Friday, April 27, 2007

Kurt's Amsterdam Diary

AMSTERDAM DIARY 25 March to 1 April 2007

It’s Wednesday evening. I arrived on Sunday evening. And this is the first occasion I’ve had to get my act together and do the diary thing.

My hosts, Bert-Jan van Egteren and Kevin Clarke (German in spite of the name), have gone out for a brief early family dinner with (Great?) Aunt Lydia, and I am here with a CD of the original 1932 French WHITE HORSE INN waiting on the music player for my delectation, and – to hand – a bottle of nice French Minervois red, a piece of delicious French goat’s cheese and a pottle of magnificent olives, with which to spoil myself while I get down to the aforesaid neglected diary.

Short aside. Getting used to Europe again is typified by the olives. They came from a delightful delicatessan called Pasteuring on a corner of the fashionable Willemsparkweg. The olives were spooned from a big bac into a little plastic pottle. And I have just spent an incommensurate time trying to get the lid off that pottle. I’m sure its perfectly easy for a Dutchman, but I have ended up taking a sharp knife and carving the thing to bits… Never mind, I have my olives, and like the wine and the cheese they are first rate.

So. Sunday. Can I remember back as far as Sunday? Sort of. I shall pass over in silence the English end of things. Suffice it to say that East Midlands Airport was 90 percent less crowded than last time, and thus seemed ten percent less horrid. The indeterminately coloured gent with the fluids phobia had vanished, and all the ‘security’ processing was less appalling than before. The BMI flight was, of course, significantly delayed, but at least this time I didn’t have a three year-old kicker next me on the flight -- instead, a rather nice 13 year-oldish lad who seemed to be a member of the Leicestershire-Lebanese junior something team. Well, there were enough of them to make at least one football team. He was so nice in fact that, when we reached our destination, he handed down the cabin luggage for the elderly gent next him. Me!!!!!

From plane to exit at Amsterdam is a hike and a half, but happily, when I exited, there was the waiting Kevin, towering over everyone else in the promised bright yellow jacket.. my crimson shirt and scarlet bag weren’t even necessary as flags. We – who have actually only met for one weekend when he came to St Paul for a visit in 2000, although we have exchanged thoudands of emails since -- bundled into the car and we headed off for the city centre.

Bert-Jan’s flat is in the WIllemsparkweg. The parallel street (of which I forget the name) is apparently the poshest and most expensive street in the city, and looks like it, so lets just says the boys are well situated! It is a lovely area. 2 minutes walk from the Vondelpark (a mini-Hagley or Hyde, draped with happy agreeable young folk and buzzing with armadas of bikes) and a straight walk into the heart of the canal-ringed city. The buildings range from 17th century to 19th century, but are largely in the same mould .. those tall gabled brick buildings we’ve all seen in Dutch pictures and books.
Anyway, delightful and distinctly handy.

Once we’d let down anchor and dumped my tiny bit of luggage, we went for a brief stroll in the park. Kevin hijacked my camera, and thus I have a rare set of photos of myself out doing something. Nice to have, especially as (if we don’t count those few hours 40 years ago with the NORTHERN STAR) this is my first visit to Holland.
Bert-Jan was off in Zurich with his brother for a performance of ROSENKAVALIER, so Kevin and I dove into an evening of catching up and of professional (musical-theatre writers’) chatter before my eyes finally closed and I crept off to my little bed – once again, inordinately comfortable and sleep conducive! – for a solid eight hours kip.

Monday, we went walkabout. A long, large walkabout. Down the Willemsparkweg, past the famous Museums (van Gogh and Rijksmuseum), over the canals and into the heart of old Amsterdam.
I guess that I saw it all. The beautiful bits like the Beguine area with its central English (nowadays) church, the towering C17th churches and the agreeable canals and walkways which of course are rendered desperately perilous for one short of hearing and limited neck-turning ability by the hectic hordes of cyclists and cycles which have made of them their very own queendom.
We passed, too, of course, through the equally famous Amsterdam red light district, where ‘girls’ of all kinds and colours pose in ancient ‘sexy’ postures and surprisingly sufficient costumes in the traditional ‘shop windows’. I cannot believe that the world holds men desperate enough to make use of the service of these belles dames sans subtiilité, but obviously it does. They are caricatures of the ancient 1960s ‘bathing belle’ type of sort-of-sexuality, miserably striving Raquel Welches … ah well, each to his own.
Talking of which, two things I did not see shoved under my nose in anything like the same way were the other two things for which Amsterdam is renowned. Drugs and gay sex. I’ve been out and about quite a bit now quite a lot, and the nearest to anything druggy I’ve spotted is the cannabis lollies in the flea market. Oh, and probably some shyly loud teenage Englishmen gigglingly photographing local ‘coffee shop’ signs. ‘Coffee shops’, the English guide books assure you, is where you go to get stoned. Haven’t tried one, so can’t say.
As for gaiety. Well, apart from Kevin and I, I’ve not spotted an eligible bloke on the streets in all my time here, Well … maybe one or two. Maybe they all ride bikes. But if Amsterdam is really the ‘gay capital of the world’ it don’t say much for the rest of the world!

Come evening, we headed to the airport to pick up the brothers returning from Zurich, and I got to meet Bert-Jan – of whom I’ve heard so much over the past five years – in person for the first time. He is a totally delightful man, and (******** heavily censored). My only comment. You know how the world produces ‘golden couples’? Yes, it does. You don’t need me to give examples. And I don’t mean the tatty gilt Becks and Posh sort f thing, I mean golden. Well, Bert-Jan and Kevin are one of those. And I’m supposed to go out dining and clubbing with those two??? I’m going to look like Eric Blore or grandpa Moses out on the town with the young Rock Hudson and the young Tab Hunter. Just as well I’m 20 years older than the pair of them, I can play at being the elderly Dutch – well, non-Dutch under the circumstances– great-uncle.

Wednesday morning, Kevin had planned on a big panoramic tour of the further-flung parts of the city … by the all-pervasive bicycle. Bert-Jan loaned me his splendid vehicle for the occasion. In the middle of the busy Willemsparkweg I flung my leg over the bar with the same abandon that I do (or to be truthful, don’t) when getting into a sulky, and as I did forty-five years ago with my maroon Raleigh sports. Result .. disaster. Bert-Jan is a good few inches taller than I and has much better and longer legs. My wee feet didn’t reach the pedals. I wobbled twice, panicked, and went flat on my buttocks on a busy Dutch thoroughfare.
Kevin tried. We took the bikes to a bike shop and had the seat of his own velo lowered for me, and thus equipped we headed to the Vondelpark for a few rehearsals. It should have been easy. I rode a bike for years, and this one was straightforward. No gears, nothing. But it was like certain horses I know, it wanted to hang to the left. It definitely needed a rein-pricker. It also (and again the horse analogy is apt) got wobbly at anything less than high speed. (Hello, Elena, darling!). And you can’t go at high speed in the Vondelpark unless you have perfect directional control, because hundreds of other folk and their bicycles are manoeuvering confidently in the same alleyways. There were moments when I got the feeling I was doing a little better than before, but when Kevin gave orders to exit the park and I turned my wheel fervently to the right … I went straight on. Maybe Dutch bikes are different to Kiwi ones. Maybe they just need reins. But that was the coupe de grace. There was no way I could be let loose amongst the trams and cars and bikes and people in central Amsterdam.
Mission aborted.
And so I spent the first really sunny day of my trip to the Northern hemisphere, instead, up on the rooftop at 149 Willemsparkweg (the boys had work to do – Kevin’s being translating 12 pages of introduction by K Ganzl for the opening of his next book, NOT an easy task as Gänz;l’s idiosyncratic English all but defies translation!) with mineral water, a huge deli sandwich and a book.
It was a book about ‘Show Queens’: the musical theatre and, well, those extravagantly Minelli cum Merman adorers among mostly American (I think) gay men whom I have never understood. I still don’t, but the book was HUGE. And vastly detailed. So obviously I’m way out of touch. And equally obviously my slightly ‘daring’ (I thought) piece for Kevin’s new book is going to sound as reactionary and 60-year-old-and-not-with-it as all get out. So why is he giving me prime of place…? Oh dear, I fear I am already ‘venerable’!!!! I shall have to give him Allister’s caricature of Herr Doktor Ganzl to use as an illustration. In it I have a long white beard, a vocal score and an Austrian curved pipe, while ‘the Doktor’s colleague’ a 6ft 6 muscle bound hunk (Kevin?) looms over my shoulder! What a way to go down to posterity! (Secretly, I would love it! I fancy nowadays being an eminence grise, since I no longer have any pretension at all to being an eminence umm… rose).

This morning dawned late (7pm), after another late eve playing Max Hansen videos and a selection of my favourite opera moments – oh! memories of early University days, sometime in another century, memories of Milanov, Steber, Bjorling, Callas, Tebaldi, Merrill (and why were there no basses, considering that both Kevin and I both worked as operatic bassi in our time).
Happily I rise earlier than the young men (at 60, 7 hours sleep is excessive), so I was up, watered, washed and eteceterad way before they stirred. Since Bert-Jan (who has a major art business) and Kevin (who is a hideously busy writer and editor – I was never so busy! But he involves other people, with all the dangers that involves, while I never did) both work at home, I set out before midday for another sightseeing expedition Solo.
But I’m getting better at it!
I got too many Euros out of a cash machine (Anne-Marie, see what you’ve done! And I’m still not exactly sure what a Euro equals!), and headed for the museums. There were 300 schoolchildren shoving about in a non-line outside the Van Gogh place which gave me the (I confess) desired excuse to stride right past. I am not an ear fetishist and I have bad van Gogh memories. My Latin classroom of 1959 had those bloody sunflowers and cornfields on the wall.. delicately faded and distasteful.. and then there was the ear picture in the French classroom. What a madman, we thought. I’m sure my father would never have subjected his 5th formers to faded van Gogh and created a distaste pour toujours amongst them..
A block or so on comes the Rijksmuseum. It is huge and Louvre-ish but I (who crashed out after 20 percent of the Louvre) was in luck. It is under repair, and just some ‘gems’ are on display in a small wing.
Well! I’m not a gallery fan. I’m not a museum fan. My coccyx does unspeakable things to me after 30 minutes of gallery-wandering. But Sarah had impressed on me that I ought to do the Museums in Amsterdam, Kevin had almost hectored me and Bert-Jan .. well, he is ‘art’ and I couldn’t even admit my artistic weaknsses to him. (They were always I know a disappointment to Ian, though of course he never said so). So I bit the bullet, Paid my 10 euros (I think this is 20$NZ ie 7=8 GBP .. heck!) and went in.
OK, I won’t drag this out. I enjoyed the ‘best of the Rijksmuseum’ much much much much more than any museum or gallery I have been in for decades. Maybe even ‘ever’. Though I remember that I quite liked some bits of the Brit Mus, the V&A and especially the less monumental (hurrah!) gallery on Trafalgar Square. This one wasn’t monumental either which was undoubtedly part of it charm. Just 12 or was it 14 small rooms…
I won’t rave on, as I said, but some intelligent person had captioned every item in this neat visual encapsulation of C17th Netherlandish art history (in both Dutch and English) in such a modern, un-academic (double hurrah!), user-friendly style as to make it real fun for both art-ignorant me and also the horde of French schoolchildren who tracked me round (translator K Ganzl!!!!)…
I would normally have gone through 14 rooms of ancient paintings in a museum in 20 minutes. I stayed in the Rijksmuseum for just under 3 hours. The attendants must have thought that the strange Frenchman in the crimson shirt and too-young beige shorts (Wendy, they have a burn-hole in them from the back paddock burn-up!) was planning a robbery or something!
I discovered that mostly it’s obvious why the famous painters ARE famous, rather than their seemingly equally competent contemporaries. Vermeer and Rembrandt (but not Franz Hals whom I didn’t care for) clearly have ‘it’ whilst other technically clever artists don’t reach out and grab you. Mind you, its not an all or nothing thing. I have to commit heresy and say that you can keep the famous ‘Night Watch’ for me. It’s just another ceremonial ‘photo’ and the depiction of the painter’s wife spotlit in the middle is to me incomprehensible. (I also cant forget how my brother and I voted the portrait of Saskia van Eulenberg (?) the ugliest woman in the BM forty years ago!).
But there are some super, vibrant Rembrandts: the portrait of the priest with the unspellable Dutch name, the wife with the millwheel collar – her husband having been snapped up by Dresden or wherever .. even Maria von Trapp (not quite sic) mincing forth in her bijoux from underneath the glass which most of the rest thankfully don’t… and above all the prophet Jeremiah .. great stuff.
Not to forget the gentlemen of the guild of whatever…
So why is the Night Watch so highly regarded? For me it’s way down the list.
But anyway better than all the Rembrandts I liked the few Vermeers. A brilliant story picture entitled The Love Letter (won’t describe, look for self!), the servant with the milk jug…. Wonderful!
And then there was the swan. A picture of a swan by someone Ive never heard of. Asselijn? Bert-Jan tells me that this picture came to have a political significance (thus putting itself even further beyond my comprehension) but, whatever, it’s a lively exciting picture. Not a tidy photo like so much C17th stuff, but living and … sorry I’m no good at art! Or describing it. And there was no postcard. But it was great.
Then, too, there were Jean van der Leyden’s fire-engines (yes! He drew them and he INVENTED them…). Have YOU ever heard of him? I hadn’t. And all the story was there, with a neat little booklet.
Downstairs there was a tiny historicaL section which included pictures from the Dutch colonies. East India Co and all that. They might’t have been Vermeers but as historical documents they were right up my street… the one of the squat Dutch merchant who had married an Asiatic half-breed who had borne him several children … I’m sorry Rembrandt, but it meant more to me than all your stiff and wealthy Volunteer Corps gents.
I think I did really well explaining the nitty gritty of all this to my wee French gang (the faithfuls amongst them stayed with me for ages! Probably because I gave them all the answers for their questionnares!). But – horrid thought – maybe my talk wasn’t kosher and they’ll all fail their exams!!!!!
When I realised I’d been round these few rooms for nearly three hours I hastened to exit…
The city awaited me
Well, not really. When Kevin led me round on Monday, I simply followed. Now, I was determined to take different ways. But time and again, just when I thought I had done exactly that, I’d come upon a building or a view that I’d seen before! Finally, however, I did come upon something new. A flea market. Whee! Love them. It was a real 2000s flea market though. ‘Antiques’ included the records for which Ian and I used to hunt so assiduously in ‘modern’ shops. ‘Old books’ are now 1950s paperbacks. Ancient photos are very C20th. Still, most things were but 1 or 2 euroa (ghastly name) in price. And if I’d been 30 years younger and had suitcase space to spare there were a few weird bits I’d have been tempted by. (and I sha’n’t even mention the nice feller with the bicycle whom I met over a photo box .. chuckle! It must be the Amsterdam air! -- . ). But I m not and I haven’t and I don’t, so I just looked…and I still enjoyed it all..! Even the awful fake fur coverlets and polystyrene garden ornaments!

I strolled happily towards home over the canals past the museums (van Gogh still popular! He even has a policeman organising his queues which Rembrandt doesn’t rate .. why?) …
And what do I see? THEATRE BOOK SHOP. I shall go in. Who knows, they might have me.
They have WILLIE GILL!!!!!!!!! I can’t help myself. I make myself known to the proprietor. I mean, why has she got Willie Gill? And Andrew’s Leslie Stuart too! She asks after the 3 volume Encyclopaedia. The agents tell her, it eventuates, that its not available. NOT AVAILABLE!!?!??! What is the effing Gale Group playing at?
No more American publishers for me!
She has MUSICALS too. Its far too dear – well, it has to GET here – but it will make a nice present for the Golden Boys. I buy it with the unreal money out of the hole in the wall. She marks down to re-order it. Fancy! She tells me I am ‘highly considered’ in Holland, and she finds my books (**** highly censored, blush.). Well, what a way to end a great day!
I shall celebrate. I stop at what I imagine is one of Amsterdam’s chic little food-cum-deli shops. French wines, French cheeses and shocking prices. Garn. Its only funny money. A Cotes de Provence! But only rosé. I buy it. And the Minervois. And the gorgeous creamy goats cheese (10 times fresher than the one from Coalville..). And the big green olives (Coalville wins here, the Spanish blacks were superior). And home I toddle. Even my feet have forgotten to be sore in the glow of the day’s activities.

Well, The boys shared the red at end of worktime, and now they are at Aunt Lydia’s. I have listened to CHEVAL BLANC twice over – it is delicious, much better than any other national version – and ¾ of the cheese and half the olives have gone. Also what was left of the Minervois. Its 10pm. They are late birds. I am early. I wonder.. will they want to share the Cotes de Provence when they come, or will I be too tired by then even to pull the cork..

I may be

Better pull it now, eh?

And await the morrow.

You know, I could live like this. Amsterdam, Minervois, fromage de chevre, Olives., Operette and golden boys..
But I said that in Coalville, didn’t I. Also in Jersey. Give or take the golden boys.
Maybe the world is my oyster after all.

So a little Cotes de Provence rosé, and if the boys are still out when I get to glass two .. bed.

‘New Life’ is quite tiring.

Until soon!


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