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.

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