Go Dutch, or Go Home

A view of a canal in Utrecht, the Netherlands
Utrecht

I returned home from the Netherlands one week ago, suffering from mild food poisoning. The culprit: taramasalata, a Greek dip made of cod roe, bread crumbs or mashed potatoes, lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. I’ve always loved the stuff slathered on crunchy French bread, and I usually binge on it when I’m overseas, where it’s much more widely available than in the United States. Oops.

Based on my 20-year aversion to gin, after one night of extreme intemperance at university, I suspect my love affair with taramasalata may be over. I have yet to even toe dip back into seafood since my return because just the smell of fish knocks me back a step.

So, on Thursday I will give thanks that the holiday is known as “turkey” – and not “flounder” – day.

Luckily, the second half of my trip involved nicer hotels (especially the Grand Hotel Karl V in Utrecht) and fewer hours on my feet than Amsterdam, so feeling a little crummy didn’t louse up my itinerary.

I decamped Amsterdam, and headed to The Hague by way of Leiden — home to the oldest university in the Netherlands (founded in 1575), and temporary refuge of the Pilgrims. Leiden is a beautiful, quiet town with canals, one windmill (my first) and an impressive collection of antiquities at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden – the national archaeological museum of the Netherlands.

The Hague was the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated destination of the trip. I stayed in the Noordeinde neighborhood – the royal palace was right around the corner – and shopped until I nearly dropped. The city offers a fine mix of upscale chain stores and high-end boutiques, all surrounded by cobble stones and centuries-old gable houses. Unfortunately it was here that I patronized Marks & Spencer, purveyor of the offending taramasalata – hereafter referred to as “the dip that shall not be named”.

Of course, I didn’t JUST shop and eat. I visited The Hague’s greatest gem, Mauritshuis – a tiny museum chock full of works by Dutch masters. (Tip: If you go, be sure to invest in the audio tour. It covers close to 50% of the artwork.)

I also toured the Museum de Gevangenpoort, a 15th century prison complete with a hostage room for debtors (this predates workhouses), a torture chamber with tiled walls to make post-interrogation clean up easier, and a “farewell” chamber where prisoners sentenced to death ate their final meals, and said goodbye to their loved ones. I got chills picturing the place after dark.

My final stop was the university town Utrecht, with a side trip to ‘s-Hertogenbosch (“Dem Bosch”) on my second-to-last day. Both towns have lovely old market squares, nice shops, a pretty canal or two and – in the case of Dem Bosch – a magnificent church. St. John’s Cathedral (Sint Jan) was a highlight of the trip.

One week later I am curled up in my comfy chair, watching football while sucking on my fifth Tums tablet of the day. It’s fun to reminisce with these photos.

It’s also good to be home.

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As an aside, the Dutch speak great English and therefore have an knack for clever English shop names. I think “Knit Happens” could be my favorite:

Dutch Treats

Row of canal houses in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It has become a tradition that I take my biggest vacation of the year around Veterans day in the United States (early-mid November). It’s an opportunity to enjoy chilly fall weather, without much risk of a freak snowstorm stranding me somewhere. The timing also means fewer tourists generally, and fewer school-age tourists specifically.

This year I chose the Netherlands as my destination. The start of my journey was not promising. A United Airlines drama nearly eighty-sixed the whole adventure.

At San Francisco International Airport I was informed that my frequent flyer ticket to Amsterdam was missing the Frankfurt-to-Amsterdam leg in the computer system. Two United agents who spoke terrible English discussed my plight in Chinese, while I stood by helplessly. Despite having an email confirmation on my iPhone showing an SFO-Frankfurt-Amsterdam reservation, the agents told me there was nothing they could do beyond checking my bag only as far as Frankfurt. I’d have to work out the rest by calling the MileagePlus 800 number.

Whaaaat? Do I look like a complete idiot, novice traveler to you??? Checking my bag just to Frankfurt, where I had a two-hour layover at best, while my hotel bookings were all in Amsterdam, would have been the DUMBEST MOVE EVER. The agents were quite insistent about checking my bag, but eventually conceded that the ticketing counter might be able to help me.

As far as I’m concerned, the United check in staff at the SFO international terminal are woefully inadequate and lacking in basic English language proficiency… except for one Gabriele Bugler — a no-nonsense lady (German, I think) who waited on hold with MileagePus for at least 30 minutes, while triaging several problems brought to her by other flummoxed United agents. She sorted it all out, no obsequious apologies but no excuse-making either.

Hey, United Airlines: Gabriele Bugler deserves an enormous raise. Give her one. Oh, and if you are going to push people toward your online reservation system, you might want to fix some pretty serious, glaring bugs.

Never mind, I’m now safely in Amsterdam which is so full of English speakers and beautiful architecture, I have deja vu moments of thinking I’m either in London, or French Canada.

My first stop yesterday, following a harrowing and very pricey taxi ride to my hotel, was the Anne Frank House  The line was 45 minutes long, but visitors are provided free Wi-Fi to help pass the time. Where in America can you get Wi-Fi while waiting in line outdoors?

No surprise, the museum was respectful, tasteful and moving. I reread Anne’s diary (the unsanitized version) before coming here, but despite her detailed description of the group’s living conditions I could not picture their accommodations. The size and the darkness of the rooms took my breath away.

I often joke about the tiny dimensions of my first Manhattan apartment; Anne’s mother, father and sister Margot shared a smaller space for more than two years without any respite. No office or school to escape to. No gym. No walks around the block. The room that Anne shared with her nemesis Fritz Pfeiffer was the size of my current closet in San Francisco.

The walls of Anne’s room still display a few photos she pasted from movie magazines, as well as a childhood photo of Queen Elizabeth. I’m sure the Queen knows this. I wonder if she’s ever seen it?  I imagine it would break her heart. It broke mine.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Anne Frank House, be sure to tour the entire museum — including the top floor, where documents around the deportation of the Frank family are on display. (Nazis kept meticulous records, it turns out.) Exerpts from Anne’s diary are there, too.

I waited in line for the museum behind a very nice couple from Sacramento. The wife made me laugh, though. When I told her this is my first trip to Amsterdam, she gravely informed me that smoking marijuana is legal here, and that there is a flourishing Red Light District.

REALLY? Hey, maybe I DO look like a total idiot, novice traveler. I mean, who on earth goes to Amsterdam knowing SO LITTLE about the city, that they are unaware of coffee houses and legalized prostitution?

As it turns out, the Red Light District is just behind my hotel. I didn’t realize this when I made my reservation, but tonight in search of a specific restaurant, I walked out the back door and saw lots of red neon lights. I’m kind of embarrassed by how long it took me to make the connection: red lights = red light district. I saw a few lingerie-clad women in window displays, but otherwise… the neighborhood was remarkably quiet. Maybe I needed to walk farther to see the real action. Or perhaps this is what happens on the Sabbath, in the birthplace of Calvinism?

imageEarlier today I visited the Rijks and Van Gogh museums. I also ate a Belgian waffle drizzled with chocolate that nearly brought me to tears, and frites slathered in joppisauce that were pretty darn amazing. Now nodding off to the hypnotic sounds of the BBC news.

More soon from the land of the gouda wheel…

UPDATE: My hotel was NOT in the Red Light District, after all. I had mistakenly thought that all of Amsterdam’s prostitution takes place in that neighborhood, but it does not. The day after I wrote this post, I stumbled into the real Red Light District, and said a little prayer of gratitude that I wasn’t staying there. Peaceful, it is not.

Stacks of gouda cheese wheels