Doesn’t exactly look like Vacation Paradise, does it? Even disregarding the blue sky, it’s exactly what it looks like: a suburb. A suburb of a suburb, in fact; a recent development on the polders outside of de Meern, which itself is one of the ring suburbs put up after World War II around Utrecht, Holland. Still, it’s where I was based for most of the past week, and there was a real good reason for it. It was free.
My friends Brett (whom I hadn’t seen in several years) and his wife Carole (whom I hadn’t seen, she pointed out, in ten years), who live in Portland, Oregon, had done a house-exchange with the family who lives here, one of whom is a former Portlander. Complicating things was the fact that Carole lives in a motorized wheelchair with a ventilator, owing to muscular dystrophy. Making things much simpler was the fact that this Dutch-American family has a son who also has a chair, meaning that the garage in their house was converted to a bedroom with all accessible amenities. For a Dutch house, it’s huge, so I had a place to sleep. And it’s also not far from a bus stop whose bus will deliver you to Utrecht Centraal, the train and bus station downtown.
I arrived on Thursday evening, and wound up schlepping my luggage all over Utrecht, because another good reason to go last week was the Utrecht Early Music Festival, and Brett, who is a music critic who does a lot of classical reviewing (and is working on a much-anticipated biography of the late American composer Lou Harrison), had an extra ticket for that evening’s concert by the Orchestra of the 18th Century. Unfortunately, the program was an all-Beethoven affair, and neither of us much likes Beethoven, myself in particular. But he had to go to it and he didn’t have time to head back to de Meern before showtime. Beethoven’s not my idea of “early music,” but the orchestra did fine.
After that it was time to find something to eat, and we wandered around until it was too late, settling for some of those inimitable, indigestible Fried Things the Dutch specialize in at a bar featuring a fine selection of Belgian beers. Hey, they had onion rings, and they were good.
Carole’s battery charger had blown earlier in the week, so she and her caretaker Susan were pretty much housebound until the technology could be worked out, but they were still up when we got there (Carole: “I don’t do mornings.”) and we sat up late talking and getting up to date. She’d also managed to bring her iPhone — the only one in Europe, practically — to use the Airport wireless system they’d set up in the house, and I was really eager to play with that.
The next morning, while waiting for everyone to wake up, I walked to the outskirts of de Meern to find a bakery and a butcher they’d told me about so I could buy some bread and cheese for breakfast. Dutch bread isn’t like German bread — it’s far softer — but makes better use of herbs and spices. And Dutch cheese, well, let’s just say that the cumin Gouda and three-year-old aged Gouda I picked up were a hit.
Brett had tickets for a 2pm show in the Dom, the huge cathedral that dominates Utrecht’s skyline. Clarino is a small ensemble of soprano, violin, cornetto, trombone, dulcian and basso continuo, and it wasn’t done any favors by the Dom’s huge, echo-y interior, but the program, of works by composers at the Danish court of Christian IV (Dowland, SchÃ¼tz, and Weckmann), was excellent, although the way the soprano buzzed her r’s was a bit annoying.
After that, Brett had a concert but no plus one, and I opted for a free concert of music by Salomon, who wrote some gorgeous Jewish liturgical music in the Renaissance. I wish I’d heard it; the church were it was being presented didn’t look much like a church, unfortunately, and I wandered and wandered until it was too late. So I wandered some more. Downtown Utrecht is all old buildings, with two major canals alongside of which are some great cafes. I spent most of the 90 minutes I had to use up trying to figure out how the town was laid out, but those canals can be disorienting, and, of course, I got disoriented. I did find a few interesting spaces, and one of them was the Museum Catharijneconvent, a museum of Catholic and Protestant life in Holland, located in a former cloister, which I resolved to go back to. Next door to it was a building from the 15th Century, the “new slaughterhouse,” whose entertaining mascot, which I dubbed the “Death Steer,” I hope you can see in this photo:
After Brett and I met up at the Dom, I successfully talked him out of his one-ticket Freiburger Barockorchster Mozart show (again, not what I — or he — consider “early music”) in favor of grabbing some dinner. Carole had gotten her charger fixed at long last and she and Susan were due to head in to see a performance of Debussy’s “Chansons de Bilitis” at 10:30 with Brett (not of great interest to me and anyway, how on earth can you consider Debussy “early music?”), so we managed to time it so that we found a great, affordable restaurant, had a fine meal, and Brett dropped me off at the bus station while waiting for the girls. Fortunately for me, my brain kicked in just as he was disappearing into the huge mall that’s part of the Utrecht train station and I got the house key.
Given that it was looking a lot like rain by the time I got to de Meern, I was shocked to see the two women waiting forlornly at the bus stop there. Apparently, only a few of the buses on the routes into town were accessible, and they were still waiting for one. One pulled up while I was talking to them, but it didn’t have a ramp, so they went to another nearby bus stop for the next bus, and I wished them luck. Almost as soon as I got back to the house, the rain pounded down, but as luck would have it, they made the ramp-equipped bus before this happened and it didn’t rain in Utrecht at all.
Saturday’s early bit was spent shopping for food at the nearby supermarket (the Americans couldn’t get it through their heads that everything really, truly, does shut down on Sunday), and mid-afternoon Brett and I met at the Jakobkerk for the concert I’d been waiting for (although I didn’t know it at the time), by the Holland Baroque Society. This is one exciting group. Other than the fact that the composers represented were Muffat, Corelli, and Lully, I’m not entirely sure what was played, but then, that shouldn’t make any difference. I know that the Corelli was a concerto grosso, a soloists-and-orchestra kind of piece in which various soloists and duos get to show off instead of a single soloist being featured, and led off the program. In seconds, it became apparent what was so cool about this band. Yeah, band: like a good jazz or rock band they paid attention to each other a lot. The lack of an actual conductor (there was a harpsichordist up front, who conducted a few moments of transition and started up each movement, but he could hardly be called the “leader” during much of the performance) meant that everyone had to be aware of what was going on. Particularly fascinating were the two lead violinists, a brown-haired woman and a blonde, both of whom were playing off each other like two jazz greats trading eights. Lots and lots of eye contact, and, overall, a sense of swing, which you could watch happening as the brown-haired violinist violated all classical protocol by occastionally tapping her feet, propelling the energy up into her hands and making sure that the kind of metronomic monotony so much Baroque music suffers from was a distant memory. They don’t appear to have recorded, but they do appear to tour Germany every now and again, so I’m going to watch for them.
Saturday evening Brett and Carole had tickets to a staging of a Vivaldi opera by another young ensemble called B’Rock, so we met the ladies over at the “Deranged Rabbit,” a sculpture I’d managed to miss over by the post office. You do have to wonder what people who commisson public art are thinking sometimes; this actually did look like a skinny rabbit with a really bizarre expression on his face. We wandered around a little and settled on an inconspicuous-looking place in a studenty neighborhood, and were surprised by yet another fantastic affordable dinner. (I’m going to do a separate post about food on this trip). Susan and I headed back to the polder after dinner, and apparently what we missed was a blood-and-guts fest with only minimal connection to the text (which was in Italian anyway). That was okay; I’d had my musical treat for the day.
Sunday was the festival’s last day, and the grand finale concert, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, was sold out. Brett had a ticket to the Concerto Copenhagen’s peformance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea at 4, but I was determined to see some of the museums that were open, including the Museum Catharijneconvent. We had cards, left by our hosts in de Meern, which got us into museums for free, so we headed off and not only got that in (some extremely nice woodcarvings that had been spared the wrath of the Reformation, and a very nicely balanced view of the whole Catholic/Protestant debacle in Holland, given that it appears the administration of the place is connected with the Catholic church) but almost had time to take in the whole National Museum of Musical Clocks and Street Organs, which is truly amazing. I headed to a concert by a mostly-Polish Baroque trio, and we had one more excellent meal before returning to de Meern to start packing.
The next day found us in Amsterdam, and here I got to play local expert, although, to be honest, I’m not really an expert. I did, however, know more of the city than Brett and Carole, and managed to bring back memories of their stay in Indonesia with a trip to the legendary Restaurant Kantjil en Tijger, one of my favorite Indonesian places in the city (the other one being up a flight of stairs that scares me, let alone Carole). Tuesday I gave them my best attempt at a city tour, as we fought to indulge Brett’s insistence on finding poffertjes, which turn out to be heavy little dollar pancakes drenched in butter, and to wander through the Jordaan district, which I don’t know at all. We wound up enjoying a beer in the sunshine before it vanished, and then some extremely inexpensive traditional Dutch food at a restaurant whose name I clean forgot to get, on the Spuistraat near Kantjil.
All in all, a nicely relaxing time off from Berlin, thanks to my friends’ generosity in buying the train ticket and picking up tabs here and there. It reinforced my decision that Holland isn’t somewhere I’d want to live, although it’s nice to visit. That’s the problem: it’s too damn nice. There’s a lack of an edge there that I think would make me nuts if I had to live with it 24/7, something I couldn’t quite make Brett understand. The niceness, of course, is a byproduct of living so close together. There are no wide open spaces in Holland, and no real countryside. People are packed in, and in order to make that work, they’ve had to rein in some of their instincts. That’s not a bad thing at all, but there’s a resultant blandness that gets to you after a while, not only out on the polder, but in the cities, too.
That said, it could well be that Brett and Carole will be back in two years when the other family is ready to do a house-exchange again, and by then I hope I can sell someone on a story about the Early Music Festival. It’s the biggest one in Europe, and one of the oldest, and if the less than half-week I saw is anything to go by, it’s an undiscovered gem — as is Utrecht, for that matter. I’d gladly go back. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to live there.