What's better than roses on the piano?
HOLLAND - DAY 1
Greetings all from Rotterdam. I am staying with my old friend Mary, who is here on an art residency with her friend Stephanie. They are staying in a huge old school building that has been converted into artist studios. They live in what used to be the janitor's office (or at least I like to call it that) with a classroom studio next door, a communal kitchen that used to be the teacher's lounge, and right now I'm sitting in the "library", surrounded by art books (all in Dutch!).
Let's begin with the arrival in Amsterdam. After a couple of days mucking about with the airline (Boston's blizzard led to a six hour waylay at the gate - with all of us forced to sit on the plane waiting - then the flight finally being cancelled), I finally took off on my first international flight. Really, it was no different than a regular flight, except there were more movies.
When I arrived at the airport the first thing I saw was a Burger King. Not very European, dammit. I called Mary, but it was only 7am, so I told her I'd grab the train to Rotterdam and she agreed to meet me at the station. I was a little confused by everything being in, you know, Dutch, but I was able to navigate the train system rather easily (having the station right in the airport is a brilliant idea).
It was a gray and drizzly morning, which is just to my liking, and I had a wonderful taste of the landscape as the train went through the countryside, passing meadows, sheep, shanty-town style greenhouses (some decorated like little homes), and profoundly European small towns. "Profoundly European"? Only to my dumb American ass. As expected, I was duly impressed by the speed and quietness of the rail travel.
In Rotterdam, Mary met me and we started to walk back to her place. We stopped along the way and had a lovely breakfast at a spacious café that looked like it was in a converted garage. We had to ask the waitress what they had because neither of us could read the menu, but she was most accommodating, and we were brought "the big breakfast", which consisted of little ala carte plates of sausage, ham, eggs, croissants, etc. It also came with a side of chocolate Jimmies (to use the racist name), which I am told are all the rage here, sprinkled on buttered bread for breakfast.
After checking in at Duende (the name of the school/art space), we took a bike ride to an open air market and bought mounds of fruit for rather cheap. The market was filled with people bartering for fruits and milk and fabric and, my favorite, huge wheels of cheese. None of these people were tourists, but actual residents of Holland just doing their thing. I was glad to be in their midst on my first day in Europe, rather than trapped in the world of tourism crap.
A friend told me that in Europe you should learn to say "do you speak English" in the native tongue and people will think it is charming. I mention this to Mary and she says that the one time she asked someone if they spoke English they said, "Of course I speak fucking English." I decide not to bother and just start blithering at people to see if they'll understand. However, not speaking the native language has humbled me a bit. Unlike the usual stubborn American I honestly don't expect everyone to understand my English, so I keep fairly quiet and don't talk much to the shopkeepers.
The architecture around the square where the market lays out is an amazing mish-mash of styles. Since Rotterdam was bombed pretty hard during WW2 most everything is new, but unlike boring US cities, crazy-mad-wild yet functional architecture lives all over the place, with styles meshing and clashing. Homes built as cubes balanced on their points, 30 story buildings with decorative balconies on every floor, and a Library inside an oddly shaped structure with giant blue pipes coming out from the top and curving to the ground like insect legs all live together in harmony.
The inside of the library was interesting as well. Lots of open space and strangely laid-out floor plans. Peeking in from the outside window, it didn't even look like a library, but like the atrium of a mall. We went in for a little bit and Mary explained to me that you have to buy a membership to the library, but they have some amazing stuff (mostly in, duh, Danish). The best is a CD library, a huge area, the size of a music store (and a selection to rival most of them), where you can check out CDs and music-related DVDs for $3. That alone could make me live here. Damn.
Photos by Stephanie:
After a light dinner of fresh vegetables and rice (which I really only picked at because of the presence of brussels sprouts), we went to a party in the warehouse district. It was a birthday party for a pair of artists - Sasha, a soft-spoken Russian who is currently working on a series of pieces about the obsessions of ghosts (he recently found some bones in an old building and became somewhat overcome by their implication), and his wife Suzanne, a strikingly pretty (and strikingly well dressed) German who does prank-ish video projects. The whole room was multicultural, with people from Spain, Iceland, and of course four or five expatriate Americans. It was a good mix, and the interesting thing was that, unlike most of the "underground" artist parties I've been to back home, this was an older crowd, and yet still very optimistic, filled with youthful enthusiasm and, you know, a bit an the weirdo side. We danced until the wee hours.
Outside of the warehouse was a traffic circle lined with bright neon script. I can't tell what it said (Dutch, duh), but it was big and bright like a Times Square billboard. Cars were consistently entering the circle and driving around - like high school "cruisers" - and a string of prostitutes lined the sidewalks waiting to be picked up. This was the government-supervised prostitution zone, and on the other side of the building (so one of the artists told me) was a series of stalls where the cars could park in private and...well, you get the picture.
The party was actually quite fun. I did a lot of mingling and met some interesting people. The boys from Iceland were especially fun. They had just completed a documentary about Mathew Barney and were very excited that I ran a theatre and expressed interest in seeing their film (and knew about the Icelandic treasure, the Screaming Men choir). Mary told me that whiskey is very expensive in Iceland, and since coming to Rotterdam a few weeks ago they had been insatiable for the much more affordable bottles here, so after downing most of a bottle which they were also generously sharing, one of the Icelanders kept approaching me and drunkenly slapping me on the back. "You have got to come to Iceland, motherfucker. It's beautiful."
HOLLAND - DAY 2
This morning I woke up early (like always) and did some internet research for Rotterdam attractions to see. I thought I would get out of Mary and Stephanie's hair for a while and let them work on the art show they have coming up on Friday. I found a few places I want to visit, but was most intrigued by the New York Hotel, a classy old structure that had avoided the bombings of WW2 and was the departure point for the New York/Rotterdam steam line (now defunct, like all the great ocean liners). It was where about 60% of the town fled to America during the war (many of them Jews), and so has a very melancholy history for most families. I mentioned it to the girls when they woke up and they were very excited, exclaiming that for their first few weeks in Rotterdam they practically lived there. So we hopped on our bikes and headed off to lunch.
It's been windy in Rotterdam, a vicious biting wind that comes in cold and slaps you in the face. Riding a bicycle along the river was an almost perverse attempt to defeat this wind. At times we came to complete stops while pedaling along flat land, because the wind had simply become too strong. Still, bicycles are the way to travel here, and all the streets have their own bike lanes. I didn't complain too much, but I find it strange that in the dead of winter these two girls haven't even tried using the trams. But Mary has always been cheap in the most charming of ways, and I think the idea of paying, even just a little, to get somewhere that you can get to by other means for free is ridiculous. I tend to not care when it comes to money, and let it blow away in the wind in favor of convenience - or at least in today's case, warmth and sanity.
I just remembered that last night as we were heading over to the birthday party, we stopped at a late night convenience store to pick up some snacks. I bought a bag of chips and a soda. The clerk charged me $7 Euros (or about $10 US - our exchange rate being for shit thanks to a certain idiot president). I thought nothing of it, but as we were walking away from the shop Mary and Stephanie demanded I go back and confront the clerk. I didn't want to, so they went inside while I stood on the sidewalk and ate my chips. In the end, the clerk did overcharge me by accident and I got $5 back. Still, I never really cared. I was just so excited to be in a new place. Stupid tourist…thank God I have two frugal girls looking after me.
As we approached the end of the pier where the hotel was located, we noticed a group of teenagers who were struggling to keep a wall sized slab of styrofoam from flying away in the wind. They were sitting on it, but the wind was lifting it out from under them. As we locked our bikes, the slab freed itself and went hurtling up the pier, terrifying pedestrians and threatening to crash into oncoming cars and a woman in a wheelchair. Only later, while sitting in the restaurant, did Mary and I realize that we should have been taping that with her video camera.
The European traditions you've heard are true. Mealtime is leisurely, and the waiters are in no hurry. We sat for several hours in the busy hotel restaurant, enjoyed a full course breakfast, several cups of strong coffee, and a round a deserts all for only about $30. And we talked. It was wonderful how much we talked. About everything, from art theory to our opinions on parenting to European fashion to the ideas of internal philosophies. I felt, damn I hate to say it, so European. We didn't care if we did nothing but sit there all day.
Eventually we moved on and, somewhat at my urging, decided to avoid going home and instead went to a coffeeshop. Cafes serve coffee. Coffeshops serve marijuana. We found a place called "So High" that just cracked us up, so we went in. The place was clean, had a diverse clientele, and was in many respects much like a cafe. Except everyone was getting high. The legal drug use made everything so much more benign and normal, completely detaching itself from the counter-culture cool of drug use. Everyone was quiet, having conversations, reading, playing chess. It was just like hanging out at my old favorite coffeeshop (er, café) in Denver, Paris on the Platte. Even the heavy smoke in the air was similar, just not cigarette smoke.
We sat there for a few hours and talked even more - about literature and stories about my step-dad. We shared a couple of thai sticks and drank lots of juice. The day was leisurely wasting away, and the sun was beginning to set.
This is a beautiful city, even more so because of it's newness which has underneath it a sense of sorrow for what was lost (a statue downtown shows a man with a huge hole where his heart should be - which represents the complete destruction of downtown Rotterdam during the war). Riding home on our bikes (the wind behind us, thank
God) and touring the streets of Rotterdam after a day filled with nothing but stories and plates of food, I was filled with a rare feeling of serenity.
And the pot wasn't even that strong. I was just very happy.