Bruuuuuce comes to town

It was the perfect illustration of how fast time is passing: I bought the concert tickets on a grey morning in February and suddenly, in an instant, I was standing on the grassy field at Malieveld in The Hague on a cool, dry June evening. With about 65,000 Dutch fans and at least 2 other Americans (my friends who flew in from Boston), we were there to see The Boss. But after all our time together, I just call him Bruce.

People often laugh when I talk about my relationship (purely one-sided) with Bruce Springsteen. It began when I was 10 years old and under the influence of my then-best friend Traci. Traci and her Italian-American family were so unlike my own. Her parents seemed so young and cool. Her dad owned an auto repair shop named for his wife and daughters. All of their names were painted, graffiti-like, on the garage’s tow truck. He drove a 1978 Silver Anniversary Corvette. He listened to Springsteen. (I mean, of course he did. Could Bruce himself have created a more perfect fan?) Anyway, thanks to her dad, Traci listened to Springsteen. And, thus, so did I.

When Born In the U.S.A. was released, I had my mom take me to the mall and I bought the album on cassette. Traci told me that when the tour came around that summer, she and her dad would get a ticket for me, too.

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Brothers in arms – Bruce and Little Steven

It was not to be. Traci left our little Catholic school at the end of the term and would be transferring to the local public school. By the time Springsteen came to New Jersey in August for a 10-show stand, Traci had started making friends from her soon-to-be new school, and she left me out of the ticket count. (In truth, I have no idea if my parents would have allowed me to go.)

That summer I may have lost a friend, as often happens to girls at that age, but I gained a life-long obsession. Part of the appeal of Bruce was that everyone else in my family hated him. For a shy, goody two-shoes kid like me, listening to Springsteen was a small act of rebellion. I was too young to understand the nuance of his music, the ache that it carried. I liked the anthems and the up-beat tracks. I liked the idea of liking something that was unpopular in my home, even though, in 1984, Born In the U.S.A. was one of the most popular things in the world.

I hung in there with Bruce over the years that followed. I received Tunnel of Love as a Christmas gift in 1988. I listened to it almost as soon as I opened it, sitting alone in my grandmother’s sewing room where the turntable and cassette player were kept. I’ll never forget the adolescent shock of hearing the opening lines to “Spare Parts”: “Bobby said he’d pull out, but Bobby stayed in…”. In retrospect I don’t know what shocked me more: the lyrics or the fact that I understood them.

My love of Bruce intensified alongside my first real relationship – my high school boyfriend was a serious Springsteen fan and introduced me to the music that came before Born In the U.S.A., which is, I know now, the really good stuff. Springsteen was ever-present; if the boyfriend and I were together, Bruce was there, too. We would drive back from the beach on a summer night in his crappy Mustang and sing the last verse of the crazy, stream-of-consciousness “For You”, loud and off-key. We saw Bruce for the first time together, making the drive to Jersey, tailgating in the parking lot at the Meadowlands. (After so many years of living with Bruce-haters, being in an arena with thousands of fans was a revelation: I was not alone.)

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The boyfriend bought me Springsteen albums on vinyl. When we broke up I listened to “Trapped” over and over again. And when I found out, years later, that he had gotten married, I closed my bedroom door, put on my favorite acoustic version of “Thunder Road” and had a good cry. Not for the final, irreversible loss of the boyfriend, but for the final, irretrievable loss of one life I might have chosen.

What the people who don’t “get” my love of Bruce aren’t getting is what has kept me close to his music for more than 30 years (yikes!). It is his ability to capture the emotions at the core of life’s transitions. These are hard things, and we don’t always handle them well. We have doubts, we feel alone, and so we make mistakes and are left to live with our regrets. But we can do better. There is hope. There is friendship and joy and love, and if we’re lucky, there may be a shot at redemption.

And in between, there is escape, even just for a little while. There is a girl and a fast car and a long road and one last chance to make it real. Just enough promise to get you through.

After all these years, I still don’t know what I’m saying when I sing about “a ’69 Chevy with a 396, Fulie heads and a Hurst on the floor”. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s not just a song about a car.  (It’s never just a song about a car.) It’s a song about life wearing you down, about the need to do and feel something big in the face of that weariness, to remind yourself what it means to be alive. So I really shouldn’t have marveled when, standing on that grassy field on a summer night, those 65,000 Dutch people joined Bruce in singing those mysterious words. They may not know what the hell Fulie heads are, but like everyone else on earth, they know about loss, disappointment, and loneliness. And still, they – we – come together to sing, dance, throw our hands in the air and be led through a 3 1/2 hour revival celebration to remind us of a great truth: it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

To Bruce (and to my friend Ellen and her Bruce for making the journey): thanks for another great night. See you further on up the road…

The #2 tram

No matter where you live, there are marvelous things around you that you don’t see.

It’s human nature, I guess, that what begins as a spectacular view, an unforgettable scene, eventually becomes ordinary, then mundane, and finally, invisible.  This is especially true for the sights we encounter on our commute. Our brains go into full-on autopilot during a daily commute (which can be a bit frightening if you drive to your job!).

I often bike to work – which requires a pretty high level of alertness and concentration – but if not, I take the #2 tram from my home to Centraal Station. This week, I’ve been on the tram more than usual. We had visitors staying with us, and other visitors at the nearby Marriott (conveniently, on the #2 line). I was looking for a restaurant near the #2 when I discovered that I live on one of the most beautiful tram lines in the world! Who knew? Well, National Geographic, apparently.

Our tram line passes the gorgeous residential architecture of the Koninginneweg, travels through Museumplein, and gives riders a quick glimpse of the gates of the Vondelpark before heading through the busy, tourist-packed Leidesplein. It cuts through the canal rings with a view of each before swinging through Spui and Dam square, ending at the imposing Centraal Station. It’s a tour through the prettiest parts of the city, but only if you look up and look around.

We’ve been fortunate to have many visitors this summer, with more still to come.  It’s great to share our favorite restaurants and introduce people to the secrets of Amsterdam, but we almost always end up learning something, too. Our guests find a hidden cafe, or tell us a little-known story about Amsterdam’s history. And we’re reminded to slow down, and look around, and not take our views for granted. Because how many people can say they have one of the most beautiful commutes in the world?

 

Oh, Porto

The most recent of our near-monthly travel adventures was a four-day trip to Porto. Portugal is the Mother Land for my husband; his grandparents hail from the Azores, the gorgeous volcanic islands far off Portugal’s coast. We visited and enjoyed Lisbon and the Azores several years ago, but Porto had long called to me, with its promise of hillside towns along the Duoro, and its place as the home of port wine.

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After the rain…

As a holiday destination, Portugal always seems to take second place to Spain. That’s just fine with me, if it means that Portugal’s streets will remain uncrowded, the terraces inviting and the people friendly and helpful.

We were joined on this trip by friends from the U.S. Last year we met up with them in Italy, and when we suggested Portugal to them several months ago, they were more than happy to join us. (Their trip started in Lisbon and continued on after we returned to Amsterdam. And they were quick to tell us that Portugal had overtaken Spain on their list of favorite vacation spots.)

Our itinerary was loose and flexible. On most days our only plan was dinner, and the restaurants had been well-researched by our traveling companions. I’ll admit that when traveling with these friends I tend to take a back seat in planning. We’ve never had a bad meal with them (at least if they selected the restaurant), and their traveling habits include frequent breaks for coffee or a cocktail. It’s a needed balance to my tendency to overdo, over-schedule.

Our first full day in Porto dawned grey and rainy, with a spectacular thunderstorm that literally shook the windows in the hotel dining room. We had a lazy morning and finally headed into the city center when the skies cleared…or so we thought. No sooner had we started to explore then we were hit with a wind-swept rainstorm that turned ourimage umbrellas inside-out and soaked our sporty summer shoes. We ducked into a church to wait out the rain, and not 10 minutes later, we emerged to blue and sunny skies.

Our strategy for the rest of the day was to be sure we were never far from cover. “Cover” in this case generally meant an alcove, awning or tasting room where we could avoid the rain while drinking port wine. It was one of our better plans.

We started at Sandeman’s and seated ourselves outside but under the cover of the portico. Just in case. One whole page of the menu was devoted to port cocktails. Now, I know to some purists this might be a sacrilege.  But I was curious. And my curiosity was rewarded when I was presented with a beautiful port and whisky cocktail with a spiral of orange zest. Delicious. A perfect start to a day of port tasting. Next up was the well-known Taylor Fladgate, which had a lovely tasting room, a English-style rose garden (complete with a peacock family!), and a grassy terrace to enjoy our drinks. We tasted two types of port, complemented with almonds and chocolate. But we weren’t done yet…

Several steep hills and some wandering later, we came across Cockburn’s (pronounced, we quickly learned, as ” Co-burns”). We signed up for a tour, but to pass the forty minutes until the start time, we settled in to the comfy couches and shared two rounds of tastings and some cheese. The tour was ok, manageable mostly because we knew we had two more tasting flights waiting at the end. (For those of you keeping score, that’s three full drinks earlier in the day, plus another 12 glasses of port at Cockburn’s, shared among 4 of us.)

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The rooftop view downhill.

The smooth-talking tour guide may have also been monitoring our intake, as he was easily able to sell us on a 6-bottle assortment. It’s being shipped directly to Amsterdam and should be here next week. An excuse for another party, perhaps?

We eventually wrapped up the port adventure and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner at the extraordinary, Michelin-star Pedro Lemos. (I feel a sequel coming on. “Porto 2: The Things We Ate”)

What I learned about port – and what I like about it – is its versatility. Port can be enjoyed with chocolate or cheese, paired with nuts or blended with whisky or other liquors. It’s a drink for a cold evening by the fire, or a not-yet spring day on a terrace overlooking a river. It’s an all-purpose pleaser. It’s wonderful on it’s own. And it makes the things you already like taste better and more complex. It’s a sipping wine, the enjoyment of which is not to be rushed. Port is for holidays, for vacation days, and for any days (every day?) you just want to slow down and be transported to a hillside town on the Duoro.