Monday, January 14, 2013

Another City, No Hills Whatever

Every now and again, it's good to get away. This particular escape I'd been planning for months. I was really disappointed last March when it was announced that Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach would have the world premiere of its 2012 revival, the last time it would be produced under the auspices of those who created it, about 200 feet from my front door. I was disappointed because on the day it happened, I was in Austin, sitting on a panel I was moderating on the state of contemporary "classical" music. Of which Einstein is a milestone, and I'd never seen it. I then went on to miss it in London and Berkeley and was resigned to never seeing it at all when someone mentioned the production would be playing in Amsterdam in early 2013. I went to the website and found I could afford a halfway decent ticket, then buy a train ticket the next month, and sock in a hotel the month after that. Happy birthday and merry Christmas to me!

For the record, the train trip is easy enough: TGV from Montpellier to Paris Gare de Lyon, then walk across town to the Gare du Nord and get a Thalys (the French/Dutch/Belgian fast train) to Amsterdam. The worst part is the walk across Paris, which takes just under an hour, not because it's a particularly hard walk, but because it passes through some of the most boring parts of town: you walk up the rue de Lyon until you get to the Bastille Opera, then walk through the market space towards République. You pass through the motorcycle helmet district, the bathroom showroom district, and the video games district. You really don't have time to grab a bite, and there's nowhere to eat at the Gare du Nord. There are no historic buildings or famous vistas. You won't see the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur or, in fact, even the Seine. Alternatively, you can take a train between the two places, but then you just wind up with more time at the other end.

But I left here at 9:30 and got into Amsterdam at 5:30, so it was relatively painless. And Priceline wound me up at the Mariott, just across from the Leidseplein, a place I've stayed at a lot over the years. Not memorable, but efficient and easy to get to other places from.

Places like Kantijl. I have two favorite Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam and Kantijl is one of them. (The other is Puri Mas.) The big problem this time was that my taste-buds were iffy, something I'm going to make a doctor's appointment to remedy after I finish this blog post. But they were still working when I walked in the door at Kantijl, and lasted through the appetizer, Bakwan Tahoe, which were croquettes of some sort made with vegetables and served with a nice hot pink sauce with peanuts in it.

It was an awful sensation, losing my taste before those three little morsels were finished. It meant that the main course was an anti-climax. The only downside of Kantijl for a solo diner is that they won't serve a rijstafel for one (which Puri Mas does). Instead you get a rames, which is a bed of noodles or rice with a lot of stuff put on top of it.

This one's based on fried rice. It's kind of a Greatest Hits dish, and Kantijl cooks well enough that they are, indeed, hits, but I hope my next visit will be with at least one other person. Their menu is deep, and worth exploring in detail.

I walked back to the hotel, a perfect antidote for the long train-ride, thankful it wasn't any colder than it was: I've been in Amsterdam a lot at this time of year, and the wet can be daunting, but all it did was make my room feel more comfortable, and hitting the hay was never easier.

The next morning, I figured I should find the venue for the performance, the Muziektheater, so after breakfast (a meal the Dutch don't really do, so it was a relief to find a Starbucks right on the Leidseplein) I headed out that way. It turned out to be embarrassingly easy to find, and yet it was a good idea to take the walk, because it exposed me to a lot more of the city that I'd never seen. Quite often, I have a sort of GPS beam in my head, so wandering around doesn't really get me lost. And on occasion, it can result in a whip-your-phone-out moment:

There: proof that it doesn't rain in Amsterdam all the time.

It was about 1:30 by the time I got back to the Leiseplein, and I was watching the time: curtain for this 4 1/2 hour extravaganza was 6:30 strict, and since there was no break, you had to be there on time. I wasn't quite sure how to get meals integrated into this, but I did want to stop by a place called Eat At Jo's, run by a couple of American expats, one of whom, Mary Jo, remembered me from Austin and who, using her husband Erik's Facebook accounts, had been one of my first Facebook friends. She'd been sick (and, earlier last year, had shared with me having had a pulmonary embolism, poor gal!) but was about back on her feet, I heard, so I stopped in for a sandwich. I was in luck: she came back in for the first time in a week, and we had a good talk, after which a friend of hers showed up and we talked for a while, and suddenly a bowl of cauliflower, mustard, and green pea soup came out of the kitchen. Again, the taste buds were dead, unfortunately. But by the time I left, I felt I could make it through the evening without eating any more.

I made it with time to spare to the Muziektheater, and my review of the performance, which was overwhelming (and not just because of its length) will appear this Wednesday on my other blog. To fortify myself for the walk home, I stopped by the pub next door (the Muziektheater, City Hall, and a nice bar run by Amstel Beer are all part of the same complex, along with an impressive monument to Amsterdam's deported Jews) for an Amstel and some bitterballen, which were some kind of meat croquettes I couldn't taste, served with coarse mustard.

The next day I'd reserved for a visit to the newly-redesigned Rijksmuseum. Unfortunately, it's not going to reopen until April, as I found out after I'd already bought my hotel room. Still, I figured, I could certainly pass a day in Amsterdam without getting bored. Sure enough: there's a new museum, the Hermitage, a branch of the famous museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Van Gogh museum is taking up some of its space, and the other is dedicated to a revolving look at the Russians' collection, and at the moment, it's showing Impressionists, of which the Hermitage has a large and famous collection. It's also right next to the Muziektheater, and I'd begun to wish I'd been able to score a hotel room in that neighborhood, not only for convenience, but for learning another part of the city. But I walked over, snapping a nice entryway I'd passed a couple of times already.

Ah, yes, the embarrassment of riches...

The Hermitage show just turned out to be an embarrassment. €17.50 to get in (to be honest, this gets you van Gogh, too, but I'd had my fill of him last time I was here doing a story on the Patti Smith Band doing a bunch of gigs in a couple of days, one of which was at the van Gogh museum), and an impressive display area, starting with a lovely full-wall color reproduction of a painting of a bunch of people shopping for art in the 19th century. The opening blurb says that this is a rare show in that it hangs the art the Impressionists rejected right next to their own works. Weasel words: possibly because of their value, there are precious few Impressionists, and virtually no famous works, in the entire show. I'd say the ratio of academic/approved work to Impressionist is 75%/25%. We get a lot more context, but not much else, and the academic stuff is for the most part truly awful.

So with no desire to visit Vincent, I left after a little more than an hour, feeling burned. Now I had the whole day to explore Amsterdam and no goals. Which, if the weather held, would be perfect. A large glass building caught my eye and I walked off in its direction. As I suspected, it was the botanical gardens, which had a large tropical plant house, but when I got to the door, I realized that the majority of what was there was outside, and maybe early January wasn't the right time to visit. Another whopping entry fee just to stand in the greenhouse and breathe the moist green air? Tempting,

At this point, I got myself lost, but not totally: that GPS was still functioning. I saw a sign that said something about a Portugese synagogue, which was interesting, but I saw something else that looked interesting and walked at a 90º angle to the arrow to the synagogue. The thing I saw resolved into a huge old Dutch maritime vehicle, whether a trading boat or a warship was hard to tell, but it was vividly painted and apparently in the water. But when I got closer, I realized it was still a long way to this thing, and walked a little further and then back towards town -- or that's the way it looked.

I'm not sure where I was, or if I could get there again, but eventually I saw what appeared to be an outdoor market and headed towards it and the large building next to it, which turned out to be de Waag,  part of the old city walls, the place of public execution, and, if its name is to be believed, a place where cargo was weighed. It's an impressive old pile, and just beyond it lies Amsterdam's Chinatown, which was worth a stroll.

This didn't turn out like I wanted, but in that right-hand window there's a sign in English that says "the place where the Chinese eat," which becomes meaningful when you realize that Holland has long promoted its Chinese food, a Chinese-Dutch hybrid just like the vast majority of the Indonesian food is a combination of various Indonesian cuisines and Dutch ideas. Some successful Chinese Dutch guy was going to expand his chain of Chinese-Dutch restaurants to the U.S., and I never did find out how that worked out -- nor have I eaten Chinese-Dutch. Anyway, Rotterdam is the right place to do that, not Amsterdam.

Instead, I found myself in what must have been the headshop district, and desiring a late lunch, since my taste buds had revived, so I wound up at a place called Pieminster, a Dutch outlet of a British chain of fast-food pie restaurants. Not bad at all!

That'll warm you up on a cold day!

After lunch, I trudged on, getting a bit tired, and eventually finding my way towards a place I recognized and, with some variations, back to the hotel. My last dinner was at Eat at Jo's, a pork chop, roast potatoes, steamed vegetables -- hey, I could have had this at home! Well, not the excellent IPA that's this month's special draft beer, I guess. But my taste buds were absent, and the food was well-cooked, and I got to talk to Erik some, so it was a nice close to this trip.

Saturday morning it was the whole routine in reverse, with the exception that the Thalys was so late getting into Paris that I had no option but to get between stations with the Metro. I returned to The Slum at about 7:45, found the supermarket still open and did some weekend shopping, and now feel refreshed by the trip and the once-in-a-lifetime performance I saw. And I don't think I'll need to travel again for, oh, maybe two or three more weeks!


  1. That walk through Paris does sound unbelievable dull. There is nothing worse than being in a city like Paris or Rome and having to walk through the dull parts.
    And while have been to Amsterdam airport more times then I can count, I have never gone for a visit. The reason I've never actually visited Amsterdam is that every time I land at that airport it's grey and raining, and my husband and I l always look at each other and say, "no way".

  2. Great to follow you around whether Montpellier or Paris and Amsterdam...
    you might consider looking at zinc deficiency..could be tied to recent illness..

  3. Afraid not, Gabriele. This is the same syndrome I had a couple of years ago: sinus polyps pinching a nerve. I've got an appointment with the guy who cleared me up last time on Friday of next week.

  4. I remember last that happened, Ed. I'm sorry. I'm so glad that you enjoyed your holiday for the most part, and that you got to hook up with Erik and Jo, as I had been urging you all to do (mostly since I can't, over there). Lovely photos, too, as usual. Speaking of Austin, are you going in March? ~ Anthe


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