I traveled to Berkeley, California, in October 2012 to see Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. It was the first time I’d seen it, and it was nothing short of spectacular. The following month, I was telling my brother, Tim, about it. I told him that I was kicking myself that I hadn’t arranged to see it again back when I’d had the chance, as the American part of the tour was by then over.
Within minutes we were arranging a trip to Amsterdam. It was like we were playing “chicken” and neither of us swerved: Tim used his airline miles to get us plane tickets, and I purchased two of the very few remaining theater tickets and booked the hotel. This would be a very short trip: We would leave on a Tuesday, arrive on Wednesday, see the show on Friday, and leave on Saturday morning.
This was my first intercontinental flight. I know this will sound amusingly naïve, but everything was strange to me. Tim had traveled so much that this was as familiar to him as a trip around the corner, so I was glad he was there to coach me here and there. For example, I flipped through the Duty Free magazine while waiting to take off and came to a page that said, “Many quality tobacco products are available onboard this flight.” Huh? Tim explained that a flight attendant would walk down the aisle during the flight asking if there was anything I wanted to buy. Funny that I’d made it to nearly 50 years of age before ever knowing this.
After the overnight flight we arrived at the Amsterdam airport, found an ATM to get some euros, then took an escalator to the underground to get a train. The ticket machines wouldn’t accept our credit cards, but once we found an actual human ticket seller, everything was a breeze. After a fifteen-minute train ride we arrived at the beautiful Central Amsterdam train station.
By now it was about 8:30 am Wednesday morning and rush hour was in full bloom (the picture here was taken a few days later at dusk). Our hotel was just a 20-minute walk away, but after a 17-hour flight traversing 8 time zones, we were both pretty tired and so hailed a taxi.
Our hotel was on a street that ran along the Singel canal, which was built in the late 1400s to serve as a moat to protect the original city. After checking in and taking a few moments in our rooms to freshen up, we met back in the lobby to start our day. We both felt wiped out from travel, but as it was early in the day and we had to battle jet lag, our plan was to keep busy and stay awake.
We explored the neighborhood around the hotel: a nice corner of Central Amsterdam, which is the oldest part of the city. We walked along narrow streets with hundreds of little shops and restaurants targeted to a mix of locals and tourists. It was fun to walk by the coffee houses, occasionally surrounded by the aroma of marijuana smoke. I have no desire to imbibe, but I do love that smell.
Walking around the city, I was struck by how beautiful it was. Honestly I came away realizing that the reason why so many Americans think they live in the best place in the world is because so many have never traveled overseas. The architecture here was astonishing. It was so amazing to be in a place where so many of the structures are 300+ years old.
There were bicycles everywhere. The streets’ sidewalks are not sidewalks: they are bike lanes where the bikes have right of way and you’d better stay the hell out of the way if you don’t want to get knocked down!
By the afternoon Tim and I were pretty much done. We chatted in the hotel lounge over a light dinner, then by around 5:00 pm said goodnight and headed to our rooms. I tried to stay awake, but by 7:30 I was unconscious.
The next day we walked just 10 minutes from our hotel to the Hermitage museum where they had an exhibit of impressionist classics as well as a selection of works by Vincent van Gogh that was temporarily housed here while the official van Gogh museum was renovated. We got there by 9 am, wanting to beat the crowds. This turned out to be a wonderful decision as, for much of our visit, it felt like we had the museum to ourselves.
The van Gogh exhibit was wonderful. To me the highlight was that, beneath the painting “Still Life With Bible” (a painting of Vincent’s father’s bible) there was a glassed-in niche which displayed the actual bible. Another painting, “Vase With Hollyhocks,” had the original vase displayed beneath it. It was remarkable to see the paintings paired with the actual items that Vincent had painted.
I loved this museum. It was housed in a very old building yet it was extremely sleek and modern inside. An interesting feature was that they put very intense filters on the windows so that even at the height of the day you looked out on a scene that could have been at midnight. It was cloudy outside with the sun sometimes peeking out—and this looked especially dramatic through these filtered museum windows. More than once while walking through the collection of impressionist paintings, I found myself gazing at the art presented by the windows as much as the art of the paintings.
In one room there was a row of chairs facing windows that looked out onto the canal where there was a small dais with a huge wooden lattice sculpture.
After the museum we went to a restaurant near the hotel for a late lunch, gave ourselves a few hours to nap, then headed to see our show.
As Einstein on the Beach was the whole reason for the trip, I’d booked a hotel that was a mere five-minute walk across the canal from Het Musiektheater (now called the Dutch National Opera and Ballet) where the show was held. As we walked along the bridge crossing the canal, we could see that a huge, colorful net had been suspended above the canal and had been lit up – it was beautiful. The music theater is the building behind the sculpture in this picture. (Years later, I saw another such sculpture at the airport in San Francisco. The artist is Janet Echelman, and here’s a link to her page about this particular piece, which has a video of its installation.)
Then on to the nearly-five-hour voyage of Einstein on the Beach. The show was fantastic. More luck: even though the place was nearly sold out by the time I bought our tickets, the seats we got were fabulous. We were far to the left, but very near the front, just 6-8 feet from the orchestra pit.
The show begins just after the doors open and people start finding their seats. During this time, the keyboardist (is that Reisman?) was checking something on his phone (probably a timer) while he played a slow repetition of three droning tones. Members of the chorus gradually entered the pit, whereupon they held very still and looked out into the audience. I am a firm believer that it’s not okay to take photos during a show, but I made an exception as there was still so much tumult from the audience.
It was very interesting for me to see the same show with the same company three months apart. I seemed to detect some weariness in some of the dancers with the more rigorous parts, and the principle violinist (the one who wears Einstein makeup in the show) was different in this production.
After the show I again pulled out my phone to capture this picture of the company. This shot includes Michael Reisman, in the dark suit, and I believe Samuel M. Johnson, the black man with the white hair near the center of the row, who is the author of he famous “Lovers on a Park Bench” piece. Philip Glass (insert genuflection here) was not present.
After the show and the 5-minute walk back to the hotel, my daughter Laura and her boyfriend Pearce were waiting for us, having come over from their home in the UK. It was already after 11:00 pm, a bit late to go searching for a restaurant, so we went to the very fancy, extremely snooty French restaurant in the hotel lobby.
We spent the next day walking about the city and taking pictures, although the jet-lag had hit me hard by then. When it was time to start thinking about dinner, the kids said that it was impossible to find good Mexican food in the UK, and surely what we could get in Amsterdam would be better. They were oh so wrong! The place we ended up going to was actually a tapas place, but it was underwhelming.
The next morning we met for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then Tim and I took a taxi to the airport.
Amsterdam was a great destination for my first trip to Europe, not to mention for my first time when my traveling just to see Philip Glass concerts took me across the Atlantic.