Thursday, May 31, 2007

What are we up to?

Tearing down the fallen-down barn

YES, IT'S BEEN a long time. We flew home from The Netherlands May 2; spent a night in San Francisco; spent a night home (first time in a month); drove to Portland for a long week; spent a short week home again mowing and weeding and such; drove down to Los Angeles for our biannual play fix; came home for another week of tending to business.

Portland, for an event that meant a great deal to me. We spent November 2004 in Rome with two grandchildren, Simon and Franny. While there, Simon watched me writing some music using my computer, and got interested. In no time at all he composed a few pieces I thought quite promising -- I put "Stringy", his first piece, on on my website (you'll need to download the "Scorch" plug-in to hear it).

Since then he's stayed with it, and three weeks ago four movements for cello and piano, flute and clarinet, and percussion were played by professional musicians from Portland's new-music group FearNoMusic. It was for me truly an exhilarating experience, and you'll excuse my saying his was by far the most interesting piece on the program. (This is, by the way, a profoundly important program Fear No Music runs; I wish every such group -- certainly the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players -- would imitate it.)

A few days later we celebrated, very quietly, our 50th wedding anniversary. Giovanna and Pavel took us out, to dinner at Heathman, then to LV lounge to hear a couple of our favorites, Dave Frishberg and Rebecca Kilgore, whose laid-back, sometimes romantic, sometimes ironic stuff is just right for any occasion.

The L.A. weekend was mixed. We stopped as always in Ojai to see our buddies Jim Churchill and Lisa Brenneis; they farm tangerines and avocados and were hard hit by the freeze a few months back but are resilient and philosophical and always fun to be with. (You can read more about them in the April edition of Sunset Magazine; and you really should get a copy of Lisa's wonderful DVD about Bill Fujimoto and his (Berkeley) Monterey Market, Eat at Bill's).

We had time for brunch, of course, at Campanile, always a treat. Eggs and Creamed Spinach!

In Glendale, at A Noise Within, we saw two plays. Well, I did; Lindsey decided to come down with tonsillitis and dropped out after the first -- Joe Orton's very funny Loot, fast and sardonic. The spring Shakespeare offering was Romeo and Juliet, a play that always leaves me feeling a little hopeless. Both productions were worth seeing -- in general, Noise Within has kept us loyal, and we'll certainly be there next season: look at the line-up!
Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale

Beckett: Waiting for Godot

J.M. Barrie: Dear Brutus

Shakespeare: King Henry IV, Part I

Moliere: Don Juan, translated by Richard Nelson

Williams: The Night of the Iguana
Since then, as I say, we've been tending to business, getting together with sisters, Lindsey recovering and getting out in the garden, me trimming the rosemary, thinning the apples, tearing apart the fallen-down barn (okay, with a couple of hired hands).

We have another week, and then it's back to Portland to see Simon graduate from high school, and Ashland for another nine plays... My, how the time flies by!
A few photos from the last month are on my dotmac page

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

21 "To the Queen!"

Little girl playing the bassoon, Amsterdam
other photos:

April 3-7: Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11: Buren-Ochten
April 11-15: Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18: Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam
April 20-21: Leidsenveen, Amsterdam, Hardewijk
April 23-25: Apeldoorn
April 26-27: Zuider Zeepad

Apeldoorn, May 1--

Her face painted white perhaps against the harsh Amsterdam sun, a little girl of six or seven repeatedly honks out "Frère Jacques" on the bassoon. This is one of the unforgettable moments from this unforgettable day, Queen's Day, April 30, Amsterdam.

It's only one of the musical moments, which also include: an old man with an accordion; two sisters under ten playing violin duos; the Oops-a-daisies singing and playing Country and Western; rock bands at every major intersection; a little-kid rock band (just bass and drums); a woman belting out the blues while standing on the roof of a cabin on an overloaded boat emerging from under the bridge onto the Amstel River.

Kees has a book published by Lonely Planet: Ten things you ought to do before you die. One of the ten is Queen's Day, Amsterdam. I hadn't wanted to take the train into Amsterdam yesterday morning, then back to Apeldoorn late at night, just for a day of festivity, but I was talked into it, and I'm glad I was. Unforgettable.

The train was full but not unpleasantly crowded. Much of the crowd was wearing orange, the Dutch national festive color. The flag may be red, white, and blue -- that justified the American founding fathers in adopting colors which were also, after all, those of the despised British tyranny -- but the Queen's family is the House of Orange, going back to William the Silent, and the country is fond of its royalty. So festivity, here, is colored orange.

Orange hair, orange clothes, orange bunting; orange banners flying alongside the red, white, and blue. Orange balloons. Orange crowns made of felt, paper, plastic, rubber balloons.

Central Station was jammed, a sea of orange. We made our way through as quickly as possible: once outside the station the crowds were easily diverted by traffic barriers onto one or another of three official Queen's Day routes through the capital -- or, if you preferred, any route of your own devise, or serendipity. The trams were not running in Amsterdam's capacious center, nor were any cars, or vans, or any kind of motorized vehicles; not even bicycles.

Every street seemed to be jammed with people, people of all ages. Many of the streets were markets, but markets with a difference -- not commercial, but people's markets; apparently it's illegal to sell anything for more than a couple of euros, and apparently the rule is followed. The city is an enormous sidewalk sale: books, records, electrical appliances, cups and saucers, clothes, lemonade, bric-a-brac, lamps, cheese slicers, shoes, costume jewelry, everything you could think of. A few shops were open, and sold things on the sidewalk in front -- but only things of little value, things they were clearly simply getting rid of.

At one stand we had an impromptu boterham, or sandwich: a slice of bread lightly buttered, shavings of excellent old Dutch cheese, slice of roggebrod, that crumbly, moist, rough rye bread. At another stand, a beer.

The canal quays and bridges were jammed, but when you needed to sit a spell there always seemed to be a café available. People lifted chairs over the crowd to move them from table to table as necessary. May I take this chair, a young woman asks; Yes, but not too far!, is the good-natured reply.

I have never seen so many people in such good humor. The Dutch genius for tolerance and low-keyed enjoyment was everywhere. I thought about the possibility of pickpockets, of course, and I suppose there may have been some somewhere, but crushing though the crowds were -- and you were constantly jostling or being jostled -- there was never a moment of anxiety or unpleasantness.

And this although the beer was flowing free. Heineken, Bavaria, Brand, Palm, Amstel -- the names and logos were everywhere. You couldn't walk a hundred feet, it seemed, without walking past a table where it was being sold -- or, late in the day, simply being handed out. In cans and bottles and above all on tap: beer. It was not a hot day, thankfully, but it was sunny, not a cloud overhead, and the Dutch needed their beer.

(The English and Americans, too: English seemed to be spoken as much as Dutch. When we bought our return train ticket we waited patiently while the counter-lady explained at length, in English, the itinerary she'd just sold a puzzled-looking couple, dark, small, well-dressed. Where were those people from, I asked, when our turn came. Oh, said the ticket-lady, they're French. I hate having to deal with the French; I can't speak it well at all. The French, the Italians, and the Spanish, they're the only ones who come here speaking nothing but their own language. I always wonder, why do you travel abroad, but don't learn another language? Why come to Amsterdam, if you won't learn English?)

All that beer intake implies a consequent outflow, of course, and portable facilities had been set up everywhere, including something I've never seen before, portable plastic pissotières. They looked like dashers in old-fashioned washing machines, two meters tall, cross-shaped in floor-plan, accommodating four men at a time standing with their backs to the open air and peeing into conveniently placed cup-like receptacles molded into the one-piece cast-plastic unit. Where all the stuff went, I have no idea. They're hollow, Cynthia explained; after the center is waist-deep, you have to work hard, against the current.

Maybe: that would explain why, late in the day, you saw men peeing just about anywhere -- against trees, the tires of parked cars, and -- especially -- into the canals. In the evening we took up a station where one of the main canals entered the Amstel, to watch the unbelievable boat trafffic. Big boats and small came through the bridge to our left, entering the Amstel, where they wheeled about mindlessly in an easy-going traffic jam before deciding whether to go upstream or down.

Most of the boats, whatever their size, were absolutely jammed with people, most of them wearing orange. They stood for the most part, or danced,dancing in place mostly. Beer, boats, and crowds, Cynthia mused; a recipe for disaster. But though many of the boats had only a few inches of freeboard, and though boats occasionally nudged one another, and though most of the passengers were standing and may who weren't were leaning out over the water (and often in embraces), no one seemed to go overboard. I noticed that on one boat a couple of very young children were wearing life-jackets -- orange, of course -- no one else had any such protection.

Often a can or bottle or glass of beer would be handed across from one boat to another, and occasionally a glass would be tossed up from a boat to the crowd standing on the bridge, or down from the bridge to a boat. A police-barge was tied up across from us, and a small police-boat occasionally darted among the traffic-jam, but the smartly uniformed officers seemed to have no other occupation than to smile good-naturedly at the crowd, and occasionally hand a glass of beer on from whoever had offered it to them to someone else floating by within arm's reach. On one occasion a small motorboat, its skipper clearly quite drunk, entered the canal against traffic (it was a one-way canal), and a policeman on the barge looked momentarily concerned and disapproving, but there wasn't much could be done about it, and he quickly resumed his good-humored tolerant complacency.

Two things continually came to mind during the five or six hours we walked the streets and watched the crowds. One of them was Pieter Breughel. Except for the fashions and the constant din of amplified music -- for every boat had its generator and loudspeakers -- there was something very 17th-century about the scene. Children's games, adult follies, the wry observations of folk wisdom.

The other thing was Liberty. I doubt there's a better demonstration of total liberty. Everyone seemed to be doing just what he wanted to do, and the entire day of freedom was facilitated by the Government, or perhaps better put by its Administration. Eating, drinking, walking, sitting, dancing, peeing, singing, playing, buying, selling; seven hundred thousand, it was thought, but I would have thought more, were doing nothing but what they wanted, and you never saw a frown unless it was the concentration of a seven-year-old girl playing the bassoon.

We wound up the day at my favorite Amsterdam bar, 't Oude Dock, on Kadijksplein -- a gezellig neighborhood bar whose clientele always seem to know one another, whose bartender is a nice grandmotherly woman in her sixties, I'd say; whose tables are covered with the old-fashioned mohair deep-pile Turkish table-carpets, and whose ceiling is covered with beer coasters. Here I toasted the Queen with an oude jenever en een pils, and the four of us bantered with the regulars; and then we went on looking for a restaurant that might be open; and, finding, none, crashed into a friend of Kees's, a painter who lives with his photographer wife in an artist's loft near the railroad station, a wonderful man who cooked up an impromptu risotto with carrots and potatoes -- I'd never have imagined such a thing, but Kees did, and it was delicious, of course.

And then the last train to Amersfoort, full almost with people mostly in their twenties finally calling it quits on the Queen's Birthday, surprisingly sober and articulate; and the midnight train to Apeldoorn, deserted now -- though this morning's paper says there were 130,000 revellers even in Apeldoorn!

20 Leaving Apeldoorn

De Kaasplank, Apeldoorn
other photos:

April 3-7: Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11: Buren-Ochten
April 11-15: Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18: Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam
April 20-21: Leidsenveen, Amsterdam, Hardewijk
April 23-25: Apeldoorn
April 26-27: Zuider Zeepad

Apeldoorn, April 28--

Saturday is one of Apeldoon's three market days, and today's market is an unusual one: since the Marktplein is temporarily occupied by a kermis to help celebrate Queen's Day, the market stalls are set up in the city streets.

(The kermis is a huge, raucous collection of mechanized "fun rides": dodge-'em cars, whirligigs, a fun house, a small Ferris wheel -- that sort of thing. In the old days I loved the dodge-'ems, but the whole area is so noisy now with obscenely amplified and pumpedd-up bass that even walking past the Marktplein is intolerable.)

It's our last day in downtown Apeldoorn, almost our last chance at any shopping, and we have a list: nagelkaas above all, but also gifts, sunscreen lotion, mail a letter, get a bottle of wine... and bandanas. I never go anywhere without a bandana in my pocket, and the best are found in the Netherlands, where they're thought of as boerzakdoeken, farmer's handkerchieves. And so they are, I suppose, even in the USA; I always carry one because my father always did, and I suppose his did as well.

The Dutch bandana is generous, of course; its fabric is fairly heavy; its patterning (which must ultimately derive from Indonesian batik work) is often flamboyant (though occasionally, with more of a nod to Dutch constructivism, rational and geometrical); and the color had better be red. They come in black and white, and blue and white; but mine is always red.

We've been buying bandanas in the Apeldoorn market for thirty years now, I think; it's a tradition. We use them for napkins in the car, among other things. One is handy som tetimes for shading one's eyes against the sun. I'm known to tie one over my hair when I'm spraying the fruit trees. They mop up spilled wine when we're careless, and when they're worn out they even make good penwipers. I use one to wrap the photograph of my parents and the little painting that I carry with me on trips. And, of course, they're always there for blowing one's nose, if necessary.

I don't like it when they wear out, though, and it's a good thing they last so well. Only once have I smiled at losing one: that was when I'd forgotten one in a farmhouse B&B in Groningen, and the farmer's wife came running and waving it from her side the slot or little canal that separated her from us as we were mounting our bicycles to wheel on to the next town one morning.

Tie a stone in it, I called, and fling it across! So she did, carefully knotting the corners, and whirled it round and round her head, and flung it straight up into the air, and it fell down splash into the middle of the slot, and there was nothing to do but laugh about it, and ride away.

We'd been to the bandana stall here a week or so ago and bought eight or ten, one in each pattern of the red ones that they had, even a couple of oversize commemorative ones with the Dutch arms or the Apeldoon city device on it. The bandana lady was veery helpful and affable, and when we saw yet another one we wanted, after having already paid, she said, Take it as a gift. Two Dutch ladies who were waiting their turn looked a bit disapproving, I thought.

When we went to the market this noon we were a little worried about finding her. She said she'd be there, but maybe she wouldn't. She always goes to the Monday market, that's the biggest one, but she doesn't always go to Saturday, Anneke thought. We went down to the bottom of the market on Hoofdstraat, and then back to walk up and down Kanaalstraat, and sure enough there she was in the last booth we came to, a big stall with not only the bandanas but also sheets and pillows, towels, yardage, and even a few sewing notions, though they are mostly all in stalls that make a specialty of them: buttons, zippers, snaps, Velcro, needles, thread, thimbles -- for the Apeldoornse women are, apparently, great seamstresses at home.

And there was not our bandana lady but apparently her husband, which saved us a little embarrassment at being so eccentric as to buy another eight or ten bandanas after already having taken so many. And there at the next stall was an elderly lady wearing what appeared to be a sari or something of the sort, wrapping her entirely, with a head-scarf to match, all in white-and-blue bandana-print cotton.

There are a number of classic Dutch types: in Holland itself the blond, cherubic, fair-skinned ones, with peaches-and-cream complexions like those you think of as typcially English. The Frisians are even blonder, their cheekbones and eyebrows perhaps a little more angular. In Groningen and Drenthe you see darker people, thin in Groningen, more inclined to be stout in Drenthe, which lies on the German border. Toward the south, in Brabant and Limburg, you'll more often see shorter, leaner, darker people who I think of as more, well, southern.

And there is very often an exotic look, something about the eyes perhaps, that reveals the contribution of colonialism to the otherwise Dutch bloodline; and often too in towns and cities you see immigrants, from the ABC in the Caribbean -- Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao -- or from Surinam, or from the former Dutch East Indies. And more recently there is the large Turkish influx -- the mosque down by the railroad station is holding a bazaar this weekend of their own, and I'm sorry we haven't worked in time to visit it.

All these people shop together in the market. I don't know whether they mix much otherwise: I didn't see foreigners (except ourselves) at church last Sunday, and we haven't seen them in the restaurants we've gone to. But they do shop together, at the market and in the conventional shops. And when we were through marketing and walked up the Hoofdstraat toward the cheese shop and ran into an affable young man with orange hair who was handing out literature about some product or other and we stopped to talk to him, I noticed two pretty young women also standing by, one in a head scarf.

He was concerned about people's health: specifically, how fat they were. He asked my height and weight and age and entered them into a hand-held computer, and then he instructed me to hold a small device with two metal handles out away from my body and wait while a very low current ran from one handle to the other, through all my internal body-fat; and he very seriously figured out the results.

Even after cheese for breakfast, lunch, and occasionally dinner, even after three-egg uitsmijters, everything is just barely above acceptable, the young man says. Imagine my relief.Lindsey took her turn; and then, as we were walking away, I looked back to see the two pretty young women were taking theirs. We celebrated by going on the Kaasplank, the local cheese store, and buying a healthy chunk of nagelkaas to take back with us.

Kaasplank -- the name means simply "Cheeseboard" -- is a fine store; it's one of a score or so mentioned nationwide for its quality and variety. Even so, the women here did not know about Remeker cheese, which I'd been looking for -- an aged Dutch cheese listed on the Slow Food "Ark" for its tradition and its quality. We found it a few days ago, though, at a shop specializing in organic food; and there we learned it's made in a very nearby town, just a few kilometers southwest, the nearest town, in fact, to the geographical center of The Netherlands. Remeker is serious, deep, subtle, and complex, and I'm glad we found it. But we won't be bringing any home: that store lacks the necessary vacuum-sealing machine.

Dinner Saturday night was at Auberge Navet (Arnhemseweg 350; tel. +31.055.541.8664), pleasant enough, rather romantic, quiet, in an old building that once served as the toll house on the road south to Arnhem. Here we had white asparagus with salmon two ways (smoked; barely seared), with a nice cumin-dill sauce; and I went on to something the menu called "brasem," even the English-language menu, and the waitress said was dorade, but which Anneke's big Dutch dictionary tells us later is a carp-like river fish -- but it was sweet and flaky, tasting not at all like a bottom-feeder. And then for dessert a generous assortment: crème brulée for me, with a scoop of delicious farmhouse yoghurt ice cream with melon slices and spun sugar; for Lindsey strawberries with strawberry ice cream and Bavarian cream...

One other restaurant to mention, and then I'm done: 't Posthuis (Konigstraat 1, tel. +31 055.521.3997). Like le Navet, 't Posthuis is quite, romantic, and rather classic, and situated in a historic building, used as a horse-exchanging station on the old postal routes. It has the further advantage of being just across the street from the apartment we're staying in.

A dozen people were eating, in couples, and one elderly man was alone except for his polite terrier, who slept most of the time under his table. One cook in the kitchen; two girls serving -- our waitress a very timid girl, uncertain of her English and unclear because far too quiet in Dutch. Here my salmon tartare came with an odd but tasty Dutch-Indonesian version of guacamole, with cumin substituting for chile pepper; Lindsey's bouillon was as deep and well-balanced as it had been at le Navet; and my sliced roast beef, with a bit of braised beef shank on the side, was nicely garnished with strong forest mushrooms, snow peas, and -- what else -- asparagus and potatoes.

Lindsey had the classic Dutch white-asparagus plate, with sliced ham, hard-boiled egg, and minced parsley, with all the drawn butter anyone could ask. And dessert was house-made ice cream -- a fine eggy French vanilla and a light frozen chocolate mousse -- with a very nice brownie on the side. It was our final Apeldoorn dinner, and except for Anneke's cooking at home I think it may have been my favorite.