#MnOrchTour: Ambling in Amsterdam

“Will you need any help with that?” the clerk at the front desk of the Amsterdam Hilton asked politely. I staggered in front of her, attempting to hoist the weight of my knapsack onto my back.

“Nope,” I said, writhing like some kind of injured turtle. “I think…ayep…yep, I’ve got it.” Subtext: I can’t remember if we’re supposed to tip bellhops in Amsterdam, because I can’t keep the various tipping traditions of four countries straight, and I don’t have any Euro coins easily accessible if they do, and my back is shot after all this air travel anyway, so why not add one more injury on, and I will not look like a dumb stereotypical American tourist who doesn’t know what she’s doing, goddammit, even though it is totally obvious to everyone that I am a dumb stereotypical American tourist who doesn’t know what she’s doing.

“Your room is 117 and the elevators are right behind you,” she smiled sympathetically.

My ears pricked up. Room 117? Was I to be banished to some kind of servants’ quarters next to the public toilets and the ballrooms? For the price I was paying (thirteen times the cost of my viola bow, by the way), I’d better not be. But she’d mentioned elevators… I hesitantly stepped into the cab and suddenly remembered that in Europe, floor zero is a thing.

So after a long day of travel, I ascended a floor and finally got into my hotel room. As soon as I did, I started cackling at the audacity of its size and beauty. The whole exterior wall of the room was glass, buttressed by ceiling-high curtains, framing a view of the canal and the white canal-side cabana. The sky was blue and pleasant. The sun was warm. The light shone at the golden angle of early autumn, as it did all throughout our trip.

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View out my hotel window

In my exhaustion, I again succumbed to the seduction of the mini-fridge. I paid the equivalent of $8.36 for a bottle of water simply because it was a little colder than what came out of the tap. I swear that this was the only despicable thing I did on the entire trip.

Before I collapsed into bed that night, I tucked my money into a little purse, leaving the overstuffed knapsack behind, and followed my phone’s map to a grocery store six hundred meters away. I wasn’t exactly sure how far away six hundred meters was, but it sounded like a reasonable distance, and it was.

It seems as though every description of Amsterdam is preluded with talk of bicycles. How many bicycles are ridden. How some bicycles are electric bicycles. How thieves steal bicycles. “You’re going to Amsterdam?” people would ask when I told them of my summer plans. “Be careful not to be run over by the bicycles.” Everyone bicycles, and when they want you to get out of the way, they impatiently ting their silver bicycle bells, or they bellow out with thick Dutch accents that you are in their bicycle lane. Bicycles! The first thing my cab driver told me on the drive from the airport (after he told me about the marijuana) was how surprised I’d be at all the bicycles. The bicyclists believe they are immortal, he said, three different times in three different ways. The bicyclists believe they are invincible. The bicyclists don’t believe they will ever be hit. The bicyclists think they will live forever.

And it is true; the bicycles are everywhere in Amsterdam. But so is beauty. People had prepared me for the bicycles, but not the beauty. I walked down old streets, shaded by tall trees, lined by brick houses, dried yellow leaves just beginning to crumple up in sidewalk corners, the late August afternoon tinged by traces of early September. I wandered down the Beethovenstraat, alone in the Netherlands, feeling more and more like a character in a book and less and less like a real person. I wanted to fall in love just to be in love here. Things felt warmer, and less bracingly austere than in Finland, and everything had an aura of gentility and grace. I passed flower shops and tea rooms and book stores with appealingly stacked window displays. “Tourists welcome; English books in back,” one offered politely. The sign was a pander, but it was an artful one.

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I entered the grocery store, took my little European basket with the wheels on it, and cruised up and down the aisles, taking everything in. People were only buying supplies for a day or two at a time. Fruit and vegetables were much more expensive than in the United States (duh). They came in almost comically small portions. Grapes were sold in the same clear plastic containers that strawberries are back home. For the first time ever, I wondered why we weigh our grapes in the United States but not our strawberries. Also, food you’d expect to be refrigerated in America was not refrigerated here, but nobody else seemed to mind, so I just went with it.

One aisle held miscellaneous household items, including deodorant and toothpaste and diapers and cat litter, all emblazoned with words that I found irrationally and inappropriately hilarious, like Kattenbakvulling. But it also felt like something was missing, and it took me a few moments to realize that there wasn’t a single pad or tampon in sight. Three possibilities: I’m blind; I had unusual shopping experiences in Europe; or there are secret menstruation markets that I was not granted entry to. In fact, the only feminine supplies of any kind I saw across four countries were in Iceland…and those were less pads and more pieces of paper folded in thirds with some half-hearted adhesive on one side. Thirty of those cost the American equivalent of $11. #TourGlamour

I brought my food back to the hotel room. I think I might have eaten a croissant. But that night I had the same experience that I’d had in Lahti: I woke up in the middle of the night, wide awake, curtains open, tablet glowing with the blue and white of Facebook, groceries strewn across the bed. I had no memory whatsoever of falling asleep. I hoped I hadn’t done anything dumb in these forgotten moments, like changed into my nightgown in front of the huge windows in full view of the canal, or emptied the automatic mini-fridge and spent $100 on cold water, or private messaged an unintelligible fan letter in all caps to Alex Ross on Twitter.

*

My second day in Amsterdam was spent hammering out drafts of blog entries and uploading photos and answering emails. I worked for fifteen hours straight, intermittently munching on the croissants and soft strawberries that I’d bought at the market.

As I sat writing canal-side in Amsterdam, the Minnesota Orchestra was making its trip to Edinburgh via charter flight. (The entire stay would last a total of 22 hours.) In the afternoon, I got an email from flutist Wendy Williams confirming that I’d be allowed into rehearsals in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I was glad to hear it, but I also wondered why she was taking the time to email me on such a busy day right before a performance. Then the reports came trickling in: the Scottish customs line was so long, and the one officer on duty so sadistically thorough, that players had time to do all sorts of work on their phone while waiting in line. The last of the tour members barely had time to grab a bite to eat and take a quick shower before darting onstage for the sound check. Once again, #TourGlamour. Every single person I talked to reiterated how smart I’d been to skip Edinburgh.

Somehow, even though Amsterdam is an hour ahead of Scotland, I stayed awake until the end of their concert, wanting to coolly eavesdrop on any Facebook statuses to see how the show had gone. (Although I admit, I set an alarm on my phone in case I entered my weird quasi-narcoleptic sleep state.) It sounded like things went great, and the next morning I woke up to reviews that were, by and large, exceedingly positive. You can pretend that reviews don’t matter. Maybe they don’t. But it’s hard to not feel a jolt of giddiness when The Guardian’s sub-headline for the show lauds our orchestra’s “thrilling new edge.” Another half dozen newspapers were similarly impressed. The Minnesota magic is not all in my head. It’s not all nostalgia. This sh*t is real.

*

I spent a lot of time just wandering Amsterdam on foot, content in the knowledge I couldn’t get lost, thanks to my free unlimited data in Europe (thanks, T-mobile!). (Alas, without the phone, things would have turned out very differently.)

As tempting as it was, I didn’t overschedule myself, so I only went to two attractions in Amsterdam besides the Concertgebouw. The first was the Van Gogh Museum. It was an amazing place to have gone to, but it was awfully busy, and I’ve had more spiritual encounters with his work in Minneapolis and Winona. (Also, I am fully aware how completely insufferable that last sentence sounds. Don’t get me wrong; I’m deeply grateful I went.) (Also, despite a lifetime of interest in Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting, I only just found out at this museum that Van Gogh’s sister-in-law was the one to successfully promote his work after his death. Figures that there’s an unsung woman involved.) (Also, until I set foot in the gift shop, I’d been blissfully unaware as to how much Van Gogh themed crap exists in the world. You want to buy a Sunflowers paper fan? Go for it. I did.) (Also, did you know there are potato chips sold there called The Potato Chip Eaters? Because there are.)

I also stopped at the Anne Frank Museum. Thanks to a minor miracle, I found a single turn-back ticket online for the time and day I wanted, and it afforded me instant access to the museum; otherwise, I would have had to wait outside for two hours in the sun, and I don’t know if I could have made it without getting sick. (Violist Jen Strom told me later that the heat index at the Amsterdam airport that day was 106 degrees. And hardly any place besides our hotel and the museums had air conditioning. I knew it was hot, but I’m glad I didn’t know how hot until we were in Iceland.) I’m so grateful I had the ticket and the tour. I’d just re-read Anne’s diary before arriving in Europe, but nothing prepared me for how small and claustrophobic and dark their hiding space was.

In the museum portion, there was a video looping with statements from visitors. An American veteran who had fought in World War II once wrote in the famous guest book: now I know what we fought for. I shed a tear or two at that. My smart, funny, gregarious grandfather wasn’t killed in the war, but the PTSD nearly killed him. Seventy years later, I can still see ways in which his horrific wartime experiences in Europe shaped the course of my family’s history in faraway Wisconsin. There’s something about being in the same geographic place as where the wars happened that make them feel more present, more possible. Maybe part of the emotion came because emotions are magnified during the physical and mental demands of touring. I don’t know. But I had to wipe the tears from my face.

*

The sight-seeing was amazing, but touring, of course, was the whole reason any of us were there. The Minnesota Orchestra was scheduled to play at the Concertgebouw, one of the most beloved concert halls in the world. And I was there.

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I didn’t want to be late, so I got to the hall early. I had some spare time to circle the building and wander past the employee parking lot, which is actually just a square of concrete with a bunch of bikes locked to a bike rack.

I tried my best to absorb the reality and gravity of the situation. It was impossible to get too reflective, though; there was street construction occurring in front of the main door, and the bicyclists weren’t happy about the disruptions to their lane. Just as I was about to meditate on the hugeness of this moment, and what it meant to me and the orchestra I’ve devoted my adult life to loving, a bicyclist started bellowing at a clueless pedestrian: “THIS! IS! A! BICYCLE LANE!”

So I shrugged and instead of thinking too hard, took a vapid selfie in front of the poster: Beethoven Vijfde Symfonie. Minnesota Orchestra, o.l.v. Osmo Vänskä. F*ck, yeah.

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Then I wasted more time by dawdling in the music store next door to the Concertgebouw and picking up an antique study score of Beethoven 5 for the American equivalent of $8.36 (and yes, I’m well aware this is the same amount I paid for the cold bottled water earlier in this entry; don’t remind me). I hugged my little package in dorky delight, fantasizing about someday leaving it in the musicians’ lounge in Minnesota and having it returned to me full of autographs.

There was still spare time before rehearsal started, and there was nothing left to do, and by now the shops were all closed. I wandered some more, then waited on a bench near the hall and became engrossed by my phone. A few minutes later, a tall Dutchman loomed over me. “Hello, Emily,” my stalker said, and I started. It wasn’t a Dutchman; it was principal trombone Doug Wright. I crumpled in relief. “How are you enjoying the city?” he asked.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked the question. I felt lost for words. I don’t even remember what I said back to him. I just remember the acute feeling that any words I had were totally, wholly inadequate.

12 Comments

Filed under My Writing

12 responses to “#MnOrchTour: Ambling in Amsterdam

  1. hmunro

    I love your writing and your wit, Emily. I don’t know how you manage to cram so many wonderful little vignettes into a single blog post — from your taxi driver’s observations to the apparent lack of “feminine goodies.” But the story that really got to me was the one about the veteran who wrote, “Now I know what we fought for,” and your grandfather’s struggles after the war. Entire generations are grateful for their courage and for their sacrifices.

  2. I’m glad you had a good time in Amsterdam. Although since you didn’t take a canal ride, you missed the four-story parking ramp by Amsterdam Centraal station. The four-story bicycle parking ramp…
    Great post, though. It was good not to over-schedule yourself! (And we didn’t need to hear about the trip to the “coffee-house,” anyway…)

    • Bwahaha. I really wanted to go on a canal ride, but in 90-some-degree weather, with most of the tour boats glassed in, it seemed like a horrible place to be, lol. I heard a couple of times about this mystical four-story bicycle parking ramp. I guess it just means the Minnesota Orchestra needs to return and I need to go back with them! ;) Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. A glorious city! So glad you enjoyed your time there, Emily. I love your photos. It’s fun especially to see them because I used Amsterdam in my novel “Perceval’s Secret” as a location. I had the fun privilege of Edo de Waart telling me how much Amsterdammers LOVE their dogs, and that it’s really necessary to watch where you’re walking. You didn’t mention this so apparently Amsterdammers decided to start picking up their dogs’ poop! The smell of the sea on the wind, the water lapping around you, the golden light, a beautiful city. Cinda

  4. Well done! Brought back memories of our brief stopover in that delightful city. I was struck by the number of bicycles that get tossed in the canals. I was tempted to toss a couple myself. I can understand the importance of bike paths, but those riders are ruthless! Thoughts on how short the review was in The Guardian?

  5. Sarah

    I wonder if 1) locals have small refrigerators and 2) if you have to buy “sanitary supplies” at an apothecary or pharmacist. Whenever I get to Amsterdam, I will find out for you . . .

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