Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rembrandt, Cycads, and Good Dutch Food

My love affair with Amsterdam continues unabated (as does my obsession with Dutch bicycles--but more about that later).  Much of today I walked around with a goofy grin on my face, delighting in the city, the people, and the sights.  I first went to Rembrandt's house, which proved better than I imagined.  I had a tough time finding it, as I did in Madrid last March when I searched for Lope de Vega's home (and ditto for Ibsen's house in Oslo several years ago).  I've concluded that the homes of famous writers and artists--outside of Shakespeare, of course--simply do not matter to most people.  Locals can direct confused tourists to the Rijksmuseum or the "Old Church," but Rembrandt's house?  Not so much.

Eventually I found it and was rewarded for my efforts.  At the height of his fame, filthy with money and puffed with pride, Rembrandt purchased a grand home befitting his status--or at least the status to which he aspired.  Eventually he couldn't keep up with the payments and the lavish lifestyle, and he went bankrupt, ending his life lonely and broke in far more modest digs.  The grand house is the one I visited today: an extant inventory of Rembrandt's belongings at the time of bankruptcy, along with various paintings and sketches, have allowed curators to recreate the interior fairly accurately.  Best of all, specialists give splendid lecture demonstrations throughout the house.  I learned about mid-seventeenth Dutch cooking; Rembrandt's engraving techniques; and, best of all, how he mixed pigments.  Given my delight in material history, I was utterly enchanted.

Fortified by good Dutch coffee, I then set out for the Hermitage Amsterdam, the Dutch outpost of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, but I was waylaid by the botanical gardens.  This is one of the pleasures of traveling alone: one can act upon whims.  The Hortus Botanicus, founded in 1638, gives a splendid snapshot of the seventeenth-century penchant for taxonomies and collections.  Plants and trees from around the world are lovingly cultivated and displayed.  One of the highlights of the collection is a 300 year old cycad from the Eastern Cape in South Africa, originally collected by the Dutch East India Company.  In two of the hothouses I saw displays that looked like vestigial cabinets of curiosity, again providing a window into the seventeenth-century mentalite.

Grief, however, still stalks me, sometimes grabbing me by the throat and squeezing hard.  Quite literally, I will turn a corner or, as I did today, enter a room and then find myself gulping for breath, sucker-punched by unforeseen associations.  One of the hothouses contained plants and trees from South Africa, which is entirely understandable given the long historic association, but the familiarity of the vegetation--its appearance and smell--reduced me rapidly to tears.  For half an hour, I sat on a bench weeping before pulling myself together and heading out again.  By then, it was 5.00 p.m. and museums were closing.  Between my terrible sense of direction and the early twilight, I lost my bearings and stumbled around until a local set me straight.  Tired and hungry (no lunch and seven hours of walking), I took up one of Francois' suggestions and went to a restaurant near my B&B, a place best described as nouvelle Dutch.  The food was actually very good, and the service warm and efficient.  I started with a delicious sweet pea soup, followed by hake in a reduced sauce of butter, capers, and a bit of aged balsamic with a side of sugar snap peas and string beans.  Everything was fresh and delicious, and the Spanish white wine, a crisp Rueda, improved my outlook immeasurably.

I will conclude with passing observations about bicycles, expats, and the Dutch obsession with all things American.

My continued fascination with Dutch bicycling resulted in a spin this morning on a WWII model.  On my way to the Rembrandt house, distracted by a shop display, I stepped inside to look at some sweaters and struck up a conversation with the salesgirl, an outgoing, hearty lass.  I noticed her bicycle, a rusted, monstrous thing, and she proudly described the repairs and modifications she had made.  I asked about the weight and lack of gearing, but she goes everywhere on it, hauling groceries and running errands.  Then I was offered a ride.  The bike easily weighed 70 pounds or more and was difficult to get going; once rolling, though, the weight actually worked to its advantage, and it gradually picked up momentum.

If nothing else, the experience of riding a bicycle from the 1930s strengthened my resolve to keep my Pashley Princess, which I bought a month ago.  Bike Space DC has a generous policy about returns, and before departing for Amsterdam, I thought about swapping it out for something lighter and nimbler.    The Dutch, though, believe in heavy, stalwart bikes for commuting, and I have to admit the Pashley, which tips the scales at roughly 46 pounds, is balanced and secure, absorbing shocks and potholes with ease.  She's very pretty too, a traditional British roadster still manufactured in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The next time my legs burn from the effort of pedaling her, I will think of that Dutch salesgirl on her WWII bicycle and man up (or "woman up").  At least I have five gears.

As for expats, they are seemingly everywhere in Amsterdam.  In 48 hours I have met people from Iceland, England, Armenia, Scotland, France, and the States, all contentedly living and working in the city.  They like the laid back lifestyle, the beauty of the city, and the tolerant social attitudes.  At the Rembrandt house, the lecture-demonstration on seventeenth-century pigments and oil paints was given by an American.  Originally from San Francisco, he followed his Dutch lover back to Amsterdam and quickly found interesting employment.  "I get to work in Rembrandt's house and lecture about his painting techniques," he remarked.  "How good is that?"

Pretty damn good, in my estimation.  There is evidently a sizable American expat community here, and Dutch esteem for the U.S. makes getting a work permit fairly easy.  I went back to my neighborhood pub for a beer before dinner, and the half-English/half-Dutch bartender echoed what Marianne had told me the previous evening: the Dutch are crazy about American culture.  He described staying up all night to watch election returns, which surprised me, but others in the pub nodded in agreement.  Not surprisingly, they all rooted for Obama.

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