Monday, June 30, 2014

and beyond

It is a curious thing that if I find myself in a place that's stunningly beautiful, instead of digging in, I want to go further. Look beyond my immediate environment. Because if it is so pretty here, shouldn't I take note of the region as a whole? Mightn't it be even prettier around the corner?

If you knew the Lake District, you'd probably say you can't get around much in a short period of time without a car. Well try me!

I love using public transportation, especially when I travel. Get in the car and get out again at your destination? How boring! What exchanges have you witnessed? What commentary do you have on the ways of the place you're passing through? However little I see in short visits, it is made richer (for me) if I travel alongside those who live there.

And so I ask my lovely hosts -- Angela and David -- if it's possible to see the other lake in a day trip. You know, the bigger lake. The one thought to be the grand dame of them all. I must admit, Angela a little bit frowned at that.
It may be possible, but I don't know if you can also fit in a hike while there.

I persevered. Let's look at the bus schedules.

Angela  does that and comes back with the news that I'd have to take three separate buses to get to Lake Windermere.
And would it be easy to walk around, say, the town of  Windermere?
Angela's frown grows even deeper. It's very touristy there, she tells me.
Point well taken. I study a book from her shelf -- an excellent little volume titled "Exploring the Lakes and the Low Fells." Maybe I don't have to go into Windermere, the town. There's a hike from Ambleside, just short of Windermere. I could try that.

We figure out the bus combinations: the 10:36 to Penrith, then the 11:15 to Keswick (don't pronounce the "w" in these English names!), then the 12:25 to Ambleside (which is the town just before Windermere).

The weather site tells me there may be rain. Fine. I take appropriate precautions. I smile at the sign in an English sporting good store in Keswick:


It is a beautiful set of bus routes. The first bus, from Pooley Bridge to Penrith, is nearly empty. I share the ride with local seniors going to the "big town" to shop, or in two cases, to visit the infirmary.

(Here's a Penrith update on the old red English phone booth!)


The second ride is lovely still, but we're picking up a few trekkers now.


The third ride is completely exasperating because only now do I learn that instead of purchasing individual tickets, I could have bought a day "explorer" and saved myself 15 pounds. Bummer summer. I learn.

That third ride -- from Keswick to Ambleside -- is also dominated by tourists. In fact, the bus fills with them.

I am in the Windermere region. I am in a different world! (Though the views out the window are very nice indeed.)


If I thought Pooley Bridge was a tad busy on Saturday and if I thought the half dozen tourists strolling about after the weekend felt "crowded," well now, I understood today that Pooley Bridge and Lake Ullswater are like an undiscovered sanctuary of peace and calm compared to the towns I pass through on my way to Lake Windermere. (Notably, Pooley Bridge does not have an ATM. That says it all, I think.)

Places I had been excited to see -- Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived for 14 years, believing it to be the "loveliest spot in the world," is thick with people and tour buses. Rydal, a hamlet favored by Wordsworth and his descendants, is an avenue of cafes and souvenir shops. Everything seems named for some aspect of the poet's life. It's like the significant elements of his existence have been immortalized in B&B names and eating venues.

My own Guest House host was right. It's different here.

I get off at Ambleside with some trepidation. Did I waste my precious day on coming here?

Let me interrupt this narrative with a little editorial insert. Here it is: if there is one Grimms fairy tale that drives me nuts as a parent of daughters and as a human being inhabiting this earth, it's Snow White. That whole shindig about  "who is the fairest of them all?" should be stricken from a young child's thought process. I suppose in some way we all strive to find the beautiful, to be ourselves beautiful, to fill our world with elements of beauty, but must there be a hierarchy? Is there a best cheese (as the French would have it)? A finest wine? A loveliest flower? A better view? Is there? A dowdy dandelion looked so gorgeous around my chicken's legs one fine May morning. It moved me to take a photo and it remains one of my favorite cheeper photos. Possibly not yours, but you weren't there inhaling the beautiful spring air, so full of hope and warm sunshine and cheeper enthusiasm for every worm that crawled to the surface!

Okay, back to the narrative. Straightaway, I take out my hiking book and direct myself onto the trail and away from the "village" of Ambleside.

Well now.

Follow along: please, just follow along. (It's a 3.5 hour hike, which I did in 3.25 hours only because I ran the last mile in order to catch the bus out of here; in any case, it will not take you 3.25 hours to follow along. Just look at the photos. They don't do justice, but they give a hint. It's not necessarily that it is a best view out there, but it is a damn good set of views!)




The book labels it as a difficult hike. True, it is a hellacious ascent, but I differentiate between strenuous (which you can always do slowly if you tire easily) and dangerous (which means steep drop offs, sheer cliffs, treacherous climbs etc). This was not dangerous.

I loved this hike. I loved every bit of it. Every view -- down to the town...


...up to the fells, and then, to Lake Windermere.


(oh wait, I should post the photo taken by a passerby, to commemorate this hike for me)


I loved the steep ascent and then the meandering path down, through "the Hundreds"...


...down to the walled on both sides Nanny Lane. Sweet name, no?

I loved the fact that the weather was perfect: warmer than yesterday, but still in the sixties, with bouts of sunshine, but never too much.


There isn't a single thing about the hike that I did not love. The sheep. Yes, I loved them too.


True, I felt I had to run the last thirty minutes. I passed every hiker out there. Run. Make the bus. Run. In the end, I worried for naught. I got to Ambleside in enough time to even visit a lovely cafe-restaurant (actually I dont quite know what it is, but it's delightful and when I'm in these parts again, I'll be sure to linger). Lucy's. I bought a scone for the ride back.
Would you like some clotted cream to go and some jam too? -- the young woman behind the counter asks.

Oh how delicious was her desire to give me the full deal! I would have loved to sit down and have what I have not had for decades! A tea with a scone with clotted cream and jam! (Ask my daughters: I have, over the years, recreated that ritual at home for them. The cream may not have been clotted, but the point was the same: in the afternoon, a tea with fresh scones -- I have the best recipe for them! -- and cream and jam, give you a minute to exhale. No troubles ever rise to the surface when you are pouring tea and smattering a scone with cream and just a touch of jam. I learned that early. I stuck by it for years.)

Still, there was no time for a "cream tea" today. I allowed her to pack some jam in with my freshly baked scone and I caught the series of buses back to my beloved, quiet Pooley Bridge.

I'm eating at the third pub tonight, where the food is equally pub-ish -- my Cumbrian roast chicken is fine, as are the boiled veggies. At home, across the quiet street, I'll enjoy the rest of my scone from Lucy's.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

the lake

When you travel alone, you inadvertently (or mostly inadvertently) pick up fragments of other people's lives. Their conversations, typically muted by the noise of your own voice, ring loud and clear when you yourself are silent.

And so at breakfast...


...I overheard the foursome at the table next to mine discuss their return home today. And at the ferry landing, I listened to the grandma make plans to care for her granddaughters in the comming week as the mom has a particularly busy work schedule. Also at the landing, I listened to a mom reprimand her young son for being restless, and the girls complain about being hungry.

Finally, at dinner, I couldn't help but overhear at the local pub, four seniors (well, they were slightly more senior than I am) complain about not getting responses to various texts they had sent to their various children. They figured, probably correctly, that the kids got them, but just did not respond.

One comment I have on that is how much times have changed since I was last in England! It was a little over five years ago. Then, computers, smart phones, WiFi -- they were all rarefied entities. Few people depended on them when they traveled. I did need WiFi, because of Ocean and it was always a struggle finding a spot where I could post. Now, local seniors at a Pooley Bridge pub whip out their smartphones and compare notes on the lives of their grown children.

[It's somewhat ironic that my biggest source of internet stress right now is at the farmette. I did not mention it in the rush of leaving, but internet at the farmhouse had been down for at least 24 hours before my departure. The old habits were with me again: I had to drive down to a bar with WiFi in order to post. Even as we speak, Ed is still trying to understand why, intermittently this week, the internet keeps failing. Me, I've had splendid connections in the two places Ive stayed at so far. We live in funny times.]

After breakfast, I decide to take the little ferry to the other (southernmost) tip of the lake, some 15 kilometers away from Pooley Bridge. From there, I will hike most of the way back again. In a sense, Sunday is a poor choice for this expedition. If you want a quiet, contemplative setting, doing the ferry and the most popular trail on a Sunday in summer will not give you the retreat from humanity that other days might. But I am less interested in a retreat than I am in good weather and this day looks on the weather maps to be the best guess for a rain free day. An hour long boat trip across the lake and then a multi-hour trek back is best accomplished on a rain-free day.

Well, the rains held off, but it is quite possible that today will have been the coolest of all the days I am in Great Britain. We barely reached 60 and out on the lake, the gusty wind made you wonder if autumn was in the air. I spent only some of the ride outside, admiring the scenery.





The rest? I retreated to the cabin below and dozed off a bit. I'm still way behind in sleep and I find it easy and tempting to take naps in the quiet moments of the day.

At the end of the ride, in Glenridding, I got off with the handful of others and quite suddenly we all dispersed and I had my moment of quiet.


Glenridding is not any larger than Pooley Bridge and I canvassed it quickly and without pause. My goal was to first hike to the nearby village of Patterdale. My last night's dinner companions mentioned that Patterdale would be hosting a Country Fair this Sunday. When I asked what that entails, they shrugged and said -- probably animals. Should be interesting. We might pop over on our way home.

Ah, like our county fairs -- I thought. Cows with blue ribbons. Hogs and maybe a few rides for the kiddies. Okay. I'll check it out.

It was nothing like that. Oh, sure, there were vintage tractors on display. Too, there were food stands, though not too many. And you could buys some local products. Honey, for example. And I saw one ride. Well, not really a ride -- an inflatable slide where a kid could bounce around some. No one was bouncing when I walked by.

The emphasis here was on dogs. Local folks brought their dogs. Working dogs: hunters and herders. But pet dogs as well, to be included in the terrier racing, for example (they chased a rag bone suspended on a pulley).


This is dog country.


Unquestionably. Dogs are welcome in pubs, they travel on the ferries with their families, they hike the trails along with their owners.

And there is great pride in the well mannered dog. The one who knows how to do the basics. Who doesn't pull at the lead or bark at strangers.

I found the pride and preoccupation with the canine world to be both sweet and touching. Here's a lad with his border collie. The bond between them was obvious. And when I went on to pet another pooch, the boy made sure I did not neglect his beloved.


I could have stayed for the entire afternoon watching various dog judging events and demonstrations (or I could have signed up for the Fell Racing event which included a separate judging of the uphill race for senior participants), but the clouds had rolled in and the wind had picked up and I needed to get going on my hike. I noted at the bottom of the Country Fair program that the date has been set for next year's event: June 28th, in case you're in the area.

Time to hike. It's only 7 miles to Howtown -- the point halfway down the lake where I can pick up the return ferry back to Pooley Bridge. There's a bit of an up and down slant to it. Climb up, go down. Climb up, go down. But that's good. I had my jacket off before too long. And the views were as green and lush as you'd expect. This is Wordsworth country: he attended school in Penrith and the beloved poem, Daffodils, refers to a field found just at the western edge of Lake Ullswater. He had spent the night in Pooley Bridge and on the next day, he and his sister Dorothy were enchanted by the cascading yellow flowers along the shore.

It's not the season for daffodils. But there is quite a lot to instill feelings of enchantment:





Oddly, though I crossed paths with a number of other hikers, every single one of them was heading south even as I was heading north. I don't know why. Perhaps it is customary, perhaps the inclines are more gentle -- in any case, I found myself uttering far more "hellos" than I usually do during longer hikes.

At Howtown, I decided to hop on the returning ferry. It would take me another three hours to complete the circuit along the lake all the way down to Pooley Bridge and I had already been up and about for nearly twice that on this blustery day. So, ferry home.


In Pooley Bridge, I buy a shortbread covered with caramel and chocolate (the English like their cakes on the sweet side; this one is common and often referred to as the millionaire's bar) and took it to my little room were I boiled a pot of water for tea.

Still hungry, I set out to a second pub (the Crown) for an early dinner. There, I had the recommended and good enough chicken sizzled with peppers and onions. Pub food. I surely am not complaining -- the portion was huge and I ate all of it.

It's evening now and the village of Pooley Bridge has calmed down considerably after its weekend rush of visitors. The clouds have moved to the north and there are large swatches of blue sky again. I don't know if the weather will hold. I don't know where I'll walk tomorrow. I'm munching a stack of biscuits purchased at the convenience store and thinking about the fields of ferns and foxglove (digitalis purpurea) that I encountered on my walks here.


The foxglove plant produces copious seeds and though the plant's life is short lived (it's really a biannual rather than a perennial), it is sure to be replaced by the next generation and the one after. And that's a comforting thought to keep in your mind now,  on this quiet evening in Pooley Bridge.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

up north

Those words -- up north -- in Wisconsin are reserved for localities anywhere north of Madison. People head up north for the weekend. The mosquitoes are particularly dense up north. But my orbit is different here. "Up north" is up beyond the North Sea, up into Scotland.

Even though I'm not staying in Scotland just yet. Follow along, wont you?

I wake up early and my hosts are so kind that they insist that I indulge in a full breakfast, even though their breakfast service doesn't really start until an hour after I will have taken off.

Amsterdam & Edinburgh-3.jpg

I'm trying to travel without stress and so I check where the local bus stop is ahead of time, I clock the distance I have to walk to it, I look up the schedule and make sure the buses run at regular intervals even on Saturdays. The best laid plans...

My hosts are at the front door to bid a fond farewell. Nearly all inn keepers are exceptionally friendly to the single traveler; they become your substitute companions -- they care where you go, what you eat. And when you leave, they seem genuinely saddened. It's just a different dynamic than when you are passing through with someone else.

Alright, I set out toward the bus stop, past the usual scenes of a morning in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam & Edinburgh-5.jpg

Amsterdam & Edinburgh-7.jpg

The bus comes on time, I get on -- all so smooth, so predictable. (We pass such pretty countryside -- I am reminded that Holland has her gentle charm, beyond the cities.)

Amsterdam & Edinburgh-8.jpg

And I arrive at the airport in plenty of time. Ninety minutes until departure. No problem, right?

Wrong. I'd forgotten the discount airline rituals. Easy Jet ushers everyone, from every morning flight, into one line.

It is a long line.

Forty-five minutes later I'm done. But what's this? Another long line for passport control. I wait. Then I see a shorter line for those who hold passports with chips. My passport has a chip. I wait there, the passport is denied (if I had looked carefully, I would have seen the telltale EU flag indicating EU passports only). I'm at the back of the big line again.

By the time I'm through it, I'm down to 31 minutes til take off and one minute til my gate closes. And I still have security to go through.

I nudge and budge. Excuse me, my gate closes in less than a minute, can I get in front of you? People are kind. And when I'm throwing my pack down and sweating as the conveyor belt moves with it ever so slowly, a fellow passenger tells me -- relax. Easy Jet passengers are notoriously late. They wont shut you out. (You get a quite different story if you ask anyone who, in fact, has been shut out by a closed gate.)

I'm lucky. They're just starting to board. I'm safe. I exhale.

My seat is next to a superbly friendly Scotswoman. I think all Scottish people are superbly friendly (she confirms that!), but she is exceptionally so and as we talk, her accent comes through more and more. She tells me that as the jet comes closer to home, her Scottish ways become more pronounced. And since I am a chameleon in my speaking patterns (I pick up fragments of local speech when I travel -- it comes from being an immigrant: you're always imitating the ways of those around you in your desperate attempt to blend in), by the flight's end I'm rolling my "r's" and lengthening my "o's."

We come in for the beautiful landing that could only be the Edinburgh of patterned skies and dappled hills.

Amsterdam & Edinburgh-11.jpg

Travel should now be fairly straightforward for me. A bus into downtown Edinburgh...

Amsterdam & Edinburgh-15.jpg

...and I don't pause here at all. I go straight to the train station to buy my ticket lightly south. I had thought about overnighting in the city either on my way in or on my way out -- I have about a one day's affection in me for Edinburgh -- but I gave up when I scouted around for a place to stay. No one, absolutely no one who had any decent markings on Trip Advisor was willing to give me a room for just one night. Most didn't even bother responding to a reservation request. Edinburgh gets mighty puffy about itself in the summer.

No matter. I'm taking a train to Penrith - which is the closest I can get by train to my real destination: Pooley Bridge.

You don't know where Pooley Bridge is? It's in the Lake District of northeastern England. Up north.

Why here, why now? Well, when I booked my stay in Scotland (that will come later), I asked the very friendly innkeeper where he would go if he were to add a few days to the trip on the front end. I expected some listing of Scottish destinations, but he surprised me by suggesting two places in northern England and, in fact, I'll be visiting both.

So first comes Pooley Bridge.

Not so fast, you traveler, you! Want a bit of confusion? Just a wee bit? Alright then!

Waverly train station in Edinburgh is in chaos. I need a ticket. The agent tells me: you'll want the 12:12, but the 12:12 is cancelled. A problem with a train on the tracks near Lockerbie. (What American doesn't have terrible associations with that sad little place?)
What about the train after? 
That's a "maybe."

You know, it really doesn't matter for me today. But it matters to others. Three trains have been cancelled so far on this first vacation weekend and people are exasperated. (On the upside, the rail company has a policy: if the train is late more than an hour, then the travel is on them.) I buy a sandwich and wait.

And it's a go! And as I get on, the manager makes the announcement that the train has been declassified to accommodate everyone. (No first class, second class.) Fairness to all trumps your right to privilege. Me, I have the cheapest of the cheap tickets and since I am standing close to the first class car, on I go.

Most people on the train are London bound. I get off fairly early, at Penrith. I do have just a bit of trepidation. On the continent, I can count on inter-city trains to get me to airports on time. If Great Britain isn't quite at that level of performance, I may run into trouble later on when I hurry to catch my flights.

Travel is never without adventure.

Alright. Pooley Bridge. It's easily reached by bus from Penrith and though the buses aren't frequent, there's one just after I arrive. Half hour later I am where I need to be.

The village of Pooley Bridge isn't really much of a village, though it does have three pubs and two somewhat basic convenience/souvenir stores. The type where you buy soda and chips and something plastic for your kid. Let me show you a view up the road:


And another as you enter from the road coming from the hills.


That's pretty much it.

But the location! Oh, it's a beautiful spot alright! It rests at the northernmost tip of Ullswater Lake. This photos, as taken from my brief exploratory walk there, shows it off just a little bit.


Ullswater is one of a handful of ribbon lakes here in northeastern England. It's the second largest and some say it is by far the most beautiful. I can't judge as I've not seen the others, but honestly, it is stunning.

Even when you can't quite see the lake, it's stunning.


I'll get back to it tomorrow I'm sure. I know I'm just tipping the camera toe into a lovely terrain.

My B&B -- the Ullswater Guest House isn't much on the outside and it is quite centrally located so that I can have a very pleasant look out my window at the souvenir shop that's across the street. But the bedroom is absolutely fresh and lovely...


...and I hear they serve award winning breakfasts. And the price is unbeatable for an English inn at high season. I finally unpack. It always feels good not to be living out of a suitcase.

Now what? I feel I can still do a longer hike. It's after 3, but I am so north that I doubt I'll see darkness before I fall asleep tonight.

I decide to hike up the hill behind the village. It should offer views to the lake. And it looks like my favorite kind of climb: gradual, not at all stressful and very quiet (visitor activity is very much concentrated around the pubs and, too, the path leading to the lake).

I suppose you'd say the weather is cool. Mid sixties. But I don't mind a bit. Great climbing weather! And a gift, because England's Lake District is notoriously wet during the summer. Not so today. There are clouds, but they merely add to the panorama.


And of course it's a heavenly hike. As I take in the smell of Queen Ann's Lace and look out at fields of fern, I truly get a surge of such joy that I know all the inconveniences and adventures of travel will have been worth it. To see something so beautiful for the first time is unbelievably humbling. Yes, there are many glorious hikes in my own back yard, in my state, my country, my neck of the woods. But then, there is also this and having it spread before me seems like a stunningly generous gift.


And then I turn back, ambling down quickly as is my habit, but keeping in my soul that thin sliver of lake with the mountains behind it, not wanting to put it aside just yet.

Later, much later, to beat the crowds, I go for supper to the Sun Pub next door. I had asked -- when should I arrive to stand a chance of getting a table? Late, they tell me. After 7:30.
Well now, I am far too hungry to wait until then. I show up at 7:10.

I look around. No tables. (I mean, there are only a handful to begin with and most patrons are just beginning to eat.)

A lovely English couple invites me to sit down at their table. I hate to intrude, but I gratefully accept. Right away I take out my computer to show them that I will not be in the way of their intimate meal together. They are amused. And perhaps predictably, I never get on the computer. We have a superb dinner together and I walk away thinking -- does everyone on this planet have a beautiful side to them? (The answer is -- most likely, with very few exceptions, yes.)

P.S. Your comments have been stupendously generous and exquisite to read! I always form in my head an answer to each and every one. That I so rarely get a chance to put it in print when I travel means nothing except that I am not as nimble in my time management and in my writing as I would want to be. Thank you. I take in everything that you say and it stays with me, just like the post-its on the museum wall. 

Friday, June 27, 2014


Awake to a drizzly day. But I have no agenda! Does it matter that it's wet outside?

Breakfast comes to my room.


While waiting for it, I read a (very recent) cartoon-illustrated book about life in this city. When I first started traveling through here (1971), the city was just at the cusp of developing a new identity, guided by a liberal vision of tolerance toward everything from prostitution to gay culture to pot use. More than forty years later, it still remains the only city in Europe where you can walk into a coffee shop and buy some pot and walk out high.

Not that it's exactly legal to run these cafes. You can possess small quantities of pot, but you can't buy it and legally sell it. It's just that for now, the policy of nonenforcement is (shakily) in place. (In some Dutch cities, local ordinance prohibits cafes from selling to non-registered guests. To register, you need to live there. Amsterdam has declined to go that route, most likely because pot tourism brings good Euros to the city.)

pausing to read about the different highs you can purchase

Supporters (of pot cafes) argue that  cannabis is a soft drug, as opposed to, say, alcohol, which is a widely available hard drug. (Amsterdam is home to the Heineken brewery; here's a bar, one of many, celebrating this beer.)


More interesting (than pandering to international pot tourism), I think, is the Dutch position toward hard drug users: don't punish, but give help. There are, for example,  heroin clinics where you can apparently walk in and get a controlled amount so that you can gradually rid yourself of the habit. Heroin addiction here has greatly declined over the past several decades. Several countries are considering this "Dutch approach," though none have been bold enough to try it.

But this part of Amsterdam just passes me by. I read about it, I don't see it. Even in my younger years, I was more interested in traveling here from Poland to see the newly released movie the Love Story (not yet playing in Warsaw) than in hanging out on the square where the smell of pot was everpresent.

And I loved the museums here. And so on this wet and a bit cool day, I decide to go back to some favorite museums and to visit at least one new one, highly recommended by my hosts, Frank and Oki.

The drizzle comes and goes and as the day warms, I shed my jacket and play on/off with the umbrella. My first stop isn't far -- it's the Rijks Museum.


I'd say it would make the top ten list of Europe's greatest, but I'm not really inclined to linger. I just want to see the renovation (which, at ten  years, took longer than the original construction; the place just reopened a year ago).

The lines to enter are legendary! But strangely, at 9:30 there are no lines at all and I breeze in without a pause. So of course, I trudge up to check off its most famous painting - the Night Watch. I mean, why not. I remember standing before it and reading to my then very young daughters about what to look for. And before that, standing alone as a young adult not knowing what to look for. Today, I scan it for those distant memories and I have to smile as they slowly trickle back to me.


You're asking -- are you allowed to take photos inside the museum? The answer is yes. I don't know why even permanent collections in so many places are taking the position that you cannot photograph their stuff. (I'm remembering Paris at the Musee d'Orsay, for example.) Not that I plan on swamping you with favorites. Well, just a few. And you know why? For the same reason that, in the end, I stayed here a long time and I went through nearly the whole museum. And then returned for one more look at something I missed. And then returned for a third time to check on something else. Why? Well, there is  (through September) a quite special, I think, commentary, posted throughout the museum on giant post-it like papers. Some of these "messages" are longer, but most are quite short.


At first I didn't understand -- was this some unfinished business here? What are these comments? This next painting comes with the following (excerpted):

It is a picture that is geared to produce an ambivalent reaction. We delight in it and yet - at the same time - feel regret. We don't live up to the beauty of the picture. ... Rembrandt illuminates with painful accuracy our lack: we don't have nearly enough genuine love in our lives and in our world... 


But I find myself reading them. And reflecting on them.

And only when I am done with the museum (the first time around), do I read downstairs that these were written by Alain de Botton -- the Swiss British philosopher whom I grew to admire some years ago when I read his sweet, sweet sweet book "How Proust Can Change Your Life."

De Botton writes not for the handful of like minded academical types, but for a wider audience and in just a few pages he really can set you spinning about the way you conduct your everyday affairs. I'd say Ocean is very much influenced by people like him. De Botton emphatically stands behind the relevance of small detail, the everyday minutia of life. In the Rijks Museum, here's what he says about this painting:


It can be hard to see beauty and interest in the things we have to do every day and in the environments in which we live. ... The linen cupboard itself could easily have been resented. It is an embodiment of what could, in unfavorable circumstances, be seen as boring, banal, and repetitive - even unsexy. If only we, like De Hooch, knew how to recognize the value of ordinary routine, many of our burdens would be lifted. It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life - the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships - are always grounded in the way we approach the little things...

And in a similar vein, on this one:


This painting...wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes - and doing these things faithfully and without despair - is life's real duty. This is an anti-heroic picture, a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things that are expected of all of us is enough. ... If the Netherlands had a Founding Document, a concentrated repository of its values it would be this small picture. It is the Dutch contribution to the world's understanding of happiness  - and its message doesn't just belong in the gallery.

All on large post-it type notes temporarily stuck on the walls of the museum. And so I am absolutely mesmerized by it all.

Now, some would say that de Botton only states the obvious. Yes, well, so do I, here on Ocean. I eat breakfast, tend to the farmette with Ed, watch daughters grow up. What could be more prosaic, banal, commonplace? But for me, this is life and if you can't pause to consider it, then you've let a lot of it slip by unnoticed, unrevered.

I'll leave you with a de Botton post-it and an a photo of the painting next to it, because being myself a life long fan of Impressionism, this really made me smile:


This is an unashamedly pretty picture, and educated people today quite often feel a bit queasy at the idea that art can be sweet and lovely. Isn't this a denial of all that is wrong with the world? Shouldn't art be about more weighty and worthy matters?
Van Looy knew a lot about human suffering - not least his own... Once life has shown us its darker sides, we start to take this sort of pretty scene more seriously. Beautiful flowers aren't a way of avoiding the tougher facts; they are a consolation now that we know what things are really like. We need beauty around us to keep up our spirits and to refresh our appetite for life. Cheerfulness - the mood that beauty naturally encourages - is a good state of mind to be able to access, given the number of practical problems we have to face. A taste for pretty art isn't a denial of the troubles of the world; it shows a wise awareness of the extent of suffering and a concern for bolstering oneself against despair.

Alright. I'm done. Out on the street, the rains have stopped. I head for the market, learning to dodge the bikes that come at you from every corner.

with roses

with a child

with more children
without helmets

Amsterdam has more bicycles than residents. Yes and they all drive crazily. I read that there are *only* a handful of bike deaths per year here. Typically trucks run down those in their blind spot. I suppose I should think that this low number is commendable, considering that some 10-20 men die here per year falling into canals as they try to pee into them while in a drunken stupor  (they fall in and can't climb back out). Ahhh, but Amsterdam is a dangerous city for those who don't watch their step!

But, too,  it is a pretty city. Let's not forget that.



I make another museum stop in the early afternoon -- the Hermitage. Museum nuts will recognize the name as belonging to perhaps the world's richest art gallery -- the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Well now, Amsterdam has opened a branch of it with rotating collections from the real deal.

But I change my mind once I enter the museum. This year's collection is on art along the Silk Route and my head is still reeling with Vermeers and Rembrandts. So instead, I go straight to their brand new cafeteria, pick a plate of boiled new potatoes with Norwegian smoked salmon and sit down at a long table that has very attractive glossy magazines from Russia (among other places).


It is a fitting tribute to that country's world of art (and food: I think of boiled potatoes as being very Russian. Or Polish. Or both).

In the evening, I go out again. My first stop is the Seafood Bar. My hosts Oki and Frank tell me to reserve if I want to eat there, but heck, that place is booked weeks in advance. The best you can do is show up for the handful of spots that are given to walk-ins. Being single, I am squeezable. A place is set at the bar for me.

I order a mixed grill, because this is a seafood country and besides, after yesterday's vegetable stew, I need to move away from local fresh, honest and bland.


It's a delicious dinner and I really don't know how it is that this same concept of mixed seafoods is so differently executed in different parts of the world even as the basic ingredients -- shrimp, fish, etc -- are nearly the same.

At one side of me, I have a couple from Finland. Actually he is from Finland, she is from Thailand. We exchange first pleasantries, then stories and she looks at me and asks me how come I'm so muscular (!) and I look at her and wonder what she is doing all the way up in Finland and before you know it we're FB friends and exchanging daughter stories and pictures.


I mention this because eventually all roads do lead to stories from home. You may think you're away and yet, sooner or later your life catches up with you and you are right back where you started. This became even more evident as the evening progressed. The Finish-Thai couple were explaining how Finish people don't drink daily, but when they do drink, they do so to get drunk. I reflected how perhaps the same can be said of Poles. A flushed young man from behind the counter emphatically disagrees. In Polish. Not anymore! Things are different now! -- he says with some agitation.

It turns out he is Polish and he feels compelled to stick up for his own people, even though I'm Polish as well and have always found that critical comments about Poles are far easier to take if they come from Poles rather than outsiders. Still, I consider myself fully caught, proving once and for all that you're never safe in speaking of your own cousins or neighbors: they could well be the persons shucking  oysters behind the counter.

And now it truly is evening and I should really head home, but instead, I head for the Van Gogh Museum which coincidentally on this day is open until 10 p.m. I thought surely at 8:30 it would be rather on the empty side. (Last time I was here it was so packed, I was three people removed from any of the art works.)

It is quite uncrowded, but if I thought I'd have another soulful museum experience, I was wrong. This particular museum is a bit like the Guggenheim in New York in that it's an open space with tiered layers of exhibition. If you want to proceed chronologically, you start at the bottom and work your way up. (I know, I know, it should be the opposite, but there you have it.)

Well now, there is a concert of sorts taking place on the ground floor. Some pop type event that was tied into Van Gogh, because the upper walls are occasionally flooded with images of the artist and/or his work.


Maybe some would find this moving. I found it to be more theatrical and loud than anything else. So I strolled up and then I strolled down and since cameras are not permitted, you'll see none of the canvases which surely is okay as they're all familiar pieces to anyone who cares at all about Van Gogh or Impressionist art.

Despite all this, I walk home satisfied. For a visit that lasts really not even two days, I have had my fill of Amsterdam for now. Perhaps it's the way we position ourselves: I'm here a short time and so I don't fully engage in all aspects of the city. Too, I find Amsterdam to be loud and crowded in its youthfulness. Not only are the residents younger, so are the visitors (30% are between 20 and 29). Barcelona is also loud, but you can find quiet deep in the neighborhoods that spread away from the center. Amsterdam, too, surely has its quiet corners, but it's not where you and I would walk. Or ride. Ah, yes: the whizzing bikes, forever passing you in that death defying race from one block to the next...

So I'm satisfied. Two days was grand. Tomorrow, I fly even further north.