Another Kind of Archipelago

Amsterdam, famous for its canals, charming brick, windowed, and gabled row houses each of individual and often distinctive design, and ever more, and ever more unfortunately, for its coffee shops — the local language-and-concept-degrading moniker for legalized marijuana dens — should be better known for what remains a non-degraded, indeed exalted moniker and what it describes: cafés.

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Cafés dot the city in a two-dimensional archipelago which provides far more coverage, flow, and motor power than do its deservedly attention-grabbing canals. Starbucks exists as a tenth-rate player in the genteel and gentle café competition to fuel the brains, minds, reading and writing lives, and social relations of Amsterdamers and of their abundant on-the-slow-go visitors. Local chains and (what appears to be) endless one-off establishments welcome all comers in the best café way of fine elixir, on-the-(seemingly)-whole wholesome and inexpensive food options, sumptuous and varied (though not wholesome) deserts and snacks, and an atmosphere of leisureliness. A notable additional feature — especially to the hardened New Yorker habituated to crammed tables and the substandard, undesigned interiors of things seemingly just thrown together as good enough even though this is an injurious fiction as most fictions are — is the spaciousness and thoughtful design and excellent materials, especially woods of various kinds and cuts, which café after café offers its temporary denizens.

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Entering a café here need not be just to fill a need or afford a function, with the cost being to jostle for a spot in line, jockey for some decent natural or unnatural illumination, or fend off, with earbuds or an act of will, the din.

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In Amsterdam, it is to enter a place to which evident thought has been given in creating a commodious environment, a place of grace.

I exaggerate not what I have seen, and overstate the matter not even though my sampling technique has been a bit too haphazard and pecunious to be called social science. During this week here walking and walking the streets of Amsterdam, passing time in a substantial number of these necessary and discretionary islands of repose and humanizing offerings, and willfully examining many others both in their presentational sidewalk portions and in their beckoning interiors, I have been struck repeatedly by the qualities I mention.

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Sarah earlier used the multivalent and (robbed of its religious context and intent) generally underused word grace to describe some aspect of Oslo. Well, I echo (me-too!) its usage, insisting on the non-hyperbolic seeming hyperbole of conferring in a secular sense the appellation place of grace to the Amsterdam café archipelago as an ensemble, and to café after café. In New York – a high-bar standard for many fine things – I hardly ever want to enter let along seek to find a café, even though I love passing time with friends and (speaking of loving to) with loved ones, especially Sarah. Here, I hanker to go out with Sarah into this gracious and ennobling public realm, and spend time reading and (mainly) writing, except when we are talking or, as I prefer to think about it conversing (I am just finishing a book on conversation). If I haven’t yet said to Sarah (I will when she reads this), one of the attractions of spending more time in Amsterdam is this stunningly underrated (Gideon’s notion again) gracious public realm. By the way, but hardly by the way, the espresso (my drink of choice) and according to Sarah the cappuccino (her go-to hot beverage) is the best of any country I have visited. Almost uniformly strong and coffee-tasty, without being too acidic or bitter, I have had exemplary double-cup after double-cup.

It has occurred to me that whatever interest in or emotions about the built environment, the natural environment, people, things, or activities we might excite or satisfy with our composition here of sentences and photographs, for those of you wanting to vicariously sample culinary adventures, we, unlike so many others (I suspect the overwhelming majority), are not foodies, do not organize our travels writ large let alone our days writ very small around cuisine, and will therefore offer little besides gluten-free hunts(Gideon has Celiac) and a perfect cup of double espresso for your voyeuristic or reading pleasure. Sorry, but obviously not that sorry.

The installment above was, when I began it, intended as brief preamble, but as with many things existing in the mind’s eye or less elaborately with just a starting-impulse of an intention, it emerged and developed more insistently, to be and become a thing in itself. I was expecting to write an extended account of a lovely (and for me thought-inspiring) café Sarah and I lunched in that has repurposed a building which had been part of an erstwhile factory complex, which, redeveloped, is now part of a recreational area which features an inspiring contemporary park Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek by Kathryn Gustafson. (We told Gideon about the park, which he, independent and enterprising, subsequently biked to and had a picnic, of the cheeses he had bought, sitting in the clearing in the midst of the seas of grasses blowing to-and-fro in the insistent wind.)

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As things turned out, the planned account of this café will have to wait, perhaps forever. Here are, at least, a couple of photos.

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— Danny, 9 August 2017, written in Amsterdam, posted in Ghent

 

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