Archive for the ‘Life in UK & Europe’ Category


Sunday, November 16th, 2014


I’ve spent a lot of time around the Thames, but I never actually was in it.  Like many major cities, London was built close to the fall line, located relatively far inland, yet still experiencing significant tides. At low tide, the bed of the river is surprisingly accessible.


One sunny Sunday afternoon last September, Elizabeth and climbed down a stairway to look for Thames treasure. Lots of other people were taking advantage of the high sun and the low tide to build sand castles, walk along the beach, or just snooze.


The floor is mostly sand at  the outer edge, adjacent to the embankment walls.  Closer to the water, the floor is coarser, composed of natural and manmade pebbles. 


It was surprising how much much the riverbed varied across what would otherwise be a 15 minute stroll along the Thames Path on the South Bank.  Most of the natural pebbles were flint nodules, broken and smoothed, showing a variety of different colors. Some of them were sandstone and other conglomerates.  We found a lot of chalk, which comes with the flint, and Elizabeth even found a black pumice pebble. The Thames is an restless river that over the eons has brought a wide variety of river gravel from as fare away as Wales.


Natural items included oyster shells, crab claws, leaves, and twigs.  As we strolled downstream, we encountered areas with very different textures and colors.


The river bottom in some areas was characterized by ‘stones of manmade origin, mostly bricks, but we also found areas that had limestone building stones, usually broken, but with tool marks still clearly visible.

Star Works Glenboig Refractory Brick

One spot had a number of yellow refractory bricks from the Star Works in Glenboig (Scotland).


We found lots of manmade objects, mostly plastic pens, but also razors, sandals, insulators, wire, pottery, CO2 cartridges, plastic cutlery, plastic bracelets, can lids, lots of burnt wood, and lots of glass.


I don’t know that we found anything economically valuable, but it was a day that we treasure.


(NOTE: all of the photos in this blog entry, and the preceding entries from Amsterdam, were taken with the Cyber-shot Digital Camera RX100 III, a camera that fits in my jeans pocket.)

Dutch City Bikes

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014


I’m endlessly fascinated by the bikes of Amsterdam, in all their volume and variety, colorful, but practical urban transportation.


Heavy and sturdy upright bikes with old fashioned handle bars and no top tube, they usually have a light and  are often equipped with a plastic milk crate style front basket.


The Dutch love their fully sprung, big ass saddles, often a leather Brooks saddle.


For obvious reasons, most Amsterdamers put a plastic cover over their saddle when leaving their bike parked outside.


Some of the bikes are dressed up with decorations on the bars, a quick way to add some class to a vehicle that might be on its third or fourth coat of paint.


With the purpose-built bike lots overflowing, bikes are parked everywhere, including alleys and bridges.


Some of these bikes are clearly not going anywhere soon, and are almost certainly abandoned, victims of theft, vandalism, or neglect.


The authorities periodically tag these derelict looking bikes, giving notice that they will be hauled to the bike pound unless moved within a few weeks.


Normally hosting about 12,000 bikes at a time, the Amsterdam Bike Processing Center (Fietsdepot) waits 3 months for individuals to claim their lost bikes, and then humanely disposes of them.

Bikes parked on Amsterdam bridge

Hopefully, some of these orphans are adopted, to return to the streets of Amsterdam.


Saturday, October 4th, 2014


Until the Dutch introduced art that depicted real people doing real things in the 17th century, painting consisted of insipid religious topics with unearthly looking malproportioned people. I struggle to generate any enthusiasm for suffering saints, and precociously wise infants.

Helst: Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster

I’ve been to Amsterdam multiple times during the last ten years, but its huge art museum was closed for an extensive renovation. After 10 years of interior and exterior upgrades, the Rijksmuseum reopened last year, and Elizabeth and I had a short afternoon to enjoy the paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.

 Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster

My favorite was a very wide environmental portrait, with the equally wide title Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, painted by Bartholomeus van der Helst in 1648, it was one of several similar paintings we saw that had been commissioned by a town self-defense guild to hang on the wall of their club house.

 Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster

These are clearly real people, with all their whiskers and warts, some staring directly at the camera, others chatting with each other, and some preoccupied with dinner. All the little details are fantastic, and its such a compelling tableau, I could stare at it for hours.

Rembrandt's The Night Watch

If you are going to spend a couple hours in a museum like this, you might as well take in a Rembrandt or two. His version of the club room wall poster, The Company of captain Frans Banning Cocq and lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch preparing to march out (more colloquially and conveniently referred to as The Night Watch) attracted huge crowds, but it wasn’t our favorite. Rembrandt isn’t necessarily…..a Rembrandt.

The Merry Drinker

Another one of my favorites was Frans Hals’ The Merry Drinker. A long string of somewhat dour but competent wedding portraits seem to have been his bread and butter, but he broke out with a series of genre paintings, many of them humorous.  Its as if Hals had attracted the militiaman’s attention and quickly snapped the shutter (about 1/800) while the subject was in mid motion and not yet fully posed. Tilting glass in one hand, apparently emphasizing a point in a bawdy joke with the other, and with a cheerful, slightly surprised expression on his face, the image oozes life.  The composition is actually quite sophisticated.  Shot from a low angle, with one hand holding down each lower corner, the arms lead up to the face, with his torso forming a triangle centered in the lower half of the painting.  An oval shape tops this triangle. The face is powerfully located at the crossing point of an X formed by diagonals connecting opposite corners.  He did a terrific job with foreshortening, gracefully handling the significant horizontal distance and perspective challenge of maintaining correct proportions between the Berkemeyer glass in the foreground, and the drinkholder’s face.  The awkward task of depicting the obscured left arm is deftly accomplished, and perfectly believable.

Still Life with Cheese

As a younger man, I was totally unimpressed by the idea of a still life, but at this point in my aesthetic evolution, I found many of the static depictions of natural and man made objects quite compelling.  Floris Claesz van Dijck’s Still Life with Cheese is a surprisingly interesting painting in which the painter demonstrates a phenomenal ability to depict shape and texture. Just as every decade draws me closer to the complex flavors of aged cheese and whisky, I find myself increasingly able to spend time relishing the subtleties of a skillfully executed painting of food or flower (and what better evidence for Divine Providence than the simultaneous existence of aged Dutch Beemster and single barrel American Bourbon?).

Pieter Claesz: Vanitas Still Life with the Spinario

Pieter Claesz could certainly paint food with the best of them, but I was more interested in his vanitas still life. These moody still lives wallowed in symbolism, warning the viewer of the transience of earthly existence.

Judith Leyster: The Serenade   Van Gogh self-portrait

Judith Leyster has been accused of being an imitator of Hals, but I thought her portrait of a lutist in The Serenade had a surprisingly modern composition.  Shot upwards and to the left from a very low angle, her off-center subject’s relatively small face is adventurously looking outside of the frame.  Like many of the paintings from this period, her subject’s nose has a bright highlight. In my own photographs, I tend to Photoshop that out, but I’m revisiting that idea.

We didn’t get much time to explore the rest of the museum, other than taking a brisk 1 hour tour that swung past an 1887 van Gogh. Its interesting that in this self portrait, he also depicted the subject from a low camera angle.  I thought it was a nice picture, but maybe a bit too heavily Photoshopped.

Beer in the Bar Biking Through The Rijksmuseum

While Elizabeth visited the shop, I found a table in the café at one end of the bright and open new Atrium, created by glassing over the original Courtyard.  Visible one level up and spanning the center of the Atrium is the Passage, an externally open corridor popular with cyclists, who could be seen speeding past on their evening commute.

Late afternoon on the Museumplein



Fiets Don’t Fail Me Now

Saturday, September 27th, 2014


I’ve always wanted to try biking in Amsterdam, and last week I borrowed a single speed bike from the Amsterdam CitizenM and took it for a mid-day trip to nearby Aalsmeer.  Designed for slow and comfortable urban use, upright bikes are an entirely different experience than the multi-speed road bikes I grew up with.  This design is hugely popular in northern Europe, and used by people of all ages for commuting, shopping, visiting, and otherwise enjoying the sophisticated network of bike paths.


Starting from the hotel near Amsterdam-Zuid rail station, I headed south on one of Amsterdam’s ubiquitous dedicated bike lanes, headed west, and then followed a bike lane along the #5 tram line until I found one of the red and white bikers signposts that pointed me towards Aalsmeer.  


Outside of one wrong turn at a point where the dedicated bike path was under construction, an error quickly corrected, I was easily able to make the 17km ride to Aalsmeer without the need for a map, let alone GPS.


Surrounded by greenhouses and polders (reclaimed marshland), Aalsmeer is a lakeside town with an intimate relationship to water.  I rode through the town, and rode for several kilometers through a neighborhood that had countless boat yards and yacht basins, on both sides of the road.


When I the road dead ended, I turned around to look for lunch.  I chose a lakeside café restaurant, In de Zotte Wilg (In the Crazy Willows), which had outdoor seating looking across the water.

In de Zotte Wilg

The ubiquitous fries.  With mayo.

In de Zotte Wilg

After lunch, I headed back through town and country. The bike trails north of Aalsmeer follow the top of the dikes that form the polders, providing a good view from a slow bike of fields and houses, some of which are below the level of the path. Noticing a windmill in the distance,  I decided to ride down a path on top of a different dike and check it out.


Built in 1742, Stommeermolen (Stom Lake Mill)  is a poldermolen (polder mill), which used windpower to pump water from the polders, low lying reclaimed swampland that are often below sea level. The polder is the area to the left in the photo above. A paved bike and walking path follows the top of the dike, and the drainage canal lies just under the sedge along the right side, almost disconcertingly higher than the rooftops of the houses within the polder. The modern polder pumphouse is out of site behind the windmill.


The neatly restored mill is now a residence, so it wasn’t open for visit, but a sign provides a cross section of the mill, illustrating how the wind drove a water screw to raise water from polder to canal level.


My original plan was to do my original route backwards, but I was enjoying a fietspad (bike path) that follows a tramline that was shut in 1950, so I continued down the path along the edge of the Amsterdamse Bose (Amsterdam Wood), back into Amsterdam (with another short sidetrip to look at a windmill that is now a restaurant), and past an old station that houses a florist.


After the dedicated path ended, I followed the northbound bike lanes along the Amstelveenseweg, an increasingly urban boulevard that skirted the edge of several green parks.


I rode back under the Ringweg and railroad tracks, reentering Amsterdam about 1.5km west of the CitizenM.  I continued north until I crossed a canal, and then zigzagged through residential and commercial neighborhoods back to the hotel.  After a sunny 4 hours in Dutch city, suburb, polder, and park, I reluctantly applied my coaster brake for the last time, locked the heavy city bike, and turned in the key to the front desk.

Luxury 3-Star: The Amsterdam CitizenM

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Check in desk at CitizenM Hotel Amsterdam

The CitizenM is a sort of luxury 3-star hotel, an oxymoronic concept that works out pretty well if you are looking to save money on a trip, without compromising on hygiene or safety.

Our Hallway at CitizenM Hotel Amsterdam

We chose the one near the Amsterdam Zuid rail station, about 25 minutes to the Central Station on the #5 rail line.  We arrived at a high-tech self check-in counter, and a helpful young multi-national staffer walked us through the process.   Taking a pair of electronic room keys that double as bar tabs and luggage tags, we headed up to our room.  Walking down the hallway, you get a feel for the high-density approach that characterizes this innovative new hotel chain.

Back half of our room

The rooms are on the spartan side, with a high-tech euro-hip look that apparently doesn’t require closets. The back half of the room is dominated by the bedcouchthing, a wall to wall mattress topped with a duvet and a pair of pillows.  A small night stand with lamp is attached to the left front, and a small blog-writing desk with lamp is attached to the right front. A chair under the desk is the room’s only movable furniture.

Shower Cell CitizenM Hotel Amsterdam

The front half of the room is dominated by a pair of pods that look like transporters from a sci-fi movie. One of these is the shower cell, which only operates when the round glass doors are fully shut.

Throne Room CitizenM Hotel Amsterdam

The other pod serves as the throne room.  It actually does function without the necessity of fully shutting the doors.  But you might want to. A small sink stands close to the two cells with power sockets in three languages, a mirror, and room for a hairbrush and deodorant.  A curtain can be drawn between the plumbing section of the room, and the sleeping section.  Its small, but hip and efficient.

Bar and Food at CitizenM Hotel Amsterdam


The CitizenM doesn’t offer room service, but it has a lively bar with a food area that is available around the clock.  It has a small breakfast bar that runs almost until noon.  Evening always has one hot meal choice, and a set of prepared Japanese and Indian meals that can be microwaved.  The prepacked sushi doesn’t need heating.  The bar is well stocked.  And they’ve got free loaner bikes.


The Colors of Music

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Dirk's 'Instrument'

I had a very interesting encounter today with a synaesthetic Friesien.  After a long ride on a loaner bike from our Amsterdam hotel, I decided to cool off in Beatrixpark.  On the way in,  I’d noticed some obscure signage about an art project, so on the way back, I decided to investigate.

"The Colors of Music"

I first noticed a sort of modern Stonehenge, of upright white panels, each dated on what appeared to be the rear.   Entering the circle, I was confronted with a series of brightly colored panels, staggered in 3 concentric rings, but at first, the view just wasn’t coherent.

Off Center View

I recognized the artist, Dirk Halze, from the picture, still wearing the same hat, and he came over from his easel of plastic paint pots to chat.   He explained that when you were standing in the center of the circle, indicated by an orange plastic upright that was suitable for leaning on, that the panels became a contiguous panorama.  Moving to the center, the panels suddenly popped into alignment.

View from the Center

Dirk further explained that he had synaesthesia, and when he heard music, he sees it in color.  He’s a fan of Mahler, and this not-yet-finished project is a visual depiction of that composer’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major.  He also told me that he was from Friesland, apologized for being able to understand English better than he could speak it, and mentioned that he’d spent a lot of time in Germany.  I offered to speak in German, and that’s mostly how we worked it out.

Dirk Hakze at his easel

In 2012, Dirk premiered “The Colors of Music”  on the beach in Harlingen.  The current project, which is described as the 14th edition, was started on July 24 and will run until October 14.  An interesting experiment in the connection between the visual arts and music, I’m not sure the current location, sandwiched between a school, a parking lot, and a construction site, is as favorable, let alone noticeable to passers by, as a North Sea beach.  He’ll be performing further editions of “The Colors of Music” in Germany, and then in Austria, completing his tour in Vienna.