Monday, October 23, 2006

Netherlands 2: Slacker, sluggard, slakker.

Leaving Dublin

Oss, Oct. 23

I AM A BIT OF A SLACKER, not really that much of one, for having waited so long to post a few words about this trip. There are two reasons, one technological, the other personal. The technological one is of course the inconvenience of going online, which in my case means also the difficulty of going online without paying.

The personal reason is that second word up there: sluggard. We flew Thursday to JFK, waited over an hour for our baggage, then took a shuttle to our Day’s Inn. JFK is a poor excuse for an international airport. Those who use the word “airport” to describe some postmodern totally global erasure of all things nationally distinctive have only to contrast JFK with, say, Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands to throw serious doubt on their case. If you fly to JFK you arrive at a miserable third-world country lacking conveniences and character. Perhaps this is not true if you bring great quantities of money: I don’t know about that: I don’t.

We flew Thursday to JFK, checked into our Days Inn (a miserable third-world excuse for a hotel, but clean, I suppose), spent the next morning there having lost many hours of sleep, spent the next afternoon in the “food court” at the airport catching up with a dear friend who lives in New York, and then flew the next segment of our trip.

”Food Court.” I love the expression; it suggests that your food is on trial. We ate at the best possible place, I believe, Sbarro. Guilt not proven, as the Scots say. A big salad lacking e. coli and a bigger plastic platter of spaghetti and “meatballs.” I asked the server if they had any red wine. “No: they don’t let us drink on the job,” she responded. Ah, Noo Yawk.

We flew on to Shannon, where we sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour waiting for a place to dock our airplane. Because of that we were quite late getting to our next airport, Dublin — did you know Dublin has its own little airport? We raced across the terminal to our next gate, checking in and out and in again at the antiterrorism headquarters, doffing and donning our shoes, to find that our next flight was itself delayed by an hour because of some unspecified emergency at Manchester, where it had been most recently.

The trip took two days all told, of which perhaps four hours were spent in bed at the Days Inn. We landed nearly an hour late at Schiphol, met Grace, got our car, and drove to our hotel in Akersloot, just short of Alkmaar. Why there? Much cheaper than Amsterdam, that’s why.

Nap; cold water on face; change shirt; drive in to...

A FAVORITE BAR IN AMSTERDAM:, de Oude Dock (the old dock), across Kadkjiksplein from a recently trendy Italian restaurant called A Tavola. Amsterdam is famous for its bruincafes, bar-cafes which are brown partly for their varnished wood fittings, partly for the tobacco-tars accumulated over the years. You don’t smoke in them any more, and the noxious effects of the tobacco are quite gone, but the character remains.

It’s fashionable to lament the disappearance of these bruincafes, but I think nearly every quarter of Amsterdam retains at least one. We’ve been in a few. I particularly like this one, and I wanted to introduce Grace to it; it’s the kind of place she’ll take her grandchildren to, and perhaps mention us to them, fifty years from now.

The ceiling is covered with bar coasters, like close-set scales on a fish; the room is dim; the recorded music is cool jazz; the drinks were bessengenever for Grace, sherry for Lindsey, a Corenwijn for me — that delicious, slightly cut “old Genever” gin you can get only here, unless BevMo stocks it now; I never go there.

One began to revive. The actual flights, the five airports, the four ascents and landings, the endless baggage-waits and bumpy cumulus and disreputable snacks — they were all behind us. It was catchup time: Grace is in her first year of college, her first year of independent living in Europe; she’s nineteen, full of fun and intelligence, tired from a fall break four-day trip to Paris, a little apprehensive about the schoolwork awaiting her day-after-tomorrow, but living completely in the moment, which her grandfather has suggested is the proper way to live.

And I, of course, am ecstatic to be once more in the Netherlands.

AND THEN WE FOUND OUR WAY, not without difficulty, to Marius, one of the Five Great Restaurants in the world (Chez Panisse, the Café Chez Panisse, Marius, Your Favorite Place, My Other Favorite Place) (let’s make it JoJo just now), where we had a Fabulous Meal:
chicken, warm spinach salad, mushrooms
octopus stew with tomatoes and other things
venison with puree of potato, pumpkin and apple
chocolate nemesis
with the appropriate wines, of course.

I apologize, sluggard that I am, for not having recorded this any better: I can plead fatigue. But it was delicious. You can read about Marius to your heart’s content at; and you can look for it several months back on this blog. I will say further only that the chef, Kees Elfring, exemplifies to me a perfect balance of the four components of serious cooking: Truth to the soil; Generosity of sensual delight; Healthfulness; and Intelligence. He knows his food from the farm, through the eye and nose and palate, to the nourishment of the body, never forgetting awareness of history, tradition, innovation, culinary analysis, perfect synthesis.

He does not do all this merely instinctively, though he is in fact an instinctive cook. He studies and thinks about these things, and works at Getting Things Right. This reflects his Dutch Calvinist background, perhaps. But he also lets go of theory and doctrine; at the last minute he knows it’s a matter of Getting It On The Table. The restaurant was full; everyone was happy.

NEXT MORNING, YESTERDAY, we got up at ten, having slept eight hours, and drove a few miles to Alkmaar for breakfast. Ham-cheese tostis for the girls, a three-egg-and-roast-beef uitsmijter with a small beer for me. Then it was on across the straight severe Afsluitdijk, which keeps the North Sea way from the interior of the Netherlands, and into Friesland, to visit Kees and Irma at home, and drive on to Jorwerd.

I wrote about this town here a month or so ago. I read about it in the book of the same name by Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist-historian: an account of the changes wrought on this agrarian town, between 1955 and 1995, by the revisions in the agrarian economic plans encoded and enforced by the Dutch national government. It’s a touching story, rather sad and nostalgic to those of us who grew up in and live in the country; but it’s not sentimental, it’s simply The Way Things Are.

We found much to reassure us. The Pastor’s House has just been purchased; its new occupants will no doubt maintain it in a romantic, newly comfortable, utterly clean version of the major house it’s always been. I found the bronze military cap on the fence-post next the mailbox touching: I hope it is maintained.

The Jorwerd church was open to visitors — clean, spare, straightforward, forthright; with an organ nicely maintained (though we weren’t able to hear it) and a back room full of books spilled willy-nilly on a big table: a book sale, perhaps; or is it the town lending-library? Dubious.

The notary’s house still has its huge back garden where, Irma assures me, the annual village theatrical is still put on — the old Frisian customs are maintained in a number of these towns; she’s on the committee of the one her own town puts on, and puts in her time at the bar in the local Village House.

The Jorwerd bar-café, Het Wapen van Bardersdael (and I’m sure I have the name wrong: it refers to the coat-of-arms of the local sub-province, Bardersdael) is still functional: we had a hot chocolate or so there, seated at tables furnished with the old-fashioned pile table-carpets; the billiard-cues stood comfortably but attentively in their rack; the proprietor left us nicely to ourselves after bringing us what we wanted.

And then it was time to go. We drove for hours across the Dutch countryside: Friesland with its lakes and canals and sheep and sails; Overijssel with its glimpses of distant hills; Gelderland and its national foest and heath; Utrecht where the suburbs grow; Noord-Brabant where the air begins to think of Belgium; and finally Zeeland where the rain, which had developed somewhere in Gelderland, let up completley, and the skies began to clear, and the air took on the salt-and-herring smak as the Dutch say, and we dropped Grace off in her room, and checked into our own room, up two flights of improbably steep steps.

YOU CAN SEE PHOTOS of some of this stage of our trip on my dotmac page. I’ll try soon to post an account here of our day in Walcheren, a place full of resonance for me — I think a stray comment made by a fellow at the next table at Marius may explain this resonance; at least it begins to for me. Interesting, to learn these things after seven decades.

Oh. And the slakkers? That’s the Dutch word for “snails”, which I asked the girl to leave out of my green salad tonight. I like it that the Dutch refer to that slimy animal by its slow pace.

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