Saturday, October 22, 2016

Home

After a flight delay in Toronto and circling around the airport for a while, my connection from Amsterdam finally landed in Detroit a couple hours late. It made for a longer day. It's always a long day when it starts with an eight hour flight. But it ended well, and I got to sleep in my own bed.

Often, after a vacation, I arrive home and it seems like the visit to the far away place was a bit fantastical. Home is the same as it was when I left. Everything is in the same place. It seems like nothing has changed. Except that I was gone for a week or two or three. I had the same kind of feeling unloading the car and unpacking my bags. There were the books, CDs, chocolates, and stroopwaffles that I bought but I was back in the same place. Except there were the alterations in how I think and my outlook. So here are a few of those changes. In essence, they're the things I'll miss about being in Amsterdam.

Bicycles: I love cycling but it's a different proposition when bikes are your main transport mechanism. That makes how you think about going out different and it changes the interactions with the environment, other people, and, perhaps most importantly from someone with a US perspective, cars. In Amsterdam, cars have the least right-of-way. Pedestrians and bicycles always get preference. Once I was walking along Prinsengracht and coming toward me was a cyclist. He was traveling at a leisurely rate in the middle of the narrow lane along the canal. And following immediately behind him was a car. He made no attempt to get over, didn't speed up, just kept meandering his way along the canal. The car driver didn't look harried or annoyed. Such a scene would be impossible in the US, at least where I live. Cars are always assumed to have the right of way and woe to cyclists who are too assertive about their right to the road. We have much to learn from the Dutch embrace of bicycles.

Coffee: I came to love the way the Dutch serve coffee. I've been set in my ways about the proper way to enjoy coffee. It involves freshly ground coffee beans, a filter, 200 degree water, and a pot to catch the pour over or drip coffee. I had that kind of coffee in  Amsterdam, too, and when it's done right it's very good. But going into a cafe in the morning and getting a black coffee usually meant a small cup with a frothy brew and a stroopwaffle or cookie on the saucer. It was a delicious way to start the day.

Cheese: It's kind of weird but I'm going to miss the cheese shops. I read somewhere that no matter where you are in England, you're never more than a few blocks from a pub. That seemed to be true when we visited there. The Dutch version must be that no matter where you are, you're never more than a few steps from a cheese store. The fresh, rich Dutch cheese that is available from any of the shops puts American cheese selection and quality to shame. I'll miss the easy access to one of my dietary staples.

The compactness of the country: It's not very far to anywhere else in the Netherlands. In Michigan,

it's possible to drive for nine hours and still not have left the state. I suspect that's not true about the Netherlands. Amsterdam is incredibly dense. Going from one end of the city to the other doesn't really take very long by bike or the convenient public transportation. That makes it easy to pop out for a coffee or beer.

Non-cycling transportation: The train system is extensive, inexpensive, and easy to use. Getting from Amsterdam to Groningen was simply a matter of showing up, getting a ticket, and waiting a few minutes for the next train. It wasn't just one train a day but many trains and if I'd missed the one I thought I'd catch (which I did when the journey to Centraal Station took a bit longer than expected) I could wait a few minutes and get another. The Dutch like to complain about the trains missing their scheduled arrival/departure time. I did experience some of that. One train was about 20 minutes late. But the Dutch system makes Amtrak look very, very, very anemic and pathetic. I've never been a fan of car culture and after seeing what can be done to shift the focus from cars to human powered travel, now even less so.

"Where's the nature?": One thing about the US that the Netherlands can't match is access to nature. In a book about the Netherlands, I read an unattributed saying that went something like this: God made the world but man made the Netherlands. It was through human effort and engineering that this country exists. Nearly all of it sits on top of marshes and former sea floor. Centraal Station sits on artifical islands where there used to be open water. Schiphol Airport is on reclaimed marsh way below sea level. From an ecological pespective, it's all a bit artificial. There is nowhere in the Netherlands where you can get the feeling of wilderness that you can in US places like Glacier National Park or even some spots along the Lake Superior shore line.

It was a fabulous holiday. I've always been particularly proud of my Dutch heritage. I suppose much of that can be traced back to my childhood when there was a pervasive feeling throughout our little west Michigan community that we were special because of our Dutch heritage. So even though I'm thoroughly American, I've always liked the fact that my ancestors came from the liberal, tolerant, can-do Dutch.

G.K. Chesterton once said that "travel narrows the mind." I find that my mind has been narrowed, in a good way, about the Dutch.  Prior to the trip, I had read several books about Amsterdam and had examined my Lonely Planet guide quite closely. I had a wide picture of what it would be like. But none of it really prepared me for the reality of the city - a big, chaotic, anything goes place yet one filled with many regulations and expectations that one shouldn't ignore. It's alive and human. And I'm glad I had the chance to experience it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Homeward Bound

In an hour, I'll be on an airplane headed west. I have a layover in Toronto then on to Detroit later this afternoon, well, later tonight Amsterdam time. Schiphol is quite the airport. There is a big mall on the arrivals level and many, many stores on the way to the gate.

I'll miss Amsterdam. It's been a great visit, one that I'll reflect on for quite some time. Many memories of the many sites I saw and people I met.

The highlight of the trip, of course, was spending a week with Amanda and having her along for the ride. It was much emptier when she left.

Of the sites we saw, the visit to the Anne Frank house tops the list. It was a moving experience. To see the place that I read about just a few days earlier brought home how harrowing that time and place was. It's hard to imagine the courage it must have taken to go into hiding and stay there for more than two years. 

There are a bunch of small moments that stand out:
  • The afternoon in the Two Swans when the Belgian tourists burst into the bar and the bartender used a couple of stirrers to keep time on the liquor bottles hanging above the bar.
  • Riding a bike along the dike, never finding a bridge, and discovering that you needed a ferry to get across.
  • Finding the first Dijkhuis grave in Ulrum.
  • Driving through Winsum and feeling trapped in a small sidestreet that eventually became impassably narrow.
  • Seeing all those neat houses in Ulrum, Leens, and Uithuizen with shades thrown wide open and their living rooms clearly visible to anyone on the nearby sidewalk.
Boarding is about to commence. Next entry will come from North America.

10/22 addition: Back at home. But some additional moments:
  • The truck and giant sponge that was used to clean the lane markers along the road in Groningen province. Can't imagine any American state cleaning roadside markers.
  • Arthur Jussen's face with the look of pure joy and happiness as he played the Poulenc concerto.
  • Speaking my halting Dutch with an older man in a sidewalk cafe.
  • Wondering what the hell I was doing on a canal, in open water, during a thunderstorm & downpour
  • The wafting odor of marijuana just about everywhere.
  • My first sighting of a red lit window.
I could probably go on and on. I'll leave it here.



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Biking, part 2

I think everyone in the world knows that bicycles are very important to Amsterdamers. Without bikes, Amsterdam would certainly have a lot more cars and that would simply be awful. The city would be nearly impassable, I think. With bikes, it's easy to get around, and because it's such a compact city, going from one diagonal to the other is pretty quick with a bike. That is, as long as you know where you're going. Me, I never know where I'm going and making a bunch of wrong turns and ending up completely turned around is par for the course. Still a bike is an essential way to get from here to there in Amsterdam and during the trip, I came to rely on my rental bike a lot.

As it turns out, it's also important in other parts of the country. Groningen is a university town so it's not surprising to find bikes there. But I can't think of any American university, even in bike friendly college towns like Portland, Oregon, where you would find the number of bikes that you see at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

But the Dutch not only put their bikes to pragmatic use for shopping, commuting, and such. They also have their fun bikes that they use for touring and cycling through the country-side.

I took my utilitarian bicycle for a ride through Amsterdam Noord, which is suburban area north of Centraal Station, just across the IJ. A free ferry runs 24 hours to carry pedestrians and bikers back and forth. I headed up there for an afternoon of biking through the countryside and to see whether I could dine at Eetcafe 't Dijkhuis (spoiler: I couldn't.)


Naturally, I got lost within about 15 minutes of getting off the ferry and peddling north. I found my way back to the road I had planned to follow. It ran along a dike and had a pretty little windmill sitting right on the water. Unlike the canals in the city, this one ran straight without any unexpected
twists or turns. But as I rode, I noticed there were no bridges. How, I wondered, did one get from one side to the other? Surely there must be a bridge at one of the upcoming small villages. First village, no bridge. Just water between me and the other side where the town lay.

I checked my map and it looked like the next town wasn't very far up the road so I decided to keep going. Surely, I'd find a bridge somewhere along the way.

Traffic was very light. Only a few cars going in either direction passed me. Looking out over the countryside, I could see for a very long way. The amazingly flat countryside went on and on. It's not the same as the plains in the American west or at least it felt different to me. On the plains, you can feel insignificant and very small. Driving can be unremittingly boring. The Netherlands polder didn't carry the same sense of space or loneliness. Perhaps it's because the country is so densely populated that there is an awareness of human proximity.

I kept peddling along and starting to get a bit worried about finding the bridge to the other side of the canal. I passed beside Watergang and was coming up on Ilpendam when I came to an intersection. Another cyclist came to the intersection just before me, stopped his bike beside a pole, and pressed a button on the pole. Then he waved his arm over his head. He was waving at a boat on the other side of the canal. The way to get across the canal was not by a bridge but with a ferry. I pulled up alongside him and pretended I knew what I was doing. The sign on the pole said that it cost 70 cents Euro to get across with a bike. In a few short minutes, the ferry had crossed the canal and we two cyclists boarded, paid our 70 cents and were soon deposited on the opposite shore.

It was a lucky break to have that other guy come along when he did. I could still be riding north looking for that bridge across the canal.

On my way back to Amsterdam, I wanted to check out the Eet 't Dijkhuis restaurant. Amanda and I had heard about it when we rented bikes but hadn't had time to come looking for it. After a side trip through Broek in Waterland, a lovely little village that I got to by riding along the top of another dike, I found the restaurant. Alas, it had closed a couple weeks earlier and was awaiting new owners to take over. So there was to be no visit to the Dijkhuis restaurant this trip.

By this time, it was getting to be late afternoon and the setting sun meant the temperatures were cooling rapidly. Time to get back to Amsterdam.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Genever

When it comes to adult beverages, it's not just about the beer in Amsterdam. Genever (pronounced yuh-NAY-ver) is also known as Dutch gin. It's origins are not completely known, but it goes back to at least the Dutch golden age in the 1600s. Genever is a distilled liquor, similar to unaged whiskey, and like whiskey can be mixed or sipped on its own. On my list of "must do while in Amsterdam" was a genever tasting. A few establishments that specialized in jenever turned up on several websites. I ended up at De Admiraal. It wasn't too far from the apartment and had good reviews from previous visitors.

Walking into the tasting room was like taking a step back in time. The place is lined with dark wood and the light is dim. Most of the light coming in was through the open door, which led to a small seating area next to the sidewalk. I sat inside at a small table.

The tasting was of four different genevers although all came from one distillery, A.van Wees distilleerderij de Ooievaar. According to the bartender it's the last distillery in Amsterdam. The tasting room was a distillery in a former life but was turned into a tasting room in the 1970s.

I had two jonge and two oude genevers. The names, "young" and "old" don't refer to the actual age of the liquor but to how it was made and its ingredients. The jonge liquors were lighter and it was easy to envision them as the base for a mixed cocktail. The oude drinks were made for sipping. They had a richer, fuller flavor that was a little peaty, with a very full mouthfeel. I could have had a couple more. But I had biked over so it wouldn't do to drive and bike. I did have canals to navigate.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Out of Amsterdam

Since arriving on September 28, I've been out of the city a few times. One of those was the trip to Delft with Amanda. I also took the train up to Groningen. Groningen is the name of a city and a province. The ride to the city was a couple of hours from Centraal and was enlivened when I got on the wrong train at one of the stops I was supposed to change trains. Fortunately, I ended up where I was supposed to; it just took longer. Explanation: There are two types of train lines: Sprinter and Intercity. Sprinters have more stops and are more like the "local". Intercity trains have fewer stops so theoretically get to the further destinations quicker. When I was supposed to change, I jumped off my intercity onto a sprinter. It was headed in the right direction and I managed to connect back an intercity train in Zwolle. The train system in the Netherlands is great. The trains seem to mostly run on-time or only a few minutes later and there are a lot of them. Going to Groningen, I could leave nearly any time I wanted.

Once in Groningen, I rented a car and headed north. I was after two things. I wanted to see what the country looked like outside of a big metropolitan area and I wanted to see the villages around the area from which my family emigrated in 1853 (or 1852 depending on which document you read).

My first stop was Hornhuizen and the local graveyard. Hornhuizen today is little more than a few houses and a couple of small businesses and a church. I wondered whether it was always like this or whether it was more back when this was thriving farming area. After stopping for directions a couple of times (one of which I got to practice my Dutch because I found someone who didn't know English), I found the graveyard, which turned out to be right behind the church.

I was looking for the grave of my great-great-great-grandfather, Renne Luies Dijkhuis, who passed away in 1850. It was a small graveyard and had one Dijkhuis gravestone but not Renne Luies. Two workers from the local muncipality came by to do some cleanup and I asked one of them whether there were records about who was buried here. He said yes but not here. I told him who I was looking for and the date. Apparently, graves were (are?) reused here, just as they were in the Oude Kerk so a grave more than 175 years old is probably long gone. His cleaning partner was an older man and had lived in the area a long time. He pointed to the church and said that some of the wealthier people were buried in the church yard. 175 years ago farmers were considered wealthy people because of their land holdings. The three of us walked around the church but found no evidence of more Dijkhuis ancestors.

My next stop was Ulrum. It's where my great-great-grandfather Klaas was born and where
he emigrated from when he was 9 or 10 years old. Ulrum is more of a town than Hornhuizen but still quite small with about 1,200 residents. I did find one distant cousin at the graveyard there. Willemina Dijkhuis was the grandchild of Klaas's uncle, which would make her a distant cousin of mine. She died in 1976 and had several children. I've had no luck yet locating any of her living children or grandchildren.

Ulrum street
It was a very quiet afternoon in Ulrum. I only saw a few people on te street and they seemed to be kids getting home from school. There was also what seemed to be a paper boy making deliveries. Quite a throw back in time, that.

I have long heard about the Dutch custom of keeping the curtains wide open in the front room. That way passers-by would see the neatness and perhaps the number of possessions in the home. It's one thing to hear about that and another to really see it. The houses are very close to the street, most not more than 6 feet or so from the edge of the sidewalk or street. It felt a little like invading their privacy by being able to see so clearly into the homes. But it was the same in nearly every home in every small town that I traveled through.

By this time it was late afternoon and time to think about finding a hotel for the evening. I was in a sparsely populated, by Dutch standards, area of the country and there were no roadside signs directing me to the nearest chain hotel. In fact, I couldn't find any indication of a hotel or inn anywhere. I decided to head for the nearest big town and on my map that looked like Winsum.

I parked my car and found my way to an open cafe. When you can't find a hotel, a cafe with beer is the next best thing. It was about 4:00 and the pub was nearly empty. I sat at the bar with three locals, probably folks who gather there most afternoons for a beer and some gossip. We struck up a conversation and they asked where I was from and what I was up to. One of them, an older gentleman, with rough hands and a deep voice said that all the small towns in the area were getting smaller. The young folks were growing up and leaving, going to the big cities. He seemed a little angry about it, yet resigned. I told him that the same thing is happening in America, and he nodded.

He did tell me about a local hotel. After several wrong turns and unhelpful guidance from the GPS lady, I did find the place. It turned out to be a repurposed campground that was closed for the season.

After another map consult, I headed for Uithuizen, and after stopping to ask at a Chinese restaurant, which was the only place with lights, I was directed to Hotel het Gemeenthuis, a lovely small hotel just a block behind the Chinese restaurant. Yes, they had rooms. In fact, it looked like I was the only guest that evening. They were still serving dinner so I had a tasty dish with vegetables, tofu, potatoes, and bread. What more could you ask for on a chilly autumn evening?

The next day I headed to Leens. With the help of graftombe.nl, I hit the jackpot there. As I was walking into the cemetary, I happened to look left and immediately found my first Dijkhuis. It was Jozeph, one of Willemina's brothers. In fairly short order I found several others. There was Pieter, Jozeph, and Brechtje, all siblings. The oldest grave was their father, Luie Renne Dijkhuis. Luie was a first cousin of my great-great-grandfather Klaas. His father Willem was Klaas's father's brother. It was kind of cool. I didn't exactly feel special emotions but after spending so much time looking at my family tree, there was a sense of kinship. Every time I found another Dijkhuis, I would say aloud, "Oh, there's Jozeph." And "Hot damn, there's Luie Renne." 

After Leens, I took a drive up to the coast. It was a cold, blustery day and got more so the closer I got to the ocean. I didn't have a lot of time, but I found a place to park and climbed up a dike. I walked along it a little bit, just long enough to get chilled then headed back to Groningen.

The city of Groningen is home to Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, and it is very much a college town. I was there long enough to stroll around town and get lunch: a cone of freshly fried frites and an apple turnover.

I should say a bit about driving through the Dutch countryside. It's fairly easy. The roads are all flat, very narrow, and sparsely traveled. With the price of gas around $8.00 per gallon, it's not hard to see why there are few cars on the road. Driving in the towns, even the small ones, is a bit more challenging because there are no straight streets anywhere in the Netherlands. They all curve and circle around so there is no such thing as going around the block to get back to where you took a wrong turn. And, of course, this being a trip with me as navigator there were plenty of wrong turns.

The narrow roads that go through the countryside get even narrower in the towns. In Winsum, I ended up going down this little lane that got narrower and narrower until the street just ended. I managed to back up and get myself turned around but not before I thought I was going to leave some paint on the side of another car or building.

On my next trip, I would like to spend more time in the provinces. I'd like to come when the weather is a bit warmer and hike or bike along the coast. It looks like a lovely area to be out-of-doors.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Museums and old buildings, part 2

The Van Gogh Museum is near the top of most Amsterdam "must see" lists and after my visit, it's easy to see why. The museum is housed in a modern building that helps to emphasize Van Gogh's modernity and continuing influence on art.

The museum is arranged more or less chronologically with the exhibits from his early years starting on the first floor and his more mature works appearing on the second and third floors. Van Gogh seems to have been a prolific letter writer and his correspondence, especially with his brother Theo, is showcased on the second floor, too.

I spent an easy two hours at the museum. It's not hard to get lost in these paintings. Several of them I went back to a couple of times. These are a couple of my favorites. Head of a Prostitute is from 1885. I found this portrait striking for its vitality and humanity. Van Gogh showed the woman with a great deal of dignity. And I just like the way that Van Gogh uses those wide brush stroke and distinctive colors.

The skeleton struck me as just being funny. It seemed very contemporary and yet all Van Gogh. It also reminded me of one of the self-portraits from the first floor. I wondered whether this was a more grotesque self-portrait. The commentary about the painting speculated that Van Gogh was tweaking the teachers in the class where he painted the picture.Or perhaps he was channeling the future when similar images were used in anti-smoking campaigns. Whatever his motivation, it's yet another striking image in a museum full of them.

I purchased the audio tour with my entrance ticket. I thought it added a lot to my visit. But I must also say that it also is a bit distracting. I was glad to have the voice telling me a little more about the painting I was viewing and the events in Van Gogh's life. But there were times I had to shut it down and just look at the painting. Nothing can compare with just gazing at these incredible works of art and becoming immersed in the scene.

My next stop was Rembrandt's house. This is the place where he lived and worked. The house has been restored to appear as it may have during Rembrandt's lifetime. The curators seem to have been helped by Rembrandt's bankruptcy in 1656 because all of his possessions had to be accounted for and sold. Eventually even this house was sold.

I was a little disappointed that more of Rembrandt's etchings were not displayed. The display space was filled with etchings from Hercules Segers, an artist who most likely inspired Rembrandt's work.

Still it was a good visit. Here again, the audio tour was complimentary and it was a good complement to the visit.

The ground floor theater was showing a documentary by Simon Shama that I watched for quite a while but didn't stay for all of it. I'll have to see if I can find it elsewhere to finish it.

I finished the day with a tour of the Oude Kerk, the oldest building in Amsterdam. Unlike the Nieuwe Kerk, the Oude Kerk is still used for services. Here the gratis audio tour helped bring the building to life. The tour was done with a professional actress who at various times brought in experts about the building or Amsterdam history. She provided a leisurely and informative stroll through the church. One of the many fun facts I learned is that more than 12,000 people have been buried under the floor of the church. From the moment you step into the church you're walking on graves. Of course, there isn't room in one building to hold 12,000 graves so they would periodically empty the graves so that they could inter others. One of the most famous graves belongs to Rembrandt's wife, Saskia, and it is marked with a sign. They stopped burying people here in the late 1970s.

It's hard to describe the grandeur of this magnificent building. Glancing up at the ceiling, it looks like you're standing under a great many upside down ships. And they just go up and up.

It's not possible to get a decent photo of the outside of the Oude Kerk because it is surrounded by businesses on three side and a canal on the other. Among the businesses just outside the churches doors are several prostitutes. The church is smack dab in the middle of the red light district. When Amsterdam was still relatively young, ships would dock close by and sailors would come pouring off the ships in search of what sailors would be searching for after a long voyage away from wives and lovers. Since there was a market, sellers appeared. Conveniently, the sailors could walk a few paces and confess their sins in the Oude Kerk.

I almost didn't go into the Oude Kerk. I walked around it once just to get a sense of its size then decided I had better go in since it was the oldest building in the city. And I'm glad I did. The audio tour was first rate and the church is magnificent.



Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Royal Concertgebauw Orchestra

Sunday I attended an afternoon concert at the Concertgebouw. It was without a doubt one of the finest concerts I've ever heard. Not only is the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra one of the top orchestras in the world but the grand hall has astounding acoustics. I was sitting stage left, quite a bit left, in row 11. The cellos were over on the far right and I felt like I was sitting right in front of them. I've always thought that Orchestra Hall and the Opera House in Detroit have excellent acoustics and I think they do, but the Concertgebouw seems to be on another plane.

The soloists were two young pianists who happen to be brothers and Dutch. Arthur and Lucas Jussen, only now in their mid-twenties, have been playing for more than 10 years. I think it's safe to say that they are at the beginning of what will be a stellar career.

They played Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. I've heard some very good pianists over the years but no one has played as enthusiastically and energetically as these two. From my seat, I could see Arthur's face as he played and I could watch Lucas's hands. Technically, they sounded flawless. I'm not a musician so don't have that perpective or appreciation nor do I know much of anything about music theory but I can tell when a piece has been knocked out of the park. And that happened at this concert. At one point, Arthur looked at the orchestra a big grin on his face as if to say "Hey, this is a blast. You guys rock." I've never seen that from a classical pianist. At some jazz concerts, yes, where it's so obvious that the band is feeding off each other. But most classical pianists seem to be very serious about their work and don't show much obvious emotion while they're playing. Intensity, yes, of course. But joy and happiness, not so much. After the piece ended, both of them leaped up hugged the conductor and the concert master and stood on the stage with huge, radiant smiles. For their encore, they played a variation of "Geef Mij Maar Amsterdam" a Dutch song that was popularized by Johnny Jordaan. (I only recognized it because it was sung by the raucous crowd at the Twee Zwaantjes, and it's a catchy melody.)

Not only were the soloists oustanding, the rest of the program was a delight. The conductor, Stephane Deneve, led the orchestra with gusto. The way that he moved his body, bending nearly in two at the waist, with his long tightly curled hair flopping all around, I was afraid he was going to bounce right off the podium. But he was in total control of the orchestra at all times, coaxing a little more sound here, quieting the percussion there.  A most impressive performance.

It was quite a show.