A Visit to the Concertgebouw (and the joys of Dutch queuing)

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Birthday Honey!!!  (and Michelangelo back in 1475)

Today I am taking you to one of the great concert halls of the world – The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  And, as an added bonus, we’ll get to attend a free lunchtime concert (offered every Wednesday at 12:30 from September until June).  The construction of this lavish hall began with an idea in 1881 and culminated with its grand opening in 1888.  It is considered to have some of the best acoustics in the world – usually ranked among the top three music halls worldwide.

The Concertgebouw is home to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, also considered to be one of the world’s best orchestras.  Oftentimes (like the first time we visited), the free Wednesday concerts are short practice runs for the orchestra’s full-blown evening concerts taking place the same week.  Sometimes (as we learned on our recent trip), the concerts are completely free-standing venues for new and upcoming artists.  But before we get to enjoy the concert, there’s the matter of that long line out front….

When we got to the hall at about 12:00, the line was already ridiculously long (sorry I didn’t take a photo) and it was about 30 degrees out (from extrapolation of seats available [a little over 2,000], there were at least 1,000 people in line before us).  Now, I guess I have become jaded from Italy, because upon seeing the line I immediately assumed it would take us hours to get through, people would be pushing and shoving and cutting (and I’d likely get my broken toe stepped on in the process), and we’d never get through the line fast enough to make the 12:30 concert.  I was discouraged and suggested we just give up; Steve, who is more patient than I, suggested we wait it out a few minutes and see what happens, which we did.  And lo and behold, about 10 minutes later they opened the doors…and literally about 3 minutes after that we had all filed into the hall in an orderly fashion and were taking our seats!  I think I was so excited about how fast and orderly the line went (and how unscathed we were) that  it took several minutes for me to begin to look around and appreciate how amazing the hall itself is.

Okay, now that we’re in our seats we can enjoy the concert.  While we just showed up knowing it was a free concert day, we had no idea what concert it was.  While we were expecting a practice run for Bach or Beethoven, we actually stumbled upon a full-blown performance of the group Jazzmania Big Band – performing music from various crime movies and t.v. shows.  It was pretty unexpected, especially considering the surroundings, as you’ll see below, but was a great time.  Here’s the playlist from the concert:

  • Newborn – Theme from The Naked Gun
  • Mancini – Theme from Peter Gunn
  • Shumann – Theme from Dragnet
  • Barry – Theme from James Bond
  • Barry / Bricusse – Goldfinger
  • Theard – Let the Good Times Roll

Now, just imagine that music playing as you sit and enjoy from your seat in this amazing hall (photo of outside courtesy of the Concertgebouw website):

Concert hall

Thank you, as always, for letting me be your tour guide!

Ode to Van Gogh (and the Orsay)

Ciao Readers!

I was trying to decide whether to do a separate post on the Orsay Museum in Paris and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and realized it’s all about Van Gogh to me, so I’ve decided to combine the two (plus I have no pictures from inside the VG museum).  I’m not sure I can articulate the reasons why, but Van Gogh is my all-time favorite artist.  His paintings just speak to me.  I like him so much I have waited in line for an hour in Albuquerque to see a single tiny Van Gogh on temporary display, and have been to the Orsay twice and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam three times (well, to be accurate, on this trip the Van Gogh Museum was temporarily housed in the Hermitage Museum as the actual museum is undergoing renovation).  So, do you get how much I dig him?  I even brought back a puzzle from the VG museum so I could continue to enjoy the experience!  (If you’d like to read more about Van Gogh, who failed to sell a single painting while alive and committed suicide in 1890, here’s a link.)

Before we get to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, though, we need to take a trip to the Orsay in Paris (Musée d’Orsay to be precise).  Not only because it has a decent Van Gogh collection itself, but because to my mind it is one of the nicest museums in the world (well, the parts of the world I’ve seen).  Why is the Orsay so great, you ask?  I’ll tell you.  First off, it’s beautiful.  Take a look from the outside, and then inside from the 2nd floor balcony:

the orsayinside orsay

The Orsay used to be a massive train station (complete with fancy hotel) that became obsolete back in the 1930’s (though the hotel remained open) and was scheduled for demolition back in the 1970’s.  However, some bright person(s) in the French Museum Directorate had the idea to collect all of the art from the 1800’s displayed throughout the city and house it here (keeping the restaurant from the fancy hotel and adding a casual cafe to boot).  Great idea!  The Orsay opened as a museum in 1986, with the beautiful clock from the train station remaining as the focal point of the museum….

orsayclock2paris through orsay clock

Not only is the museum beautiful, but it is well-arranged and the art is well-lit (often by natural light).  This stands in stark contrast to some of the museums here in Florence (especially the Uffizi), where you have to squint to see the art in extremely low light.  In addition to being wonderful to look at on its own, its art collection is the largest in the world focusing on impressionism and post-impressionism – my two favorite art periods!  Here you can find masterpieces by many familiar names, including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Seurat, Gauguin, Rodin, Whistler and, of course, Van Gogh.  I can’t say enough about what a worthwhile experience a day at the Orsay is.

As this time the “no photos” signs were very pronounced, and I didn’t want to risk getting kicked out, I can only share a picture of me and two of the Van Goghs taken here in 2008 (this was shortly after I unwittingly had my head nearly shaved at a salon in Barcelona):

hope and vangogh

As for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it is what its name implies – the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings anywhere (he was Dutch after all).  The actual museum, which is under renovation, is a modern marvel and not only houses Van Gogh, but some impressionist and post-impressionist paintings of his friends and contemporaries (for example, Gauguin, who lived with Van Gogh for a bit until Vincent chased him with a razor blade).  While not everything is on display at the temporary location, the Hermitage Museum, we were pleasantly surprised at what a nice job they did basically recreating the Van Gogh section of the actual museum.  We walked the entire museum very slowly (only partly because of my toe), and then just for good measure went back to re-admire some of our favorites (including works inspired by Japanese paintings).  If you like Van Gogh, or think you might, I would definitely put this museum on any “must see” list!

Thanks for coming along on the museum tours!

Reflections on Italy (through an edible lens)

Ciao Readers!

I have begun to crystallize my thoughts from our recent road trip.  And, while I could just share those thoughts directly, I believe I can best illustrate them though my favorite medium – food.   Every time we traveled to Europe in the past we were always in search of the local specialties – pasta and pizza in Italy, cheese and croissants in France, and so on.  So we really paid no attention to what other types of food were available or what the eating habits of the locals were like.  This trip changed all that.

As you may recall, I have gone on many wild goose chases trying to source ingredients to prepare non-Italian foods and have tried the few foreign food places we have found here.   However, the conclusion I have come to (which has been validated by numerous Italians) is that Italians like Italian food.  Not only do Italians like Italian food, but they like all things Italian (apparently even their felony-convicted former Prime Minister).  Not only do they like Italian things, but they like them pretty much to the exclusion of non-Italian things.  That is why (in a direct way) it’s so hard to find variety in food here, and (in a more subtle way) why I feel such a strong sense of being a “stranieri.”  As the Italians I have discussed this with put it simply, Italians, especially Florentines, are “chiuso” (closed).  (Interestingly enough, these Italians usually take the form of folks who don’t feel that way – the man that owns the little Korean grocery and is married to a Korean woman; my language exchange partner who has traveled the world).   To be honest, until this trip to Paris and Amsterdam I didn’t realize the rest of Europe wasn’t the same way….

My first clue that things are not the same throughout Europe came while walking down our street in Paris.  While of course there were amazing French bakeries and bistros (more in a later post), there were tons of foreign food places.  Not one or two – tons!  The next clue came when we decided to try out a Japanese place we saw (we had to choose which of several we saw within a block).  We went during lunch and the place quickly filled up – with Parisians – businessmen and older women and everyone in-between.  Other than ourselves, we only heard French spoken.  And, much to my surprise, almost everyone was eating with chopsticks!  (As background, I have only ever seen two Italians eat with chopsticks – one being my language exchange partner who lived in Korea for 6 months and the other being a woman at PinGusto who was unsuccessfully trying to stab her sushi with one.)   This was not some exotic experience to these folks…it was lunch.  (For us it was our first unagi [eel] and non-salmon sashimi in 6 months.)

We had pretty much similar experiences throughout Paris.  Even at the upscale Lafayette Gourmet market, in addition to French foie gras (again, more in a later post), there was an entire stall for Chinese delicacies.  The regular grocery stores had things we thought didn’t exist in Europe – cheddar cheese and Oreos and Asian sauces and more.  And, while I have to say the hot sauce was nowhere near hot enough for my taste, the chips we got at the Mexican restaurant “Fajitas” were those fabulous thin-crispy ones I miss so much.   There was at least as much variety in Amsterdam (as well as the ability to eat before 8 p.m.).  And, while we enjoyed the local specialties there as well (stay tuned), we had what I could consider the best Thai green curry I’ve ever had.  Now, no offense to my favorite Thai place back in Albuquerque, but instead of 80% bamboo shoots (as I’m used to), my curry was filled with every vegetable on the planet.  Thinking the curry was going to be tamed-down for European taste buds (as was the Paris hot sauce), I made the mistake of asking for it “hot” and got what I asked for (anyone whose ever eaten authentic Thai understands what Thai hot means).  I loved every last mouth-searing second of it!!!   (Sadly enough, the hot sauce at the Amsterdam Mexican place we tried, while billed as “habenero,” was only about medium-Pace level hot.)

Now, I know you may be thinking it was weird of us to be eating all these non-French, non-Dutch foods on our trip… As my Lonely Planet “Amsterdam Encounter” put it (under a review of a Mexican place): “[Mexican food] is probably not why you came to Amsterdam.”  However, for us it was just the culinary (and thus cultural) relief we needed.  (Amsterdam also gave us our first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and first bagel in the past 6 months.)  We also came across an American grocery store – one with real American groceries (not the fake Filipino graham crackers or Swedish tortillas of Vivi Market).  Now, before you get too excited for us (especially after you see the picture of the front window, below), know that the prices were insanely high.  I have to admit, we did each treat ourselves to one thing, but pretty much just “ooooo’d”  and “ahhhhhh’d” (just as an example, one thing we did not splurge on was a normal sized Reese’s candy bar – 2.10 euros, or about $2.80).   We chatted with the proprietor and he said he has many customers from Florence, including a professor who comes 4 times a year and fills up an empty suitcase!   Interesting.

The result of these culinary discoveries was that I realized Italy really is the fairly homogenous society I suspected it of being.  And it likes it that way.  The second discovery was that other parts of Europe are much more international and open to foreign influences.  I hate to say it, but I felt much more comfortable and welcomed in Paris and Amsterdam than I do here most of the time.  People seemed friendlier and less annoyed at the Italian/French/English mish-mosh I was speaking.  I have no idea why the French get a bad rap – this is the 3rd time we’ve been there and people have always been nice (saying “bonjour”  and “s’il vous plaît”  probably helped).

I have many more reflections that fit better in upcoming posts, so for now I’ll leave you with some of the non-local food we enjoyed (or admired) on our trip:

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