Amsterdam – Part I


I found Amsterdam to be a romantic city with its canals, old-fashioned street lamps, picturesque shops and cozy coffee houses. Night fell swiftly at 4:30 pm and the decorative lamps cast a golden glow over the canals and cobbled streets. It’s a compact, walkable city, however a word of warning – beware when crossing the street! Squadrons of cyclists advance at a fast clip. I nearly got myself run over more than once.


Christmas wreaths hung in windows and adorned doors. As I walked along admiring them, I thought to myself – in France, they’d be stolen overnight, along with the bicycles.

There’s a sense of virtuousness about the Dutch which I find deeply appealing. They look virtuous as they cycle energetically along (whole families sometimes, the children in a little cart attached to the bicycle or riding on the crossbar), fresh-faced and smiling, their bodies lean and fit. They also employ a no-nonsense pragmatism in their politics. A progressive city, Amsterdam has the most liberal and tolerant policies with regards to prostitution and soft drugs. Prostitution is legalized. There’s a common sense to this. By working in a controlled environment, prostitutes are protected from violence and exploitation. As for health issues, they must undergo regular medical examinations to prevent the spread of STDs. This sounds safer and saner than what one sees in Paris – male and female prostitutes lurking behind trees in the Bois de Boulogne.

As for legalized hash and marijuana, the benefits are a safer product, elimination of dealers and illicit revenue going towards criminal organizations and drug cartels.


As is the custom in all northern European countries, coffee and cake (koffie en gebak) is a morning and afternoon ritual in which to enjoy almond and butter cookies, apple turnovers, gingerbread, streusel, different cakes and fruit-filled pies. Coffee shops and tea salons abound.


My hotel (link below) was perfectly located at number 15 Keizersgracht, a long road that runs parallel to a canal and winds around the city. A 10-minute walk from the train station, the hotel has soundproofed rooms equipped with comfortable beds and a deluxe espresso machine. Small shopping streets, lined on either side with boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants are just up the road. I was charmed the whole time I was there. (If you book your train tickets well in advance, you benefit from a considerable discount.)

Don’t expect sunny weather. Although fairly mild, it’s generally overcast during the winter months and even blustery as winds gust in from the North Sea.


MORE TO COME – the canal houses, more photos, and the famous Rijksmuseum.

part four – more Holland


I think I’m a wanderer at heart, a gypsy-spirit … no, I know I am. Truly happiest with a knapsack on my back and a camera slung around my neck. I could travel forever.

Do you want to know the number one reason why I live and work in France? Seven (7) paid vacation weeks a year was and still is the deal-clincher.



Strolling around the neighborhood near my hotel one sunny Sunday morning, I came across an inviting café-bookstore. Music-filled, lots of wood and divided into different sections, you could buy and read books, drink coffee and eat little cakes all day long. The place had such a pleasant laidback vibe, I returned every day for the rest of my stay in The Hague.


I sat in this cozy corner and read these two books (after purchasing them.) Cappuccino was brought to me on a little wooden platter.


What was funny was this name directly above my head (watching over me?)


Jongbloed in English is Youngblood. It’s the name my father gave to his publishing company (in Toronto). He would have been tickled pink to see this.


Holland – cannabis and coffeeshops

THE HAGUE – Just down the road from my hotel was a large-windowed store with people going in and out all day long. Sometimes there was a long queue of people waiting to get inside. “What on earth are they selling?” I thought to myself. And then I learned that it was a store selling hashish, marijuana and other cannabis products. I was intrigued. In this small permissive country, you can legally buy pot (this was one year before Canada legalized marijuana.) Rather than skulking about in dark alleys, trading is carried out in broad daylight. Even on Sunday mornings!

So every day I passed this shop, and every day I became “curioser and curioser”, to quote Lewis Carroll. One warm, sunny evening – my last evening in Holland – I stopped for a burger, beer and fries at a place near the hotel.


Sharing an outside table with a local Dutchwoman, we chatted. (If I haven’t mentioned it before, the Dutch speak perfect English.) I asked her about coffeeshops. She blithely said that she goes regularly (as if she were going to the corner store for milk!)

On my way back to the hotel I walked past the cannabis shop. My curiosity piqued, I stepped inside.

Here’s how the conversation went –

“So how does it work here?”

“You tell me what you want and we give it to you. Are you looking to buy hash or grass?”

“Errr … grass, I guess, but what’s the quality of it and where does it come from?” There was a really strong, funky, fuggy smell in the shop.

“We don’t know where it’s from, exactly, but the quality is good.”

I paused and looked hesitantly at the glass case behind the salesperson. He saw me wavering.

“Do you want to try just a single joint for starters?”


“Loose or pre-rolled?”


“With or without tobacco?”

I wimped out. “With tobacco.”

“And what effect are you looking for?”

“Oh, definitely mellow.”

“OK, well I recommend one of our best-sellers. It’s called Strawberry Kush and if you smoke half of it, the effect is the equivalent to drinking two glasses of really good wine.”

“Sounds good. But say, can I travel with this? Because I’m leaving Holland tomorrow.”

“Where are you going, back to the States? In that case, the answer is no.”

“I’m not American.”

“You sure sound American. Where are you from?”


“Oh, well,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “Same thing.”

Bristling, I replied – “Is Holland the same thing as Germany?”

“No, but Canada and the States is the same land mass …”

“The U.S.A. and Canada are two distinctly different countries.”

“Oh, yeah? How are they different?”

“Well, for one thing, we wouldn’t have voted for a dickhead like Trump. But changing the subject, I’m leaving tomorrow for Belgium and then back to France where I live. So, can I travel with this?”

“To Belgium, yes. You can legally carry 3 grams in that country, in Holland 5 grams. But in France, I don’t know.”

So I bought a spliff of Strawberry Kush. It cost six euros, 50 cents and came in its own little carrying case.



Packing in my hotel room the next morning, I must have put that spliff in five different places – first in my cosmetic bag, then in the inside pocket of my travel bag, then in my knapsack, then in my eyeglasses case. I didn’t know what to do with it, other than smoke the damn thing, but it was 10 am on a Wednesday morning.

My concern was that my bags would pass through a scanner on my way back to France, and it would show up on the X-ray machine. I imagined sniffer dogs, an alarm going off, border police frogmarching me into a little room where I’d be strip-searched and humiliated. And the worst, I’d end up with a casier judiciaire (criminal record.) You can’t be employed with one. I’d lose my job, I’d have to go on welfare, I’d end up on the streets, all my worldly possessions in a storage unit …

Stop! For god’s sake, Juliet, get a grip! I pulled myself together. I think I’ve seen too many movies. We’re talking about a single joint mixed with tobacco and two grams … two grams of marijuana! Surely the police have more important things to look for … like, er, terrorists???

Down in the lobby of the hotel, I googled “Legality of cannabis in France” and what came up was ILLEGAL ILLEGAL ILLEGAL. I was surprised. Wow. Chill out, France, what’s the problem? 

Here’s what I learned – Possession of cannabis is illegal in France and can lead to severe punishments. In French law, there is no difference between cannabis and any other drug. Drug-related offences are taken very seriously and France is known for having one of the harshest drug policies in Europe.

Depending on the amount and the circumstances, you could be lucky to get away with just a slap on the wrist. But chances are, you’ll end up receiving a substantial fine, or even a prison sentence.

This was becoming far too sturm und drang. I could either go into the garden of the hotel and smoke the thing right then and there, or flush it down the toilet. Coz the thing was this: I had purchased the joint to smoke with my friend back in France, not on my own, alone in Holland. I headed for the lavatory.



part two – the magnificent Mauritshuis

A jewel in the heart of the city. The Mauritshuis is one of the reasons I travelled to The Hague.


Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. A girl wearing an oriental turban and a large pearl earring. Johannes Vermeer was a master of light. This extraordinary work of art was painted 352 years ago in 1665.

The collection inside the Mauritshuis is made up of paintings dating from around 1400 to 1800. There are Flemish, German and French works, but the vast majority are Dutch dating from the seventeenth century. This was the Dutch Golden Age, a period of great prosperity boasting famous painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Vermeer.


Fans of Donna Tartt will enjoy this painting of the chained bird on its perch. Tartt wrote her last novel, The Goldfinch, around this little masterpiece. In 2013, on loan from the Mauritshuis and as part of a travelling exhibition, this painting and others travelled to the Frick Collection in New York City. Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, created in 1654, is a small but potent painting.


Well, they say that Vermeer was a master of light, but look at this splendid panel of artwork entitled Old Woman and Boy with Candles, painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1616.

This one I especially loved –


Luminous! (It’s actually brighter in real life than it appears here.) As if lit from within. Entitled View of Delft and painted by Vermeer, this is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. Looking at Delft from the south, the city has an air of tranquillity. Reflecting this in his composition, Vermeer made three horizontal stripes: water, city and sky. Look at the interplay of light and shade and the clouds, as well as the reflections in the water and the two women standing in the forefront. This painting, 357 years old, is a masterpiece.





Right beside the museum is a lovely restaurant and gift shop. Looking at all that art makes you hungry and thirsty!



All this was for me. Just kidding!


Of course you have the world-famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with its own important collection of the Dutch masters. But what makes the Mauritshuis special is its smallness and intimacy (and of course those exquisite paintings.)

Note: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also has a fine collection of Dutch paintings from the age of Rembrandt.

More to come …

Den Haag, Holland – part one


These days, boarding a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord train station involves passing through a phalanx of machine gun-wielding policemen, sniffer dogs, scanners and metal detectors similar to those used in airports. However, in my line-up the scanner wasn’t working, so they just waved us through. And I thought, “What’s the point in having a luggage scanner if it doesn’t work?”

The reason for this heightened surveillance is primarily to dissuade potential terrorists from climbing aboard a train armed to the teeth with weapons, which is exactly what happened two years ago (the horror!)

In August 2015, a deranged 25-year-old Moroccan Islamist called Ayoub El Khazzani nearly opened fire on passengers inside a Thalys train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris. Thanks to the courage, strength and alacrity of three American men, two who were off-duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces, they tackled the terrorist and managed to subdue him. Later, these heros were awarded France’s highest decoration for bravery, the Legion of Honor, by then-president François Holland. This is worth mentioning because these brave men averted a possible bloodbath. Again, the horror! To think that you could be sitting on a European train, or a train anywhere for that matter, calmly flipping through a magazine or chatting with your companion when suddenly a crazed lunatic shouting “Allah Akbar!” and wielding an assault rifle bursts into your compartment is beyond terrifying. But this is what is happening today. Islamic terrorism in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) is defining the beginning of the 21st century. And it is tragic. Governments need to work harder to eradicate this horrendous phenomenon.


Seat prices are cheaper if you book months in advance. I booked myself a First Class ticket, Paris to Rotterdam, for 62 euros. Travel time is two hours and 37 minutes. A snack and lunch are included in the price of the ticket. If you’re travelling solo, ask for a “place isolée” or “place solo” (same thing) which means a single, window seat.


Below is a photo of the mid-morning snack I received. As I was drinking coffee and reading my book, I was listening with one ear to the four New Yorkers sitting across the aisle from me. In their late sixties or early seventies, one of them was telling the others that during her visit to the world’s largest genealogical library in Salt Lake City, Utah, she had been researching her family history. “My maternal grandparents came from Minsk,” I heard her say. Funnily enough, the book I was reading – East West Street – covers precisely that region and era.

“Have you read this book?” I said to them, explaining that I had overheard their conversation. Naturally, a discussion ensued and we chatted amicably for the rest of the journey. (As an aside, I only barge into other peoples’ conversations when I hear they’re North American (or Australian.) Europeans, including the British, tend to be more private and probably resent the intrusion.)


From Rotterdam I took a local train to The Hague (Den Haag), only a 20-minute ride. As I sat amongst the locals listening to the guttural Dutch language, I did a double-take. A man sitting across from me was wearing wooden clogs. Real, farmer-type clogs with a leather strap across the top of his foot. I had (mistakenly) thought that wooden clogs were a thing of the past. I wanted to laugh and take a photo, but that would have been too rude. 

At Den Haag train station, I picked up a street map and meandered the narrow streets (dragging my suitcase behind me) in search of my hotel, the Parkhotel Den Haag. A 4-star hotel, it was perfection; better than I had expected. My room overlooked the inner garden and the only sound was the cawing of sea gulls overhead. Baffled at first why there would be sea gulls, I then remembered that Den Haag is a seaside town located on the North Sea coast. Those gulls were constant and at one point, days later, I imagined myself in that famous Hitchcock film. (I’m not a fan of large, uncaged birds.)


He looks quite vicious, don’t you think?

Here’s the hotel garden where I spent a few hours each morning (with coffee) and each evening (with a glass of wine) working on my memoir (rewriting some segments.) I have a new editor in Vancouver and he’s a taskmaster.



Be forewarned that Holland is a nation of bikes, and at certain times of the day crossing the road can be perilous. So stressed was I by the flotilla of bikes bearing down on me at breakneck speed, not to mention the clanging of oncoming trams, I was a nervous wreck on my first day.



Stay tuned for Part Two: the magnificent Mauritshuis art museum and the buying of cannabis in a legalized coffeeshop. Go back up to top right-hand of this page and click on “Next”.

the Rijksmuseum


My birthday gift to myself was a day at the magnificent Rijksmuseum.  And it wasn’t just the art that was the gift.  It was the time – the luxury of free time – to wander leisurely from room to room, stopping in front of a painting, a tapestry or an exquisite silver goblet and gazing at it for as long as I desired, studying every detail and reading the information notice beside it.  Antiques show us where we come from.

Museums are, of course, an education.  But it’s usually not until adulthood that we appreciate the treasures held within.  I visited the best of them as a child and teenager.  In an effort to instill aesthetic values in their children, my English parents, bless them, took my sister and me all over Europe.  We attended operas and visited museums and galleries.  I was bored stiff.  Opera perplexed me and museums were old and dusty.  I remember gazing at gigantic tableaux of naked people, usually cowering before a snarling beast or something ominous from heaven, and all I could wonder was….where were their clothes?  Perhaps if the symbolism of the painting had been explained to me, I would have understood something.  Symbolism, though, is a concept not easily grasped by children.

Below is a portrait painted in 1652 by Johannes Verspronck. The sitter’s name is Maria van Strijp.  As you can see by her jewellery and the finery of her clothing, she was an affluent woman.  She lived in Haarlem, North Holland and was the wife of a wealthy cloth merchant. Verspronck‘s painting style shows attention to the depiction of clothing and jewellery. His precision is not stiff but beautiful and quiet.


Cartwheel ruffs.  What an odd accoutrement this was (photos below).  Ruffs were highly luxurious garments, a potent symbol of status and wealth.  Anyone who could afford to wear and maintain a ruff was clearly not doing any manual labor.  They were made from starched linen and edged with lace.  The fabric was put into a figure 8 pattern, called goffering, and sewn with gossamer threads.

Portrait of a Woman by Frans Hals, 1635IMG_3989Portrait of Feyntje van Steenkiste by Frans Hals, 1635IMG_4020Look at this magnificent cabinet veneered with tortoiseshell and ivory.IMG_3977IMG_3978IMG_3979

Delftware is blue and white pottery made in and around Delft in the Netherlands from the 16th to the 18th century.


From a distance I thought this painting was a Bruegel, but it wasn’t. It was painted by Hendrick Avercamp, a Dutchman born in Amsterdam in 1585.  As one of the first landscape painters of the 17th-century Dutch school, Avercamp is famous for his winterscapes. Many of his paintings feature people ice skating.


Modern skaters today. This rink is in front of the museum.  Notice the chairs.  I don’t recall seeing that in other countries.  Ah, the ever-pragmatic Dutch!



Amsterdam – Part II


I haven’t a clue who these people are.  They looked so happy, I thought I’d take a picture.

I wanted to visit the Rembrandt House Museum on the Jodenbreestraat where the painter lived and worked between 1639 and 1656, but somehow never made it to that side of town.  Instead I visited the Museum Van Loon for a peek indoors at the home of an Amsterdam patrician family. This 17th-century canal mansion, one of the most splendid in town, has retained the atmosphere of an extremely grand family home.  In 1602 Willem Van Loon was co-founder of the Dutch East Indian Company.  As I wandered from room to room staring at the family portraits on the walls, I wondered what had become of the Van Loon family.  Where are the family members today, if any?


Many of Amsterdam’s canal houses were built during the height of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age.  In 2010, the canal district was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

Contrary to the tightly-shuttered windows in France, many of the tall windows here are unshuttered and uncurtained.  This means that at night you can walk past and see people going about their business inside, completely unperturbed that passersby like myself might be looking in.   And guess what they were doing?  Exactly what everyone else does!   Sitting on a couch reading a newspaper.  Watching TV.  Typing in front of a computer.  Preparing dinner.


As mentioned earlier, winter nights fall swiftly at 4:30 pm in Holland and you suddenly find yourself plunged into darkness. The city is dimly-lit by old-fashioned streetlamps. In fact, most rooms and interiors are dimly-lit too.  I think this fondness for dim interiors is a Flemish particularity that I noticed in Antwerp, Belgium last year.  It’s at this moment, if you’re walking around outside, that you should pay extra attention when crossing the streets because energetic cyclists will bear down on you.  Other than that, I felt perfectly safe walking around this area in the dark (other areas, near the train station, might be less safe.)  I’ve always loved walking at night.  Especially on crisp, clear, cold nights.


NEXT – The Rijksmuseum