Sunday, April 08, 2007

1. Amsterdam

The Zoutkeetsgracht at twilight

Amsterdam, Wednesday, April 4:

Up at 7 on a promising morning from a dream of, what else, bicycles. Our water had run dry, and I was to go up to the tanks to investigate, but they were relocated, to somewhere on a ridge up the side of Mt. St. Helena or another mountain midway between Pt. Reyes and our house. Cycling there, or much of the time effortlessly running, I got sidetracked, entering a deal to buy much of the undeveloped part of the mountain to put it in some kind of perpetual green zone. Paolo and another couple of boys, maybe Simon and Henry, showed up, but my cycling and running was much less strenuous than theirs.

Zoutkeetsgracht, not an easy name to pronounce, is one of my favorite corniers of Amsterdam. Its plein lies at the end of the number 3 tramline, bordered by two canals and looking out onto the Amsterdam harbor. We always seem to get there at sundown: the sun sets on your left as you step down from the tram, its low light full on the turn-or-the-century brick facades of the buildings lining two sides of the plein.

Like so much of Amsterdam these buildings are all the same height, say six floors, brick, with tile roofs, joined continuously of course (one doesn't waste space in The Netherlands), and set off by the odd-shaped plein itself which, I noticed last night, is furnished with a convenient concrete table at which a stegosaurus and an ape are apparently seated playing chess, perhaps alluding to an argument about the evolution of intelligence.

Interesting as this might be, we didn't investigate. We had a goal; we were en route to Marius, one of the best reasons to visit this part of town. I've written about Marius before, so I'll simply note the


olives, sweet anchovies, salume
mackerel with fennel and parsley sauce
skate wing with miners' lettuce and turnip puree
white wine
three cuts of roast lamb with eggplant and artichoke
five French cheeses
chocolate Nemesis

The restaurant was comfortably full: say two dozen diners, their delight in the dinner and their company growing more evident and contagious throughout the evening, and chef Kees joined us late, and the pleasure of our companionship kept us at table until eleven thirty or so, when we went out to catch the last tram back to our hotel.

But the Dutch don't seem to order their transportation as well as they used to, these days. Earlier, coming in from the airport, the first train scheduled to get us into town never appeared at all. The 11:48 was ten minutes late and sat a long time at the quay, We sat quietly in the train, the few of us who got in at all; others stood uncertainly on the platform. Finally the lights inside the train were turned out, and an unseen voice announced that we must all get out, that the train was returning to Central Station without passengers.

And the tram, last night, never appeared. We waited in the freezing clear night, amusing ourselves in conversation with a big ironic girl who appeared from somewhere to catch the same tram; but finally she gave up and walked off to a busline.

No tram. We began the same walk, when I noticed the tram coming toward us, still distant. Lindsey and the girls trotted back to the tramstop and I walked after them. As I stepped up to the door, though, it closed; I pushed the button, it refused to re-open, and the tram sped off.

I walked after, cursing my pride in not chasing trams, and the tram's insult in not letting me board. And then I saw a second tram appear. I returned to the tramstop; it drew up; I pushed the button; the conductor looked at me and refused to open the door; the tram sped away. I trotted alongside, slapping the side of the tram; the conductor looked at me but did not lift a finger. I gave up.

I managed to catch a last bus, but it took me only a few streets before turning in a completely irrelevant direction, setting me down at a streetcorner busy enough to promise a cab: and in fact one appeared soon enough.

I told the driver my story. Strange, he said; I've never heard of trams doing such a thing. I was of course quite out of sorts. Do I look threatening, I asked; would you drive off and not let me in? I didn't, the driver said sympathetically, of course not, no, there's nothing threatening about you.

Ten euros later he set me down at my corner, where the Concertgebouw meets the Museumplein, right on the number 3 tramline. My phone rang in my pocket. Giovanna: Where are you? I'm walking to the hotel, I said. Oh. From where? The Concertgebouw. Ah, she said, reassured, and I stepped through the magic automatic front doors and walked up the impossible staircase to our first-floor room.

It's tiny, of course: two narrow beds, low to the floor, a single window looking out onto a neat back-court of some kind, a lttle table with a little television on it, a dressing table, and our own bathroom with a nice big tub curiously folded into a sort of enamel armchair. It's easier to tie one's shoes in the hall. But, as a guestbook comment says on the webpage of "reviews" of the Hotel Trianon, one doesn't come to Amsterdam to sit in a hotel room.

Or, apparently, at least not reliably, on a tram.

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