Thursday, May 19, 2011

London: Wiping My Hands of This

I've been traveling and eating weird shit since before Andrew Zimmern got elevated from Minnesota morning TV to the the US iteration of the Travel Channel. Hell, I've been writing about it (if not particularly well) since before the first typewriter ribbon was installed for Tony Bourdain's first travel and food tome. In that time I've visited most of the continents, overlapped the stamps on my bulging passport pages in every way imaginable, and eaten one of everything in the animal kingdom. And a few insects to boot. Once cooked. Once raw. Probably once fermented for good measure. I've achieved this not through intestinal fortitude, but by maintaining a steady travel regimen of alcohol to kill the bad stuff and local yogurt to keep the good stuff alive. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the key to eating anything you like (or dare) in almost any locale in the world, and why in about a decade, I've never been victim to Montezuma's Revenge. Until now. And I'm going to make sure it never happens again.

But sometimes we intrepid traveler-eaters let our guard down. Sometimes we don't do enough shots to kill the intestinal buggers. Sometimes we forget to have a cup of cultured yogurt with our breakfast. Sometimes we forget that the first-world industrial food system is just as dangerous – if not more perilous than – eating freshly killed whoosiwhatsit in the jungle. And sometimes, forgetting that, we have a bacon burger with runny egg. In a pub. In London.

And that's how my weekend of ass-clenching and desperately-trying-not-to-vomit began.

Mind you, living a two and a half-hour train ride away from London barely makes a trip there warrant an entry in a so-called travel blog anymore. While this site has existed since late 2005, I wrote up my first travel journal nigh on a decade ago... From London. And I've written about the place ad nauseum since.

So there has to be a good story to warrant a blog entry, right?

This trip was supposed to be epic for other reasons. Chiefly, because the weekend was marked in indelible red ink on my calendar for Short Circuit presents Mute, a two-day festival at the Roundhouse in Camden celebrating 30+ years of the record label that helped form my own identity as a youth and to this day. The wife and I – as well as friends from around the world – got tickets the moment it was announced, knowing what a big deal this festival was, reuniting and cross-pollenating – in one place – many of our lifelong favorite artists.

Things started out well enough. We arrived well before the festival on Wednesday and were met at the English end of the Eurostar track by our friend David. He happens to be my old roommate from San Francisco and now lives in London, and we joke that we've seen more of each other now that we're a train ride apart than when we were actually in the same town.

We lugged our suitcases over to his flat in Paddington and got to the business of enjoying London, with a couple of free days to quaff some decent beer, do some shopping, and scout out fun locations for my sister's wedding the following month.

Pints here. Ethnic food there. More pints. Scouting out locales. We'd brought two suitcases and a duffel bag with us – which is now our modus operandi when taking the train (no baggage limits, hooray!) to places that have a) things you can't get in France or b) things that are much cheaper than in France. We capped off our night by gorging ourselves at the damn-near-impossible-to-get-into new Heston Blumenthal joint. (Yes, yes, as always, you can expect to find a culinary recap of this trip over at Hungry Amateurs.)

Thursday saw us go to yet another fancy restaurant for one of those languid Michelin-starred lunches that seems over-the-top even at absurdly low prices, and that make you wonder when the business people who go to them actually get any business done. We then strolled through Bloomsbury to meet up with our American friend Micah for pints, pints and even more pints. Then wine. Then a classic chip shop that fries their fish in beef fat. (I told you I have an iron stomach.) And then we hit another pub for good measure.

The Old Fountain. Home of the best cask ale selection in London.

The best part of the day wasn't the amazing meal or the fantastic local cask ales we were having, but to be in the company of a first-timer in London. Although we're not there day in and day out, we kind of take the city for granted: Just another nearby destination from the hub of trains that radiate out from Paris dozens of times a day. Newcomers notice things that old hands often forget to look at. And we enjoy this aspect as much in Britain as we do in France, even if we're just visitors there ourselves. So thank you, Micah, for the new set of eyes.

Friday morning came and we were feeling good. The sun was shining brilliantly. The air had an uncanny perfection to it. I got up early and shot some video for a project at work. Then we went shopping. I found trousers that fit my non-existent ass. Books that Alannah and I have been wanting for a long time. Great English pastries. Can't-get-'em-in-Paris groceries up the wazoo. We returned to David's with our booty to fill up one of the suitcases, then it was off to Camden to start pre-partying before the evening's shows at the Roundhouse.

We made some calls to other internationals who'd be at the gig. Our friend Christian from Paris. Micah, again. JR from Norway. We Tweeted. We Facebooked. We set up our potential rendez-vous points. And in the meantime we went to grab a pint. And maybe a bite. "Hmm, bacon burger with egg, eh? Does that come with chips? Good, I'll have that, please."

An hour or so later we were at a nearby, much classier pub with Christian and Micah, killing whatever bugs may have been in the grubby pub grub with craft cocktails made with the finest (mostly) English booze. Gin. Another kind of gin. Yet another kind of gin. Everything that was England, we were drinking it in.

Soon enough we were all inside the Roundhouse, gathered in one of the side rooms to see Komputer (formerly Fortran 5, formerly I Start Counting). It was packed and rather hot, and after a couple of their iconic tracks from yesteryear we made our way out of the room to jockey for a good spot in the main auditorium to see Recoil (aka Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode plus Paul Kendall). The performance was fantastic, and it included not only their cover of The Normal's (aka Daniel Miller aka the founder of Mute Records) "Warm Leatherette," but also the original vocals from Nitzer Ebb's Douglas McCarthy on "Faith Healer" then on Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." For good measure, McCarthy was joined on stage by the rest of Nitzer Ebb plus Architect (aka Daniel Myer of Haujobb) to perform a scorching rendition of Nitzer Ebb's "Family Man" which was, of course, originally produced by Wilder himself. This was all followed up by a full Nitzer Ebb performance.

If the rather tightly-knit relationship between artists on the Mute roster over the years seems a bit incestuous, you can imagine this festival as a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion full of potential for awkward or explosive moments. Oddly enough it was Alannah who provided the first bit of awkwardness, as she announced her need to go to the bathroom and disappeared for a good while. Concert. Long queues. Seems logical, right?

It was while we were trying to enjoy a none-too-abstract and surprisingly melodic set by Thomas Fehlmann that I started to feel odd. Perhaps it was the blips and chimes over the throbbing bass making me flash back to chemically altered nights back in Club Six or Sno-Drift in San Francisco. Or maybe it was all the draught Old Speckled Hen catching up with me. But something was amiss. My shoulders were tight. I was uncharacteristically sweaty. I felt like I really needed to take it easy. I chalked it up to all the decadent eating, that it was my body's way of saying "enough with the black pudding and the chicken livers and the deep fat fried foods." Fair enough, body. But you're not making me give up the beer. (Alannah wisely urged me to have water. Smart girl.)

Despite having a premium pass that would afford me entry to the after-parties and exclusives going on 'til three in the morning (thank you for the upgrade, Christian!) we had to bail and get back home to the west side of town. Then came the explosive part.

I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say I spent more time on the throne (and not the one at Buckingham Palace or wherever the Queen rests her royal derrière) than in bed. Alannah wasn't faring any better. We traced our gastronomical (or perhaps gastrointestinal) footsteps back over the preceding few days to find the culprit, eliminating places we'd eaten with others (all our friends share all our food), places we hadn't eaten anything remotely food-poisony, and places that simply shouldn't provide the opportunity. By our magical, Sherlock Holmesian deductive reasoning, all the fingers pointed at the pub burger.

By morning I had the wherewithal to find the nearest off-licence and pick up some ginger ale and probiotic yogurt. Too little, too late, sure, but at least it would be of some relief and prevent the puking of bile. It also gave me the opportunity to unload seven-odd quid worth of shrapnel on the shopkeeper, having amassed in three days enough copper coins to weigh down a body in the Thames. (All the non-copper bits were used for beer.)

Having another suitcase to fill, we did manage to get some shopping done at midday, and while Alannah declined to even bother taking such risk, I was somehow able to eat half a grilled cheese sandwich without vomiting. Unfortunately, I had to run into a piss-soaked toilet stall at Borough Market to have my "Trainspotting moment" not long thereafter. This relieved me long enough to put together a serious English craft beer haul to bring back to Paris, and we somehow managed to survive the rest of the day without having to buy me yet another pair of trousers.

Shopping done, we could focus on our new deadline: To leave for the Roundhouse again by 7:00 p.m. Saturday's action had started at noon, but neither of us were in any shape to go any earlier. As evening rolled around we made it to the venue, and Micah and Christian had kindly saved us some lovely, easy-on-the-ailing-ass balcony seats right next to the Recoil Boss himself, Alan Wilder.

I sat and politely applauded through a solid art-rock set by the Residents – a band I'd never had the opportunity to see in our shared hometown of San Francisco – and then sat and impolitely heckled and Tweeted and Facebooked through a sad DJ set by Depeche Mode's Andy Fletcher. (On that note, cheers to the Roundhouse for free and functional wi-fi throughout the venue.) A rumble came over my stomach but I was immovable. Vince Clarke stepped behind a keyboard on stage, followed shortly thereafter by a beautifully voiced, surprisingly svelte Alison Moyet who performed several Yazoo (Yaz if you're North American) songs.

Andy Bell came on to join Clarke for the scheduled Erasure set, making many in the audience speculate who the two other mics were for. Could it be the full Depeche Mode mega-reunion people had breathlessly (if unrealistically) speculated about?

No, they were for two backup singers, but it didn't make the Erasure set any less fantastic and sing-alongy and the starkest possible contrast to the Residents act that preceded it. Bell did announce a surprise, not-at-all-Depeche-Mode-related appearance to follow him, as Feargal Sharkey came out to perform the one (chart-topping) track he did with Vince Clarke as The Assembly, "Never Never." To be honest, I never knew Feargal was a dude... Listen to the chorus and you'll understand my childhood error.

If all that's a little too effeminate, the stage took another 180º turn as Laibach came on with their martial, industrial Neue Slowenische Kunst. As much as I hoped they'd do their cover of Europe's "The Final Countdown," the covers they delivered were their classic "Life is Life" and once again The Normal's "Warm Leatherette." No complaints here, though I'm sure Alannah would've been amused with "Countdown."

Laibach's set included a projection of a woman giving a deep throat blowjob, making me wonder why all of a sudden on-screen sex was making me squirmy and uncomfortable. Then I realized that, no, it's not the balls-deep action giving me sweaty palms, but the fact that I'd been clenching my ass for the last three and a half hours.

I did something I never thought I would ever do in all my years of clubbing, concert-going, festivaleering, and traveling. I dropped a deuce in a venue toilet.

Luckily, this is the Roundhouse. They have good beer at reasonable prices. They have good food at even better prices. I already mentioned the wi-fi. And the toilet? As pristine a public toilet I've seen outside of a five-star hotel lobby. Had I known this, I wouldn't have missed so much of the festival. Up here, on the third floor, was possibly the cleanest bathroom in the house, well stocked with toilet paper.

Oh. My. God.

Sure, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode was in the main room now putting together an epic set of good, danceable techno (like, real techno, not that clubby shit that people often call techno), but I was more in awe of the fact that I was going number two in public.

This revelation complete, it was soon time to check out the after-party. Alannah made her way back to the flat and I joined Christian and Micah for an evening of DJ antics, starting with Mr. Mute himself, Daniel Miller. He put together a respectable set of Mute tracks that – while not groundbreakingly mixed – had a sense of rhythm and flow and cohesiveness that was barely detectable in Fletch's earlier set.

Then came Rex the Dog. I don't know much about Rex. Or at least, I didn't until I suddenly developed a little bit of a man-crush and read every page of his site after the ass-kicking DJ set he threw out on Saturday night. Rex was on fire, leading me to declare to Micah (and then the whole geek world via Twitter) that he MUST produce the next Depeche Mode album. Previously, to me, he had been "that house DJ who did one of the few respectable Depeche Mode mixes in recent years." Now I'm mounting a campaign to put him behind the recording desk for my favorite band ever.

I'm not saying this just because he masterfully twiddled the knobs on some remixed versions of Depeche Mode songs in Ableton Live, but because for the first time in years, I fully, genuinely enjoyed a DJ set, where heart and soul and talent were shining through.

And it's not because I'm older or married that I don't go clubbing anymore. It's that almost every time I go to a club in Paris, besides the irritating crowds and shamefully overpriced drinks, the DJs can't spin worth a damn. They can't work a crowd. They can't even match a beat. I'm a mediocre DJ myself with only a couple of moderate club gigs under my belt and it takes every fiber of my being to not jump into the booth, strangle the hipster motherfucker not mixing in there, and take over the decks myself. So to see, in this day and age of iTunes-on-shuffle-is-considered-DJing, a guy who actually has technical skills and a love for the music... I was impressed. And his body of work kicks a good deal of ass.

I came to London figuring I'd see a lot of old-time favorites and heros and maybe hear a few youngbloods I might actually like (label head Miller has quite good taste, I trust the man) and walked away being most impressed by... the closing party DJ. Go figure.

On our way out, I hit the bathroom once more. One for the road. I washed up, only to find that the air dryer was no longer working. No worries, my hands are clean, and it's not like I need to scrub in for surgery.

Christian spots Daniel Miller Himself in the Roundhouse lobby. We go up to say hi. Introductions are made. My turn comes. I extend my hand simply to tell him "All I can say is thank you. Your work has made my life better." He returns the gratitude. We get a group photo on Christian's phone.

Despite a rather wicked case of food poisoning, I hung in there not only for a great show but to end up meeting one of my heroes and properly thank him. I'm sure in my one short utterance he got that I implied "Thank you for giving rise to and influencing and – decades down the road – assembling the musicians who were there for my first dance, my first breakup, my first guitar, my first car, my first car accident, my first mosh pit, my first bungee jump, three of my four broken ribs, my first turntables, my first keyboard, and every significant moment of my life with which I can associate a song." If not, he should know that.

However, I couldn't help but feel like an ass the whole time. Not because of what I'd said. Or what I was thinking when I said it. But because after I shook his hand, I saw Miller discreetly wiping it on his pants. My hand was still wet. Here I stood, meeting the guy responsible for – quite literally – the soundtrack of my life, and he was probably thinking, "Good god, this bloke pisses on himself."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Down and Out in Denmark

The stereotypes are true about Copenhagen: The constant parade of beautiful, rosy-cheeked blondes streaming by on bicycles. Bountiful beer on just about every corner. Baked goods to die for. And it's expensive as hell.

The view from Nørre Sogade

One of the guides I'd looked at claimed that those on a backpacker budget should steer clear of Denmark, but for those of less meager means, it's still cheaper than London or even Paris. Well, considering I live in rip-off Paris and think London is a comparatively cheap-o spot to spend the weekend, this whole "Scandinavia is so expensive" thing should pose no problem.


The thing is, the wife and I aren't on vacation when we're in Paris. We usually eat in or at our favorite ethnic dives. We avoid overpriced bars, overrated restaurants, and we have our own ways of amusing ourselves. Hell, even in London we have our spots and our friends to be our guides.

But after only a few days in wholly unfamiliar Copenhagen, the ol' bank account was well beyond overdrawn. Sure, we have friends there, but they'd only moved in a few days before we arrived!

Beyond not knowing all the ins and outs of CPH, there's the problem it's just too easy to spend a ton of cash. While the plethora of bakeries and bars and cafés are no more expensive than in Paris, they're just too damn good to pass up. Yes, I was subject to some terrible Danishes and some bland glasses of Carlsberg – but despite those failures, the EPIC WIN rate is entirely too high. And even reasonably priced beers direct from the tap at Mikkeler and affordable breads from Meyers Bakery and pennies-on-the-dollar pastries from Sankt Peders add up after you have a lot of them. This is enough to leave any traveler without a huge bankroll down and out. And that's not even speaking of the new wave of Scandinavian cuisine that's put the city on the foodie map.

Despite coming home in the hole, every moment on the trip (except those on the phone with my bank) was worthwhile.

15 hours by train or 2 hours by plane
We had the choice of flying in and out of Copenhagen from Paris, or taking the train, both at roughly the same price. Since we had the sneaking suspicion that we'd be coming back again, Alannah and I figured we'd try both, taking the train in and the plane out.

Taking the train gave us the enviable option of riding the Thalys from Paris to Cologne, Germany. Thalys trains are not only smooth and comfortable, but in the negligibly more expensive first class car, the food is remarkably good and the wi-fi is free. Score one for trains.

Stopping over in Cologne gave us the opportunity to see more of the town we'd previously only seen for only a couple of short hours. This time around we had over seven hours to kill, which meant we got to see some friends from the area (and make some new ones!) and drink our livers into submission.

Staring down the barrel...

The copious amounts of cheap, free-flowing Kölsch beer made the next leg of the journey easier: A 12-hour overnight ride to Copenhagen.

When booking the trip, we assumed Deutsch Bahn's awkward translation of "moving bench" for our compartment meant the type that folded down into a bed. We learned upon boarding the train that it means "fully upright seat with the capacity to move forward roughly one inch for relaxation/sleep."

What else are you supposed to do in a sparse compartment
for 12 hours than shoot one another?

Add to that the very nice but motion sickness-prone family who ended up sharing our compartment, and it was the least restful all-nighter I've experienced since giving up chemically enhanced party aids. We now know full well to pay a few euros extra to upgrade to a proper couchette. Score one for planes.

Shock therapy
We arrived in Denmark with nary a scratch and after checking into the Hotel Kong Arthur, it was time to relax. One of the reasons we chose our hotel was because – even though we didn't know we'd be spending the night with Pukey the Kid, Barfy the Baby and their band of German cohorts – we knew we'd want to take advantage of the attached Helle Thorup spa.

And that we did. Soft, voluminous robes. Bubbly jacuzzi. Hot steam room. And is there anything more Scandinavian than a nice, hot sauna?

Yes, yes there is. And that would be the koldt vand spand. Translation: Cold water bucket. After each round of heat in the tub or the steam room or the sauna, I'd position myself under this bucket of ice water and pull the rope.

Pure masochistic bliss.

But even more fun is watching and listening to others as they dump ice cold water on themselves and shriek like little girls. Especially Alannah. Even purer sadistic bliss.

This spa ritual became our daily retreat from our everyday lives, and even from the moments of stress on the trip itself. Work issues on your mind? Sweat it out. ATM card not working? Nothing a cold shock can't eliminate. Realizing you can afford only one nice night out? Luxuriate in the jacuzzi like a boss.

Brain bath
All that bubble and steam is great for reducing stress from the outside, but sometimes we want to massage our brains from the inside. Like our previous trip to Amsterdam, Denmark is an up and coming destination for beer lovers.

Needless to say, we largely eschewed the local Carlsberg and Tuborg for much more local Mikkeler and Nørrebro brews.

Mikkeller single-hop tasting event? Yes, please!

One of the beautiful things about Copenhagen is that it's a beer drinking city. Stroll along the touristy Nyhavn canal and there are sidewalk cafés lining the entire length, each with beer taps out front. Better yet, across from all the tourist traps, locals sit along the canal and drink their own beers, seemingly non-stop. It's not uncommon to see people walking around with plastic crates full of half-liter beers.

This penchant for public consumption does have one ill side-effect, however. No, it's not broken glass or litter or puke on the streets. Copenhagen is one of the cleanest cities I've ever seen outside of Japan. Even the habitual drunks know where to find the recycling bin... It's the day-and-night presence of staggering drunks almost everywhere, to the point that it's seen as normal.

This guy stumbled into a phalanx of bearskin-capped guards in front of the Royal Palace and had to be shooed away. Interestingly, not a single one of the dozens of drunks I saw in town was belligerent or mean. Just drunk.

Sunny dispositions
Perhaps it was the amazing weather we had while in Copenhagen, but it wasn't just the drunks who fell far from the mean tree. Despite a few indifferent people here and there, one could largely conclude that the Danish people are staggeringly (ahem) nice.

Maybe it's the relative lack of vehicular traffic. (1/3 of people commute by bicycle.) Maybe it's the impeccably clean public transit. (Often with free wi-fi.) Or perhaps it's because a higher priority seems to be placed on relaxing and enjoying one's surroundings rather than me-me-me consumption and attention whoring. This isn't to say that there aren't sinister aspects here and there, but this is – again – the first time since Japan that I've seen people more than willing to park their baby buggies outside of stores while they shop. With the babies still in them.

Even the highly ethnic 'hood that is Nørrebro – unlike many ethnic enclaves in large cities around the world that seem to house a more marginalized population – appears just as bright and happy-go-lucky. The only difference is that it's, well, ethnic.

You hear a lot of Farsi being spoken in Copenhagen. So it
was unsurprising to find an Iranian restaurant in Nørrebro.

Aside from the massive construction going on there, the sidewalks are clean, people are polite, and like many ethnic enclaves around the world, some of the best shopping and eating is to be found there. Certainly as a visitor there are some issues I'm unaware of and I'm sure the great shopping and eating has something to do with gentrification, but in general it was one of my favorite parts of the city.

On the tourist trail
We literally followed the tourist trail provided on the free city map given out by the tourism center. On it there's a dotted line in a large loop, taking you from place to place, including the famous Little Mermaid statue north of the city center.

Is she sad because she's surrounded by smoke stacks?
Or because she has useless legs?

Alannah and I had initially planned to use the Copenhagen's free bike program which, at the price of completely free (a 20dkk deposit is given back to you the moment you return a bike to its stall), edges Paris' €29/year scheme. Its disadvantage is that it doesn't start running until May, and so we ended up taking in the unseasonably warm weather on foot. Hence the tourist loop.

Close to running on empty, this was actually a great thing to do for our last full day in Denmark. We opted against having a pricey dinner and decided instead to follow the tourist trail and hit various snacks and street food along the way. This added up to a lot of pastries and sausages and cappuccinos, not a single one of which was bad.

Our tour also started a little on the late side, so the sun was setting by the time we got to the area where you find the Little Mermaid. Moving further to the north, it was just about nightfall when we arrived at the new "Genetically Modified Little Mermaid," and the eerie silence and lack of human presence around us made it that much more creepy. We picnicked in front of it.

The genetically modified Little Mermaid.
This is where industrial tuna comes from.

By the time we started making our way back to the city center, it was completely dark. We were able to walk through the Kastellet, a pentagon-shaped earthen fortress. Slowly making our way through the old barracks in peace, I decided that the time we spent after the sun had set in this less populated part of town made it feel like the whole of Denmark was ours.

Ghosts of the Kastellet

The sadness of departure
We performed our now ritualized last-day-in-a-country routine that includes hitting the markets and shops for food and drink we can't easily find in Paris, meeting some interesting characters along the way. We had our last traditional Danish lunch. Our last beer. Said our last goodbyes. And, of course, survived our last koldt vand spand.

Despite having spent only a few days in Copenhagen, I think I can speak for the both of us and say that Alannah and I felt very much like we were at home. This feeling last occurred while traveling during our first visit to Paris together...

And no, that doesn't mean we're moving to Denmark all of a sudden. We happened to arrive at the beginning and left at the end of a serendipitous burst of excellent weather, and the Miserable Weather Season lasts longer than it does in Paris. I bitch enough about the weather here as it is!

What made it hard to leave was being around so many of the things we miss. Cinnamon rolls. Good beer. Bicycles. Wide sidewalks. Clean streets. And above all, our friends from California for whom we are so thankful that they can drop by Europe every so often. Even if it requires a 12-hour train ride to see them.

Bye bye, awesome Danishes. We're not sure when we'll
see you again. Say hi to rye bread for us!

The last moments in Copenhagen were spent wrangling with our luggage to make sure each piece of Danish market goodness was distributed properly to avoid weight surcharges, security issues, and potential damage in transit. Then we waited and waited 'til boarding time, and then takeoff, and then for our baggage on the other end, and then to finally arrive home via the busted-ass RER commuter train. Total door to door time: 6.5 hours. Amount of which was pleasurable: 0.

This round goes to: Train.

As usual, for a more food-oriented account of this trip, see the upcoming entry on our cooking site, Hungry Amateurs and the full complement of photos on my Flickr page.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Life, Love and Amsterdam

The last time I was in Amsterdam was for an epic trip through parts of Europe with a group of friends. It was four years ago, I was single, living in San Francisco, and I had not a worry in the world.

This time around, I’m living in France, I’m on a much stricter budget, and I went to Holland with Alannah to celebrate our third wedding anniversary.

We also went in for her first ultrasound two days before the trip, so yeah – that changes everything.

Everything the typical American would want to go and do in Amsterdam was out. Cannabis and magic mushrooms – out. Bike rides among the canals – out. (Alannah had recently fractured her tailbone, meaning bike seats were out of the question.) Whorin’ it up – out, unless I wanted our third anniversary to be our last.

Just as my life has changed in the last few years, so have our priorities when traveling. Whereas I used to be all about seeing and experiencing as many things and meeting as many people as possible, we have narrowed down our travel focus to the things we love most: Food, drink, and the people that make them.

Just as we did in Italy last summer we eschewed the museums and sightseeing for a real taste, so to speak, of local culture. Being that we have a moderately well-read food porn and cooking blog and are constantly looking to expand our own cooking repertoire, we took this opportunity not only to get away for an extended weekend, but also to try food and drink we’d find inspiring.

Getting to Amsterdam from Paris couldn’t be any easier. The slick Thalys high-speed train leaves Gare du Nord regularly, taking three and a half hours to get to the ‘Dam with stops in Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport along the way. As usual, we opted to sit near the bar car so we can get the party started right... Although Alannah could not partake of the lovely (and affordable!) on-board Belgian beer this time around.

To meet our budget for staying in Amsterdam, we had several choices, none of which one would typically equate with an anniversary trip. We could hole up in a hostel with a bunch of backpackers – we generally don’t mind this at all, but past experience has shown a great majority of Amsterdam backpackers tend to be on the drug tourist track: Not exactly our idea of a couple of relaxing nights. The other was to grab one of the many affordable hotels right on the central axis of town, the Damrak – which is flooded with said tourists. A third new option, however, fit us best: Using the power of social networking and ingenuity, Air BnB lets individuals rent out rooms to other individuals, often at a very reasonable price. We found a room for rent from a nice local named Mense, just across the River IJ from Amsterdam Centraal Station. He even picked us up at the ferry port to bring us to our cozy, well-appointed little room. At €35/night, it could not be beat, and the location – despite being only minutes from Amsterdam’s city center – was quiet and peaceful. Taking the free ferry back and forth across the IJ every time we wanted to go into town or go home was actually pretty novel and cool, too.

What was novel but not so cool was the German-style shelf toilet in our bathroom. The last thing you want when you’re on a diet of beer and cheese and bitterballen is a toilet made to examine your stool, but hey, we travel to experience other cultures, right?

We got settled in and sent out some emails to local friends to possibly meet up, then made our way back into town for our first order of business: Lunch. Dutch pancakes? Fried meatballs? Aged Gouda cheese? Nope. Burgers.

Getting a good burger in Paris is like pulling teeth. Only more expensive. So it was a relief to get to Burger Bar – right in the tourist bustle of the city center – and sit down for a giant wagyu (Kobe beef) burger for the price of a shitty frozen steak haché at a typical Parisian brasserie.

Our growling stomachs settled, it was on to the next order of business: Beer. We made our way through the tiny streets of the southwestern city center to find a couple of fantastic beer shops – De Bier Koening ("the beer king") and The Cracked Kettle – both of which sell some amazing local brews, as well as import beers we simply can’t get in Paris. Knowing we could get the Dutch beers fresh at the bars, we picked up some cold, hoppy American and Danish beers I could drink while finding our next stops. A certain amount of cold efficiency is needed when you have a huge list of things to sample over three days.

We spent the afternoon weaving back and forth through the western canal belt around the Jordaan neighborhood, finally making our way up the Prinsengracht canal – one of the prettier but more yuppified parts of town – to stop for what would become our new addiction: Dutch apple pie and mint tea. Our friends Melanie and Andrei had recommended pie at this particular shop when they’d visited us in Paris previously, and it automatically went on the “When in Amsterdam...” list.  They did not steer us wrong.

As if a burger and several beers and gigantic apple pie isn’t enough to stuff the belly, we trekked on to our next destination: De Keuken Van 1870 on Spuistraat. Fearing that nothing but chain restaurants would be open past typical Dutch dining hours (i.e. when we Parisians usually eat), we loosened our belts and sat down for a meal of traditional Dutch food – and local beer, of course – in what was once a workmen’s lunchroom. The food was fabulous – and huge – and neither of us were able to finish. That’s impressive when you consider that between the two of us, we’re a greedy pig and a pregnant lady.

Toward the end of dinner we got a text from a local friend whom we’d previously only known via internet. Many years in the Depeche Mode fan community has resulted in many, many friends around the world, the majority of whom we haven’t met. So we took the opportunity to meet up with fellow fan Marcel, who hopped on his bike to join us. We ended up at a local beer bar – a really local one – that exclusively serves Dutch beers, 30 of which are on tap.

The only trouble is that Alannah is currently not drinking and Marcel doesn’t drink beer, so I couldn’t sample all 30 drafts at ‘t Arendsnest. Despite doing my best to drink for three, I only got through four beers before throwing in the towel. The delicious, delicious hop-laden towel.

We called it a relatively early night, taking the ferry back across the IJ to get to our cozy little room and sleep in.

By noon the next day we were a bit bleary-eyed but awake, ready to take on another day of Dutch culture via food and drink. A lot of drink. In order to get some soakage first, we ferried across to Centraal Station, bought 24-hour transit passes (€7, not bad for unlimited tram, metro and local train travel) and took the tram southward to the famous Albert Cuypmarkt.

In one of Europe’s biggest street markets, vendors sell everything from junk to cheap underwear to organic produce, to lovingly-made street food. Alannah immediately keyed in on stroopwafel (big ol’ waffles covered in syrup) and poffertjes (miniature puff pancakes). Not having had enough starch and sugar, apparently, we got an even bigger fix at the amazing Bakken met Passie, a bakery just west of the market that seriously puts most Paris bakeries to shame. The sheer variety, artistry, and – most importantly – deliciousness of everything on display was a bit overwhelming. We wanted to eat everything. We settled on dining in, restraining ourselves to a couple each of surprisingly complex cheese sandwiches, pastries, and drinks.

As much as I wanted to compare it to our own efforts I resisted buying a round of Passie’s San Francisco sourdough. After all, we came for the Dutch food and drink, right?

Speaking of drink... I couldn’t go another moment without a beer. Our next destination was a grueling haul across town (ok, maybe 15 minutes taking two trams) to the Funenkade due east of the city center. There, attached to an old octagonal windmill, is the Brouwerij ‘t IJ. It’s one of two actual breweries in Amsterdam (Heineken doesn’t count – it’s only a tourist attraction, and the actual brewing takes place elsewhere), and they feature five beers on tap at any given time. For the non-committal, flights are available.

The brewpub is like many other brewpubs. There are lots of beer guys with beards hanging out. There’s a lot of sampling and note-taking and sniffing going on. There’s a tour of the brewing facilities that really is the same pretty much the world over. The stark contrast between European beer culture and American culture comes in only one aspect: The presence of children. I’d say a third of the patrons were there with toddlers in tow, and the servers were happy to oblige them with glasses of juice with a little lollipop set into the straw. The wealth of decent non-alcoholic options at Dutch bars is a godsend when traveling with someone who can’t booze it up. Alannah discovered the breadth and depth of organic and conventional apple juices available in Holland, as appelsap seems to be the non-alcoholic beverage of choice around here.

With more than a strong buzz going, I needed to feed the baby. That’d be MY belly. We had just enough time to make it to Frank’s Smoke House before closing. It is not a “coffeshop,” but rather the only smoked fish specialty shop in Amsterdam. We were able to gorge ourselves on sockeye salmon sandwiches while chit-chatting with the lovely lady (Maria, was it?) behind the counter. Before our trip, my mom had commented on Facebook that we need to find a good smoked fish joint (herring in particular) in Amsterdam. Marcel commented that most Dutch ate their herring raw, and he’s right. But somehow Alannah found this humble smoked fish palace.  Now we know where to send my mom next time she’s in Amsterdam. (Which is surprisingly more often than you’d think.)

Then it was back to the city center for more beer. Several glasses of American brews that are nearly impossible to find in Europe, some conversation with a Scottish immigrant and his Dutch wife, and the overall gezellig atmosphere made In de Wildeman a surprisingly kick-back, cozy stop in the heart of the otherwise touristy city center.

It was about dinner time, but the thirst for otherwise unattainable beers would not relent.  We made it to the relatively new Beer Temple, a more slick, modern beer bar – not unlike what you might find in Southern California – specializing in craft brews and, more surprisingly, American craft brews, with many of them on tap. Ok, so there was a little mission creep in sampling Dutch culture, per se, but you simply cannot get beers from Anchor, Left Hand, Flying Dog, etc. on tap – and rarely even in the bottle – in Paris. We did maintain some Dutchness by eating a huge hunk of oudekaas (aged Gouda) with mustard.

Marcel had come out to meet us again (I felt bad for dragging a non-beer drinker to beer bars, but he assured us he’s used to it!) so our sampling of fine beer and fine cheese was nicely accompanied by great conversation.

Alannah noted once again how in all our travels, when meeting up with people I know through the Depeche Mode fan community, we are in the company of extremely nice, welcoming souls. I had warned her before our first concerts together that we’re like neo-Deadheads in a way – but I think we only picked up the positive aspects. And not the patchouli.

One late evening round of street frites (drowning in mayo, of course) and then it was back on the ferry and in for a very sound evening of sleep. Even the horror of using the icky shelf toilet couldn’t keep me from sleeping soundly and contently.

Our final morning had us getting up early. We had to get to the Albert Cuypmarket again, and I was dead set on doing this before our 24-hour transit passes expired. Also, we had to get to Bakken met Passie before their pastry selection was picked over.

Mission accomplished.

We then hooked around the western canal belt (Grachtengordel - try pronouncing that right the first time) to get up to the Noordermarkt and check out the organic foods on display. Fulfilling our mission of acquiring things one simply can’t get in Paris, Alannah picked up a kilo of kale. It also made for a fun little linguistic exchange, with us learning the Dutch word for kale (boerenkool) and us teaching the spelling and pronunciation of it in English to the market lady. K-A-L-E - kayyyl.

Our checklist pretty much being done by midday, we figured we’d move on to more pedestrian things one does in Amsterdam: Eat a pancake. Eat bitterballen (fried meatballs). Maybe hit a coffeeshop.

During the lunch hour, trying to get pancakes was a big failure. The few pancake houses out there were packed and had a nasty line full of tourists (like a croque monsieur in France, pannekoeken are something typically made and eaten at home, not at restaurants). And bitterballen are apparently non-existent until after 4pm, when bars turn on their deep fryers. We settled for apple pie and mint tea, which is a pretty damn good consolation prize if you ask me.

An hour or so later, we stumbled upon (or stumbled up) to Pannekoekenhuis Upstairs, a tiny, über-gezellig pancake house up the steepest set of stairs you can imagine. Being at the bottom of the Red Light District, it was largely full of English-speakers (and a few locals) but no matter – the couple running the place (I assume they’re a couple: one big burly guy, one dainty Asian guy) were about as Amsterdam as it gets.

It’s a good thing we handled those stairs before popping into my favorite, mellow, mostly-locals coffeeshop nearby for a tiny taste of what Amsterdam is famous for: An incredible variety of teas and infusions, served not in cups but glasses so you can appreciate the color more. I had the mint tea. And a spliff of AK-47.

And this is where people ask (every damn time) why I would write publicly about the latter part. It’s simple. I have no political or career aspirations. It’s 100% legal. And I’m from California, where if you don’t have at least one hook-up and don’t have a story of that one time you were soooo high, you’re not actually a Californian.

And to clarify, my non-partaking wife did not do so much as look at my spliff.

With all that out of the way, the experience was, well, whatever.

Again, as a Californian, herb is more a less a part of la vie quotidienne. In fact, not having immediate access to medical-grade bud at any time is one of the very odd things about living in Paris. Occasionally at a party or concert, someone will light up a joint of the cheap shit and pass it around, the cannabis equivalent of an unpalatable Miller Lite. So – like hoppy beers and good burgers – taking a few puffs was a tasty reminder of my native land.

And after three years of dealing with the I’m-so-pushy, I’m-always-right, I-don’t-know-how-to-queue, I-can’t-take-a-fucking-risk-to-save-my-life chaos that is Paris, it was a much deserved moment of unwinding.

Luckily, I didn’t fall into a freezing cold canal as I dodged and weaved my way to the next location, thanks to Alannah keeping an eye on me.

With the clock winding down to our train ride back to Paris, we found ‘t Arendsnest Dutch beer bar again and planted ourselves in for one final session of beer (and appelsap) drinking and bitterballen eating. Still extremely relaxed from the previous stop and with no “checklist” to follow, our last couple of hours in Amsterdam were chill, mellow, and full of smiles.

Alannah and I whiled away our time, talking about our newly forged memories, the totally gezellig vibe of old school bruincafes (old brown pubs, such as the one we were sitting in), and how amazingly friendly and welcoming every single local has been. We determined we’ll definitely go farther afield on our next trip, but even while generally remaining near the city center, we managed to largely steer clear of the bachelor party groups and collegiate drug tourists, and to find some very comfortable, serene spots.

Despite Amsterdam’s distorted image as a “cesspool for sex and drugs,” Alannah caught on to what I’d been talking about before – how it’s an OK place to visit as a tourist, but how it seems a fantastic place to simply live.  We can’t imagine living anywhere other than Paris right now, but seeing how kid-friendly, bike-friendly, and generally friendly Amsterdam is, we can’t feel but a twinge of jealousy for the families riding to the organic market, kids in tow in their bakfiets, with a jongkaas broodtje in hand.

One ultrasound and my priorities have totally changed. Proost!


The full-on foodie account of this post will be found on Hungry Amateurs.
The full set of photos taken on this trip can be found at my Flickr page.