Friday, March 27, 2015

Insert funny title here when we remember ...

In the middle of our glorious time in Amsterdam, J and I and Lynne and Jon took a road trip within the trip. Luckily Lynne did the driving. Ever since the harrowing roads of Ireland, I haven't been able to build up the courage to drive in Europe. BTW, sorry if I get a little carried away with photos in this entry ... I finally got around to downloading Dropbox on my desktop, and now I have rapid-fire photo downloading.

Our first stop was Antwerp, Belgium, which turned out to be fantastically cute. 

As this was already Day 4 of the trip. I'd lost count of the churches we'd visited, but the Cathedral in Antwerp (if that's the right term -- it's hard to keep track of where the Protestants won) has a memorable bunch of Rubenses in it (if that's the plural of Rubens).

That evening we drove to Bruges, Belgium, the quintessential European-ness of which must be what Rick Steves imagines when he lies awake at night. 

I found the beer list at the bar across from our hotel entirely acceptable. 

J and Lynne enjoyed a Belgian cherry-based beer known as kriek. Traditionally, these are made with lambics, sour beers that are air-fermented naturally (occasionally, even outside). Lately the form has been corrupted by making them not with cherries but with cherry juice or even corn syrup, so you have to be careful to avoid the overly sweet stuff (tip: stay away from the mass-produced "Kriek Max"). Jon and I, meanwhile, went deep into the list, making up for an absolutely horrible InBev-owned Jupiler at dinner with a small-brewery Vicaris tripel and then an excellent Prearis quadruple. (I could devote a whole entries to the glory of quads ...)

The next day was our only full day in Bruges, so it was time to pack in the cliches. 

The views after climbing the famous Belfry were worth it, even if the sky reminded us a little too much of Salt Lake.

Next up was Michelangelo's Madonna and Child sculpture -- you know, the one from Monuments Men. Somehow it was a bit smaller than the movie makes it out to be ...

Only in Europe:

Our cultural quota met, it was now time to get serious about what really matters in Belgium: waffles, chocolate, and beer.  

Look, this is a family-friendly blog, but some pictures are too good to pass up. 

This shop made us momentarily homesick. 

We toured the local brewery, the Half Moon (the Bruges Zot blonde is delicious).

Here I am after learning they don't make an American Double IPA.

But hey, I did finally find hops in Europe.

 The views from the top of the brewery were even more classic.

Every shot in Bruges is jigsaw-puzzle-worthy.

Ok, maybe not this one.

I know that Europe has a lot of old churches, but you'd think the Crowne Plaza could treat the 1,000-year-old church it's built on (destroyed by Napoleon) a little more soberly. Still, I did score some free Pringles.

The next day we drove on to Delft (putting us back in The Netherlands). Here's what I learned on this morning: if you're going for a couple hours' drive on Dutch highways, which wind through industrial zones and power plants and farmland, but don't really seem to skirt small towns the way American highways do, find yourself a bathroom first. Things got desperate enough that we stopped in Hoopenlocker or Hoogenagel or Hooterflegen or some other absurdly named town and crashed its Albert Heijn (the ubiquitous Dutch supermarket). The actual Girl with the Pearl Earring painting is in the Hague (see below), but that didn't stop the purveyors of the Bagels and Beans franchise near the main square in Delft.

Delft is another beautiful city, sort of a quiet Amsterdam-light with its own canals, and it was also home to Vermeer. The Vermeer Center may not house any of his original pieces, but it does let one pose in his paintings.

Fast forward through a few churches and mausoleums for founders of the Dutch state -- one of which gave us a free coffee for being under reconstruction (and which afforded us one of the few semi-warm outdoor Kuchenpauses of the trip)

-- and dinner found us at a 1990s-Minneapolis-Warehouse-District-feeling place with an excellent beer list.

It's rare nowadays that I discover a new kind of beer I've never heard of, but (after continuing my quest to try all of the official Belgian Trappist breweries), I stumbled upon a Mouselare Beer, an old spiced Belgian Pale Ale variety not too far from a tripel. This one was from the Klein Duimpje Brewery, and was absolutely delicious.

The next morning we said goodbye to Jon and Lynne and took an easy train to the Hague — easy in theory, as we managed to take an incorrect train and waited for ten minutes at some random suburban station. (And while we're on the subject of Dutch trains, be sure to bring plenty of Euro coins. The station in Delft only has kiosks [no people], and the machines only take European-chip credit cards or coins -- no bills. And when we had tried to book online, the Dutch railways asked for our Dutch bank number. Guess they expect Americans to travel with coin sacks ...) Anyway, our first stop in the Hague was the Mauritshuis, which houses such famous paintings as Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring and View of Delft, and Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. And hmm, have I ever mentioned that I like Dutch ice scenes?

A lot of (attempted) humor on this blog comes from complaining about something or other, but it's been hard to complain about much at all from this trip, train station pay machines aside. And any day that includes cake in a European art-museum cafe is a good one. 

The last main stop in the Hague was The Panorama, a museum built to house the work of late-nineteenth-century artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag. His traditional seascapes are delightful.

Out last stop was the beach.

Ok, actually we were still in the Panorama, which mainly exists to house Mesdag's enormous, room-sized, 360-degree panorama of the town of Scheveningen on the North Sea Coast -- an early experiment in virtual reality. We loved it, just like the whole road-trip, and it made me determined to visit the Frisian Islands. Something very funny happened on this road-trip, but the problem is, none of us can remember what it is. I'll change the title when we do 

I guess Scheveningen looks a little different today.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Amsterdam, Part I

J and I needed a break. It’s been a couple weeks since our last trip, to Wydaho, and while the Nordic and moose-watching there were blissful, the downhill snow was only ok, this being just about the warmest and least snowy year ever, and officially the warmest February ever in Salt Lake. (Moreover, the Wasatch Weather Weenies report that Utah has a great chance of enduring the least snowy season since 1934, a winter similarly defined by cold on the east coast.) This trip deserved its own entry, but deadlines continued to loom.

Luckily after such rough luck, J had a conference in Amsterdam, in the old stock exchange (appropriate, given the Dutch basically invented modern capitalism), and so I tagged along.
On the first leg of the trip, J and I and John and Lynn and J’s ex-grad student Mike from Tübingen stayed in a classic canal house on a relatively quiet street with quintessential steep stairs. Here are the views from our place.

In preparation for the trip we read a fantastic popular history of Amsterdam, which I can’t recommend enough.   

Shorto emphasizes that the Dutch are practical and sensible, which explains why they legalized prostitution and mild drugs. Sure, we walked around the red light district one night, but the best evidence in support of Shorto’s thesis came at our favorite watering hole, Arendsnest, which serves only (but 200+) Dutch beers. When I asked if the Dutch made Belgian-style tripels, the server said, in immaculate English, needless to say: “Of course, we are a very practical people. Everyone knows that the Belgians have better beer, and so our small breweries are trying to imitate it.” The end result of such imitation, according to our research, is several outstanding nano Dutch beers, including an exquisite tripel named De Blauwe Tram. I also recommend the Betty Wang IPA.

It’s a good thing we found Arendsnest. To return to one of the core themes of this blog, Europe is still struggling to establish a twenty-first-century beer culture, and still struggling to produce hoppy beers. But at least the variety of pils(es) is improving. At the over-the-top kitchsy Chinese restaurant that floats on a canal (but which, to Jane’s immense satisfaction, and our new friend Jeff's chagrin, was tons of fun and pretty good), the bar served not only Heineken but “Heineken extra cold.” The extra-cold version entailed a 1 Euro surcharge. I guess for the extra power to chill it?

Remaining in the we-knew-we-were-still-in-Europe-despite-the-prevailing-English department, one night Mike and I ended up at a place called “Hoppy Days.” It turns out that it’s owned by Italians, and specializes only in Italian microbreweries. I actually really appreciated the effort — such a business plan is a bold and probably doomed idea given the tiny beer culture of Italy, not to mention the prevailing tastes of even the Brooklyn-ized Amsterdam masses. But look, if you’re running a place called Hoppy Days, and you answer the question “What do you have that’s extremely hoppy, like an American Double?” with “Well, you should try the stout,” we have a problem here.

Such a beer culture explains why, when we met up with our grad school friend Paige and Elliott and their adorable Jonah

and they took us to a bar they’d had their eye on (this in a city of nearly a million people), it happened to be the one and only Arendsnest.

Dutch beer consumption has been declining for several hundred years, as detailed at the City Museum.

But we did our best like Gabriel Metsu’s The Old Drinker. The beer barrel at the left marks the seventeenth-century Het Rode Hert brewery.

When we weren’t going to the same bar over and over, we found a terrific Italian place with a brilliant vegetarian antipasto plate
and met up with our Gloversville-side-of-the-family cousins the Freemans (by completely random chance, Ellen was on Jane’s panel at the conference), for a three-and-half-hour dinner in a lovely canal house.

You know you’re hanging out with a bunch of relentless foodies and snobs when the consensus was that while the food was generally very good, it relied too much on 2006-esque foams. That said, many dishes and the Frisian Islands bread souffle were exceptional. To the Woods and Freemans reading this, I would have marked the occasion with a picture, but after the server came over during the meal at one point and told us to be quiet — and this when our volume resembled that of the annual convention of Mormons In Favor of Repealing the Draft Laws — we didn’t want to give them any ammunition that we were the ugly Americans. Dear Restaurant Lastage: nice spot, wonderful ambiance, well-done food, but you might want to take yourselves just a bit less seriously — and try moving beyond foam while you’re at it.

Speaking of taking yourself seriously, man the crowds at the surcharge-entry Late Rembrandt exhibit at the Riksmusuem was crushing, and man do Europeans jostle to see their art. I suppose the exhibit (heavy on self-portraits) was worth it. We liked the picture of his son Titus.

Of course, I was already in heaven in the regular collection. Forget about Rembrant's The Night Watchman — endless winter Dutch canal scenes!

And if the picture of cloth inspectors below looks familiar, it’s because it’s found on the cover of any book celebrating the bourgeoisie — and on Dutch Masters Tobacco packages. I recommend the Deidre McCloskey book, by the way. Maybe he she gets by on being the only leading economic historian who’s had a sex change, and her markets-do-absolutely-everything-perfectly logic gets threadbare after a while — ever notice how libertarians, even when they emphasize how economic growth will save the environment and solve climate change, never talk about the massive extinction of wildlife we’re living through? — but it’s a very fun and learned global history of capitalism. [Editor's note: ok I see now the pictures are not the same ... will have to investigate.]

And even if you lose sleep like I do worrying that capitalism and the planet are on a collision course (despite the remarkable power of capitalism to improve people’s lives), it’s hard to not be optimistic after spending a few days in Amsterdam. Sure, this area of the world will never quite learn that Schnitzel is not a Mexican food.

And how come I can't find a pretzel in this town, considering the art? 

But the bread restored my faith in our species. And it’s impossible to resist the charms of the central canal area. Apparently a German film company could not.

Finally, Amsterdam confirms the economic-history law that even when the richest country in the world goes into decline (and the Netherlands peaked in the late seventeenth century), it still remains rich for centuries to come. So we should be good in the U.S., at least for a while. If not, at least the Dutch are welcoming.