“Drunk as an Owl”

Originally emailed September 3, 2001

As if by magic, on September 1st all the French return to Paris from their extended vacations (minimum six weeks in France) and the hot weather leaves and the cool weather arrives. We still have wonderful fresh vegetables like tomatoes, melons, butter lettuce and those heavenly skinny string beans. Fall merchandise is in the store windows. Butchers and bakers have reopened their shops. The flower shop has large vases of fall flowers displayed. Our neighborhood is alive with activity.

We are so happy to see the door open at our bakery downstairs. I went in and said “Avez vous passer une bonne vacance?” asking if they had a good vacation and from that moment forward, we were accepted into the neighborhood – after nine months! Kay now gets the most fresh and hot baguette available from the back of the bakery.

Six weeks and we will be coming back to US and saying farewell to Paris. What to pack for the US? Books? Gifts? What to throw away? What to leave for the next tenant? Ooh la la! How did we manage to accumulate so much stuff? We both had mixed feelings about the end of our year in Paris.

Just enough time to get in one last trip. We decided on Amsterdam. Once again we traveled on the train to Amsterdam via Brussels. The train was two trains attached to each other. They detach in Brussels and the front train continues to Amsterdam. Of course, we are on the back train because we had a late arrival due to heavy rain  and late bus. We discovered it when we could not find our seat numbers and after decoding the advice of the other passengers. Too late. The train left with us in the wrong car. As the train pulled in to Brussels, we were poised at the door to grab our luggage and make a run for it. Success. Just in the nick of time.

It was raining in Amsterdam as well. Our taxi driver was cranky. I had the name of our hotel but not the address. The driver said, “Madame, there are hundreds of hotels in Amsterdam.” We arrived at the Canal House Hotel after many aborted one way street episodes. We had a good laugh because the driver was not suited for this job.IMG_3017

The desk clerk told us we have one room for two nights only and will have to move to a more expensive room for the remainder of the visit. Then we are told our room is a little difficult to get to – an understatement. One cannot take luggage to this room because it can’t be negotiated down the narrow, spiral stairwell. No elevators. No regular stairways. Okay, back to the desk to request another room. The desk clerk’s solution is to reduce the rate of the room. No, that won’t help us get to the room. And what should we do with our luggage – leave it in the lobby and take out what we need? More laughing.

Happily, the clerk found us a room in another hotel up the street – with elevators, less money, and no changing of rooms. Wow, that was a reservation gone wrong. But no complaints because in the entire year of traveling, all hotels were very much to our liking.

No time to waste. We unpacked and with our umbrellas in hand headed for the tram to take a look at Amsterdam. Totally in the dark as to what languages spoken here –  clearly an assortment. Trams are fun as they have no fumes and the fares are so low. Amsterdam has a dark look probably because of all the brick construction and the weather conditions. At least 500 canal bridges and 2500 house boats add to the charm – read that in the guide book!  But it is true. Bicycles everywhere. One has to be very careful and look both ways so as not to step into the path of a bicycle or a tram. The canal water has a dark color but it is not dirty or littered, probably a reflection from all the brick buildings.

Found a kooky little restaurant with a mixed bag menu. Busy and noisy with high ceilings. We picked bread and tapenade for a starter and then enchiladas recommended by the two men sitting next to us. Tables were very close. Cost not even 70 krugers or $30 with wine. We thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and observing the many locals. Everyone was so happy.

Our room was very comfy with big, soft and plush beds each with lots of pillows. Beautiful new bathroom. Darling little bar in the lobby used also for the breakfast room in the morning. They had a great automatic cappuccino machine. One just presses the buttons for the combination, i.e. decaf, skim milk, no sugar. And lots of fresh fruit. Linens and fresh flowers on each table. I just love morning pampering.

There was a fascinating religious and cultural history of Jews in the Netherlands so we visited the Jewish Historical Museum. The best part was an interactive show on prejudices still alive today. They presented a situation and then gave us a selection of behaviors to use.

From here we walked to a Royal Delft Exhibit. We were able to watch the artists delicately hand paint the assorted blue and white pieces. Resisted the urge to buy a pitcher for my collection. How would I get it to Paris on the train without breaking it.IMG_3031

On the opposite side of this square, we went to the Diamond district. After a tour of the factory and a demonstration of diamond cutting, we had a private showing of pieces of jewelry. We sat in a locked room while the diamond pieces were brought in by an armed guard and unlocked from her arm. The jewelry was then opened and displayed on black velvet. We learned about color, clarity, cut and size of diamonds. Fascinating. I suspected the staff thought we were rich Americans ready to buy.  Ha ha ha.

We tried to find a Dutch restaurant but could only find other ethnic restaurants. The diamond merchant recommended a Chinese restaurant and we tried it. The tea tasted like potpourri. Yuch. So did the broccoli. Double yuch. But again, everyone so happy.

We certainly tried different things in Amsterdam. We went to a 3D presentation about Holland called the Holland Experience. It was a bit Disneyworld-ish – even the seats moved. But the show was wonderful. Moving through fields of colorful tulips was just spectacular. I could see perfectly well in 3D glasses – no cloudy look. Do ophthalmologists and cataract specialists know about this? It is now pouring rain and we left one of our umbrellas in the restaurant. The ticket office gave us one from the Lost and Found. We found such nice people everywhere.

Stopped at a market and bought some Dutch cheeses and wine.  Added that to our fruit from breakfast and had a picnic supper in the room. It felt great to dry off the wet clothes and squishy shoes and rest my knee and that nagging sore heel.  After months of no English speaking TV, we were happy to watch CNN for hours. Kay anesthetized with wine and I used Tylenol pm and the ice pack.

We spent the next morning at the Anne Frank House. The annex is housed in a contemporary looking museum and the material is beautifully presented with videos placed here and there using Anne’s words. The final video is Anne’s father speaking about his daughter after reading her papers following her death. We climbed the steep stairway and marveled at the tiny rooms where they lived for two years. Her story came alive to me as I climbed the steep stairway behind the bookcase to the tiny rooms the family managed to hide. Very moving experience.IMG_2478

It was good to take a canal bus ride and think about what life was like here centuries ago. It was raining again but the barges are covered with see through tops. I always enjoy seeing a city from the water, even the commercial areas.IMG_3025

A museum person would just love Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum as well as the Rijksmuseum filled with the Dutch painters – Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer . Both are located in a lovely plaza with bike paths, walkways, food stands, tables with umbrellas and many musicians playing classical music.  In the Van Gogh museum, the audio-tour featured letters of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, which brought to life Van Gogh’s life and works. i particularly enjoyed his works from the years in Arles and now that I have seen it in person (Arles that is) it was so much more meaningful. I started to understand why Van Gogh chose to paint there and how he loved the light and how it brought the color to the fields. He greatly admired farmers and captured their work in his paintings. The life and death representations in the painting “Sower and Reaper” was illuminating.

As I stood in the Rijksmuseum, I thought of my Aunt Helen who would have loved seeing the Dutch painters from the Golden Age, her particular favorite.  I was just about to call it quits or at least take a break from hours of standing when I turned the corner into another room and there it was, Halle Babbe by Franz Hals, the painting Aunt Helen copied at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she was an art student in NYC. She felt it was too large to hang in her house so she kept it in a closet and pulled it out occasionally.  She showed it to me several times and as I recall she said it was a portrait of Barbara Claes, probably a pub scene with her grasping a mug and with an owl on her shoulder.  There was a Dutch saying, “drunk as an owl.”   Malle, she explained, meant loony or crazy and possibly she was an alcoholic or suffering from mental illness.

The painting was on loan from a museum in Berlin.  There is also a copy in the Metropolitan Museum although it could be a copy from another artist.  Hals was admired and copied by many other artists. What a finale so I chose to leave the museum with this painting on my mind. There were several special experiences this past year that left me speechless. This was one I will never forget.

How could we leave Amsterdam without a visit to the Red Light District. I was pleased to see that the neighborhood was not seedy looking. Quite a few men, naturally, wandering around plus a small group of tourists giggling and carrying on. And us! Two sixty year old women in tennis sneakers, umbrellas turned inside out by the wind gusts and rain, hair wet and dripping, eyeglasses wet and fogged up – peering in the windows. What a sight!IMG_3018

As we wandered the streets and canals, I was looking for the Happy House. My son, Charly. spent a summer studying and traveling in Europe. I gave him a credit card to use in emergencies. He had only one charge – in Amsterdam at the Happy House. Charly claimed it was a chinese restaurant. Hmmm.

Kay and I had mixed feelings leaving Amsterdam knowing that it was our last trip of the year.  On the way back we reminisced about all the countries we visited and all the adventures and misadventures we had. We were very pleased with ourselves.

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