Friday, January 11, 2013

Amsterdam, 1: <i>is het een bakkerij naarbij?</i>

Van Linschotenstraat, January 10, 2013—

A BEAUTIFUL MORNING here when it finally broke: we're so much further north than usual, it's hard to get used to daylight appearing only round nine o'clock. Some have asked us why on earth go to Amsterdam in January, and in truth the ride in from the airport yesterday was not promising: grey grey grey, drizzle drizzle.

And have I mentioned that it is c o l d , and that the colds we've been nursing for weeks, after riding an airplane with hundreds of sneezing passengers, are back with us again…

But, as I was saying, after a good night's sleep we woke at six, made coffee, read a bit, sneezed a little ourselves, and finally went out to look at the neighborhood and find, if possible, a bakery.

Even an ordinary bakery, in this country, is a cheering thing. Gezellig is the untranslatable Dutch adjective, often translated as "cozy," but meaning comforting, snug, cheerful, humane — to justify the word requires companionship, too, even if on rare occasions the companion's imaginary, or one's self. I think the concept of gezelligheid was born in Netherlands and is uniquely Dutch because of the typically ongezellig, not really very cozy or nice or pleasant, January weather.

And yet this morning looked fine, with pale blue sky, cottony white clouds, composed brick apartment-buildings greeting us when we finally opened the draperies covering our floor-to-ceiling window. (Not typical Dutch, those draperies.) So we put sweaters on over our sweaters, and jackets over those; and wound heavy scarves around our throats; and I snugged a wool beret down over the hair Hans will soon find too long; and out we went in search of a bakery.

I'd found one not too far away, say a twenty-minute walk if we don't get lost, on Google Maps: but of course I'd failed to note its name or address. I'd simply fixed its map location in mind, trusting my inerrant sense of direction.

Bad idea, of course. For one thing, I always get confused in Amsterdam, partly because of the nested horseshoes of canals — set out in one direction along one of them; before long you're walking in the opposite direction, because the canal has imperceptibly curved back on itself — partly because the whole city is laid out toward the northeast, not the north.

At least today there's sunshine, so south and east should be easy to keep in mind this morning. We set out northeast toward Van Diemenstraat, on the outer, harbor side of our island, and then turned west, crossing the Westerkanaal and ducking left from Tasmanstraat to Nova Zemblastraat. (Yes, all the streets hereabouts are named for explorers and their often ill-fated voyages.)

We hadn't seen anyone to ask is het een bakkerij naarbij?, the phrase I'd been rehearsing in my mouth and mind all morning. Is there a bakery nearby? Dutch is so often so close to English, but it needs practise in the mouth, and I don't often get the chance to use it. Finally, on Tasmanstraat, we saw a couple apparently about to drive away from a parking space: the stout wool-coated middleaged woman looked as if she were in no mind to truck with a stranger, though, and when we approached I saw she was busy suggesting better ways for her husband to extricate a big piece of furniture from the back seat… better save my language practice for later.

Down Tasmanstraat a well-dressed younger woman emerged from her front door, the front door of her apartment building I mean, these islands are uniformly set about with four-storey brick apartment buildings, and was setting off at a businesslike pace. No chance of catching up to engage her in conversation, but something told me she was likely on the same errand, off to the bakkerij for a loaf of bread, so we followed her down Bontekoestraat, into the heart of the residences, to Nova Zembla.

(Bontekoe was another 16th-century Dutch seafarer, an early explorer of the former Dutch East Indies: but bonte koe means, as far as I can determine, "parti-colored cow," or maybe, more prosaically, "brindled cow": but in any case why does the fellow have, why do so many Dutch have, so strange a surname?)

Nova Zemblastraat is perfectly straight, flanked by those evenly tall brick apartment blocks, and, today, windy, and cold as the island it's named for, the frozen north where poor Barentsz and his men spent nearly a year icebound; Barentsz did not survive. (The story is grippingly recounted by Wikipedia.) And there, finally, we stopped a young man who thought that yes there was a bakkerij nearby, on Spaarndammerstraat, a wide, well-trafficked street with a good many shops on it.

Here we met one of the many fragile old ladies you encounter in this city, slowly and effortfully, but with a resignedly good will, pushing her lean-on-me-I'll-carry-your-parcels contraption. Een bakkerij, she repeated wonderingly, and I realized I'd been falling back into my erroneous pronunciation of the digraph ij which is hardly different from the unstressed -y of "bakery" in English; not pronounced "eye" at all.

Verderop, she said, pointing up the street: "Further up." But further up there was no bakery, though at the end of the street we did find a nice café.

So we walked back down the length of the street, and came upon the Spaardammerstraat Bakery, where the countergirl moved effortlessly from unaccented (to my ear) Dutch to unmistakably Marin County English: she'd lived in California for years, and was only back to help out her sister with the bakery. Small world.

We continued on our circular walk, turning up Marnixstraat (hey there — promising used-book shop!) to the Zoutkeetsplein, where you can hardly resist taking a photo like the one included here, and then back to our apartment.

I like these Westelijk Eilanden, the "western islands" built up here in Amsterdam five hundred years ago. Quiet, sober, but under threat of development, they hint at the tension between change and continuity that Amsterdam so neatly represents. We'll continue our explorations of them in the next few days.

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