Saturday, September 03, 2005

September dispatches 3: Botanicals

Giant lily, Botanical Garden
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
Amsterdam, Sept. 2 (and very early in the morning it is!)—

A leisurely morning waiting for breakfast, included in the price of this slightly louche hotel but not served until the ridiculous hour of nine a.m. — for reasons that became clear later in the day.

A motley group in the breakfast room — Lindsey and I quite the oldest; one couple looking to be in their forties or fifties but yearning for youth; the others in late twenties or thirties. Nearly all the men in casual cotton trousers and tee shirts, the latter often emblazoned with slogans. Nearly all the women either dressed in the latest slob manner, folds of skin emerging here and there, often pinned or clipped with oddly positioned jewelry; or in a retro flowerchild fashion, long gauzy skirts and translucent tops.

Tattoos more often than not.

Juice, coffee, corn flakes, three cheeses, four sausages, hardboiled egg, three kinds of bread, two kinds of roll.

And then a walk to the Botanical Garden, said to be the oldest in the world (though I find it hard to believe China didn’t plant one before 1680). It was a short walk, over the broad Amstel River, then northwest a few blocks, crossing two or three canals.

We walked round the Garden before entering it — by mistake, of course, not design — and stopped to watch a huge drawbridge lift, stopping cars and bikes and trams and pedestrians, to let a barge go by. This happens several times a day, but it always seems like an event; and I’m sure it contributes to the resigned equanimity of the Dutch.

The Garden is worth much more comment than I’ll give it here. It began as a collection of medicinal plants, carefully studied, propagated, and tended for scientific value. What a near-loss it was to human knowledge when synthetic medication was invented — late in the 19th century, one of the many helpful signboards told us.

There’s still a prominent section devoted to medicinals, and it was arresting to notice a cannabis plant, taller than I am — the first I’ve seen in the out-of-doors, I think, certainly the first of anything like that size.

There’sa prominent half-circle of beds, say half a hundred-foot circle divided into three wedges, each with a number of concentric beds. Here hundreds of plants are set out to demonstrate a new “molecular” classification system the botanists are erecting in place of the familiar old Linnaean system, taking DNA proximity, not the similarity of physical structures, as the basis of organization.

Along one side of the vast gardens there’s a series of beds tracing the evolution — pardon me, revelation— of plant life, from the time of the trilobites — they can’t quite get back to the primordial soup, apparently — through such landmarks as the carboniferous era down to fairly recent divergences into flowering plants, gymnosperms, cots and dicots, and so on.

Any of these could have occupied us an entire day, but we gave it only the morning, ending up with the two enormous greenhouses, each quite tall enough to house the tallest of palms, and big enough to make them seem not tall at all.

There are some old plants here. A fascinating huge-leafed Gunnera was planted in the 1880s and is thriving, and two southern hemisphere trees of some weird kind are three times that old.

There is also a very nice cafe, and there we took our cappuccino and the requisite appeltaart, Dutch Apple Pie to you, sweet and buttery and crunchy and flaky, its complex texture offering apples, raisins, currants, streusel, and flaky pastry, the whole thing a continually developing revelation of vanilla, apple, wheat, grape. What a celebration of botanicals!

Since I’m on a culinary note, let me tell you about dinner at Le Hollandais, around the corner from us along the Amstel. Ten years old, neither horribly expensive nor cheap, with an extremely interesting wine list and a fairly extensive menu —

But we chose the daily special: a salad of mizuma and mache and sauteed cantarels and slices of house-made Toulouse-style sausage; then braised goose with potatoes Dutchess (ah there, humor on the meu) and onions; then chocolate ice cream in a chocolate shell — to which we added a second dessert because it sounded so special: something between a Bavarian cream and a pudding, with almonds and spices, very Dutch, completely new to us.

With all this (well, not with the desserts) glasses of a fine red Pyrenees wine whose name I have here somewhere. Price, 32 Euros each, another twelve for the wine.

Our friend Kees suggested the place, and we found it with no help from our desk clerk, partly because the whole damn hotel lacks a phone book of any kind, partly because she was busy helping another guest find the best hash and weed in town. And then I realized this hotel, and indeed a good many in its economic class, caters to soft-drug tourists, and that indeed that is a significant part of the Amsterdam tourist industry.

Certain parts of town look like the Haight Ashbury of the 1970s, in quite a studied manner. The only difference, really, is that there’s nothing coy or play-hidden about it; it’s all quite open. You smell marijuana smoke often on the street, and I smell it occasionally in the hall outside our room, though it’s never penetrated into the room itself, which is thankfully clean and well ventilated.

Again this evening we watched a little CNN, sad and unbelieving at the events unwinding in New Orleans. I don’t have to tell you how it looks from here. Our friend Tom said the Dutch just don’t understand why the pumps, and the generators powering them, were housed below sea level in manycases.The Dutch learned better than that centuries ago.

Your country doesn’t like to pay taxes, he pointed out, and it’s been obvious for years that the infrastructure isn’t maintained, that people don’t spend money to guard against future disasters. It’s very sad.

But tomorrow we’ll drive with Petra up toward Hoorn and Enkhuizen, which we hardly know, to do a little research toward our walk; and then we’ll spend the night, and Saturday night too, in Voorburg, on the edge of The Hague, among our extended but very close Dutch family. And we will be counting our blessings, and grateful for them!

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