In June 2015, two months into my blogging career, I composed a paean to beer, and I’ve returned to the subject several times since then. I have my friend Cindy to thank for setting the present story in motion. Here’s why: I mentioned to her recently that, for quite a while, I’d been taking photos at home of beers, alongside their frequently snazzy cans and bottles. And that I’d been sending some of the photos (via email with a subject line reading Tonight’sbeer) to a rotating selection of relatives and friends. Those folks included Cindy’s husband Gene. Cindy didn’t say that she thought this was a pretty ridiculous thing to do, as well it might be. Nope, her immediate response was, “You should write a story about that.”
Well, I mulled over her idea for a number of days, finally deciding to wax rhapsodic about beer once again. And so, I headed to my smart phone’s photo archives. There I discovered that my first documentation of a beer purchase occurred in November 2020, and that approximately 80 more beers/cans/bottles subsequently have posed for me. None of the pictures are wonderful examples of the art of photography, that’s for damn sure, nearly all of them having been snapped clumsily in my kitchen or dining room. But what the hell. They are what they are.
Despite their pedestrianism, one thing for certain is that they make me want to down a cold brew right now. I won’t, however, because it’s mid-afternoon as I type these opening paragraphs, and I drink (almost) only at night. And only five beers per week, to boot. Shit, you better believe that I’d like to be able to drink a whole lot more than that, but I’m a geezer with a sensitive system. I know my limits. Maybe that’s why I truly savor just about every quaff that goes down my aged hatch.
In the USA, where I live, the beer world started to turn into a wonderland in the early 1990s. That’s when small breweries began popping up like mad all over the States, producing styles of beer commonly known to some parts of the world, but unfamiliar to the vast majority of American beer drinkers (including me), who downed only Budweiser, Miller and other mild lagers. Around that time, also, beers from other countries began finding their way into my nation more plentifully than before. Lo and behold, I gradually learned about stouts, porters, pale ales, wheat beers and Oktoberfests, to name a few, plus lagers that put Bud and Miller to shame. With hundreds upon hundreds of American breweries each producing their takes on assorted beer varieties and sometimes developing new styles, and with varied beers arriving from overseas, a beer renaissance was under way on my side of the pond.
Over time I’ve become a beer geek. A devotee of most types of beer, I’m amazed by the deliciousness almost always awaiting me at taverns, restaurants and beer stores. And I enjoy few things better than seeking out beers that I’ve never had before, in bottles and cans and on tap. I think of this ongoing quest as a treasure hunt. It thrills and delights me. I’m not kidding when I say that the beer revolution, still going very strong in the USA, has been one of my favorite developments of the last several decades. It has made my life better.
And I can’t seem to restrain my excitement. Thus, since starting the photography project innocently over two years ago, I grab a picture of nearly every store-bought beer that’s new to me when I open its can or bottle (for instance, Iron Hill Brewery’s version of Oktoberfest, which I discovered recently). I also immortalize beers that have held, and continue to hold, a special place in my heart and mouth. Anchor Steam Beer, proudly brewed in San Francisco since 1896, though I didn’t find out about it till almost 100 years later, is a prime example of that.
What’s more, I feel compelled to share my enthusiasm. The dozens and dozens of my beer pix that have landed in a bunch of individuals’ inboxes attest to that. Do any of these people want my pictures? Do they think I’m batty to send them? Who knows? Who cares? The bottom line is that delicious beers deserve to be acknowledged and saluted. To which I add . . . olé!
Not a bad photo, huh? The dog, who goes by the name of Alfie and who is in possession of enormous eyes that peer deeply into yours, seeking your essence, is cute as can be. And he was even cuter a couple of weeks before this picture was taken. By which I mean that Alfie, a Wheaten Terrier, was the definition of luxuriouslyshaggy at that time (I’ve seen photographic proof of this). But when his owners — my brother Richie and my sister-in-law Sara — brought him to a groomer for what they thought would be a trim, the groomer, totally incompetent and/or smashed out of his or her mind, went hog wild and sheared off tons of hair. Alfie was left looking as sleek as a sausage. I’d have sued. Or maybe not . . . after all, the new version of Alfie is still damn cute.
I made Alfie’s acquaintance in early June when my wife Sandy and I visited the aforementioned couple and other family members in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The photo dates from that visit. Alfie was nine months old. At one time a human was prominently displayed in the photo too. Me. But I cropped the picture drastically because I look like absolute shit in it, disheveled and sporting neck folds as thick as ham steaks. I don’t know, maybe I look like absolute shit pretty much all the time. At my advanced age it’s perfectly possible. But I like to dream that such isn’t the case.
The most amazing and unexpected thing for me about the New Mexico trip was that Alfie and I took to each other as though we were predestined to become close pals. This was a wonderful experience. It felt totally natural, making me realize that I’ve missed the boat, pet-wise, never having had a dog or cat as a kid or an adult.
Now, cats ain’t my favorite cup of tea anyway, so I have no regrets about their continual absence from my life. They’re too aloof, though I know there are exceptions. Dogs, however, I feel fine about. I’ve been with a fair number of them, including three that Richie and Sara owned prior to Alfie. But only one canine — a mutt named Maggie who lived with friends of mine during the 1970s — ever showed more than the slightest interest in me. Maggie, exhibiting dubious taste, dug me a lot. The bond between me and her was the strongest I’ve ever had with a non-member of my species. Until Alfie entered the picture, that is.
My relationship with Alfie developed, no doubt, due to my lack of hesitancy in patting his head and rubbing his stomach. Alfie, it was clear to me, couldn’t get enough of those forms of contact. As a result, before I knew it he was paying meaningful attention to me, often laying his head on my legs or resting one of his paws gently on my arm. And gazing with wonder and interest into my eyes. Which resulted in my petting and rubbing him even more than I had, cementing the feelings that flowed between us. Strong feelings, you understand. Alfie, you’re my kind of dog. That is to say, you like me!
As for Sandy, well, she and Alfie had a mutual admiration society going too. But there’s no denying that Alfie seemed fonder of me than he did of her. Sorry, Sandy, but facts are facts!
Will Sandy and I ever get a dog? Probably not. Owning a dog is a big responsibility, one that requires a lot of time. I’m not particularly up for that. I haven’t discussed the topic with Sandy, but I’m pretty certain that she isn’t up for it either. You never know, though. The love and companionship that a dog provides aren’t to be underestimated, that’s for sure.
Sandy and I were around Alfie for eight days. When will we see him again? There’s a real chance that we’ll visit Richie and Sara next year. So, maybe it won’t be terribly long before my new friend and I commune once more. Usually it’s not easy making friends, especially when you’re frigging old, like me. If only all friendships developed as quickly as this one did.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, in articles buried in this site’s musty archives, I know virtually nothing about the technical aspects of photography nor about the cameras, lenses and associated equipment that make serious photographers drool. Nonetheless, I get a bang from taking photographs, because I like looking at things while walking around, and often feel compelled to document what I’m looking at. Most agreeably, the cameras I’ve used over the years in this pursuit have allowed me — a lazy f*cker who can’t be bothered with complicated stuff — to snap away with a minimum of effort.
First there was the Kodak Pocket Instamatic, which served me well during the pre-digital 1970s and 80s. I took a zillion pictures with it. The Pocket Instamatic was small and worked automatically, producing a nice image nearly every time. Aim and shoot was all you had to do, a pretty perfect set-up for yours truly.
A long dry spell set in for me after that era, my wife Sandy taking over the photographic duties. However, in late 2015 I obtained my first smart phone, an iPhone, and soon fell heavily for its camera. The camera was as easy as pie to use and, no need to mention, was digital. Thus, the small hassle of getting rolls of film developed (as was the case with the Instamatic) didn’t exist. Absolutely my kind of camera!
That iPhone was traded in some time ago for an updated model, which I’ve put to use a whole lot. This year alone I’ve pressed its button several hundred times. A fair number of the several hundred resultant images have appeared on this wobbly publication’s pages, but the vast majority haven’t.
And so, in honor of the fact that we currently are hauling our asses through month number six of the year, I am decorating this article with six previously unpublished pix, all from 2022, that pleased my eye recently when I scrolled through the photos residing within my phone. I’ll limit my commentary to three of them.
Isn’t the mural gorgeous? It was created under the auspices of Mural Arts Philadelphia, a quasi-governmental organization in Philadelphia that, since 1984, has orchestrated the painting of several thousand outdoor murals throughout that fair city. This one is in Philly’s Mt. Airy section. I took the picture in March as I was walking to a nearby tavern for a rendezvous with my great pals Jeff and Mike.
And you know what? I noticed while writing this article that the name of the mural, painted on the lower right corner, is Walking The Wissahickon. Well, as fate and/or coincidence would have it, my wife and I did exactly that — we walked The Wissahickon, aka Wissahickon Valley Park — about seven weeks after I took the mural’s portrait.
Man, the park, which extends for more than five miles through northwest Philadelphia, a swath that includes Mt. Airy, is damn well more gorgeous than the mural, as it should be. Sandy and I were there on a lovely spring day, admiring the greenery and the robust creek (Wissahickon Creek) that flows through the park, and adroitly sidestepping the occasional piles of horse shit that bless the main trail. Not having had a true Nature experience in months, we dug the heck out of the hour and a half that we spent in what I consider to be the crown jewel of Philadelphia’s parklands.
I’ll bring this opus to an end by talking ever so briefly about the photo of Sandy and me posing before a mirror in the Michener Art Museum, a superb institution in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There we are, squashed within the mirror’s confines, our faces half-obscured. Yet, despite all of that, we look pretty damn good, no? Gorgeous even, no? I think so. And those of you who don’t agree should leave the room right now!
Thanks for reading, girls and boys. Till next time!
As everyone knows, billions of words are written each day about coronavirus, the f*cking demon that has done an excellent job of turning our world to shit. Among those words are repeated recommendations to be in touch with friends and relatives more often than usual. Most of those contacts, by necessity of course, must be via phone and internet rather than in person. We can thank the demon for that.
Good advice, right? Damn straight. After all, we have an innate need for human contact. And if ever there was a time for maintaining, strengthening and even expanding ties, this is it. Expanding? Sure. Now’s your golden opportunity, for instance, to pick up the phone and call that first cousin that you haven’t spoken to in eons because you’ve never particularly gotten along with him and because he absolutely pissed you off big-time by not inviting you to his son’s wedding 25 years ago.
“Guess who this is?” you should say before he has a chance to get a word out of his mouth. “It’s your favorite cuz, that’s who. The pandemic situation has convinced me that I should reach out to you, you loser. You better believe that I haven’t forgotten how you snubbed me all those years ago. Adios, baby. Nice talking to you!”
Okay, that attempt at communication possibly could have been handled more agreeably. But don’t sweat it! There are far more important things to worry about these days.
To continue: So far during the pandemic I’ve done nicely in the keeping-in-touch part of life, though expanding my ties has yet to become a part of the picture. I speak regularly with a good number of my friends and relatives, more regularly than I did in the pre-coronavirus era, and have enjoyed all of those conversations. But what I enjoyed even more were the occasions when old friends of the sonic variety unexpectedly visited me. For it was in late April, over a two-day period, that I heard on the radio three songs that I truly love but had forgotten all about.
Each recording brought a couple of tears to my eyes and made my grizzled heart go all soft and mushy. I sang along with them. I vowed never to let them disappear again, a pledge I plan to keep. No doubt, I’m a happier, more contented individual now that, after long absences, Sweet Lady Genevieve (by The Kinks), Have You Seen Her Face (by The Byrds), and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (by Willie Nelson) have reentered my life. And that, by the way, is the order in which I heard them last month.
The songs came out on albums in 1973, 1967 and 1975, respectively. The album titles, again respectively, are Preservation Act I, Younger Than Yesterday, and Red Headed Stranger. I own copies of those albums, for crying out loud. Don’t ask why I hadn’t given any of the platters a spin in a zillion years. Mea culpa.
Each song possesses a personality distinct from the other two, but they have something in common with 90% of all songs ever written. That is, in one way or another they address the prime human emotion. Love. Sweet Lady Genevieve, composed and sung by The Kinks leader, Ray Davies, is a plea for forgiveness and a promise to become faithful and true. Have You Seen Her Face presents a not overly clear-thinking guy who suspects he’d be wise to pursue a certain beguiling lady whom, perhaps, he is destined to bond with. As for Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, here we have the tale of someone who fully realizes that the love affair of his life has reached its end, and that he never will get over the breakup.
Yeah, to me each of the recordings is something special. Sweet Lady Genevieve’s melody, with its leaps and twists, is irresistible. And the lyrics? Well, the eloquence of the opening line — Once under a scarlet sky, I told you never-ending lies — makes it clear that you’re about to hear a cleverly-spun story. There are many, including me, who consider Ray Davies to be a songwriting giant.
Chris Hillman, who played electric bass in The Byrds, wrote both the music and lyrics for Have You Seen Her Face. Yes, the lyrics are messy, but little matter, considering how freely, almost giddily, the melody unfolds, and how the trippy guitar solos will lift you right out of your body.
And what about Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain? For one thing, Willie Nelson, an ace songwriter, didn’t compose the work. It was written in 1945 by the late Fred Rose, a musician, songwriter and music industry executive. The lyrics are direct and profound, the music likewise. Willie Nelson recognized all of this. His vocals, accompanied by spare instrumentation, will break your heart.
Little more do I need to add, except to mention that The Kinks and The Byrds, iconic rock bands, no longer are functioning units. Haven’t been for years. Many of their once-members, though, remain active musicians. As does Willie Nelson, a mere lad of 87.
And so, without further ado, here are the songs that resonated with me so well recently. Oh, just one more thing: I’d be happy to hear your comments about this article.
Thousands of moons ago, in the spring of 1977 to be exact, I backpacked around England, Scotland, France and Italy for six weeks. I had little money at the time, lots of hair on my 29-year-old head, and enjoyed the hell out of the trip.
In ensuing years I returned to England, France and Italy. And entertained the idea of visiting lovely Scotland once again too. You know what? It finally happened, because my wife Sandy and I spent eight days there in late May. This time I had a decent amount of money to my name, but distressingly less hair on my head. And, as before, I enjoyed the hell out of the trip.
Sandy and I were based in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. We took day trips to other parts of the land (the county of Fife, which is north of Edinburgh; and the Scottish Highlands, a majestic territory of mountains, forests, meadows, lochs and charming villages), but otherwise spent our moments in that hilly, fine city. Which was our game plan. When traveling nowadays, you see, we prefer to linger in whatever locales we’re visiting, rather than race from one town or city to another. You can’t see and do everything anyway, so why put pressure on yourself trying to?
Edinburgh doesn’t have the knock-your-socks-off looks and attractions of, say, Paris and Amsterdam. But it’s got plenty going for it. For one thing, it’s very walkable. Most of what anyone might want to see is no more than two miles apart. Its buildings, solid and stoic and constructed from stone far more than from steel, create a comforting sense of permanence and often one of mystery. It boasts Princes Street Gardens, an enormous park that is one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. And not only does the city ooze history and culture, it is filled with pubs, bistros and restaurants where hungry and thirsty souls may find nourishment and refreshment. A low-level beer geek, I was anxious to check out the brew scene in town. Success! Each night I quaffed an ale from a brewery that I’d never heard of before.
The sections of Edinburgh that visitors spend the most time in are Old Town and New Town. Old Town was the first part of the city to be inhabited, and though few ancient structures remain, much of what stands in Old Town is old enough, dating from around 1600 to the late 1800s. Old Town, built on a ridge, is heavily cobblestoned. It is peppered with winding streets and with alleys (known as closes) that often are steep and that connect one street with another. Ergo, Old Town is highly atmospheric. I preferred it to New Town, which actually is pretty old, but flatter, more open and far less funky than Old Town. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Old Town was mobbed with tourists and locals while I was in Edinburgh. New Town was busy with people too, but less so.
Sandy and I went on two walking tours of Old Town, accompanied by our Parisian friends Martine and Alan. That handsome couple was with us for the first two and a half days of our Scottish experience. The four of us also wandered here and there on our own for hours, both in the Old and the New. It was good to hang with folks with whom we’re very comfortable and on the same wavelengths. Life’s better that way.
I could write loads and loads of words here about all that the four of us saw and did, and loads more about the experiences that Sandy and I had after Alan and Martine returned to Gay Paree. But that would be too much information for this humble essay. After all, A Trip To Scotland, Part Two will follow fairly soon to fill in some gaps. And who knows? Maybe Part Three also will emerge.
For now, then, I’ll toss out a few comments about Edinburgh Castle, which sits high on a hill at the western end of Old Town and looms over the city. Its history is long and complicated, too much so for the mostly-in-one-ear-and-out-the-other likes of me to understand and retain, though the leaders of both walking tours went into great detail. But let me say this: The castle complex is a maze-like assortment of buildings. There’s a palace, prisons, barracks, a chapel and many other structures, only a few of which have present-day usage.
I dug the palace, which holds the Scottish Crown Jewels (a crown, a scepter and a sword) and also the Stone Of Destiny, a slab of sandstone that was the coronation seat of Scottish queens and kings during long-ago centuries. The Stone Of Destiny was last used by a Scottish monarch in 1292. (Damn right I’d like to include photos of the Jewels and of the Stone, but taking their pictures is forbidden.) Within the palace I also saw the tiny room in which Mary Queen Of Scots gave birth in 1566 to a son, James, who in 1603 unified the Scottish and English crowns. See, somehow I retained a few iotas of historical information!
And I especially admired the castle complex’s St. Margaret’s Chapel. Built in the 1100s, it is the oldest-surviving building in Edinburgh. The chapel is small and plain-looking. That was its main appeal for me, as those two adjectives describe yours truly very accurately. And I thought that its stained glass windows were beautiful.
The proper way for me to close out Part One is to note the most intriguing event that happened during the vacation. Namely, I met in person the one and only Andrew Ferguson, who lives not far from Edinburgh. Andrew is a multi-talented guy, being a lawyer, a writer, a musician, a wine lover and who knows what else. One of the places upon which he places his written words is his WordPress blog (click here to reach it).
Somewhere in the misty past, Andrew and I discovered each other’s WordPress sites and quickly developed an online friendship. When Sandy and I made our plans to visit Scotland, I contacted Andrew. He and I then arranged a meeting date. It’s amazing that WordPress brought the two of us together, in the flesh.
I’m here to tell you that Andrew and his wife Alison are swell. They drove Sandy and me around Fife, where we stopped at a couple of fishing villages. And, before returning us to our hotel, they gave us a mini-tour of some of Edinburgh. In all, they took out a day from their lives to show Sandy and me a good time. They couldn’t have done more. Wait, that’s an overstatement. Shit, they should have picked up the tab for Sandy’s and my hotel stay!
I have a couple of other online Scottish buddies via WordPress. Alyson and Anabel, I’d have liked to have met you. But the trip was too short to allow for any additional socializing. I hope you understand. (Click here and here to read, respectively, Alyson’s and Anabel’s blogs.)
Readers, thanks for joining me on this journey. Goodbye till next time.
(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece.)
(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)
A few weeks ago I was at a suburban Philadelphia branch of the Weis supermarket chain. Nice store. Big, well-lit and damn fine when it comes to offering a sweet selection of beers. Beer shopping usually is my main reason for entering Weis’s doors. I’ve dropped a lot of dough there in that pursuit.
What I buy, being a beer snob, are brews other than Budweiser and Miller and their milquetoast cousins. Over the last 25 years I’ve developed a love affair with more flavorful brews: the bright and piquant in taste; the murky and dense; and the bitter as hell, to cite a few. And Weis is a mecca for such goods.
So there I was, eyeing Weis’s beer shelves with deep interest. I’m always on the hunt for beers I haven’t had before, and I came upon one that day. It was an example of a pale ale, which is a common species of bitter beer that breweries like to tweak and play around with. Its maker was Ballast Point Brewing Co., a San Diego-based enterprise I was slightly familiar with, and the name on the label was Grunion Pale Ale. Grunion? The word rang zero of my bells. What’s more, the label pictured two fish writhing on the sands. What the f*ck was that all about? I hadn’t a clue. I bought a bottle of it, natch, along with a bunch of other brews, and went on my merry way.
Not many days after that I brought the unopened, fish-labelled bottle with me when my wife Sandy and I joined two of our top friends, Liz and Rich, at a Thai restaurant in the Philadelphia burbs. The place is a BYOB. Rich asked me what beer I’d arrived with. I showed him the bottle.
“Ah yes, grunion,” he said. “They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California. They are quite amazing.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?” I finally asked. “You actually know what grunion are? And you know about their sex lives? How is this possible? I doubt if you’ve ever been fishing in your life.”
“What can I say?” Rich coyly intoned. “Some of us are blessed with the gift of extensive knowledge.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.
I looked at Sandy and at Liz. I asked them if they’d ever heard of grunion before. The answer was no. I then proceeded to begin drinking the beer. It was delicious. Bitter, slightly citrusy from the hops used in its creation, and not the slightest bit fish-flavored(and that’s because grunion are not used in the brewing process. They only are on the label!).
Twenty-four hours later Sandy and I were at dinner in downtown Philadelphia with two more of our top pals, Cindy and Gene. The conversation, profane and giddy, went all over the map. After a while I started recapping the previous evening’s beer story.
“Can you believe it?” I said to Cindy and Gene. “Rich actually heard of grunion. Have either of you?”
“Not me,” said Cindy. However, Gene, a polite and non-bragging sort, had this to say: “Oh, I know about grunion. They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.
I stared at Gene in disbelief. “Man, you’re a city boy,” I said. “Why do you know about grunion? Seems to me that they’re as obscure as can be.”
“Well, when I was younger I used to read a lot about animals,” he said.
I guess he did!
I firmly believe that in the greater Philadelphia region, whose human population exceeds the 6,000,000 mark, you’d have to search far and wide to find people who could tell you what grunion are. Yet, on successive evenings I’d broken bread with two of them. Talk about infinitesimal odds. If only, after all these years of knowing Rich and Gene, dashes of their brain power had made their way over to me.
Anyway, since those two grunion-centric meals I’ve done a bit of research into grunion. Not much, because I’m not the scholarly type, but enough to get a feel for the subject. Grunion, it seems, come in two similar but somehow different varieties. Type One lives in the ocean waters off of southern California. Type Two inhabits the Gulf Of California in the Mexican region known as Baja California. And indeed both types do crawl out of the water to mate. They do this at night during certain months of the year. You can read about grunion by clicking here.
And you can witness grunion doing their slithery, entwining beach thing by clicking below. Thanks to this YouTube video we might learn some new sex positions from the grunion spectacle. Hey you!!! You’re blocking my view!!! Sit down!!!
Alas, it’s time for me to wrap up these proceedings. Before doing so, though, I’ll add that Ballast Point Brewing Co. was founded by a bunch of cool guys. They like to fish almost as much as they like churning out beers, which is why they name most of their products after fish and other occupants of the seas, and picture said creatures on many of their labels. I’m on the lookout for Ballast Point’s beers now that I’ve sampled Grunion Pale Ale. Supporting those who not only are talented but lean toward the offbeat side is a good idea, don’t you think?
(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)
We went, we saw, we had a very swell time overall, and then we came home. The end.
There’s something to be said for conciseness, don’t you agree? And maybe if I were more courageous than I am I’d write not another word beyond the 18 contained in the two masterful sentences above. But my fingers, God help them, are itching to type, so I’ll bag that idea for now. In fact, I’m going to try and bite off more than I normally can handle, by turning my wife Sandy’s and my recent visit to Paris and Amsterdam into a three-part blogging extravaganza. I’ve noted before on these pages that I have trouble enough producing one-parters. Wish me luck.
Let’s begin. In many ways I’m a lucky individual. And I don’t take my good fortune for granted. Throughout my adult life, for instance, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In the earlier of those years I somehow wandered far and wide with not much more than a few bucks in my pockets. During the last three decades they have been more fully filled with cash (and plastic). Regardless of my financial situation, though, I’ve never ceased to be amazed that I’m able to leave the home environment and rev my motor in other parts of the world. And for my money you can’t do a whole lot better than to frolic in Paris and Amsterdam. Great cities both. Beautiful cities both. And Sandy’s and my week-and-a-half-long sojourn there earlier this month came with a special bonus. Namely, we spent most of the expedition with our très magnifique pals Alan and Martine.
Martine and Alan live in Paris. Have a lovely home in the city’s heart. And they not only put up with us, they put us up. I guess they like us because, after four days of that, they hopped aboard an Amsterdam-bound train with Sandy and me. The four of us spent several days bopping around that canal-laced city until the scheduled time arrived for the Parisians to return home. Alan! Martine! Don’t abandon us! We’ll be lost without you! But Sandy and I showed ’em. Yeah, maybe we stumbled and fumbled a bit, but we sure as shootin’ had three more Amsterdam days heavily sprinkled with fun. Amsterdam, I miss you. A lot.
Now, Sandy and I had been to Paris before. We’d seen most of the must-sees and plenty of the less-noticed sights too, such as the building in which Vincent van Gogh crashed with his brother Theo for two years in the 1880s. This time around we decided to let things flow organically, whatever that means. And to try and spend lots of time just strolling around, taking in the views and vibes in as unpressured a manner as we could. Sure, we couldn’t resist going to a couple of museums (The Orangerie, The Marmottan Monet), and we had a sweet dinner in a quintessentially Parisian eatery (Le Petit Colbert), the type that natives frequent. But walking is what we did the most of. Miles and miles of it. All over central Paris, on both sides of the Seine. And beyond. The entire time, indoors and out, Martine and Alan accompanied us. They are expert tour guides and really, really good sports.
What can I say about Paris that hasn’t already been said? Nothing much, pardner. But that won’t stop me. I mean, I’ve got blog stories to create. First, if you haven’t been and have the means, you should go. As everyone knows, Paris’ appeal isn’t simply its gorgeousness . . . the city is intriguing too. Streets come together at odd angles, a wonderful idea. Many sidewalks are narrow, an example of quaintness of which I approve. And seemingly every block has alluring buildings you’d like to live in, bistros whose tables are just made for sipping espressos beside, and perfect, little shops loaded with foods better than you’re likely to find at home. The pastries, the breads, the cheeses. Did somebody say breads? I live in suburban Philadelphia, and I know of only one place within five miles of my house where I can buy a crusty, flavorful rustic loaf of bread. Yo, when’s the next flight back? I need to be around people who know how to bake the staff of life.
And there’s a soul-satisfying uniformity in scale and color to much of Paris that I’d forgotten about. Most of Gay Paree’s buildings are from the 1700s and 1800s and about seven levels high and made from beige-colored limestone. Talk about a charming and serenity-inducing look. I couldn’t get enough of it. I wallowed in its aura.
It would be a mistake for me to end my brief Parisian recap without mentioning the big guns for which the city is famed. For starters: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Seine, the unreally-huge Louvre Museum. To first-time visitors I’d say you’d do well to examine them thoroughly, though, to be honest, you easily could live without stepping foot within the Louvre.
A snap of the fingers later, Sandy and I and our friends found ourselves in Amsterdam. I’d been there about 30 years ago, though my pigeon-like brain has forgotten many details of the experience. Sandy never had been. I’ve got to tell you, this is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live. And the fact that there wouldn’t be a language problem is a plus, as Amsterdammers speak English in addition to their native tongue. I kept looking around and exclaiming to myself and to whomever else in the party was nearby: “I love this city.”
What’s not to love? Amsterdam looks great. Most of the houses, many of which overlook canals, are cozy and cute and entertainingly gabled. Generally they stand five levels above ground and are constructed of bricks. And they are not new, the majority having been erected between 1500 and 1900. I like being in places that look pretty much the same as they did hundred of years ago. And the canals? Man, they crisscross the city gently yet semi-riotously. And their prettiness can not be exaggerated. As in Paris, the four of us walked and walked and walked. Very happily. And when we got tired of walking we climbed aboard Amsterdam’s trams, which make navigating the city a breeze.
Amsterdam is relatively compact, meaning that you can make it to pretty much anywhere on foot, though some treks might take you an hour and a half. There aren’t a ton of cars on the streets, and that’s because Amsterdammers are bicycle-crazed. Practically everyone owns a bike and uses it to get around. I’d heard about the bicycle scenario, and it was a gas witnessing it. Bicycles, bicycles everywhere, loads in operation, many more attached to bike racks, bridge railings, trees, you name it. You gotta watch out where you’re going or you might get smacked by a bike. One evening, Martine received a double dose of near-trouble. It’s easy to become distracted by the loveliness surrounding you in Amsterdam, and that’s what happened to her. Stepping off the sidewalk into the narrow street bordering a canal, she nearly got clipped by a car. Half a minute later, at the same spot, a bicyclist almost broadsided her. But I’m giving the wrong impression. Back to Amsterdam’s magnetic powers.
The Fearsome Foursome hit some of the famed sites together (Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum) and took a groovy canal boat tour of the city. And after Alan and Martine hightailed it back to Paris, Sandy and I poked around neighborhoods and other spots, such as the city’s botanical gardens and zoo and the Stedelijk Museum, an astonishingly good modern art repository. Then, before we knew it, the time approached for us to head to the airport and return home. But I can’t wind things up without mentioning two subjects: marijuana and prostitutes. Amsterdam is famed for both, as cannabis use and prostitution are legal, within boundaries, in this enlightened and welcoming city. And they undoubtedly help make for an atmosphere real attractive to millennials (residents and visitors alike), who fill Amsterdam’s streets in uncountable numbers.
Now, seeing the prostitutes was kind of cool. They have set up shop on a smallish enclave of blocks in what’s known as the Red Light District, which my group toured on a Sunday afternoon. Barely dressed, the ladies stood in full view behind ground level doors and windows in what I assume used to be normal residences. My eyes, and those of my companions, were popping. Needless to say, I didn’t come close to indulging.
But marijuana was another story. Me, I haven’t had a toke in about 30 years. And boy was I tempted to resume the habit temporarily. After dinner on the day we arrived, Alan and I strode into one of the town’s numerous marijuana parlors, all of which, for reasons I don’t know, are called, incongruously, coffee shops. Alan strictly was an observer. The place looked like a Greenwich Village beatnik hangout. Lights were low, tables were small and occupied, and the air was filled with second-hand marijuana smoke. Inhaling deeply, I started to feel a bit of a buzz. I walked to the counter and sized up what’s what. Gazing at a menu, I saw that various strains of grass were available. The least potent varieties were described as strong. The most powerful were guaranteed to get you incredibly high. Prices for one ounce ranged, I think, from 10 to 15 euros. Not too expensive at all. One of the two girls behind the counter suggested to me that getting stoned after years of abstinence would be a terrific idea. I looked at Alan and pondered the situation. I breathed in the second-hand smoke hungrily. My buzz got slightly stronger. In the end, though, nerd that I am, I chickened out.
To be continued, if the stars align themselves properly.
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(Most photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. The crooked ones are by a nerd whom she knows. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)