Nieuwemarkt, Amsterdam

Todd and Barbara’s canal house has a footprint of approximately 16 feet square. Land is at a premium in Amsterdam; houses were taxed on their footprint so thrifty Amsterdammers built up. My room is under the roof beams, up a steep ladder to the most spacious room in the house.

After a pancake breakfast, I venture out onto the street. Todd accompanies me to the corner.

“This way”–he points left to a canal–”is the red light district and this way”–he points toward the church whose belltower will either tell me the time by looking out my window or by ears, as it rings out the hours–”that way are the markets and the Metro.”

I head down our alley toward the church and–after peering both ways– take a left toward the shop that says “Tweewiilers,” a bike rental shop. After a moment gauging the traffic patterns–bikes and pedestrians throng the narrow street lined on both sides with small retail shops–I head out.

Here, in a crosspattern that characterizes the core of the onion bulb, radiating in a semicircle from the Central Station where all transportation sources both to the North Sea and to the city itself, I find the pattern:

One or two blocks, then a canal crosses–lined on both sides with trees and broad pavement to accommodate bikes, pedestrians and the occasional car–then another block or two before another canal crosses. The street I am on changes its name every time a canal crosses!

Todd has pointed out to me a salient fact I would have missed. Each canal house leans out slightly and each has a grappling hook on the top story, where the roofbeam meets the top story. Thus heavy furniture is hoisted up to the floor where it will reside, be it piano or mattress, without the danger of banging out windows on the stories below.

Terrified of getting lost in this maze, I find a coffee shop, having found out from my Lonely Planets guide book that this is how one identifies the places that sell cannabis, and entering, ask for their menu of hashish. After careful consideration, I choose the blond from Morocco, temporarily rejecting the more resinous, therefore darker, varieties from the Himalayas and Lebanon.

I take a place up front by the window and potted palms–it is morning after all–and breaking off a small piece, light up. Here I can smoke hash in the way I prefer, working up a great cloud of smoke to get a good spark going, then inhaling part, blowing it out through my nose. (I prefer not to go into paroxysms of coughing.)

Hashish has become so rare in the United States that my fellow smokers look at me in amazement when I exercise even a portion of this wasteful routine.

I am curious: hash–rare though it is–has always been my preferred smoke, delivering a clearheaded high with a fine light-touch energy. Will it be the same now that I have reached elder status? It is.

I buy the pipe, pocket the glassine envelope of hash and go out into the street. If all of Amsterdam is like this, I think to myself, one could live here forever.

I retrace my steps so that I am sure I can find my way home, then carefully venture out several blocks in the opposite direction, quickly coming into a more modern street with larger canal crossings. The cafes are full at lunchtime. I find the Rembrandt house and enter it.

I choose a small phonelike translator for English and proceed to the first room. This entryroom is covered with paintings both those of clients of Rembrandt’s–he was an artdealer as well as a painter–and his own. and a large chest that belonged to his mistress Hendrickhe Stouffels who moved in as his common law wife after his first wife Saskia died. The chest was used to store all of her wealth: silverware, gold boullion, rare silks and precious linens.

The next small room didn’t even merit an audio explanation and yet was of high interest to me. It contained a screw type press, with lines strung across the top for Rembrandt’s etching to dry after coming out of the press. (I would see a film demonstrating the etching process in the studio on the top floor.)

Along the far wall, all the instruments of etching lay out for display or use.

The kitchen spoke to me the most, as I always glean so much information from a historic kitchen for my books. First of all, this room was one of several I was to find containing a cupboard bed!

Readers of my first novel Burning Silk will recall the cupboard bed that Catherine and her husband shared, where she gave birth to their first child. Years after, I had visited Huguenot Street in New Paaltz NY. Entering the first house, I saw a cupboard knob in the paneling of the wall. Expectant, feeling time collapsing on all sides of me, I pulled the knob to find my first cupboard bed in person.

Back in Amsterdam, the audio explained that these short cupboard beds in Rembrandt’s house were not only because of the short stature of more ancient peoples but also because a health belief they held had them sleep sitting up, propped by pillows.

The hearth contained a tile stove, about which my mother had always raved for their radiant heat, and an open fireplace, flanked by a box of wood and a copper pot full of peat bricks.

The footprint of the house was grand compared to the average canal house, for Rembrandt was successful in his time unlike his countrymen Vermeer and Van Gogh.