Every year around July, my wife gives me a week or two to disappear into the wilderness. Usually I head high -- the Rockies when in the States, while in Estonia the closest ranges of suitably rocky, 2000 m-plus mountains lie athwart the Polish-Slovakian border and in Lapland. But this year I had had Lyme disease in June, and I didn't feel confident about being 50 km from the nearest road. Geographic concepts like Point of Inaccessibility had an ominous ring instead of sounding beckoning. Plus I had to be online every day -- this condition was really non-negotiable this time. Although I have an USB stick that allows me to data-roam, I don't have a satellite phone.
So I went low. I decided to slum in the Benelux countries for a week, recapturing some of the spirit of the Eurail/backpacking bum days of 15 years ago. Instead of ascetic self-sufficiency, carrying my house on my back across a desolate rocky plain, I would be Mr. Gezellig: hang out in parks and cafes on free WiFi systems to get my work done, and maybe sleep in them, too , rent a bike, perhaps have a small serving of beer with a ridiculously high alcohol content, then, say, ride the bike. On Saturday, I might take part in a strange local physical activity like wadlopen (mud-walking) along the Frisian coast, which carries a small risk of death if you misjudge the tides but nothing truly hazardous like a California tidepool hike.
I packed a mosquito-net hammock, a sleeping bag liner, no sleeping bag, and tarpaulin, cramming it all in into a 55x40x20 (Ryanair regulation) bag, which weighed in at 7 kg, and flew from Riga to Brussels.
First I had to get to Riga. The bus was terrible as buses always are. I left Tallinn for Riga at 12:30am to save a night at a hotel.
There is no way to sleep on even a Eurolines bus even if you have both seats, which I did for the first two hours of the trip. The best possible posture, I discovered, was a fetal position on my back (except with legs splayed apart) with my head toward the aisle. It may seem unlikely, but it worked, even though my head was slightly off the edge of the seat. The only problem was that people kept going to the rest room and brushing past me.
I didn't know much about Brussels, the great melting pot capital of our confederation , though I had slowly gathered that it wasn't just a bureaucratic place with a few happening neighbourhoods (like my old hometown of Washington, DC). Brussels was vibrant.
It was also dangerous, apparently -- I kept on coming across comments on tripadvisor.com like "My four-star turned out to be in a total ghetto!" or "I was mugged by my taxi driver!" - so I decided I would sleep in a hotel here. It was the Queen Anne. Equidistant from the Central Station and Brussels-Noord, it was a decent business two-star that didn't cost more than twice a hostel.
Before I succumbed to sleep, I managed to form a few possibly distorted impressions of the city.
One, Brussels struck me as very French, very Latin-blooded, almost to the point of berets, but the people don't care what language you speak.
I ate at Nordzee, a slightly upscale seafood chain with an outdoor grill where people stand at a long bar. Had a grilled piece of cod, served with a rich sauce of some kind, probably ending in -aise, and greens, and made small talk with other diners.
Later I grabbed something from the convenience store next to the hotel -- a beer called Boon Oude Gueuze -- odd-tasting, very astringent, like a brut champagne. But enjoyable. Later, I came across the same thing on the 200-beer list of what is reputed to be the best tasting pub in the Netherlands, Gollem. The Boon Gueuze cost 6.50 euros there, twice as much as anything else.
That same Dutch pub didn't even have Cantillon, which is even a greater gourmet item, maybe the last real maker of traditional unpasteurized sediment-filled beer in Belgium.
I did not get to tour the Cantillon brewery in Brussels, unfortunately -- time constraints. But at least the convenience stores are stocked with Boon. It seemed that people drank lambic like water here. Come to think of it, I'm not sure whether that convenience store carried bottled water.
Amsterdam was crowded, full of energy, a lot of it positive. Somehow cleaner than the last time. Like New York in the Giuliani years, maybe. Not a single drug dealer whispered words at me when I passed, no addicts accosted me when I had my laptop open on Nieuwmarkt, looking for the mythical free city WiFi areas . I avoided the heart of the seedy areas -- more because I have a problem with drunk British tourists than the addicts -- but it seemed that the fringes of those areas had contracted. I doubt it has directly to do with the right-wing ascension that has taken place, but there was, as some say, a palpable air.
I find myself spending more and more time in the outer districts. I may even make it to North Amsterdam, where no one goes, and where, my otherwise tolerant friend Bas claims, racially no-go areas similar to US ghettos have developed in some of the Moroccan enclaves.
I ate at Bojo, an Indonesian restaurant in the tourist district that has gotten good reviews.
Bojo was a dud. The single mom from Vienna and her well-mannerered 16-year-old L.A.-raised son who was taking hits from a pipe in front of her at the next table thought it was a dud, too.
Maybe Bojo is a place to try a cheap one-person rijstafel. But what we ordered was just salty, overcooked sauce over rice for the most part. This city has plenty of people doing imaginative Indonesian food with fresh ingredients, I'm sure. But not at Bojo.
Anyway, I'm not sure you should ever trust a restaurant on a street completely lined with restaurants.
Meanwhile, I hinted to the kid about etiquette -- you don't smoke ganja openly, even in Amsterdam -- but then let it go. As said, he was well-mannered, attentive, and the breeze was blowing the other way. Instead, I asked him which coffeeshop he got it from and he said "I forgot". Which would be a good name for a coffeeshop. Maybe he could open one called I Forgot? Give the other American coffeeshop a run for its money. Better yet, the Grey Area and I Forgot could be part of a chain.
Not that you can open new ones anymore. And the ones that are left, except for pretty much the Grey Area, generally have unfriendly service and loud customers. Some have a seedy third-world look and others have a seedy urban dystopia feel. I feel like I've walked into a bar in an apartment block in Manchester or Birmingham. Which is what the punters want, I guess.
If I smoked anything anymore, I would probably keep it in the family, too, and go to an Indonesian restaurant.
Now Amsterdam is so old and combed-over that it is hard to find real satori there anymore. But it puts on a great show. The (c)anal parade -- I didn't deface the signs -- is a fabulous show of gay pride. I didn't think I wanted to rubberneck. I went swimming that afternoon at Het Marnix, a pretty nice indoor pool in the Jordaan that costs less than half of any pool in Estonia.
Inevitably my path back south led over the grachts or canals. It was a block party like none other. Like a Village People show meets cabaret, naval costumes. Lots of Heineken cans empty and full everywhere. But the thing was, I don't know who was gay and who was not. If parades in other places are anything like this, I don't know what the problem is. And maybe this is normal life and the conventional hetero lifestyle is what is keeping us all back.
Amid the total chaos, it started raining harder and I ducked into a tiny corner cafe on Prinsengracht. A very mystical place, called Rainarai and featuring nomadic Algerian cooking. Business revolved around a glass deli case loaded with all sorts of brightly colored salads, punpkin, greens, chicken, sardine-aubergine, which you order served on a French-bread type roll or a flatbread for 5 or 10 euros, respectively. I wasn't sure about the huge chunks of pumpkin, but somehow the spices were infused evenly throughout the flesh.
This had to be one of the worst nightmares for the country's right-wing. You're walking through a stately neighborhood when you encounter a massive gay parade and to escape it you end up in a Berber deli that looked like it was from 1001 Nights.
The Italian-ish Firma Pekelharing in De Pijp was the best conventional restaurant in Amsterdam from start to finish. Smart, casual but classy, unpretentious. It was a NYTimes pick so there wasn't much risk. But it surprised me. More restaurants should provide a long communal table for solo diners. Open kitchen, books to browse. No conversations developed, but ambience was friendly. Also very cheap. Bill was about 12 euros for a beer, arancini starter and a small but filling plate of pasta amatriciale. I would bet my life they used actual Roman guanciale.
COMING: Amsterdamse Bos, Bremen