OK, so there’s this running gag that I’m a CIA operative. Hilarious–unless you get me started on the idiocy of the CIA and its failure to hire Arabic speakers. Otherwise, though, it turns out double-agent entendre is almost as easy to pull off as sexual innuendo. I kind of enjoy accidentally sounding like I’m spending a month undercover here in Amsterdam, meeting some contacts, doing a little research in the Oost (where all the Muslims live–of course!).
What’s adding to the intrigue is that I actually am meeting with strangers–or one, anyway–and spending a lot of time traipsing around with her. She’s Macedonian, and if that doesn’t sound suspect in a totally imprecise way, I don’t know what does.
In fact, though, this woman is a grad student who’s writing her dissertation about the production and consumption of guidebooks. She’s following me around for a few days to see how I do my job.
Well, that’s embarrassing.
Now she knows that I “do my job” by spending an inordinate amount of time shopping for underwear at Hema. That I cannot hold onto a pen for more than a day. That I actually hate talking to strangers. That I prefer to spend at least half the day not talking to anyone. That I spend a lot of time pulling U-turns–much easier on foot than on my clunky Dutch bike, which is too tall for me to reach the ground with my feet when I stop. It would be nice if people weren’t looking at me when I have to mount and dismount. In fact, these all read suspiciously like disqualifications for my job.
Also, after I show off my totally rad notebook, which I’ve bragged about here several times before but I’ll describe again briefly in parens (behold: hand-size single-sided reprint of old guide, spiral bound with two pockets made out of manila folders, colored post-it tabs to flip between sections and an elastic band to hold it all together), there’s really not much else to tell someone about how I do my job.
How do I know whether I want to include a shop? Well, it just looks cool. How do I know whether I’ll include a bar? If it’s cool, I suppose. The only revelation I had on further questioning was that a bar with multicolor glass votive holders (rather than clear ones) is tacky, and will not even be investigated. I didn’t know I had this prejudice, but there you go. You have to draw the line somewhere–much the same way I will never even enter a hotel in Mexico that’s painted baby-shit brown. It helps narrow the immense field just a little.
I also realized I need to recalibrate my restaurant radar (ooops! Someone has that trademarked, and I’m not supposed to use the phrase–well, I took the caps off, so that had better damn well cover it) for Amsterdam. A few years ago, I realized that I had to adjust my image of restaurants in Mexico, when an Italian place where the waiters wore togas actually turned out to be good.
Here in Amsterdam, my aperture for restaurants is currently too wide. I’m a sucker for a place with candles on the table.
But guess what? Every restaurant in Amsterdam has candles on the table! It’s actually a huge part of restaurant reviews when a place doesn’t have them.
So obviously I need to build up some critical calluses. Last night, I got a little tough love from a budget restaurant that looked great–all historic outside, all whitewashed and airy inside, little tealights on the table, a menu that had basic Dutch stuff and a little Greek and Asian-what-have-you.
But I’d forgotten about Dutch service! In fact, my restaurant experiences here have never been all that bad, and I dismiss most comments about bad service as bougie American whining. It was sort of a bad sign that we had to light our candle ourselves. And then my Macedonian fellow-agent and I had perhaps one of the most miserable servers in the whole Western Hemisphere, who sent great daggers of irritation from her eyes (when she could be bothered to look at us), and actually said “No, you’ve had enough” when we asked for another glass of water. Now that’s comedy!
It’s also a gen-u-ine cultural experience, and the place is wholeheartedly going in the guidebook. Fine, whatever, with a warning about the service. But the place made me feel like I was in a different country, and I appreciated that every bit as much as my 8.50 euro three-course set menu, the main dish of which involved two big round scoops of mashed potatoes-and-veg and a big round meatball. Soothing and nourishing, those orbs of food.
I’ve got one more day of information-sharing with the Macedonian, and then it’s on to solo investigation. [Leer.]