November 13, 2016

Zaanse Schans

My hotel room in Zaandam overlooked a square featuring a statue of Tsar Peter. Tsar Peter? As in, Peter the Great? In the Netherlands?

Tsar Peter statue, central square, Zaandam, The Netherlands
In the late 17th century Tsar Peter spent some time here, under a pseudonym, as he toured western Europe on a quest to modernize Russia. The monument in the center of the square features the young tsar practicing the craft of shipbuilding.

When I chose to finish my visit to The Netherlands in Zaandam, I was all set for an idyllic pedal through the countryside, including a visit to the charming historic enclave of Zaanse Schans.

Houses and boats along a canal, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The weather today, unfortunately, was more of the same. I could not get enthused about biking in the cold and damp, under more gray skies. The forecast included some afternoon sunshine; maybe I would rent a bike near Zaanse Schans later.

Prins Bernhardbrug (Prince Bernhard Bridge), Zaandam, The Netherlands
I set out to cover the 6 km on foot, through residential neighborhoods that turned industrial. The dramatic Prince Bernhard bridge is a modern drawbridge over the River Zaan, complete with separated cycling lanes and paths for pedestrians.

Piet dolls in shop window, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The streets were deserted on a Sunday morning; even the churches seemed quiet. Shop windows were decorated with Sinterklaas and Piet.

Maternity care clinic with picture of stork in the window, Zaandam, The Netherlands
What better advertisement for maternity care than a picture of a stork bearing its precious bundle?

The windmills restored at Zaanse Schans were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, which made the location seem particularly fitting as I passed modern plants. I picked up the scent of chocolate a few blocks before I passed some chocolate-related factories, and thought back to a video I'd watched on the plane that included a piece about an artist who builds “smell maps” of cities (including Amsterdam).

Houses painted in traditional deep green, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Zaanse Schans is for the Netherlands what Colonial Williamsburg is for the eastern U.S.—a place that re-creates and preserves an older way of life. At Zaanse Schans, there were artisans demonstrating the making of cheeses and wooden shoes. Some groups have restored the old windmills and keep them running.

Racks of colorful wooden shoes, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Like Colonial Williamsburg, Zaanse Schans was a bit touristy. But you can avoid that.

Spice-griding wheels at De Huisman, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
After walking through De Huisman, where I learned about spice grinding, I chose well in touring De Kat.

De Gekroonde Poelenburg (foreground), De Kat (background), Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
De Kat is set up to pound bark and other materials to create pigments for paint. This being Europe (not the litigious U.S.), it was possible to climb the steep ladder to reach the balcony for a close look at the sails. (And to descend, backward, its equally steep counterpart.) I was surprised to discover the outside covered in thatch.

Grinding wheel and ladder, De kat, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, the Netherlands
It didn't take much of a breeze to send the sails spinning. Inside, I watched the massive gears turn, catching and releasing a heavy post to pound the pigments.

Had I given much thought to it, I might have realized that the sails are not fixed in a particular orientation. To take best advantage of the shifting winds, they can be “steered”—rotated around the tower to catch the wind. These original windmills translated wind energy directly into mechanical force—to pound or grind, or even to saw logs into lumber. Ingenious.

Wheel used to control the orientation of the sails, De Kat, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The shop at De Huisman sold little bags of the button-sized cookies I'd seen Piet and his helpers hand out yesterday; no need to feel left out any longer! I sampled a few different cheeses at the cheese-making shop, and sat down at the bake shop to enjoy a warm waffle slathered with Nutella.

Cheeses in various stages, Catharina Hoeve Cheese Farm, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
I learned that it was once traditional for a man to carve elaborate designs into a pair of wooden clogs for his bride.

Pair of intricately carved wooden clogs, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Outside, I spotted a heron in the marsh and watched a cat skulking through the grass, its eye on a crow.

Grey Heron and American Wigeons, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
That weather forecast I mentioned above? Total fiction. There was no sign of the sun; in fact, my umbrella saw more action. I've come to think that they throw a little sunshine into the forecast just to give you hope.

Antique bicycle loaded with unfinished wooden clogs, Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Cycling? Maybe some other time.

November 12, 2016


My Dutch adventure will wrap up outside Amsterdam's city limits. Travelers who were expecting to take the train to the airport were befuddled, as that route was not available due to some planned engineering work. Using mass transit in foreign locales is not as simple as the locals would have you believe. I managed to navigate the metro and a train (without incident!) to reach my next destination: Zaandam.

Shopping district along a canal with pedestrian bridges, Gedempte Gracht, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The main street leading away from the train station was a modern shopping district that was bustling with families. I overheard some kids asking about Sinterklaas. Sadly, holiday merchandise had begun to appear in the Bay Area in September, and mid-November still feels early to me. But the timing here turns out to be more sensible: St. Nicholas Day is a little more than three weeks away.

Sign announcing no through traffic on 12 November, for the arrival of Sinterklaas, Zaandam, The Netherlands
People seemed to be streaming purposefully across a bridge to another part of town, and I could hear a voice booming over a loudspeaker. I followed my nose. Families were gathering at barriers around a couple of blocked-off streets; I could see a horse-drawn carriage, and people in colorful costumes on four magnificent horses. Could it be?

Yes! Today was the arrival of Sinterklaas.

Children petting a horse bearing a costumed rider, Zaandam, The Netherlands
My timing was perfect—I got a ringside position before the crowd swelled. Many children wore colorful caps adorned with feathers, not unlike those worn by the characters on horseback. The announcer chattered away, occasionally leading the crowd in song. Riders led the horses over for petting (by adults as well as children); some children clutched drawings they'd made of horses, handing them to the riders.

Steamship, HMS Elfin, on which Sinterklaas arrived, Zaandam, The Netherlands
A plume of steam went up and a ship's horn sounded; this is how Sinterklaas arrives (on the HMS Elfin. No translation needed).

Costumed Piets skipping with their sacks of goodies, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Children were three and four deep at the barriers; Piet! Piet! they squealed as Sinterklaas's costumed helpers appeared—in traditional blackface—clutching sacks of goodies for the kids (little bags of cinnamon cookies). I did my part to point out little outstretched hands nearby that were easily overlooked, so I think everyone in the little flock around me scored at least one goody bag.

Costumed Piets distributing cookies to the children, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The kids were so excited! It was another cloudy, damp, cold day here (though at least it wasn't raining). My fingers felt frozen inside my winter gloves. Some of the kids had bare hands. One little girl received two bags stuck together; she pulled them apart and immediately held out the extra—rather than keeping it for herself. Having watched that play out, I smiled and passed the bag to a child farther back.

Partiers in wheelchairs being led front and center for the arrival of Sinterklaas, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Disabled partiers in wheelchairs were brought front and center.

Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas), Zaandam, The Netherlands
Sinterklaas worked his way along the barrier, while his helpers skipped along, high-fiving the kids and handing out more cookies.

Sinterklaas and all his helpers pose for a group photo, Zaandam, The Netherlands
The entourage assembled on the wide steps of a building before Sinterklaas rode off on an antique fire engine. I saw the whole brigade again, without the crowds: they happened to parade along a street I'd chosen to explore.

Sinterklaas parading through town on an antique fire engine, Zaandam, The Netherlands
No cookies for me. I guess I'm on the naughty list this year.

A stern Piet in a green cap and feather gives a wave, Zaandam, The Netherlands

November 9, 2016

Bike Parking

Cyclist with bike descending into underground parking, Amsterdam Zuid station, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Near the train station, I noticed a well-lit entrance with moving ramps descending below ground. An entrance to the Metro station, perhaps? The signage did not include an English translation.

Bicycles stored underground, Amsterdam Zuid station, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
After passing it a few times, the large blue “P” and bicycle icon finally registered. It's the entrance to an underground bicycle parking garage! You check in with your regular electronic fare card at a kiosk, and then check out with the attendants wielding hand-held scanners. If I understood them correctly, you pay only for the first 24 hours. There were plenty of spaces available; most people park their bikes on the street. But if you're headed away for a couple of days on the train, this would be the place to secure your bike. It's also possible to rent a bicycle here.

Weathered bicycle, double-locked, on a cement pad surrounded by water, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Most bikes are secured with two locks. First, a horseshoe-shaped lock, placed within the rear triangle, that prevents the rear wheel from moving (or being removed). Second, a heavy (and I do mean heavy) chain in a protective fabric sheath to secure the bike (and its front wheel) to rack, fence, lightpost, tree—the usual.

Bicycles parked in a small plaza, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
I'd say that I saw it all here, in terms of cycling, but I'm sure I didn't.

Child riding in a rear seat, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Most cyclists simply bike in their street clothes—wool coats, not even bothering with raincoats much less full-on cycling rain gear. I saw exactly three cyclists wearing helmets—and they were also the only ones I saw with road bikes, in full kit. I did see one middle-aged woman cycling in a fur (?) jacket stamped all over with Mickey Mouse heads.

I saw a boy standing on the rear rack as a parent pedaled.

An adult riding side-saddle on the rear rack (more than one sighting).

Many bicycles, including one with two child seats and panniers, Zaandam, The Netherlands
Kids in seats mounted fore and aft. I'm enough of a klutz just by myself; I wish I'd seen how you balance a bike while getting two squirmy kids into (and out of) their seats.

Bakfiets cargo bicycle with a plastic canopy, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
People commonly transport anywhere from one to three kids on a cargo bike, with or without a cover.

Biking with umbrellas. Biking with packages. Biking while carrying a piece of art. Bikes with baskets, crates, and panniers.

Bicycles parked in a plaza on a rainy day, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Seat covers are popular (what with all this rain). The bright pink ones advertised a grocery store, deep purple for a beauty salon.

Deluxe Babboe cargo bike, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
A deluxe chariot, outfitted with a padded bench and straps to secure the kids.

Interior view, padded bench with straps, Babboe cargo bicycle, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
I haven't noticed many overweight locals (much less, obese). The necessity of exercise helps with that, I expect.

Bicycles parked three and four deep alongside a canal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

November 8, 2016

La Bayadère

After relocating to a hotel in the business district (I am here for work, after all), I returned to explore more of the city.

It was—you guessed it—another rainy day.

I'd read that the views are stunning from the tower of the Westerkerk. Alas, that appeared to be accessible only to groups, by reservation.

Floating flower market, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Boat tours were running, but not enticing given the weather. I decided to visit the flower market, housed along one canal mostly in floating greenhouses. Of course, this is not really the season; the first stall had a colorful array of flowers. The rest? Tulip bulbs, mostly ... and lots of tchotchkes.

Baskets of tulips and other flowers at a stall in the Flower Market, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Having mastered the bus, tram, and train, today I tackled the Metro. I had picked up an OV-chipkaart to simplify my travels: keep it topped up, then just tap on, tap off. Tonight I have a ticket for the ballet, and their website warned of disruption at the nearest Metro station due to ... yet more construction.

National Opera and Ballet building, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The National Opera and Ballet was a short walk from the flower market, and the Metro would take me back to my hotel's neighborhood. Before puzzling out the route (and coping with an unexpected delay, a broken-down train), I wandered through a nearby street market.

At first glance, it was typical: Vendors hawking their wares on tables set up under portable canopies. At second glance, it was unusual. There were at least four stalls offering bicycle gear: saddles, locks, and heavy chains. I overheard one conversation: “I could sell you a cheaper chain, but you will be back in a few days after your bike is stolen.” There was also a bicycle mechanic in one stall, stocked with a vast array of wheels and other necessary parts.

Near my hotel, sparks flew as a well-dressed man applied a power tool to a chain. Presumably a chain securing his own bicycle.

After my trial run on the Metro, returning for the ballet was a breeze.

Cylinder filled with worn-out toe shoes, Royal Opera and Ballet, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
For me, this was a rare opportunity to see a full-length performance of La Bayadère.

In the first act, the male lead failed to stick a landing and came down hard (but gracefully). He seemed sheepishly grateful for the enthusiastic applause he got when he took his bows.

The final act unfolded behind a mostly-transparent curtain. Perhaps to contain the swirling clouds at the feet of the dancers? It dampened the luster and rendered the action slightly out-of-focus.

But it was Act III's “The Kingdom of the Shades” that I was most eager to see in context, having seen it performed separately by the San Francisco Ballet. I was surprised to recognize the music before the first dancer appeared, but I knew this piece had made a huge impression on me. The sight of the corps de ballet descending, zig-zag, onto the stage in a seemingly unending stream of arabesques is simply unforgettable.

Red seats and white lights at the National Opera and Ballet, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

November 7, 2016


Another rainy day in Amsterdam. Having planned to spend time exploring the Rijksmuseum, I didn't regret the weather.

I did regret not bringing my proper camera. I expected that photographs would be prohibited; I was wrong.

Stained glass window depicting professions and painters, Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands
I started with the Gallery of Honor, taking advantage of the laminated cards that offered an in-depth examination of a selected work in each alcove. These were always available in English as well as Dutch; for the most famous work—the Night Watch—cards were provided in many additional languages.

Painting: Still Life with a Gilt Cup by Willem Claesz, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The first painting that caught my eye was Still Life with a Gilt Cup by Willem Claesz. How did he paint a cloth so realistically that I can tell it was silk? A close look at the light reflected off the surface of the pewter vessel and glass goblet reveals the outline of the window panes though which daylight streamed.

Many paintings captured ordinary scenes from daily life, like Woman with a Child in a Pantry by Pieter de Hooch. How does the painter decide which details to include? The decorative tiles at the base of a wall, pieces of straw and chipped floor tiles. Was it to portray life unvarnished rather than idealized?

I was similarly fascinated by another still life, Festoon of Fruit and Flowers by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. This one was unusual for his additional hint of the natural world—he tucked insects (and a snail) among the fruits and flowers.

And then there was The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn, dramatic enough without its political overtones. The dog's head and the nest itself are in the shadows, but the artist included details that are easily overlooked: drops of water on the bird's left foot, shed feathers flying.

There was so much to learn. About pigments that lose their color by the very nature of their chemical composition, dulling our impression of some works. About paintings created for particular spaces: a set of two lit from opposite directions because they would be hung on either side of a window. Rembrandt's Night Watch had been trimmed when it was moved to smaller space, and the cut-off pieces of the canvas unceremoniously discarded.

Schoolchildren sat attentively in circles on the floor, perhaps visiting as part of an ongoing effort to have all children in the Netherlands see the Night Watch before the age of 12.

There was so much to see: paintings, decorative arts, even some specimen animals native to Brazil (preserved through taxidermy). Four hours and the better part of two floors later, I called it a day.

The rest? Someday, perhaps.

November 6, 2016

Anne Frank House

Westerkerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
As I headed out this morning, a middle-aged couple approached me on the street. “D-a-m” “S-qua-re?” they enunciated with great care. [Evidently I don't look like a tourist, which is good.] I smiled and apologized for not being able to help them.

Houseboats and canal houses, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Until I began researching things to see in Amsterdam, I had long forgotten that this was the city where Anne Frank and her family had lived, and hid (until they were betrayed). It's possible to queue up in the afternoon for a chance to visit the Anne Frank House without an advance reservation. But when I looked at the website last night, there was exactly one reservable ticket left for today. That was meant for me.

Anne Frank House, 29 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
It's been a long time since I read The Diary of Anne Frank—probably around the same age as Anne was when she wrote. I wasn't sure what to expect. Historical narrative. Some artifacts. A glimpse of “The Secret Annex.”

I was surely not expecting to pass beyond the hinged bookcase and walk through the actual rooms where they'd lived.

Our group climbed the stairs and moved along in near silence, reading the explanatory placards. The rooms are bare, as her father wished them to remain. In the room that Anne shared, sections of the original wall covering have been preserved and hung in place—there were the images clipped from newspapers and pasted 70-odd years ago by a young girl clinging to hope for a return to normal life.

At any time, this would be a wrenching emotional experience. At this moment in world history, it was nearly overwhelming.

Among the artifacts in the museum is a book, a grim registry of typewritten pages, opened to the page recording the names of Annelies and the members of her family. The display draws your attention to their names; let your eye wander to the names above and below, through the columns to the left and right. Only then will you see that both pages are filled with the names of other Franks, which certainly spill onto the unseen preceding and following pages.

Anne's father tried to immigrate, with his family, to the United States. That door was shut tight. A few years ago, a New York Times article cited a 1941 State Department memorandum:
At a time like this, when the safety of the country is imperiled, it seems fully justifiable to resolve any possible doubts in favor of the country, rather than in favor of the aliens concerned.
The “aliens concerned” perished.

The nations of our world have yet to learn these lessons.

Dark storm clouds beyond a sunlit canal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands