Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Summer Saturday in Amsterdam (Part 2)

Most of our day in Amsterdam (see part 1) was mere preamble to my favorite visit we’ve made throughout all these trips - In de Olofspoort, a bar dedicated to the Dutch liquor jenever. In the only crotchety words of a kind owner: “The English tried to steal our jenever, made some cologne, and called it gin." (He dropped this gem then stepped outside with a hand-rolled to "attend to regulating his nicotine levels.".)

We each started off here with a jenever made in the “oude” (traditional) style. Nisha’s was aged 3 years and very smooth; it was not too strong to drink on its own. Mine, aged only 1 year, was tasty but rough around the edges in the way young alcohol tends to be, jagged rather than complexly spicy. Still, 200 style points for being served from what looked to be an absinthe tap - a broad glass beaker of liquor with a copper faucet at the bottom; a steampunk Gatorade cooler, for booze. I’m no big fan of chemistry, but for some reason I really, really enjoy having any sort of special flask, stopper, or piping to deliver my beverages. I hate to think I’d get on well with the man, but I’d damn sure buy a coffee from the Half-Blood Prince.

As we began to sip our drinks, we fell into conversation with a Belfast carpenter claiming the surname “Holland.” Searching for topics of common ground, he informed us - Irish lilt essential - that he looooves The Eagles. (That would be the ones prone to riding fences, not run-and-gun quarterbacks.)

Holland seemed no stranger to the conviviality of the pub atmosphere, and insisted on buying a round for us all, though was shocked to learn we'd gone in for things a bit more potent than Amstel. He stepped up to the challenge, and 3 korenwijn were selected for us - southern Netherlands for Nisha, northern for me, and Amsterdam for Holland. Holland needed a break and a cigarette before confronting the glass of liquor, and the wife half of the ownership team, the kind of professional behind the bar you only hear about in stories, took the opportunity to slot in a quiet regular next to us.

At least, that was our initial read on the action. Then, our new neighbor started in with some quiet humming. Just a beer later, he was providing instrumental accompaniment with gusto - the bartop saw occasional duty as an air piano, and our friend was especially given to ply the bellows of his fine air accordion. He asked us to call him Dirty Berty.

Oh yes, there was some singing. I've never been so happy to tell a roomful of strangers that I live in Virginia as when it inspired a Dutch bar to break into a heartfelt rendition of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." When we couldn't return the favor, they serenaded their own homeland with "A Windmill in Old Amsterdam." I couldn't tell if the young guys at the other end of the bar were impressed or terrified that their evening of jenever had turned into a folk concert, but after looking around and deciding against the exit, they settled in for the chorus.

The owner of the bar had a rich, beautiful voice (and who wouldn't, accompanied by Dirty Berty's air accordion?), and for the next half hour we sat with awed smiles as they took us through their favorite classics. There's no way we could adequately describe our delight in the moment, but even now I become light-headed when I think back to that feeling of this is why we came. Old-style pottery jenever jugs lined the perimeter of the room; the bar shelves gave neat order to containers and drinking glasses I'd never seen before; without losing a beat, the owner ran mugs through the rinse, and swiped foam off beers as a musical flourish; everything was weathered wood, amber lights, and the most comfortable kind of sincere enjoyment.

We stayed for several hours longer, eventually spending quite awhile talking to the two younger guys at the other end of the bar. We wisely switchd to lager by the end, and I believe we made plans to rent a car together and all drive down to Bamberg some time soon for the smoked beers. As we were walking out, time to catch the train, we saw the husband & wife team walk up the block to their home, hand-in-hand. I apologize for the starry-eyed romanticism, that's just the way it happened.

Reality set back in after we walked to the station (past night-lit canals, though that hardly seems a new detail at this point, which were lovely and made us happy) and ordered some frites for the ride back. As we rode the escalator to make our train, some drunk fool came running down the wrong way, everybody too surprised to know what was going on. Our fries were a near-total casualty of that guy's idiocy, as were Nisha's clothes and those of some other girl caught in the 1-foot radius of flying curry ketchup. The idyll was replaced by anger, frustration, and hunger.

The train gave us time to cool off. When we got to Leiden we ordered again, and I rode home signaling all my left turns with a giant cone of potatoes. 

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