from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Amsterdam Dispatch


So the Dutch charter flight wasn't too bad. We discovered that it stopped in Fortaleza on the way, making the trip 12 hours long. On the way back it flew directly from Amsterdam to Natal, a 9-hour trip. We recovered from the time difference and an all-night flight by eating and drinking wine in an outdoor café in Amsterdam all Saturday afternoon (had to move three times to follow the sun). We were next to the Albert Cuyper Market, so loved watching the happy mix of locals and tourists out on a beautiful day. Since people share your table if there are no more available, we had an interesting conversation with an older Dutch couple - he, half Chinese and she, originally from Suriname. He had recently published a book about a Dutch admiral, for which he illustrated every page!

In our usual manner, we almost missed dinner completely by napping till late. The city goes practically all night, but the kitchens only till 11:30. We walked and walked the wrong direction (a misunderstanding with the desk clerk), then finally found the crowded and active Leidseplein, where the streets were dominated by slurring and staggering youth by now. Beer was flowing everywhere without a bite to eat, until we found the all-night Arabic food joint which was populated only by the slurring and staggering, and the middle-aged, bourgeois, hungry us.

We spent Sunday wandering further around this very manageable city by foot, even though my right hip socket complained early on. I had the Van Gogh Museum and the canal house of the 15th century founder of the Dutch East India Company on my list, having seen the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House previously. Newt had the Red Light District on his list. Our old friend from my textile days, Jean Cristobal, who married a Dutch man and lives nearby in Voorschoten, met us for a tour of the lovely canal house and more outdoor café sipping for the afternoon. This time we had to move into the shade, the sun was so hot! The Van Gogh museum was saved for our later return to Amsterdam before flying home. We walked and walked with Jean through lovely canal neighborhoods, where we found a place with a bird's eye view of the deep and narrow gardens that stretch out behind the houses; then the Red Light District. Prostitutes, old and new, scantily displayed themselves in large brothel windows and doorways amongst sex shops and sex museums.

We said good-bye to Jean and took a beautiful canal boat tour. The city seems so serene and calm in these neighborhoods, even though most all the boats usually parked along the canal sides were putt-putting along the canals on this sunny day (except the house boats, whose residents were out on roofs and decks). That infectious joy of a perfect spring day one recognizes from

Manhattan was palpable here, even though it

actually was much more like a summer day, for better or for worse. By this time it was 9:00pm and still daylight! (At 6:00pm darkness falls over Natal.) We rested briefly and limped to a lovely Italian restaurant beside a romantically lit canal. We got there just in time to order before the kitchen closed!

The clean-running trams and hordes of bicycles prevent the traffic choke of most cities, although the line between what is a street, a bicycle path and a sidewalk is very fuzzy for uninitiated tourists. One is struck by the order and beauty of the city, which evoke such a respect for life - until one is nearly actually struck by a bicycle whizzing by with an inch to spare, piloted at blurring speed by the young and the not-so-young. The Dutch are willing to answer questions and give directions in alarmingly correct American English (almost without a trace of accent), even if a certain latent hostility reveals itself in the bicycling habits. The cleanliness of the city is interrupted only by carpets of cigarette butts from the smoking-obsessed populace, a presence that affects the flavors of the cuisine, as well. We found this to be true everywhere we went in Europe. Apparently, new laws are forthcoming, but it looks like a lot of EU natives will be in shock.

You get the sense, even with the international tourists there, that Amsterdam really beloings to the Dutch - that their lives and routines are what give the city its orderly rhythm. We said good-bye via a 5:00am taxi ride to the train station, then a train to the airport. Off to Nice -more soon!


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