Amsterdam canal at night
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Yesterday really starts with the night before

The grand plan had been to spend the afternoon tidying up the apartment, to grab an early evening’s bite out with Martin and then to pack a bag just before getting into bed for a solid night’s sleep.

Instead, at about 10:30 at night, Martin and I are climbing five flights of stairs in a deserted building that looks as if every part of it is under construction. There’s plaster dust everywhere, and gaping multi-floor holes where walls had formerly been. Most importantly, we make it to the very top and the movie theatre that we had expected to find amidst the mess is not there.

Martin’s certain that it’s here somewhere. So we descend to the ground floor and wander around in the dimly lit courtyard looking for some sign. In the second yard, I see the blue light beacon of a large screen shining from another fifth floor window.

I’m out of breath when we reach the top. Damn asthma.

It’s an odd little place, run more like a film night at a friend’s place than a formal business. Although we’re already very late, the movie has not even started, and the projectionist—who is also the ticket seller—tells us to hang out in the lounge for a bit. She dases off. We buy drinks and chips and admire the beautiful night view of Kreuzberg from the lounge window.

It’s another ten minutes, and she’s back and now ushering everyone in for the showing.

In keeping with the “friend’s place” atmosphere, the seats are not seats but, rather, long, draped, comfortable couches in a midsize room. It’s a total make-out scene…except that Martin’s not that kind of friend. He places the bag of chips between us, and keeps his legs a careful distance from mine. He swigs his beer. I settle deep into the folds of the cushions with a Bitter Lemon.

Despite some great flaws, Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” is an equally great film. His ability to describe a place through setting—the carefully manicured, but bare lawn of a McMansion housing development, for example—is remarkably evocative and, well, emotionally manipulative. I mean that in a good way.

Martin and I have plenty of time to talk about that and more after the film because, with the late start of the movie, we have a late departure and, in turn, miss the last of the night trains.

This is the second time that this had happened to me recently. When John was up from Leipzig the weekend before, he and I missed the last trains from Alexanderplatz. We were so wrung out by the Berlinale showing of “Candy” that we both wanted to drink. A late beer, a late train and next thing you know we’re hailing a cab.

The joy of being with a native speaker is that the alternatives are readily apparent. Martin wastes no time in using the information call-button at the station and navigates us through two bus routes to Warschauer. Thankfully, because we live within walking distance of each other—albeit on opposite sides of the Spree—we are headed in the same direction. I think it’s nearly 2 a.m. when I turn the key in the lock.

A late night equals a late morning, and I don’t want to miss my train. But when it rings at 6:45, I simply re-set it. So it’s well after 7 when I do get up, and my drain departs promptly at 8:51. I grab a quick shower, quickly pack a bag, and make a run for the station.

I arrive shortly after 8:30 and enjoy a moment’s pride at being early…just a moment though, as I then read the departure schedule. My train leaves at 8:30?!

I race up to the platform and find myself among a group of irate passengers. I cannot understand a word of what they are saying, but they are pointing at the platform schedule and clearly angry. A DB worker is trying to calm them, and also trying to answer me as I’m practically tugging at his sleeve like a child. I pull out my ticket, thinking that there just must be some kind of mistake. There is. He takes my ticket and shows it to my fellow passengers with a satisfied grunt. I can’t quite understand what he then says, but I get the point: *they* are all angry because they had expected to leave by the posted time of 8:30. My ticket, he shows, proves that he was right: the train isn’t due until later. He returns my ticket to me and gestures for me to stay put. I do.

I’m too afraid to leave the tracks for something from the food hall, so I buy a cheese croissant. I’ve barely paid when the train arrives. I have a reserved seat on a non-smoking car. It’s spacious, in part because there are racks for bikes and special seating for laptop users. It doesn’t matter really. After a little gawking at the passing landscape—it’s so bright out today that the rivers look just stunning—I fall asleep.

I drift in and out of sleep for three hours. When I am fully awake again, I stumble back to the food car and buy a perfectly mediocre sandwich from a perfectly surly attendant. The trip takes longer than I expect—there’s an hour delay at one point—but I spend the time catching up on postcards, reading a book that Irene lent me (I want to meet Neil Gaiman.) and listening to my iPod.

To which, I want to recommend here the Yeppie.org “sexsoundlovers” podcast [update June 4, 2021: now by paid membership here]. LOL. “We have sounds created by members, motel sex, neighbor sex…” Bottom line: you can have loud wonderful sex, but the people next door may be recording it for posterity. Funny and arousing!

There was a brief slip at Ameersfoort. My ticket states that I am to transfer there so I disembark with my bags. Since the train was late, where do I go, I ask the conductor? He looks at my ticket and, instead, hustles me back on the train. That was a mistake, he says. My eyes go wide.

I arrive at Amsterdam Centraal and realize with a start that I am ill prepared to be here. I know not one word of Dutch, not even the basics. Please. No. Excuse me. Thank you. Where’s the toilet. Do you speak English.

Nothing.

The woman at the information center is multilingual. (I learn later that most people are.) She sells me a map and a three-day tram pass and says the tram I want, number 16, is just outside the station’s doors.

It takes me 30 minutes of wandering in the rain before I find the right stop. And it is right outside the door.

Sigh.

I cannot pronounce the name of my street, but part of it starts with “concert.” The driver knows what I am talking about, and I am at the Hotel Bema within minutes. I arrive just as two other women open the door so I follow them in. There is no first floor. I am at the base of a narrow staircase so steep that it reminds me of “The Exorcist.” You know, the one where the priest falls to his death.

These are steeper.

I think of Meg, and how pissed she would be about not being warned. I think of Irene, and how kind she was to lend me a small duffel for the trip. I climb the stairs.

The Hotel Bema is tall and spacious home that has been converted into low-cost rooms and apartments. At 35 Euros per night for my own room, it was the best deal I could find on Lonely Planet…at least if I wanted to avoid potheads at the local youth hostel.

Smoking pot is legal here, even served on the menus at local coffeehouses, and it’s a big draw for tourists. Even Irene had her story to tell of getting high on laced brownies here, hallucinating and certain she was going to die. She tells me this over tea back in the park on Saturday. I am laughing. She is not.

No one is smoking at Bema. Joanna checks me in, carries my bag up another steep flight of stairs, and shows me my room and the shared toilet and shower facilities. There’s nothing “beautiful” about the Bema, but it’s clean, and the unpretentiousness of the place has its own charm.

>With the delay of the train and the time roaming for the tram, I am ravenous. Joanna pulls out a map and directs me away from all-things-touristy, bless her. I post a couple of “I’m here” emails, and head out the door.

On a whim, hop a passing tram in Joanna’s suggested direction. When it takes an unexpected turn to the south, I hop off and walk. I’m so hungry I can’t think, but I am bizarrely ruling out most. No Asian. Sick of Asian. No kebabs. Sick of kebabs. No pasta. Sick of pasta.

There’s a pub on the corner and what I can see through the windows draws me like a magnet. The lettering on the glass: Gambrinus. The natural, thick beams of wood. Even the guys smoking at the bar. The posted menu is in Dutch save this: spare ribs.

I’m in.

I can’t recommend this place enough. Everything about it is as perfect as the first glance. There’s a dark brew on tap that is worth returning for alone. But the food is superb. My waitress brings out a complimentary basket of think rounds of bread and an absolutely delicious olive tapenade. The ribs are mouth-watering: dry, no sauce, but perfectly cooked to fall off the bone. And it comes with a plenty of sides: an exquisite green bean and mushroom medley generously sautéed with garlic (lol, not for you, Niels), a mesclun salad topped with pine nuts and a perfect creamy dressing, and thick wedges of fries served (as I was warned by the hotel guidebook) with mayonnaise.

After all that good eating, I need to walk and walk and walk.

It’s raining out, so I decide to catch a tram to a good starting point. But I am all turned around. I just get on the next one passing. A funny and elderly man working the tram ticket window asks me if I am one of The Pointer Sisters. The old charmer! He points out that I am on the wrong tram for where I wish to go, so I hop off an quickly get on another. But that tram driver tells me that I am again going in the wrong direction.

Did I mention the rain?

An elderly couple at the tram shelter look over my map with me and suggest I just walk it. You will love the architecture, and it’s not too far. Where are you from, the husband asks?

Amsterdam is beautiful at night, even in the dark and the rain. I walk for hours, meandering through narrow streets, pausing to take in the views along the canals, peeking in shop windows, admiring the art of small galleries. (The Reflex Gallery. Highly recommended.) There are little stops along the way too, including getting a better map from the female owner of a gay men’s sex toy shop.

It’s not what you think. I really just needed a map.

But I had heard so much of the Red Light District that I decide that I want to see it for myself. I never make it there, at least, not to the part with women sold from display windows.

Instead, I fall into the Casablanca, a narrow little bar where the big band jazz spills out into the street. It’s me, a rum and coke, a small appreciative crowd, and a 12-piece band fronted by a vocalist from New York.

Her name is Sheryl. And she’s singing my favorites.

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