brenantrim: Yasaka Shrine Japan 2017 (Holland)
[personal profile] brenantrim
Tiptoeing through tulips, getting lost in back alleys, criss-crossing canals...
Amsterdam.  Not what I was expecting, and I mean that in a good way.  The best part of the city is the people, without a doubt. Friendly, practical, funny, blunt, and polite (yes, both). There was actually less smoking than I feared, and a whole lot more bicycles than I expected.  Overall impression: England may get the credit for the early formulation of the USA’s character, but we have a lot more in common with the Dutch.  After all, the ‘business of America is business’ and the Dutch are businesspeople down to their earliest roots.  Variation and embellishment are subtle, good business is good for people, hard work and sensible charity (because revolution comes from poor people and that’s bad for business), honest pride in honest endeavor, and deep distrust of anything flashy… That said, much as there is to do in Amsterdam, I liked Edam better.

Arrival: The trains weren’t running (so much for that plan) but there was a Schiphol shuttle that went to every hotel in Amsterdam for 17 euro.  Much better deal and he dropped me off right at my hotel door! Got in, very tired from a day and a half of travel with two hours sleep (the bouncy teenager next to me on the international flight was a relief because I am large and she was small, so there was little overlap, but she was also very irritating because she whined worse than a toddler and wiggled worse than a fish on a hook). The hotel was charming, on a residential street one block away from the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum, the Diamond museum, and had I wanted to give myself a headache, the modern art museum I skipped. One block the other way was Fashion row, but I live too close to Rodeo Drive to care about that.  My room was small but perfect for me (once I figured out how to open the windows, because a room under the eaves requires fresh air). I wobbled away to find dinner (the hotel only serves breakfast) and fell into bed.

Day 1: Started off with the hotel’s supplied breakfast, and an interesting combination it was… cheese, cold cuts, cereal, cucumbers, pineapple, and a hundred different kinds of bread (okay, maybe just a dozen or so).  Then off on my adventure – Find the Tour Company!  Impressions: google maps gives terrible directions. Random Dutch people getting ready to open their businesses for the day provide excellent directions. The Keukenhof gardens were gorgeous. I ended up seatmates with a lovely young woman from Jakarta, there with her husband (sitting in the back somewhere – it was a full bus and they were late, so they didn’t sit together). We had a nice talk in the few quiet moments between our guide Edgar giving us our euros’ worth in English and Spanish.  Once at the gardens we all went our separate ways.

There were more hyacinth and narcissi than tulips (Spring is getting a late start this year) but they were all gorgeous.  Got a lot of pretty photos, prevailed upon the kindness of strangers to get some pictures of me surrounded by pretty flowers, visited the historical tulip garden, and I must say those tulips from the 1700s are hardy little guys.  All the other time period tulips hadn’t bloomed yet, but the patch of 1700s type were going strong.  They also had displays set up in pavilions named after the Dutch royal family – I got to the king’s, the queen’s, and one of the princess’. One of them had a Van Gogh celebration, with life-sized panoramas or backdrops based on his works along with arrangements of the flowers used in the paintings.  I didn’t sit in any of the panoramas, but I did ask a nice person to take a picture of me against one of the backdrops.  The gardens, as a whole, were really a beautiful display.

Then it was back to Amsterdam, where I tried a dish I’d never had (hachee, with red cabbage salad and boiled potatoes – it was better than it probably sounds).  There are little sidewalk stands here and there with fried cod and herring and waffles and fries.  The Dutch make the best fries I’ve ever tasted, and since they got the idea from Belgium, not France, I’m calling them Dutch fries instead of French!  I did a little souvenir shopping, sent off some postcards, and wandered around getting lost on purpose.  Amsterdam is full of little winding brick alleys full of restaurants, little shops, bars, joint joints, bookstores, coffee shops, and bakeries.  Great fun to wander down!  The canals force a little order on the town, so as long as you can see a major street, you can find a tram, and my tram stop was the Rijksmuseum, so getting back to my hotel was no problem.

Day 2: My only full day tour!  Once again with the cornflakes, then off to head into the ‘charming’ tour of South Holland.  Impressions: Astrid was a lovely tour guide. She told us many interesting things I can’t remember, but I do remember her infectious enthusiasm, her gargling Dutch that she exaggerated on purpose to amuse us, and that she liked the cows.  Cows in the Netherlands have to stay in barns until a specified day in Spring (something to do with methane, or the ‘poop problem’.) They get very happy when they’re let outside and can eat the grass.  She didn’t mention the baby sheep, goats, horses, or geese, but she did point out the cows.

I started the day chatting with three very nice Canadians (I know there must be some other kind, but I’ve been blessed to not find any yet). Once on the bus I met up with a sweet gay Filipino lad off for his first solo trip and anxious about his boyfriend back in Italy (so cute. So young. He’ll learn). We trundled off down the road, first stop: Edam, where we walked around and gawked at the amazing houses, wild birds, and irritated bicyclists. Interesting note: Edam is a place, but Gouda is a process, and they’re both trademarked to the Dutch, so any cheese marketed as Edam or Gouda must be made with Dutch milk from Dutch cows.  If any illegal cows smuggle themselves across the border from Belgium, we’re all in trouble.  Second stop in Edam was the Cheese Factory, which unlike the Cheese Factory in the US, is not a restaurant, but rather a place where they actually make cheese.  There we watched cheese being made! (it’s more fun than it sounds, in part because the woman making the cheese was gorgeous and in part due to the complimentary wine).

A short bus ride later, we wandered Marken for a little while, and watched a lovely Dutchwoman who’s a flight attendant when she’s not at home make a wooden shoe. Poplar blocks, soaked until wet, are carved by machine then dried out for a few weeks – after which they’re water-proof! She told a cute story – it used to be when a Dutch fisherman wanted to marry a girl, he’d carve his own name on the toe of a wooden shoe and carve his hoped-for bride’s name on the other. Then he’d leave the pair on her doorstep.  If the shoes were gone come morning, there was a grand party and wedding!  If they weren’t, well, there wasn’t.  Her dad said he’d left carved shoes on her mom’s doorstep three times, to no avail.  He then sailed off to Australia where he apparently cut quite the wide swathe among the ladies, but none were so fair as her mom.  When he came back, instead of shoes, he bought her a big diamond ring.  The fourth time, sans shoes, she said yes.  So cute! As was the shoemaker/flight attendant. I bought a kid’s size pair of wooden shoes, because, well, they’re cool.

We wandered on our own for a bit, found a waffle stand.  Ate a waffle with fresh raspberries and whipped cream – it was astonishingly good. We then trundled off to the boat and chugged our way across the largest lake in the Netherlands.  Upon landing at Volendam we had lunch (I had fish, and actually liked it) and made conversation with a nice couple of ladies from Taiwan. We walked a little more (a trend), and I got my picture taken standing on a dyke that looks like a hillside (some look like brick rises in the middle of a road, like in Edam, and others look like reinforced shoring, as in Marken).

After that, it was another hike to the bus, and we then trundled on to Zaanse Schans.  Once there, we had a friendly, handsome if weathered, and bemused mill-person at De Zoeker, the oil mill on the Kalverringdijk, show us what he did with peanuts to make oil using a traditional windmill. It was kind of scary, a little loud, and more dangerous than you might think.  After that we wandered around some more, taking many gorgeous photos of windmills.  This whole trip was blessed with beautiful, clear weather. My photo friend was adorable, and took great photos, too. We bought stuff for people back home, gawked at the windmills some more, then fell in the bus to trundle home.

That night it was a wonderful goat cheese, walnut and pesto sandwich on olive bread with more Dutch fries, then back to the hotel.  Drama with power converters and hotel staff followed, but I’m keeping it positive (and G rated) so I’ll leave it at that. My cat sitter was wonderful and sent me an email update with kitty pix.  Reassured, a little homesick for the fur people but too tired to think much about it, I slept.

Day 3: More cornflakes, and that’s enough of that.  I once again followed google directions until I was hopelessly lost, then asked more nice Dutch passers-by (and at least one Italian and one Russian) to get myself to the AM cruise ride… only to find the hours on my paperwork were wrong.  So I sat in the cold and watched the canal life, trying not to inhale too much smoke, until the dock finally opened.

Then three Australians, two Dutch people, me, and four hundred excited Japanese (okay, it just sounded like 400.  It was actually about 25) went on an hour-long canal tour.  I can’t tell you what we saw, because the Japanese tour group was so incredibly loud whenever any language other than Japanese was spoken that I have no idea what the tour guide said.  Still, I got some nice pictures, and they were having fun.  I must say, throughout the week, every time a Japanese or Chinese tourist saw that I had the cane, they immediately became solicitous – a Japanese man insisted I take his seat on the tram, the Chinese trio on one bus tour made sure I felt included, the Japanese couple on a canal tour practically adopted me… nice people!

After escaping from the boat, I wandered around lost some more (much more fun than it sounds!). I had an interesting lunch at a corner bistro and found my way, with the help of a very nice Dutchman at the Traveler’s Assistance building at Centraal Station and a pair of sweet counter clerks at a bookstore, to the KattenKabinet, a tiny and funky and very cute cat museum. The amused and adorable counter-person asked if I was British (seems they get a lot of ‘crazy British cat ladies’ there – her words, not mine). The funny thing was that the café had a resident cat, but the cat museum did not.  Yes, I’m easily amused.

I then wandered some more, and after crossing the canal the wrong direction a few times a nice Dutchwoman pointed out the huge block building with the French flag (I’m so glad Dutch people are nice, or I’d’ve felt much stupider than I did, many times this trip).  So, to the Amsterdam Hermitage! The court yard boasted gorgeous tulips.  I wasn’t interested in the travelling Russian exhibit (Marina and I saw the Faberge exhibit when it was in town, and that was sufficient). So I got tickets for the Dutch Portrait Exhibit and the Dutch History displays.  The portrait exhibit was more than that… though there were a lot of portraits.  It was also a few landscapes and some furniture exhibits and a lot of interesting exhibitions that boiled down to ‘the Dutch were good at business and everything sprang from that.’  Soooo very American.

I stopped by the cafeteria for a pear tart and found a bunch of cute tea boxes (not bags) that I got for people back home, confusing the man working there, who didn’t think it was fair that I should be charged for 14 cups of tea when I was just getting the bags.  I was okay with it (hey, the only thing I was missing was hot water, and it was free) but his manager agreed and charged me for ½ a cup of tea for each little box, since a cup of tea was a tea bag/box plus water, and I wasn’t getting any water.  It was confusing for them but they were so good-natured and good-humored about it, it just made my day.  It was also my second time being mistaken for a crazy British person – seriously , she asked, “Are you British?” when she saw me wishing to buy a bunch of tiny boxes of tea.  Apparently there are a lot of crazy British people visiting the Netherlands.  After hitting the gift shop I staggered back to the hotel via Centraal station again (the only way I knew how to get there), and aside from my feet killing me and the homely English boys bragging in the seats behind me about how much (imaginary) tail they’d had/would have, it was a nice tram ride back to the hotel. It would seem there are crazy British boys visiting, too.

Once back to the hotel, I faced another small drama with hotel staff and laundry, but again, keeping it positive here (gritting teeth).  After washing my clothes in the sink and drying them with the blow dryer, I walked out yet again, to figure out where the museums were I’d be trolling through the next day, and to eat another strange dish I’d never tried surrounded by people speaking nothing but Dutch.  It was so much better than the touristy places, even if I did have to point at something I vaguely recognized on the all-Dutch menu and hope for the best.  I stopped by the grocery store for digestive biscuits to handle the unusual meal, and wobbled back to the hotel.  I wonder what I ate.  It sure didn’t have hollandaise sauce.  Though the broccoli and potatoes were good. Travel is fun.  Meet friendly new people, see exciting new sights, eat strange food and hope you don’t die…

Day 4: skipped out on the corn flakes and hopped on the #5 tram – my go-to tram for Amsterdam J Hopped off at some stop that had ten syllables in the name and sounded like the tram operator choked. Found a great little diner advertising Full English Breakfasts (crazy people gotta eat, and it’s Good Business) then had a Dutch bacon pancake.  Unlike any pancake I have ever eaten and it was amazingly yummy.  I gawked at the bakery counter (waffles, iced like donuts, in every flavor frosting from chocolate and caramel to pistachio and strawberry). Womanfully resisted temptation and didn’t buy a frosted waffle. Hopped back on the #5 and hiked into the Rijksmuseum.

My impressions may change when I’m not so bone tired and achey, but my first impression is… hm.  Once again, nicest people on Earth, but overall, very plain (welcome to the Netherlands, bren). They had some nice artifacts, and the arrangement was less confusing than the British National. They beat the Greek National hands-down with the sheer practicality (coat and bag check and lockers). They were better than any museum I’ve ever seen for seating.

That said, it felt like the entire population of Amsterdam (plus school tour groups) were crammed in, and it just got tighter and hotter (and not in a good way) as the day went on.  So, crowd control – FAIL. At the British National, the Rosetta stone was pretty overloaded, but people moved through so you could at least see it.  Here, Rembrandt’s  Nightwatch was on display, and not only could I not get near it, but the entire lower half was covered with live bodies, all holding their cameras above their heads to take pictures as if they had an invisible tentacle eye on top their heads that could look through their view finders.  Ridiculous. And this was on a Thursday afternoon.  I know they weren’t ALL tourists, because most of them were speaking Dutch (pretty easy to discern that language) and every restaurant around was chock full of people also speaking Dutch.  I know they work… except maybe on Thursday afternoons?

Still, five hours of pushing my way through insane crowds and getting lost in employee areas (I mentioned they were nice, right?  They are.  Very), I can report with authority that the Girl in the Large Hat is very pretty, the self-portrait of Rembrandt as a young man is very intense and just a little creepy, and the picture of the Old Woman Reading looks like God’s light is shining directly on her book.

Other than that… many incredibly cool miniatures.  Some gorgeous furniture.  A thousand beautifully executed portraits of rich businessmen from the last 400 years.  A few royals, some women with cute if corpulent infants, and some truly amazingly beautiful paintings of flowers in vases and on tables, peasants dancing, more businessmen, a few floods, fires, and naval battles, more businessmen dressed as soldiers, several startlingly lifelike versions of the dinner table after a horde of Vikings attacked, magic lantern images from the mid-1600s (some rather naughty), about a thousand religious images of assorted varieties, pretty mosaics, more businessmen, and some stunningly lovely glassware and pottery. The shop had some cool stuff in it, most of which I bought, and aisles that were built for people who are six inches around – all of which were crammed with people, none of whom were small.

I dragged myself back to the hotel to drop my bounty, hoping to put my feet up for a little while, only the room hadn’t been cleaned yet. A small sigh, more gritted teeth, an internal reminder that I like small family-run hotels better than soulless major brand hotels that have restaurants, and I went out in search of lunch.  After trundling around until I was ready to club the next small mammal I found and eat it raw, I ended up in a museum lunchroom where they served me enough salmon to feed a small nation, and more fries.  Funny note… much is made of portion size in American restaurants, but I wasn’t able to finish a single meal from any restaurant I ate at in the Netherlands, because the portions were HUGE.

From there, I staggered over to the diamond museum, painfully pulled myself up three flights of stairs, and was impressed by how the Dutch don’t sugarcoat their history.  Oh, and the stuff about diamonds, too, of course.  I only visited half that museum, since it was more stairs up to the other half, and I was fresh out of pep.

So back to the hotel to attempt once more to get an hour’s foot-rest, and I was very happy to see the room was cleaned. Checked email and saw that my cats have finally come out to say hi to the sitter (five days in), so am reassured and ready to head for the next adventure – evening canal trip with dinner!

The best thing I can say about the dinner was that it wasn’t the boat with two dozen loud, happy, slightly drunk Russians.  The tipsy Finns and Danes in the back made it enough of an adventure! Captain Louie was a hoot, and the spinach soup was surprisingly good, though the pheasant wasn’t. The canals looked lovely at night, and the Spanish, English, Canadian, Japanese, Finnish, Belgian, Norwegian, Danish, etc group (I was the only one from the USA for a change) made for such a noisy group (even on a ‘lovers’ cruise) that the tour guide was out of luck being heard.  Getting back to the hotel was a breeze, even at 11 pm, as the trams kept running.

I did a lot of wandering down brick alleys between tall skinny buildings and found the most interesting little bakeries, grocery shops, souvenir shops, pot shops, attractive women wearing very little whilst smiling from picture windows, coffee shops that warned ‘no hard drugs!’, restaurants, and chip shops.  The red light district featured actual red lights (among other exotic sights, all of which it is illegal to photograph). The buildings were mainly alike, with the subtle details giving the difference.  Well, some things were subtle.  The owl and green man gargoyles, for example, were subtle.  The medieval woman wearing a traditional hat with her bare legs spread and her knees up by her ears, as the drainage pipe ran up between her thighs, could not be considered subtle.

It does pay to pay attention to details.  In the Rijksmuseum, I was admiring a carved chess set from the 17th century.  Every piece was different (well, black and white sets were the same, but every piece within each differed). I laughed out loud when I noticed that the knights carried monkeys on their backs, and one knight had his trows pulled down and was being mounted by the monkey. Ah, the Dutch.  Earthy people, they are.

Day 5: last day! Skipped the corn flakes again and went back to the little diner, startling the lass who works there (apparently they don’t get a lot of repeat business from tourists. Probably the transient nature of the beast, can’t be the food). Had another bacon pancake, and ooooh, will I miss the Dutch baking.  Even donuts are better! Light fluffy cake-like donuts! Then I hopped on the number 2 tram, rated as one of the top 10 bus rides in the world, and I can understand why.  The end of the line was a far suburb of Amsterdam (I think) but it looked like it was right out of a Vermeer painting. The tram conductor was very confused that I didn’t want to get off, but she was good natured about it.

After enjoying more gorgeous scenery and confusing more Dutch public servants, I headed to the Van Gogh museum.  I’m not a big fan of Van Gogh, but I am a big fan of his museum.  Unlike the Rijksmuseum, where they just kept jamming ‘em in, the Van Gogh timed entrances so they weren’t overwhelmed and you could actually see the paintings.  It’s a small museum, the first floor carrying early works, the second floor showing ‘up close’ of his process, and the third floor carrying his later works.  They didn’t allow photography of the works, but they set up ‘photo op’ areas with large scale editions of a couple of his works.  I once again prevailed upon the kindness of strangers and got some shots taken (such kind strangers!).  I honestly think most of Van Gogh’s work is either so dark you can’t tell what it’s supposed to be or it looks like it was painted with crayons (sunflowers, anyone?). But his almond blossom in a glass is gorgeous, and he does some amazing detail work with wheat sheaves.  I got postcards of the five I actually loved.  I really liked the new museum – they did a beautiful job with it.

After the museum, I dropped my stuff off at the hotel and trundled off on Friday Adventure, part 2. Once more at Dam, I finally tried the chips from a stand (called vlaamse frites, or Flemish fries) with a lightly lemony mayonnaise (much better than it sounds).  A cute trio of teens were there, and I asked them to take my photo with my fry (yes, I was tired, but it was fun!). When I told them thank you in Dutch, admitting it was the extent of my Dutch, the boy admitted it was the extent of theirs, as well – they were French! To which I said, Merci! We all snickered, then I went off and ate fries and a pesto cheese sandwich I picked up at a bakery stand.

After wandering around in the cold for an hour or so (buying sexy cards for my pervy friends, bless ‘em), I got a wonderful hot chocolate at a café next to the tour area and waited for me Delft/Hague tour.  It didn’t start until 3 (too late!)  but after a hike to the bus, I made friends with three Chinese tourists who spoke as much English as I do Chinese – you can understand a lot with gestures and good humor – and we headed off for Delft.

The factory was amazing – the tiny museum was full of gorgeous blue and multi-colored porcelain, plus a life-size rendition of the Nightwatch in Delftware. We didn’t get enough time to shop, because although the Russian, Portuguese and French guests got headsets, the English, German, Spanish and Dutch speakers got a guide… which means the same spiel told four times.  It was cool to watch the artisan painting, but the slip room with the kilns was pretty standard, and we were running out of time, so I ducked out of the tour and went shopping.  Large, small, vases, plates, tiles, figurines – it’s a damned good thing they’re so expensive or I’d’ve filled my luggage.  I was still a few minutes late getting to the bus, but the Portuguese couple was ten minutes late (a foreshadowing, as it turned out, because they were late the whole freaking tour).

From the factory, we went to the town center (the ‘heart of Delft’ – I love literal people), and were cut free for a half hour to roam.  Unfortunately, it was so late everything was closed, except a few shops.  I got a couple cheaper but very cute ‘made in Delft’ but not Royal Delft bits, including a beautiful tulip vase, but wasn’t able to get into the Guild that was All About Vermeer.  I did take a picture of the corner where his house was – he was born in Delft and died there, never living anywhere else – but that was about it.

From there we drove to Hague, and I was about out of gas.  Rather than participate in a 30 minute sprint across Hague in the freezing cold, I stayed on the bus and chatted with the driver.  We ended up parking outside the Dutch palace, with the orange flag flying atop signifying that the King was in residence, and I got some nice pictures of that, and the memorial for Queen Wilhelmina, who reigned from 1890 – 1948.  According to Churchill, she was the only woman in the world with balls. I also saw the US Embassy – incredibly ugly. It looks like a chunk of granite with pockmarks for windows; the Canadian Embassy – really pretty, looks like a mansion;  and a bunch of other embassies and ambassadorial residencies, most of which I didn’t take pictures of because pictures taken from a moving bus suck. I did get a shot of the National Library, of course.

Hague was pretty, entered and exited via a tunnel, and oddly, I didn’t realize it was actually a city. When I thought about it (seldom), I thought it was just a bunch of buildings where international political meetings were held, and the people actually lived elsewhere, but that’s not the case.  On the way out, we stopped for five minutes at the Peace Palace (Andrew Carnegie’s gift to the international community) and the various mosaic art around it. It was gorgeous.  The Peace Flame really made an impression on me, too.  A little flame, flickering away, carrying so much hope with it.

Then it was back to Amsterdam, and finding a restaurant at 9 pm that would feed me (there were several options, but since I don’t drink and don’t like to eat around inebriated people, it took a bit to find one). After a great chicken schnitzel with fries and homemade bread – the ONLY way Dutch people are skinny with the way they eat is that they CONSTANTLY are on their bikes – I made my way to the hotel.  I packed, re-packed, threw away all the packaging I could, re-packed, gave away several things that didn’t fit, then re-packed.  About midnight, I finally fell into bed.

Day 6: Six am came much too early. I’m now at Schiphol airport, fifteen minutes from boarding.  It has been quite an experience!  I needed at LEAST another week.  Now, home!

April 2017


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