Monday, December 11, 2017


I: Amsterdam
1: Arrival; October 27, 2017
We landed at Schiphol at 8:30 in the morning, flying from San Francisco with layover in Philadelphia. We know Schiphol well, but still the first order of business is going Dutch: getting the sound of the language in the ears (and to an extent in the mouth), getting SIM cards for our iPhones, reminding ourselves about the “chipcard” good for all trains and trams in The Netherlands, getting a couple of cappuccinos, and getting a haircut. Then we took the train to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, where we splurged for a taxi to our home for the next few days, on Prinseneiland, a 15-minute walk from the station but we’re tired from the flight and we have these suitcases…

Our European travels always involve visits with friends — friends so intimate you might well call them family. Writing about these travels is therefore complicated. There are so many stories, so much history, much of it personal. I find it all endlessly fascinating and often suggestive of Big Themes, and so I ache to write — but how to protect the privacy of people I love like my own family? But I can describe Cynthia’s apartment, I think. You enter the lobby of a former warehouse — every building on this island is a former warehouse — and go up three flights of stairs (8, 11, 13 steps), out onto a rooftop, then up another storey on a spiral steel staircase (14 steps).

The apartment
There is one big highceilinged room with kitchen, kitchen table, desk, shelves, chairs, a sofas. There is one bedroom (hers; now ours) big enough for a big bed, a four-foot rack for hanging clothes, perhaps a chest. Above, there’s a cozy sleeping loft, temporarily hers. It has a doorway out onto another roof for her use as patio, drying-yard, etc. Her apartment (and another, similar, at other end with its own matching spiral stairway) are new additions on ancient brick warehouse like many others on the island, about which more later.

The apartment is all white with one black half-wall above the kitchen wall. There are black very steep stairs to the sleeping loft. Cesar the tortoiseshell cat is the very happy lord of all he surveys, scrambling up the ladder-stairs when he wants to visit the roof; he reminds me of Carl Van Vechten’s book Lord of the Housetops.

We have a simple lunch of bread and cheese and much conversation; then leave Cynthia and walk the short distance — ten minutes at most, two bridges — to the restaurant Marius for dinner with Tom and Judith. I immediately asked after her father, a world-famous neurologist, still hard at work — he published a new book only last year. He turned ninety last June. His work left time, his family thought, for few friends. It turned out, though, that he was fast friends with a number of professional acquaintances, though in touch with them only through correspondence.

They arranged for a congratulatory symposium to be held in Amsterdam. It was attended by friends from around the world. Many gave papers in his honor. You couldn’t understand half of what they said, the daughter told me; and then Father gave his talk, and it was completely understandable and often funny, all about his work over the years with all this community. It was all in English; hardly anyone there spoke Dutch. The symposium was held in Bondsgebouw ANDB (General Dutch Diamond Cutters’ Union), a fine old Amsterdam School building, a Berlage building from 1900.

For her gift, Judith had learned Bach’s chorale-prelude Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and played it for him, in public. This was a great effort for her; she wanted to play it as well as possible. At the end, thanking her, he said (again publicly) that he had wanted to ask her to do that, but didn’t, fearing it too much an imposition. Years ago he and I met at a party where we disputed, slightly in jest, the merits of Bach and Mozart. That’s not music, I said of Bach, it’s numbers. Mozart’s not music, he said, it’s sentiment. And so on.

He is a very serious, very droll man. At another party a couple of years ago we were conversing when another man approached. Excuse me, Judith’s father said, somewhat resignedly, I have to talk to this man, I’ll get back to you. I watched them converse rather earnestly; then the other fellow left and I returned to the neurologist. He excused himself: I had to talk to him; he’s a very important psycholoog, I’ve never met him, but we’ve collaborated on books together.

Yes, I said, and what exactly is a psycholoog? Interesting question, he replied. I am a scientist; I know about physically existing things. My field is the brain: I can tell you what it is, how it works. The psycholoog talks about a mind. No one has ever seen one.

Kees, in front of his Marius
Dinner was delicious, of course. Marius was packed. The chef is Tom’s brother and also my daughter’s brother; she lived with his family for a year as an exchange student, forty years ago. We have nearly merged, our two families, one Dutch, one as I always say Californian — the United States having become too complicated to discuss.

I write about these dinners elsewhere so won't describe them here. Here, in the next few installments, which I hope to upload roughly once a week, you're going to encounter ruminations on place, people, and their intersections. This is what usuually happens when I travel, and observe, and speculate, and write. Most recently it resulted in a little book written last April in Rome: Where to Dig, and how far down. You can buy a copy here. It's cheap (but mind the postage rates!), and makes a nice holiday present…

Next: Strolling the Western Islands