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“Obama will win right?”, asked the octogenarian to me as soon as I told him I was visiting from California.

I waited for three seconds to make sure I understood his accent right and then laughed and said YES, HE WILL! Ten seconds earlier, I was drenched, impatient and really really needed the seat he seemed to be getting out of. 3:00 PM on Saturday at the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in rainy and insanely wet Amsterdam was the one time my short-term hunger and frustration got the better of my grateful and happy sabbatical self.

I know very little about art. I can’t tell great art from good art or modern art from traditional art. All art looks and seems amazing to me. I have still not gotten past imperfect stick figures to represent anyone or anything I know and to me all art is simply incredible. With so little knowledge there was no real need for me to check out the Van Gogh museum. And yet I did.

My thought process went something like this: “I knew that the world that knows art considers him a genius and who knows if I’ll ever be back here? Maybe soak in the sights now, check it off the list for every friend and family member who will ask me if I went there and maybe one day in the distant future, the genius will sink in. Also, what better place to buy souvenirs from the Netherlands?

So I pulled myself together and added it to my list of places and strolled in at its temporary Hermitage location. My umbrella and hoodie were no match to the pouring rain as the 20 odd minute wait in the line outside the museum sucked away any little passion I had for Mr Van Gogh’s works. Once inside the building, I stood in another serpentine line for another 20 minutes while feeling fainter and hungrier with each passing minute. My hair was still very wet and sane sense requested that I dry off first but what’s the mind to do when the stomach craves what it does ? So I rushed to the cafeteria, picked up three things and looked for a seat in the packed room only to come face-to-face with President Obama’s pluckiest octogenarian Dutch fan. He’d give me his seat and my stomach would stop growling only after he said to me in three different ways how much he loves Obama !!

Win it for him, Mr. President!

The museum in itself was a lot of fun once I had food and coffee in me. I learnt about the Japanese influence on Mr Van Gogh and about how he was one of the first painters to paint people and nature realistically rather than romantically. I wonder what he’d think of the museum today and a souvenir shop that sells a thousand prints of ‘Sunflowers’ a day…….

“I hate the IPL. Test cricket is the real thing. I hope you guys destroy them”, said the Kiwi on the tram.

Tram rides are very social. Any time of the day you’re standing at a tram stop in Amsterdam the person next to you is a tourist doing the same. Locals know the schedules enough to not show up more than 30 seconds prior to a tram’s arrival and it’s the tourists pacing up and down the station feigning a weird mix of confidence and anxiety. I was one such tourist who was thrilled to see two other people walk up to the Ceintuurbaan stop at half past seven under more pouring Amsterdam rain. Is this the right stop for #25 I asked? Yes, they replied and added that it was running on an unreliable schedule thru the weekend. We got to chatting and continued chatting as we boarded #25, ten minutes later. They were two Kiwis out to the country for a week on work. They work in the Horticulture sector and were telling me how no downtown in New Zealand compares remotely to the density, traffic and noise of Amsterdam. The had enjoyed their trip and were giving me relevant pointers that only someone who’d been a recent clueless tourist would be able to give to a current clueless tourist.

I told them New Zealand was on my bucket list and that I’d be there in 2015 for the cricket world cup. They pointed out that 2015 was a long time away and that India needed to somehow beat England in the test matches this month. I thought a rival of Australia’s would be a friend of England but completely unprovoked he went off on the English cricket team as whiners and losers before saying “I hate the IPL. Test cricket is the real thing. I hope you guys destroy them.”

“You should have another Beerenburg.”, said the bartender Ruben.

Perennially drenched and sleep deprived me did not successfully defy the physical cliffs of every trip – the common cold and the sore throat. I walked into a quiet but colorful and crowded bar at the edge of the Red light district and told the bartender that I know it’s Saturday night and 9 PM in a trendy neighborhood and all but that I’d like a cup of hot water.

He introduced himself as Ruben, told me he’d take only cash and waited on me right away. He was wearing a quintessentially American T-shirt (said something like Florida beach) and I asked him if he’d been there. He’d been to America before and said he’d be back. He said he’d be back not for the women or the wildlife but for the whiskey bars. He gave me a detailed lesson on this bar in San Francisco that sold beer out of whiskey barrels and this other bar that had the best whiskey shots.

I was about to walk out of the bar as soon as the rains abated (for their hourly five-minute break) when ruben said he had a better cure than hot tea for my shivering sick looking self. It was a local drink called Beerenburg. It has herbs and stuff and it would fix me like nothing else, he promised. “Also eat some of our cheese with mustard” he said while offering up a plate of local cheese.

An hour later I walked out of the bar having made a new friend and feeling infinitely better. Thanks Ruben for introducing me to Amsterdam’s finest socialized medicine. I loved it and will be back for another some day. (Please don’t tell Ruben that the medicine only lasted four hours before its effect wore out).

“You should have another Beerenburg.”, said the bartender Ruben…..

“Go Pack, Go…..”

In a city of a million vices, my #1 vice was still the Packers. Knowing that the time difference would not be insurmountable and that the Dutch had to have some interest in showing American football to the half million or so American tourists, I made a deep Google dive to find a sports bar that showed my beloved Packers live. The Satellite Sports cafe with its incredible 1990’s web page and an all-cuisine menu seemed like a poor choice for Sunday night but they happened to be the place nearest to my apartment that showed the Packers live among 20 other sporting events that night.

So off I went in the rain on a 15 minute walk past the Emperor’s canal and the prince’s canal to a quintessentially Dutch cafe serving quintessentially crappy food to stoned sports fans. No one else would be crazy enough to do this for this game, I thought in my head only to be beat to one of the two seats in the house facing the TV. Meet Matt, a completely stoned Milwaukee native who on his first full night in the city decided it was Packers, beer and weed over jet lag. Eating the most basic sandwich and fries from a menu that had both teriyaki and Belgian waffles, we took part in our own Olympic event of synchronized cheering, clapping and head bobbing that only two sports fans can truly grasp. We watched as a badly bruised Packer team fought a frisky Arizona squad to a 31-17 win. James Jones’ catch got us both of our chairs and high fiving while the lack of wi-fi had us both in awkward silence, calculating our respective fantasy scores in our heads at several points in the night.

Several stoners joined us thru the night but no one stayed from start to finish of a game like Matt and I did. A Redskins fan walked in and out thru several exasperated weed runs while a family of four guzzled thru a 12-pack within the first half of a Spanish soccer game. Not everyone is as lucky to be a passionate Packer fan.

Minutes after the game was over, Matt and I yelled out

Go Pack, Go…..”

6 Responses to “Postcard from Amsterdam”

  1. Lin Clark

    Shyam – what a wonderful adventure you are on…. it is a pleasure peering into your travels. And I am witness to the fact you have artistic ability!!!!
    Lin in Denver

  2. murari

    the fact that u remember much of the details tells me u haven’t really been enjoying your trip 🙂