoiled by random people who read this blog’s going there.*
Today, I woke up in Amsterdam!!!! The open window, full of the grey sky, signaled that my travel weather karma was still on suspension. But nothing daunted, I was determined to enjoy a café day come what may.
I began my day at Café De Prins. A small café on the edge of the canal by the Anne Frank house. From there, I could see the tourists (note how already I have clearly demarcated between them and me) line up to enter the silver-plated building that poses as the location of that famous domicile.
This prime location was perfect for reading and people watching while eating amazing soups (tomato AND African lentil!!) and drinking La Chouffe (magic chouffe!).
After that bit of reading, a bit of wandering was in order. I crossed the Prinsengracht, heading towards the Boekenmarkt off the Spui; they hold the book market on Fridays (I’d missed it) but today there was a small art market in the space. I meandered through the booths, taking in the Dutch spirits of art and commerce. Once through the market, I continued wending through small alleys that were colored a soft spring green by moss growing on the grey stone buildings.
I kept getting disoriented in Amsterdam because of the circular nature of the streets and canals. My usually stellar sense of direction (no one who knows me is allowed to laugh here) deserted me here and I had ditched my maps, so I had to just let go of my desire to be somewhere and just be where I was, knowing that eventually I would be able to find the canal my hotel was on and thus get home at some point. While this strategy is not conducive for seeing specific sights in a city, it is very good for seeing the city. Ultimately, I ended up spending most of my time walking up and down the Prinsengracht with only a few detours like the above to the Spui square. I stayed mostly in the Jordaan district, and with the exception of my first travel day, never crossed the Dam.
One of my detours on this morning’s promenade, took me down a tiny alley, past a wall of brightly-colored shoes, into a quiet grassy space surrounded by houses. I’d wandered into the Begijnhof. Originally, an outdoor space surrounded by the houses of pious women who didn’t want to go all the way and become nuns (but still were not allowed to have booze, men, or chickens), this grassy courtyard was a bastion of religious tolerance and love.
This area exemplifies one of the many things I love about Amsterdam: though one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it still is able to provide shared open space that offers true respite, sometimes literally a step away, from the hordes of bikes, growl of motor engines, and rush of the pedestrian crowd. I was continually surprised by these spaces of peaceful community. And each surprise held a moment of wonder that people—that a huge city—could make such places a priority.
I exited the Begijnhof through the “secret” door that opened back out on the boekenmarkt square, pausing to listen to the sounds of singing from a service that was in progress at the tiny chapel adjacent to the green courtyard. Once again, a moment of community and peace.
All that peace leaves me parched for both liquid refreshment and a good long reading session. So I returned to the Prinsengracht and the cafés that lined its walls. My next reading choice turned out to be my favorite café of the trip: Café ‘t Smalle.
To enter ‘t Smalle was to leave a world of grey, green, and stone and enter a golden brown space. It has the interior of Vermeer era house (with parceled spaces and interlocking views and shadows and wending light), converted into a bar, whose leaded windows bend and shape the light into something warm and alive. Its chocolate wood panels, bar, tables, and chairs perfectly complement the yellow-gold walls and copper taps and bands on the barrels that hung above the rows of glasses and bottles behind the bar.
I chose a seat on a wooden bench near the front window that afforded me a distorted view of the canal through the glass panes and a clear view of the bar and its patrons. To my left an elderly gentleman played chess with the bartender, espressos steaming on the counter beside them.
To order, you just call your orders to the bartender from wherever you were sitting (yes, the space was that “smalle”), and he would make your drink and place it on the bar. The bartender looked like Colin Farrell but with more Dutch good cheer and chose to ignore or serve you based on the intensity of the chess game at the moment as well as his general opinion of you as a customer. Since I was quietly reading, my customer present was benign: I got my ‘Chouffe with little to no issues (the ease of which may have also resulted from the multi-colored stripey knee socks and grey wool skirt. . .).
Tourists filtered in and out of the bar, ordering some sort of apple cake thing and Heineken. Whenever this happened, much shuffling of chairs ensued because ‘t Smalle has an inordinate amount of chairs per table. Or maybe, if you are of this line of thought, they have a lack of tables to chairs. One man rushed in, took frantic pictures of the bar with his all-too-large-I’m-compensating-with-this-lens camera, and hurried back out, intent—no doubt—on getting in line for the Anne Frank house. Another man sat at the bar. Ordered a double of milk and proceed to down the white substance while casually playing (almost but not quick picking) his nose. All which the bartender took in stride. At one point, the chess man’s wife showed up and asked when he’d be home. He responded with a gesture that internationally meant, “Woman, after this game. Now go home and make me a chicken pot pie.”
After she departed both he and the Colin switched from espresso to beer.
As the afternoon progressed, an apparent friend of the bartender arrived. He and Colin had an intense discussion about the friend’s wounded hand. And indeed it was worthy of some talk. In the center of his palm, the friend had a large, open, and incredibly deep gash. After much gesticulating, the friend left and returned a few moments later with his hand completely and professionally bandaged. How did that happen? Where did he find a triage room amidst the houses and boats of this canal? Is the Dutch healthcare that good? And furthermore, how did he get an injury like that in the first place? I’m not kidding; that wound was intense. It was as if someone had tried to cut a second mouth in the palm of this guy’s hand. Any second I expected it to start the Hamlet soliloquy. Anyway, now that hand was cared for, Colin poured his friend a Heineken, swirling the glass as he filled it to create a larger head.
Quick digression: They love head in Europe. Head on beer, that is. Everywhere I went for a brew, the bartenders seems engaged in a secret contest to be the one to make the absolutely biggest head ever on a pint of beer. It took some getting used to, receiving a glass of beer that was half foam. I know that eventually the foam will settle into beer, but who wants their first few sips to result in a foam-stache? And some of those glasses are just dang hard to drink around the foam. Especially the kicky goblet-y ones that La Chouffe comes in.
However, as much as I had an issue with head in Europe, one of the things I love about how beer is served in Europe (and that seems to be catching on in bars I don’t go to in the US) is the specific glass for a specific beer. If you order a ‘Chouffe, you get a ‘Chouffe glass; Charles Quint, Charles Quint glass; Jopen, corresponding glass. I am obsessed with proper drink receptacle and beverage pairing. I used to have a favorite red wine glass that was the only glass I would drink red wine out of (until my son kicked a ball at it, causing it to explode in a colossal burst of red wine and glass shards—may or may not be one of the few times I have seriously chewed my son out in blind fury). If I switch to or from white wine, that gets an entirely different glass. I have problems drinking wine, beer, or coffee out of plastic. I can’t drink water out of metal. I have a coffee cup that is the sole surviving piece from my parents’ wedding china that I prefer drinking out of. So much so, that I bring it with me to places where I know I will be sitting and drinking coffee. Drinking any liquid is so much more than just imbibing. It is about the proper handfeel for the beverage—the appropriate merging of mouthfeel from liquid and chalice. So, this glass pairing in Europe makes a person like me feels as if I were in heaven. Simply divine.
As happens when one is drinking, I needed to attend to various matters of a more personal nature. However, the ladies room was occupied. And since I am not a line-waiting type of person, I opted for room b: the men’s bathroom. Having successfully relieve myself, I emerged to be greeted by puzzled and a not just a little mocking looks from the bartender and friend with the gashed hand. I acknowledge my slightly unconventional behavior with a shrug and used the opening to question the friend about his gashed hand (“lost a fight with a vodka bottle”).
Apparently, gashed hand is a DJ who goes by the name Dirk Diggler. We got to talking about the dj scene in Amsterdam, and I may or may not have dropped a comment about my small love of dancing.
DD: Really, I’m doing a show tonight at the Melkweg (milkyway).
Me: Oh, I’ve heard a lot about that place. I was thinking about going there while I’m here.
DD: Well, it’s a sold out show. But if you give me your name, maybe I can get you on the guest list.
Me [rifling frantically in my purse for a pen and my “HELP!” post-its before he could change his mind]: Here.
Exchange made, we both returned to our respective activities. Mine: reading. His: chatting with people he actually knew.
After a bit more reading, I decided it was time to change venues. This time to a place a good friend of mine had told me about: Café Gollem.
Finding this place took a bit of maneuvering (and again, a lot of random city seeing since it is off the Singel and not the Prinsengracht), but I eventually found it and settled in for a read and a Jopen.
It was during this reading segment that I got to personally know my first bar cat. This is another thing I love about Amsterdam: the cats. They are everywhere. Every place of business has one. And just like cats anywhere else in the world, they are snooty, entitled, and most definitely NOT declawed.
Gollem cat made himself at home on my lap and proceeded to do the cute little purr + knead thing on my thighs. Except his claws and my bare legs were not a winning combination. I gritted my teeth and tried to tolerate the intense pain radiating up my legs as each razor claw clutched a tiny piece of tissue and pulled. The flattery of being chosen by a cat (only cat people will understand that sentiment) warred with the searing agony I was going through. Ultimately, the pain won, and I brusquely deposited said feline on the bench next to me. He gave me a piercing stare that said, “Okay, you want it that way? You are dead to me.” And moved away to a darkened corner of the bar where he could scope out his next victim—ahem—I mean, object of affection.
Gollem is the close to the perfect brown bar: burnished wood everywhere, wall space choked with empty bottles on shelves and chalkboards advertising the beers on tap and in (full) bottles, and soft brown light, leaking through the windows.
From the windows, across the narrow, cobbled street, you can see the Cracked Kettle, the most perfect beer store in the entire world. I decided after my Jopen to buy a few bottles for the hotel and watch the sunset from the comfort of my hotel window.
The Cracked Kettle is no joke. Broken bicycle in front, wooden basket filled with bottles. A tingly bell at the door announces your entry. And then shelves and shelves and shelves filled with bottles. It’s like a library for beer. The owner is no joke either. Dedicated to the pursuit of only the finest brew, he’ll travel the world to get beers that you can only find “locally” or at the brewery. The find of the week on the day I visited: Port Brewing Company. The owner had flown to San Diego, gone to the brewery in San Marcos, and brought back the entire Port line, including the Lost Abbey Belgian style brews. I’d never seen such a complete selection of these beers ever. And I live in San Diego. In addition to SD represent, the store also carried the entire Flying Dog (Colorado) line (again, brews from that brewery I’d never seen), Rogue (Oregon), and a few other US beers that are indeed high quality.
I was stunned and said as much to the sales clerk. “Yes, Port Brewing is very good. Would you like to buy some?” But I wasn’t here for the beers of my home country (slightly snotty, “no thanks, I live there. I can get Port Brewing beers any time.”). I wanted brews I couldn’t get in California. I wanted obscure Trappist beers, Dutch beers, beers of Northern Europe. With his advice, I chose a few bottles and wasabi peanuts(! Holy Crap. Why don’t they sell these in California? Sweet yet nasal-clearing. Genius!), then wandered my way back to the hotel with a brief detour to an Albert Heijn for some picnic essentials (goat cheese, bread, tomatoes, basil).
In the deepening evening, I sat in my open window (heater on full volume—I think it went to 11) and watched the canal below. Sipping my beer, tearing bread and basil, slicing cheese and tomatoes, I watched the drama in the canal unfold below.
A couple, let’s call them Thom and Nancy, had decided to do a sunset cruise on the Herengracht. At some point, their rowboat started to sink. Scrambling over the canal walls, Thom had enough aplomb to hook a rope to the boat and tie it to their car to prevent the boat from sinking further.
As Nancy stood, arms crossed to resist the cold, Thom began to pull and maneuver the rope attached to the boat. To no avail. Soon they were joined by two friends who managed to hook two more lines to the boat. They tugged and shifted their weights. To no avail. They then magically conjured up a large wooden plank that was used as a sort of lever or spatula to raise the boat. To no avail.
Nancy looked on in the increasing dusk, growing colder by the second as the canal started to turn Van Gogh blues and golds.
At some point during this epic struggle, another motorboat puttered up to the scene. This one contained a Good Samaritan who offered his help which was accepted as evidenced by the transfer of dog and daughter from boat to dry land.
Heineken cans all around suddenly appeared.
You have to love the Dutch sense of conviviality combined with industry. A potentially frustrating situation was just turned into a reason to socialized and imbibe and just spread good cheer in general. To join in—albeit a bit vicariously—I opened another beer; spread a healthy amount of goat cheese on a piece of bread; topped that with a cucumber, basil, tomato, and greens; and took a bite, mentally offering a toast to the Thom and Nancy show.
As the Good Samaritan took over the boat rescue, Thom’s good cheer grew as did the empty cans of Heineken. Sadly, this festivity left the Good Samaritan doing most of the work on his own. At one point, Thom and his two friends peered down from the side of the canal—beers in hand—at the Good Samaritan's bailing out the sinking boat, equipped only with a tiny, pink plastic pail (his daughter’s no doubt). After about ten minutes of futile bailing, the Good Samaritan indicated to Thom that is was his turn to actively participate in boat rescue. To which, Thom lowered a 5-gallon bucket down on a rope and commenced long-distance bailing. Laborious, but hilarious.
Soon the boat was floating and Thom’s two friends as well as the Good Samaritan and family disappeared into the evening gloom. But Thom and Nancy weren’t done with their adventures. Oh, no. They were going to do a dusk boat ride no matter what.
Thom left Nancy to guard their recovered craft and ran around the canal to my side, with plank in hand, where he entered a house (I tried to figure out later which house was theirs, but couldn’t tell without serious snooping). He soon emerged carrying a small outboard motor. After jogging back to the waiting Nancy (Thom does not lack energy—that may be his appeal to Nancy), he attached the motor to the boat and began vigorously pulling the string to start the motor.
To no avail.
Still Thom wouldn’t give up. Oblivious to Nancy’s impatient gestures, he kept performing the Lawn Mower to that tiny motor as if intense techno music were pounding inside his skull.
Finally, Nancy just walked away. Thom may have admirable energy, but apparently, he misplaces it. Shaking his head, Thom pushed the motor over the side of the canal and scrabbled up after it. Their evening was done.
By this time, I needed to get ready to explore the possibility that I might have access to a live show at the Melkweg. After donning black skirt, tank, and boots, I was ready to be a Goth vampire and take to the night.
The Melkweg is in the Leidseplein, the clubbing/nightlight square complete with the infamous Boom Chicago and Paradiso. In my usual distracted fashion, I almost missed the entrance. After asking a bouncer about the guest list, I discovered that not only was I on the list but my ticket had also been paid for!
Inside, the Melkweg is similar in set up to 4th and B in San Diego: bar to one side of a large, high-ceilinged, open space. Lots of black paint and exposed metal struts. After checking my coat (I love this about Europe. There are places to put your coat everywhere. I didn’t once have to plan for a cold walk to avoid having to lug a coat around in a too-warm interior like I do in San Diego), I found Dirk spinning near the stage.
I had arrived during the space between the opening act and the main event. In Amsterdam, the opening act is preceded by a DJ playing dance-ish music, the interval between acts is filled similarly, as is the time post main show. So you sort of get two events for the price of one: a dance dance dance revolution as well as a more traditional band experience.
Dirk and I exchanged greetings, and I passed on my thanks for the ticket. He then went back to work, and I claimed my space on the floor. Delineating dance + show-watching space in a crowded venue is a tricky bit of work. You have to firmly establish to the growing and pushing crowd that you are not going anywhere while at the same time refraining from discourteously jabbing those around you with flailing arms while you dance (not that my arms flail in any way). The difficulty was compounded by two other factors:
1) I am short and the Dutch are generally very tall. So many people just didn’t see me hanging out somewhere around their knee level.
2) The band was a Scottish band called The View (apparently, they also get a Wikipedia article), and they were punk. To quote Dirk: “They are like the Beatles on speed.”
I moved and danced and banged with the best of them, trying to avoid the mosh pit’s push and shove as wells as flailing arms and legs from the crowd surfers. Luckily for me, since I was surrounded by (they might be)giants, most of the dangling appendages were well above head level.
This evening may be my most street cred moment of the trip. Not only was I at a live music venue, I had attended it as the guest of the DJ—for free. Amazing.
As the show ended, I said my thanks and farewells to Dirk, and we made plans to exchange no contact information and never see each other again. Perfect.
Thanks again, Dirk Diggler. You were indeed a big, bright, shining star on my trip.
The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.
--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History
--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History