Travels on the Continent—Holland

When I stood in the main shopping hall of Amsterdam Schiphol airport after clearing customs and retrieving my baggage, it was with a heavy bag on my back and my trumpet case at my side. Even while hurrying through the airport terminal I began to realize how welcome it was to me to be back in Holland. (Four years earlier, I had my first encounter with Dutch speakers in a men’s bathroom in Schiphol.)

Waiting for me was Dr. Maaike de Jong, a Dutch woman and educator who has spent much of her academic career studying the presentation of spiritual objects (with a special emphasis on those of American Indian peoples) in museums, who was to allow me the use of her apartment on KNSM-Eiland in Amsterdam for much of my stay in Holland. Almost four years ago, my parents and I had met Maaike, her husband, Dr. Alexander Grit, and their daughter, Myrthe, for about thirty minutes in Schiphol to swap keys. We stayed a month in their apartment on KNSM-Laan, while they occupied our house in Boulder Canyon.

Maaike, both tall and stout, with dark hair and black thin-rimmed glasses, guided me out of the busy shopping mall that fronts Schiphol and directed me into her Fiat 500.

‘This is probably the smallest car you’ve been in, right?’ she asked. It was small, but roomy enough inside. The main problem was finding places for my backpack and trumpet. The trumpet ended up having to ride in the backseat.

We drove to Durgerdam [Deeurr-hherr-daam], in the countryside just north and east of Amsterdam for dinner. As we drove, we chatted mostly about Museum-related topics—our common interest—but the conversation also turned to my previous time in Amsterdam and the City in general. Maaike and Alexander now reside most of the time in Friesland, in the north of Holland, working at the university there, but they also have their apartment in Amsterdam.

‘I like to keep the apartment on KNSM-Laan. You know, we have thought of selling it, but every time we come to stay there, we just can’t get rid of it.’

The inn (that really is the best word for the kind of place we went) was in a small dark-wood building in a long line of similarly small, old, chronically leaning Dutch houses along the water. Across the IJmeer [Eye-maer] from Durgerdam sits the new development of IJburg, which has literally been created out of nothing—like much of polder-land Holland, the land which will soon support 18,000 new residences, has been reclaimed from the inland lake of the IJmeer. I would estimate that there are about twice as many buildings in IJburg now as there were in the summer of 2005.

‘Every time I think about moving back to Amsterdam, I think I would like to live here,’ said Maaike as we drove through Durgerdam on the way back to Amsterdam, ‘but housing prices are so expensive. Houses here cost five-hundred-thousand euro at the least, and for that, you get a house that needs to be straightened and have work done, which will cost another five-hundred-thousand euro.’

I suppose I had always wondered if straightening was an option for a chronically leaning house—many polder-built houses, and thus most of Amsterdam, lean in one way or another. Four years ago, I thought it was a matter of squeezing out the most floor area from a small city land plot, but I realize now that all the Dutch row-houses that lean towards the canal do so because their rear foundations stay dry while those near the canal are a bit spongier and settle more. Sometimes, the angle of a polder façade can be somewhat disturbing.

If you don’t know what a Polder is, I would suggest looking at the Wikipedia page on Polders, which may be found here.

 

The next day, Thursday, the 2nd of April, I began to wander around Amsterdam. Before I left Edinburgh, I thought that I would spend only this one day in the city, then on Friday travel to The Hague or to the countryside’s Hoge-Veluwe Park, but as soon as I began to walk around Amsterdam I began to understand how much I loved being there, and I knew that I would not be going anywhere.

Since I have gotten into the habit of walking great distances in Edinburgh (just a few days before, Nick and I walked to the beach at Cramond, a distance of twelve miles round trip), I didn’t really even think about taking public transport, preferring instead to walk. The fact that I thought I was having trouble with my bankcard and only had £3.80 and €4,35 to my name didn’t particularly compel me to spend money, either.

So I walked and walked and walked. All over the central city, past almost all of the favourite landmarks of our previous wanderings: the Art e Archittetura Boekhandel [Bookstore], De Hortus Botanicus—Amsterdam’s botanic gardens; The Hermitage Museum Amsterdam—branch museum of the great collection in St. Petersburg, Russia, set to reopen in June in a new building with a massively enlarged exhibition space; Upstairs—a tiny, four-table pancake restaurant that lies at the top of an exceedingly steep set of stairs; Pucchini Bomboni—a delicious and adventurous chocolatier; The Jordaan—a quiet and funky neighbourhood west of the central city; Brouwersgraacht [Brow-vehrs-hracht—Brewer’s Canal]—an exceedingly beautiful canal faced by row-houses with enormous, many-coloured, arched shutters. In some places, the

Leaving the Jordaan, I came upon the large platz in front of the Central Sation. I knew where I was going, and underneath a green awning on a grey-stone leaning row house festooned with signs ‘Hotel Prins Hendrik, Hotel * * *’ I found it, a small bronze plaque, with the image of a trumpet player on it, which reminds its readers that on this spot in 1988, Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker died. Almost anyone who has heard me talk about trumpeters and Jazz knows the affection and admiration I have for Chet, and so I needn’t go on incessantly about it. It was nice to go there again.

Afterwards, I headed towards a place that has completely popped up since my last time in Amsterdam, the new Public Library, the OBA (Op-bare Bibliotheek Amsterdam). This is a fantastically large, light, curving building. With floors that are wonderfully uncluttered, open and white (there is an abundance of white everywhere), hundreds upon hundreds of computers, both Mac and PC, and all sorts of chairs to sit in, the library can serve anyone and everyone. From casual people wanting to check their email (like me), to serious researchers wishing to peruse any of the six hundred or so journals and regular publications that the library subscribes to, it serves them all. Near the entrance in the lobby, there is an upright piano, which has a sign next to it that says roughly (translated from Dutch): ‘If you are an accomplished pianist, you may play on this piano for no more than half an hour each day.’ On Friday, considering myself at least as accomplished as several pianists I had already heard there, I sat down and played the piano for about ten minutes or so. It was the first time I had played a piano since I left Colorado. It felt good.

 

On Friday, I did much the same as on Thursday, walked around, enjoying the sights of the city. I initially took the #10 tram in from KNSM to near the Rijksmuseum [Rye-ks-muse-eeum—National Museum], with the intention of visiting it or the neighbouring Van Gogh museum (in Holland, where the letter ‘G’ is pronounced with a phlegm-y h sound, he is known as Fan Hghoff), but the weather was too grand to go inside. Not yet at least. I walked a bit around the very touristy Leidseplein area and then headed for the Vondelpark, a surprisingly large park in the middle of the canal-riddled and otherwise cluttered city.

I wasn’t the only one. There were hundreds of people wandering (and doing every conceivable other thing) in the park. People buzzed by on Scooters, or biked through, bells ringing. Children and dogs ran around in multitudes. People sat on lawn chairs, benches, and blankets and chatted or watched other people. I passed kids kicking a football and two muscled young men practicing tossing a rugby ball, back and forth, underhand.

I did head into a museum eventually, but it wasn’t the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh museum, it was the Stedelijk Museum [Shted-leek—State Museum], which specializes in Modern art. Since 2004, the museum has been on the lam (so to speak) while its building is given what should be an absolutely stunning facelift. When we visited it in the summer of 2005, it was housed in the base of the Post CS building, a high-rise building right next to the OBA, which I believe is slated for destruction (I may be wrong about this, though). I remember we went for lunch in the hip restaurant at the top of the CS building. One of the pleasures of this restaurant was a small composition notebook at each table in which the guests wrote or drew. The books were filled with pictures, stories, etc. In a way each table had its recent history in these notebooks.

Currently, the Stedelijk is housed in Amsterdam’s 15th Century Nieuwe Kerk [Noy-vuh Kairk], where it is currently presenting a special show called ‘Holy Inspiration: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Art.’ The show, while not openly sacrilegious, does seem to enjoy playing on the tensions present between content and context. The first two paintings in the exhibition are Francis Bacon’s Afer Muybridge: The Human Figure in Motion: Woman Emptying a Bowl of Water/Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours and Gilbert and George’s photo-collage Shitty, which features a massive cross made of human feces in its centre. Other works, such as a brooding canvas by Mark Rothko, and several paintings by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondriann, and Kazimir Malevich are less discomforting and more enjoyable.

Interestingly, much of the exhibit has a ceiling, so one cannot see the church while looking at the art. In fact, it feels just like being in an interior room of a standard museum. Things are a bit dim and the ceilings are a bit low, but I’ve definitely been in museum rooms smaller and darker. I’m not sure if it was curators’ intentions to downplay the context of the Nieuwe Kerk, but it seems to me that that is exactly what they have done. Of course, the decision was probably also a pragmatic one: they would have had to put up walls to hang the art on, and also gantries for lighting, so why not put a ceiling on as well? That way, the light coming in could also be regulated and a constant and common colour-temperature (not an insignificant matter).

Late that night, Maaike, Alexander, and Myrthe returned. As it happened, the next morning, Alexander was to depart for Qatar as part of his work as a Dean for their school. We yawned together for a while, chatting as he did some pre-travel work. It looks like he will be visiting Boulder sometime soon, which is exciting, and furthermore, it looks like Maaike and Alexander both will be coming to Edinburgh in May. They’ll be my first (and sadly probably only) visitors.

 

It was hectic the next morning. Myrthe was being a bit mischievous. Alexander was getting ready to go to Schiphol. I was saying goodbye to him and to Maaike and Myrthe since I was getting ready to go to the train station. Eventually, they left, and shortly after, I began to walk to the train station. The hardest part of the walk was not my heavy backpack (I knew I would be returning to the Apartment for Sunday night, so I left my dirty clothes behind), but instead my heavy trumpet case, which served double duty as my book bag.

I bought my ticket, and within a few minutes, I was sitting waiting for the next train stopping at Utrecht Central Station. The first few minutes of waiting were a bit confusing, as my platform was switched, and I didn’t hear the message well enough (or slowly enough) to decipher which platform to go to. I just ended up following everyone else, and I got on a train bound for Masstricht and Heerlen, which would land me in Utrecht in about half an hour, where I would meet my host for the next two days and the intervening night, Hannah O’Connor.

Some of those reading this will know Hannah, and to them, I can say that Hannah is doing well, in fact better than well—she seems more ‘herself’ than I can remember her ever being, which although it does not say much literally, is one of my favourite compliments to give out. For those who don’t know her, Hannah is an old friend of mine. Our friendship goes back to her freshman year at Boulder High School (I was a sophomore then), where we got to know each other mainly because we are both trumpet players, and were actively involved in the music community. Hannah has been a constant friend, companion and confidante to me ever since, and I hope she feels the same way towards me. (I also know she’ll be reading this, so I have to be nice…) She’s currently studying classical Trumpet at the Conservatory in Utrecht as a fully enrolled student.

Soon after I got there, Hannah met me in front of the Albert Heijn grocery store in the main station hall, accompanied by friend and fellow American Melanie, who happens to be a first-year masters student in Classical Trumpet. I followed them into the centre of town to the Conservatory building (a walk of a few minutes, maybe five if one dawdled).

Inside, I met several other conservatory students, including Hannah’s beau, Stefán, a Baritone from Iceland, who is not only an incredibly kind host and good cook, but also speaks very eloquent English and is knowledgeable on a whole range of topics. In fact, Stephan reminds me distinctly of me. I stashed my horn and backpack in Stephan’s locker, and the three of us (Hannah, Stephan, and I) left to rent a bicycle.

This was not my first visit to the historic and exceedingly beautiful town of Utrecht. I visited twice with my parents back in 2005, and so I had seen many of the sights and attractions of the city: the Dom, with its incredibly high vaulted nave (some of which has collapsed so that a street now separates the apse of the cathedral from its tall tower), the museum of music boxes, organs, and automated music; and, of course, Het Spoorwegmuseum—the National Railway museum (which is definitely worth the visit).

As it was not my first visit, I didn’t have anything on my list for things that I absolutely had to do. My main goal was just to visit with and have fun with Hannah. I did have one request, however: to go to Gerritt Rietveld’s Schröderhuis. While Hannah had never been there, Stephan lives near to it, so we knew where to go. I hopped on my bike, rented near the station for € 7,50 a day, they hopped on theirs, and we sped off.

We had to cross much of the centre of Utrect to get there, and memories of the first trip flew past along with those signifiers that had conjured them. It took us about ten minutes to reach our destination, which lies suddenly and ungrammatically at the end of a long terrace of rowhouses.

The Schröder house was built in 1924 and is almost certainly Rietveld’s architectural masterpiece. In addition, it is arguably the best example of De Stijl-Constructivist principles as implemented in Architecture. It features a whirling composition of lines, planes, and colours, punctuated with circles and glass. Tours are available of the building (which would be worthwhile—the upper floor, which functions as the main living space, features a completely open and adaptable floor-plan, certainly the most radical element of the house), but these tours must be arranged ahead of time, and so we had to be content merely to look in from outside.

I was struck by how much smaller the house was than I was expecting it to be, and I wasn’t exactly expecting a mansion. I think this frequently happens with buildings one has studied in pictures or in books, and it’s mainly the fault of architectural photographers who try to make small buildings seem larger, and succeed. Perhaps I’m being a bit flippant.

After a late lunch at a Swedish bakery (yes, it was as yummy as it sounds), we retrieved my bags from the conservatory and headed to Hannah’s flat to plan what would happen next. Melanie had joined us for cake after lunch and so there were four of us sitting there, trying to decide what to do. We were all quite tired—I from travelling, they from studying and practicing and living busy lives—that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to go anywhere. We shot the breeze (with varying degrees of seriousness and accuracy) for a while until it was time for me to return my bike. While Hannah and I dealt with the Bike, Stefán and Melanie went shopping for dinner. When we returned, things were well underway and the night began to sizzle with possibility. The dinner was an excellent pasta-based concoction of Stefán’s, and after many topics and turnings, it was with full stomachs that we turned in for the night.

 

We awoke to a grey, overcast Sunday. We lolled around over breakfast, lingering at the table well after the meal was finished: reminiscing, talking about music, talking about people’s names. It was as though the morning would last forever. With the noon came the promise of sunshine, and with this came the idea of going to a park. We would have to go to the conservatory first, and we’d pick up some Broodjes [Bruud-yehs, Dutch sandwiches] along the way. At first we thought we’d walk, but Melanie got impatient with walking and wanted to ride her bicycle, so Hannah and I did something very Dutch: I sat on the back of her bicycle, ‘side-saddle’, so to speak. It took a couple of tries to get going (eventually I ended up sitting down on her bike once we started moving) but soon it got at least reasonably comfortable for both of us. I say ‘reasonably’ because Hannah was doing double work, and sitting on the back of a bicycle is not nearly as easy as it looks, particularly when you have a twenty-five pound bag on your back. It was constant work on my abdomen and upper thighs keeping on balance and aboard. But we did it! And that was really what mattered.

By the time we got to the park, the sun was out in full force, and so were the people of Utrecht. Out and about with dogs and babies and guitars and each other. For much of the time, we sat on a grassy hill (which looked really very hilly compared to the flatness of polder-Holland, where the tallest things are the dikes which keep the polders dry), just soaking up the sun and playing cribbage (Hannah, who taught me how to play years ago, has recently taught Stefán). It was wonderful. The sun was fine, the air warm, and the grass cool between my toes. It made me feel perfectly okay to be going someplace non-Mediterranean for spring break—who needs the crowded Mediterranean when you can get the same sun with good friends on a hill in Utrecht? After a while, Melanie left to go do some work, and was replaced in short order by Leoni, a charming Dutch piano student. We tried to teach Leoni how to play, but we were in the middle of a game ourselves, and we couldn’t just deal her in, so it was a bit difficult.

Hannah and Stefán, ever my considerate hosts, walked me to my train to say goodbye. Waving goodbye to them both, I was sorry to leave Utrecht after such a wonderful day. The lazy morning spent talking and the lazy afternoon spent sun-worshipping both made me feel quite content, and I wished the day would go on and on. I know their life isn’t always like this—Hannah herself said the day was extraordinary—but I’ll probably always think of them living wonderful, sunny, carefree lives in Utrecht. I was very happy to have seen Hannah. I have some wonderful new friends in Edinburgh, but it was really nice and special to see a wonderful old one. 

One Response to “Travels on the Continent—Holland”

  1. Becca Says:

    Hello Michael! Yes, I’m back in the United States now. Are you coming home soon? I can’t wait to dish and tell stories together. Enjoy your last few weeks!


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