Saturday, September 03, 2005

September dispatches 2: Parliamo italiano

Elms near Leidseplein
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
Amsterdam, September 1

A long rest and a short wrestle with technology in our little hotel room, and we were ready for a walk and maybe some dinner. I recalled a pleasant
place we'd found last time we were here, een eind, as the Dutch say — an
unspecified but not terribly great distance — down the canal.

(Or would it be up? Somehow the half-ring of five concentric canals in this city seem to go neither up nor down, but sideways,because if you walk along
any of them long enough you'll find you've been led imperceptibly to have reversed your direction...)

That wonderful Amsterdam light! It's been a rainy summer, though yesterday was clear and bright, and the warm still air had brought out dozens of lazy boaters, relaxing in sculls and rowbaots, or lazing about on the decks and flat rooftops of their houseboats.

The surface of this particular canal, the Singelgracht, was dark in the late afternoon, dark green or sometimes almost brown but sparkling with those sudden flashing reflections of the sky in the vivacious wakes of the boats.

Above, the dark greens of the lacy leaves of the elms, whose black rough-textured trunks and surprising green foliage do so much to soften the
urbanity of this city.

And away from the Singel, as we walked narrow streets toward Leidseplein, the light raked in low and luminous against the brick facades, the
sparkling white enamels of woodwork, the impeccable glass windows. People were out sitting on stoops with a bottle of Pinot gris or a pitcher of
lemonade. These neighborhoods always remind me of the best of New York, the friendly blocks in Greenwich Village; perhaps there's still a touch of
Dutch in what was once Nieuw Amsterdam.

We happened on an Italian delicatessen and asked for a restaurant recommendation. Do you speak English, I asked the fellow who was sweeping
the doorway, Not really, he answered. His Dutch was heavily accented, too, so we tried Italian, which relaxed us both considerably.

I've only been in this country six months, he explained, so I haven't really learned Dutch yet.

The Casa del Gusto had good selections of dry
pasta, cans of Italian specialities, a promising case of sausages, hams, and cheeses. The woman behind that case said they'd been open only a month, specializing in small-farm products from Tuscany and Umbria.

They recommended an Italian restaurant, Biscia, in a nearby hotel — one of the best restaurants in Amstedam, they said. It turned out to be Bice: we'd been misled by their soft Tuscan dialect. Bice is a chain of upscale restaurants, with many outlets in Italy and elsewhere — white linen, good
crystal, upscale menu and wine list.

Parliamo italiano, I suggested to the waiter, let's speak Italian, my Dutch is pretty bad, and he happily agreed, and we had salads and pasta and a half bottle of Pinot grigio, the first of which was corked.

I recalled a previous evening in Amsterdam when we were offered two consecutive corked bottles. Maybe it's particularly a problem in this climate: whatever the reason, you want to be on guard. In any case the replacement came quickly and good-naturedly.

Back home we watched the news. Distant disaster always has a surreal component, and yesterday's news was no exception. A thousand pilgrims dead
of their own fear and religious fervor. Another thousand or more, no doubt, drowned in a city insufficiently guarded against a constant threat.

Holland had its own tragedy fifty years ago when a freak North Sea storm breached sea-wall dikes and drowned, as I recall, well over a hundred thousand.
There's much sympathy here for the victims of Katrina, but some concern, I feel, as to whether Americans give sufficient attention to preparedness.

In the meantime we try to justify having a good time. Quando si mangia bene la vita ha un altro sapore, the card from Casa del Gusto advises us: When you eat well life has another savor. We try to keep that in mind.

Today the weather is cooler: perhap we won't need thunderstorms to break yesterday's still heat. We'll loaf our way through the day, maybe with some
familiar Rembrandts, maybe with some familiar pancakes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

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