Jeremiah, Subhash and I arrived in Amsterdam by bus by way of France and Belgium after wandering the empty train cars in the Chunnel. The Crowne Plaza appeared directly across from the station; we stumbled wearily to our rooms. Later we visited a coffee bar to perk up, and we explored the gray lanes until dusk, digging the neon Dutch-language signs and brown winter canals. The sprawling town in the cloudy dusk of January seemed to be a ruin, inhabited by sparse ghosts left from the New Year’s celebration. As my two friends and I stepped over the litter of the huge parties, we discussed other endings and beginnings, historical eras of excess and the reflective soberness that followed.
On the first night we ate at the old Dutch Dorrius Restaurant, attached to the hotel. After we ordered a bottle of wine and traditional Dutch dishes, the waiter dropped a bread basket on the table. Instead of bread, something fried lay within, with a white dipping bowl filled with a yellowish substance. When the waiter came back with the wine, I asked him what it was. “This is" he said in broken English, “lard and these are pork rinds.” Right. We dug in, commenting that the health food revolution clearly had not reached Holland.
The next day we entered the gray, Rembrandt streets early in the morning. A brief search later, we found the Steltman Gallery, home to Michael Parkes – wonderful, magical-realist paintings. A print of “Gargoyles” had hung on my wall for years; I was eager to see the original. The thin European woman running the gallery let us in, surprised to see someone so early. After a quick, useless search, I asked the woman where “Gargoyles” was. “It has been loaned to the New York gallery,” she asserted, turning to dust more paintings. My heart sank. By the time I would return and get the chance to visit Manhattan, the painting would no doubt be back here.
Bicyclists careened by us as we continued past leafless parks and over arced bridges. We traveled toward the museums, on the hunt for art. We viewed the dark old masters of the Rijksmuseum, topping before the famous painting of “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem", which my like-named friend solemnly paid homage to. Next were the broad stroked paintings of the Van Gogh museum, self-portraits and landscapes, peasants and flowers. I stood a long time in front of the famous “Wheatfield With Crows", a cloudy reminder of the thin line between genius and madness. Van Gogh’s thick, almost three-dimensional paintings were so different than the prints – it was shocking. I hesitated before buying one.
Hungry now, we stopped for croissants and coffee at a small shop; we attempted to read Dutch newspapers. Art dominated the day. We felt that somehow we were betraying the usual American pursuits in Amsterdam. As we sipped the dark, rich liquid, we discussed future possibilities: the unique sex shows and famous marijuana bars. But exhibits like Michael Huisman’s disturbing collection, “Garden, Night, and Farewell", had given us more than enough pleasure already, here in the heart of old Europe.
We found an empty Indonesian restaurant, a relic of former colonial imperialism. Downing more wine, we sampled a huge selection of spicy eastern dishes, pondering the venerable art we had worshipped that day, the productions of a great culture. Only twenty-four hours had passed so far, and who knew what the next day would hold, amongst the canals and alleys, the paintings and architecture, the last remnants of a seafaring people who had long since passed the torch to others.