I Amsterdam: Relaxed and Zen in the Venice of the North
While my daughter is home visiting, we end up like ‘passing ships in the night,’ even though she’s living and sleeping in the same apartment. Her free hours and mine don’t coincide, except for an occasional dinner or outing we plan together. For this reason, we always take a short vacation together for what some might call “quality time.” Besides, we LOVE to travel together and have some of our finest moments this way.
When I asked, “How would you like to go to Amsterdam?,” she didn’t hesitate for a second to say, “Yes!” When she was just a teenager, a friend gave us her last day of a EuroRail pass for two so we went to what some call the “Venice of the North” for just one day. The train then was 4.5 hours, so most of our day was spent going and coming, but we had a blast just wandering around, eating Indonesian “rijsttafel,” stopping at a “Coffee Shop” and shopping around. It was a memorable 16 hours.
Now that the Thalys TGV runs on the tracks, the time has been reduced to 3 hours 18 minutes from Gare du Nord to Amsterdam’s Central Station. It couldn’t be easier or more pleasant. Plus, Amsterdam is such a pleasure and just so easy. From the station, we hopped on the #4 Tram to our hotel off the Prinzengracht — Hotel Dwars — a small private hotel with only nine rooms that is well located, not expensive, nicely outfitted, clean and functional.
Immediately, what strikes us most, other than the incredible beauty of the city that rivals most European cities, is the overwhelmingly pleasant, friendly attitude of the Dutch. Service people seem to be very happy with their jobs and not at all put out by taking care of their clients. It would be easy to get spoiled by the friendly service after all these years learning how to flirt with the French waitstaff to get the same level of attention (which is an art in itself).
Next thing of note is that everyone is so, so tall! In case you haven’t noticed, the Dutch are on the average the tallest people in the world with the average male at almost 6.025 feet. At 5 feet 4 inches, I’m a shrimp among them. They weren’t always so tall. In fact, 150 years ago they were almost three inches shorter than the average American, having gained over eight inches in that time. (American men are on the average 5 feet 9.5 inches.) Experts say that genetics, a better diet and medical care are the reason for this, but there’s another theory.
I always joked and perhaps really believed, that it was because of all the dairy products they eat, but the French eat as much dairy and that doesn’t explain their small body frames (the French are smaller than Americans with men on the average 5 feet 9.25 inches). Behavioral biologists found that basic evolution is the excuse. Taller men produce more children statistically, plus tend to have higher incomes, better health and higher ratings from potential sex partners. “The new study seems to confirm that sexual selection is alive and well within the Dutch population.”
I must admit — those tall Dutch men are very handsome overall and Amsterdam seems like an interesting place for single women! In addition, the Dutch are so pleasant and accommodating, it would be impossible to have an argument with them for any reason. Politically, they are as democratic a society as it gets, “characterized by a common striving for broad consensus on important issues, within both the political community and society as a whole.” (Wikipedia.org)
Traveling with a photographer is a blessing. It means that someone else can be taking the photos — and great ones at that — while I’m just ‘along for the ride’ and taking it all in visually. Two photography museums were within close walking distance of our hotel both on the Keizersgracht so visits through both were a perfect beginning to our Amsterdam adventure — the FOAM, Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam and the Huis Marseille.
Continuing up the canal past the Anne Frank House with its long lines to enter, and into the district known as the Jordaan between the Prinsengracht and the Lijnbaansgrachet, was at the top of our ‘must visit’ list. Much like the Marais is to Paris, the Jordaan was once very working class, but is now one of the most expensive, upscale locations in the Netherlands. Home to art galleries, restaurants, boutiques and open-air markets, it’s where Rembrandt spent the last years of his life and where I wouldn’t mind spending some of mine. One tiny three-level black house stole my heart, with its sweet little stoop and pretty flowers. When can I move in?
A trip to Amsterdam without an Indonesian Rice Table would be like a trip to Paris without a café crème and croissant — the experience wouldn’t have been complete. Before taking front row seats at Boom Chicago’s “Shot of Improv” comedy show (in English by American comedians), we lucked into one of the city’s best “rijsttafel” restaurants just down the street on the Rozengracht — Long Pura — for a too-many course extravaganza of taste and flavor.
Boom Chicago is one of the creative forces behind Comedy Central News (CCN), a news show on the Dutch Comedy Central. The group was founded in 1993 by Chicagoans who took over and restored the Leidseplein Theater in 1998 (one friend used to call the “Led Zeppelin”). I hadn’t seen them perform since they moved to the Rozengracht in 2012. Erica loved their show even more than me, a sign that Mom may have outgrown the latest, young, hip thinking.
Sunday was our day to visit the “Museumplein” — the area just south of the city that is home to the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum, designed by the Swedish/Danish landscape architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson in 1999. This is where the I Amsterdam slogan sits in letters two meters talk and 23.5 meters wide — a play ground for kids and a constant photo-op.
We did not miss an opportunity at all three museums. The Rijksmuseum recently went through a complete revamp and reinvention which is an ongoing process. Currently on display is an exhibition of its centuries of fashion designed by world-renowned Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf well worth a special visit. In the permanent collection are still the Vermeers (which bring me to tears) and the Rembrandts, their signature works, much like the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory are to the Louvre.
The Van Gogh is…so Van Gogh. Besides being an amazing collection of his works, particularly of his self-portraits, it also houses most of the 820 letters he wrote his brother Theo that provide an in-depth look into his manic life. You will not want to leave without a souvenir of his Sunflowers to brighten your world as a copy of the painting did in my parents’ bedroom almost all the years of their married life.
Our feet and backs feeling the afternoon of museum-going, Erica and I hopped in a taxi to the Zuiver Spa in the woods south of the city. It’s a spa with exercise, sports and hotel in 13,000 square meters devoted to the spa, catering facilities, squash and tennis, a meeting center and hotel rooms. What’s most unusual about the Zuiver, besides the almost two dozen saunas, pools and hottubs in a beautiful acqua tiled facility, is that it’s mixed men and women and totally nude.
Once you drop your terry cloth robe and let go of your inhibitions, you’ll feel completely at home showing off what you got, since that’s what every other person there is doing, regardless of their size and shape. After a couple hours of releasing every bit of tension in the various hot-water baths, we called an Uber to take us back to Amsterdam for dinner. To avoid hitting both a bike and another car, the driver swerved quickly hurling us to one side of the car and sending Erica into hysterical laughter that I was so relaxed, I just went with the flow and never flinched. The driver called me “zen.”
That’s what Amsterdam will do for you. Get you relaxed and make you zen.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group
(by Erica Simone)
P.S. Join me for an exhibition of American photo artist Meredith Mullins’ photographs (new work and some vintage classics), along with the work of four other talented artists at the vernissage from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday, April 11 at the Etienne de Causans Galerie, 25 rue de Seine, 75006. The exhibit is open until April 20.