Thursday, 9 April 2009

Spring to my birthday celebration

The first day of spring sprung while I was enjoying Bruges and it marked a noticeable change in the local weather. Quite literally in the space of a week it has gone from 8-9 degrees to 15-18 degrees. The past two weeks it has been sunny and warm; a welcome change.

My birthday weekend Nina came up to Amsterdam. Saturday night we went out for a quick dinner as we had concert tickets at 8pm. Shawn had secretly been in contact with Nina and had arranged an evening for us that involved a fancy dinner and symphony tickets. Due to the timing of the show, we decided to break it apart and enjoy the dinner the following weekend so it wouldn’t be rushed.

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I have enjoyed going to some of the Wednesday afternoon concerts at the Concertgebouw. Shawn thought it would be nice to treat me to a full evening of music opposed to the 30 minute teasers.

The Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra usually sells out long before the date of the performance. And, as it happened, the show on my birthday was performed by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra.

We arrived at the concert hall and made our way toward our seats in the 5th row. As the stage is raised a good five feet above the seating level, our field of view would be somewhat limited. The show wasn’t sold out, so we went to the section of seats behind the orchestra, steeply banked to allow the best view. My favourite place to watch a concert!

We were treated to four different pieces of music. The show started with Johannes Bernardus Van Bree’s Allegro for four string quartets. The four quartets, each composed of three violins and one cello, played without the benefit of a conductor which I found strange.

The 16 musicians left the stage and a few moments later the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra emerged to play Robert Schumann’s Cello Concert opus 129. This time it incorporated horns and strings. Once again, there wasn’t a conductor, but a lead cellist sat on a slightly raised platform in the centre of the group.

During the intermission stage hands cleared the stage and opened a giant trap door in the middle of it. Using a hydraulic lift, a grand piano emerged from the depths below the stage, then another. Nina and I took this opportunity to go to one of the lounges where they were offering complimentary fruit & soft drinks, coffee, beer and wine.

The second half started with Robert Schumann’s Andante and Variation from Opus 46. Two young boys who looked like twins emerged, each no more than 14 years old and both dressed immaculately in tails. They each sat at one of the two grand pianos and were accompanied by a cellist and two violins. I have always loved the sound of the piano and enjoyed this piece the most. It started slowly, a bit atmospheric and built into a powerful piece.

The final piece of the evening was Arnold Schonberg’s Transfigured Night which was based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. Like the first piece, this one only utilized strings.

Overall I didn’t find most of the music to be excessively moving, but I liked the experience. Nina and I are going to investigate getting tickets to the full symphony for next time. If possible, for a piece that incorporates the giant church organ.

When we got back to my apartment that evening, we went to so she could play for me a live performance of one of her favourite pieces: Ravel’s Bolero. Incidentally, when Dad was here visiting in February he also recommended I listen to it as the whole song is one gradual build. I have since listened to it many times and although it is repetitive, it is really growing on me. I find myself humming it now and it gets stuck in my head.

As my birthday passed to March 29th, daylight savings kicked in; something I look forward to every year. The symbolic end of winter and the beginning of longer days leading to summer. In fact, the picture to the left was taken from my balcony last night at 8:45pm as that is when it is starting to get dark these days. I was really drawn to the full moon shining in the blue sky.

I have been going out walking more often now that we have more sunshine and the better weather. I have started walking to neighbourhoods I hadn’t explored before, finding new gems in the city. One such place was the electric tram museum. There are old sections of tram track, now not used any longer, but during the summer the restored trams take people along 8 km of this track by the AmsterdamBos (Amsterdam forest); one of the largest parks in greater Amsterdam.

I was led by tracks from the museum into an old warehouse district where I came across sheds full of old trams being restored. The area was reminiscent of the Roundhouse back in the early 80s, before it was restored for Expo. I remember Dad used to take us down there to look at the old rail cars in the last years of its life as a rail yard.

On Thursday I played poker with some guys and for the first time in ages, I lost! They decided they wanted to make the game somewhat regular, so we will play again next week where I will hopefully have better luck. Although we only ever spend 10-20 Euro for the evening, so we’re not talking about great sums of money being won or lost.

Last weekend I went to Germany where we finished celebrating my birthday. I had asked Nina to investigate a restaurant for us to go to, preferably one we hadn’t been to before. She found a charming French restaurant in the small neighbouring town of Wahlwiller, Netherlands. As we pulled into the small town, a little winding road led past a pub and two blocks of stone houses. At the end of the road, in an old farmhouse, was the Michelin rated Klauwes. We entered and were immediately greeted by the immaculately dressed MaĆ®tre d'. We were right on time for our 7:30pm reservation, but he recommended we start with an aperitif in their garden. He led us through the dining room, all the tables bearing white linen and crystal glasses, through the lounge with the wood-burning fireplace and large leather sitting chairs, onto the terrace.

We sipped kir royals in the warm spring air while watching the evening sun set at the end of the green meadow and rolling hills that spread out behind the restaurant. We moved inside as the air started to cool and found ourselves in a culinary heaven. The menu was inviting, the food was perfect, the service was professional and the setting was comfortably formal. The room was accented with large wood beams, one had the date 1678 engraved into it. The walls were roughly plastered, giving the room a rustic look. In short, it was a wonderful experience and the final element of Shawn’s birthday present to me.

Sunday was Nina’s birthday present. One of her close friends celebrated a birthday a few days after I did, so Nina planned a joint celebration. The three of us met in Aachen along with a Belgian friend for Sunday brunch. The location was a cake shop that also had an adjoining restaurant. However, by simply describing it as a “cake shop” I am really not doing it justice. To enter their restaurant you have to walk through the cake shop and I dare say, no one would have the willpower to order anything off the menu after seeing the cakes on display. We had been there a few weeks earlier for afternoon tea and were quite eager to enjoy their brunch buffet, primarily for the dessert table.

Afterward we took a bus to the football stadium where we met another friend and watched Aachen’s soccer club play along with 20,000 other jubilant fans. I don’t remember where the opposing team was from other than it was a small town in Southern Germany. Anyhow, they lost. Aachen, won 1-0. Aachen’s team colours are yellow and black and the fans (all of them) came dressed in these colours. To fit in, Nina had loaned me one of her dad’s yellow shirts. Most of the fans came with a team scarf which they proudly held up above their heads to show support. It was like being swarmed by thousands of human bumblebees. But, it was exciting to be at a game in person, something I had wanted to do since arriving in Europe. We were surrounded by some very passionate and opinionated fans. Simply being in that environment for two hours doubled my vocabulary of German swear words.

As my time in Amsterdam was supposed to be finite (9 months) I didn’t expect to make it round to the one year point. Although last week, that is exactly what happened. In fact, tomorrow will also mark my one year anniversary at The White Door.

While going on my evening walks I have been thinking a lot about this past year and how fond of this city I have become. I frequently think about the ocean and mountains; two things I actively miss about Vancouver. And I wonder what it is about Amsterdam I will miss when Nina and move on later this year. I think it will probably be the canals, the humpback bridges and the traditional Dutch architecture.

I sifted through the photographs I have taken over the past year: 3.74 GB organized into 43 folders comprised of 2596 individual pictures... and those are just the good pictures I kept. I decided to make a couple of albums with my favourite 100 pictures of Amsterdam which can be seen here: Gallery 1 and Gallery 2

Our roommate Jaana has bought her own apartment and will be leaving our flat. So Marc and I are back into the processes of looking for a 3rd to live with us. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t too good as he had planned a trip to Peru and is now away while I am interviewing potential girls to move in. I am fairly easy-going when comes to roommates, all I care about is that the person will fit in, is relatively quiet and cleans up after themselves in the kitchen. Marc is a little more picky and hopefully he will like the girls I have arranged to come next week once he is back.

Never a dull moment…