Friday, December 7, 2012

Dutch Treat

At the Albert Cuyp market in the De Pijp neighborhood 
Canalside dwellings give off a "Venice North" feel

Colorful street art
Bikes and an Art Nouveau cafe
Public art in the city center
For my birthday, I treated myself to a trip to Amsterdam. From Paris, it's a  bit more than a three-hour train ride, and if you plan it right, you can buy tickets for €35 each way. I hadn't been to Amsterdam since my very first trip to Europe, which was a long, long time ago. How long? Well, I traveled with a Walkman and a backpack full of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins cassette tapes, if that gives you a clue. On that earlier trip, I stayed at a Christian youth hostel in the thick of the Red Light District (it was the cheapest in town), and subsisted primarily on cigarettes, bananas, and beer.

This time around, I did things a bit differently, staying in a really comfy, grown-up Airbnb row-house just south and east of the city center. The price of our dogs-allowed accommodations included two bicycles, and the place was ideally situated along a raised canal teeming with birds: Herons, gulls, ducks, and those funny black waterbirds with white beaks that make seal-like barking noise. Beside the canal was a paved bike trail and a busy walking path lined with poo-bag dispensers. (This being something only dog people can get excited about, I think.)

The dog-friendly backyard of our Airbnb digs
Our temporary neighborhood, in Technicolor
Our first cycling foray out into the city was an eye opener. So. Many. Bicycles. More than I had remembered from my previous visit, and way more than I'd seen in Copenhagen ("the cycling capital of Europe") on our trip there last April. There were more bikes in Amsterdam even than I'd seen on the streets of India, Vietnam, or China--in all my trips combined! Definitely more bicycles than cars, and it was wonderful. Old, young, dogs--entire families strapped into station-wagon-style bikes, some equipped with two or three kids' seats.

A bicycle built for ... three? Four?
And how about that Dutch architecture? Swwwooooonnn. Tall, majestic, centuries-old apartment buildings and bright, colorful new structures sitting contently right next to each other! That's just something you don't often see in Paris, where "old" reigns supreme and "new" takes a lot of getting used to. (As in, hundreds and hundreds of years.)

Classic Amsterdam Architecture

The spirit of Van Gogh was palpable on this full-moon-lit night

The Dutch have a reputation for being "open," and I saw this idea played out in interesting ways. Houses at street level often feature giant windows, across which you will not find thick curtains, nor shutters, nor blinds to hinder glimpses within. Occasionally you'll see this frosted cellophane-type stuff stuck to these expansive windows, which can obscure a direct view inside Dutch homes. But more often than not, you can simply gaze right in as you walk past, and observe the locals in their natural habitats doing what Dutch people do: Reading the paper, cooking dinner, watching TV. (And everyone's home looked like a advertisement torn from an IKEA catalog; very clean, modern, and accented with bright splashes of red, blue, or orange.)

A half-dozen times, I walked past an office where a meeting was in full swing. Again, enormous windows faced out onto the street, letting nosy people like me participate in a PowerPoint presentation or executives-only lecture, just a pane of glass separating us from the real action. Drinks and food seem to be standard-issue features of these business meetings, and communal tables were de rigueur.

Our Dutch-style transport in front of our Dutch dwelling
Spying on business meetings=a fun vacation pastime
Amsterdam is loaded with museums and picturesque pedestrian streets and those celebrated canals and infamous cafes, so there's never a dull moment to contend with. Having done a lot of the tourist stuff already, I was eager to break new ground, which we did by taking the ferry out to see The Eye (a cinema-centric museum and expo hall on a peninsula behind Centraal Station) and exploring less touristic neighborhoods like De Pijp and Frankendael. One of the highlights of our off-the-beaten-path exploration was our Thursday- night dining experience at De Peper,

The ceiling at De Peper
A cosy cubbyhole and more art at De Peper
De Peper, a non-profit organization headquarted inside a "legal squat " in south-west Amsterdam, operates a theater, art space, and vegan dining hall under one giant roof, I was eager to see what it was all about. What is a "legal squat" anyway? Who goes there? Why vegan? I'd hoped to learn the answers to some of my burning questions, but first we had to get our feet in the door.

You're supposed to call to make a dinner reservation within a very specific time-frame (4 and 6pm), but we didn't have access to a phone and decided to wing it, turning up shortly after opening (7pm) with the hope that they might be able to squeeze us in.

One of the communal tables at De Peper
The evening's menu
Tucked inside a university-campus type building next to a really cool vintage furniture shop, you enter through a bike-filled courtyard and into a hallway flanked by multiple doorways. The restaurant is just to the left, and inside, the vibe is very casual and warm, with music pumping from a sound-system and compelling contemporary art affixed to walls and ceilings.

A pale woman with a friendly face framed by jet-black hair busied away behind the bar, and walking in, I made a beeline for her and quickly expressed my desire to participate in the De Peper experience and apologized for not making a reservation. "No problem," she said. "We have a couple of extra spots tonight." She explained how De Peper works: You decide how much you want to pay--between €7 and €10--then take your starter (tonight: beet soup), find a place to sit, and wait for your name to be called for your main meal. Drinks--organic wine and beer, and non-alcoholic juices--cost extra (between €2 and €3), as does dessert (€1.50).

Looking around the spacious dining area, we opted to sit at a big communal table with six or seven seats. Another couple occupied one end, we took the other. At various tables--some were low, coffee-table style, others standard-issue dining tables--couples or small groups of friends sat talking and drinking, seemingly relaxed and happy to be there.

We slurped our borscht and sipped our tasty bottles of beer and glasses of wine, taking in the ambiance and eavesdropping on conversations. The couple next to us were from Texas. The women at the table behind us seeemed to be speaking in American accents, too. The place didn't have the punk-rock feel I was expecting from a place that had the words "legal squat" in its subhed. It just seemed like a casual coffee house you might find in San Francisco, London, or even Nevada City. I liked it, and my initially reticent dining companion admitted it was better than he thought it would be.

A flurry of activity erupted from the kitchen area, and names began to be called out. When we got our plates, we were intrigued by the mish-mash of components: Sushi, roasted potatoes, and an arugula-tomato salad. The sushi was delicious, and such an oddball combo: walnut, seitan, and black mushroom. How did I not know that walnuts made good sushi filler until now? The roasted potatoes were delicious, except for the few pieces that were rock-hard and nearly inedible. The salad was fresh and simple, with a light vinaigrette.

After asking our neighbors for their thoughts on dessert ("mmm ... I'd say skip it," came their honest reply), we lingered a bit longer before making the two-wheel trek back to our temporary digs on the other side of town.

Passing through a hallway bathed in fluorescent yellow light on our way out, I spied a pile of books on the floor and a sign taped to the wall saying "FREE! Help yourself!" I rifled through the stack and found a new hardbound vegan cookbook and a fun paperback that appeals to my inner wordsmith. As we stepped into the brisk autumn night, I realized I'd totally forgotten to slip into journalist mode and ask those questions that were sizzling at the tip of my tongue when I first arrived, but it didn't matter. It was a clear, crisp night brightened by the light of a full moon the size of the sun, and I was in Amsterdam.

The plat de resistance at De Peper
Toting the free reading material home in my sturdy bike basket


  1. It was fun reading thru this post. Amsterdam is a place to see... good that you are touring Europe now that you are right in the middle of it. My train to NYC leaves Monday at 5:30 am. Get there close to 9pm. Not the European speeds, huh! But how happy I am to get some big city air in me!!!

    1. Hi, Susa! How fun to see The Big Apple all dolled up in holiday regalia. Have the best trip ever! Can't wait to see your photos. xoxo


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