Monday, November 30, 2009

Crazy bikers

Update, Monday Nov 30, 2009 - See the biking photos I just added on Picasaweb at:
Biking. They belong with this entry but I didn't have time to upload them up before.


I know we've all been joking about the bikers here and how indomitable they are. The weather doesn't faze them, traffic doesn't slow them down, motor scooters sharing the same bike lanes don't seem to worry them. I left the hotel this morning intending to ride over to see and photograph a windmill. There are only a few of them left and I haven't seen one as yet so I thought, I'll head southwest and check out the closest one, the one called Reiker Moller. But when I got down to the street it was pouring at least as fast as it last night. My attitude about riding in the rain has changed I think, but it hadn't changed enough to get me onto the bike in this stuff. I walked to the bagel place up the street for breakfast.

While I was sitting there looking out the window at the traffic I was forced to take note: I'm seeing bikers, plenty of people out biking, as usual. I decided to do a little photo gallery of people riding bikes in Amsterdam. Eventually I'll put them on Picasaweb but I'll include a few here.

In all of these photos, please know that it is raining steadily. Also  these are cropped portions of larger images that I took at my camera's maximum telephoto setting, about 5x. Some people are better dressed for it than others. Women bike along, wet hair streaming out behind. Temperatures are in the high forties maybe, hypothermia weather.

I hate how this blogging software treats image placement. Good luck with trying to make pictures look intentionally placed, even planned, but whatever.
Notice the gal on the left. She does not like the fact that I'm photographing her as she talks (and rides).

Biking is easier than driving but it isn't problem free. Let's say you want to go to a popular spot, a restaurant,  a market, or a museum. You've got to find a place to put your bike, and by "place" here I mean you must find some sort of immovable object that, in addition to being immovable, offers a means of attaching your bicycle to it. You may learn that you have to "park way down the street" where there's a bike rack, or fence,  a railing, a utility pole, something, anything to lock your bike to. And in these places every conceivable place is often already taken.

These bikes never come indoors either. Nor are they made for climbing hills. Most bikes you see are in only mediocre condition while some are close to rattling themselves apart. I have seen only two bikes of the sort that I would call a "road bike," at least what we in Homer refer to as a road bike; those were being driven by jocks, and both were seen in the Amsterdam Bos (a park) today, a Sunday when the bike nuts are off work. You don't see many hard core bicyclers here. Because everyone bikes, bicycling isn't as special as it is back home, I'm guessing.

These bikes are heavy. The one I have must weigh at least 50 lbs. But there are no hills anywhere so the weight of the bike isn't all that important. Durability and simplicity are what's important. Most bikes are single speed with a disk front brake and pedal brakes in the rear hub. These are the so called "coaster brakes" used on American bikes when I was a kid. To stop, you just reverse the pressure on the pedals as if to start pedaling backwards; the harder you push back, the quicker the stop. After years and years of handbrakes these took some getting used to.

The drive chain is always enclosed. This saves you from getting grease stains on your clothes or worse, getting your clothing caught in the chain where it will not only get greasy but might be ripped apart in the bargain. It also protects the chain from moisture.
It can stay nice and oily in its little case. This is doubly important because these bikes are outside all the time. They seldom, if ever, see the inside of a garage or apartment.

Nobody wears helmets. Some people wear hats when riding in a rainstorm but many don't. And bikers don't really follow the rules. They ignore signal lights, choosing instead to look at traffic conditions, evaluate the situation, and then quickly doing whatever it takes to move forward, almost without thinking it seems. A perfectly respectable gentleman will suddenly grow tired of waiting for the light to change in his favor. He'll just jump out there and cross the road, be it two lanes or three, no problem. But cars aren't the only vehicles out there. You also have trams, and buses, and motor scooters, not to mention scores of other bikers, most of whom consistently disregard the same laws as you. This makes for many an awkward encounter in intersections, I can tell you.  And I must admit, I'm learning to ignore traffic laws as well. You learn to disregard them because in order to move around on a bike you must. And then it seems like there are so many lanes on the roads: one for buses and trains, one or maybe two for cars, one for bikes and scooters, and a sidewalk for the unfortunate pedestrians. How do you know which is okay to use? Scooters and even motorcycles use the bike lanes and even the sidewalks with impunity. Okay, no let's say you need to make a left turn at a big intersection. You want to stay in the bike lane while doing it?  Good luck. There are as many ways for a biker to get through that intersection as there are excuses to stop smoking (or eating) and you'll see them all in the first hour you spend on the streets.

Many bikes are black. They look pretty much alike. Why have a bike that stands out, that attracts attention? The more likely it is to get stolen. A nice plain, undistinguished, replaceable, and black, bicycle is what one needs in Amsterdam. Disc brakes? A 27 speed derailleur-gear system?   Total overkill for a town like Amsterdam.

Yet, no matter how decrepit a bike is, they are always locked when the owner goes into a store or coffee shop or to pick up some groceries on the way home from work. And there's not just one lock but two. The main lock is essentially a piece of heavy chain fitted with a locking device to allow it to connect to itself. It's reminiscent of the one I used to lock my Honda 750 motorcycle back in 1974.

In the inset you'll notice a device that looks a little bit like a handbrake assembly. It's a rear wheel lock that's attached to or is part of the bike frame. The key can be withdrawn from it only if it's in the locked position as shown in the picture.

The other lock, the chain lock, must be threaded between whatever immovable object you located in step one and both the front wheel of your cruiser and its frame, and then to that part of the immovable object that has offered itself to be attached. I call it a chain lock not because it locks the drive chain of the bike but because it consists of about 20 inches of big links of hardened chain which can be connected to itself and is flexible enough to enable this "threading" I talked about earlier.

Okay, you're ready to lock your bike up at last. Remember to lock the rear wheel first so that the other key on the keyring can be brought to bear on the chain lock. Attach the chain to the immovable object and then push it through the spokes of your front wheel making sure it goes around the frame too, finish threading it on your hands and knees if required until finally you get to push the locking pin home, then turn the key one-quarter turn, remove and pocket the key. You're free to go shopping.

Here's where I've been leaving my green-fendered bike at night. This stand is just down the street from the Euphemia Hotel.

There's more to the story but I have an errand to run. Bikes do need maintenance occasionally, as mine does now. I was way over in the western part of the city at a place called the Amsterdam Bos on my way to one of those windmills I spoke about earlier when I discovered I had a flat. It was Sunday, I had no tools and no way to get the bike back home. So I locked it to  a convenient post until I figure out how to fix it. I'm on my way to the rental shop, 2 miles distant, to see what they recommend. ;-)

Here's a couple of other photos that belong here. The tram stations are places where lots of people leave their bikes  while they're at work. Here are a couple of photos of one in the south part of the city where I went with my borrowed tools to fax that flat.

And of course. here is a picture of the Reicker Moller windmill I had set out to visit yesterday but didn't actually see until after I got that flat tire fixed. There aren't that many of these around anymore, only 5 remain in the Amsterdam area AFAIK.

Saturday in Amsterdam

The old Jacques Brel song keeps going through my mind as I dress to go out. "In the port of Amsterdam," he sings in the chorus, "There's a sailor who sings, Of the dreams that he brings, From the wide open sea." It's become an ear-worm, a little snippet that replays itself now and then as I wander around this great city.

Last night I finished up with the blog and managing my growing photo collection at about 1 am. I decided to go out for a late supper but didn't really think I'd find anything still open. Wrong--! Big city, Friday night, the neighborhood was rockin. Crowds jammed the narrow streets in a little nightlife neighborhood about a half-mile north of here. Music was spilling out into the night from every bar. Absolutely crazy. I went into one, ordered a beer and sat listening and watching the dancers for a while. The music was intense with a strong beat, the drums were especially loud and crisp--an excellent sound system I must say. Later I found a felafel bar and ordered a plate of felafel with hummus. A perfect dinner. I headed back to the Euphemia to turn in.

Today, Saturday, it's raining again as I get suited up. I'm wearing my lightweight polypro longjohns under polyester pants, my Ibex wool turtleneck, the threadbare Mountain Hardware windblocker jacket that I seem always to be wearing, and a rain jacket stowed in the daypack. I have a warm hat and gloves but haven't needed the gloves yet. Of course, I remind myself, if I were at home on Diamond Ridge looking out at the falling rain and gray skies, there's no way I could be persuaded to get on the bike and go for a ride. Here, I say no problem. As my good friend Alisa used to say, "There's no such thing as bad weather. There's only bad gear and a bad attitude."

I wanted to check out the Van Gogh Museum but a long line waiting to enter persuaded me to bike to a couple of the parks first to get a little exercise, so I headed to Vondelpark. Discovered some clay tennis courts there - they were almost underwater after days of rain showers. Headed next to a small park nearby, the Sarphatipark, checked out the De Rokerij coffeeshop where I finally finished the joint I bought so long ago and had a pretty good latte. After lunch I went back to the Van Gogh and waited for about 30 minutes to get in. I realized too late that the line I was in was for people who needed to buy tickets. Because I had purchased a museum pass on my visit to the Rijkmuseum I essentially had a ticket --I could have walked right in. Ah, next time. Great museum, loaded with memorable works by the master. My boss had a good quality art print of Von Gogh's Sunflowers on his dining room wall. That was the first Van Gogh I had ever seen. But here I was now, 40 odd years later, actually seeing the real thing, in glorious color. On how many walls have you seen this one?

After I got back I decided to take the tram in to Amsterdam Centraal as a sort of dry run for my departure in a couple of days. Bought my train ticket to the airport. Helpful fellow at the station told me trains run to Schipol every fifteen minutes and the trip takes 15 minutes. I contented myself with the knowledge that I will have no problem making my 9:30 flight to Spain on Wednesday. Then I headed off to explore the downtown area.

I wanted to see the famous Red Light District. Along with the liberal dope laws Amsterdam has legalized prostitution. The Amsterdam Red Light District covers a large area of the oldest part of the city. The buildings are tall and crowded together and overlook tree lined canals. The area is pretty cool and the later it gets, the busier it gets. And the darker it gets, the more obvious the glow of the fluorescent red lights above the many windows in the area becomes. I didn't take pictures of the girls because it's frowned upon and I didn't want to offend, or lose my camera. Here is a slide show I found on the Internet that is an accurate depiction of what I saw: Red Light District Slideshow. I did take what I thought was a pretty nice night photo of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. I posted a copy of this one on Facebook the other day.

 I wandered through the maze of narrow streets looking on my right, then looking left, looking at girls of course. Young ones, old ones, black, white, coffee colored girls, some incredibly beautiful and some not so beautiful. They look out at you and try to make eye contact. And if you respond at all they invite you in to join them. It was a fairly strange feeling I must say. I have zero experience with prostitutes and I guess it's destined for me to remain that way.

Finally I ended up at the Cafe Gollem, on Raamsteeg, a place I'd read about and marked as a place to visit because it stocks over 200 different beers.  It was packed but I stuck my head in to check it out. It seemed friendly enough (notice the bartenders expressions) so I edged inside and after a few minutes actually got a seat at the bar. The menu advertised something called Brigand IPA on tap. I ordered a glass. I developed quite a taste for these strong, hoppy beers last summer. We're lucky because the Grog Shop in Homer has a great selection of excellent IPAs available. The ones I especially like are from Oregon, and I've been missing them. I tried my beer. It was perfect! With a nice bite, and nice flavour. Brigand is a very fine IPA indeed and to date, the best beer I've drunk in Europe. Here's the Cafe Gollem's beer list.

I started a conversation with a friendly sounding couple on my left. He is a Scot, Stuart, recently married to beautiful Colleen who, strange as it may seem, was born and raised in Amsterdam. They met in Scotland, got married last spring, and decided to live in Amsterdam. They were lovely folks--we shared several more beers, exchanged stories about travel, Alaska of course, and email addresses. You never know, I told Stu, I might be back. And if you ever decide to come to Alaska, well look me up....

I walked back to my hotel to turn in but not before a) I stopped off at Mellow Yellow for a "coffee", and took a little walk afterward to clear my head. Damn coffee!  I completed a short walk around nearby Wetering Circuit in the rain. I was dressed for it but still, it was coming down pretty fast. Of course, as always, there were bikers out despite the fact that it's now about 1 am and pouring down rain. You just cannot keep these Dutch bikers indoors on a bad day. More about biking in my next entry.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Amsterdam, the weather, biking

I've been out and about by bicycle all day again. I headed to the Anne Frank Museum first but when I spied the long line queued up to get in I went instead to Rembrandt's House, located in a fashionable part of the city then (as now), near De Waag, and about 3 or 4 miles off.

It wasn't a good day for biking. It was chilly and windy and every so often a rain squall would come along and drive big droplets of water onto the sidewalks. But people are always out riding. Young business execs, both male and female, dressed in fancy skirts, a good suit and raincoat, or maybe something leather, maybe holding an umbrella or a cell phone, but everyone you see is just biking along as though it were summer. I don't know why the bad weather isn't bumming me out but suspect it has to do with the fact that here in Amsterdam everyone's riding, all the time, no matter what the hour, no matter what the weather. You just get into a certain frame of mind from within which you can effectively ignore the rain, the wind, the chill, and just go with it.

Rembrandt's house dates from 1630 or so and as such is a an example to me of the way my Dutch ancestors might have lived if they had been wealthy. Here are a couple of photos of what's inside. This was an expensive house when it was built. Rembrandt apparently lost it in a bankruptcy when he was unable to make the payments. I show only the kitchen and a photo of his pigment mixing bench.

I did return to the Anne Frank house and looked with fascination at the place where 6 Jews hid from the Nazis for years. They were eventually reported and ended up in various concentration camps. Only Anne's father Walter survived the war. He discovered his daughter's diary and had it published in 1947. Another achingly sad  story from the WWII years. I don't have photos and for the most part, especially here, that's alright. The general rule in the Dutch museums and churches is that no photos an be taken. In France cameras amd photos are permitted as long as you use no flash. In Berlin, it varied depending on where you were.

Anyway, I got back here after a long ride, a ride in which my normally trusty GPS took me far out of my way to get to one of the big parks on the west side of the city. Every so often on the ride to the park when the rain would pick up in intensity, I would pull over to take shelter under an awning or some other overhang. I'd warm up for a while and then ride the next piece. I note that all the while I'm staying dry others are streaming by on their bicycles. So I take off and move to the next intersection, and the next one after that. Certain intersections by now are starting to look familiar. I'm recognizing where I've been before, and sometimes even where I'm going.

One of those spots I call The Lido, after a department store that's perched on the banks of the canal. It seems as though my travels inevitably take me though here and I'm always pleasantly surprised when  I recognize it as "The Lido" (It's actually the Leidesplein). The Rijksmuseum is a stone's throw away, the Paradiso and the American Hotel overlook the Singelgracht--to my mind the scene couldn't be more perfect as a representation of an exemplary metropolitan area. Knowing the Leidesplein neighborhood with its restaurants and museums is nearby makes me want to live right here someday in order to experience it fully.

And let me tell you, these Dutch girls are TALL. I swear most of them are at least 6 feet  and some are taller than that. I'll pull up at a signal and see a woman on a bike ahead of me. She is often young, maybe twenty, twenty-five at most, and she's usually tall, my height, and attractive. I'm not used to looking upward at a woman, but I don't find it uncomfortable at all. I wish I were 20 years younger because I would love to chase one of them for a while. It's not the first time I've wished for that, and it won't be the last.

I got a bit wet and a I got a bit chilled on my ride home but I did get back after a while. The Euphemia Hotel is very close to the Rijksmuseum. I recalled the rest of the route back from the Rijksmuseum to my hotel from memory . After stashing the bike I had a coffee in an tiny restaurant appropriately called "The Little Coffeehouse" right next to my hotel where I managed to get myself warmed up. The rain is, after all, just water. And here I am. All charged up and ready to go again tomorrow.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Biking around A'dam

It's still November 26th but I'm adding on to what I wrote this morning and adding a few more photos as well. I absolutely love this city, Amsterdam. I'm already scheming about how to come back here, maybe I'll come back here after Spain, or maybe next spring, even next November? Bring a bike and take a month or two to  travel around this country. Also, remember, it is a blessedly flat country. The only hills you ever climb are to go over canals. Great bicycling everywhere.
That said, I was out riding the bike all day today. When I first peeked out of the hotel this morning it was raining and there was a slate colored sky overhead. I was disappointed because I had been looking forward to the ride and for a moment I considered going back upstairs to wait until it cleared up or stopped. But when I looked out on the main drag I saw plenty of bikers riding, just as they were yesterday, and in the rain the day before that. When you see others out there suffering in the wind and weather, you're more willing to submit yourself as well. Then, surprise surprise, the weather factor sort of recedes into the background and if you let yourself go, you'll realize that, after all is said and done, it's actually turned into a wonderful day for a bike ride. So I got my rain parka on, put on my windstopper headband, unlocked the bike and headed out. Here's a house I spotted on one of the streets near Oosterpark: lovely canal view, tile roof, authentic Dutch architecture, circa 1700 possibly. Cost? In the millions no doubt.

For my tour I went first to the Albert Cuyp Markt. Nice ride. Again I want to say that once you're out in the weather and you see that everyone else just dealing with it, you get encouraged to more or less ignore it too--it's easier that way. I followed my GPS as it directed me to the market. It was spitting light rain as I carefully locked the bike to  a wrought iron railing near the entrance. I strolled along looking at the wares, enjoying thoughts of the day in front of me, and, not lastly, looking for someplace to eat. I bought some BBQ chicken at a stand, ate that, and walked back to where I'd left the bike. By this time the sun was popping in and out, adding light and detail to the stuff I was photographing.

I bicycled to  a couple of points of interest that I'd discovered on Google Earth last night: the ancient De Waag building that dates from 1607 (on the left side, above), the flower market at Bloemenmarkt, a random spot out on the main channel of the Amstel River so I could see some salt water and shipping, and another park, Oosterpark (photo below), this one in the eastern part of the city. I'd been to nearby Vondelpark at the end of the day yesterday and enjoyed its quiet lanes and the feeling of serenity it offers in a very busy city. I'm thinking it would be fun to do a  tour of all of the major parks every day that I'm here. I'll work a museum or some other attraction into the itinerary but the emphasis will be on getting around to everything I want to see on the bike. This town is so bicycle oriented! It's really cool.

I've got to get going. It's almost 10 o'clock. But before I take off today I've got to relate my experiences in the Mellow Yellow coffee shop. Naturally I wanted to sample some of Amsterdam's famous weed and to do that I had to go into this little place, on my first night here of course, a stranger in a strange land, and come right out and ask for what I wanted. Now, I don't know about you but when I go into a normal bar, I'm always a little apprehensive. After all, there are people drinking inside and some of them have issues, issues that alcohol tends to make worse. So I try to look casual as I walk up to the bar with my eyes involuntarily bugging out at the sight of all the dope laying around. And I'm a bit hung up. I'm wondering how to actually go about buying something when this fellow approaches me and asks, Can I help you? Ah, yeah, you can. I fake a short laugh and say, Like, I'm a tourist. How do I go about buying some weed?

Well, he says, here's the menu, look it over. Then he lines me out on what's good, what won last year's Cannabis Competition, which type of hash is most potent, etc. Turns out he's a shuttle bus driver driving folks to the 2009 Cannabis Competition which is going on as we speak. So I buy a joint of generous proportions, a true fatty as my Alaskan friends would say, of some stuff named "Pure" for 7 euros (prices ranged from about 5 euro up to about 35 euro for some exceedingly strong stuff) and for some reason, maybe because it was so cheap and so legal, I bought 2 grams of bud for 10 euros. And I note to myself again that everybody in the place is real friendly. The young barman who weighed up my purchase was very welcoming, and when he'd finished bagging my 2 grams, asks if I'd like anything else. Sure, I say, I'll have a coffee. So he makes me an espresso. I paid him something like 20 euros for everything and headed over to a table near the door. A couple was already sitting there but they quickly made room for me to sit down. I lit up my joint and took maybe three tokes, drinking my coffee and enjoying the really friendly environment. It didn't take long before I wanted to get outdoors for some air as it's quite smoky in these bars (like France and Germany, no cigarette smoking is allowed in public places but then this isn't cigarette smoke). After I sat down outside and became "one with the environment" for a few minutes, I realized I was pretty wrecked: I wanted to get back to my hotel room. I was definitely feeling the effects of those 3 hits. I started yawning as soon as I got back to my room. I hit the sack early that night and slept for a solid 12 hours. I guess I needed the sleep. I've been running pretty hard and fast for a month now and the long sleep felt good. And I must admit I was feeling plenty relaxed. I'm still not finished with that joint and it's going on day three already. As I said earlier, it's very strong stuff.

I've been buying food at that same little Italian take out place, Le Delizie, and just before supper last night I stopped in again at Mellow Yellow, ordered a coffee and walked upstairs. I headed over to a vacant table in the corner, sat down and lit up. Pretty soon a guy appears, looks around for a seat and as I have the only table with empty chairs, he comes over with his coffee and sits down. Immediately a conversation ensues. We chatted for a while and had a few laughs. He tells me his wife is in the diplomatic corps (for which country I don't recall). He said with a laugh, "someone in the family's got to work." A nice fellow, like me he's here to enjoy the very friendly, er, mellow, atmosphere and get high. Now that I'm a regular I feel completely at home walking in and ordering my coffee. There is a complete lack of anything even resembling hostile vibes in that shop. One immediately feels welcome and becomes part of the scene. Awesome.

And here is the obligatory photo of last night's dinner from Le Delizie. Pasta is lower left, pickled octopus on the lower right, canneloni bean salad opposite the wineglass, a bundle of spinach with oil and balsamic upper right and and then, behind the wine glass,  a tray of mixed olives with pickled onions.  (Tonight I went in and got a variation on that same general menu.)

Right now it's off to the Anne Frank Museum. By the way, I am loving Amsterdam. Did I already say that? It bears repeating. What a hoot to be here and on a bike, visiting the parks and food shops, and yes, the coffee shops. I'm going to head to  a new coffee shop, an older one with a bigger rep, De Rokerij. And then there's the Rembrant house... Busy day ahead.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Oh wow! This is a great town. I've only spent one day here and I've fallen in love with A'dam already. Friendly people, friendly laws, bikes everywhere, canals, museums, and I have a little, simple hotel room, at the Euphemia Hotel, it's clean and modest with a comfortable bed, centrally located, the Mellow Yellow coffee shop just a block away. Yesterday I was looking for a place to eat and looked in on a little Italian market just a couple of blocks away. Bought some pasta, marinated octopus (good but not as good as Homer friend John's) grilled and marinated eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms to complete a nice take-out dinner.  I tell you, I'm enjoying the hell out of being here.

I want to write lots about this amazing city but I want to get out while the day is young to visit some markets. As soon as I arrived and started walking around I realized that the way to travel here is definitely by bicycle. Bikes seem to rule the roads. They're literally everywhere and people ride in all weather, with umbrellas, cell phones, kids fore & aft, so I went ahead and rented a bike. It's a road warrior type, 3-speed, quite heavy, with a basket, hand brake for the front, coaster brake in the rear (yep, it's a bit weird) and I cruised all over yesterday afternoon after my visit to the Rijksmuseum.  Now, I said earlier the bikes rule the roads. That's not quite true. Motor scooters "share" the bike lanes and the bikers themselves are quite reckless, cutting in front of one another, practically brushing up against the trams that are always very close by. I consider myself a good bicyclist but I'll tell you, one had better pay attention in traffic here or much shit could happen in a hurry. Again I find myself wishing I had my Cannondale here.

Anyway, more later — to check out the photos that go with this article on Google Photos, just click on the link: Amsterdam.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leaving Berlin

It's a windy rainy day today, my first awful weather really. I went out to do a little shopping at the big KaDeWe department store (I'll have more to say about KaDeWe in another post) and seeing as I want to stay warm and dry, I thought I'd tie up the Berlin part of my trip. I did a bit of walking last night after taking the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz. I wanted to see the Holocaust Memorial and the Reichstag. By the way, I have yet to be asked to show a ticket on any U-Bahn train I've ridden in Berlin. Germans mostly play by the rules and I'm left to assume that everybody has paid their fares in some manner. But being an ignorant tourist I never did properly "validate" the 1 week pass I bought back a couple of weeks ago so I've been riding for free ever since.

The Holocaust Memorial is quite impressive. I have a photo of a portion of it below (The building in middle background is the U.S. Embassy and the Brandenburg Gate is just beyond that.) Jana tells me that many Germans ask themselves every day how the Holocaust could ever have been allowed to happen. Furthermore they ask, what would I have done in that time, and under those circumstances? It's easy from our vantage point to look back at those ordinary citizens who were in the end culpable for the genocide and say, It couldn't happen to me, it couldn't happen in America. And yet, recall just a few short years ago when Bush was drumming up all that patriotic drivel, lying to us as it turns out, about the necessity to invade Iraq. Did any of you feel a little bit shy about saying, No, I don't want this? Even the liberal media swung into place behind the administration lest they be labeled unpatriotic, or worse. I imagine things started out in roughly the same manner back in the 1930s when Hitler began his rise to power.

I took my look at the Reichstag and then began to look for the Holocaust Museum Jana had told me about. I wandered around and somehow missed it. It was Sunday night and getting dark so I headed home on foot for dinner. As I walked I noticed a rosy glow in the sky. The sun was going down and throwing some nice color toward me so I turned to the west and took this shot.

I rode the U-2 train to Zoligisher Garten so I could pass by the Kaiser Wilhelm Church once again. This memorial has me quite spellbound. As a boy I read everything I could get my hands on about World War II. Like many kids I had romanticized war, especially that one because my father and uncle fought in it, were in fact casualties of it, and I guess that's part of the reason this church has made such a strong impression on me. How beautiful it is in the present day. I try to imagine the bombing raid in November of 1943, when it was transformed from the work of exalted art that it surely was into what it is now. The nicks and dents in the stone facades were caused by shrapnel, bomb fragments. The interior bricks are exposed like the bones of a body that once was a living being. More images of people dead or dying all around, people bleeding to death on these very same streets sixty odd years ago: these images will be forever etched in my mind. Perhaps the memorial has served its best purpose.


Christmas is just around the corner and the walks around the church and indeed all the sidewalks nearby are full of little sheds selling food and Christmas baubles. I left the church site and walked down the avenue to Jana's.

She prepared another of her specialties: coriander roasted new potatoes with beets (rote bete salat) marinated in garlic-ginger dressing. An awesome meal, again.

Almost forgot. While we're on the subject of food, my favorite subject I remind my readers, I ate my smoked eel today. Those of you who have had smoked black cod know how oily it is compared to salmon. But you should try eating some of these little guys. Very oily indeed, and delicious. I had a small piece from the middle of one -- I'm not sure eating from a piece with the head still on would be quite as easy to enjoy.

Tomorrow I'll drag my suitcase back to the Zooligisher Garten U-Bahn station and catch a train to Amsterdam. It should take about 6 hours, if I don't screw anything up that is. ;-)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Berlin Reprise

I'm back in Berlin and loving it. What a great town this is. First thing that meets the eye as I emerged from the Zooligisher Garten train station was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. I did not have a good photo of it from last time I was here so I took this shot. The place is magnificent and a lasting testament to the horrors of war.

Jana and I went shopping yesterday on a beautifully warm, sunny day. We walked to her local outdoor market, the Winterfeld Markt, and cruised around looking mostly but I did buy a few Christmas gifts, some fruit and cheese, tea, a piece of smoked eel finally, and a loaf of the best bread I've had in Europe up to now.The bakery we got it from is named Lindner, like our friend Maynard who I know from KBay Caffe and who is about to become a father. The first photo below is of Jana buying spices:

These vendors caught my eye. The woman has quite a hairdo. They were selling fruits and veggies. Nice selection, good prices. But my favorite vendor was the olive seller. This guy was so happy to be serving up bags of his specialty olives. Lovely man. We bought some kalamatas and some of Jana's favorites: walnut stuffed olives.
Another interesting food item that was selling like hot cakes, or rather, like hot cheese, is just that. It's a local favorite snack called raclette. In the photo you can see a long black arm thing-a-ma-bob. Sort of looks like  jig saw or sewing machine. It's actually a gas grill which is pointing down so it throws heat onto block of cheese placed below it. The cheese gets hot, bubbly hot, mouth burning hot, and after enough has melted she will scrape off big gobs of it onto slabs of fresh bread. I wanted to try some but as we had planned to eat at a restaurant nearby I forced myself to walk on by. Just as well probably.

We sat outdoors in the very agreeable weather at a Lebanese restaurant and ordered a variety plate for 6 euros each. Falafel, hummus, Baba Ghanoush, gyro-chicken, and sliced veggies. It was a very good meal, and cheap too. By request, for those of you who, like me, are gastronomically inclined (haha), here's the obligatory photo:

Later, Saturday at 8:00 pm:

Okay, I know isn't the type of musical event that many of you would appreciate but as it was so very exciting for me, I must relate the story. I mentioned earlier that I had purchased tickets to a chamber music concert before leaving for Poland. I attended that concert was last night. It was superb, fantastic, and awesome in every way. Here I was, in the Berlin Philharmonic Kammermusiksaal about to listen to a Haydn String Quartet. The members of the Delian Quartet walked onto the stage, the audience politely applauded, they took their seats and began to play. I love Haydn's quartets and I mistakenly thought they were going to play one I wasn't familiar with. But to my surprise they began playing an Opus 76 quartet, Op 76 no. 2 to be exact. The six quartets comprising Haydn's Opus 76 are among my absolute favorites! I know every note in that piece. It was all I could do to stop myself from audibly humming along with it, or worse, whistling an accompaniment like I do in the car or at home.  At the end, people rose from their seats, as did I, shouting Bravo! Bravo! I was totally thrilled.

Next they played a quartet by Shostakovitch. His dark and moody music has never appealed to me but I listened and tried to savor the moment. A brief intermission followed during which I mixed with the Berlin concert-going crowd and had a glass of wine. I decided against bringing my camera along and I regret it now. The interior of the auditorium was impressive, very modern with an interesting layout; stairways going every which-way and fancy hanging lights everywhere.

The second half of the concert was the Brahms Piano Quintet in F with Menahim Pressler performing the piano part. I hurried back to my seat. Never heard of Mr. Pressler? Well, much of the chamber music I love is piano trios. Piano trios by Mozart and Beethoven especially. For many years the famous Beaux Arts Trio recorded some of the finest renditions of these great masterpieces available. Menahim Pressler was, and maybe still is, the keyboard player for that illustrious group. I'm a bit out of touch with what's happening in the world of chamber music these days.

Again the Delian Quartet players trouped out. They were followed by a diminutive old man who was wearing a tuxedo whose cummerbund I swear came to within 12 inches of his neck. He was tiny, and round. But when he sat before the huge grand piano and started the powerful first movement of the piece, the sound filled the place totally. The Brahms Piano Quintet is another of my favorite pieces of music. Fantastic! Again the audience applauded with gusto. The performers came out for an encore. Pressler played a short and beautiful piano solo while the quartet members looked on politely. Obviously, he was the maestro, the star, for the latter half of the program; an awesome artist probably nearing the end of his career, taking his bows, the other players acknowledging his stature by remaining seated.

How could I have been so lucky as to have obtained tickets to a concert, in Berlin no less, and at the precise time I was visiting Berlin, that contained not one but two of my favorite pieces of music? Two massive works by German composers, performed in Germany. Go figure.

I emerged from the concert hall into the warm Berlin evening and counted my blessings, again. The brief walk back to Jana's was the perfect end to a totally enjoyable day.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dobrzyki at last

I finally made it to my Grandmother's hometown yesterday. I rented a car from Avis in Gdansk, a very expensive rental as it turns out (more on that later), and drove there yesterday morning. I have been looking at the general area with the help of Google Earth for a couple of years, visualizing the general layout of the towns and roads and looking at photos of the nearby lakes, posted by Google Earth users, which are a popular vacation destination for many Poles, so I knew what to expect in general.

My first stop was Zalewo, the bigger town my grandmother walked to for things like coffee and sugar. In 1907 she knew it as Saalfeld. Saalfeld and Weinsdorf were located in the German province of East Prussia before the two world wars. Zalewo has a nice brick and stone church and some quaint old homes and buildings, a store, a school, some type of industry, a town square and a few streets. It also serves as an entry point to Ewingi Lake (Ewing See) and the rest of the neighborhood lake system via the canal that my grandmother knew only as "the river". Zalewo has a small recreation area and docks, a boat launch ramp, etc. In one of the photos below some graffiti I saw uses the word Saalfeld which means the artist was aware of the town's history in East Prussia. I also include a scan of the little map I sketched from a ca.1880 Russian Atlas in the Boston Public Library in 1976 after Grandma first told me about her homeland. Using Google Earth I inspected the various lakes in the general region until something lined up with my sketch. And one day I found them — Ewing See, Geserich See and the two towns, Saalfeld and Weinsdorf, located right where they should be according to my drawing. I had found the place I had wondered about for years. By the way, the reason I mention only my Grandmother in these posts is because I never met my Grandfather. He died in Buffalo in the 1918 influenza pandemic in which millions died worldwide. Grandma raised their six children alone after that. She outlived all but two of them. I had questioned her closely about the name of the river but she simply didn't know it — it was merely "the river".

Note, January 2015: In my original post, I had included a portion of a map of Prussia I had found online. The waterway my grandmother told me about was just barely visible on that one. I just located a much better map on the wonderful David Rumsey Historical Map Collection site. The level of detail in this image is fantastic. The main map is quite large and is a composite of 674 sheets scanned at 800 dpi. (More details are at the end of this post.)

Map of Germany, published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme, 1893
courtesy of David Rumsey
In this image the canal is clearly visible (click on it for the full size image) and even has a name, Weinsdorfer Canal.

A complete album of photos resides on the Picasaweb server at Dobrzyki Scenes. My Couchsurfing host, a lovely lady named Ewa, with much patience told me how to pronounce that name but I failed completely. The best I can come up with is DUB-zhuk-ee for a phonetic approximation. But the zhuk part is spoken with a slight roll of the tongue. Tricky, very tricky.

The shot above is from Google Earth. My GPS track and dates is shown in red. I added the historical town names when I edited the screenshot. The two photos below are aerial photos of the countryside that surrounds Dobrzyki. I "borrowed" these from the Google Earth community.

It's obvious why this area is such a draw for outdoor recreation. Below are two scenes from Zalewo.


After Zalewo I turned south on the only road that goes to Dobrzyki. The countryside around here reminded me of certain parts of NY state; gently rolling hills, dairy farms, and small towns close together. Coincidentally, the area grandma lived for most of her life after immigrating was very similar to this. The roads all around are lined with big oak trees, old trees, trees that I'm certain were here when my grandparents walked, drove a wagon(?), to Saalfeld on shopping days over this very road. The mental image I had of them walking alongside these same fields and wooded areas, seeing the same farmhouses I was now seeing, catching glimpses of the church steeple in Saalfeld through breaks in the forest, was very powerful.

Suddenly I came round a bend in the road and saw some houses up ahead and noted a little bridge with a road sign on it; DOBRZYKI. At the same time I spotted a cemetery on the right hand side of the road. I immediately pulled over to look at the names on the gravestones hoping to find a Schwede or a Gunther. Alas, it was a Polish cemetery, beautifully decorated with flowers and oil lanterns for almost every grave. At night you can easily see the Polish cemeteries on the surrounding hillsides because they're all lit up. Apparently, relatives of the deceased go there every night to light the oil lamps. (I later learned that November is a special month for honoring the dead.) I looked all around. I saw no German names nor did I see any older headstones of any sort. Before going back to the car I had the realization that this little bridge just ahead must cross grandmother's "river." Not wanting to rush into the town, wanting to savor my discovery, I began to look more closely at the little waterway below me.

Grandma's "river" looking north
I thought, this is it, one of the stronger images that had been playing in my mind for years; the river that is really a canal. Grandma had told me, "we lived near a river." But how near? I wondered. Was it one of those first houses in the town just across the bridge? Or did she consider the entire town to be close to the river, which of course it is? These are questions for which I'll never have an answer. But the waterway in the photo is most certainly the river she told me about.  (The map below shows the locations of the cemeteries relative to the canal.)

Note- May 20, 2012: Google Earth has new imagery of this area so I updated the blog with the image below. The center of this map is at approximately N53.811563 and E19.585230 if you want to explore the neighborhood in Google Earth.

The town of Dobrzyki was known as Weinsdorf in 1907
Despite the damp chill in the air I went back to the car and packed a small lunch for a picnic. As I reached into the car for my daypack I felt a muscle in my back tense up and a pain shoot through it. Damn! My back can't go out now! I thought. I gingerly crossed the road and spotted an overgrown path leading north alongside the canal. I began to follow it. Right away I noticed a grave marker, and on it was a German name! One Karl Herold (1874-1929), Schmiedemeister, lies here, a blacksmith (one possible translation of Schmiedemeister), who was presumably here at the same time as my grandmother. 

Further along the path I saw buried in vegetation and fallen leaves what must have been stone bases to put over graves and some low upright posts made of stone, delineators of this old cemetery. I surmise that headstones attached to the bases in some way. By dumb luck I had stumbled across an old German cemetery! I looked all over the area as best I could and at first could find no other headstones. In reviewing my photos weeks later I saw that there was actually a German headstone in those ruins that I had missed before. Below is a photo of that headstone. (Click on the photo for an enlarged version.)

Single German headstone in the abandoned German cemetery

Now I'm only guessing but I'd be willing to bet that when Germany lost WWII the German residents of this town left in droves. All of Europe was in chaos, thousands were stuck many miles from home, some had been in prison camps or been worked like slaves by the Nazi regime, the roads were filled with refugees for months; in some cases entire cities and towns were utterly destroyed and there was strong anti-German sentiment in lands that had been occupied during WWII or colonized earlier by Germany. At any rate there were no other German headstones in evidence. Yet we know Germans inhabited Weinsdorf for many years. Were the headstones removed for some legitimate reason? Were they stolen or destroyed? Were the bodies disinterred and moved? More questions without any easy answers.

I had my lunch on what might have been the old towpath alongside the canal. While I ate I listened to the sounds of dogs barking and roosters crowing in town just a few yards distant— probably the same sounds Grandma used to hear when she was fetching water from near where I was sitting. I reckon nothing much has changed in the hundred years since she left. After my lunch, I headed into town.
Dobrzyki is a tiny little town. One main street, the highway I drove coming from Zalewo, a couple of unpaved roads going to some smaller towns on nearby Lake Jeziorak (Geserich See in grandmother's day), no grocery store, no gas station, just a few old homes and farmhouses, a few restored homes sprinkled into the mix, a newer school building, and that's about it. I imagine the residents still drive to Zalewo to do their shopping. After all I had done to get here, I must admit it was a bit of a letdown. The gray skies and November chill didn't help any. But I walked back and forth on the street shooting photos of practically every house along the way. Again, those photos, which will be of interest mostly to family members, are in a Picasaweb album called Dobryzki Scenes. Here's my favorite house photo from that album. One wonders if my Grandmother knew this house, perhaps even lived in it.

Next I drove to the tiny town of Matyty (Motitten on my map) on Lake Jeziorak and almost got stuck in mud when I attempted to reach another little town, Kiemiany. So I turned the car around and headed to the next town on my list, Boreczno or Schnellwalde, which is where my family members were baptized. At the time it was an Evangelical Lutheran church but I would think it's Roman Catholic now. This town is even smaller than Dobrzyki. The church, a small school, and a few houses comprise the town proper. A plaque on the parsonage labeled it as a historical site and that the church was built in 1730. I peeked inside but I couldn't get in as there was a wrought iron gate barring entrance. At this point, there was a chill wind blowing and although I had wanted to do more exploring, my back was killing me so I headed back to Elblag. Unfortunately, when  I tweak my back and it "goes out" l
ike it did earlier it's extremely painful and can put me down for days or even weeks. The absolute last thing I want to be doing when that happens is driving a car. Reluctantly I turned around, took one last look at Weinsdorf, and then headed back to Elblag with my curiosity reasonably satisfied and my back screaming, lay down, lay down!

I'm writing this sitting in a too small chair and will probably pay for it later. Tomorrow I return to Berlin and am looking forward to a chamber music concert on Saturday. Luckily I have some powerful pain pills with me as well as a muscle relaxant from my last back problem this spring. I'm betting, perhaps hoping is a better term, that I can nip this in the bud. Sans back injury I would have liked to ask around, see if anyone spoke English, ask about the history of the town. But, I was in acute pain. It was with great reluctance that I took leave of Dobrzyki after only a few hours.

This morning I drove back to Gdansk to return the car. It took about 15 minutes before I could walk fully upright. I want to tell you about the Avis agent, a very nice guy by the name of Konrad, who was so very nice to me. He apologized after he calculated the total I was supposed to pay because it was so expensive. He tried different ways to figure my bill to lower the total. I had the car for less than two days and drove about 300 km. The bill came to 900 zlotys or about $360 USD, an astronomical amount, especially if you consider that the price I paid to fly from Anchorage to NYC was only $250! So Konrad typed and he tabbed and he made some sort of corrections that brought the bill down to 866 zlotys. He said, "That's not very much difference. Let's try this." So he typed and tabbed and typed again for a while. This time he came up with a figure of 700 zlotys. What a guy! Yet even after all he did, and if the 71 zlotys to fill the tank are included, this 2-day car rental came to approximately $312 USD. I'm damn glad I didn't ask up front how much money was involved because I wouldn't have done it, which is exactly why I didn't ask. It’s no mystery why most people in Poland don’t rent cars. Ouch!
 Anyway, it’s more or less Mission Accomplished as I head back to Berlin for a few more days. After that it’s on to Amsterdam.

Friday, November 20

I’m riding the Berlin Express from Poznan, Poland, to the Berlin HBH. (HauptBahnHof=main station) Thanks to my GPS I found that this train was running at 100 mph, slowing down only when it passes stations at which it isn’t stopping, and then it only slows to 80-85 mph. We’re racing along. Going to Elblag I had a 4-leg trip, one of which was on a cramped and crowded bus, the others on slow commuter trains that made frequent stops. My return trip involves 3 separate trains but they are moving faster and making fewer stops, especially this last one. I’ll be glad to get back to Berlin I guess. I have those tickets to the chamber music concert for tomorrow night and seeing as this is the last leg of my return it looks like I’ll make it just fine. 

A few more notes about Poland. Lots of homes burn coal. One sees piles of it in the towns and in people's yards. Although it’s warm today many chimneys are belching clouds of black smoke. Smells much like the coal we burn in Homer. (Observed as I write: a good looking young woman in the station at Tczew (pronounced t’chef ) who is wearing dark nylons with low-cut athletic sox like I wear for tennis.  But unlike me she's wearing high heel shoes to complete her outfit.) Today has been sunny and the areas we’re moving through are nice looking farmland. The winter wheat is greening many of the plowed fields and in some areas the last of the feed corn is being harvested. It’s not all that different from what you might see in my home state of New York; the gently rolling hills and plowed fields interspersed with pastures and fields of corn looked mighty familiar. In fact, in an email exchange with my cousin Roger we discussed how Grandma must have thought the area where she spent a lot of time, the gentle hills south of Buffalo, looked much like the neighborhood in East Prussia she'd left behind.

In closing I must again mention my wonderful Elblag Couchsurfing hosts, Ewa and Daniel. They made my stay in Poland very enjoyable despite the fact that Ewa commutes to Gdansk every day, 1.5 hours each way by train or bus, to work for Lufthansa. She loves traveling and can get great reductions in airfare with this job. But the trade off is this very long commute. Despite her long day Ewa is very curious about Alaska and spent precious hours of her time at home chatting with me. Both of them were gracious, warm, and very generous with their time and small apartment space. Thank you, thank you, Ewa.

The guest room
Ewa and Daniel's kitchen
Oh, and I’m happy to report that my back appears to be better today after a few minutes of stiffness and discomfort this morning. Thanks to Kevvie who advised me to take ibuprofen immediately upon tweaking my back. I did that and added a 10 mg tablet of cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) and 10 mg of Percocet left over from my last back attack. Three rounds of those pills seem to have caught it. Thanks to Kevin's advice (and the strong drugs), I'm walking upright today.

Notes on the David Rumsey map:

Published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme, 1893

Publisher's Note :

In an agreement dated March 4, 1878, the states of Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg (the areas of modern day Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, and Kaliningrad, and part of Lithuania) agreed to map their areas on a 1:100,000 scale in a common topographic grid survey consisting of 674 sheets. Each sheet covers about 30 minutes in longitude and 15 minutes in latitude. One centimeter on a map is equivalent to1 kilometer on the ground. Average sheet size is about 35 cm x 28 cm. Each sheet covers about 1000 square kilometers and was engraved on copper.

The map is a composite of Sheets 1 to 674. Date estimated based on the apparent library acquisition date usually stamped on the back of the map sheet. This map series is remarkable for the level of fine detail. As a consequence, it was scanned at 800 PPI providing four times the resolution of the typical detailed map scan of 400 PPI. At least ten separate symbols for special buildings were utilized, a method enhanced by placing an abbreviation next to the symbol. Structures with special symbols include: churches, chapels, monuments, windmills, water mills, stamp mills, forester's lodges, watchtowers, ruins, forts, quarries, clay pits, lime kilns, and coke-ovens. Factories, brick works, powder magazines electric power plants, and many other important buildings are differentiated by means of abbreviation. Houses appear as black blocks, either rectangular or shaped like the ground plan of the building. Many other features are differentiated, for example there are four different qualities of roads plus bridle paths and footpaths. Vegetation is minutely classified including separate symbols for broadleaf trees, evergreens, underbrush, heather, dry meadows, wet meadows, swamps, orchards, gardens, vineyards, and parks. Relief is shown by hachures. Spot elevations are given in meters above sea level.