I checked. This week the weather in Amsterdam sounds pretty pleasant--mid-60s, partly cloudy with only a small chance of rain. Much nicer than the sweltering heat which has arrived in Omaha just as scheduled. Usually near the end of June and close to the Fourth of July holiday we can look forward to hot weather and the beginnings of oppressive humidity. Good thing I am 'traveling' this week and am meandering the various neighborhoods in Amsterdam (okay, only through the pages of a book, but I won't complain--the imagination is a powerful thing).
I've been dipping into a variety of books--almost every day I spend a little time in The Hague with Eline. That's a different landscape altogether, however. Much more an internal one. I know where I am physically in the story, but I can probably describe her bedroom/sitting room much more than I can tell you about the city. And more so the landscape of her mind/emotions. Now Grijpstra and DeGier's Amsterdam is quite colorful. Crime is rampant, as it is in every fictional city (as mystery novels go), and the cast of characters equally so. And not just the criminals. But as I am likely to finish my book of short stories tonight, I am saving those details for tomorrow.
So it's Adrian Mathews' The Apothecary's House which I'll share a bit with you today. The tag line on the book's cover reads "a looted painting, a secret code, a deadly pursuit . . . ". Intriguing, yes? It's contemporary Amsterdam that Mathews writes about, in particular the Rijksmuseum. Maybe because the book is written by an English-speaking author who's trying to create a particular atmosphere that the book is replete with delicious details, but whatever the case, it works for me. I want to be there. Caught up in the story, yes, but I want to see the streets, learn the history, see the houses, smell the food, hear the gentle lap of the water in the canals . . . And Mathews is doing a good job transporting me there and keeping me turning the pages for the story, too.
The plot revolves around a 19th century painting that was appropriated by the Nazis and earmarked specially for Hitler's personal collection. It has a number of mysterious tags on the back. It would continue to be tucked away in the museum's basement for safekeeping whilst the curators are busy logging, sorting, trying to match up paintings with original owners. Except for an eccentric elderly woman named Lydia who barges into the museum one day demanding they hand over her painting. Lydia's mother was Jewish and father was Dutch and you can imagine what became of the family. Without the necessary paperwork and the proof of ownership her claim is sitting in a sort of limbo for the time being.
But it's early days yet for the story (another hefty book with just over 700 pages--but it seems to read fast) so I'll save those details for when I finish. Instead let me help paint a portrait of Ruth's life in Amsterdam. Ruth is the main protagonist. I'm still working out Ruth's background, though I know she is an Art Historian/Archivist. She lives on a houseboat in the Jordaan neighborhood.
"The Jordaan was a one-for-all and all-for-one place, where students, refugees, yuppies, almshouse dwellers and boat people rubbed shoulders and joined forces, successfully petitioning against a second subway line. They had somehow distilled and bottled the quintessence of flower power--that fugitive and much-maligned fragrance of sixties' peace, love and agitprop--dabbling it behind their ears in defiance of hard-nosed times."
Lydia on the other hand, while dressing more like a pauper than a princess, doesn't just rent an apartment on the Keizersgracht (the Emperor's Canal), she owns one of those swank homes. And while both Lydia and her house have seen better days, it certainly puts into perspective the claim she makes on ownership of the painting living in one of the ritzier neighborhoods of Amsterdam.
I like Ruth's Amsterdam, however. I think I could be happy there. She eats at the Stoop Bistro and frequents De Twee Zwaantjes and De Doffer's coffee shop in her neighborhood. Although personal contact between claimants and researchers is frowned upon, a chance encounter with Lydia (rather irreverently referred to in Ruth's mind as 'Bags' since she carries so many of them about with her) outside the museum results in an unlikely friendship forming. Maybe it's more she feels sorry for Lydia and is intrigued by the painting (and no doubt it is soon to cause her any number of difficulties as there is another individual claiming ownership), but she gets pulled into Lydia's world. Lydia invites her into her home for a meal.
"Bags came in with a tray, advancing like a tightrope walker so as not to spill the goodies -- jenever and eggnog, biscuits with Leiden cheese that was encrusted with caraway seeds."
Jenever must be a popular drink in The Netherlands since it has popped up more than once in my Grijpstra and DeGier short story reading, too. Interestingly so has the fact that kids like to derail the trams in Amsterdam!
"'It's the bloody kids!' he protested. 'Look!' He held up a piece of mangled red plastic. 'They stuff empty shotgun cartridges with match heads, hammer down the open end, and ram two or three into the rail. Along we come, and Bang! You wouldn't believe it, but that's all it takes to nobble a tram'!"
Just one more interesting tidbit I will leave you with, and maybe my friend Cath in The Netherlands can tell us if this is an accurate description of Dutch people or not, but when Ruth is in Lydia's home all the curtains are closed and she has an urge to open them all as--"the Dutch instinct is to leave the curtains open".
So a picture is forming in my mind, slowly and a very general one. But this is what I had hoped for when I began reading--to get a sense of place and people, if possible. And to read some good stories along the way. As I am nearly finished with one book, already my attention is being drawn to my stack of books for the next read!