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.


  1. What a wonderful post! Took me back to our time there last April after we had left you guys in Paris. We were only there for about 36 hours (we took the first train out which was regrettably early and we almost missed it because our train tickets wouldn't print on the machines...and the actual ticket queue didn't open until about 15 minutes before our train left! Yikes!) Anyway, you've given us some good ideas of places to go next time we are there. And I agree with you about people's misconceptions about A'dam. After the bustle of Paris, I found it to be a very relaxing, chill city. I loved it and I could definitely see why it would be an awesome place to live.

  2. Thanks... Let us know next time you're going out there, we'd gladly tag along ;)