Friday, November 09, 2007

Back From the “Real World”

10 November 2007

Talk about a whirlwind tour! I thought that I had better reassure you all that I didn’t get hopelessly lost in an eternal loop on the “Coffee Houses of Amsterdam Tour.” Nor did I have the opportunity to lose all track of the time. I can hardly believe that a month ago I wrote from Kuwait. I think my waylaid stop in Kuwait was all for the better. I didn’t realize how much I needed the rest, breath of fresh air and the necessary mental break required before starting out on my “vacation.”

I only came back out of the need to get back into my routine and to get a vacation from my vacation. Who would think all that visiting, good-eating, and good-drinking (fresh Heineken, Moet-Chandon Nectar Imperial, rum and cokes, Glen Morangie scotch, and fresh-muddled raspberry-chili martinis to name a few) would ruin me?

On October 10th, I arrived in Amsterdam and checked into the Seven Bridges B&B in the eastern canal area on Reguliersgracht. Perfect location for being near Dam Square, Rembrandt Square, Leiden Square, Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and even the Heineken Brewery. Amsterdam is pretty compact anyway, so the view of the seven bridges and living in a row house on the canals for a week is the perfect way to feel like a real Amsterdammer.

I met Phil at Schiphol Airport the next morning at 11am. To say he was fit to be tied was an understatement! He had to pass through and catch a connecting flight out of London Heathrow…which has totally outlawed smoking in all parts of the airport. No time to go outside because he’d of had to go through security and customs again. Connections in London are less-than-convenient if you need a smoke between flights! So Mr. Pleasant was unable to smoke for 14 hours! He was almost approachable after consuming (double-chain-smoking) a half-pack about 20 minutes later. If it would have helped, I nearly considered helping him smoke a few of them too.

Since I’d bought a strip card for the Tram, we trained and trammed it back from the airport. Transport through the city is so easy. Phil quickly found out that you must watch your step when crossing the street since the bike traffic is quite unlike anything he’d ever seen in the States. He commented that he’d read that there are like 16 million Dutch and about 20 million bikes, but he never realized that you’re probably more likely to be run down by a bike than a bus in Netherlands! Even your 90-year old granny is out on her bike every day. If she rings her bell at you, you’d best move it! Those marks etched on her handlebars are her tally of witless American pedestrians.

We got back to our apartment at the B&B and he got his second Dutch surprise. As I opened the front door, he looked at the front steps and started laughing. To describe these stairs, one might say they are similar to a carpeted ladder in angle and step width. One false step in your socks and you probably won’t remember a thing as you end up at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck!

“How the heck do they get furniture up these steps?!” Well, back in “the day,” houses were taxed on frontage. A wide staircase is going to take up too much space in the house. So a nice narrow staircase takes up less space. Then you put an arm out from the top of the home with a pulley and hoist furniture up and through the middle window, and give the front of the home a lean slightly forward so you don’t bang up the furniture on the house. Beats busting your butt winding a big bureau up steps and dinging the walls all the way up!

We met up with my friend Angelique and her daughter Ilke on Saturday morning. Roland was off to India for a shooting competition. I’ve known the two of them since they were high-school sweet-hearts when I was stationed at Kalkar back in 1985-87. So anytime I have an excuse to visit Netherlands, I always look forward to visiting them. Anyway, Angelique and Ilke drove into Utrecht to the stadium and then took the train in to Centraal Station. No one with any common sense drives in A’dam! Then off to lunch at a great little place in the Jordaan area. Her brother has a weekend apartment in the Jordaan, so she knew just the places to go on that side of town.

We walked around the city some and ended up power-shopping at Magna Plaza behind Dam Square, on Kirkstraat and also at Bijenkorf. Then did the canal tour in the glass boat. We were very fortunate with the weather too. Normally, October in A’dam is like 55 and rainy. Our whole stay we had one day of rain and temps were in the upper 60’s and 70’s. This allowed us to relax some in the Rebrandtplein at a café more than once for refreshments and snacks.

Sunday, we walked down to Rembrandt Square and ended up buying three paintings at the Artists Sale in the square. You do know that art is cheap…it is the framing that will break your bank once you get the art home…like double the cost of the art. So it better be dear to you if you’re going to frame it! The little old lady we bought them from was very pleased to sell three at once. I’m sure she was partying that night.

We got a great recommendation for a restaurant near the Rembrandtplein on one of our excursions. The Castillo on Reguliersdwarsstraat is a great little Argentine Beef place if you are voracious carnivores like us. Also noteworthy is lunch at the café in the Magna Plaza. I wish Phil enjoyed Thai and Indonesian because the Netherlands with all their history in the Dutch Indies have some great restaurants.

Monday morning as we were heading out on one of our adventures, I think to the Van Gogh Museum and an older woman and her son walked by us. Being somewhat capable in Dutch, I greeted them with the typical “Moi Dag.” Next thing I know she is telling me in her fastest Dutch what a nice day it is and how great the weather has been and what a great Fall it is turning out to be, blah, blah, blah!

Phil is just looking at me in his best “I know she’s talking to *you* cuz I don’t speak Dutch!” look. Well, I’m catching most of it, but she is speaking in overdrive and how does one politely interrupt at this stage in the game? Once she finally paused (ever so shortly) for a breath, I told her that I understood most of what she said, en dat ik kaan een beetche Nederlands spreeke, ( never said my Dutch spelling was any good) but that I’m American. She was so sweet as she switched to English without missing a beat and said that we looked so much like Dutchmen, then a few more words and she continued on her way. So typical Dutch. I love the Netherlanders.

Phil also insisted that I had to take him to see the Red Light District. His first comments about that were, “The women are so beautiful. Are you sure they are hookers?” He expected that they’d be out on the street hustling John’s, not in pretty little window store fronts with pink and purple lighting, wearing only teddies while painting or filing their nails, watching TV and occasionally using hand gestures in the window to spark your interest. I had to explain to him that if the drapes are pulled, they are busy and that their beds are right behind them.

One note of interest…the oldest church in Amsterdam the Oude Kerk built in 1275, is interestingly squeezed between the Red Light District on one side and the Gay District on the other side. How’s that for Dutch tolerance?

Before we knew it, our visit to Amsterdam was done and we headed back to Chicago. I spent five days home…just long enough to get over the jet lag and then headed out to Phoenix to see my Gram, sister, brother-in-law and niece. Of course, that was a great visit too. Since they already have a houseful, I stayed in a hotel nearby. Our family is funny about our need for personal space. It also gives me the chance to relax and not have them worry about waking me, feeding me, etc.

Three days in Phoenix is definitely not enough time. Not to mention that nearly a day is spent in transit back to Chicago since you have a two hour time difference and a three hour flight! Still, worth the trip to see family. Maybe one day I’ll be tempted to get me a nice little condo there so that I will always have a place nearby for those quick weekend get-aways. Back to Chicago for anther 8 days or so.

Visited my alma mater at NIU while I was home. My timing must have been off because Ann and Harry wrangled me into an MBA luncheon on Wednesday. Actually, it turned out to be very interesting. The speakers were motivational speakers and are the new NIU basketball coach (who just arrived from Colorado), the Associate VP and Director of Athletics (who also lives in Sycamore) and the head of the department. So it wasn’t so bad after all.

The luncheon gave me the opportunity to see a couple of my old MBA buddies and meet a couple of new people too. Greetings to Ryan from the External Affairs Intercollegiate Athletics office at NIU. We sat next to one another over lunch and found out that we only live a couple of streets apart in Sycamore and we’re both runners. So on Thursday, I took him on a mid-day 4 miler down past the soy bean and corn fields east on Mt Hunger Road. I dogged out the young buck 20 years younger than me. Although, he probably could have hurt me if he really wanted since he has the longer legs and youth on his side. But let me dream already, will ya?

Next thing you know, I’m off to London on my east-bound trek back on Friday. I planned a four day stop in London since an old friend of mine was there on business. He was able to work in a couple of days more in London and we painted London-town red…although the cost of the paint was more than double! In case you haven’t been told yet, London is prohibitively expensive for all but the very financially brave. Still, you gotta do what you gotta do.

We stayed at the Westbury Mayfair just off of Bond Street down the block from Oxford Street. Nice 5 Star and in a great area. The staff was fantastic too.

Right out of the gate, we headed to Piccadilly Square to get tickets for Wicked. That was one heck of a show. I’d venture to say that even if you have never done a Broadway show, you’d still enjoy Wicked. What’s it about? Well, let’s just say it is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West as told from her side of the story. Much more accurate than the dressed up version as told in the Wizard of Oz! Glenda the “Good” Witch is really a high-maintenance, whiney, squeaky voiced, spoiled brat and (cover your tender eyes) a Bitch! As we’re told in this story, Elphaba’s biggest sin is that she is completely “misunderstood.” Being green has nothing to do with it.

I gotta say that probably my favorite line in the whole thing is after Elphie’s sister Nessarose (aka Wicked Witch of the North) is killed by a house falling on her. You all know, of course that Dorothy steals the ruby slippers she was wearing. Elbie is pissed because she wants the shoes back. Glenda (a shoe-whore of far worse proportions than Imelda Marcos ever dreamed of being, who, mind you, had in her and Elphaba’s dorm room an 8 foot tall bookshelf filled with glittery shoes) says to Elbie, “Elbie, get over it. They’re just shoes!” The delivery was just classic.

Anyway, might not sound like a riot, but go see it for yourself. I rate Wicked better than Phantom (which I saw two nights later and was quite disappointed) and as good as Les Mis which I also saw in London a couple of years ago.

Sunday, everything was closed, so I was searching through my guidebook from three years ago and remembered that I had dog-eared the page for Vinopolis. Vinopolis was open and I didn’t get there either of my last two trips to London. Good move! When Brian lived in San Fran, he took me out to Napa Valley for a bit of wine tasting. In a stroke of genius, I remembered his avid appreciation of wine. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon?

The neat thing about this place is that it is located next to an old Roman wine cellar location near the Hays Galleria and the London Dungeon vacinity. So the history of the area and the current use of the location are quite historically similar. Vinopolis has wine tasting of wines from all around the world, Champaign tasting, whiskey (scotch) tasting and the Sapphire Vodka Bar. Amanda our American West Coast hostess was really knowledgeable and sweet. She introduced us to the place and taught us how to taste. Let’s just say that a good tasting experience was had by all…except for that nasty old port that I had to spit out!

Other Eats and Drinks of Interest: Our first dinner was at a mediocre Italian place called La Locanda on Heddon Street off Regent Street. The food wasn’t bad, but authentic Italian. My favorite place for food and atmosphere was The Wolseley at 160 Piccadilly. The food was nothing short of fantastic although a bit pricey. But, if you want to eat cheap, don’t come to London or you could go to Burger King. Our bill came to 131 pounds including the 44 pound bottle of Chianti. Still, in a nice restaurant in London, I don’t think 50 pounds per person minus the wine is that unreasonable. Brian doesn’t bat an eyelash at those prices because he has been in New York City far too long!

Monday we went down to Canary Warf. Ended up eating a very typical English dish of Lamb Goulash at the Cat & Canary along with a couple of local beers. That was a bit more reasonably priced but still the bill came to 35 pounds.

My All-Time-Favorite Drink: Raspberry-Chili Martini at the bar at the Westbury Hotel Bar. Damn, that was one killer (okay two killer) martinis! Fresh muddled raspberries in a bit of vodka then mixed with ice, chili-infused vodka strained into the chilled martini glass. Great taste of raspberry with the bite of the chili to sting the lips!

I did get a chance to taste Brian’s fresh Mojito. Fresh limes and mint muddled with some rum, combined into the shaker with ice and rum. Strained into a chilled tall glass with ice and sprigs of mint. These were not drinks, but were an experience in and of themselves…at the tall price of 11 pounds per drink. If you want beer prices, go down to your redneck bar down the street…this is London, ladies and gentlemen.

Tuesday night Brian headed to NY and I headed to Kuwait. Got in at 0630, but missed the bus to Ali As Salem, so had to hang around till the 1030 bus. Which then meant that my visa wasn’t going to be ready till Thurs morning. No passport/exit visa, no trip to Baghdad.

Thursday morning I checked in at 0730 and my passport was in so I was able to manifest on a space R for Baghdad. I had 15 minutes to get my stuff out of the tent and over to the departure tent. Before you know it, I was on a C130 and landing in Baghdad at noon. Honestly, it almost never goes that smooth, so I must have used up some points with someone on this trip!

So after all this, I am back. As much to restock the bank account as to get back my routine.
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