Monday, August 31, 2015

Het Einde

And then I came to the end of my trip to Belgium and Amsterdam, something I haven't fully come to grips with since the craving for a street waffle bakes my brain and then covers it in sugar. I was able to bring some things home with me to tide me over but that's all gone. I did discover though that my local supermarket sells Orval! Wahoooo!

On our last day, we had booked an all day excursion to see windmills, cheese, clogs and the area just outside the city. It was a mission of mine to see at least one windmill before I left the land of windmills and no one ever needs to convince me of the virtues of trying cheese in foreign lands. This tour included the bus ride, a bunch of stops and lunch and it was what you would expect an organized tour in Europe would be like: a bus full of American and British tourists. Some highlights of this tour were the oil mill we got to tour. This mill was hundreds of years old and is still in use making peanut oil. We got a chance to climb inside it and watch it make the oil which was very cool. There was a man standing in front of me who was probably about 60 years old and he made a point to touch EVERYTHING. He was pretty much caressing all of the stuff, even the highly dangerous clampy type things and while that was weird, it was also giving me anxiety because why are you touching everything? You are a grown adult! Anyway, I was going to include a video I took of oil being made but after trying to upload it on here and failing a few times (compyoootors) I have given up. Just know that peanuts got all crushed and crap and it was powered by wind and had been for last few hundred years and it was cool. And then some dude molested all the equipment.

The mill was located in a little touristy town with lots of little cheese, chocolate and waffle shops. I'm going to repeat that: lots of cheese, chocolate and waffles. In fact there was a shop there that had some of the most delicious cheese I've ever eaten spread out all over the store for you to just taste. I'm pretty sure I had a cheese sandwich there with an appetizer of cheese dipped cheese. The cumin gouda is the stuff of legends.

I also, and here is a major surprise for everyone involved, ate a waffle here. So let's recap: cheese, cheese and waffle. We traveled a bit more by bus to a small factory where they made wooden clogs. What was fascinating about that process is that it has remained essentially unchanged, apart from the addition of a few mechanics, for hundreds of years. I did try on a pair but couldn't really see myself ever wearing them for anything other than gardening and I have never gardened anything in my life.

After the shoe making demonstration we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that overlooked water and had a lovely conversation with a couple from Pennsylvania. They seemed just as traumatized by being a pedestrian in Amsterdam as we were. The diet of champions continued here where I ate something fried and chased it with some beer.

After lunch, we boarded a ferry to Volendam, which, while very pretty and peaceful, is also very touristy with souvenir shops lining the streets mixed with beautiful cottages and picturesque facades. If weren't for the heavy tourist foot traffic, it could be called "sleepy"and I sort of wish I could visit in wintertime. We saw a cheese making demonstration and ate more cheese like the dairy savages we all are.

We then drove a bit more in the bus to Edam and strolled around for a bit. The sun had come out for this day and it was a lovely afternoon with postcard views.
 Here's a selection of photos from that day, with the order all random and not organized, really:

In front of our lunch spot.

View from a bridge.


We had a good lunch here with, what else? Beer.

Did you know that women want these clothes?

The view from the top of the windmill.

Peanut oil mill.

Little alleyway

We got back to Amsterdam feeling sleepy but also feeling the need to go out since it was our last night. The previous evening, we had passed a bar that was local to our apartment and decided to check it out. Turns out it was one of the chillest, hipster bars in the city...according to a few lists. Cafe Brecht had mismatched, vintage looking furniture everywhere and the vibe was very low key, a perfect place to spend our last evening in such an undeniably cool city. By the way, that bar is on a street called Weteringschans, a word I will never be able to pronounce properly, no matter how many cab drivers correct me.

The next day we took the train to the airport. I may have already mentioned this but Amsterdam has the best setup with the train and airport being connected. Genius. It was a Friday morning so we shared the train with commuters and schoolkids. I saw a child who was about five years old with the most stylish outfit I have ever seen and now I know how grown men in that region of the world are so stylish: they learn early. Our flight was smooth and we came back to NYC pretty seamlessly, visions of cheese and waffles and beer and bicycles and waffles and waffles and waffles and wafffff...

And now we arrive at the end of my blogs about this great trip. That only took me, what...two months? I recommend a visit to these cities and I really would love to return and live in Belgium, marry a well shoed man with a vague accent and unlimited access to Orval. By my own personal account, it is filled with lovely people and beautiful scenery, and did I mention the fucking WAFFLES yet???

I'm in the process of pinpointing a trip for a very big birthday I have coming up next year. I'm sure after I plan and get back from it, I'll write about it so look for my next travel blogs in 2076.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Amsterdam: the Penultimate Edition

Writing these blogs about my trip has made me a little bored within my current pinball machine of part time jobs. I feel sometimes like I just zip around crashing into things under the flashing lights and noisy near accidents of everyday life. And sometimes I long for the din to quiet for a handful of hours and to close my eyes and open them and be in a new country. Sigh.

Amsterdam greeted us on our third day with overcast skies and just millions of bikes, all narrowly skirting collision. It was another chilly day but if I'm being honest, I prefer chilly to hot and sweaty any day, particularly when you are standing in line for hours, which is exactly what we did in order to get into the Anne Frank House. The weather was actually very strange that day because it shifted so dramatically from overcast to sunny to rain to warm...Amsterdam in June is bipolar.

I did not get any photographs in or around the museum but I will say that it is a place everyone should visit at least once, even if you've never read the Diary of a Young Girl, even if you only know peripheral information about Anne Frank and her experience. Being in that space, reading about her life and her family and roommates was striking and poignant and more than once I found myself overcome with emotion. There was a palpable feeling in the museum among all the visitors which I'm certain happens each day the museum is open, which is apparently nearly every day of the year. I was told that the wait to get inside is almost invariably hours long and after going inside and spending time among the rooms where Anne lived and wrote and seeing and experiencing what it must have felt like to be trapped in a small space for years, I have to say that waiting that long is the easiest and most worthwhile way to spend time. I will never forget that experience.

After we got done there, we were both ravenous and decided to try The Pancake Bakery which was just up the road from the museum. I had a very delicious savory pancake with lots of little salty bits in it that I'd like to have a again right now as I type this, and an Orval, of course.

We had booked an all day excursion for the next day so this was the day to see the Van Gogh museum as well since we were leaving the day after next. The sun had come out and the weather had been growing hotter so our journey from the restaurant to the Museumplein was a bit slow going.

Our visit coincided with the 100th anniversary of the children's character, Miffy and all along the Museumplein were commissioned versions of her which I thought were all pretty cool. Here's me standing next to (and looking blobby beside) the Delft inspired one, with the line of others behind me.

We made it to the Van Gogh Museum about 2 hours before it closed. To be honest, I was a bit tired and worn out from standing in line for Anne Frank, eating a heavy lunch, walking in the heat, etc so I was a little relieved that we were forced to accelerate a bit through this museum. I appreciate the art of Van Gogh in the way that someone who didn't really study art and knows a particular artist more for his pop culture status on the walls of 1990s dorm rooms. I did find that I liked his pastorals way more than I expected, considering my limited impressions of him were mostly biographical and mythological; I didn't expect the down to earth portraits and the muted colors of some of his work.

While walking through the exhibits, I overheard a lot of conversations over the art work that were, how shall I put this, enhanced by what I'm assuming was, how shall I put this...legally obtained marijuana. And I thought that was pretty entertaining and something I had forgotten to notice. Frankly, the streets of NYC smell more like pot than any neighborhood I walked through in Amsterdam. Could be the baked goods angle, though. Not that I'd know anything about, say, enhanced brownies, for example. I just know what a friend told me. Yeah. A friend. That same friend went outside and ate a brownie in the sunlight and then went home to nap and when she opened her groggy eyes the first thing she saw was a summer sky marbled with clouds. The blue in between the clouds looked like faint little veins and for the briefest of moments she had the distinct, warm feeling of being on the inside of a ready to be hatched egg, all tucked in and safe. She had the sincere notion that if she lifted her index finger and lightly tapped, the sky would crack lightly and beyond would be the galaxies that she could lie still and observe from a secure and cozy distance.

I mean I don't know firsthand or anything. I just know what she told me.


Anyway, inside the museum, they have these wooden booths for visitors to sit in, should they become "overcome" by the art work. I have no idea if these are tongue in cheek or if they are actually there for their stated purpose but I do know that Lauren sat in one and I took a photo of it.


After leaving the museum, we stopped to take a photo by the now iconic "I amsterdam" sign. Here's mine and I'm standing just under the first hump of the "M" and being slightly less creative than the people surrounding me who were climbing letters and doing splits.

Museuming all day is exhausting and for no other reason on earth, we decided to go home and nap and rest up before checking out a nearby neighborhood. By the time all was said and done, we were hungry again and decided to wing it and walk around De Pijp, only it was getting late and a lot of places were closing up. We happened upon a tucked away Thai restaurant called Siriphon who were literally closing in 30 minutes. We made it just under the wire and holy shit, I am SO GLAD because the food was freaking amazing. I'm actually salivating in the memory. Tofu and noodles and spring rolls and spice and mmmmm. If I ever return to Amsterdam, I'm going to chase all the waffles I eat with all the food here.

We finished up dinner and headed to Barca for a cocktail. It was loungey and very sleek in there and, even though the bartender had some difficulty with Lauren's order of an extra dirty martini, very cool and low key which was the order of the evening. Across the way, there was an Irish bar (isn't there always one, in every city on earth?) called O'Donnells that seemed lively so we stopped in there for a quick drink before heading home. The last day of the trip was to be an all day excursion to see windmills, cheese making, clog factories and sundry and it had to be an early night.

Just one more of these and I can get back to writing And junk.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Amsterdam Part 2 but part 5 of the trip, or How I learned to drag things out and I should end this series soon

Some of what happened next during our trip is a bit hazy. I am going to be honest and say that is because it has been about six weeks now and I have been doing a LOT in the interim so if this part seems disjointed, that is why. And normally I am so very, very organized in my thoughts and the communication of them so this is a very strict departure from the detailed and very important recounting of my vacation in this blog, something that is the 2015 version of inviting you into my sunken living room to look at slides on the Carousel projector while we eat cheese fondue. But, you know, without all the cheese and swinger vibes of that scenario.


Here is a photo of the apartment where we spent the rest of our time in Amsterdam:

It was a one bedroom on the 2nd floor of that building up the most narrow stairs on the planet.

A glorified ladder
It really isn't a trip to Europe for me if at some point I am not forced to haul my luggage up a set of narrow ass stairs. It was worth it this time because the apartment was perfect in size, location and really great (and needed) water pressure in the shower and a washing machine. Someday we apartment dwelling Americans will pick up what Europe puts down and having a 2-in-1 washer/dryer the size of a small dishwasher will become de riegueur. But I digress. We dropped off our things and headed straight out to grab some lunch and explore the neighborhood a bit. It was the middle of a weekday afternoon so instead of what I'm assuming is the average 400 million bicycles on the streets of Amsterdam there were only 300 million. We found a cafe that hardcore reminded me, on a smaller scale, of the cafe in that unforgettable scene from "Oslo, August 31" which I'm including here because I just want to watch it again. My blog, my rules.

Watch it with subtitles, please.

There was a bit less going on in the real version but the people were just as pretty. We had a leisurely brunch and had quite a few hours to kill before taking a boat ride down the canals after sunset which would be at 10pm. The plan was to head to the Anne Frank house but when we got there, it was pissing rain and really cold and since we knew we'd have a chance to go the next day, we decided to forego the 2 hour line and instead check out the surrounding neighborhood. We walked down Rosengracht with all its shops and cafes and coffee shops (there is a difference here). Amsterdam, and that neighborhood in particular, reminded me so much of a large city version of where I went to college. The same laid back and simultaneously introverted vibe of the locals was very New England small town to me but the pace of the roadways and the frenetic energy of the transportation alone was very New York City. Lauren said she didn't appreciate it that much since it reminded her too much of NYC and she was looking for escape. I felt right at home there in that improbable convergence of two very familiar sensibilities. I spent that first afternoon thinking Amsterdam is an ideal city and I still do.

Ideal, yes and cold. It was late June but I was badly in need of socks because it was cold and wet. I had a serendipitous experience when I turned to Lauren and said "I need to buy socks right now because my feet are freezing" and she, quite literally pointed to a building behind me that had a plethora of socks in the window. It was a vintage clothing store with an entire back room full of socks. Ask and the city of Amsterdam provides. I went in and spent too much money on a pair of hounds tooth patterned socks which I fell in love with and will wear forever and ever.

After a few hours of wandering in and out of rain that was falling and stopping again we decided to have a small snack and ended up at a cocktail bar that served really good, if incongruous with the sleek lounge atmosphere, Chinese food. Unbelievably, we still had a couple of hours to kill before the boat tour so we decided to get a drink and ended up at Brasserie Blazer. We had a few pints and enjoyed the bartender's killer Spotify playlist. About an hour later it was time to head to the ferry for the canal boat tour.

We had spent the trip thus far forgetting to eat and functioning on empty stomachs so we decided to stop quickly for some frites because, and if there is any lesson to be learned from my relating my vacation stories to you this would be it, if you are going to shove your face on vacation, it may as well be with fries.

Seeing the city at night from the canal was a unique and beautiful experience and one I will never forget. The pictures I took were not the best but here they are anyway:

The accompanying audio tour was a bit cheesy but amusing and did have some informational tidbits I appreciated.

It was after eleven by the time the tour ended so we decided to stroll through the red light district to check out what was happening. And when I say "stroll" I mean that very loosely since one can't really stroll down streets packed like sardines. It was pretty quickly apparent that every night is the same in that area so we had a drink and headed back to the apartment to prepare for the next day of day drinking and brownie eating. I mean, of museum hopping and culture.

I swear there are only two more days to get through. Hold my hand and we'll make it through the next installment which features two museums, a hallucination I had and the best Thai food I've ever, ever eaten. I know, whatta cliffhanger.