Amsterdam – The King’s & My Birthdays

Last Friday night we started another home exchange. The difficulties and adversities we experienced during the month leading up to this visit in a little town on the river Amstel will be the subject of another post. Today we are simply very happy to be here in this gorgeous city of canals and very tall, very skinny, very old buildings – and bicycles. With the possible exception of Shanghai, you’ve never seen as many bicycles zipping around you as here in Amsterdam!

Amsterdam.Bloem-9628

Our exchange home is in walking distance of the heart of central Amsterdam, the Grachtengordel, a ring or belt of city canals that form the innermost part of old Amsterdam. Whenever I read something like ‘grachtengordel’ I’m amazed how similar Dutch is to German. A gracht, pl. grachten is a special Dutch term for a canal with streets on both sides, framed by rows of houses. Gracht derives from graven, to dig, which echos both the German words graben and Grab, [sic] grave. And gordel looks just like Gürtel, the German word for ‘belt’. See how easy Dutch is? Not really, though, the spoken language is vastly different from German and I don’t have a prayer!

Before we left Saintes I visited the ‘Orange Boutique’, the local store of our internet provider, to upgrade our existing plan. I also bought a vacation plan for internet & SMS in Europe for our trip. At least I thought I had because I watched the counselor punch it directly into my phone via their apps shop – NOT. He must have omitted one or two important steps because when we crossed the border into Belgium, and then into the Netherlands nada happened. Well, I got an SMS from Orange telling me the substantial per second rates for foreign usage, which really made no sense at all because my phone persisted in telling me “NO SERVICE”.

I harbor the irrational suspicion that he, the counselor, did it on purpose. I dislike him because he was rude to me the very first time I needed internet advice shortly after we arrived in France. I felt helpless with my rudimentary French vocabulary and asked him if we could speak English. He denied understanding English and I had to struggle along in agony. At a later visit to the store, I caught him speaking English with a buddy. He is apparently one of those Frenchman, who believe if you’re in their country you should speak their language. I do think one should make an effort, which I do daily, but a discussion about bandwidth and WiFi reach is a darn reach for a new arrival and I did explain that to him very charmingly in my best French. Be that as it may, we were without GPS guidance and got horribly lost. It’s a blessing that the Netherlands are a comparatively small country, or we might still be driving around aimlessly!

To make us all feel better, let me quickly insert the pictures I took in Lille, a northern France city of great historical importance. We’re looking forward to an exchange there next year, and the family graciously invited us to stay overnight with them as a first getting-to-know-you meeting on our way to Amsterdam. On the way from Saintes to Lille, we tested our new petit truc (gadget) on the windshield, an electronic toll reader. It worked very well. You can just zip through special lanes at the toll stations, barely slowing down.

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Lille.02-9481

Our host prepared a sumptuous meal of seafood delicacies, starting with maatjesharing (young brined herring), followed by the most delicious lentil salad with salmon, culminating in pan fried trout. Lekker, lekker! The following views of the backyard will certainly appear again in a post or two next year, showing a different season, a different light, an all new atmosphere.

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I hope, the Mysterious Minoan Tauruses will still be there to greet us again.

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24 hours later we were made welcome again by another lovely host family of four. They made room for us in their house even though they were leaving for Costa Rica the next morning. Our hostess was so incredibly well organized that she was done with travel preparations for her family and dinner preparations for all of us later that evening well before we arrived in mid-afternoon.

We spent some time learning the workings of the house and household before we sat down to relax and become acquainted. At first it’s a bit peculiar to surrender your home and your belongings to strangers, but by the time of the exchange, one usually has had vivid communication over some months and has learned a little about each other. By midmorning Saturday, we were in possession of the house keys and our Dutch exchange family was on the way toward their Costa Rican adventure. I hope they’ll have a lot of fun! While they soared through the clouds toward the Americas, we roamed the neighborhood, did some grocery shopping, unpacked and settled in, watching the cherry tree in the back

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alternating with drawbridge action out front.

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Sunday was my birthday and we approached it with the leisurely attitude such an important date requires and deserves. Toward evening, we took the tram (public transportation) to the grachtengordel center of Amsterdam.

On the right floating greenhouse line the canal. On the left the red barge is a floating bicycle parking area.
On the right, the floating greenhouses of the famous flower market lining the singel, the former town moat. On the left the red barge is a floating bicycle parking area.

We walked around for a while before sitting down at an Indonesian restaurant for a celebratory Rijsttafel. We had made reservations months ahead of time, as soon as we found out that we would be going to Amsterdam. Thirty odd years ago we were invited to the most elegant restaurant in Djakarta, Indonesia, for a Rijsttafel. There, a dozen young women served the many individual dishes to us, which make up the banquet. Here, one waitress arranged our fifteen fragrant dishes on warming platters and we helped ourselves to the Indonesian delicacies. Of course, this whole elaborate feast is based on Dutch colonial traditions and therefore politically incorrect. But I hope, enjoying it ones every 30 years can be forgiven.

ceiling in reception area
ceiling in the reception area
toasted coconut & peanuts
toasted coconut & peanuts
carvings of Wayang kulit, the famous shadow puppets of traditional Indonesian theatre
bas-relief carvings of Wayang kulit, the famous shadow puppets of traditional Indonesian theater

My birthday concluded with a cake our host family had secretly left in the fridge for me.

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What a lovely gesture! And it was delicious, too! Very orange, of course because the following day was Koningsdag, the king’s birthday. We actually ran into King Willem-Alexander of the House of Oranje in a designer showroom on the way home. Funky guy, that king.

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On Koningsdag, the whole country celebrates the king’s birthday. It’s a national holiday with parades and fireworks, music, dancing and a whole lot of beer. The king makes a personal appearance and celebrates with his people in a different town each year. This year he and his family went to Leiden.

Here in our neighborhood we checked out the activities in Vondelpark, a large green space one block from us. On Koningsdag children and their families congregate in the park.

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Many children stake out small areas along the meandering walkways and perform or sell used items or serve homemade goodies to the crowd. The spectators then award those efforts with coins tossed into hats on the ground. We watched young gymnasts perform a floor routine to music, a trumpet & guitar duo, and many more. As we were about to leave Vondelpark a boy approached us asking something in Dutch. Hearing our English excuses, he immediately switched to perfect English and asked, if we wanted to hear a joke. Yes, of course! It was actually a pretty good one, but truly astonishing was the ease with which this pre-teen handled a foreign language. It wasn’t a joke that you could translate, it was a word play that only works in English. I wondered later, in how many more languages he might have prepared a joke to tell on Konigsdag.

Two different visuals caught my eye during our walk home from the Vondelpark. First this entirely unique interpretation of Delft Blue.

poster display advertising an upcoming tattoo expo
poster display advertising an upcoming tattoo expo

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Then we passed by the Shellman and his intriguing window, displaying his merchandise while reflecting the neighborhood.

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Back home, we installed ourselves in comfortable chairs at the windows overlooking the gracht and watched the Koningsdag festivities like a very lively stage performance. It got pretty loud at times! See for yourself, how Koningsdag Fun was enjoyed by the whole neighborhood! Did you see the port-a-potty on the boat?

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