Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cool Libraries in Amsterdam

If you’re a library person like me, you feel at home the moment you step into a library. Besides the books, picture the other familiar indicators: posters announcing educational and cultural events in the auditorium or lecture hall; little pieces of paper with wireless instructions; signs outlining what is and is not allowed, the next library closure, how much printing and photocopying cost. Then there are the other sensory stimuli: that classic smell of musty books which mixes with the new aromas of soy ink and thick, glossy paper; that hushed rustle of patrons turning pages and shifting in their seats, and the delights of graphic design including the signage in the library as well as the covers of the books themselves.

I find all this deeply reassuring no matter where I am in the world, and despite the specialty of a library, I am always drawn towards it and can find something stimulating within its walls.

Then it comes as no surprise my usual haunts in Amsterdam consisted of libraries. This time my approach was unique: the library was no longer a place to make a living or a place to pick up some books or a place to do my homework. I needed the library to give meaning to my day; it was a destination; it was a place I could dig into my writing and research without being bothered to purchase something. I was continuously amazed at that last part: a free place to go, every day. And the best part: everyone is invited to the library.

Kelci’s Top 3 Libraries in Amsterdam

1. Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam / The Amsterdam Public Library

The Amsterdam Public Library works much like San Francisco Public Library: the central library is a beautiful new building in the city center (opened on 07/07/2007), and smaller branches sprinkle the city’s neighborhoods. I’m a bit of a night owl, so the central branch is my jam: it’s open 10 am – 10 pm every day!

The library is open to everyone, but to get online or take out materials, you must join the membership by purchasing a library card. The rates vary from free (children and youth) to 100 euros (super-duper patron status!), which is a stark departure from the free library card at SF Public. Once you’re in possession of a library card, check out your selection at an automated kiosk (located on every floor). These machines are crazy! You don’t have to scan a barcode— the machine senses the books, then generates a list, which you confirm on a touch screen. (I’m still not sure how the machine telepathically knows what books you have, although I suspect it has something to do with the large magnetized insert adhered to the cover.) It prints out a receipt and you’re off! Returning the books is similar: use the return kiosks on the main floor to check your books back in (again with the magical telepathy!), and then a little window opens, a conveyer belt turns on, and the books are sucked into the fortress-like sorting area.

 Bright illuminated pillars, large space-age chandeliers, escalators, and a recessed children’s area greet you as you enter. As you move through the brightly lit center of the structure, you notice there are directories located throughout each floor in Dutch and English, which are quite handy since the library spans 9 floors, and has extensive collections of multimedia and novels in English in addition to a public library’s normal collections.

Sunset view from the front of the library.

You will also notice there are lots of young people hanging out in the library; up in the cafeteria on the 9th floor, you’ll find University students camped out with their notebooks and netbooks, some surrounded by empty coffee cups and others by empty wine glasses. I discovered you can get a hearty slice of Dutch apple pie for 1 euro after 9:30 pm in the cafeteria!

My favorite spot was on the 6th floor facing the windows. Great view!

Whether or not you visit Amsterdam for studies and research or just plain tourism, make sure to check out the central branch of the Openbare Bibliotheek—in addition to the typical stuff of a public library, it has a theater and a museum, as well as special displays based on the time of year.

LGBT display for International Coming Out Day (October 11, 2012)

Oosterdokskade 143, 1011 DL Amsterdam

2. International Institute of Social History (IISH) / Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis (IISG)

The front of the building before renovations. 
A lot of people say to me, You came all the way to Europe to work at a library? Even though the work I’ve done at IISH has been different than what I expected, I will ceaselessly preach the unique wonders housed in this library which make it a compelling reason to come to a different continent.

The reading room is behind the wall to the left. The information desk is on the right.

The Institute's subject areas are anything having to do with social movements, so its focus spans from Greenpeace archives to skinhead punk art from the 90s. My interests lie in its labor and socialism materials. Its collection contains a few books, but its real treasures are its primary accounts, archives, and labor movement banners. The building is currently under construction , so some things like the record player are not accessible—too bad for me when I needed to listen to the album Antifaschistische Lieder. Nonetheless, a visit to the Institute is worth your time. When you visit, I highly recommend arranging a tour ahead of your arrival—on the tour you will see a selection of the Karl Marx archive, including the only existing page of the original manuscript of The Communist Manifesto.  After the tour you can get lunch in the cafeteria and a quintessential coffee, which is dispensed for free from a machine on the level below the Reading Room, along with water, tea, and soup-flavored hot water.

From the Marx archive, on display.
IISH has closed stacks except the openly accessible reference works in the Reading Room, and the library’s materials do not circulate outside the library. You can make a certain number of requests for items via email ahead of time to consult in the reading room, or you can request them at the desk until 4 pm. If you are serious about doing research here, the hot set up is a private carrel, which are handsome mini-offices that individuals can use for extended periods of time.

My companion near many of the colorful posters found in the library.
Cruquiusweg 31, 1019 AT  Amsterdam

3. J.R. Ritman Library – Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica

When I was contacting libraries about possible support for my Fulbright application in early 2011, The Ritman was the first to respond, albeit with bad news: the library was closed for the foreseeable future. The contact gave me alternative options, which was a generous response and imbued me with a favorable impression of the staff there.

I was excited to learn that the Ritman reopened in the last year so I quickly added a visit to my schedule this past October.

What a treasure! The library itself is an inauspicious building near the Westerkerk, off of Prisengracht in the Canal Belt. Buzz the intercom to gain entry. It costs 5 euros to visit, which didn’t bother me, although if I was a serious researcher in the fields of spirituality, hermetics, alchemy, or philosophy, I would go for the annual pass, which costs 30 euros.

The room and exhibit that greets you upon entering.

When I visited, an handsome and professional exhibit on medical advancements in early modernity adorned the entry area and continued into the adjacent room. My companion and I received a welcoming overview of the facility from a young woman who we later discovered is the granddaughter of the library founder, Mr. Ritman. Later, we also conversed with his daughter and eventually Mr. Ritman himself, at which point we shook his hand and exchanged a few words. (He was convinced I was not American but rather Eastern European; this happens to me a lot!)

The exhibit continues into the room to the left.
The stairs in the background lead to the Reading Room.

The library was founded with Mr. Ritman’s private collection of rare books and manuscripts, which began with a gift of a rare Jacob Böhme book from his mother when he was a young man. From the web site: When he conceived the plan to turn his private collection of books into a library, his vision was to bring together under one roof manuscripts and printed works in the field of the Hermetic tradition, and to show the interrelatedness between the various collecting areas and their relevance for the present day. In addition to its role as a repository, the library also acts as a small publishing house, publishing a handful of books every year.

Joost R. Ritman
I spent most of my time reading the apocryphal text The Gospel of Truth in the reading room upstairs, as well as some accompanying commentary by the reigning scholar in the field, Marvin Meyer. Although I don’t study philosophy or spirituality, my interest is Gnosticism grew after I read The Gospel of Judas in 2007. Many of the library's reference works and primary texts are available to browse openly; you will have to use the online catalog to request rare materials to consult in the reading room.

Feels a bit more like someone's personal study than a research library.
Probably due to its small size and its family business feel, I found The Ritman Library to be the most welcoming and the most comfortable. How cool is it to see three generations of Amsterdammers sharing their family collection of rare books and manuscripts!

Bloemstraat 13-19, NL-1016 KV Amsterdam

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Belgium 2000-2012

Throwing down anchor in Antwerp, Belgium.

 “Want to go to Brussels tonight?” Bahar asks as she cracks two eggs in the pan she’s been frying some sausage in.

“Sure… I’m up for Brussels,” I respond, afraid to say no to anything.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table of Bahar’s family in Hoboken, Belgium (a suburb of Antwerp), chowing down on an assortment of spreadable and sliced cheeses, deli meats, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, bread, sweet nutty specialties recently arrived from Turkey, hot tea and cookies. 

The most hospitable Bahar with a delicious cake of her own creation. She's quite the little baker and plans to open up her own pastry shop in Antwerp some day.

 “Well I’m working tonight at the restaurant in Brussels, so you can come if you want,” Bahar says.

It's Tuesday, September 18 and I’ve only been on terra firma for 3 hours yet I found Bahar (well, she found me scurrying from one Quick fast food restaurant to another near Centraal Station) and I landed smack dab in the middle of a typical Belgian brunch. I’m surrounded by her brother, sister, and friend—her father’s around, working downstairs, and her mother and other brother are due back from Turkey on Monday—and everyone’s talking, bickering, and laughing. We’ve been excitedly catching up on the last 8, 10 years in details small and large. Obviously the tale of my sea voyage has dominated the topic of conversation, but now Bahar has been telling me about the Belgian restaurant chain she works for, whose specialty is all-you-can-eat ribs. 

Amadeus is The Place for Ribs.

 “I work from 6 to 12 so you’ll be alone, but I’ll try to get off early and we can have a drink,” Bahar says. “You could eat ribs for dinner!”

Indeed a few hours later Bahar and I were on the highway from Antwerp to Brussels, and having some damn good conversation while she drove. Although we hadn't seen each other for 8 years and both confessed to being nervous at any possible awkwardness, we were picking up like old friends. A main topic of conversation was this year of being alone that I had embarked on. She couldn't quite empathize with what she viewed as me taking a huge risk, yet she shared her experiences doing an internship in Paris a few years ago, which was the longest she'd been away from home, on her own. 

Upon arriving in Brussels, we got a parking spot across the street from her work and she marked some spots on the map then sent me on my way.

The Grote Markt of Brussels.

Steeple in the Grote Markt (Grand Place) in Brussels, Belgium.

Kelci and the Grote Markt.

 That night in Brussels I did not eat ribs (although I did on another two occasions); instead I stuffed my face with the sandwiches the ship’s Chief Chef had made for me that morning while I sauntered down Boulevard Du Jardin Botanique at sunset. I suppose it was then I realized I had been half expecting to get back on the ship that evening, that this was just another port of call. I mulled this over while walking around for a few hours, having coffee and writing in my notebook at a café, and walking around for another few hours. I suppose I gave up and accepted my fate as just another ordinary land dweller, and finally came back to Bahar’s work around 11:30, where she sat me at a table close to her dish-washing post and started pouring me beers. 

Reflection in the Magritte Museum.

View from the top of the hill, near the Royal Palace.

Square in front of the Grand Palace. Beautiful sky!
Magritte's sky in a window of the Magritte Museum below a real life double.

Sunset coming down Boulevard Du Jardin Botanique.

We left Brussels sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., and enjoyed having the silent Grote Markt all to ourselves!

 I had vague recollections of visiting Brussels as part of the Belgian exchange program through my High School when I was 17, but the most I could remember was feeling alienated by the French influence—this city was not Belgian the way the cities we’d visited in the North were, the way I’d come to know and regard Belgium in the short week and half since our High School group arrived. I remember being ushered hurriedly to Le Manneken Pis through narrow streets crammed with red and white gingham-covered tables, and I remember being disappointed in the tiny boy mounted on an out-of-the-way corner peeing, while grey heavy clouds loomed above.

Cobalt sky at twilight in Brussels.

Looking down Vlaamsesteenweg from St. Katelijneplein in Brussels.

Full moon over a guild house facade in the Grote Markt, Brussels.

 This time around I ended up visiting Brussels twice—the first night of my stay with Bahar and again the last night, and both times Bahar left me to my own devices as she dutifully went to work in the restaurant. On my last night, I again went in search of Le Manneken Pis and found him on a corner surrounded by a large group of tourists, even including a guided tour, taking pictures. I literally couldn’t help but laugh at all of us, all of us come to find this point of interest.

There he is! Surrounded by tourists!

Kelci and the peeing boy. Can you tell by the look on my face I am suppressing a laugh on this absurdity?

Bahar in front of a Burssels candy shop. Too bad it was closed because Bahar loves candy shops!

 Neither time I visited Brussels with Bahar could I get a grip on the city—I wasn’t bothered by the French yet the city was strangely international in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. It seemed overwhelmingly young, like teenagers were particularly fond of partying on its literally red carpeted streets, and Bahar and I managed to meet two business women and their boss from Norway (that had been kicked out of a strip club earlier), a guy that kept spitting on us (on accident) from Chile (who proclaimed to be the owner of the Irish pub we were sitting in front of), and two Romanians (one of which was running a Greek restaurant and the other of which offered us the Presidential Suite at the Sheraton). Only in Brussels was I bothered persistently for cigarettes, and only in Brussels did young Moroccan boys get in our face and hassle us to share our frits with them. (Although these things are irritating, they don’t hold a candle to the way San Francisco crazies can disturb you.) 

Chowing down on ribs at the Antwerp location of the restaurant Bahar works in.
Riding one of Bahar's bikes through the center of Antwerp, with the Cathedral of our Lady rising into the black sky behind me.

Of course Bahar and I spent a lot of time in Antwerp, good old Antwerp with its medieval winding alleys, cobblestone streets, guild house facades, and ornate cathedral. Bahar loves Antwerp and feels quite proud of her city—she thinks it's the perfect size, not too big and not too small, and it's easy to agree with her opinion that's it's beautiful. We hung out with her friends, went to the movies, partook in Belgian specialties like waffles and frits, ate at restaurants, and frequented cafes to sample the many wonderful beers Belgium has to offer. Bahar loves sweet beers so we attempted to try as many new sweet beers—the stronger the better—as we could find. Sometimes we would go to cute or unique cafes and sometimes places specifically for their beer selection, like Bier Central near Centraal Station. 


Partying down in Molly's Irish Pub in Antwerp.

 One particular night in Ghent, after an afternoon spent at the sea in Blankenberge, we started out with some usual choices, Kriek and La Chouffe, then progressed to more adventurous choices: I ordered Bière De Miel Biologique—an organic honey beer—and Bahar ordered Geuze Mariage Parfait—the perfect marriage. When the server brought the beers, she gave me Bahar’s and vice versa. One sip of Bahar’s beer brought a scowl to my face; an uncanny yeasty bitterness enveloped my mouth. I almost said out loud, “Do I have to drink this?” but then Bahar realized the switcheroo. If I couldn’t stand the hyper-fermented yogurt taste of the beer, how was Bahar’s sweet palette going to handle it? Somehow, she managed, she really suffered through it. What a champ! Later her efforts were rewarded by an extremely drunk Belgian leaning on the table to talk to her and the table flipping over, spilling her fresh beer all over her front. We took it as a sign—I got a to-go cup for my remaining beer (yes, those exist at bars in Belgium!) and we made our exit over the canal and out of the city center. 

The Dreupelkot/Beer House in Ghent had a funny menu. "This is rather difficult to explain: Frenchmen say that foreigners are crazy; Holland people pretend to know best; and the Germans are always talking about their Reinheitsgebot, a 500 years old law concerning the prime materials used to produce beer. They are right for these beers,..."

Our adventurous picks: Bière De Miel Biologique and Geuze Mariage Parfait. This was obviously before the drunk dude flipped the table over.

Despite how disgusting Mariage Parfait was, Bahar finished it! Look at her empty glass!

 My third night in Belgium was another special one. Since Bahar had to work, I went with her brother Mehmet to a party for the Erasmus international students at UA (Universiteit Antwerpen), where everyone was supposed to bring a food dish from their country. I appeared to be the only U.S. contingent and had acquired a few boxes of chocolate chip cookies with the Statue of Liberty on the package and a jar of peanut butter with an American flag stretched across the label—American style! it proclaimed. I instructed the confused students to slather the peanut butter on the cookies; the few that did seemed to enjoy it and Mehmet agreed it was a hit. As the night wore on I kept feeling secretly superior to everyone there: I was here having a great time and I didn’t even have to be a student to do it! The truth would come out as I got to talking to someone new—and there were a lot of conversations that night—that I wasn’t actually a student at the University, yet I had a great time meeting all the people from different counties at the beginning of their semester in Belgium. After we left the party in the University building, we loitered in one of the squares drinking and smoking for a long time, went to a dance club in the red light district with a couple Polish girls we had acquired along the way, and then Mehmet took me to meet Bahar at a nearby pub where she was having a drink with a coworker. Bahar, her coworker, and I ate doner kebab at a place run by goofy Turkish dudes then we were chased down the street by drunken Belgian students who were trying to throw a bicycle inner tube around our heads. All in a night in Antwerp! 

Mehmet brought this Turkish dessert that sort of tasted like cotton candy but looked like strands of hair. Towards the end of the dinner we started up conversations with groups of people based on the premise they had to try this sweetness. The wasted girls on the left thought the candy made good mustaches.

The Polish girls we acquired made some interesting shots called Mad Dogs. I was a big fan so I got the recipe: most of the shot glass filled with vodka, slowly pour a berry liqueur into the top, and a few dashes of Tabasco. LEKKER!

Yours truly flanked by the Polish girls on some abandoned furniture outside University housing.

The streets of the center of Antwerp are overtaken on Thursdays because it's students' night!

 Bahar was the perfect host; she embodies Turkish hospitality in a completely overwhelming way to me. We went out almost every day, riding our bikes to the center, or taking the train to the sea, or driving to Brussels, and when she had to work she installed me with one of her family members. So many times we would discuss plans to do separate things since she, you know, had a life to attend to, and each time she would end up coming with me, chaperoning us on another exciting adventure in Belgium. In a very perfect way, she was the ideal landing pad for me; I almost can’t fathom how I would have made the well-fed transition from boat-dweller to European city dweller without Bahar and her warm family.

The one night we stayed home, after I got my hair done at her cousin's fabulous hair salon in Hoboken.

 A couple points of interest in Antwerp are the new MAS museum and the Flemish House of Literature (Letterenhuis). I wasn't able to view the collections of the former but I made it up to the observation terrace on the top floor just in time for a stunning rainbow that stretched across all of Antwerp. It was amazing! The trip to the MAS was worth that alone. As for the latter, the Letterenhuis, I can recommend it to anyone who is interested in/has studied literature and writing or anyone who is interested in the book as an object. The staff dutifully informed me none of the exhibits were in English, but I opted to have a look anyway. I was not disappointed! On the main floor, an exhaustive timeline of keypoints in Flemish literature kept pace with literary developments around the world, and many display cases held unique manuscripts and first editions by Flemish authors, usually surrounded by other ephemera from the same period.

The new MAS.

Beautiful rainbow viewed from the roof of the MAS.

This picture may suggest I am the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

This text was on the wall in the women's bathroom of the Letterenhuis. Rough translation: "Life is not a book. The beginning is nowhere. It is here and there and yonder, and everything happens at once. A book is different." Louis Paul Boon, Abel Gholaerts (1944)

Bahar and I enjoying the Belgian coast.

Sunset over Blankenberge.

Cargo ships making their way through the North Sea--that was me a week ago!

Last bits of orange peeking through the clouds.

Enjoying the sunset with a bottle of liebfraumilch.

 My favorite day was the afternoon we spent in Blankenberge, which is a town on the coast of the North Sea in West Flanders. Once we came to the beach, after walking down the shopping street from the train station, something in me clicked: days before I had sailed past this town on the ship. I recognized the sea and the clouds; I saw the cargo liners moving through their routes close to the horizon. To the right was even a small port with cargo cranes standing at the ready. Although I was in a transition period, I felt serene on the sand before the water. It reminded me of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, the day I swam at Coney Island in New York with Cricket before I flew to Argentina, and the many waters the ship had sailed through. But now, almost three months after I had left home, I was standing on the coast of the North Sea, mere kilometers from my end goal: Amsterdam. My future and my past met each other here on the Belgian sand; one of my feet was in the sea and the other was taking the step towards Holland.