Look at that sky. Hazy blue, bright with spring. Warm enough, bright enough. I wish I were in the park still, or better yet, outside La Tertulia on the Prinsengracht, watching the yellow sun through the greening trees. But I'm here, listening to babblin' Babs (all action! Ignore her, she talks! Turn your back on her, she talks! Put your headphones on, she talks!) and fretfully web-whacking. There has to be a better ... no, wait, there isn't.
P.S. Had a brainwave this morning (only partly inspired by waking up very late) and didn't wash this morning. Can report that smell in here is better. Won't be able to keep it up, though ...
An uneasy start. Spring fog has descended, leaving a wake of crashes behind it, ambulances charging past us into the mist. A multi-lane pile-up has closed the M40 southbound, leaving three lanes of traffic at a standstill. We're on the A40 instead, but it's hardly moving, full as it is with three lanes of drivers with forewarning and nous. Anyone with any sense is staying home today. No sense, but a schedule. Should I call Elle and worry her? Give it an hour.
A chatty American on the seat in front of me asked what was happening, and we start to talk, or rather she talks and I listen, as she tells me all about the Peace Corps, and her scattered family and friends who she contacts with her annual "litter", and how her passion for eclipses and the Island of Sarg is burning up her pension fund. She's from California but still thinks it's warm; she brought her best tweed coat with her, the one she bought in 1966 to go travelling in Germany, but she's just been carrying it around. Not, she says, that it really fits her any more. She looks like a stuffed sausage if she does up the buttons, she says.
The sun burns off the mist and (mystically) also the traffic, and we head back to the motorway through quiet spring roads, yellow sun filtering through branches covered with spring buds, burning up the empty miles under softly-softly sunshine. I respond to Elle's panicked text (she just turned on the travel news) briefly: I'm alright. In London now. B thr sn.
At Hillingdon I watch the reflections of the bus warp and wriggle through the glass windows. Some day I'm going to make a film of that.
sirens - the calls coming through to the busdriver
The pickpocket warnings clock in at three a page in the lonely planet guide. I worry until I remember that they probably say the same about Oxford. Figuring out the trams takes a little longer, but riding them is fun and easy. It only takes two false starts to find ths hotel... which turns out to have fresh sheets, plentiful hot water, clean toilets and biiig Dutch breakfasts, so the fact that otherwise it's a bit of a flophouse is easily forgiven. It also has a polite but hungry labrador and a big glass case containing adverts for diamonds in the porch (I'd not really call it a lobby) which begs the question, especially on the third flight of astoundingly steep stairs, who'd bring someone to a place like this, and then buy them a diamond?
We go looking for a club, and come to the conclusion that we have the wrong guidebooks, as (possibly through mistranslation) venues described as "friendly, with a studenty crowd," turn out to be enormous major dance venues with intimidating frontages and fuck-off bouncers. We beat the streets looking for somewhere inviting-looking but between too smokey, too noisy and too wanky we aren't doing well.
Eventually we catch a strain of Duran-Duran from a black doorway and veer in, vinrating in sympathy with the 80s. Enigmatic. The bar seems to be run by someone who woke up one day and thought, "I know, I'll run a bar," ( with an enormous shelf-full of football trophies perhaps explaining where the money to do that came from) and then, "I'll play all my CDs like a proper DJ, and all my friends can come to the bar, and we'll have a brilliant time! Yeaaah!"
A noble impulse, but the musical mix is kind of neck-snapping, his taste being a mad grab-bag of everything he ever liked; all the songs on the party mix tape he ever had a brilliant time to, songs he slow-danced to in the 80s, football songs, odd bits of europop, cover versions, original versions, Dirty Dancing and Madness rubbing shoulders with sub-Kylie warblings, I look at my enormous penis and Maria Carey burbling about all she wants for Christmas.
More cabaret than DJ, and clearly of the opinion that if people don't like it here they can fuck off (there are 15 people in the bar, tops) the guys behind the bar spin, shout, sing along, put on stupid hats and repeatly ring a last order bell, in a series of different rings which seems to be a primitive form of communication. Two rings for, "they still haven't left, break out the Mariah Carey," one for, "I'm bored now, can't we run a coffeeshop instead?"
Can you believe it? We're here in Amsterdam and the Van Gogh museum (already on Ellé's must-do list) has a major headline show on documenting the difficult relationship between Gaugin and his art dealer's brother, a certain Van Gogh, including three, count 'em three of the four extant versions of the famous sunflowers.
Ellé, who was already really looking forward to a whole museum devoted to her artistic hero, is now practically wetting herself with excitement. She has her best sunflower dress on, with her banner-bright blonde hair, drawing approving smiles from intelligent-looking middle aged men in expensive glasses. I'm in jeans and a lopsided smile, and catching absolutely no-one's eye. No, wait, I tell a lie. There's my boss' boss, Judy, whose aptitude for haplessness has stranded her in Amsterdam on her way to a weekend break in Cyprus. "No," says Ellé, "you can't run into someone you know in Amsterdam!"
Judy stops for her usual gabble as we join the (fairly major) queue. I try not to be too freaked, fail, and try not to show it too badly. She stops abruptly and meanders off again. "Yes," I say, gloomily, "I can."
The queue keeps moving. The sun keeps shining. The Chinese family's children (just behind us in the line) are relentlessly cute. I'm not as thrilled as Ellé at seeing the Van Goghs (over 50 in this show, plus the permenant exhibition) and couldn't care less about bloody Gaugin (sexist, borgeois, nasty ...) but if the crowds are anything to go by it has to be a good show.
Just under six hours later, my opinions about Van Gogh radically reorientated, a new favourite painting burning a hole in my mind, a print I have no space for dangling from my hand, we stagger out into the sunshine and persuade a nice lady to photograph us against the gigantic sunflower banner. Fan-fucking-tastic. If you have a chance, it's on till June, go. I even mellowed a teensy bit toward old Gaugin.
For reference: painting = The Yellow House, print = The Courtesan, poster = Two Sunflower Heads.
yellow ochre - gashed with brown red orange blue green
The Albatros was billed as tacky, but turned out to be way stylish (with the exception of the stuffed albatross, I suppose) and awesome, especially their fish tank, which contains three clownfish, something brownish and an anenome the size of my head. They feed us winkles and rye bread and freshly-made anchovy relish before we've even ordered, bless 'em. Just as well, as the cheap and cheerful night out listed in our guide has metamorphised into a major gourmet affair with fennel salad, six sorts of fish, ginger, mustard, cream and exquisite seasoning to a soundtrack of the barely-audible squeals of lobsters and piped seaside sounds. We're aiming for main course only, but we see someone else eat pudding and, well .... Ellé has a Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream with pour-on overproof chocolate) and I have something called a gember "misu" - a shocking mix of crystallized ginger and ginger ice cream in a roll of soft chocolate and ginger cake. Ouch. I have a new favourite flavour.
On the way to the bloemenmarket we get distracted by a bridge; a fleamarket; an almost-perfect dress; the perfect top; earrings shaped like birds, eyes, the wrong lizards and two kinds of dinosaur; hawaiian shirts, repeatedly; a shop full of fairies with mock-rock walls and a muttering staircase; a big pink hat with far too many flowers on; African drumming (but not in a good way); and long sweet sunny grachts. When we finally get there I want a tulip, but (though sorely tempted by the discotulpen) none meet the exacting standards of my idea of tulips from Amsterdam, at least, not in a permenant way. We take some photos, and Ellé buys something small and blue and white. Not a delftware penis.
We find the only stressed people in Amsterdam in the Stedelijk Museum of modern art. They tail people through room after room of indifferent artworks (a few (mostly) minor and dull works from major artists bulked out by slews of stuff from minor artists who look a bit similar, oddities, temporary exhibits and stuff like the stuff at the Tate modern but smaller, tattier, and not as well presented) making obscure but powerfully-felt pronouncements about bags.
But they had Chagall's violinist, and enough video art and installations that some of it was really cool: a wall covered with little fairies cut out from glamour postcards, displayed white-side out, features embroidered on or punched out with a needle, pinned to the wall and tangled with coloured thread; a constellation of video monitors hanging in space showing tiny, stuttering loops of quaking action, mostly human, but including a fragment of earthquake simulation; people walking, dream-like, through a collapsing building; three cubist works (including a Picasso still life) set in a room containing vivid canvasses painted in repeating patterns against aggressively striped wallpaper (Ellé described the overall effect as "epilepsy-inducing"). And there's that guy shaking his cock at his fluffy purple dinosaur again.
But, unfortunately I can't say who anything I liked was by as the signage was minimal and sporadic, the museum guide was a single, grudging, sheet, and the postcard selection bore no relation to their actual collection. Still, at least we found out where they hide the stressed ones.
All weekend we've been surrounded by people snacking on cheese (#2 bar snack after falafel) so when the lonely planet guide promises a place which will serve us fondue cheese-addict Elle yanks me onto the sneltram to Nieuwmarket. Once there, we peer suspiciously at the supposedly friendly and fondue-filled café, an unpreposessing venetian-blinded dusty frontage over what looks a heck of a lot like a barely open more-traditional-than-thou browncafé. We opt to try for somewhere else, Chinese maybe, but three doors down I spot "Kaasfondue" listed next to three pasta specials on a chalkboard outside a big-windowed café with at least six different sorts of mood-lighting, including fairy-lights, a chandelier and a mirror ball. A waitress who looks like the blond water-faerie from Orbital's H20 video sits us between the windowsill covered with bead-festooned candlesticks and a big velvet curtain to ward off the spring draught.
We look at the guidebook. We look at the place we are. The name is different, but the Café 't Tuinfest is the place it describes, down to the choice of beer, the pleasant wine, the kind service, the good music, and of course, the wonder that is fondue (damn them! They make a better fondue than me!). One of those small but significant errors.
So we spent all evening there, great except that we end up going back through the red light district and pick up a persistent street dog, who pretty-lady pretty-ladys us (well, Elle) off the straat and back to the gracht to look for a nicer street. And what the fuck is that about? If he wanted drugs, sex, anything he damn well pleased, it was there, for him, two doors away, maximum. But no, he decides he'll harass a couple of tourists instead. Bizarre.
And that's about all I get to see of the red light district.
The amplified chanting and chucking coloured talcum powder over each other festival (we never did find out what that was all about) in the main square finally ends. The sun sets on Easter. The shops all close for holiday monday. All, that is, except the one that's selling authentic Hawaiian shirts, damn them. Ah well, no matter, gezeligg. I only find a nice one once in a blue moon. Expensive, but after the cheap but always reliable thrill of finding a tall tower and going up it, I feel it to be a luxury which is, er, not quite justified.
To Ellé's delight, at Singel 404, we find a lunchcafé which does herbal tea. And six types of freshly-sqeezed juice, yoghurt shakes, enormous chocolate brownies and oh, all manner of good stuff. We look at a few coffeeshops, but the level of smoke in most regular cafés is enough to stress Ellé out and of the coffeeshops not closed for Monday, precisely one has tables outside. Three, very full, tables. Needless to say, the one she's set her heart on (it has a Van Gogh mural on it) is closed. "Let's go tomorrow," she says, brightly. Hmm. We're travelling tomorrow.
I stare at the sunlight on the canals until it's time for dinner, when we decide we're all Dutched out and eat in Spanish at the Pata Negra, a tapas bar covered with painted tiles and graffitti while the boss twirls bottles and laughs when we call him Tom Cruise. "Are you from Spain?" asks Ellé (in Spanish - at least I think that's what she said). No no no! Cuba! ....oops.
We head off for chocolate and coffee and cool our heads at the Café Marcella round the corner on Amstelveld on the grounds that it has a canal view and sunflowers on the tables, and then we wander down to the Amstel to look at the lights, describing a big circle back to the Utrechtstraat, where (sod's law) I finally spot the indy record store that would have told me where to find a club I'd like. Not to mention a shop which appears to be selling high fashion military fetish gear. Great, but unfortunately, as Pata Negra didn't take visa, what we now need is a cash point that isn't gebruiken. No luck so far.
The day wakes us up, banging little golden nails through our eyelids. It's too too bright to waste our last day in the damp old Reijksmuseum, so we dump our luggage and take to the canals instead, drifting from café to bridge to shop and back again. Ellé finds the shop with the most fairy dresses of all; I find one selling myriad glittering glass beads. We try to resist doing anything but fetch up in the houseboat museum anyway, pressing buttons to operate tiny models of houseboats and watching a very, er, Tate slideshow.
The afternoon melts in the sunshine and we sink back to the station and prise our gear out of the lockers, including our van gogh posters packed neatly in their bright blue toblerone packets, and struggle to the train. It's hot now, summer-hot despite the earliness of the year, and even the novelty of windmill-spotting from the top of a double-decker train is hardly keeping our eyes open. When we get to Schipol I get off the train but my poster doesn't, and though I run back down the luggage slope I know I'm too late and it's gone. I wave it bye and let it go, orbiting Amsterdam on the stoptrein.