Monday, November 15, 2010

Week 25: Amsterdam

Emily's husband Jos has been in Amsterdam for several weeks directing Palazzo, a circus/cabaret dinner show which officially opens soon. During the past week there have been previews each evening, and we were invited to attend one. How could we resist? Neither Rick nor I have been to Amsterdam in years. The size of  Europe makes it easy to travel. The drive to Amsterdam from Paris takes less time than going from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.

We drove with Emily and Quinn and arranged to stay at the same hotel as Jos, a little south of the city limits. There was a happy reunion between Emily, Jos and Quinn when we reached the circus tent, where Jos was busy working. It is is very glamorous.

Another reason we were so delighted to go to Amsterdam was that it would allow us the opportunity to see our Dutch friends Eric and Karin. Eric is a clown and has worked with Jos for many years. We met him at Emily and Jos' wedding for the first time and became friends with them ourselves. We have visited them once and they have stayed with us several times, but we hadn't seen one another in a few years. Since Jos had to stay and work, and our reservation at Palazzo was for the following night, we were free to have dinner with our friends and their beautiful daughter Rachel. They took us into the heart of Amsterdam where we had a fabulous meal at a very authentic Chinese restaurant. It's rather difficult to find good Chinese food in France, so we were thrilled.


We spent our days exploring Amsterdam. It is a very pretty city - walkable, exciting, bustling and full of things to see and do.

I loved the floating flower markets, where they sell every kind of bulb I'd ever heard of, and quite a few I hadn't. I only wished that I had a big garden to fill up, as the prices were incredibly reasonable.

Top on the list of the things to see is the Rijksmuseum, where there is a stunning collection of Dutch masters from the Golden Age, including Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. It was a bit disheartening to discover a huge line waiting to enter. After standing in the queue for just a few minutes, someone came and escorted us to the front of the line. Quinn, in his stroller, was our ticket to VIP entry.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but frankly I get museum fatigue very quickly. I simply find all those works of art overwhelming. Because of this, I generally enter with a very fixed idea of what I want to see and go straight to those specific works and let most of the rest go. In this case, I was intent on focusing my attention on the Vermeers, particularly The Milkmaid. Luckily Rick isn't so one-pointed as I am when it comes to viewing art and he explored the unknown works much more closely than I did. He insisted I have a look at a painting called Still Life with Gilt Cup by Willem Heda, a relatively obscure Dutch painter from the 17th century. It is an astonishing piece of virtuosity. Of course the Rembrandts were also a highlight, particularly The Night Watch which fills an entire room.

Afterward we went to the Van Gogh Museum, which is a few steps away. There is a huge collection of his work. Another guilty admission: I don't really care so much for his painting. The museum was even more crowded than the Rijks and Emily was getting a little claustrophobic. We were about to leave when we realized we hadn't seen the temporary show entitled Illusions of Reality

The museum likes to put together works from other artists who had some relationship to Van Gogh or his work. This one was about the naturalist school. Van Gogh was one of the first artists who used common people with ugly features, dirty fingernails and tattered clothing as subject matter. 

During the time of the Impressionists there was a school of artists that were greatly influenced by Emile Zola, who wrote novels about ordinary folk and their difficult lives. This was a time when the industrial revolution was just underway. Artists also were just beginning to have access to photographs, which greatly influenced the way some worked. 

The show was full of monumental canvasses, life-sized and larger, depicting scenes of peasants, workers and gritty urban situations. Zola thought that painting should be didactic and actually teach lessons. When cinema first got started in France, filmakers were mostly inspired by this same group of artists and created stories like the ones depicted on canvas or in Zola novels. The show had paintings, photographs and early films displayed together. 

Of course, modernism reacted against the idea of art as social critic or as an instrument to teach. As a result, a whole movement in art has had little recognition, since it fell so far out of favor. The Impressionists got the attention in the fine art world and the Naturalists were largely forgotten. We enjoyed this exhibition tremendously. In fact, I could hardly sleep that night for thinking about it. Art is not produced to be hung in museums, and to see endless rooms of paintings out of their original context is generally uninspiring to me. A show like this, however, that can illuminate an entire period of history is very exciting.


One of the most enjoyable things to do in Amsterdam is just walk around and enjoy the old world charm and the endless canals.


It was Rick's birthday on Friday night, so Jos arranged front row seats for us at Palazzo. The show is wonderfully exciting with clowns, cabaret numbers, magic and acrobatics. Even the food, which was incredible, produced by the most famous celebrity chef in Holland, Herman Den Blijker, arrived with flair. There is a director just for the waiters, as the service in entirely choreographed and integrates with the show. 

I was delighted and amazed when a clown came to our table and had me hold three small balls which turned into about ten in my hand. He took those and put them into Rick's hand and had them turn into one huge ball. The performers interacted with the audience, which became more and more lubricated as the evening went along.

The performers are from all over the world and are highly skilled. The show is arranged to begin with the subtle and comic and to finish with the dramatic and extraordinary (due, Jos tells us, to the aforementioned tendency of the audience to get loud and a bit unfocused as the evening progresses). It's a difficult balance. 

The musical director was named Cesar and he turns out to be from the San Francisco Bay Area. He was totally bemused to learn from Jos that we were from Walnut Creek and looked forward to meeting us. He was great fun. We had breakfast with him every morning and enjoyed his company very much.


We found out from Cesar that Rembrandt's house is also a museum and displays his etchings in an upstairs gallery. There are also demonstrations of his etching techniques given right in his studio. That became a real must-see for us.

Rembrandt's bedroom

The etching studio

Inking up station

We saw this plate inked and printed

All of Rembrandt's 290 etchings are owned by the museum. Photographic plates, like the one pictured above on the press bed, have been made from some of his original plates. Prints made from them are available in the museum shop for a very reasonable price. If you want an "almost Rembrandt" to hang in your house, you can purchase one online.

Rembrandt's painting studio was also in the house and we watched an interesting demonstration about the technique used for making paints from natural pigments.

Photographs were allowed in the house and gallery, which was not true in the other museums we visited. The etching below was one of my favorites.


Shopping and stopping in cafes along the canal is also a favored activity in Amsterdam. We spent several hours one late afternoon discovering one of the more charming sections of the city, Haarlem. Harlem, Brooklyn and Hoboken are all Dutch names and of course New York was originally New Amsterdam. 

The sun set slowly over the canals.

Emily liked the big spaces in the cafes. In Paris the cafes are small.

Quinn enjoys some apple juice

Peeking in the window at a cheese and wine shop

Beautiful baked goods

At a letterpress card shop, the set up for a row of Amsterdam houses


On our last night in town Jos invited us to have a glimpse backstage before the show and meet some of the performers.

Peter Shub, the top billed comedian entertains Quinn with a balloon.

dinner preparation


Meeting Jos' interesting friends and colleagues is a real joy for us. The theater world is full of fascinating and charming individuals. The work is so intensive that often bonds become quite close and special. Jos, Cesar, and Scott, the creative director of the show, all stayed at a modern and very comfortable hotel near the tent. Breakfast each morning was a feast. The hostess who greets the guests each morning became a close friend to the three of them as they spent several weeks in residence. When Quinn arrived, he quickly won her heart. Mara, who was born in Aruba has lived in Amsterdam for thirty years. She fell in love with him, and the feeling was mutual. It was hard to say goodbye at the end of our stay.


  1. I loved this post. I have been to Amsterdam and of course I loved it also. Vermeer and Rembrandt are favorites of mine and how wonderful to be in Rembrandt's studio.
    Looks like a fabulous time was had by all and yes...Quinn is adorable!
    Lovely photos of a beautiful old city.

    Janet xox

    ps...where are we going next????

  2. Remember me of several trips in Netherlands ! So neat and beautiful country, so many historical places and walks along the canals. Busy and nice together, one of the old european spots linked to many events f the past.