Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wien noch mal

 **This post is shamefully overdue. Real life getting in the way, I guess. It's been almost three weeks since I got back from Vienna, but sometimes it feels like I just got back yesterday. And then again, I'd be more than happy to go back again tomorrow.**

The weather, which had been splendidly sunny and warm during my time in Budapest, turned chilly and overcast for my arrival in Vienna, but I far from minded. Like Amsterdam, Vienna is a city that loses little for lack of sunlight. In fact, the cloud cover cast a moody atmosphere that I thought matched the city—and myself in it—perfectly.

It may be unfair to essentialize an entire city this way, but I genuinely feel that there’s something melancholy about Vienna. Even the voice on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn—the one that announces the upcoming Haltestelle—sounds gloomy as it proclaims, “Ausstieg links.” Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

Coffee Houses
A Maria Theresia on its perfect silver serving tray. 
It’s a good thing that I have developed a taste for coffee over the past couple of years—otherwise, I might have missed out on one of Vienna’s star attractions. At some point in history (when exactly, I cannot say, being lamentably remiss in history) the Turks occupied Vienna, bringing their coffee with them, and when the occupiers left, the coffee stayed behind, and grew to become the signature drink of the city. In fact, coffee and coffee houses have become so integral to Viennese identity that “Viennese Coffeehouse Culture” was recently proclaimed “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by the Austrian branch of UNESCO.

Cafe Hawelka
And there really is an entire culture surrounding coffee in Vienna: the lingo alone—Melange, Einspänner, Fransiskaner, Maria Theresia, und so weiter—can be intimidating for the uninitiated (I’m certainly glad I read up on it before arriving). I’d like to know what happens when someone walks into a Kaffeehaus and tries to order just “Kaffee.” Actually, I don’t have to wonder: while I was sitting in Café Sperl enjoying my Wiener Eiskaffee and Apfeltorte before heading to the Leopold Museum, a couple of American guys came in and tried to order “just a coffee”. The request was followed by a few moments of confusion and miscommunication, until the waitress managed to convince the pair that what they actually wanted was a Melange, which is similar to a cappuccino and is pretty much as basic as it gets.

Cafe Central 
No less important than the coffee are the coffee houses that serve it-- which range from splendidly grand nineteenth-century affairs to cozily crowded WWII-era haunts—and the atmosphere they provide. I ended up visiting seven or eight different establishments in the course of my five days in Vienna, and each had its own subtly unique vibe, while at the same time unquestionably adhering to the Kaffeehaus code—coffee served on a silver tray with a glass of Leitungswasser and a sweet treat on the side; tables piled with newspapers, which patrons are free to peruse at their leisure; no pressure to order a second cup or pay up and get out. My favorites locales were without question: the grandiose, ornately decorated Café Central, with its dignified be-suited waiters and nostalgic live piano music (“As Time Goes By,” “Beyond the Sea”); and Café Hawelka, a popular hangout for intellectuals in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where there’s no menu, and the waiters also wear suits, but seem almost out of place among the crowded tables and poster-plastered walls.

On the whole, coffeehouses in Vienna are, to me, emblematic of what makes Vienna itself so interesting: the sense of timelessness. You walk into a coffeehouse in Vienna, and suddenly you’re transported to the nineteenth century, or fin-de-siecle to the 1950s,  and for the duration of your stay, time seems to stop. It’s interesting, too, that while coffeehouses could easily be one of those ultra-touristy destinations at which the native Viennese turn up their noses, I got the impression that real Viennese people do go to coffeehouses—maybe even have a regular spot, where their table is always free and the snooty waiter knows them by name (OK, new life goal: move to Vienna and become a regular at Café Hawelka. How do I make this happen?)

Österreichisches Deutsch
After four days of complete disorientation and bemusement in Magyar-speaking Budapest, I almost jumped for joy to be in good old German-speaking Austria again. I have more than my fair share of doubts about my German skills, but there’s no question that I’m at least equipped to be an effective tourist. It was such a relief to be able to order food in a restaurant or coffee in a café without having to resort to the humiliation of pointing; and getting lost in Vienna (which I did—a lot) was considerably less scary than in Budapest or even Amsterdam, even though Vienna is a much larger and more confusingly laid-out city, because I knew I could always just ask the next person who happened past to direct me toward the Ringstraße (a band of streets that loops around the Innenstadt) or the closest U-Bahn or Straßenbahn stop.

That being said, Austrian German is quite different from the Hochdeutsch I’ve been exposed to for most of my academic career and also, for the most part, since being in Franfurt. The entire language seems to sit differently—farther forward, more on the tip of the tongue. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “ei” sound, which in standard German is pronounced like “eye” in English, but in Austrian German sounds more like “ay-ee.” 

There are certain words and phrases, too, that are uniquely Austrian. For example they actually do say “Grüß Gott” by way of greeting. I’d always been under the impression, since basically my first day of German class freshman year in high school, that this was an antiquated expression that no one used any more. But when I walked into a bakery right after getting off the train from Budapest, the lady behind the counter nodded and said, “Grüß Gott,” and I was so caught off guard that it took me a few moments to remember that I wanted a croissant and how to order it. And while riding Straßenbahn number 71 on the way to Centralfriedhof (Central Cemetery, which, by the way, is not even remotely central, but all the way out in the 16th district), I eavesdropped on a debate between a brother and sister, seemingly twins and about four years old, about whether or not the brother could run “ein bissl schneller” than the sister (in Germany the word would be bisschen.)

To my immense pride, I didn’t have that much trouble at all understanding people in Vienna—though I’m sure it would be more of a struggle in less populous parts of Austria, where regional accents inevitably become more pronounced. In fact, it was hardly any time at all—less than a day— before I found myself mimicking the language as I heard it around me—especially the “ei” sound. I can’t help but wonder how my German would have been different at the end of this year had I chosen to apply for an ETAship in Austria instead of Germany. (Actually, spending a year in Austria isn’t entirely out of the question: the Austrian version of an English Teaching Assistantship isn’t an official Fulbright program, meaning that people who have already completed a Fulbright year in another country—Germany, say—can still apply…)

Klimt et al.
From the moment I set foot in Vienna, I was a woman on a mission. And the name of that mission was: Operation Klimt—as in Gustav Klimt, one of Vienna’s favorite sons, and one of my favorite artists (it’s weird to think about, me having favorite artists at all. What a year in Europe will get you, I guess).

Secession Building
That being said, my first Klimt encounter actually came completely by accident. On my way back from Schloß Schönbrunn, I got off the U-Bahn at the Naschmarkt stop completely on a whim, and what should I run into on the other end of the Naschmarkt but the famous Secession Building, a work of Jugendstil-ian art in its own right, And inside the building: Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, one of the artist’s most famous works and one of the Vienna’s must-see sights I’d been most excited to visit?

A covert snapshot of one section of Klimt's Beethoven Frieze.
Am I a very bad person for taking this?
I have to say, even for someone who knows nothing about art (or knew nothing about art before coming to Europe—in the course of my Herbstferien travels alone I learned more about art history than I’d known in my entire life previously) there’s something powerful about seeing a really great work of art in person. I’ve been struck by this numerous times in various art museums since being in Europe—most notably when standing in front of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, and any one of six or seven of Van Gogh’s works in Amsterdam. Standing on the platform in the Secession Building, getting up-close-and-personal with Klimt’s frieze, which runs along the top of four walls in the building’s basement, the feeling overwhelmed me yet again. And yes, I’ll admit, after leaving the platform I snuck a few illicit photographs before scurrying out of the building.

After leaving the Secession Building, I was suddenly struck with Klimt fever, so I immediately set of for Schloss Belvedere, home of Klimt’s most famous work, The Kiss. And here again, I was starstruck by a painting. Several, in fact—not just Klimt’s Kiss, but his Pallas Athena and his Judith/Salome, and by Egon Schiele’s rather visceral Umarmung as well. In the case of The Kiss, I had to overcome a few more prosaic surprises in order to get to the wonder part. The Kiss is square—did you know that? Because I didn’t. Not that I had any strongly-held conviction that the painting’s rectangularity, but it was surprising, somehow, to walk into the room where it was on display and realize it was square. Also a lot shinier than I’d realized. Of course, we all know that Gustav loved his gold, but the actual sheen of it is lost in photographs and reproductions, much like the brushstrokes in works by Rembrandt or Van Gogh.

Exterior of the Kirche am Steinhof. As I was walking
up the hill, and when I first went into the church,
The Doors song "The End" was playing
on my headphones, and I have to say it was a pretty
perfect soundtrack..
As thrilling as it was to get to gorge myself on so much Klimt, the prize for coolest Jungedstil sight, —and maybe my favorite sight overall in Vienna period—goes to a dark horse, a building I had no idea existed until it was recommended to me by my German professor: Otto Wagner’s Kirche am Steinhof. Located atop a hill on the grounds of a mental hospital also largely designed by Wagner, the Kirche am Steinhof has all the elements you expect to find in a church— altar, angels, stained glass windows, steeple—but all with a decided Jugendstil twist (apparently, Wagner also designed the church specifically to facilitate mental patients). I was particularly struck by the differences because I’d just been to see two more standard Baroque specimens, Peterskirche and Karlskirche, earlier in the day (and the prize for scariest Herbstferien experience goes to riding the elevator up to get a closer look at the frescoes on the ceiling of Karlskirche: the scaffolding sways underneath you, and there’s actually a sign— only in German, which seems somewhat questionable to me—that running and jumping are lebensgefährlich, life-endangering). A standard church visit usually takes me about ten to fifteen minutes—I can say this with confidence because I’ve visited probably close to thirty churches in the last two months. I stayed in/around the Kirche am Steinhof for close to an hour. It occurred to me several times that I should probably move on, but I couldn’t quite manage to tear myself away.
Close-up of the alter in Kirche am Steinhof.
Just one of many incredibly cool details.

Making my visit to the Kirche am Steinhof even more special is the fact that I almost didn’t go at all. It was my last day in Vienna (Friday), and I had read that the church was only open to tourists for a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. I was tired, I was morose, and the hospital was way out in the 14th district.  In the end, though, I decided the trip could be worth it for the exterior alone, and what should I discover when I got to the top of the hill but that the church was not only open—entry was free. Happy Nationalfeiertag, everybody! (More on that to come)

A Few Quick Hits (I could write pages on all of these topics and dozens of others besides, but if I tried I would never get this entry finished):
View from my Stehplatz at the Staatsoper. 
v One of the highlights of my trip to Vienna—one of those Great European Experiences I’m sure I’ll be obnoxiously going on and on about a year from now, when people are sick of my Europe stories, but somehow I can’t stop telling them anyway—one of these highlights was without question getting to see an opera by the inimitable Herr Mozart at the world-renowned Wiener Staatsoper. Stehplätze (standing room) tickets for Staatsoper shows go on sale for a trim 3 Euro starting eighty minutes before curtain. The only drawback is that you have to stand for the duration of the opera (or squat , but then you risk not being able to see, or awkwardly sitting on the feet of the person behind you), and by the end of the two and a half hours I my attention started drifting from the stage to the extreme discomfort in my kneecaps. The opera I saw, La Clemenza di Tito—is by no means one of the composers greatest or best known, but that hardly interfered with my sense that I was getting to experience a consummate Viennese moment.
v It just so happened that Friday, October 26th—my last full day in Vienna—is Austria’s Nationalfeiertag (National Holiday). I first became aware of this fact a few days earlier, when I walked through the Heldenplatz on my way to the Kaiserappartements to find the yard crowded with tents and tanks and even a giant military helicopter, and plenty of Austrian military personnel rushing hin und her. Intimidating? Only slightly. On Friday evening, I ventured to wander through the Heldenplatz again while the party was in full swing: apparently, nothing says “Austria” like “The Sommer of ‘69” and a samba performed to a Michael Jackson song. Also, while walking through Stephansplatz earlier in the day, I was handed a couple of pamphlets by a group of demonstrators calling for Austria’s immediate secession from the European Union. Given the fact that there were more police officers than demonstrators, however, I’ll venture to say that Austria’s place in the EU is safe for now.

Kaiserschmarr'n. MEGA lecker.
v Unfortunately, I was a bit negligent when it came to sampling Viennese cuisine. I did have schnitzel once, on my first night in the city. Besides that I sampled the apfeltorte at more than one coffeehouse,  and at Café Diglas I had Kaiserschmarr’n, which are basically the most decadent and delicious pancakes you will ever taste. For the most part, though, since time was short and funds by this point in my travels were running lonely, I stuck with supermarket meals and Döner for three Euro (I forget sometimes that there are large populations of Turkish immigrants in countries other than Germany, and that Döner are therefore not strictly a Turkish-German invention). Someday, when I’m rich and famous and retired, I will “do” Europe again, and when that day comes, I will be all about nice hotels and the finest restaurants the cities have to offer. Until that day comes, though, I’m afraid it’s youth hostels and grab-and-go, or else risk missing out on travel and everything these incredible cities have to offer altogether.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Herstferien, Episode 3: Vienna

Märchenstadt Wien
A few weeks before the beginning of Herbstferien, I was discussing my travel plans with one of the teachers at my school and, with classic German bluntness, he had no qualms about letting me know that he disapproved of my choice of cities. Amsterdam he accepted in the end, on the basis of my Americanness, and the understanding that the moral permissiveness of Amsterdam exerts a force that Americans are powerless to resist. Budapest he had never seen himself, so I suppose he felt ill-qualified to comment.  So the brunt of his criticism fell upon Vienna, Austria. “There are so many wonderful German cities to go to,” he lectured me. “Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, Munich—why not visit one of them, if you want to go somewhere where they speak German?”

“But there’s something fairy-tale like about Vienna,” I responded, “etwas märchenhaftes.” The gentleman didn’t seem overly impressed by this, but I was not to be swayed.  Over the years, especially since junior year in college, when I spent an entire semester studying Vienna at the turn of the century, I’d developed a romanticized, idealized fantasy about the city of Klimt and Wagner and Schnitzler and Freud and Schiele and Schönberg and Weber and Strauss. I knew that, if I spent a year in Europe and never made it to Vienna, I would never forgive myself, and so rather than leave it for winter or spring, when who knows what circumstances (or lack of funds) might pop up, I was determined that, come hell or high water, I would see Vienna in October.

Once I got there, of course—because this is the real world and this is the way the real world works— there were aspects of the city that lived up to the image I had constructed in my head, like atmospheric coffee houses, fantastically gorgeous architecture, art and music everywhere; and then there were aspects that didn’t, such as incessant construction noise, exhibits and parts of exhibits closed for restoration, missing Ubahn connections by a handful of seconds, getting cat-called on the street. Since I’d already gone through this process with Frankfurt and Germany as a whole—the process of realizing, okay, this is actually a real place where real people live and do real life things—you’d think I’d be prepared for this, but there were still some moments of cognitive dissonance during my five days in Vienna, of thinking No, it can’t be like this, this is VIENNA, it has to be beautiful and elegant and fascinating ALL THE TIME.

Not helping matters was the fact that, by the time I got to Vienna, I’d been traveling alone for ten days already: I was tired, I was incredibly lonely, I had blisters on my feet the likes of which they hadn’t seen since I hung up my pointe shoes, and my brain felt literally incapable of processing any more visual information. Of course, when I first began planning my travels—which cities to visit and in what order—I anticipated a certain amount of fatigue by the end, which is why I decided to save Vienna for last: I figured that a little travel-weariness would be no match for my enthusiasm for the city. And while it’s a shame that I couldn’t give Vienna the best of me, I stand by my decision: if I’d gone to Vienna and then Budapest, for example, I highly doubt I would have made it out of my hostel by the end.

But Vienna is Vienna, I had a list about a mile long of buildings and artworks to see, coffee houses to visit, and various other sundry Viennese experiences to have. There was no way I was going to let a couple of blisters and some self-pity stand in my way.

The Monumentality of Monuments
In his book Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (I know, you thought we were in Vienna, but relax, I have a point) Geert Mak writes of the Dutch city that it is decidedly “unmonumental,” almost an anti-monument, that the construction of monuments goes against something in the city’s temperament.

Favorite monument encounter: someone must
have thought Goethe (who is NOT Austrian,
by the way) was looking a bit chilly. Either
that, or it's a cape: Super Goethe!
FIt’s fitting, in a way, that I saw both Amsterdam and Vienna in the same two-week span; on a spectrum of “monumentality,” the two cities would be on opposite ends. There is absolutely nothing anti-monumental about Vienna. Every corner you turn, especially in the Innenstadt, you’re confronted with some statue or sculpture or Denkmal. It seems like every other building bears a plaque proclaiming which important architect designed it, or which Emperor commissioned it, or else informing you that the building was destroyed during WWII and subsequently rebuilt. Each of the cities I visited, including Amsterdam, felt in their way, like giant, living museums, but in neither Amsterdam nor Budapest did the documentation feel as deliberate, or as determined, as in Vienna. Mak further writes about “monumentality” that monuments “are the foremost carriers of a city’s mythology, or, more precisely, of the mythology a city wishes for itself.” Wandering the streets of Vienna, you can’t help but wonder just what mythology the city wishes to convey.

Pestsäule on Graben. Because nothing says
"In Commemoration of the Plague" like
a little gold leaf. 
Even as it proudly places its history on display, though, Vienna’s also clearly a city that wants to be relevant in the here and now. While I was there, the Viennale, a film festival showcasing new international films, was rolling into town; alongside all the art museums with their priceless historical masterpieces, there are galleries and studios showcasing contemporary artists. To top it off, the city is in the process of building a brand-spanking, state-of-the-art new Hauptbahnhof, scheduled for completion in 2015, that, according to Johann, my buddy on the staff at Wombat’s Hostel, will be all 21st century all the time, and is meant to transform Vienna into a hub of international travel. I should add, maybe, that Johann isn’t very happy about the Hauptbahnhof: he thinks the city’s officials are trying to turn it into something it’s not, that, with the opening of the Hauptbahnhof, something essential to the soul of Vienna will be lost forever.

In short, Vienna strikes me as a city trying to live in several different centuries at once. To be honest, I think that’s what appeals to me the most about it, seeing as how I spend large amounts of my time doing the exact same thing.

Schönbrunn and Shiny Things
Because my list of must-sees was so long, and the amount of time at my disposal— a measly five days—so short, I spent a lot of time in Vienna evaluating my plans in my head, almost involuntarily. At one point during the five days, this phrase popped unbidden into my head: too many shiny things.
In my defense, there just are a lot of shiny things in Vienna: gold details not only on churches, but on other buildings as well; the shiny silver tea trays on which any coffee house worthy of the name serves its tasty caffeinated treats; of course, the gold details in the most famous works of Gustav Klimt. You can’t really get away from shiny things in Vienna. Still, the large part of me that wants to experience the cities I visit in as un-touristy a way as possible couldn’t help but feel guilty for all the time I was spending in Vienna gawking at all the imperial splendor. Between the summer palace, Schloß Schönbrunn and the mind-blowingly massive Hofburg Palace complex in the city center, complete with Schatzkammer (treasure chamber) and the Imperial silver collection, I couldn’t help but feel I was hitting all the tourist destinations, the ones that had absolutely nothing to do with real life in Vienna—whether in the here and now, or in the then and there.
View of Schloß Schönbrunn from the front. 
At the same time, though, there are few sights in Vienna more in harmony with the fairy-tale image than opulently decorated Imperial residences, and the long history of the various imperial families is full of enough drama, intrigue, romance and tragedy to satisfy even my voracious appetite for them.

Something else about my visits to Schönbrunn et al.: As I wandered around the extensive Schönbrunn gardens, I was by an unexpected wave of homesickness, which at first I couldn’t account for at all. But then it occurred to me that this, what I was doing right then—touring the palace, visiting the zoo (yes, I went to the zoo. It’s the oldest zoo in the world)—was exactly the kind of thing my family and I would have done when I was a kid if, in some alternate universe, we had gone to Vienna for summer vacation. Because my parents—teachers, both of them—were determined that every summer vacation should be educational, my family was constantly traipsing through the homes of the late and great: Jefferson’s Monticello, Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jackson’s Hermitage. Schloß Schönbrunn in particular would have been right up our alley. My sister would have been all over the grandeur and the sumptuous décor—we would have teased her about decorating her house in a similar style when she married her “rich husband.” My musically-minded father would have been fired up about seeing the room in which four-year-old Wolfi Mozart played his first piano recital for Empress Maria Theresa, following which he promptly climbed in to her lap and kissed her on the cheek. And I, anywhere between the ages of about six and fourteen, would have gone through a massive “Sissi” phase.

This is where Empress Elisabeth would sit for three hours
every day while her ankle length hair was being done.
"Sissi" was apparently obsessed with her beauty and fitness
regimes, and forbade any photographs to be taken of her
once she passed the age of thirty-five. 
“Sissi,” by the way, is Elisabeth of Bavaria, wife of Franz Joseph, the second-to-last Emperor of Austria. She’s a cult figure in Vienna, something like Austria’s answer to Anastasia or Eva Peron. She’s incredibly popular in Budapest as well, as a matter of fact: apparently she was a huge advocate for the Hungarians’ self-sufficiency and even learned to speak perfect Magyar, for which I have to give her props.  In Vienna, there’s Sisi memorabilia to be found all over the city. Her face is seemingly everywhere. There’s even a musical about her, along the lines of Evita—further evidence that it would have been love at first sight for a younger version of myself. Even at (almost) twenty-three and traveling on a budget, it took all of my strength not to buy a copy of Brigitte Hamann’s biography The Reluctant Empress, which details the complicated and unhappy life Elisabeth led. If “Sissi” is the fairy-tale princess of the fairy-tale city of Vienna, she’s an incredibly unusual and maybe even disturbing one.

But for a city that is unusual and a little disturbing itself, there may actually be none better.

Creepy nighttime trees in front of the Vienna Casino.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Still in Budapest

BKV. Önnek Jar. *
When I was in Amsterdam, I opted against public transportation in favor of hoofing it all around, but in Budapest I decided to invest in a 72-hour public transport ticket. Not that you can’t get around central Budapest on foot—in fact, it’s the best way to see the city, and I certainly did my fair share of walking. But I wanted the security of knowing that, in case of emergencies, I could hop on a tram or a metro that would bring me back to Deak Ferenc ter (a central metro station close to my hostel) safe and sound. I was definitely glad of the decision on the afternoon I trekked out to the “green lungs” of Budapest, City Park; and also on my last night in the city, when I got stranded on the north end of Margaret Island, a good two-hour walk from my hostel, as the sun was going down. There are some occasions when you really just don’t want to walk anymore; several times in Budapest I reached my limit, and being able to jump on a streetcar and watch the scenery along the Buda side of the river hurtle by (the trams in Budapest travel at what feels like breakneck speed compared with those in Frankfurt) felt like a miracle.

It’s actually not as difficult to decipher metro and tram schedules in a foreign language as I thought it was going to be: as long as you know which station you want—and maybe write it down in advance—it’s just a matter of matching. That being said, it was a much slower process getting from point A to point B in Budapest than it was in Vienna—which is a much larger city with a much more confusing layout but where I had the advantage of speaking the language. And you definitely don’t want to rely on the intercom voice on public transport in Budapest because the intercom is often A.) drowned out by the noise of the train or B.) broken, and anyway C.) spoken Magyar doesn’t always sound like what it looks like, and it’s entirely possible you won’t be able to tell which station the lady is talking about.

One other thing about Hungarian public transport: Budapest is super intense about blackriding— it costs the equivalent of about 60 Euro if you’re caught. BKV posts three or four super-intimidating-looking security officers at every metro station (Sarah the Tour Guide warned us at the useful post-tour information session that metro guards “are not nice people,” but the ones I interacted with seemed all right—once I showed them my ticket, at least. One even smiled at me.). They asked to see my ticket no less than four times in three days. Meaning, if I hadn’t had the ticket, I would have been 180 Euro in the red.

*I copied these words from the receipt I got along with my ticket. I have no idea what they mean.

And Speaking of Money
While Hungary is a member of the European Union, it is one of the countries whose economy is not yet strong enough to support the Euro, so the first thing I had to do upon getting off the train from Vienna was swap out some Euros for Hungarian florints—at an exchange rate of about 300 florints to one Euro. While intellectually I understood that being in possession of 30,000 florints did not mean that by crossing the Hungarian border I had suddenly made my fortune, it still felt incredibly extravagant to hand over 250 florints for a glass of wine, 4000 florints for a novel, etc. And it’s also sobering to realize, as Sarah the tour guide pointed out, that while the exchange rate makes Budapest a heaven for tourists—food and booze and entertainment are all incredibly cheap— it also makes it a less than excellent place to actually have to make a living.

House of Terror
As I mentioned in my last post, I didn’t spend as much time visiting museums in Budapest as I did in Amsterdam. While that certainly did wonders for my wallet, though, I also feel like I gained less of a sense for the city and its history as a result. In my defense, there is a lot more history to be grasped in Budapest than in Amsterdam, where the first human settlers don’t even appear until the double-digit centuries—it’s one of Europe’s youngest cities. Budapest’s history is much more extensive and, I think you could argue, much more complex, with the endless series of occupations, the ever-changing borders of the country, and the city’s status as a meeting-point of east and west.

One museum that I did visit was the House of Terror on Andrassy Avenue, a swanky up-scale neighborhood that includes the “Broadway of Budapest.” When I first heard the name House of Terror, I couldn’t help but think of the ride at Disney World, Tower of Terror. The Hungarian House of Terror is is nowhere near as much adrenaline-pumping fun as the Disney ride, though: it’s the former headquarters of both the Hungarian branch of the Nazi Party, the “Arrow Cross Party,” and the Communist State Security Authority. Today it houses a museum which details the atrocities committed by both groups—concentration camp and gulag transportations, illegal surveillance, specious arrests, interrogations and murders—as well as the experiences of the victims. (As in Amsterdam and Vienna as well, there’s special attention paid to the rebels and resistors, as if to say These were the real Hungarians. We want nothing to do with those other people.)

Recreation of a communist interrogation room
in the House of Terror.
The museum concludes with an agonizingly slow elevator ride into the basement of the building, during which a former Communist operative describes in bone-chilling detail (backed by the same excessively ominous, emotionally manipulative soundtrack that has followed you through the museum up to this point) the conditions in which prisoners were kept there, and the methods by which they were executed. The elevator then releases you into the basement, which has been restored to look exactly as it did when the Communists were in power: bare-walled stone cells with bare light bulbs overhead, which were often kept on day and night to keep the prisoners from sleeping; interrogation rooms dominated by sinisterly bureaucratic-looking desks; one chamber containing a gallows which you can only hope is a recreation and not an actual artifact from the period. The walls of the cells are lined with photographs of people who were kept there, along with their names and their dates of birth and death.

The very last room of the museum is also lined with photographs, names and dates. But in this case the names and faces belong not to the victims but to the perpetrators, members of the Communist party who were responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the imprisonments, tortures, and murders that took place in the building over the decades. As I made my way through this last room, I found myself in the midst of a cluster of older Hungarian women, who nudged me out of the way in order to crowd close to the photographs. I couldn’t help but wonder what these women were searching for—they were of an age where they could very well have been looking for an ex-boyfriend, a neighbor, a childhood friend—or the person responsible for the death of any of those people. Then again, they could very well have been looking for themselves.

In our collective cultural memory, if it’s fair to speak of such a thing existing, we tend to assume that mass murder ended when the noble Allies rousted the big, bad Nazis from power in Germany, but the truth is people have continued to be cruel to one another long after the last concentration camp was liberated.

Budapest is for Lovers
I’ve seen a fair amount of PDA in all of the European cities I’ve been in thus far, including Frankfurt, but Budapest wins the prize by far, both for ubiquity and for intensity. I saw couples making out on the top of Castle Hill, on the banks of the Danube, on the subway and on the tram, in museums, in churches, everywhere. There was even a couple going at it in the HOUSE OF TERROR, for pity’s sake. And most of these weren’t even teenagers—they were couples in their upper twenties and older.

It got to the point , after three days of this nonstop barrage of hormones, where I had to actively repress the urge to shout at random strangers, “STOP walking around with your hands in each other’s back pockets. It’s tacky.” Or, “I hate to interrupt your spit-swapping session, but could you please get out of the way so I can get off this tram now?” Is PDA this bad in the States, and I just haven’t noticed?  Is what I saw actually completely within reason, and I’m just hyper-sensitive and over-reacting to it due to my own breakup woes? Questions to ponder.  

Goin’ on Walkabout
No one does world travel quite like the Australians, and I don’t think anyone does it nearly as well. By far my favorite random-stranger interaction from the whole two weeks I spent traveling was with David, an Aussie backpacker in his late thirties/early forties that I met on the free tour. David, as he explained to me while we waited for the guides to show up (tourists who showed up after us asked whether we were the guides, I guess because we were both perched on a fountain the square, which could be interpreted as an official kind of stance) was in Europe for three months “on walkabout.” “I saw my chance and I just took it,” he told me, “’Cause you never know if it’ll come along again.” He had no concrete plans for his trip, as far as how long he was staying in each location, or even where exactly he was going. He was mind-blowingly friendly: as the tour group shuffled between sights, he flitted up and down the procession, chatting with anybody and everybody who would speak to him, hustling up to the front every once in a while to ask Sarah a question or three that had popped into his head.

View of Budapest from atop Gellert Hill 
By the end of the tour, David was unquestionably my new travel hero. In an instance of small-world kismet, I ran into him again: as I was climbing up Gellert Hill the next day to get a look at the Liberty Monument (and, of course, the stunning view of the city), he was on the way down from doing the same thing. He seemed genuinely thrilled to see me again, asked what I’d been up to around the city and what I thought about what I’d seen. He told me was thinking about “shipping off” the next day, maybe heading farther east, or maybe south, towards the Balkans (a locale a fellow ETA near Frankfurt came back from Herbstferien raving about and which I therefore now feel morally bound to visit.) After a few minutes of pleasant chit-chat, David and I parted ways again—although, as we did, he jokingly told me, "See you in the next city!" 

What I love about Australian backpackers is how they seem to want to genuinely experience the places they visit. So often tourists have a sort of zombie-like affect: they go for the sake of having gone, they see for the sake of having seen. Australians, by contrast, see to see and do to do— it sounds cheesy to say, but they live, or at least travel, completely in the moment. In the original aboriginal context, the term “walkabout” has a spiritual connotation: it’s a coming-of-age journey a young man undertakes on the way to becoming a man. It really seems that Australians have taken this spiritual component of travel, this idea of travel as a transformative experience, to heart. One even hesitates to call them tourists. 

A Few Quick Words on Food

There is one ingredient that you absolutely have to have a taste for if you are going to experience Hungarian cuisine—an element of their culture of which the locals are extremely proud—properly: paprika, Hungarian red gold. Paprika appears in practically every traditional dish, which is why so many of them take on a brownish-red color. In addition to going into the preparation of the dishes, paprika very frequently appears on the table next to the pepper and salt as a condiment. Hungarians love paprika. (Disclaimer: this may be an unfair and reductive cultural stereotype, but whatever. I ate a lot of paprika in Budapest, okay?)

Another piece of Hungarian trivia closely related to food: apparently Hungary is the world leader in heart attacks and high cholesterol. When you learn that they traditionally cook their food not in vegetable oil, not in butter, but in PIG FAT, you can easily see how that might be a case. It’s actually somewhat difficult/dangerous to travel in Hungary if you’re a vegetarian, because even the “vegetable” dishes are cooked up in pig fat. Apparently, Hungarians even fry pig fat up on its own at eat that. Yum.

In Amsterdam it was the cheese; now, for Budapest, I’d like to take a few moments to rhapsodize about the wine. Because the wine I had in Hungary is without question the most delicious wine I have ever tasted. Granted, that might not mean much coming from me, seeing as how my experience with wine is largely limited to the now two years that I have been over twenty one (ah, how weird, being twenty one!). But I genuinely cannot imagine wine getting much tastier than this. I bought a small bottle of tokay at the Great Market Hall—honestly mostly because I remember “A Decanter of Tokay” as the title of The Golden Compass—and took it back to the hostel with me (fortunately the communal kitchen was equipped with a bottle opener). The stuff is liquid gold, I tell you. Sweet nectar of the heavens. Helplessly under the spell of this astonishing concoction, I desperately wished to buy a full-size bottle or two to take back to Frankfurt with me, but I worried, since there were five days in Vienna between me and home, that packing glass bottles might not be the best life choice in the world. 

So, regretfully, I left Hungarian wine in Hungary, as I left Dutch cheese in the Netherlands. Of course, the Hungarians couldn’t be so greedy as to horde all their wines to themselves. I need to get my butt to a wine store here in Frankfurt and see what I can turn up… 

And now I give you: sunset over the Buda hills. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Herbstferien, Episode 2: Budapest

Royal Palace
“When you are in Budapest, you don’t walk around like this,” says my Hungarian tour guide Sarah, tucking her chin under and staring at her feet. “Or like this,” she adds, this time looking at us, the thirty-odd tourists she was shepherding through the city, head on. “When you are in Budapest, you walk like this.” Sarah lifts her chin and raises her arms, gesturing at the buildings that surround us on Vöröszmarty Ter as if to say, Look at this! And this! We are in Budapest, isn’t it amazing?

If you ignore the fact that anyone who actually walked around the city like that would probably A.) draw some very strange looks and B.) walk headfirst into a building, a statue, or an oncoming streetcar, you can see Sarah’s point. Budapest isn’t a city where you can hurry from landmark to landmark and museum to museum, and during the in-between time put up your blinkers and focus on what’s directly in front of you. Or, more accurately, you can take this turbo-tourist approach, but if you do, you do so at your own peril, and if you miss something, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Geographically and architecturally, Budapest is an absolutely stunning city, built on the banks of the aquamarine Danube, which splits the city neatly into a western part, Buda (or the fireplace side) and an eastern part, Pest (or the water side); holding court atop Castle Hill in Buda, the Habsburgs’ Royal Palace and the Matthias Church dominate the skyline, facing off with St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament building on the Pest side. The two halves of the city are connected by a series of five bridges, which light up at night. And everywhere you look in the city, there’s something interesting to look at—a statue commemorating some Hungarian hero or a stunning piece of nineteenth-century architecture (Pest, it turns out, was largely designed by the same architect who designed nineteenth-century Vienna).

St. Stephen's Basilica. St. Stephen was the first king
of Hungary. His mummified hand is on display in this
church (I decided against seeing that one). 
I logged much less time in museums and churches in Budapest than I did in Amsterdam, in part because walking or tramming around the city gave me plenty to do during daylight hours, and also because the weather was absolutely spectacular—a balmy sixty-five to seventy degrees and not a cloud in the sky. During the tour, I asked Sarah if there is an equivalent to “Indian summer” in Magyar, and she said they call it “old spinster summer” (which, incidentally, is also what it’s called in German—Altweibersommer). But, since high tourist season in Budapest lasts through the middle of October—I was there on the tail end of it—I have the distinct feeling that the weather I saw in Budapest wasn’t even unusual for that time of year.

\Of the three cities I visited over the last two weeks, Budapest was by far the biggest “risk.” Geographically, historically, and culturally, it was the farthest removed from my sphere of familiarity. Yes, Budapest is still a major metropolitan city and, yes, Hungary is still (technically) in Western Europe. Nevertheless, in Budapest I had a “you’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling that I hadn’t before, for all of the culture shock I went through during my first couple of weeks in Frankfurt. 

View of Parliament from one of the five bridges. Sarah
said that the building is a lot prettier than the mess
that goes on inside it. By which she means the government.
She was a very outspoken and opinionated tour guide.
As if to underscore this point, that Budapest is a different kind of city from those you find in Western Western Europe, while we were waiting in Vörösmarty Ter for the other two tour groups to get a head start on us and Sarah was attempting to give us a ten-minute overview of the incredibly lengthy and complex history of Hungary and Budapest in particular, a Hungarian man sauntered over to a tree next to the statue where we were perched, dropped trou, and promptly started to relieve himself in full view of a group of about thirty tourists. Sarah, clearly annoyed and a little bit embarrassed—whether it was on behalf of the man or herself or her country, I’m not sure— interrupted her oration, turned and exchanged a few words with the man in Hungarian, then turned back to us and announced, “He’s completely pissed.” She then went on to explain how this kind of behavior was representative of a certain post-Communist attitude one encounters in Budapest, and in Hungary in general.

Contributing a great deal to my discombobulation, of course, was the language barrier. Hungarian, which in Hungarian is called Magyar. is a curious anomaly of a European language with absolutely no ties to the Romantic, Germanic or Slavic languages families, despite the fact that over the centuries nations with languages of all these persuasions have had influence in the area. The only language even remotely related to Magyar is Finnish, and the similarities there are slim. According to Sarah the Tour Guide, when Hollywood moviemakers want an alien language in their movie, but they’re too lazy or cheap to actually invent a new language, they use Magyar. This means that when space movies are dubbed into Magyar, the alien dialog has to be dubbed out, otherwise the audience will know exactly what the aliens are saying, and the effect will be ruined. Additionally, the unusual syntactical patterns of that most beloved of little green aliens, Yoda, is modeled on Magyar: all of his lines were written in English, translated into Magyar, and then mirror-translated back into English, with the Magyar syntax left in place.

In the end, I managed to master about five words of Magyar: igen (yes); nem (no—particularly useful when I first got off the train and was accosted by sketchy men wanting to know if I needed a taxi); kerem (please); köszönöm (thank you); and egészségedre (Cheers. Also bless you). Of all of these, köszönöm was probably the most useful, and the one I used most frequently: good manners are appreciated in any language.

Of course, my failure to master Magyar in four days would have been no problem if Budapest were one of those cities, like Frankfurt or Amsterdam, where everyone understands English at least well enough for a tourist to get what she wants from them. And in truth, everyone under the age of 35 (which comprises most of the people in the tourist business, like hostel employees and waiters, anyway) does speak English pretty well. Over the age of 35, meaning those people who were in school before 1989, and thus when Hungary was under Communist control, your chances get considerably slimmer, and with the over-60 set, you might as well forget about it.

However, my complete inability to communicate with them did not prevent me from having a few delightful interactions with members of Hungary’s most distinguished generation. While I was waiting for the number 2 tram on the Pest side of the river, a tiny, stooped Hungarian woman came up to me and started asking for directions. At least I assume that’s what she was saying, though for all I know she could have been cheerfully hurling the worst kinds of profanities my way. I found this immensely funny, of course, because just by merit of being Hungarian, she was automatically more qualified to decipher the Budapest public transit system than I was. When I made clear that I had no idea what she was saying, she laughed, patted me on the shoulder, and continued to chatter away happily at me for a further two minutes, while I did my best to smile and nod politely.
Great Market Hall, with stands selling everything from
vegetables to wine to cute touristy "Hungarica."

Langos. Also known as a heart-attack waiting to happen.
Later that same day, I went to the Great Market Hall in search of what Sarah assured our tour group was “the best Langos in town” (a Langos is essentially a Frisbee-sized piece of fried dough, to which can be added a wide variety of toppings). I found the place, which I counted as an immense victory in itself, and ordered my Langos—traditional style, topped with sour cream and cheese—then turned around and realized to my dismay that there were absolutely no free seats to be found at the tables lining the walkway opposite the Langos stand and its neighbors. Until, that is, an older Hungarian man noticed me standing there, and immediately stood up and started gesturing insistently at his seat. Because I was starving, and because this Langos was clearly a sit-down kind of culinary adventure, I took it. The elderly gentleman promptly disappeared, and returned a few seconds later with a pile of napkins, which he proceeded to place on the table in front of me, all the while talking to me in rapid, to me utterly unintelligible Magyar. From his manner and his gestures, I got the distinct feeling that he was lecturing me—whether on the history of Langos or the importance of neat eating habits, or some other random topic, I guess I’ll never know. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Amsterdam, Part 2

The Real Sin City?
Ask a typical American the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word “Amsterdam,” and nine times out of ten they will probably say either “drugs” or “sex.” Amsterdam’s tolerance for vice of all kinds is legendary, and where sex is concerned, the Red Light District stands squarely in the spotlight.

Canal in the Red Light District
While my trusty guidebook proclaimed Amsterdam a city safe for women traveling solo, it did advise against walking in the Red Light District alone at night, reason being that the rough atmosphere could be “intimidating”. So, naturally, intrepid explorer that I am, I went walking in the Red Light District alone at night. Granted, it was Sunday, and it was about 9:00, so the debauchery was probably not in full swing, but even if it had been, I don’t think I would have had anything to worry about. The men were far too engrossed in the tarted-up, scantily-clad “merchandise” in the windows to take much notice of a grubby, slightly-damp, umbrella-bearing American girl skulking past. And, as if the utter disinterest of the entire male population weren’t enough insurance, police presence in the Red Light District is stronger than anywhere else in the city—just in case.

The Oude Kerk
In reality, though, the most shocking thing about Amsterdam’s Red Light District is how un-shocking it is. Amsterdam really has managed to take the fascination out of sin merely by laying it all out there in the open. Tour groups wind through the  alleys, much as they do in every other part of the city (there’s a lot to see there, apart from women in their underwear). Parents push strollers through the area without much apparent concern. Hilariously, but also somehow fittingly, the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest house of worship, stands sentry over the whole district. In fact, there’s a generous row of red-light windows on the alley directly next-door to the church. Really, the only indication that the Red Light District is different from any other neighborhood in Amsterdam—apart, of course, from the women in the windows— is the men. There are a lot of them: they travel alone and in packs, cast nervous glances from side to side. Their hands are restless. When they’re contemplating a purchase, they pace back and forth in front of occupied windows, circling, almost, like vultures. (That analogy makes it sound way more dramatic than it actually is.)

In any event, I needn’t have gone as far as the Red Light District to find sex in the city. There are plenty of sex shops in the city center and elsewhere, and the Amsterdam Sexmuseum is a stone’s throw away from the train station (yes, I went. It was amusing and, for the most part, pretty non-sensational, much like sex everywhere else).  Not to mention the fact that there turned out to be a whole 17th-century house full of red-light windows right across the street from my hostel.

Over the course of my four days in Amsterdam, I tried several times to assess my opinion about legalized prostitution, without coming to any satisfactory conclusions, and even now I’m still not entirely sure what to think. Part of the problem is that I don’t know how I’m supposed to react: is the feminist thing to be enraged, or approving? Should I feel sorry for these women? Should I be morally outraged? Decry the objectification and dehumanization of women? Maybe the problem is that I’m just too desensitized: the U.S. may not have legalized prostitution, but sex is unquestionably everywhere in our culture, and just like drugs and, to a lesser degree, alcohol, the repressed atmosphere around it only serves to sensationalize it further. Maybe I just watch too much HBO.

I toyed briefly with the idea of paying a prostitute for her time just to ask her questions about her profession, but then I had to wonder how often these women must see people like me who do exactly the same, fancying themselves enlightened, trying to get a sense for the “human” side of the story, maybe even doing the woman a favor. And the more time I spent around the Red Light windows, avoiding eye contact with the women in the windows, the more I felt that my motives for being there were far worse than those of the men around me: they were at least potential clients; I, on the other hand, was really only there to gawk.

Het Achterhuis: The “Secret Annex”
As I was walking along the Prinsengracht on my first or second day in Amsterdam—I mentioned in my last post that it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the city— I realized that the name was familiar to me from somewhere, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where. Then, I pretty much ran into the Anne Frank House, and I remembered.

(Part of) the to get into the Anne Frank House. shortly after I left.
It probably took the people at the end of this line between
one and a half and two hours to get in.
While planning my trip to Amsterdam—deciding which museums to go to and so forth—I went back and forth several times on whether I wanted to visit the house where Anne Frank and her family went into hiding. I’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank, like pretty much everybody else in the world. Twice, in fact: once in fifth or sixth grade and then again for school in eighth. But there seemed to me to be something morbid about traipsing through the house itself: I remembered a comment by Ruth Kluger, a Holocaust survivor and writer, calling Holocaust memorial culture and the tourist business surrounding it “pornographic.” I was determined, too, not to let the Holocaust take over my trip to Amsterdam— the same goes for Budapest and Vienna, as well. In the end, though, I decided to abide by the principle that it’s better to regret something you did do than something you didn’t, so on Sunday morning I joined the queue—the longest I encountered in Amsterdam—to see the Secret Annex.

Walking through the house itself, I was struck by how closely it matched the vision of it that I had in my head from reading the diary, which I guess is a credit to Anne Frank’s talent as a writer. Apart from that, I very quickly began to feel claustrophobic—as I stepped through the legendary secret passage behind the bookcase, my pulse was actually racing. Granted, this might have due in part to the fact that I was being hustled along in a stream of dozens of other eager visitors. Still, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped in those rooms, day in and day out, terrified that the slightest creak of a floorboard could give you away.

It’s very clear that the Dutch are proud of Anne Frank, and of the numerous other stories of Jews in hiding in Amsterdam and the people who helped them. Along with the February Strike, in which workers across Amsterdam stopped working in protest of the treatment of the Jewish community under German occupation, it contributes to the legend—some would say myth—of Dutch resistance. But one can’t help wondering if the giant of Anne Frank has cast a shadow over other stories, other lives that were lived and then lost in Amsterdam during that time. For example, the Joods Historisch Museum has in the portion of its exhibit covering the years of the Holocaust another collection of diaries written in the early 1940s. These were written by a woman named Etty Hillesum, 27, also Jewish, also an aspiring author, also deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Etty Hillesum’s diaries have also been published—I tracked down an English copy of An interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillseum 1941-1943 at a bookshop in the Jordaan district. But her story is decidedly less palatable, I’d go as far as to say less commercial, than that of thirteen-year-old Anne Frank: she’s a grown woman, she dabbles in psychoanalysis and has affairs with her landlord and her psychoanalyst/mentor, she works for the Jewish Council and volunteers to go to the transit camp at Westerbork. Holding the stories of Etty Hillesum and Anne Frank side by side, and noting the immense difference in how those stories have been received, raises a lot of interesting questions about which lives get remembered by history and which don’t, who decides, and why.

(**Side note** Something that I must have known at some point but forgotten is that Anne Frank was actually born in Frankfurt am Main. Her family moved to Amsterdam when she was four—right around when Hitler came to power.)

“Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to…”
Once again, in Amsterdam as in Frankfurt and Cologne, I found myself the target of a large number of inquiries and requests for directions from other lost and confused tourists. Having devoted much reflection to the question of why these people think I have any idea where I’m going, much less where they’re going, I have come to the conclusion that it must be the trench coat. Back in the States, I bought a black trench coat with the express hope that it would help to disguise my American-ness. What I realize now, though, is that it’s doing its job almost too well: it’s disguising my tourist-ness. Tourists don’t wear trench coats. Tourists wear fleeces and insulated vests and Northface jackets. Tourists overdress for the weather because there was no room in their suitcase for a second coat, and it’s better to be over-prepared than under. When you wear a trench coat, you are subtly signaling that you are not concerned with such practical matters, as you have a second, and in all likelihood a third, warmer coat stashed away in your houseboat on the Herengracht, or your apartment over in Nieuwmarkt. People see “trench coat” and they think “local.” I look forward to testing this theory in Budapest and Vienna. 

Let’s Talk About Food
As a rule, the Dutch aren’t known for their world-class cuisine, but OH DEAR LORD, THE CHEESE. Dutch cheese is a miracle sent to Earth by the God of Cheese. Cheese shops are the churches of the Cheese God, the shopkeepers are his priests, and the FREE SAMPLES are his communion, enabling you to taste the divine without paying for it. That being said, I wish I had shelled out the ten Euro for a wedge of aged goat cheese. Or maybe Gouda. Of course, on the whole, cheese (and also bread) is something to add to the List of Things Europe Does Better Than The States. I mean, what does it say about America that the cheese named after our country cannot technically be called cheese? I think it says that we are a sick and depraved nation.

Also mega-tasty: Dutch pancakes. They’re flatter and flakier than their American cousins, and they come in a surprising array of flavors both sweet and savory. Also, they’re highly traveler-friendly, being relatively affordable and also extremely filling: I ate an apple pancake at Pancakes! at around 3:00 PM, and I was good to go for the rest of the day. Also, Pancakes! gave me a free wooden-shoe key chain (okay, so not free, obviously the expense was hidden in my check) so I got to have a geeky souvenir without having to set foot in any of those awful “Authentic Dutch” souvenir shops.

Less delicious than cheese or pancakes but no less Dutch is broodje haring. A broodje haring is a herring on what is basically a hotdog bun, topped with onions and pickles (“Onions and pickles?” asked the lady at the counter of one herring cart, my first of three. “Whatever comes on it,” I answered, in an effort to convey my desire to be authentic. The lady nodded. “Onions and pickles.”). Because it comes in what Lonely Planet describes as “an edible napkin,” a broodje haring is a great grab-and-go snack or lunch. It’s also gentle on the wallet, at between  2,50 and  3,00 depending on the cart.

Over on the beverage side of things, we have genever, or Dutch gin. I had a taste, and I can’t say I was a huge fan. Apparently, though, working-class Dutch men in the mid-to-late nineteenth century were hooked on it, and Heineken opened his brewery so that the men could get off the hard stuff and drink good, wholesome beer instead. Speaking of beer, I had several. I tried to stay away from Heineken, being pretty sure that it tastes the same in the Netherlands as it does in the States, and go for the more hipster beers instead. My greatest success was at the Eet-&-Bierencafe (meaning they have good food and god beer) De Beiaard, where I had the house Bock, or fall beer, and something called De Manke Monnik (according to google-translate: “the crippled monk”, which is just about as great a name for a beer as I can imagine). I think De Manke Monnik was supposed to be a “Trappist” beer, except there’s only one Trappist brewery in the Netherlands, and it isn’t called The Crippled Monk. But whatever, De Manke Monnik was delicious, and it’s not like I can really afford to be a label snob where beer is concerned.

Vaarwel, Amsterdam
That pretty much does it for my trip to Amsterdam. Well, except for the part where I construct my imaginary future life there—something I think I’ll do in every city I visit:  owning a houseboat (which actually would never happen, because they’re apparently super expensive and require TONS of upkeep); running an English-language book shop with a generous supply of Dutch literature in translation (something I found to be lacking in the shops I found there); living exclusively on pancakes and cheese and keeping off the pounds by taking long walks along the canals…