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Monday, April 30, 2012

BACK IN THE USA

My 11 hour flight from Frankfurt provided a spectacular view of San Francisco:


The approach to the airport is always a bit artsy:


While a direct flight from Amsterdam to Las Vegas would have taken "only" 10 hours, from my hotel in Holland to hotel in Vegas, with all the wait time and backtracking to Frankfurt, then hop from SFO to Las Vegas, it took just about exactly 24 hours.  It's nice to be back in the USA.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

AMSTERDAM IS ASTONISHIING


According to one poll, Amsterdam is only the #11th best city in Europe (Paris, Rome and London are at the top).  Another lists this city as #4 to Paris/Prague/Venice as the most romantic.  However, in my tendency to amplify the titles of these postings, let me say that Amsterdam is Astonishing.  

In the extreme, Amsterdam is liberal.  From SEX to DRUGS to ....  Google does not allow me to be specific, but my age and present attitude would not provide me much in the first person anyway.  But the opportunities here for sin are astonishing.

Amsterdam and Honolulu have about the same population.  The difference and similarities, though, are astonishing.  Here are my top ten highlights of today:

  1.  No one in his right mind rides a bike through downtown Honolulu.  In Amsterdam, bicycles seem to have the right of way.  Walkers need to be very, very careful or they become accident victims.  One-fourth of all traffic deaths in the country involve bicycles.  In this city there are as many bike deaths as vehicle deaths.  But, ah, there is only a one in 20 million chance of dying as an Amsterdam pedestrian, whatever this means.  So don't sweat it, especially when you learn that there about as many (20) pedestrians deaths/year in both Honolulu and Amsterdam.  More than 50,000 bikes get swiped each year here.  I noticed that mostly in Kansai, but also in Sendai, more and more bicycles were competing with people on the sidewalks.  In Amsterdam, there are everywhere not so well-defined bike paths.  "No so" because I found myself walking on them and on numerous occasions got honked out of the way.


  2.  Interestingly enough, Amsterdam and Honolulu both experience around 20 murders/year (watch out, though, for pickpockets at the main train terminal here), same as those pedestrian deaths.  Maybe the difference, then, is not so astonishing.  The Dutch are the 9th most friendly (the USA does not make this list, although I would offer Honolulu as the equivalent of Amsterdam) people in the world.  And how is this for coincidence?  We (Amsterdam and Hawaii) both entertain 7 million tourists/year (although this statistic is confusing, because there are 4.6 million international visitors and 16 million day trippers).  

  3.  Another difference is that you don't need to tip much, or at all, in taxis, restaurants, bars, etc.  Remember, going Dutch means being thrifty.  

  4.  The Bus is good in Honolulu, but the overall transportation system (this is "just" the tram) in Amsterdam is, yes, astonishing.  For around $10, you can get a 3-day pass.  The train takes 20 minutes from the airport and costs about $4.  There is not much of a traffic problem in town because few drive cars.

  5.  Amsterdam has a big edge in museums, so supremely so that I will avoid any graphics.

  6.  Yet, Honolulu does have more palm trees (but we don't have tulips), considerably better climate (you can still see your breath when you walk around Amsterdam, and when the wind comes up, the wind chill is unbearable), and one Ala Wai Canal.  Amsterdam has 70 miles of canals, 90 islands and 1500 bridges.  Like the Ala Wai, you certainly don't want to drink the water from these canals.  I don't recall seeing even one fish, although this clip begs to differ, and this photo is purportedly from the pictured canal.

  7.  Their luminaries (not necessarily born here, but credit is taken) are Vincent van Gogh (fabulous museum--but don't even attempt during the weekend), Anne Frank (there are always long lines to visit the House, so I've never made it), Rembrandt (His The Night Watch is at their Rijksmuseum here and is on the level of da Vinci's Mona Lisa for historic prominence.  Value?  Never been sold.), Albert Camus and Gerard Heineken (at the age of 22 in 1863 he hired a pupil of Louis Pasteur to isolate a strain of yeast that is singularly responsible for the beer you drink today--you would have thought that beer has been around since the BCs, and, of course it has, but this makes for a good story).

  8.  There is a decent zoo/aquarium and passable botanical park:


The immediate above is from the Butterfly House of Hortus Botanicus.

  9.  The biggest day of the year is April 30 (tomorrow), Queen's Day, for Juliana, who passed away eight years ago.  Imagine a 32-hour period when 2 million (or 700,000, depending on who you ask) crowd into town, which is closed off to any form of vehicular transport, including no buses and tramways.  Everyone is in orange or costumed (or lack of--I chose not to show that photo), dancing in the streets and on anything that floats, with many inebriated (but you can hold ONLY one drink in your hand on the streets) and/or stoned (you won't be arrested for up to 5 grams of marijuana, which is good for ten joints).  Here is a clip of the day a year ago.

Unfortunately, I leave the morning of April 30.  However, can't think of a better reason for returning, so I have already made my hotel reservation at the Pulitzer for 29 and 30April2013.

10.  My day is not complete until I have a great meal.  There are one-star (Yamazato) and two-star (Ciel Bleu) Michelin restaurants at the Hotel Okura in Amsterdam.  This morning, my concierge gained me a table at lunch for their third, no-star restaurant, Serre, which recently won a Michelin Bib Gourmand award, meaning high cuisine at exceptionally low prices.  That's fine with me.  Remember, it is a Sunday, and the day before Queen's Day.  Worse, I showed up one hour early, but they graciously sat me at a table which was just perfect, as I was surrounded by Sakura. I finally enjoyed my international hanami (picnic under cherry trees), after missing this opportunity in Japan, for the meal was French in a Japanese hotel with Spanish cava (sparkling wine), South African white wine, Italian red wine (especially excellent--Menhir Primitivo Salente) and French Thomas Barton Reserve Sauternes.  The first course was a veal and tuna tasting:


followed by an incredible asparagus, mushroom, parma and hollaindaise treat:


The third course was a roasted beef bavette (not sure why, for this term usually applies to thin pasta, and I saw none--maybe it was those crispy things) with apple icing, fabric of smoked onions and relish of vegetables.  The beef was superb, and provides inspiration on what the chef (Mark van der Tang) might do with exceptional wagyu.


I had some Stilton cheese with assorted accompaniments:


The sauternes perfectly complemented the cheese.

Then a double expresso (and note how it is served):


The total cost was $119 for all the above.  Consider that just two glasses of red wine at 3-Star Ryu Gin set me back $90.  And these wines were hardly drinkable.  Thank you Joeri:


Note the cherry blossom petals (which mean the flowering is at peak), although I was told these are not really Sakura, but some Dutch version.  On parting I suggested that they sign up a famous French chef, re-name the place something like Robuchon Blue, charge three times more, and for certain, they will within three years earn three Michelin stars.  This will be by far my best meal on this trip for the price charged...maybe best value ever!  All the above in one day, and there are two hours to sunset.  I feel like Ferris Bueller on his day off.  All I now need to do is find a parade and provide my version of "Twist and Shout."  Perhaps tonight on those Queen's Day eve festivities.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

EUROPE WILL SHOW THE WAY TO THE GREAT DEPRESSION

I feel compelled to editorialize about the region whenever I'm on foreign soil.  For example, last year I wrote about "The United Countries of the Americas."

I'm still in the Netherlands.  Their government fell and Queen Beatrix, of all the people, set September 12 as the date for national elections.  This why the country is a Kingdom.  The dissolution came because leaders could not arrive at an  austerity plan.  Interestingly enough, This country is the only one with a reasonable unemployment rate (actually, the rate increased to 6% this month).

Scarily enough, Socialist Francois Hollande, was quoted to say he would push growth over austerity.  He is favored to beat Nicolas Sarkozy on May 6.  Remember, this rather bland Hollande replaced former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now better known as a sex fiend, as the party candidate.  Keep in mind that, relative to the American presidential race, the exact opposite situation prevails in France, for the current president is a conservative, and his opposition is a liberal.

Then, there are those PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).  It is just a matter of time when they join Iceland, which went bankrupt in 2008, and, just this week, Romania.  Further, in case you missed it, UK, which has stuck to the pound, and therefore not as vulnerable as France and Germany, was just announced to officially be in double-dip recession.

A poll being run this month indicates that almost half of those responding feel that Europe is on the verge of a Great Depression.  Paul Krugman (hey, he won the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2008) says Spain is already in depression with their 24% unemployment, and European leaders seem inclined to drive their economy off a cliff.  As tepid as is the U.S. economy, it is the envy of Europe.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

FLORIADE 2012

The Kingdom of the Netherlands means "nether" land, or lower land, which is why the country depends on dikes, like New Orleans, to survive.  Also called Holland, a more historic name, the people are Dutch because once upon a time the association was strong with Germany or the Deutsch.  However, Germans came to be called Germans, and the Deutsch became Dutch.  The country is small:  1/50 of Mexico and 1/200 of Brazil.  There are 16 million people and 16 million bikes, with an average of 6 feet, men are the tallest in the world. 

The national color is orange because the Royal family's name is the House of Orange-Naussau.  Their biggest party day is the the day I leave the country;  Queen's Day.  Not Queen Beatrix, but her mother.  However, it all starts the day before, and I'll still be here.

Amsterdam was founded in 1275 and was the richest city in the world in the 1600's because it was the premier international trading port.  Then, the population was about 54,000.  Today, it has 2.3 million people in the metropolitan area, but a point of concern is that more than half of those under 18 are not of European origin.  The transportation system is fabulous...museums are omnipresent...coffee  houses provide marijuana, not coffee...and smart shops carry various substances illegal in the USA.  There is also a prominent Red Light District.  Click on one  of my earlier postings about this city for these details.


Today, I went to Floriade, a flower show that comes by every decade.  It is always held somewhere in Holland and is sort of like a world expo for farmers.  Picture the garden section of Home Depot, and multiply by a hundred or thousand.  There are 25 or so countries and various companies with small pavilions, all pertaining to the theme:  be part of the theatre in nature, get closer to the quality of life.  Thus, sustainability and being green dominate, including the use of renewable energy.  The food is cafeteriaish :


A plate of pork schnitzel with tomato soup and Bavarian beer with a small bottle of Spanish white wine cost around $35. . The five thematic areas are separated by forests.  Expect to walk five miles or more if you don't catch the air gondola.  Here is a series of photos:


Here are some international participants:


Azerbaijan is showing especial vigor these days, with a proposed tallest (3445 feet--that's about nine times higher than anything in Hawaii--the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is "only" 2717 feet) building in the world:


Azerbaijan is so progressive because of oil.  Their capital is Baku, the original world center for petroleum, and one of the reasons why Hitler attacked Russia in World War II.  Alas, he never captured this oil.

Frankly, I was disappointed with Floriade.  Part of the problem is that Keukenhof Park was uber terrific and farm fair was kind of only okay.  Terms like Agritourism, Floriculture and Agricommercials come to mind.  There was no critical mass of color, very little innovation, wind-blown tulips, blockish architecture and mediocre shows.  Don't go out of your way to come here for this.  If you plan on being here by mid-October anyway, it's worth this five hour roundtrip bus ride just to be able to say I was at Floriade 2012.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

TULIPS OF KEUKENHOF

I spent a day at Keukenhof today.  The park is only open two months each year when the tulips bloom.  This week is the absolete peak of genus tulipa, tulips.

I will run out of superlatives, for the tulips here are magical...and add any ten words you wish.  There are 3,000 registered versions of this flower, with 109-150 species.  Keukenhof must have almost all of them:


It was cloudy half the time, sunny 30% and rainy 20%.  In a way I'm glad it was wet now and then because this forced me to go indoors, where, it turns out, there were exhibitions of orchids and anthuriums (better than anything I've seen in Hawaii):


Azaleas's (I'm into yellow flowers):


I was shocked to see virtually every color of azalea.  However, the only blue tulip I saw was a piece of artwork:


And there really are also no truly black tulip.  This is the closest I viewed:


It is called the T. Paul Scherer.  The Queen of the Night is similar, but both are a very dark purple.

Interestingly enough, there were also cherry blossom trees in bloom:


There certainly were swans:


When the bus returned to Amsterdam, I noticed within a few yards in the canal a swan nest:


Tomorrow, Floriade, a floral event that happens only every ten years.

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