Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Of Railway Strikes, B&B’s, and Modernism

I am condemned, so it appears, to spend another night in this delightful city.  An anti-austerity railway strike has rendered travel impossible across several countries, including Belgium.  Fortunately, my room at the Posthoorn is available for another night, so I’ve adjusted my train ticket for departure tomorrow morning. 

Speaking of B&B’s, this one is excellent.  I’ve had a range of experiences over the years, most of them ordinary and some at the far ends of the spectrum.  The nadir was a B&B in Ireland—in Kerry, as I recall—run by a sour Irish woman.  The room was dirty and the unchanged sheets were soiled.  She insisted they were freshly laundered and bristled when I asked for fresh linens.  It was thoroughly unpleasant. 

By contrast, François, who just purchased this seventeenth-century home two years ago, has made every effort to ensure the comfort of his guests.  The three rooms are handsomely appointed and immaculate, with freshly tiled, modern en-suite bathrooms.  I have a little kitchenette, a microwave, and a coffee maker, all quite handy.  The fridge is stocked with wine, juice, milk, and water, all included, and the breakfasts are excellent, if overly lavish in quantity.  The next time I come to Amsterdam, this will be my residence unless I decide to do something impulsive (like swapping houses with someone for a month in the summer).  Indeed, I am so smitten with the city that I have been entertaining seriously the notion of a sublet or house swap, particularly if I can find something in the Jordaan neighborhood, which I like immensely. 

I took the tram to the museum district and walked over to the Concertgebouw to queue for the free Wednesday noontime concert.  I arrived early and sat with the locals on the carpeted steps leading to the concert hall, reading the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, an activity that immediately prompted questions from several people.  The Dutch are great readers—easily half of the crowd whiled away the time immersed in books or tablets—and they were curious about an American publication devoted entirely to books. 

At noon we were permitted to enter, but the concert didn’t begin for another twenty minutes or so.  The hall is lovely, and the acoustics are exceptional.  I wasn’t wild, however, about the program, which was very modern.  The first two pieces were random bits of noise, like John Cage on steroids.  I’m sure the music can be explained in theoretical terms that might attempt to make sense of this cacophony, but I was having none of it.  My mind drifted to that parodic scene in Funny Face where Audrey Hepburn, dressed like a beatnik, does a strange contorted dance to similarly dissonant music, an association I’m not sure the composer would appreciate. 

The final piece was more interesting to me, sort of a modernist version of Bolero that repeated the central phrase and intensified the sound until the climactic end.  Again, it was a bit discordant for my undoubtedly bourgeois tastes but musically dense and even, at points, appealing.  The orchestra attacked all three pieces with verve and skill, and the largely Dutch audience applauded enthusiastically. 

The concert lasted less than an hour; nonetheless, a bit overcome by all of that, uh, sound, I headed for the café in the concert hall to fortify myself with additional caffeine.  I ended up sitting next to a fascinating older woman named Annika, a retired flutist (she also taught for years) who had spent part of her youth in South Africa.  We spoke at length about all manner of things and exchanged business cards (which I keep collecting here).  I have not lacked for conversation. 

Modernism was the theme for the day: near the Concertgebouw is the simply splendid Stedelijk Museum, a fabulous collection of modern art and design.  The light is superb, and everything is beautifully displayed.  They have Chagall’s famous painting of the fiddler, which is just extraordinary, and a terrific collection of Malevich’s drawings. 

I also discovered several Flemish and Dutch modern painters, including Charley Toorop, whose self-portrait and painting of an old woman amidst the ruins of WWII just knocked my socks off.  I continue to be dismayed at the limitation of our exhibits in the U.S.  Museums recycle the same periods (I never want to see another show on Impressionism again, ever) and the same artists, but we rarely get to see anything beyond the usual suspects.  I’ve seen, for instance, amazing Russian and Scandinavian art that was simply unknown to me.  I found much the same today, as I marveled at various Dutch pieces.  We always tend to associate modernist art movements with cities like Paris, Vienna, and New York, but I now appreciate what a vital role Amsterdam played as well. 

The last hour was the best, as I worked through room after room of posters, photographs, objects, and furniture, delighting in nearly every piece.  Does any period marry form and function as well as high modernism?  I think not.  Normally I’m not terribly keen on installation art, but I saw several here that captivated me.  My favorite, not surprisingly, was Ed Kienholz’s Barney’s Beanery, a painstaking recreation of the venerable eatery in L.A. that made me laugh out loud.  The only change Kienholz made was to give the regular customers clocks for heads, an indication, I suppose, of how one forgets time in this drunken, ratty environment (Jim Morrison of the Doors was supposedly ejected for pissing on the bar).

Happy but hungry, I headed back to my neighborhood.  I didn’t have the energy to hunt down another of François’ recommendations, and I randomly picked an Italian joint frequented by the locals.  The wine bordered on rotgut, but the salad of grilled vegetables and the pasta with mushrooms were surprisingly decent. 

Tomorrow, Belgium.

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