Saturday, September 29, 2012

Deserted Streets and Hippie Skirts

It's hard to believe I was in San Francisco a year ago, having an amazing time (even whilst battling strep) in a city on my own.  It's funny, when I ride the train and kill time by playing solitaire on my phone, I get these vivid flashbacks of San Francisco - I think it started because I used to play solitaire constantly during my morning commute to WC, mostly out of incredible anxiety about the job (I would go through 50+ games during my hour long commute each morning, nonstop back-to-back games), and this job, with it's stress, came right after I arrived back home from my trip.

The flashbacks that I have aren't the ones you think you'll have - the view of the foggy Golden Gate , strolling languidly through SF MOMA, riding the trolleys, etc.  In fact, there's only one moment I come back to (rarely) that was visually stunning, and that's the moment I crawled up to the side of Buena Vista Park with a bag of thai food and a spectacular view of downtown and proceeded to feast, and I only remember that because there were mosquitos everywhere and some guys dog tried to climb into my lap.

The mosquito-laden view

The random moments that pop into my head repeatedly are the ones that struck me and brought me back to earth, the ones that made me feel like a citizen, as if I were living everyday life and not on some weird implanted journey destined to dump me down and then suddenly scoop me back up again:

The morning I walked by a senior citizen center in NoPa that looked like a city hall, wrought iron gates to my right and trees casting a dappled exposure on the white sidewalk (this one hits me the most).

Walking down the sidewalk during an early morning chai run (I was determined to start every morning with chai from a different independent cafe, and succeeded admirably) and watching a bus pull up towards me on my right to let people board, looking up and seeing a man running at steep angle down the sidewalk towards the bus, yelling, "no no no no no!!", his tie flying back behind him, glasses askew, the sparse hair left on his head streaming behind him.  I think he caught the bus in the end.

Watching the parrots of Telegraph Hill call out to each other and swoop through the air in flocks, after leaving busy Lombard Street and the crowds of people taking their picture in it's foreground.

And this one, which happened a year ago tonight: Walking along Page Street on a quest for a burrito.  I had made up my mind to go to a place called The Little Chihuahua, which was a little bit of a hike from where I was on Haight Street.  I left my room, but once I walked outside I felt uneasy - San Francisco closes down after dark mostly, and that stretch of the Haight wasn't the best (think angry panhandling hippies of all ages).  Still I was hellbent on getting my goddamn burrito.  So after walking down a block or two and being incredibly uncomfortable, I took a leap of faith and made a left turn, deciding to walk along the street one block north instead.  The fact that continuing down Haight would have led me past Buena Vista Park, where I felt uneasy even during the daytime, was enough of a decider for me.

Page Street was like a different neighborhood - instead of older teenagers in army surplus gear with guitars and pitbulls hanging around and fighting in doorways, there was absolute silence.  The kind of silence that only comes from cool air, safety, and security.  I reveled in that coolness, the absolute blackness of the street, the elegant and pale victorians lined up in three point perspective along the block.  I walked all the way down to Divisadero, and got my goddamn burrito.  It was midweek, but the place was packed with groups, so I opted not to be the killjoy hogging a table and instead took it to go.  Only then did I realize my walk to the restaurant had been so nice because I'd been walking downhill.  Steeply.

I opted to take the bus to go back.  I waited a very, very long time for this bus (late night and buses in SF don't play well together).  The kicker was, it was really only two stops on the bus.  So I waited for an eternity to take a 8-10 minute ride.  Welcome to my world.  In the end, the burrito was pretty tasty, but probably would have been better had it been piping hot and in the company of attractive hipsters.

Anyhow, that's how I was spending my time exactly a year ago tonight - walking in solitary bliss along a sleepy San Francisco street, my hippie skirt swinging at my heels and my mind in the clouds.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Day 12: We Belong To A Cat Roaming Amsterdam Alleys

Last day in Amsterdam!  We started out by revisiting the Anne Frank House that we missed the night before - got there at 9am to some light rain and deserted cobblestone streets.  Only one other person ahead of us in line, which is amazing, since lines are usually 1-2 hours long at midday.  As we were practically the first ones there, we had plenty of space and time to look everything over to our desire.

I will preface this and say that I never read The Diary of Anne Frank - I never had it assigned to me in school, and I didn't really have the desire to read it at any point.  I also had no idea that it took place in Amsterdam (i guess I figured it was in Germany).  Still I felt compelled to see this famous place, and I'm not sorry for it - the experience was beautiful and very humbling.  You get to go through the rooms of the house where Otto Frank had his office and his company (in an associate's name since Jews couldn't own businesses at that time), then you duck into the doorway behind the bookcase by jumping up a step, then ducking your head to clear the short frame and climb the steps to go up.  The first flight of stairs is narrow.  The rooms are decently sized and bare, the wooden floors golden and worn down to a curved shine from millions of feet shuffling slowly along.  You come across a built scale of the two floors showing the layouts with furniture (the entire house is bare as per Otto Frank's request after returning to the house after the liberation).  You look at the staircase going to the top floor and say, "that's so steep, it must be because the model is tiny and it's hard to get the proportions right."

It's not.  The stairs to the top level are truly terrifying.  Each step is about 5" deep, so walking is more of a sideways upwards dance (the sort of thing you see women do on the subway steps when they wear silly high heels).  It's about 10-15 of these steps as well, which results in a staircase about 4' deep, when you think about it, which is just scary.  On this floor you see the bedrooms - the room where Anne stayed and the pictures she pasted to the walls of celebrities and images she found beautiful and brightening, the bathroom with it's simple but ornate ceramic toilet decorated with blue fired glaze detailing, the ladder leading to the attic where she could grab a breath or fresh air and see the sky once a day or so.  All of this was incredibly heartbreaking, but very real, and made me want to read the book.

After the house, you go through a corridor into the museum itself, the building next door that's been transformed into a larger space where they exhibit parts of her diary, the cards issued for the residents when they were sent to the concentration camps, even the roster showing the list of everyone hiding out in the house who was admitted.  There's also a large section showing what countries Jews fled to, the different countries the Franks tried for (all of which denied them), and the plight of those who lacked the correct paperwork and were sent back to certain death.

Overall it was emotionally draining, but worth the visit - definitely a must-see on a trip to Amsterdam.

Anne Frank Huis from the outside, with a well-established line by the time we left at 10am

Afterwards we headed to the Multatuli House, a free museum on a sidestreet a few canals over.  We originally arrived there at 10:06am, but the woman who was running the place was just biking up to the place and going in at that time (shit's more relaxed round these parts), so we tried to find breakfast, which was (again) impossible to find without spending upwards of 7-8€ apiece.  We gave up and trekked back to the Multatuli House, and were greeted by the woman we saw biking up earlier.  She was super nice and explained to us who Multatuli was, even though we had no clue in the world (he was a man who wrote about the injustices being done to the people in the Dutch colonies in Indonesia, sort of similar to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe).  She showed us a wall of all the editions of the book, from the 1800s up to today, and all the different languages, and explained the history of the house - it was a house designed for the middle-lower classes, so where a rich house at the center would be all for one family, the house we were in would have 3-4 families, and the houses in the Jordaan (the next ring out) would be for poor families with 7-8 families per house. Now, of course, the Jordaan has tons of wealthy families paying top dollar and living in these houses originally designated for poor people...sound like another city you know? *wink*

She then brought us upstairs, up a freaking TERRIFYING spiral staircase that easily rivaled the one I climbed at the Anne Frank House - it was pretty much just a spiral version of that, MAYBE 3' in diameter on a good day.  On the second floor was a bunch of Multatuli's personal effects (including the couch he died on, apparently), his portraits, globe, a dried flower and clove arrangement under a glass bell protector that she removed and let us see (it still smelled of cloves over a hundred years later!), writing desk, maps, etc. She explained all the effects and their history, and gave us a little insight into Amsterdam during that time period as well, which was also really neat.  It was a very very small museum (just those two floors), but well maintained and with a very personal relaxed feel to it, almost like the City Island Museum where everything was just out in the open, more of a collection of interesting items on display rather than a formal layout behind glass and alarms.  Low key, and a nice way to wrap up being in Amsterdam.  Plus we made friends with a lazy tuxedo cat outside the museum, and he marked us as belonging to him.

Chilled out Amsterdam kitty
Afterwards, we headed back home and packed up in preparation to leave for the airport.  We figured out that the station one stop from us (Bijlmer ArenA) had a regional train that went directly to the airport, instead of having to take the train up to the nightmare that is Centraal Station and then a regional train back down to Schipol (Zuidoost [our neighborhood] and Schipol [the airport] are aligned with each other, but with no real direct path or road, almost like getting from Bensonhurst to Canarsie in brooklyn).  A quick 15 minute train ride later, we were at Schipol, and got to hang out in the cool comfy waiting area for a bit

Cool comfy waiting area, with wifi and power!
After we got cattle-called for our flight, we somehow got on the plane and got our own row together, with a spare seat in the middle. Score!  Disadvantage: we were on the side of the plane that faced the water when we flew into Barcelona, while everyone else on the other side got an amazing sunset and a nighttime view of Barcelona.  Boo, you can't have it all, it seems.  When we got off the plane, we were hit with a blast of hot and humid air, and were reminded that YES this is the Mediterranean for sure.  

After making our way out of the airport, we had to recalibrate our heads to perceive signs in a romance language - after Berlin and Amsterdam, I'm kind of used to a specific way that things are worded, most of them things I have no idea about, but Baz has a better understanding of.  Tables were now turned in Barcelona - even though I never took spanish in high school, and have only a rudimentary grasp of french, I'm still finding it easier than Baz is to acclimate to the language (possibly due to the large amount of english/spanish signs in New York?).  I also have a much easier time pronouncing things, where as Baz is still mostly playing the pointing and grunting game, which I totally played in Berlin the whole time I was there anyhow, so I don't even feel bad about saying that.  Feels good to be on top! Even if I don't actually know what's going on.

Regardless, we got freaking LOST.  We figured out that we had to take the regional rail to even get to the main metro there...everyone was running past us to get on the train sitting in the station, while Baz and I were struggling to figure out which ticket we needed and where.  The clerk said, "T-10!!" and hit the T-10 button and scurried off (T-10 is ten rides on a pass).  We simply needed the ticket from the airport to the first metro stop in the city though, so opted for the a la carte option - more expensive per ride, but better if you have no idea what the hell is going on.  We jumped on the train, which was packed, and the doors closed right after.  Lucky us! 

Not lucky for us - the train crawled from the airport to the next took about 10-15 minutes just to get to it (and that wasn't even the stop we needed).  It was hot, muggy, the A/C was no match for the hundreds of sweating luggage-dragging people pressed against each other on the train.  Meanwhile, we had our luggage on our backs and felt like we were dying (and I was wearing long pants and a long sleeved shirt from Amsterdam).  We met a couple on the train who were from Vancouver who were just as lost as we were - apparently we were both fiddling around with our metro apps for twenty minutes, trying to figure out where the hell we were...good to know it wasn't just us!  We tried to form a game plan of where to get off and which stop to go to, except when we got to the destination we bought our ticket was in the middle of a deserted parking lot and no one else got off the train.  Plus it was 10pm.  Red flag!  We decided to risk it and stay on the train, even though we would be outside the validity of the ticket.  It was so late, and hot and crowded we just didn't care, so we rode the regional all the way to the neighborhood we were staying in, then bought a one stop ticket and went the one metro stop to our place.  It's in the northeastern part of the city, very residential, with no touristy stuff going on - just the way I like it.  We came across a chinese restaurant (Restaurant Xines) that was still open, which was a novelty to us coming from Amsterdam where everything is shuttered up by 6pm.  Grabbed a menu and realized they had amazing prices (three course lunches with drink and dessert for 6.50€, dinner menu with more choices for 8.60€, etc.  We vowed to drop our stuff and go there for a bit of grub.  

Got to the apartment, which ended up being very nice - brand new building, elevator, quiet A/C, separate bathroom for us, etc.  The hosts are super friendly and know some english, and gave us a rundown of all the must-see things in Barcelona, which was really nice!  Unfortunately we were sweating and hungry from the trip so it was tough to pay attention, plus it's tough to absorb so much so quickly, so we noted what we could, gave up on going to the restaurant, and turned in and went to sleep.  Well-earned, cool, deep sleep.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Day 11: Dammit, Swedish Food Tastes Good Anywhere

Started off the gorgeous day wandering through Vondelpark, which was filled with people sunning and enjoying the weather.  We walked the full length from east, which was very commercial with trams, shops and busy streets, to the northwest which had more of a gated community, deeply residential feel.

Garden area with hexagonal honeycomb-like hedges holding various plant life

Gazebo surrounded by a moat

Monument outside the gazebo

Afterwards we visited the Begijnenhof (Beguines' Court), a convent-style square right off the Spui - it's located in the first canal belt, so the neighborhood is tall buildings and narrow roads, with pubs and tacky souvenir shops that pack the cobblestone paths, and then you step through a giant wooden door polished by a thousand hands brushing by it, and into this quiet green and blue oasis.


It still houses all women, just like it did hundreds of years ago, though I don't believe it's specifically pious women in direct correlation with the church that anchors it on one side.  Also, the ring of houses contains one of the oldest houses in Amsterdam, one of two houses in the city made entirely of wood that never succumbed to the many fires that led people to build using bricks and masonry.

Oldest house in Amsterdam

The grounds are really peaceful and beautiful - stretches of the grounds are partitioned off, so you can't wander just anywhere, but it's still a nice respite from the rowdy, dark, cramped streets ringing the community.

Open door to the public street area

Begijne woman

Afterwards we spent the day wandering around, riding trams and taking in the sights.  At this point, we had gone a full week without eating anything of any real nutritional value (wurst, bread, and chunks of gouda gets tired quickly), yet didn't want to shell out the 20-30€ per head for a meal (yes, even far from the center).  Amsterdam seem to just be the kind of city where eating out always costs a high amount, either expensive or MORE expensive.  So what did we do?  

We went to Ikea for dinner.

Photo courtesy of  Pretty much what we had.

To be fair, the Ikea was right around the corner from us in the business park that Baz and I wandered into the first night we got there and couldn't find the damn apartment.  Besides, we both dig Ikea (shitty quality and big box mentality be damned) because it gives us the ability to daydream about what our apartment will look like one day when we get the opportunity to live together, which unfortunately isn't in our cards at present moment.  

So we went on a journey to Ikea.  After a mile of walking and wading through a sea of flaxen haired children, we made it to the dining area and decided on salmon with grilled veggies and french fries (gegrillt zalm).  We also realized we were probably one of the few people there who wasn't from Zuidoost, or even Amsterdam, because seriously, what tourist thinks to go to Ikea for goddamn dinner?  Anyhow the poor people behind the counter had to switch their brains over to english when we ordered, and we ended up missing out on some sweet hollandaise sauce as a result, but no worries, since the last thing I needed was more cream/oil/richness in my diet.  

After a blissful dinner of (relatively) real food, with veggies and nutrients and everything, we had some time to kill before heading to the Anne Frank House back in the city, so we walked off our fullness by wandering through the showrooms pointing out stuff we liked - studio room setups, kitchens, wandering through bedrooms connected to closets connected to bathrooms, and seeing that the Dutch really do seem to favor this three-walled shower concept that lacks a curtain or door on the fourth wall, which we noticed in our shower but couldn't determine if it was because the renter was lazy or because it was the style.  Not really my thing (no privacy, plus the whole bathroom is soaking after), but hey whatever, ain't my country.

After falling in love with every wood and metal combo I could find, we scuttled off to make it to the museum by 9pm (museum closes at 10pm in the summer), but due to Ikea's layout being a labyrinth and some bad mass transit karma, we didn't get there until 9:25, which isn't enough time to appreciate everything.  Dejected, we turned back and went back home (practically where we had just come from!) and decided to get an early night in order to do the House in the early morning.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Day 10: Canal Rings and House Boats Galore

Due to the combo of rain and nothing being open (museums don't count), Baz and I wandered around taking pictures of stuff that was mostly grey.  See this is why I didn't post every day.  "Here's a grey sky with a building."  "Here's a grey house with a grey sky."  It was still beautiful, regardless of the weather, but mostly we walked in circles.  Once more, Amsterdam is confusing as heck!

Canal with boats

Snoekjesbrug (?) Canal

I am in serious talks with Baz about owning a houseboat with plants, kitties, and rigging

Day 9: The Dutch Market, and Why You Need To Get Stoned Midday

So Europe is a little funny, from an American point of view, anyhow.  In Amsterdam, everything closes early.  EVERYTHING.  Restaurants, supermarkets, bars, even coffeeshops.  If you wanna get your smoke on so you can better appreciate the ramblings of Stephen Colbert and REALLY appreciate the texture of the velvet curtains next to your bed for like, three hours, you'd better do it before 6pm, because otherwise you're SOL.  Tying into this theme, a lot of stuff closes early on Saturdays.  It's not like in the US where the weekend is the big hitter and stores are partial to staying open late - stuff closes at the same time as it does during the week...seems Thursday (of all days) is the day stores stay open "way later" (ie 9-10pm).  On Sundays, lots of shops close.  I kind of like it, since it means everything is a bit quieter, plus it means people that work in the shops always have at least one day off a week (working a 10 day week in retail isn't unheard of in the states, sadly, due to scheduling mishaps and such).  

That being said, on Saturday, the Albert Cuyp Markt was open from 9am-5pm.  We went midday and it was moderately crazy but very nice, a big mixture of hippie stuff, wholesale makeup and goods, vintage, shoes, bags, lots of foods, cheeses, fish, etc.  I picked up a cute cotton scarf for 1€, and we were tempted by fresh squeezed juices and samples of edam and other snacking cheeses.

Albert Cuyp Markt

Also it rained a bunch.  The whole weekend!! Grr.  This is the (rainy) view from our balcony earlier in the day.

Baz is not pleased with this turn of events

Day 8: Violent Flashbacks of AP Art History

I finally pried open the rusted shut latch of my wallet and coughed up the 14€ to go to the Rijksmuseum.  After this go-through on Amsterdam, I'm so grateful for the plethora of museums in New York that go by the "suggested admission" policy - a lot of places don't do this (I noticied it in San Francisco as well), and in Amsterdam, museums and attractions tend to be in the 10€  and up range, usually around 15€ and higher.  

Apparently the Rijksmuseum has been under renovation for a number of years (as are a lot of museums in Amsterdam, it seems), and when we went it was the limited collection of the best 400 pieces or so.  On the one hand, it makes it a bit easier because it's the finest pieces in the museum, and it streamlines things, but for 14€ , I'd like to see a heck of a lot more (or, alternatively, pay less for the limited viewing).  Also, according to guidebooks from about 6 years ago, even when the Rijksmuseum was under renovation then, the admission fee was 10€ , so they've actually RAISED the ticket prices by 40%, while showing less.  I think that's kind of disappointing.  Yes I know, it's an art institution, yes I know I gave them 14€ anyhow (captive audience and all that), but that doesn't make it right.

I will say this though, the collection is, for the most part, very nice.  Let's face it - I went there to see me some Rembrandt and Hals, and got a bonus dose of Van Ruisdale (my favorite landscape artist).  The first part of the museum with the pottery and silver wasn't interesting to me, and neither was the dollhouse on display from some rich Dutch chick from a few hundred years ago (dollhouses never really impress me), but the paintings were wonderful.  Here's some famous ones you may recognize from the AP Art History slides of yore. 

The Jewish Bride aka Sir David Copafeel

The Servant Girl - please list date, artist, country, medium, and style.  Extra credit: What is the significance of the footstove in the background?  Complete sentences only.

The Night Watch - What is the style of lighting Rembrandt pioneered, and what effect does it convey? Please use complete sentences

Two insanely cute little dogs face off in Museumplein

Museumplein.  Note the massive number of bicyclists

Monday, September 03, 2012

Side Note: Spanish Internet Sucks

Let me emphasize how IMPORTANT it is to have internet in a foreign country in which you do not speak a lick of the native language.  Baz and I have discovered this firsthand, since the place we are staying at in Barcelona seems to have the worst internet I've ever encountered - we think it shuts down after a certin limit has been reached, and only the owners can call up the company and restart it.  This is a problem since they were gone for a few days, and we had no internet during that time period.

This led to an avalanche of bad things - Baz's iPhone being stolen because we went out to a McDonalds in search of free WiFi, Baz not being able to complete jobs, we have no way of communicating with the outside world, I need to be able to track the status of my airline since it looks like they might strike on the day I'm due to fly back home, etc etc.

It's a serious inconvenience - because of the lack of internet, we have no way of checking out tourist attractions, times, guides, prices, transport, etc, not to mention that since most stuff is in Catalan, we need the internet to translate a lot.

It's a shame, because the place we were in was really nice, and a decent price.  Unfortunately, they skimped on internet (the only thing we truly needed to be secure), and we have to write a bad review because it seriously soured up what would have otherwise been an amazing time.