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AMSTERDAM -- I’ve been in this city for about four days and most of it, I’m afraid, has been spent work. I expect no sympathy; better to be working in Amsterdam than a lot of other places in the world. But I did have the chance on Thursday to spend a bit of time wandering this absolutely beautiful city.

The Anne Frank House was, as one would expect, both sobering and heartbreaking. Though I have to admit to feeling uplifted in a way I didn’t expect. Throughout the visit, there are words from Ann Frank’s diary placed in strategic corners of the house, and I found it heartening that such a young person could have such a clear vision and voice about what was going on around her. And yet, she always was a little girl; in one entry, she says about her spice-making father, “If you’re going to be in the food business, why not make candy?”

Good question, and one of many from her experience and ultimate death that go unanswered. Human butchery hasn’t changed all that much. It’s just gotten more sophisticated.

I also very much enjoyed the Van Gogh museum, seeing both paintings I was familiar with and quite a few that I was not; I know precious little about art, but there is something exciting about being able to see the slightly raised paint from a brush stroke, to know that art has both tangible and intangible value. And, there was the Heineken brewery, a must-see when one goes to Amsterdam…not a great museum, but there’s more than enough beer served to make up for it.

The food here has been wonderful. The other night, I had the opportunity to join a number of Spar executives at Vermeer Restaurant, where the food and wine was just breathtakingly good. We started with a salted codfish mousse drizzled with olive oil, then had a mussel served with goat cheese, a cherry tomato and basil. Our next course was skate (the fish) served on a bed of crab, peas and gnocchi, and then the main course was Spanish pork loin served with pureed red peppers. It was just unbelievable…as were the wines that accompanied the meal. We started with 2005 Chateau Saint Roseline from Provence, which was mostly from a grape I didn’t know called La Rolle (so the sommelier told me), and then the pork was served with 1999 Chateau Musar, which was utterly delicious and perfect – robust without being too heavy. Dessert (yes, it kept coming) was this amazing pumpkin crème mousse served with meringue…which doesn’t sound like it should work, but let me assure you, it did.

Almost as good, by the way, have been the pancakes that are far less expensive and available, it seems, on almost every street corner. They’re not like the pancakes we’re used to at home – they’re sort of like a cross between a crepe and a flat crust pizza. But I had one with apple that was really good, and another made with cheese, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes that was even better.

I also have to say that I really, really like this city. The light rail system that moves people around the city seems extremely effective and ought to be adapted by other cities facing overcrowding issues. The bike paths are wonderful, the canals are picturesque, and the people, best I could tell, seemed extremely friendly. And there was just a relaxed feel about things, with people hanging out on stoops and at tables bordering the canals, reading the paper, chatting up friends, having a glass of wine or a beer. Just lovely.

Let’s see. What else can I tell you about Amsterdam?

Oh yeah. The Red Light district.

It is, to say the least, unusual. For one thing, it is integrated right into the city – bordered on one side by what looks like Chinatown, and on the other by perfectly nice-looking apartment buildings. My hotel, which is very nice, is just a block and a half away. And there it is, several blocks featuring windows and glass doors behind which are women offering themselves for carnal purposes at a price. (How’s that for being euphemistic?)

Now, I have to tell you. I’d estimate that about 50 percent of the women are pretty repulsive looking, and another 40 percent are somewhere between not-so-repulsive and halfway decent. The other 10 percent, to be honest, actually are cute.

Depraved, somehow, seems like the wrong word to describe it all. Sad, maybe. Tawdry. Depressing. I don’t know. Maybe depraved is the right word. But to be fair about it, the gangs of guys who were walking the streets, stalking the windows, seemed a lot more depraved.

I will tell you this. Some of the girls really seemed to understand marketing, though many did not. The latter were easy to spot – they be hanging out, smoking, talking on a cell phone, not really making eye contact. But the smart ones – and the ones who seemed to be making all the money – were the ones who…let’s see, what’s the best way to put this…”worked it” a little bit. I particularly enjoyed watching the ones who would wash their windows to make sure they could be seen clearly. That’s smart merchandising.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sanctioning either the lifestyle or the career choice. But an Amsterdam hooker who washes her windows to make sure she can be seen clearly? That strikes me as someone who, given other choices, might be good at a lot of other things.

One other note. This must be a good city in which to operate a food store. Because it is the only place I can remember where, having walked down certain streets and breathed in certain aromas, I got back to my hotel with a case of the munchies.

I’m probably in all sorts of trouble now with all sorts of readers, so I’m just going to stop and move onto other subjects…




I don’t know why, but I was fascinated by the story this week about how scientists have discovered a breed of female shark that can breed without the help of a male shark.

Maybe because it reminded me of a girl I dated in college.

And maybe because it seems like a good reminder for all of us guys that we’re expendable. First, women start getting hotel floors all for themselves. Before you know it, they won’t even need us to propagate the species.

If we’re not nice to them, they’re going to turn on us. It’s going to be all over, and it isn’t going to be pretty.




Could it be? “Star Wars” premiered 30 years ago today.

I remember exactly where I saw it on that first weekend – in Westwood, California, where the lines snaked around the block.

The funny thing is, I could’ve seen a preview. I was working as the film critic for the Loyola Marymount University newspaper, and I was invited to an advance screening. I remember looking at the invitation and wondering what the hell Alec Guinness was doing in what clearly looked like a cheesy science fiction flick.

Boy, did I get that one wrong.




I had a chance to read “The Watchman: A Joe Pike Novel,” by Robert Crais, on the plane, and liked it enough to recommend it to folks who have enjoyed Crais’ Elvis Cole mysteries. Pike is Cole’s quiet sidekick in those books (think Hawk from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels), and in this one, Crais has decided to flesh out what makes him tick. It works in some ways, but it also diminishes some of Pike’s aura of invincibility. Cole fans will like the book, but newcomers to the series may not get it. (Go back instead and read the Cole series from the beginning. It’s good stuff.)



That’s it for this week…
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