Monday, May 26, 2014

The Stream That Flows Through the Nether Lands

A crush of people - that is what Amsterdam means.

I was deposited, as expected, somewhat after noon at Schiphol Airport, flying from Alicante. I had little difficulty getting to the vicinity of the down escalators to various train platforms, but a few questions later, and one wrong  platform later, I landed on Platform 3, where a noncommittal transit info officer assured me that there was indeed a train to be had from that platform to Amsterdam Centraal, the jumping-off point for legions of tourists, "not the next one, the one after that, third stop."

And the train arrived, right on time - and the doors opened on, you may have guessed it from my lead-in... people arrayed in a sort of vestibule between cars, at a space allocation rate of about a square foot per. A WC consumed a profligate 25 sq. ft. or more of the vestibule - amazingly, a woman made her way through the throng, needs must, to use it, shortly after we got underway. The corner of the WC had to suffice as something to hold onto, since our informal riding area had nothing like a rail or grab loop. Ten minutes later, several hundred of us added ourselves to the great flow.

The first emergence from Centraal presents the visitor with a grand vista of mostly old buildings, train tracks, canals, and probably immense numbers of people making their way down the broad boulevard which runs straight ahead past a bridge from the station entrance.
At least in good weather - and this is the best; I heard someone on the plane say the temp was 17 C. and headed for over 20, T-shirt-and-shorts weather given especially unimpeded sunlight.

I had planned a particular walking tour, and even had talked with a woman on the plane about her recommendations, but abandoned it pretty quickly in favor of just flowing with the river for a while. The river did not diminish at all for a mile or so, whereupon I found myself in a plaza. I found a place with a caprese sort of sandwich and settled in to watch passers-by and hangers-out. I wasn't sapped so far by the sheer energy of it all, and was pretty well amused; it reminded me of the exhiliration of walking down the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival in the nineties.

Most of an hour later, I refocused on my primary goal, the Rijksmuseum, realizing ruefully that I probably spent most of what should have been museuming time. I few questions later I was talking with a young female Scot and her friend, who helped guide me there since she was going to part of hit, and reminded me not to miss the ticket line since she didn't need to go there.

They close at 5 - good! At least two and a half hours to see Rembrandt, Steen and company at the very least. In I go, check the backpack, head for the 17th  C. section, and see what's there... "The Black Watch", one of the massive canvases by Rembrandt
is at least one of the museum's top three if not the cynosure - but really, there is no problem,
wait a half a minute, and all is well, you will see as much detail as you care to. And the same applies to Vermeer's famous milkmaid, impressively still in her concentration, or Steen's most famous morality plays like "Merry Family", some unbelievably shiny still lifes of equal fame. The almost three hours pass pretty repidly, but I feel like I have fully imbibed the stuff they most want me to, and I'm even getting a bit spacey.

So it's a good time to move of the most beaten track and see something like the quiet side of the city, this "spider web of canals" described in one guiide, which very aptly describes what a map shows. There are the canal boats I saw in Oxford, a similar feel, leafy, urban-residential.
The occasional group on a bench, scooter, or bicyle, couple meandering, lazy cats, apartment dwellers dressed down and reading in the balmy weather. And an hour or so later I've bumbled my way back to the vicinity of one "main drag", passing at one point a couple of picnic tables at the edge of the large canal with a vociferous group of mixed ages dining and drinking. They are associated with a cafe sign now over my head, somewhat worn and rusty; it proclaims itself a "literary cafe", hmm, what might that mean. A few steps further, and I can't avoid going back, I must know - and so I settle in for a couple of hours of Belgian-style beer and fish in a pleasantly battered cafe with Hopper-inspired photography and concert posters, and watching the canal-side world go by, while the Monkees and reggae play, altogether a little strange and idyllic.

... ok, fine, I guess I need to find the station,
get the shuttle, deal with the stuff they won't tell you, get myself on the plane on time. Sigh.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Juan Negrin's Way

Across "the main drag" of Torrelano from my hotel a street begins called Calle del Jardin, I could paraphrase it The Garden Walk - it is lined with trees, but not exactly pastoral, with the buildings at the eastern edge of town on the left, and a field and low brick building on the right. It's the initial step of the walk to work this week, which I inaugurated yesterday. After a walk of a few hundred yards, it turns a corner, and from then on is known as Calle de Juan Negrin.

Juan Negrin was a Spanish Finance Minister in the 1930's, then country leader, apparently known among other things for strengthening the army and helping usher in the post-Franco era. I suspect there are other J. Negrin streets to be found in this country.

The C.J.N. works its way between orchards of artichokes, fruit and nuts, and what appear to be the aftermaths of bombing raids, with sparsely placed buildings like the one across from the train station,
perhaps once elegant houses, perhaps businesses,  definitely not apartment blocks; missing roofs usually, no glass anywhere, well-graffiti'd, never, of course, made of wood, which has forever been in short supply and expensive.

Clusters of palm trees appear here and there, one laid out like an orchard, with careful stacks of fronds between, it can't only be for Palm Sunday, I am thinking, is there food there? At one point there is a fairly new windmill of an old design long used to pump water, and on its vane, optimistically hand-lettered, .com (I can't recall the name of the company.)

After a mile or two, you get glimpses of the business park which is my destination, home to at least one major shoe manufacturer among other things. All business/industrial parks are more or less the same; this one sports the de rigeur roundabouts of the European context, is perhaps a little more dense, but the height of the buildings, and its overall size are seen across America as well.

Near this midway spot on my "trial run" of this route, I encountered a man in his seventies, on a walk with his dog, tossing bits of meat to disheveled-looking small dogs who lived in what could be called a small farmyard. I encountered several pedestrians, and only a few cars and motorcycles.

My colleagues here think I'm a bit insane, I believe, to be walking to work. I feel quite proud.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Night in Torrelano

I thought again about the meal earlier. Europop is ubiquitous, or things non-Euro which sound like it or were their progenitors, and that held for this meal, which seemed intrusive. But not as intrusive as the twenty-something with the amplified classical guitar who took up a station near a trinket seller at the edge of the plaza. He had put on new strings, but they would help little to  address both his instrument's intonation problems, nor the fact that he hadn't  stretched them well enough, nor, I suspect, that he was used to playing in tune. But even in tune, his odd mishmash of rock and blues riffs gave the sense of being at an assemblage of teenagers bent on impressing each other. I wished for almost any complete song, but in vain...

...Love in Vain, here's the train, two lights on behind! And back to Torellano.

I have one serious problem with Spain - its dinner schedule. It's possible to get a dinner at my tourist-ready, near-the-airport hotel by 8 P.M., and I sort of imagine it seems like a sacrilege to the locals to be serving in Spring before 9. But, OK, fine, I'll walk awhile until the time rolls around, then walk a little more so my dinner doesn't keep me awake, I guess.

As I walk along the main commercial strip near a rough equivalent of CVS, I pass a pizza place next to a bar. In front, rubber similar to what kitchen staff stand on in a restaurant covers the ground, along with a patch of astroturf, and someone has put up a swing set and play structure on it, as well as a bench or two to watch the world go by - and all are in use after sunset (well, on a Sunday...) I thought to myself, these are people with a clear sense of community. (Pictured: a nearby plaza next to the brick iglesia, with, yes, bocce courts, you'd swear they imported the old men from Italia.)

Back at the restaurant, I take in the Caribbean theme, trained palm trees, Jobim playing, not bad. As dusk approaches, my meal of hake with sauce arrives, quite good, and the birds, already normally active at sunset, become apoplectic, the sparrows hopping and verbalizing in a frenzy. Within a minute, the yowling of two cats joins in - I didn't think it was a full moon, hmm... A jazzy version of "Sweet Dreams are Made of This" comes on, perhaps a Brazilian artist, then an equally jazzy "Tainted Love" cover, who'd have thought? Maybe that's why the birds go crazy?

After dinner, again, it's Sunday night, but plenty of pedestrians are out probably getting ready for their evening meal in a couple of hours when I'm asleep and glad to be. Time to work tomorrow.

(Next: Juan Negrin's Way)

The Tunnel of Elevation

There is a long stairway which goes to a portal on the periphery of the Santa Barbara castle, and once inside that portal you can see a plaza, and a doorway below plaza level across it and to your right. Should you enter that doorway and bear right, you'll see ahead a quite modern-looking tunnel - in fact, one of the few modern things save the glaring Star Wars banner at that portal - which is perhaps an eighth of a mile long, and not a little portentous. It turns out to be the way, I guess probably the only "official" way, to ascend to the upper battlements, via elevator no less.

Before I was done with that upper area, I had taken pictures three times for others, had one taken for me,
and bemoaned the lack of clarity for maybe my only view out over Alicante and the Mediterranean. It didn't warrant that much bemoaning; the weather was idyllic and breezy, and the view expansive.

In good time, I attempted to retrace my steps back down, and even though convinced, for once, of my orientation, somehow I still diverged unintentionally, ending up in a somewhat seedy, dense neighborhood of narrow streets and noisy children. But then quite quickly, back to touristville not far from the harbor, a rambla with tables arrayed, banners, sandwich boards. I had it in mind that it was time to be introduced to an area specialty, paella, a seafood delicacy, and so I paused to examine a menu board in a small plaza off the rambla, and was accosted by a waiter extolling the quality of his eatery's specialty. (I have just been corrected by my Spanish workmates in the matter of what is a "genuine" paella, meat not seafood, the seafood variant is called by them "black rice".) I decided I would take him up, and after some rambling around to get myself closer to the 2PM Spanish midday mealtime, I returned - and was served a suitably scrumptious repast.

(I have noticed a common practice between Spain and Italy, which I have also visited - they want to have you hang around after you eat. I am not sure whether it's more a cultural "go slow" thing, or just a bid to make their restaurant look more full.)

By 3 or so I went back to the train station to scope out departure times, and after awhile went with my ticket to ascertain which platform was right. (Pictured is what I'll call "the wiggly walk" near the harbor, on my way back.) Two women of generation-separated age stood there, and I asked them in halting Spanish whether they were clear on which one had the cercanias. A voice popped up behind me, "Escuchame," it said, I have the answer for you. The voice belonged to Jaime, one of those ever-confident, sometimes too famililar, endlessly friendly men of, in particular, Spain and Italy. He launched into elaborate attempts to clarify the system of platforms and reconcile them with the lighted displays showing departures, all in Spanish, he appeared to understand English very little. By the time we were done with our conversation, the only thing I was sure of is that, whatever train I boarded, it better be the one also holding the two women, or things would go suboptimally.

(TBC - next will be Night in Elche)

Sunday, May 11, 2014


So what to do? They told me at the front desk the room numbers for my two colleagues, no joy at those numbers. So emails off to officialdom, an out-of-office with a referral email, referral email sent, email to one of the colleagues, fingers crossed, try the room again, Bingo, it's Dave! And what do you know, he still has a rental car, is willing to hit the airport, has an idea what went wrong. At the airport, the security guard I dismissed would probably have eventually yielded pertinent info, but that's much more efficient with someone with some conversational Spanish and knowledge of the system. Turns out they like putting bags from US transfers in a Customs Area, but, hmm, how do you know that... suitcase in hand, finally ready to crash about 26 hours after getting up for SFO.

(Conventional wisdom for jetlaggers is that you "synchronize" as quickly as possible, once you've arrived at a morning, stay up all that day until somewhere near the locals' bedtime. I decided my variant would be a combination of my "cheat" at the Yotel early in the "adopted" day, and an enforced awakening 7 or 8 hours after whenever I get to bed, which in this case was around midnight. So far, it seems like it might work to get ready for my first "work in Spain" day.)

I had done a little virtual touring in the Torellano area, where my hotel is, before coming, so I already knew that Torellano was not exactly a suburb of Alicante, but rather a very rectangular and self-contained town of perhaps a dozen blocks square plunked down in a desert (from the air, it looks not a little like California, but valley towns like, say, Coalinga, tend to have expansion areas and are not symmetric, nor of even density.) My hotel is on one corner of the rectangle looking out at sere fields and low hills (probably established as airport right-of-way some while ago), a factory, and an orchard or two. (Pictured is the view from my hotel window, looking toward the airport.)

If you proceed down to the bottom of the rectangle from the hotel, you will land inexorably next to the train station, an unattended building or two with machines to sell tickets, and a couple of abandoned buildings with several coats of graffiti. With a few seconds of help from a couple - the guy had seriously, at minimum, six inches of wedge capping his forehead, he would have fit right in in '59 - and a couple of euro, I dialed in my ticket, and sat on the bench watching swallows duck in and out of nests in the shadow of the tile roofs of the forgotten structures.

A cultured famale voice advised us in Spanish from a speaker that the cercania, or local train, would be arriving in about ten minutes, and arrive it did, far from full. Two stops, ten minutes, and some seriously competitive graffiti (reminiscent of the CalTrain approaching San Francisco) later - Alicante Terminal, looking every bit a modern train terminal serving a city of some hundreds of thousands.

And coming out of the entrance of said terminal, you can already see the potent local landmark, the Castillo de Santa Barbara, at a distance - and really, I am certainly one to just head for the heights without any ado.

Still to come: the tunnel of elevation, the rampart, Paella Plaza, and Jaime's Guidance.

Schipping Out

(Background: I have been sent to one of my company's offices near Alicante, Spain to help some people there. This is the travel tale.)

At SFO, they agreed to check my suitcase through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to Alicante, good.

The plane would be a couple of hours late, not so good, but when all was said and done, around 11 AM local and half past midnight me, I banged around one of the hubs of Schiphol's many spokes like a moth with too many lights, managing to find my way to my reserved Yotel "cabin",
a pod room that's as good a sanctuary as many, and quite a bit handier and cheaper. And about three hours, some sleep, and a few strange banging and clicking sounds later, I checked out of the Yotel somewhat the better for wear.

My hope was to see a sort of mini-museum representing the Rijksmuseum at the airport, but it's pretty similar to SFMOMA's mini-store at SFO, a museum store, no more or less. But I did get a very European tuna-on-crostini right in front of the Yotel, at an eatery nearly covered by a very large green translucent disk. Sparrows who inhabit every massive interior space like the Schiphol used it as a hunting perch, scoping out the newly-departed diners and swooping down to score the latest round of crumbs.

The weather was sulky and quite wet; it doesn't pay to forget that Amsterdam is  well north of Calgary in latitude. And so I dismissed at that point any thought of outside activities, not that I had enough time to head for town... the 14 minutes the airport sign estimated to reach the vicinity of my gate proved to me pretty accurate - amazing, I might as well be on 680 seeing the board estimating time to SJC. Only another hour until the 737 flight to Alicante.

It seemed quick, I went to the carousel, bags came and were taken - but not mine, oh, no, the machine has stopped, it's done, no more disgorging. I saw no one who looked official within a quarter mile of the baggage claim save a security officer waylaying people trying to go the wrong way, argh! Well, I guess I'd better take my backpack and move along to the hotel.